In his 1936 article, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin proposed that modern technologies of production, distribution and exchange could finally offer the possibility of bringing art practice into direct relationship with politics.This would, however, depend on the use of technology to radically de stabilise the ‘auratic’ self-identity of the art object itself and, thereby, to wrest it away from its ‘theological’ role and function as reified fetish within bourgeois culture.The revolutionary potential of photomechanical reproduction lay, therefore, within the dialectical critique that it provided of the individual subject, whose freedom and autonomy were embodied in the bourgeois notion d’art for art’s sake: and political strategies which sought to use the work of art as an emancipatory and pedagogic tool within the struggle for cultural change. It was in the light of this, and the historical development within Fascism of the Platonic notion of the ideal state as ‘total work of art’, that Benjamin and Horkheimer warned against the use of technology in the aestheticization of politics and called, instead, for the politicisation of aesthetics.
Fifty years later, the supposed failure of Modernity’s totalizing aspirations—often epitomised by the collapse of the former Soviet Union— are now the food and drink of more conservative and bloodless celebrations of endless diversity. However, Modernity’s other failure—that of analogic forms of reproduction and distribution to radicalise its political representations of itself—pose more fundamental questions to the development of our digital futures within the so called era of post-modernity.The celebratory rhetoric’s surrounding the NET, its speed, progressivism and potential for providing individual liberty and emancipation are more than reminiscent of the globalizing meta-narratives of political modernity. Is cyberspace already full of an ideological baggage that utopian futurology has naively consigned to the past? If this is so, then how are we to avoid the immanent aestheticization of digital politics and replace it with the more radical politicisation of digital aesthetics? This paper will examine the political and philosophical implications of utopian and distopian discourses surrounding the NET via the metaphor of cyberspace as an aestheticized re-mapping of the project of modernity.
- John Byrne (UK) is a Senior Lecturer in Contextual Studies at Liverpool John Moores University’s School of Art. He has delivered papers and published both nationally and internationally on the changing relationships between Art, Politics, Philosophy and the Globilisation of digital technologies. He is currently involved in the development of ISEA98.