Week 3 Private: Joel Arellano

The use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of communication. This is why the Internet can have a subversive effect on intellectual life in authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, the less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens the achievements of traditional media.

Jürgen Habermas

In the first chapter, Jenkins, et al identify several concerns with Web 2.0, or the era in which user-generated content has displaced mass media. They describe the popular complaint that big corporations are using the web to profit from fan-remixed work, and later cite the distinction between value and worth to explain how such fans seek compensation besides money. Much attention is given to these considerations of work, value, rights, and reward, but little is said about the more controversial problem Andrew Keen identifies in his book The Cult of the Amateur. Keen observes that the internet has given everyone a voice, but rather than eliciting a dialectic polyphony of perspectives through which truth and insight are pursued, as Marshall McLuhan anticipated, this radical democratization has led to “mob rule” and a “growing contempt for traditional expertise” (Jenkins, 55).

Jürgen Habermas explains it this way: “The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.”  That matters, because the critics, experts, and academics Habermas describes as intellectuals play a crucial role in the development and promotion of healthy society- that of “defending civilization against bad art and sloppy thinking” (Siegel), and discovering, nurturing and rewarding talent (Keen). If the “flat noise of opinion” (Keen) has torn down the goalposts of criticism, where do we look for guidance? How do we measure our work and ourselves?

These questions remain troublingly unanswered. Meanwhile, it seems that the new spirit of criticism is affirmation- Keen writes that the consequence of Web 2.0 is “creeping narcissism… with its obsessive focus on the realization of the self.” By this he means that the emphasis of personalization which features so prominently on the web serves only to feed back to us our own tastes, creating a self-edifying feedback loop akin to intellectual inbreeding. Gere describes the relationship between thought and technology as one of mutual determination and reinforcement, stating that our ways of thinking are embodied by the technology we use. Which is Twitter. What room does that leave for critical context?

Absent the checks of shame or criticism, everyone is a performer. Everyone is a photographer. Everyone is a philosopher. Everyone is a critic. And so the public forum is a cacophony of noise. This is not simply hyperbole based on the wisdom of years spent staring at my Facebook news feed- consider, for example, Fifteen Stars, an online-only exhibition by Manhattan’s New Museum, consisting of five New Museum reviews from ordinary Yelpers. This shit’s being taken seriously. It’s even invaded our vernacular within the study of communications through the abuse of the term ‘curate,’ which has replaced the modest ‘collect’ and ‘host.’ Linguist John McWhorter describes this abuse as a “form of self inflation … implying that there is some similarity between what you do and what someone with an advanced degree who works at a museum does” (NYT). Though I disagree with his opinion that the practice is innocent, he, too, identifies it as “part of the rejection of elitist categorization in American life” (NPR), which is the ideological theme of Web 2.0: “Web 2.0 ‘empowers’ our creativity, it ‘democratizes’ media, it levels the playing field’ between experts and amateurs. The enemy of Web 2.0 is ‘elitist’ traditional media” (Keen, link added).

Elitism is not for everyone, but it matters. It delivers the abrasion necessary to refine and polish nascent talent. It offers context. But there is no space for context in 140 characters, much less in the digital culture of Web 2.0.

In the face of the total permeability of the digital-diaphane primal matter, all information is equally decontextualized and deformed, transformed into mere ‘content’ on the internet. And being the result of this process, the ‘content’ we find on the internet does not contain anything, but is similarly deformed, in a subliminal way as empty as the computer itself.

Johannes Thumfart

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10 comments to Week 3 Private: Joel Arellano

  • hdemich2@uoregon.edu

    Very very interesting piece and fascinating in its implications for the art and museum world. Culture cannot survive without exchanges, no matter how flawed.

  • Joel

    Certainly, I just want to be careful about how we frame them. The idea of “democratizing” art criticism to me is absurd. What if the author had instead proposed we “democratize” the teaching profession, or air traffic control? It’s great to broaden discursive space, but we need to be cautious that we don’t demean an entire profession by being careless with the terms we apply in doing so.

    Also, thanks for the earlier feedback! I copied them offline before I made the post public after the post deadline… Thought it would be cool if folks started doing that.

  • hdemich2@uoregon.edu

    Do you want to suggest it to the class?

  • Joel

    Sure- I’ll send out a blast via blackboard!

  • hdemich2@uoregon.edu

    Apropos of your discussion above, I saw (in my paper edition subscription!) this darkly perceptive (yet not entirely accurate) Evgeny Morozov essay in this week’s New Yorker:

    “Only Disconnect: Boredom Reconsidered”

    What would you make of it?

  • Joel

    Agreed. Morozov stumbles across a valid premise – that we need to stop treating boredom and distraction as though they’re somehow at odds – but he takes it in a completely wrong direction.

    He opens with the tired lamentation that we’re reaching a sensory saturation point (“overstimulation”) from the volume of media that confront us daily. Morozov says we’re victims, that we’re “under constant assault” and “tyranny” of modernity. His evidence? Xbox, Netflix, and his phone are all just too tantalizing for us to resist. Suddenly, Morozov’s talk about media becomes a problem of addiction- he complains that he doesn’t possess enough self-control to sit on the couch without playing with his Kinect, or the fortitude not to circumvent the anti-New Media blocks he’s installed on his own devices. He claims this is true of us, as though no one possessed the capacity to exercise self-discipline, and so he whines that someone else ought to create WiFi-free ‘Walden zones’ to save us from ourselves. And that’s more or less the thrust of his article.

    Where is the will in this picture? Morozov’s description of modern “overstimulation” is entirely distinct from the observation he should have made, which is that we’re confronted with much noise. This mistake isn’t simply casual confusion on his part- it’s a matter of quantity vs. quality. Noise is distraction, form without content, and at high levels it causes boredom and anxiety. Rather than prevent being tempted by so much sensational noise, the responsible position is to confront and reject the cheap temptation of noise. Like an adult. Noise causes boredom because its form promises reward that its emptiness never delivers, and so the natural way to satisfy boredom is to pursue matters of substance.

  • Joel


    Flaubert vividly prefigures Patricia Meyer Spacks’s description of boredom here entirely, an important example of the power of novels to identify and interrogate crises of culture- especially in re: digital culture. I’ve begun to look more into boredom and I think it’s a compelling topic – certainly one I’ll have to account for in my paper – but I’m afraid it’s still an empty promise. David Foster Wallace’s oft-repeated quote in the article here seems to depict desperate hallucination rather than substantial transcendence, like auto-asphyxiation and the resultant rush of blood to the head, which is what concerns me about the concept of boredom-as-aufheben.

  • hdemich2@uoregon.edu

    Wonderful! I am certainly not bored by this discussion you’ve followed, and I loved the sparkle of the review you found — more than the meanness of Morozov. However, now I need to do some of our course’s housekeeping, so I hope we can discuss more at length on Saturday.

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