Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Banality in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Two of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century were born today: Jacques Derrida, and Walter Benjamin. Derrida's work on the Philosophy and Theory of Deconstruction, upends the Western metaphysical tradition.
Deconstruction is not synonymous with "destruction", however. It is in fact much closer to the original meaning of the word 'analysis' itself, which etymologically means "to undo" -- a virtual synonym for "to de-construct." ... If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not the text, but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another. A deconstructive reading is a reading which analyses the specificity of a text's critical difference from itself.
The Critical Difference (1981), Barbara Johnson


Benjamin was a Marxist, and critic. His long essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, was extremely important to me when I was in art school - as was Derrida in general. Benjamin's piece was an effort to define a theory of art that would be "useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art". Benjamin talked about the "aura" of a work of art which, to him, meant traditional association with primitive, feudal, or bourgeois structures of power and its further association with magic and (religious or secular) ritual. In the age of mechanical reproduction (print, film, photography) where there is no actual "original", the experience of art would be freed from specific place and ritual and made available to the masses. He wrote: "For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual."

Ah, but we live in the age of "Low Information Voters." We live in an age where a philosophy that requires critical thought has been made banal by the age of mechanical reproduction - deconstruction meets mass media. Deconstruction no longer resides in philosophy, but "launches" fashion products, bathroom items, sports equipment, political attitudes. We have an irony deficit as the world becomes more and more banal.

Why does this matter? The New Yorker Cover that depicts Obama as a Muslim, fist bumping his wife who is clad as an afro-wearing, machine-gun toting militant in the oval office, portrait of Osama Bin Laden on the wall, while the American Flag burns in the fireplace, is why it matters. The New Yorker said the cover was illustrating an article called "The Politics of Fear", a satirical look at the scare tactics being used to derail Obama's campaign.
"The burning flag, the nationalist-radical and Islamic outfits, the fist-bump, the portrait on the wall? All of them echo one attack or another. Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful, and the absurd. And that's the spirit of this cover," a New Yorker spokesman said in a written statement.
I get it, I really understand what they think they've done and what they intended. But if you deconstruct the contradictions, you find that it did not work. The majority of people will not read the article, and will focus on the image. Mechanically reproduced images are fast, and say a lot. And the cover treads on very thin ice. It is offensive. It plays into the politics of fear. But it is charicature and it is satire and it is getting people talking.

More important: it was not censured.

I don't care for the cover at all. In my opinion, it fails in its intent because so few people actually will go to the deeper meaning. Each of the "symbols" present in the drawing refer to various attacks by the far right against Obama, and the cover's intent is a commentary on that type of politics of fear. But it plays too close to the actual fear - perhaps by not being absurd enough, perhaps because we've lived in a climate of fear for too many years now, perhaps because as a nation we have lost our soul. We certainly have lost our ability to think, to exercise critical thought and discourse.

But I would not cancel my subscription to the New Yorker. Nor would I demand they remove the cover nor would I demand an apology. I've thought this through, and I am now at a point where I applaud them for their big brass ones for risking so much ire. Yes, it is offensive. Maybe I am glad that somebody somewhere has decided to not be politically correct. Maybe we need to be offended more often. What do you think?

25 comments:

Fran said...

I think it is GARBAGE & they crossed the line.
I envision them having to have the talk with their 2 kids-- remember kids when we said people can be mean & nasty in political elections, and say lies and have no ethical boundaries? This magazine cover is just that.

I halfway wish Michelle Obama would start packing an AK-47 (unloaded), to make the media get off her case.

I like sarcasm & irony & humor. I am not one who easily takes offense to this kind of thing... and I have not read the article, if indeed it juxtaposes the visual "humor".... but with the MSM already pulling stunts like saying "Osama" instead of Obama & saying it so many times, it can not just be an honest mistake.

It is just racist, hateful, unwarranted, feeding & fanning the flames of the lies & even you said- most will not read the article, and so it is just garbage that perpetuates the lies.

Have we no ethical boundaries anymore?

Fran said...

Off topic: I need to chat w you about booking a flight/advice...

Do you have a work e mail address I can write you at?

Randal Graves said...

I believe it was the great Lemmy Kilmister who once said "I am offended when people are offended." Or something to that effect.

I think the problem with the cover - the macrocosmic problem, not mine with it, as I'm fairly indifferent - is what you said in your penultimate paragraph: we know what they were trying to do, but it wasn't as biting as it could have been. Or perhaps many won't get it. Since we're not idiot centrists or vile wingnuts, we understand that it's "ha ha, look how stupid the rightwing narrative is." I'm not sure the majority will.

