Film & YouTube as Means of Revolutionary Production

Walter Benjamin

This is the third essay I’ve written for a course on critical theory I’m taking under Stanley Aronowitz at the People’s Forum in New York City. It’s a response to a piece written by Walter Benjamin (pictured above) entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

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Film & YouTube as Means of Revolutionary Production

As we complete the first third of our course, “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory,” I’m beginning to see the logic behind the progression of our assigned readings so far. To my surprise I’m also perceiving more clearly the vital connections between our course and the book on critical thinking that I published in the middle of April.

My book is called The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news. Written specifically to introduce advanced secondary students as well as college freshmen and sophomores to easily-understood critical theory, Magic Glasses centralizes structural (especially economic) analysis along with ideological distinctions and historical considerations in the form of Ten Rules for Critical Thinking.

The rules are deduced from the work of liberation theologians at a think tank in San Jose, Costa Rica, where my wife, Peggy, and I have worked on-and-off since 1992. The study center is called the Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones. Until recently, it was headed by Franz Hinkelammert, a leading economist and liberation theologian who now leads The Critical Thinking Group also located in San Jose. His many books are generously peppered with references to Frankfurt School authors.

Drawing on Hinkelammert and others, and in the spirit of our reading from Benjamin, my Magic Glasses also forges connections between contemporary politics in this age of Donald Trump in terms of an unmistakable world-wide drift towards fascism. But even more to the point of this week’s reading assignment, Magic Glasses highlights film as a tool for awakening within students their latent revolutionary consciousness.

With all of that in mind, what follows will first of all briefly connect this week’s assignment from Walter Benjamin with our previous readings from Theodor Adorno on “Progress” and “On Subject and Object.” Secondly, this review will present my summary of our third reading, Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There he identifies film as “the most powerful agent” for facilitating the work of contemporary mass movements. Though warning of its dangers, he sees it as a tool for raising consciousness and catalyzing political praxis. My brief essay will conclude by illustrating Benjamin’s points with my own teaching practices as reflected in the book referenced above.

Reading Connections

Our first two readings from Adorno emphasized vital points about human beings in general and critical thinkers in particular. Contrary to biblical teachings and the analysis of Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Adorno insisted that human beings were not created fully-fledged.

Instead, they are products of evolution; they are works specifically “in-progress” importantly shaped by their historical and material contexts. As such, their fate is still undetermined and might well end in failure – even in the extinction of the human race. Technological development does not guarantee human progress. Rather, uncontrolled it actually threatens the very survival of our race.

Only progress understood as a development of critical consciousness paralleling technical advance and given direction by the very victims of merely mechanical progress, can save us. Salvific consciousness of this kind liberates its possessors to employ technology in the service of human development rather than for its destruction.

In other words (and this brings us to Adorno’s “On Subject and Object”), a major task of critical thinking is to facilitate the transformation of those who use technology from objects to subjects – into conscious agents employing technology in the service of human liberation.

Put more concretely, technological gadgets like radio, movies, television, computers, and I Phones can easily objectify or reify unconscious users and stealthily shape their lives and thinking. Transformed into subjects, the gadgets themselves can turn those who use them into unthinking objects and deprive the unwary of their essential identity as conscious agents directing their lives towards specifically human purposes. Once again: according to Adorno, those purposes centralize the liberation of those whom the structures of capitalism routinely objectify and deform into oppressed, marginalized, despised, and humiliated sub-humans.

So, how exactly do Adorno’s abstract generalizations about technology’s power to captivate and transform human beings into objects shake down in concrete, historical terms?

Benjamin’s Essay

The question brings us to Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There, the author confronts his readers with stark political choices inherent in technological “progress.” That choice, Benjamin argues, is principally between fascism on the one hand and communism on the other.

However, before he gets to that decision, Benjamin delineates the status questionis. He reviews the history of mechanical reproduction. The Greeks knew exceedingly few forms of mechanical duplication. Reproductions took the form of stamped coins for commercial use, along with bronze and terra cotta artifacts. Other forms of mechanical reproduction followed. They took the shape of wood cuts, the printing press, lithographs, photographic negatives, and movie films including sound recordings. (We might add that “progress” continues today in the forms of computers, I Phones, digital cameras along with associated social media.)

