So while we were at Pix, following a lovely dinner at Bete Lukas, Matthew and I got into a little. . . discussion, as it were, about online education, which was precipitated by his wife telling us that her marketing professor had said, no doubt in the haughty tone of all morons who seek to reduce their betters, that in the future all PHDs would work in customer service, and all education would be online. The discussion didn’t really go anywhere, because Matthew wanted to talk about the ideal learning conditions for fantasy autodidacts, and I warned against the inevitable future in which teaching the children of poor parents would get you arrested. It was fun, but not very enlightening.
In the car on the way home, C (who is distinguished in this context by the fact that she cares more about how real people learn than she does about how hypothetical constructs do the same) said she had to not listen very closely to us, because the conversation made her sad. I had responded glibly to the quoted comment because it is, to me, patently idiotic. The problem is, in America we can do longer laugh off the patently idiotic, especially as it relates to education. As American’s increasingly find it more important to make sure others are worse off than to improve their own circumstances, educators and educational structures are so at risk that even the most moronic prediction may well prove prophetic.
The next book I’m going to write about is Agamben’s Homo Sacer, and it’s taking a while because I’m reading the whole thing. It’s not particularly long, but I have lost the habit of plowing through works like this while retaining their high-points. Hopefully this will come a little easier as things go on. By the time I get to Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism I’ll get the reading done in a day and the only thing that will push the review back is me running out of synonyms for “fucking awesome.”
What has already been called clearly to mind, however, is that Homo Sacer is a real mixed bag. While it is full of interesting and original insights it tries to carve out additional territory for itself by basically claiming that Foucault didn’t observe or analyze things that any honest reading will show quite clearly that he did. I don’t know if it’s cojones or craziness that drives a man to suggest that he has one-upped Foucault in the realm of penality (I know, right?), but it doesn’t come off well. My margins are full of comments like “fuck you” and “shut up,” and there is even a paragraph I scratched out (although not so densely that I couldn’t refer to it in the future.) Definitely some first-rate disingenuous bullshit going on with ol’ George.
Nevertheless, the good part is serious grade-A, and with this out of the way the next entry will almost certainly be unadulterated praise.
The Dialectic of Enlightenment is a collaboration between Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer didn’t attain the fame of Frankfurt School peers like Adorno and Marcuse, but this was at least in part because he took on more responsibilities than they did, chairing the Institute for Social Research in its various locations and editing its publications. At any rate, the book is basically about how the project of The Enlightenment seemed pretty great for about 160 years or so, but that now (and by “now” I mean 1944, the year of the book’s release) are the direct result of those things that seemed good at the time.
Easily (and understandably) the best-known section of The Dialectic of Enlightenment is the essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” One of the earliest work of proto-cultural studies (no Robotech jokes, please), it considers the dangers inherent in the power of mass media to form consensus. While it is clearly haunted by the specter of Walter Benjamin, it focuses more on the fusion of the sub and super structures, rather than the inversion of the traditional Marxist understanding of their relative importance.
This is also plagued by the cranky and dismissive tone that makes Adorno’s jazz essay so funny, but much of what is here is interesting in prescient. In fact, there are a lot of points at which the reader is inclined to think, “wow, you dudes have no idea how good you had it.” The most obvious cause here is their inclination to think that mass media creates its own ideal consumer. Now, I’m sure that back in 1944 it seemed like the one-way street of radio communication seemed pretty dictatorial, but compared to the ostensibly user-sensitive pigeonholing technology of the internet that stuff comes off as a bit amateurish.
In true modern style, then, it’s the form of the warnings in “The Culture Industry” that make it interesting. The corollary to the outdated feel of their particular instances is the rather stark fact that this now quite venerable understanding of the risks involved in the compliance-creating power of media technologies has done nothing of any kind to disturb that power.