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The Internet, a Tool for Art?

 

 

Cultural Hegemony and the Internet as a Loophole

 

In his early writings the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci coined the term "Cultural Hegemony", which means the domination of society by manipulating the societal culture, so that the worldview of the ruling (manipulating) class is imposed as the norm and perceived as a universally valid ideology and status quo, benefinicial to all of society, whilst benefiting only the ruling class.

"Hundreds of thousands of workers regularly and daily give their pennies to the bourgeois newspapers, thus assisting in creating their power. Why? If you were to ask this of the first worker you were to see on the tram or the street with a bourgeois paper spread before him you would hear: 'Because I need to hear about what's happening.' And it would never enter his head that the news and the ingredients with which it is cooked are exposed with an art that guides his ideas and influences his spirit in a given direction."

(Antonio Gramsci, "Newspapers and the Workers", 1916)

Gramsci calls it an "art that guides his ideas". If art is able to guide ideas, is it also a key to deconstruction of the idea of the status quo as an unchangable given state? What kind of strategies can an artist use to soak hegemonic structures and influence society into another direction?

To develop such strategies, we first need to understand the mechanisms of action of culture industry. Gramscis question, why the worker buys this newspaper, leads to the research field of cognitive psychology.

 

 

Information Processing

In their theory of attention Richard Shiffrin and Walter Schneider differentiate between controlled and automatic information processing. Controlled information processing is consious and limited, based on an effort of thinking, whereas automatic processing of information works in an unconscious way, unlimited and without any efforts.

Within our cognitive system stimuli leave traces, which are reinforced by repetition. When the same impulse is repeated, the processing is faster and needs less mental efforts. This function of learning enables us to focus on something else as soon as we have processed information. Mental demands are depending on newness, complexity and abnormality of the appealing stimulus. In neurophysiology, levels of mental demands are translated into levels of excitement or agitation, which cause appropriate moods. An overflow of information is sensed as unpleasent, because it contains too many new, unusual and complex impulses, as well as being underchallenged is perceived as boredom. In this way we alternate in between routine and curiosity, naturally trying to balance both, because the most pleasant mood is stated with a medium level of excitement. This balance is found by an equal mix of new and established information input. Furthermore humans also tend to sustain a consistent cognitive structure. Inner conflicts, antagonisms of knowledge, views and behaviour are sensed as an emotional state of stress and need to be adjusted.
Because of this, people only like to attend events requiring a pleasant level of mental effort and most of those events happen within a stiff structure of automated consuetudes and rituals. We simply follow the rhythm of the machine. All is automatic - the ringing alarm bell in the morning, the ticket machine at the train station (next to the moving staircase), the recommendations on Youtube. Automation makes our every day life easy, we don't have to question anything and reflect on this given reality.

Critical, complex or alternative contents of media provoke more emotional pressure on recipients, because they are contrary to known hegemonic structures (including structures of power). But humans don't consciously avoid unusual messages; they automatically miss them, because the cognitive system filters beforehand and sets the focus on the according information.

 

(selective attention test by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris)

 

 

This demand for accordance is a reason why mass media rarely transmit differentiated information and media companies produce contents that are easily received and processed by the audience and at the same time maintain the status quo.

The artistical effort of a media creator is therefor adapting conventional contents and forms and breaking through them, integrating the recent information in a way to find the perfect mixture of new and well-known that evokes a comfortable level of mental activity.

 

 

The Culture Industry

"The constant pressure to produce new effects (which must conform to the old pattern) serves merely as another rule to increase the power of the conventions when any single effect threatens to slip through the net. Every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet with approval at first sight."

In "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" (1944) Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno criticize the uniformity of media products. The essay was also referring to Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", 1935.

Horkheimer and Adorno are originators of the Critical Theory, the analysis of the bourgeois capitalistic society, the uncovering of its mechanisms of dominance and repression, the exposure of its ideologies, with the goal to create a rational society of mature people. In their view, the Culture Industry functions as a power-reproducing machine, turning consumers (workers and middle class) into an unthinking, obedient crowd:

"There is nothing left for the consumer to classify. Producers have done it for him. Art for the masses has destroyed the dream but still conforms to the tenets of that dreaming idealism which critical idealism baulked at."

People looking for amusement, wanting to escape from the mechanised work process in factories and offices, are disciplined by the entertainment machinery's permanent repetition - to follow the same rhythm again.

"Insofar as cartoons do any more than accustom the senses to the new tempo, they hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment."

(Horkheimer & Adorno, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception", 1944)

 


 

The societal status quo seems to be something quite static, even more solidified by the culture industry. But reproduction of power within a society is a dynamic process, driven by representatives of different interests fighting for supremacy; just like in free-market economy business rivals struggle for consumers by branding their logos on peoples minds.

And the consumer has the choice: Referring to Michel De Certeau, John Fiske states, that mass culture is not something recipients imbibe without thinking. Much like a raw material it has to be "chewed" before it can be "swallowed", and consumers with various social backgrounds and identities naturally establish plurality and creativity within the given system:

"The 'art of being in between' is the art of popular culture. Using their products for our purposes is the art of being in between production and consumption, speaking is the art of being in between their language system and our material experience, cooking is the art of being in between their supermarket and our unique meal."

(John Fiske, "Understanding Popular Culture", 1989)

In this way Fiske states a subversive potential in popular culture itself and that the entanglement of culture industry and power structures are rather fluctuant than solid and unchangeable.