Each development in the list just itemized profoundly impacted human beings in Adorno’s terms, specifically as objects and as subjects.

On the one hand and objectively speaking, the developments in question often straightened the horizons of those interacting with the resulting products. As Benjamin puts it, a reproduced piece of art detached from the history of its production and ownership lost its uniqueness. It lost its “aura” – the halo connecting it to time and space beyond the context of its immediate user. Thus, one viewing a Greek statue of Venus might have no idea of its original value as an object of religious veneration, much less as an object of condemnation by the medieval church which considered it an idol. Moreover, the decontextualized observer would typically remain detached from the history of the statue’s ownership and of the monetary value given it in various contexts.

Even more importantly in terms of reifying naïve observers, Benjamin points out that objects of art produced in mass quantities can be used to propagandize viewers-turned-consumers. This is especially true in the case of photography appearing in magazines and even more so with film. In magazines and newspapers, de rigueur captions actually tell people what their eyes should be seeing. Movie images change so quickly that (for the unaware) successive frames in effect give meaning or interpret the ones preceding them. Assaulted by rapidly changing figures and scenes, the viewer has no time to analyze her or his past or immediate experiences.

In this way, photography and film, especially when coordinated by the ruling classes become perfect vehicles for propaganda and the spread of ideology. Germany’s fascists (in power at the time Benjamin penned this essay in 1936) were quick to recognize the potential of this new technology. Accordingly, they utilized the new visual arts for purposes of brain-washing and massive indoctrination – even employing film to glorify war as the apotheosis of human development. Anticipating their later U.S. counterparts, the Nazis effectively convinced the uncritical that “being all you can be” involves killing one’s fellow human beings and utterly destroying their property in “beautiful” acts of murder, mayhem, and self-immolation. Carried to its logical conclusion, such human objectification, Benjamin warned, leads inexorably to envisioning the apex of human development as mass suicide. (The subsequent development of nuclear weapons and dawning awareness about anthropogenic climate chaos may well prove him to be prophetic.)

Yes, without doubt, Benjamin is correct in expressing serious reservations about the objectifying dangers of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. However, there’s another side to the coin he describes. By its virtue, human subjects as such can also seize the apparatus of such duplication and employ it for purposes of human liberation. Thus:

• Widespread reproduction of art works has turned everyone into a critic.
• Or into film actor of sorts
• Similarly, (and even more-so with the advent of the internet) virtually everyone can discover “an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports,” etc.
• And (I would add) the capability of YouTube to excerpt clips from Hollywood films and from documentaries enhances possibilities for critical teachers to (in Benjamin’s words) “promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property.”

And that brings me back to The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news.

Magic Glasses

There I use YouTube clips of classic and contemporary films to illustrate each of my ten rules for critical thinking which include (1) Reflect Systemically, (2) Select Market (as an organizing principle), (3) Reject Neutrality, (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Quadra-Sect Violence, (8) Connect with Your Deepest Self, (9) Collect Conclusions, and (10) Detect Silences. Film clips featured in the book come from films such as Traffic, The Post, Avatar, Sausage Party, The Distinguished Gentleman, Good Will Hunting, American Sniper, Captain Phillips, American History X, War Dogs, Bulworth, and the Broadway musical, Hamilton.

The clips, lasting no more than ten minutes each, have been selected to connect directly with my ten rules. Because of their brevity, and if students missed the point or wanted to see the clip again, any film excerpt can be viewed again with nothing lost in terms of class time. This ability to extract and repeat overcomes Benjamin’s objection about film images whose rapid succession prevent careful analysis or reflection.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. It comes from Good Will Hunting. There the Matt Damon character, Will Hunting himself, is interviewed for a position in the National Security Agency. He’s asked why he shouldn’t take the job. Hunting responds:

Will’s answer is, of course, ironic. However, his response provides a good example of the kind of critical analysis that can be stimulated by short film clips. This one raises questions about connecting contemporary issues into a coherent whole. Will Hunting traces the effects of an anticipated assignment at the NSA from his desk there, to a war involving senseless carnage, a friend’s participation in that war, oil prices, environmental destruction on a massive scale, unemployment problems in the U.S., job loss to cheap Third World labor, and to corrupt politicians, who avoid military service, while somehow managing to get elected to the highest office in the land.

