“New Media Technology” Delegation Travels to Iraq

Jeremy Scahill is not pleased:

The U.S. State Department has announced it is sponsoring a “New Media Technology” delegation to Iraq to “explore new opportunities to support Iraqi government and non-government stakeholders in Iraq’s emerging new media industry.” Of all of the areas in Iraq in desperate need of attention, its “emerging new media industry” is not the one that pops to mind. Things like clean water, electricity, right of safe return for refugees and an end to the occupation seem more pressing than increasing Nouri al Maliki’s Twitter followers. But unfortunately, that’s how U.S. priorities in Iraq seem to work.

Anyway, the super star tech delegation, according to the State Department press release, includes “a mix of CEOs, Vice-Presidents and senior representatives” from “AT&T, Google, Twitter, Howcast, Meetup, You Tube and Automattic/Wordpress.”

But the final company listed as participating in the delegation begs for some sort of special review: Blue State Digital, a firm which boasts its services were “Critically important to President Obama’s victory” in the November election. Indeed, federal campaign spending records indicate that the Obama campaign paid the firm at least $2,864,138 in 2007-2008, including more than $700,000 on election day.

But I wonder if Scahill’s anger is slightly misplaced. This project doesn’t seem to be occurring at the expense of, or instead of, other infrastructure projects, so to phrase it that way is a little misleading. I don’t think a prioritizing of projects is necessarily the central issue here.

According to the State Department’s press release:

During their visit to Iraq, they will provide conceptual input as well as ideas on how new technologies can be used to build local capacity, foster greater transparency and accountability, build upon anti-corruption efforts, promote critical thinking in the classroom, scale-up civil society, and further empower local entities and individuals by providing the tools for network building. As Iraqis think about how to integrate new technology as a tool for smart power, we view this as an opportunity to invite the American technology industry to be part of this creative genesis.

Is this old-fashioned economic colonization, only this time channeled through new media and information technology corporations, or is it a genuine attempt to put in place potentially-democratic tools and infrastructure conducive to coordination and transparency?

Lessing on Lessing, in the Hamburg Dramaturgy

If you know Lessing principally as the author of the Laocoon (as I did), then Hamburg Dramaturgy, a collection of his popular theater reviews, is sure to cast him in a stunning new light. Who knew Lessing was such a wit? (I, at least, did not.) Though he is still known for his ironic literary style, the academic quips on which this reputation is based can hardly compare to the sharp-tongued prose and relentless raillery of his then-widely-read and much-acclaimed print column.

In fact, if it wasn’t for Victor Lange’s footnote, you might not know that the performance reviewed by Lessing (below) was of a play written by Lessing himself. For that reason (but not that reason alone), the suggestiveness for which he was famous seems to shine through all the more clearly in this strange, brief, hamstrung review of a performance of his own Miss Sara Sampson.

“It is not possible to demand more from art than what Mdlle. Henseln achieved in the role of Sara, and indeed the play altogether was well performed. It is a little too long and it is therefore generally shortened at most theatres. Whether the author would be well satisfied with all these excisions, I almost incline to doubt. We know what authors are, if we want to take from them a mere bit of padding they cry out: You touch my life! It is true that by leaving out parts the excessive length of a play is clumsily remedied, and I do not understand how it is possible to shorten a scene without changing the whole sequence of a dialogue. But if the author does not like these foreign abbreviations, why does he not curtail it himself, if he thinks it is worth the trouble and is not one of those persons who put children into the world and then withdraw their hands from them for ever.” (“G. E. Lessing, ”No. 13,” in Hamburg Dramaturgy. Translated by Helen Zimmern. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1890 (1962): 38).

Neil Levi on Carl Schmitt and the Question of the Aesthetic

Point and Shoot, 2008, by Martha Rosler

Point and Shoot, 2008, by Martha Rosler

It’s a common accusation of the left that politics, liberal and conservative alike, becomes “aestheticized” through persistent suspensions of law anddeclarations of emergencies. But what, exactly, Neil Levi asks, in a timely, subtle paper on Carl Schmitt, is so “aesthetic” about political decisionism, a doctrine still fresh on our lips in the Obama era. The following, well-known quote from Schmitt’s Political Theology sums up this philosophy succinctly:

“The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything: It confirms not only the rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.” (PT, 15)

Richard Wolin, whose interpretation of this passage is widely shared, finds the image of politics promoted here “aesthetic” in spirit, on account of its celebration of “rupture, discontinuity, and shock, which Wolin describes as ‘aesthetic values.’