For those who aim for a change of the given society order, it raises the question for strategies to break through mechanisms of culture industry. Guerilla communication is a form of direct, active intrusion into mass-communication processes. Guerilla tactics use existing systems and space for injecting their message. They don't explain, they don't preach, they reverse the perspective of what's usual by using it.

 


Democratic access to mass media

A democratic access to mass media is, of course, essential for changing those mechanisms of power reproduction. Referring to Bertold Brecht's "Radio Theory" the German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger postulated this democratic access based on the idea of net-like functioning media.

"Network-like communications models built on the principle of reversibility of circuits might give indications of how to overcome this situation a mass newspaper, written and distributed by its readers, a video network of politically active groups."

(Enzensberger, Constituents of a Theory of the Media, 1970)

 

In his essay "Constituents of a Theory of the Media" he stated a "mobilizing power" of electronic media, enabling a self-regulated process of (mass-)learning and described the difference between producer and consumer as "not inherent in electronic media". Enzensberger differentiates between repressive and emancipatory use:

 

enzensberger

(compare: Enzensberger,"Constituents of a Theory of the Media", 1970)

 

30 years later, concerning the development of the internet, Enzensberger relativized his early statements. In his essay "Das digitale Evangelium" he calls those, who believe in direct, electronic democracy, equal access to information and de-construction of hierarchies "naivists", and those who believe, we would live in a world of mutations and simulations "apocalypticists". Enzensberger now places himself in the middle and critically reviews his own writing from 1970:

"Wohl gesprochen zu einer Zeit, da vom Internet noch keine Rede war. Doch führte der Versuch des Verfassers, die Medienpraxis zu überholen, zu allerhand Erwartungen, die heute naiv anmuten. Dem imaginären Netz der Zukunft wurden - ganz im Gegensatz zu den alten Medien - utopische Möglichkeiten zugeschrieben; seine emanzipatorische Potenz stand für den Dichter außer Frage. Ganz im Sinn der marxistischen Theorie hegte er ein unbegrenztes Zutrauen in die berühmte 'Entfaltung der Produktivkräfte', eine materialistische Variante der christlichen Trias von Glaube, Liebe und Hoffnung. Heute würden auf derartige Verheißungen nur die Evangelisten des digitalen Kapitalismus schwören. Vielleicht empfiehlt sich 30 Jahre später eine gewisse Nüchternheit."

(engl. transl.: "Valid at a time where talk about internet was out of the question. However the attempt of the author to outpace/overtake the media work practice lead to all sorts of expectations that seem naïve from the point of view nowadays. Contrary to the old media, utopistic potentials/capabilities were attributed to the imaginary network of the future; its emancipatory potential was beyond question for the poet. In the spirit of the Marxist theory he harbored unlimited confidence regarding the famous 'unfolding of the productive forces', a materialistic variant of the christian trilogy of faith, love and hope. Nowadays only the Evangelists of digital capitalism would swear on such promises. Perhaps 30 years later a certain sobriety is advisable.")

(Enzensberger, "Das digitale Evangelium", 2000)

 

Further the author excoriates the internet and considers it to be user-unfriendly because of complicated interfaces and confusing because of too much unsorted information. The quality of information would not be assured, digital technics would be frail and data carriers too short-living. He also explains, that it is not a medium with democratic access (since it requires a certain level of education and access to computers) and, rather than bringing people together, it leads to social marginalization of those who aren't able to use it. But referring to the difference of centrally and peripherally controlled media, Enzensbergers forecast is still effective.

"Man braucht nur die Extremfälle zu betrachten, um die politische Bedeutung dieses Unterschieds zu begreifen. Auf der einen Seite das Edikt, die kaiserliche Botschaft, die das Gefälle zwischen Befehl und Gehorsam voraussetzt; auf der andern Seite der 'herrschaftsfreie Diskurs' gleichberechtigter Teilnehmer. In diesem Sinn ist das Netz tatsächlich eine utopische Erfindung: Es hat den Unterschied zwischen Sender und Empfänger abgeschafft. Eine zentrale Instanz, die im Stande wäre, es zu kontrollieren, existiert nicht mehr."

(engl. transl.: "One only needs to consider the extremes to fathom the political meaning of this distinction. On the one hand there is the edict, the royal message that presupposes the gap between order and obedience, on the other hand the 'discourse free of domination' of equal participants. In this sense the network in fact is an utopistic invention: it has eliminated the distinction between the sender and the receiver. There is no central authority that is able to control it anymore.")

(Enzensberger, "Das digitale Evangelium", 2000)

 

Enzensberger talks about prophecies and analyzes whether they became "true" or not. But truth is not static, it is what we create. Truth appears within context, and the context changes every second. The fluent change of context is one of the main benefits the internet offers. The internet is not a state, it is a tool. It doesn't contain a certain "truth", it contains potentials. For the creation of art, we can not tie ourselves to the things as they seem to be today. We need to invent utopias and look out for tools and strategies to realize them. The internet as a mass medium definitely has more democratic potential than newspapers or television. It is - maybe not for everyone, but for many - accessible and almost free of charge. User created content is the basis of online communities or encyclopedias. recommendations of Enzensbergers essays on Wikipedia constitute an objective source of information since, as everybody is sender and receiver at the same time, it is being proof read and verified by the whole community. Therefore I wouldn't have paid much attention to Enzenberger's essays if they hadn't been recommended on Wikipedia. And maybe only half of the information is detailed high quality information, but it is possible to publish a web-based thesis with the invitation for digging deeper into topics linked to it.

And as far as I can see, there is no other medium more convenient for an artist who is interested in affecting cultural hegemony.

 

 

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