That was elitist of me, wasn't it.

I love me some Walter Benjamin, especially the whole Arcades dealie, but oh those über-deconstructionists. Sometimes a potato is just a goddamn potato. ;-)

DivaJood said...

Randal, Ah, but my entire MFA thesis show was based upon deconstructionist theory.

And yes, but I don't think that being elitist is a bad thing - still, the cover did not make it - did not work. Perhaps it needed to be taken off the cover and actually put with the article in question - because as a stand-alone piece it did not make it.

As for Walter Benjamin, I cannot tell you how many times I read his
"Art in the Age..." - it is truly one of the most important pieces I've ever read about the process of art and accessibility.

an average patriot said...

You educated me with the term deconstruction but that so called satire of Obama was BS! It was designed for Political assassination. Whoever did that should be friggen shot. this is our future this is not a friggen joke. We are in trouble and the good of the country doesn't seem to matter. I am sick of this crap!

Border Explorer said...

I don't like the cover; it didn't work. But I completely agree with you, Diva, that it should not be censored. It failed at an attempt at humor, but humor often fails. That's the risk taken in cracking a joke.

That said, I can see how the Obama campaign would immediately call it tasteless.

DivaJood said...

Jim, the cover is not designed as political or character assassination - it was part of a rather well-written article that points out the flaws in the bizarre accusations leveled at Obama. Had the drawing actually been with the article, the satire would have been clear. Instead, as a stand-alone piece, it becomes inflammatory and fails miserably.

Border Explorer - in humor, timing and placement are essential. In this case, visual satire, the placement makes or breaks the piece. As is, it is a miserable failure. Had they moved it to where it belonged, it would have been quite a powerful illustration. But the New Yorker went balls out, and I applaud that. Yes, I can indeed see where Obama's campaign and family call it tasteless - it is. Tasteless and offensive.

Pagan Sphinx said...

"More important: it was not censured."
~ Divajood

Absolutely.

Personally, I like the shaking up. It makes me think. I'm so intrigued by it, in fact, that I'll likely make a special trip to the newsstand to purchase a copy of the New Yorker.

Thank you for a great post.

Peace,
Pagan

DivaJood said...

Pagan, thank you. And here I thought all I was going to do was talk about two philosophers important to contemporary art.

Stella said...

Oh, God, no, divajood. I'm back in English grad school. Today is both Derrida's and Benjamin's birthdays? No wonder I felt ill. However, I have to admit that Derrida's literary philosophy regarding Deconstruction and bricolage (from Levi-Strauss) makes a lot of sense of the internet. We are constantly creating new "things" out of existing entities.

I never considered The New Yorker cover from a deconstructive perspective. However, I did post an exceedingly long post at Vig's dealing with the death of satire. I suspect we're on the same page. I admit I was offended by the cover, but I am too invested in my belief that Free Speech, whether I am offended or not, is the only foundation on which we can survive.

There are more important issues than the New Yorker cover. Pardon the self promotion (not really—I didn't post this), but every pro-choice advocate needs to know about Wednesday's anti-choice post about Bush. as well as his lifting the the coastal drilling ban. If Congress follows suit and we start drilling oil off our coasts.

Deconstruction (~shudder~) Your knowledge is impressive, divajood.

DivaJood said...

Stella, I am sorry, I did not mean to sound all college-grad-school on ya. But it's also Jesse Ventura's and Clive Cussler's birthdays so that should bring the level of thought down a few notches.

Let me ask you this: had that image not been the cover, and had it been properly placed near the article, would you have been offended? I'm not sure I would have been had I seen it in context. It is as this stand alone piece that it becomes something else and the satire is lost.

Still, in a society that does not generally appreciate critical thinking, there is no room for satire.

Stella said...

Teasing, divajood. I got an opportunity to see Derrida speak and came away completely baffled as I did when I read Hagel's bagel. No apologies necessary, wise one.

Deconstruction was a big deal when I was in grad school and I found a lot of his theory pretentious and useless—until I got involved with blogging and computers. As applied to the web, his and Benjamin's theories are far more accessible.

Vig feels the same way. I actually don't consider the image satiric, as you probably read on my long, rambling post. When I think of modern satire, I think of George Carlin, Jon Stewart, The Simpsons, and Stephen Colbert. His roast of the Bush at the Press Club was so brilliant, even Bush got it. He was pissed. If you never saw the roast, You Tube has it: well worth the 20 minutes.