“Yet Wolin never tells us why Schmitt’s interest in exceptions, hardly unusual in the humanities and social sciences, is ‘quasi-aestheticist,’ never explains why rupture, discontinuity, and shock are especially ‘aesthetic values.’ He takes their status as such for granted and does not ever seem to find it necessary to explain what he means by the term aesthetic.” (Neil Levi, “Carl Schmitt and the Question of the Aesthetic,” New German Critique 34, No. 2 (Summer 2007): 27-43: 35)

But on the other hand, perhaps there is something ‘aesthetic’ about transgression, ‘breaking through the crust’:

“Yet Wolin’s sense that there is something ‘aesthetic’ about Schmitt’s proclamations on the state of exception is understandable. The notion of the extreme has a certain fascination that one might compare to that exerted by certain transgressive works of art. To dwell on the state of exception is obviously to dwell on the more dramatic aspects of political life, on moments that are conflictual and intense. But do these considerations make an interest in the extreme situation quasi-aesthetic?” (35)

Levi indeed observes that Schmitt’s image of transgression “evokes the Russian formalists’ idea of estrangement, or ostranenie“, except that instead of “calling into question […] outmoded moral and political conventions […] Schmitt’s estrangement seems designed rather to give one a sense of the awesome sovereign power authorizing and enforcing the laws that govern everyday behavior. Shklovsky’s estrangement ruptures everyday conventions to change the status quo; Schmitt’s exception works to reinforce it” (Levi “Schmitt” 36). Is this, then, the mode of “aesthetics” critics of Schmitt have in mind when they use the term pejoratively?

It would seem not, in that the more progressive theories with which Schmitt’s is contrasted do “not assume that the aesthetic component of a political idea automatically disqualifies it from the realm of politics proper”. Benjamin’s much-touted remarks in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” are for this reason largely inapplicable here, a fact Levi conveys succinctly when he observes that Benjamin’s point was that, for some — e.g. Marinetti, — war, specifically, was “already a work of art”. “Aestheticization” was thus, for Benjamin, more a “mode of perception” than a component of political theory per se (at least in this instance), although, in a different sense entirely, Schmitt does at times define the political “as anintensity, so that any conflict or opposition, once it attains a certain degree of existential antagonism, becomes political” (Levi “Schmitt” 30), a proposition with which Benjamin would most certainly have agreed.

With the more polemical understandings of “aestheticization” out of the way, Levi then turns to Schmitt’s own views on the matter, noting in passing that, “As it happens, Schmitt takes great pains to encourage his readers not to think about politics as aesthetic. What is ultimately so interesting, even amusing, about the charge of aestheticization against Schmitt is that it targets precisely those situations that Schmitt himself thinks distinguish the political from the aesthetic” (Levi “Schmitt” 37). Schmitt in fact spends a great deal of time trying to separate the latter from the former. “The aesthetic,” Levi observes, “functions as a kind of disturbing presence that Schmitt repeatedly disavows” (Levi “Schmitt” 37).

Linking this phenomena to “contemporary diatribes against postmodern irony, especially during the soul-searching that took place in the United States for a few weeks after September 11, 2001” (39), Levi then proceeds to enumerate Schmitt’s identification of “aesthetics” with decadent European bourgeoisie “arts and entertainment”, which for Schmitt categorically functions as the fundamental obstacle to the political. Though Schmitt, and perhaps decisionism in general, does view the arts as a purely negative force, they are nonetheless seen as a powerful and inextricable force acting on, or within, political forces. For Schmitt, the dominance of an “aesthetic perception” announces and prepares political defeat.

“Schmitt sees the aesthetic as the existential negation of the political in two apparently contradictory ways. On the one hand, he suggests that the dominance of aesthetic perception is a precursor to destruction of the Lebensform, to political defeat: “Everywhere in political history the incapacity or the unwillingness to make [the] distinction [between friend and enemy] is a symptom of the political end” (The Concept of the Political, 68). For example, before the Revolution the Russian bourgeoisie romanticized the Russian peasant, he says, while “a relativistic bourgeoisie in a confused Europe searched all sorts of exotic cultures for the purpose of making them an object of its aesthetic consumption” (CP, 68). For Schmitt, romanticization and exoticization of the other are modes of aestheticization. Aesthetic consumption, he thinks, is a condition, like [page] consumption proper, with fatal consequences. It negates political perception—negates, that is, the ability to recognize a mortal threat when one sees it.” (Levi “Schmitt” 38–39)

This final point, which concludes Levi’s piece, points to the limits of the “aestheticization” hypothesis — in several ways. For one, it shows how explicitly-militant political doctrines like Schmitt’s must in the end rely upon a paradoxical relation between aesthetic forms and political disavowals thereof. The bourgeoise romanticiziation of the Russian peasant, much like, say, contemporary American exoticizations of the Middle East, was a form of enmity, not a distraction from it. Indeed, in light of the extensive work on cultural mechanisms of colonial control, represented most forcefully by Said’sOrientalism, Schmitt’s opposing of “romanticization” to “enemy” seems symptomatic of his own clearly militant (not to mention proto-Nazi) political doctrine. Levi’s paper serves to highlight this important distinction, and in the process re-focuses attention away from the aesthetic image summoned up by political discourses to the cultural role of art and aesthetics assigned bythose theories, which is something else entirely.