Benjamin and Stranger Things

The sound of the title will only work if you pronounce his name properly: /ben-ya-meen/

Fun, eh?

Those that know me well are already rolling their eyes; I may periodically wander into circles and shopping carts, but nowhere are my obsessive thoughts happier than when racing around with Benjamin (yes, I know, there is another rather obvious choice for that role; I’m valiently trying not to mention him here). And this time, the essay isn’t Duff’s fault; it’s Thomas Friedman’s.

Friedman, you probably already know, is the author of The Lexus and The Olive Tree, Longitudes and Attitudes (oh hail thee, Jimmy Buffet), and, most memorably, The World is Flat, the 3.0 edition of which may have the funniest bit of snark in any journalist’s book ever. Bliss. In reading Flat, is realized that I had heard all this before–>in Benjamin.

Friedman proposes that the world after 2000 “flattened” as a result of the wide availability of technology to, at least in theory, everyone. Such technology allows, for instance, yours truly to publish her obsessive snark without having to acquiesce to an editor for a multinational publishing corporation or the “independent arm” of said multinational publishing corporation or University Press. It also allows your tax returns to be prepared in Bangalore or your radiology reports to be read in New Delhi. Read Friedman for more details.

Here’s the thing for me: the “flattened world” Friedman is writing about is, as far as I can tell, the world Walter Benjamin was dreaming of in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“–at least in so far as the availability of the machines of production (the Internet as conduit, the hardware & software, and so forth). Bear in mind that Benjamin was a devout Marxist, and the means of production Friedman discusses are most assuredly in a capitalist mode, but the effect is the same: in theory, the production is decentralized–controlled not by a single (government) entity, but by the masses. Well, sort of.

Benjamin is a tad less trusting of technology, at least in so far as it can be misappropriated:

The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society. The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production – in other words, to unemployment and the lack of markets. Imperialistic war is a rebellion of technology which collects, in the form of “human material,” the claims to which society has denied its natural material. Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way. (242)

Technology not used to better the state of humankind is technology destined to be used against us, to further dehumanize and/or abuse us. Lack of access begets warfare. In theory, Friedman’s flat world is one in which the technology is adequately utilized, to a degree I can’t imagine that Benjamin ever conceived of. The superangry individual, though, is often the one feeling devalued by the technology or separated from access to it, though terrorist cells (and others) certainly use technology to their own end–so there is some form of access.

Really, though, the means of production are controlled by the forces who have ownership. Friedman is correct in noting that the availability of technological resources means that even the “superangry” individual has access to those resources–and can manipulate them; in theory, anyone can. But, the very poor in American lack this access, as do scores of our brethren in the world, so it’s not really for the “masses” even yet (and I’m not sure that’s what Friedman argues anyway).

A similar theory is tauted in Hardt and Negri’s Empire, wherein the “flattened world” is the post-imperial “Empire” that exists outside geo-political borders, but often his hamstrung by attempts to act like a nation-state, without actually being one (the UN, for instance). They all seem to posit something similar, though–the death of the imperialist mode and the rise of something. Call it a flat world; call it Empire, whatever.

And though it pains me to admit it, there’s some Pynchon running around in Friedman, particularly in the ideas of information commodification. Which means, unfortunately, that I really need to finish Gravity’s Rainbow.


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