In terms of stimulating critical thinking, all the teacher has to do is ask students, “What did you see?”

Conclusion

I suppose what I’m saying here is that I found Walter Benjamin’s essay not only helpfully coherent with previous readings in our course; I also found his words about film and its use in stimulating critical thinking encouraging in terms of my own thoughts and praxis as a teacher and author.

Against Individualism: a Review of Theodore Adorno’s Essay “On Subject & Object”

Army

This is the second “homework” essay that I’ve written in connection with a course on critical theory that I’m taking at The People’s Forum in New York City. As I mentioned last week, the course is taught by Stanley Aronowitz and is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.”

This week’s reading, our second from Theodore Adorno was entitled simply “On Subject and Object.” It was extremely abstract and difficult to understand. So, during the class I proposed the following question for Stanley. I said,

“I truly admire Adorno’s brilliance. And I appreciate how spending hours trying to decipher his meaning can yield a satisfaction and kind of pleasure for intellectuals who enjoy solving world-puzzles. In addition, I recognized that the expenditure of such time and effort can certainly lead one to think more deeply and to appropriate insights that might not emerge from grappling with more easily understandable prose.

However, who besides the intellectuals just mentioned can suffer these texts? Who, besides the exceedingly few, has the energy to endure them? Their ideas are obscured, not clarified, by references, vocabulary, and tone that comes off as pretentious, elite and even obscurantist.

If they are truly interested in world-changing praxis (as critical theorists claim) why write like this, rather than in a more accessible manner?”

Stanley’s response to me was direct. He said, “The text is so difficult because Adorno is writing for me, not for you.” He went on to explain that our author was actually quite adept at writing for ordinary people in very engaging ways. Adorno frequently spoke on the radio during the 1930s, and was very popular. However, when authoring essays like “On Subject and Object,” his audience turned out to be philosophers familiar with the entire works of Kant, Heidegger, Hegel, Freud, Marx, and others. Stanley himself falls into that category — I, not so much. Hence my difficulties and those of my classmates.

In any case, and for what it’s worth, here is my attempt to “translate” into concrete language what I understood from grappling with this Adorno text myself.
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The Need for Greater Objectivity
(A review of Adorno’s “On Subject and Object”)

In our contemporary culture, the forces of capitalism, advertising, and consumption all lionize individualism. Standing out from the crowd, doing-your own thing, and writing your own story are sold as paramount forms of being human. Outside one’s own family, any kind of collectivism is perceived as a threat.

Even the military claims to be a vehicle empowering enlistees to “be all that you can be.” In the end, however, those who sign up inevitably discover that all the army allows them to be are pawns whose highest aspiration is not individual development, but reduction to sameness, conformity, and blind obedience in the service of an organization whose main purpose turns out to be killing and breaking things.

Apparently, it’s the same for everyone. In psychological terms, those the culture has encouraged to be autonomous subjects – whatever their line of work – are reduced to objects not only on the job, but at home and even in their recreational activities. We all end up doing what we’re told within parameters that stifle (in Theodor Adorno’s words) pure spontaneity and originary apperception. That is, our systemic structures frustrate what we’re told is our absolutely dynamic principle (255).

But is that our fate as humans – universal objectification and individual frustration (247)? Why is it so difficult to be a subject and so easy to be reduced to object-hood?

In his essay “On Subject and Object,” Adorno takes up those questions. In short, his answer is, “Well, it’s complicated . . .” (245). You see, he argues, individualized subjectivity (as understood by the dominant culture) isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it leads to isolation, self-captivity and ultimately to the domination of others (246, 252, 257).

However, there is another form of subjectivity –one more authentic than encouraged by our culture – that recognizes a dialectical relationship between subjectivity and objectivity. Appropriating that subjectivity, so to speak, should be our life’s objective.

Moreover, being an object should not be entirely vilified. Ironically, and properly understood, it should be embraced as humankind’s salvation, as the prerequisite for achieving authentic subject-hood and the peace we all desire. To achieve peace, Adorno observes, the individual must selectively subordinate self to collective (247). In that dialectical process of on-going give-and-take between subjectivity and objectivity, lies our salvation.

