Ornamentalising the masses

April 15, 2007

by Esther Leslie, professor of Political Aesthetics at Birbeck University, London

Walter Benjamin wrote about how:

The growing proletarianization of modern people and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.

That representation has two meanings which are relevant here – an image is a representation, but representation also means political enfranchisement. Fascism produces an image of the masses – they come to expression – ‘zu ihren Ausdruck’. This phrase has particular resonance in the context of visual culture, which is the type of representation of that Benjamin refers to in the essay this quote comes from ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility‘.

An image of the masses – their chemical trace – is pressed into celluloid. They see themselves. There is a circuit of reflection between the masses as viewers and the masses viewed. They have been compacted into a Volk, a solid body of masses come to representation. But they are mute. These shaped, ornamentalized masses are bearers of a structure that they do not compose but into whose order they are made to slot by an authoritarian order external to them, and which has technology on its side. This is visual representation without political representation. To be truly representative, in a political sense, would not, according to Benjamin, involve voting – the bourgeois model of representation – but rather the abolition of property relations.

The relations Benjamin describes are none other than capitalist; he expresses in this thesis the idea that fascism was in 1933 the response to a crisis of capitalism, specifically a crisis that relates to class struggle, in that the masses have been exercising a right to alter property relations. They have made demands, acted as revolutionaries and threatened existing relations of ownership. That is to say they have genuinely represented themselves in expressing their right to change iniquitous property relations, which comprise democratic disposal over the means of production. Note that Benjamin terms this expropriation a right that the masses possess and demand. This explodes the bourgeois language of rights, which find its pinnacle in the right to own property.

So where does this leave us in relation to the very different process of digital self-activity as seen in art and politics? There is something of a slippage going on here with the word ‘democratisation’. Of course it is not a digital fascism at work, but there is a great deal of fantasy in imagining that in and of itself this digital capacity for access is democratising for viewers or makers. For at some level this too is an ornamentalising of the masses – they become the stars in a permanent reality-show of their own making, which, in and of itself, extols the virtues of the corporations who make it possible, who host it, who emblazon so much of it with their adverts and sponsored links. They ‘naively’ – these 65 million (rising) bloggers and the rest of them – give something away that perhaps couldn’t be sold anyway, but someone’s making something out of it somehow somewhere (and could this – if so how – be related to the labour theory of value?). They provide so much content and for free that a permanent fuzz of unseeable activity represents democracy without necessarily

1) challenging property relations in a fundamental sense, which is the precondition of genuine democracy – or

2) allowing any coagulation of debate amongst broader and effective groups (a necessary aspect – evincing points of common debate, generating a real public sphere) who can act on it (in physical real space).

Democratization of the web in political form has found its latest useless grisly form in the various e-petitions hosted at the government’s website and which will be ignored (though, in many respects, so do was the large real-world demonstration on 15 February 2003 – suggesting change comes only from far far more drastic measures). The web allows a wonderfully all-inclusive illusion of democratic participation that can appear – as the now rather flaccid anti- globalisation/capitalist movement delightfully thought – so effortless and transparent, 24-hour activism and reporting, connecting parts of the world in a spectacular meshing of cyber-savvy forces. This collapsed into a sort of nothingness (characterized by omnipresence in bowdlerized government- sanctioned form) – because, perhaps, the smallest relationships between effective forces on the ground were ignored – for that was too boring and old- style to pursue. It is banal to say, but property relations are not superceded in all this, as recent battles over copyright and YouTube/Google show.

This is perhaps at the moment an apt model of the sort of democracy we (don’t) enjoy – limited, liable to be withdrawn at any moment, contested and commodified (privatised). There is something fantastic in all this potential (for self-activity) and the changes in the ways in which one accesses what boosters of the ‘cultural industries’ like to call ‘contents’ is extraordinary, as are the quantities available. But to call this democratisation risks falling short of what that might mean in a number of respects.

Esther Leslie is Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London. She writes about Walter Benjamin and her latest book is ‘Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry’.


One comment

  1. For my master’s thesis, I researched and reported the democratization process on the Internet –in terms of political protest, and organization for demonstrations on the ground. I must say, at the moment of writing (2004), I was quite optimistic. However, like in your essay, I too now have come to believe the inadequacy of signing e-petitions –which probably never do get read. Although, I must say, the Internet has been useful in informing people with alternative news, that which is not available in the mainstream media. This perhaps could be considered a successful win for democracy?

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