So, respectfully, I think there is room for satire. I just don't think many people know how to create good satire. If I sound overly sensitive, pardon me. I was an 18th Century aficionado with a passion for Swift, Pope, and Dryden...especially Swift.

You make a good point about satire. I must, with sadness, agree. If our nation is losing the ability for critical thinking, we are in more serious trouble than I realized.

Vigilante said...

An excellent exchange, Diva & Stella! The consensus on my site is that I take everything too seriously or too literally. Stella and I have batted this ball around and around and it's so much fund to see where it lands. Other than being resigned to moving on, maybe I'll concede that it comes down to whose ox is being gored. I don't like him as much as I once did, but Barack's still my ox. I'll just try a little more to smile and laugh each day....

DCup said...

What an excellent post and comment thread.

My main concern is with those around whom I live. They're just looking for reasons to hate. This cover doesn't help in trying to win them over. They truly don't khow what to think, but that simple visual will drive them toward the untruth that Barack Obama is a muslim. To them, that is the exact same thing as being a terrorist.

It's very sad.

DivaJood said...

Stella, there is something very pretentious about deconstruction, and, oddly, Marxism where it pertains to visual art. However, and I say this with all the love in my heart, I loved being a pretentious artist. I loved it. There was nothing that made me happier than spending 8 hours in my studio. And now that I am going to start working from home, I think the call of pretension will get me back. RE: Swift - his "Modest Proposal" was not well received back in the day - people thought he was serious. I love it, it was hilarious.

Vig: Rule 62 is "Don't take yourself too damn seriously." However, you're right - it does come down to whose ox is being gored, and yes, Obama is still my ox.

Dcup - that goes back to my point about placement of the image. As a cover image, people only see the inflammatory nature of it. But as an illustration to the article? Your neighbors won't go inside the magazine to read the article, and so they would not have seen the image. Those who actually READ the New Yorker would have seen it in context - and suddenly, not so inflammatory.

robin andrea said...

Derrida? Yikes, I haven't heard that name in years. I wasn't much of a fan of his when I did a short stint as a grad student in the mid 80s. I like the critical theories that followed deconstruction, the ones that acknowledged inherent meanings and actual context of histories.

The New Yorker cover was in bad taste. When I was an adviser to college media students for year and years, I always told them that the best answer to free speech that offends, was good free speech. Although, for my preferences I would like to see a contest for the most satirical cover art that depicts John McCain and his darling Cindy.

okjimm said...

//Maybe I am glad that somebody somewhere has decided to not be politically correct.//

I have deliberately stayed out of political conversations for several years. I watch the news....I have not missed ANY election since I could vote...School Board, local, I don't care what they are about I VOTE....but fearing that the idiot's in America will not 'get' the satire is also catering to the 'idiots'. Was the cover in poor taste? Possibly. Do I care? Not a lick. I am truly tired of the 'dumbing-down of America'.

Poor Taste? War is poor taste. Starving children are poor taste. Aids is poor taste.....

I wish that those "Poor Tastes" would offend America more than what is on the cover of a magazine.....and frankly....if it makes people think.....makes people angry...makes people communicate, makes people THINK....then it was a GREAT caricature and did what it was supposed to do.

Randal Graves said...

Then your MFA is wrong! ;-)

Is working on what we love pretentious? I dig this bit from author John Darnielle from a short blog he did at Powell's website:

After all, what is the difference between pretentiousness and seriousness? Only a contract between the speaker and the author. People call things "pretentious" in order to put them in their place; if a thing has been conceded to actually occupy a place of seriousness, it's immune from charges of pretension. I'm really suspicious of this process — it seems cliquish to me. At the same time, though, one has to concede a big difference between the seriousness of heavy hitters like Faulkner or Joyce and the would-be gravitas of stories about dragons that can talk.

Or does one have to make such a concession at all?

Yeah, he was talking about a goddamn heavy metal album and not 'art' but so what? I absolutely adore Proust. I'm sure many would find him the very definition of pretentious. But the dude worked on that damn thing for years. That's not being pretentious, that's dedication to art.

Mary Ellen said...

Personally, I thought the cover was offensive to Obama. On the other hand, I've heard a lot of outrage from Obama supporters who didn't think twice about putting up offensive photo-shops of Hillary and Bill Clinton on their blogs. So, is it only offensive it is is your favorite candidate being skewed? Would we hear this same outrage if it had been a picture of McCain and his wife..."C" word and all?