In other words, “On Subject and Object” is written against the popular understanding of overriding individualism. Adorno’s basic argument is that the individual cannot be understood apart from society. This is because the individual is actually the product of society – and this according to the insights provided by linguistic analysis, evolutionary theory and biology, along with reflection on personal experience, philosophy, and, above all by critical theory.

Adorno considers those sources one-by-one.

• Language: Adorno begins his analysis linguistically. He points out that what we call “subject” is intelligible only in its relationship to “object.” Or more clearly put, the very terms “subject” or “individual” make sense only in relationship to humanity at large. Similarly, any reference to a particular person as such presupposes the concept of human species from which subjects distinguish themselves. Even personal names such as “Stanley” or “Michael” are employed to separate the individuals so-called from presupposed others. In other words, our very language reveals a dialectical relationship between individuals and society. The dialectic suggests that the collective is more important than generally recognized in our highly individualistic culture (245).
• Evolutionary biology supports that suggestion. Contrary to origin myths found in all cultures, human beings did not emerge full-fledged (246-247, 258). Rather (as works-in-progress) they developed gradually from lower forms of life. Even then, and for millennia, their primary identification remained with group, clan, or tribe (258). Only gradually did any concept of individual emerge. And only in the last few centuries, with the surfacing of capitalism – with the emergence of homo oeconomicus – did individualism and its ideological emphasis on subject become primary (248). Put otherwise, evolutionary biology testifies to the fact that any notion of subject contains within it a certain objectivity; deep down, it has a core of object (250). The subject was produced by the collective.
• Personal experience as a primary criterion of truth (252, 254) supports the relevant conclusions of evolutionary biology. For years in childhood and adolescence, none of us can really fend for ourselves, but are dependent for survival on family and tribe. Confronted by a hostile environment, human beings are much more ill-equipped to survive than other creatures. Instead, we require a kind of rudimentary social cooperation with others of our species even to defend ourselves from less developed counterparts. All of this signals a priority of species over individual subjects (258).
• Philosophy since the Enlightenment has obscured such primacy. The “Copernican turn” of Immanuel Kant emphasized human subjectivity as never before (251, 254). Till Kant, conventional wisdom typically imagined the process of knowledge as the result of a knowing subject confronting an object “out there” (246). For Kant, however, inborn categories of knowledge fundamentally shaped all objects perceived by the subject in question. In a sense, then, on Kant’s analysis, the human subject actively constituted reality (255).
• Critical Theory, however, along with the general sociology of knowledge has called Kant’s radical subjectivity into question. True: critical theorists (like Adorno himself) agree that human beings do in fact interpret reality according to subjective categories. However, those categories themselves are produced by society. Specifically, and increasingly since the middle of the 18th century, they have been manufactured by capitalist ideology (248, 250-254). That ideology has deformed humans into individual subjects pure and simple. On the one hand, it has made them captives within themselves (252, 257). On the other, it has set them against the collective as they seek to impose their sovereign wills upon the group (246). War is the unavoidable upshot.

Conclusion

Adorno is interested in peace, not war (247). Yes, he wants to affirm subjectivity, spontaneity and originary apperception as our absolutely dynamic principle. However, on his view, absolutizing the subject over-against the collective fetishistically reifies and deforms human beings (251). It sets them against each other and creates a tragic situation where it is indeed possible for army propagandists to convince the young that they can reach their highest potential by killing their brothers and sisters and by destroying the latter’s homes, schools, churches, hospitals and factories.

Only by de-emphasizing individual subjectivity, by recognizing the priority of human community, by retaining a dialectical understanding of subject’s relationship to object, and of individual to species, can such tragedy be averted.

“Sweet Little 78” and Back in Class Again

Aronowitz

As readers of this blog might remember, Peggy and I have just moved to Westport, Connecticut. In an earlier posting, I explained that we’re here largely to be near our four grandchildren. My daughter, Maggie, our son-in-law, Kerry, along with Eva (9 yrs.), Oscar (7), Orlando (5), and Markandeya (3) live at 69 Clinton Avenue. Peggy and I are now located at 33 Clinton. It’s a 10-minute walk between our two houses.

