Oppressor Walks Road to Freedom

Famously, Walter Benjamin tried to confront this problem by presenting his ideas unconventionally so that they could not be appropriated for Fascist purposes. In “The Work of Art in the Age of [Its] Technological Reproducibility,” he writes, “The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” The problem Benjamin references, of course, is not limited to rhetoric, but in our very structures of being together. The revolutionary affordance of every new communication technology is exactly equal to its usefulness for surveillance. It works the opposite way as well, however. The internet itself, for example, first developed for governmental purposes, now also hosts art, dissent.

Two weeks ago, Hester Eisenstein, a professor in Sociology at the Graduate Center, presented some ideas from her most recent book, Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World.  As the title suggests, Eisenstein argues that the ideology of 20th century feminism unwittingly lends itself to the principles of global corporate capitalism. By equating feminist liberation with women’s right to paid labor, feminist rhetoric leaves itself vulnerable to use by hegemonic forces. In her talk, Eisenstein drew from both domestic and international examples to show how corporations have masterfully employed feminist ideology to further exploit female laborers. I had to leave early, so if possible solutions were mentioned, I missed them.

Eisenstein’s work is an important reminder that every inch advanced on the road toward freedom will serve the feet of the oppressor equally well. If there is a rhetoric immune to contradictory deployments, we have yet to find it. Famously, Walter Benjamin tried to confront this problem by presenting his ideas unconventionally so that they could not be appropriated for Fascist purposes.  In “The Work of Art in the Age of [Its] Technological Reproducibility,” he writes, “The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” The problem Benjamin references, of course, is not limited to rhetoric, but in our very structures of being together.  The revolutionary affordance of every new communication technology is exactly equal to its usefulness for surveillance. It works the opposite way as well, however. The internet itself, for example, first developed for governmental purposes, now also hosts art, dissent.

As someone deeply interested in developing tools that empower students to learn as a community rather than competitively and in isolation, this is a problem I think about a great deal. My dream tool kit of scholarly liberation — a personal online archive of all of one’s intellectual activity (though not necessarily public) — would be a disaster in the wrong hands.  One need not even call up the fascists to paint a picture of such a disaster. Corporate educational tools have already invaded our pedagogical space to such a degree that software driven by profit rather than pedagogy, such as Blackboard, is a university norm. Any innovation can be co-opted by commercial forces to the effect that it no longer serves its rhetorical purposes.

Hannah Arendt, it seems, was much more stoic about how the fruits of her labor were to be ultimately used. “Each time you write something and you send it out into the world and it becomes public, obviously everybody is free to do with it what he pleases, and this is as it should be,” she reportedly said towards the end of her life “I do not have any quarrel with this. You should not try to hold your hand now on whatever may happen to what you have been thinking for yourself. You should rather try to learn from what other people do with it.” She is speaking specifically, of course, of her individual works, but it is worth considering whether such an attitude is useful or harmful when pursuing our daily activities as activists, academics and toolmakers.

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