As much as I think this was offensive to Obama...his supporters had better get used to it, unless they are willing to change their personal smear tactics against McCain's wife or McCain, himself. What's good for the goose and all that....

DivaJood said...

Robin, so many people disliked Derrida - but really, all he did was upend one way of thinking. That was important. It's funny you should mention the theories that included context of histories - while I was an undergrad at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I found that many of the younger students did not have a concept of art history, nor did they see any need for it. Complete rejection of how art has had to evolve necessarily.

Okjimm, you write Poor Taste? War is poor taste. Starving children are poor taste. Aids is poor taste..... I could not agree with you more. Greed is the poorest taste of all, because greed is what fuels war, hunger and food shortages, segregation. We need to be stood on our collective ears more often. We need to stop pussy-footing around issues, and actually face them.

Randal, you do know that MFA stands for More Fucking Artists, don't you? ;) I was being a tiny bit satirical, but obviously I failed. Truly, I love being in my studio for 8 hours a day, and have not done this in a long, long time. I think my current decision to quit a steady job with steady income in order to work independently from home is precisely because I really MUST go back into being a studio artist. I think, ultimately, it is essential to me, to give my life meaning. I love Proust as well, although I find him difficult. It took me close to five years to finish "The Brothers Karamozov", Dostoyevsky's masterpiece. I love Derrida, though clearly people find him pretentious. That word is in the same category as "elitist", which is a perjorative directed at the truly elite.

Mary Ellen, as Vig said, it depends upon whose ox is being gored. "Bad taste" might really be in the eyes of the beholder. Years ago, when I was in graduate school, we had a visiting artist who had done a series of paintings called the "Dead Mother" series. And they were hilarious. Just hilarious. But he said to us that anyone whose mother was alive found them funny, and anyone whose mother was dead found them in poor taste. Guess what? After my mother died, I thought those paintings were in poor taste. Now, years and years later, I recall them as hilarious. Context is everything.

D.K. Raed said...

Very good, Diva! Excellent points, post and comments. I fight censorship at all levels, so I don't have that kind of problem with the cover. To me, you hit it exactly with the PLACEMENT ON THE COVER, sans any caption. It stands there by itself as a testimony to capitalism. It says, WANT TO ELECT A MUSLIM PRESIDENT & HIS TERRORIST WIFE ... BUY ME AND READ ALL ABOUT IT! It was put on the cover to sell magazines. Now, granted the article itself would've been a let-down to those who bought it for that reason. So in addn to everything else, it is False Advertising! And of course, as has been said, it's now in the news everywhere, so the image is reaching everyone's lizard brains, not just those who would PAY for the mag. I guess I just expected so much more of The New Yorker.

DivaJood said...

DK, It's interesting - I saw a photo-shop cover that replaced the Obamas with the McCains, and all the stereotype slurs against them were present - it was funny-ish, but it was not inflammatory. It did not play to fear, it was simply insulting. Why is that? The McCains are white.

DivaJood said...

And finally, as Jon Stewart said, "It's a fucking cartoon.

But now I want to refer back to Walter Benjamin. He talked about a work of art (or in this case, cartoon) having an "aura", meaning traditional association with primitive, feudal, or bourgeois structures of power and its further association with magic and (religious or secular) ritual. According to Benjamin, in the age of mechanical reproduction, art loses its "aura" and becomes accessible. This cartoon turns that theory on its ear as it has developed a distinct aura, specifically int its association with bourgeois structures of power and magic and ritual. The cartoon has taken on a life of its own.

Sadly, this deflects attention from real, more serious issues: assault on civil liberties; health care in America (or lack of); the Iraq war; the climate crisis; food shortages; the banking crisis. We have real, serious problems in America, and we need to focus on them, rather than the cult of personality.

But without critical thinking, we stoop to the lowest common denominator, and that is the cult of personality.

enigma4ever said...

pmg....I just realized WHO the Adopt this guy is...ahah.......


Now back to what I wanted to say...
I just wanted to know that I know we did not agree on this issue- but of all the articles, and posts I have read this week about it....yours was the most well thought out and detailed, and explained beautifullly....I was going to comment at Sirens....and then when I went back- I could not find it....( I am sure it is there- just me being inept)....anyways..I just wanted to say that...

( seriously your analysis was better than anything on Huffpost ....)

DivaJood said...

Enigma, see my email to you. :)