And so far, it’s working out just fine. We’re pretty well moved into our new digs which are quite a bit smaller than what we became used to in Berea, Kentucky. But we’re finding comfort in the down-sizing. After all small is beautiful.

33 Clinton

Along those lines, however, I do find myself missing the small-town atmosphere that we got so comfortable with in Berea. Forty-five years in Kentucky definitely turned me into a country mouse. Here in Westport, a virtual suburb of New York City, things are quite different. The pace if faster; the traffic is heavier; the prices are higher.

But with Westport and that proximity to NYC come a lot of benefits. For instance, our new location has a wonderful Playhouse. Just this weekend, Peggy and I took in “Man of La Mancha” that had been performing there to rave reviews. The reviews were well-deserved. We came away truly inspired.

And then there’s a nine-week course I have enrolled in and am attending each Saturday in the heart of Manhattan. That’s what I want to tell you about here. As Chuck Berry might say, at sweet 78, I’m back in class again.

The course is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.” The sessions are taught by Stanley Aronowitz (pictured above), an emeritus professor of sociology, cultural studies, and urban education at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. Stanley is a widely-published authority on critical theory. Peggy and I had met him years ago (around 1990) at the Socialist Scholars Conference at CUNY. His work on Paulo Freire and our friendship with Paulo were our connecting points.

My primary purpose in attending Stanley’s class is to deepen my understanding of critical theory, which lies at the basis of my related book The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: Seeing Through Alternative Fact and Fake News.

True, my book addresses what is called “critical thinking” here in the United States. But the latter’s exclusive emphasis on logic and detecting fallacies is a far cry from critical theory as understood in the rest of the world. There it is profoundly informed by Marxism and the work of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm – all members of the so-called Frankfurt School.

Just as my book does, the Frankfurt School emphasized the structural causes of the way we think: capitalism, its ideology, and the ways thinking is influenced by capitalism’s history, colonial practices, and associated understandings of violence, terrorism and other obfuscations. As I explain in my book, I picked up almost everything I know of that kind of critical thinking from the liberation theologians I’ve studied with in Rome, Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India, and Israel. Liberation theology is deeply influenced by the Frankfurt School.

So, my first purpose in attending was to learn more about critical theory unfiltered through theology. My secondary purpose was to meet other leftists, to find out what they’re up to in the NYC area, and to possibly join them in their efforts at creating a world with room for everyone.

The Aronowitz class meets Saturday afternoons from 12:00-2:00 at The People’s Forum on 320 East 37th Street. Getting there has me taking the 10:08 train from Westport to Grand Central Station. That reaches its destination about 11:30. Then I walk a mile and a quarter down 42nd Street to Broadway, and then to East 37th. On the way, I pass the New York City Library and thousands of very interesting-looking people.

The first meeting drew about 30 people. Though extremely interesting, it frustrated my purpose of getting to know people. Stanley didn’t have us introduce ourselves. So, I came away with only the vaguest notions of who was there. They were of all ages, though slightly tilted towards my own cohort. Mostly men, though about a third were women.

For homework, Stanley assigned a very difficult reading from Adorno’s Critical Models. It was an 18-page essay called “Progress.” It turned out to be one of the most abstract pieces I’ve ever read. I found it kind of exciting though. It made me feel like I was in graduate school again – reading something very serious. However, Aronowitz was right: “You have to read it about three times to get what Adorno’s saying.”

Well, I did that. It took me about half-an-hour to read each page. And later (even though it wasn’t part of the assignment) I wrote a 1000-word essay of response. It’s the kind of essay I always wanted my students at Berea to produce after readings I assigned there.

In any case, Stanley’s second class had about half the number of attendees as the first. Our actual class size is 12 students. (Stanley said the class size-difference is normal.) As it turns out, most of them (largely 50 yrs. and older) are Aronowitz groupies. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one who hasn’t taken a previous class with him. The others are all Marxists more or less (I guess I fall into that category as well) – all very smart and well-read.

So, I’m having fun here in Westport. The three classes I’ve attended so far have been dynamite.

Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll share the essay I mentioned above.