At a moment when Democratic resistance appears rather close to compliance, a very broad wave of the internet has found its heroes in park rangers and scientists who have created “alt” National Park Service Twitter accounts in the wake of Trump’s ban on “official” NPS tweets.
This is the National Park Service's Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy. Pls download before it is removed. https://t.co/oO3ZMVxxwN
— AltUSNatParkService (@AltNatParkSer) January 25, 2017
It’s easy to see why they serve as a functional rally point: the accounts tweet about science, they defy an anti-liberal, anti-freedom of speech order, and they do so in a nonviolent manner. And yet, the palpable anxiety about time on-screen, versus time in the streets implores us to ask how we might measure the political value of spreadable media.
The relationship between politics and technology is fundamentally tense. Political judgments are conservative on an essential level; they reflect commitment to structures and institutions that have existed hitherto, be it for years, decades, or centuries, and a traditional mode of thought. Technology, on the other hand, only looks to the past so far as it can find something to break. The Silicon Valley’s monopoly on disruption is only a particular moment in time. Castles disrupted nomadism; gunpowder disrupted pitched battles; oceanic boats disrupted trade. The political value of a tweet remains an open question.
This open question is the immediate value of reading through the recently published lectures of Stuart Hall in Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History. Designed to introduce an American academy to the work of Hall, the lectures give us the contextual sense of the open question in 1983: was the mass culture of television, refrigeration, and even the secondhand car a crisis for Left politics, as it was initially perceived? More than one politician had identified the loss of a particular industrial working class culture as the source of declining political power for Left parties. In doing so, nostalgia created a particular experience of industrial life that naturalized the factory as a uniquely conducive space to Left organization. The Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies thus defined itself primarily as a political project: first asking about the relationship between technology and culture, and second asking what might be specific to the contemporary moment of technology, and how politics might come of it.
Cultural Studies rebelled immediately against the naturalization of the industrial revolution by taking up the work of scholars who had shown such a naturalization to be the failure of memory. In the second lecture, Hall traced this influence through literary scholar Raymond Williams and historian E. P. Thompson, both of whom emphasized the culture of the Industrial Age had itself displaced earlier forms of life, and had been vigorously contested by both a working-class that had not been disciplined to the bourgeoisie and an aristocracy that sensed its power on the wane. Something like time, measured on the clock, was a serious contestation between factory owners who wanted to keep labor in check and laborers used to a much different measure of time. Labor politicians and philosophers like Theodor Adorno thus remembered less the struggles and contestation that produced politics in the factory, and more the end result in which the factory appeared perfectly politicized.
However, Cultural Studies was not primarily focused on history. Rather, history illuminated the messy web between the realm of cultures and the economy that underpinned them. It is a credit to Stuart Hall that this sounds like a truism. As he reminds us throughout the eight lectures, the Marxism that Cultural Studies engaged in 1983 was a simplistic model, in which the economy determined everything directly. The fourth lecture directly approaches the reductiveness of this model through the metaphor of the Base-Superstructure relation. Any type of economic shift (base)—either in the forces of production, or social relations—immediately changed the types of culture (superstructure) available to the working-classes. Because most products developed for the mass culture society were developed by fledgling corporations, one of the initial assumptions underpinning leftist anxieties were such machines’ propensity to create a culture conducive to capital.
Cultural Studies was not the only group frustrated with such limited approaches. Both the New Left and Postcolonial schools were actively pushing against theories of the masses with more robust conceptions of difference beyond strictly economic notions of class. The members of any given society will not have the same experience or interactions with a media designed for all of them. Within these lectures, Hall typically used difference to combat “false consciousness,” which appeared whenever a member of an economic class went against their own interests. Hall and his school of Cultural Studies in Birmingham were interested in why people might act against their purported self-interests, rather than assume it was a simple error. Lecture seven was the first in which Hall used his own personal experience with the identity of blackness—juxtaposing its use in Jamaica with that in the United Kingdom—to express the ways difference could be constituted as speech, as a historical position, or as a geographic difference. And that each of these differences had implications for the manners in which an audience might “decode” the media presented to them, beyond simple consumption.
Hall’s tremendous number of essays and lectures produced a kaleidoscopic vision of his work. According to the editors, Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg, Hall resisted another naturalized technology—the book—because he did not want his work divorced too far from the context in which it had arisen. These lectures thus should be read not as an abstract form of dealing with the question between politics and technology, but instead as an engagement with the question as it stood in 1983. Religion, for example, is treated most generously as an outdated mode of thought, generative of culture, and at worst as a form of irrational engagement with Left politics (in lecture eight, he credits religion with the reason why anticommunism is so popular in Jamaica, without a particularly deep explanation of it.) At a moment when even the most ardent secularization theorist has rejected secularization, the project of connecting religion, culture, and politics in the present becomes a more demanding issue.
But it is in lecture six where Hall asks a question of immediate relevance to us, both in our particular moment in time, and in the aftermath of the Trump election:
But precisely how is it that such large numbers of journalists, consulting only their ‘freedom’ to publish and be damned, do tend to reproduce, quite spontaneously, without compulsion, again and again, accounts of the world constructed within fundamentally the same ideological categories? (132-133)
Part of this question received an answer in the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who show in the new global order of NGOs, financial institutions, and national leaders, freedom can be fundamentally coercive without contradicting itself (so the North Carolina GOP can advocate for the economic freedom of businesses from regulation, while simultaneously intervene in who uses gendered bathrooms.) Yet, we’re still openly asking about how such coercive freedom represents itself both in the production and consumption of media disseminated online.
While covering Trump, one immediate line being drawn is that on Nazis: good to punch, not good for listening.
Sugar, We're Going Down – Fall Out Boy pic.twitter.com/CTvS6ctbhV
— Alt-Right Getting (@PunchedToMusic) January 24, 2017
While traditional outlets of media are comfortable incorporating amoral perspectives in the aim of profit, the dissemination of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face compared to Richard Spencer speaking appears to confirm that we’re now more ready to reject imperatives about freedom that threaten fundamental moralities. As David Banks put it yesterday: “An oppositional code [to a liberal discourse that insists violence is categorically wrong] interprets property damage and violent acts as a sign of deep injustices having been ignored.” Similarly, the networks built by Left activists via Twitter and Facebook have become crucial spaces not simply for liberal demonstrations to truth and freedom, but directly undermine the legitimacy and capability of a Trump presidency via organization and protest. The Facebook group Resist Hate RI, for example, was generated in direct response to the Trump presidency as a direct space of online organization; one in which each individual cause can draw upon thousands to show up for workshops, protests, phone banks, and logistical support.
Cultural Studies 1983 is likely to be received in the manner that it was billed: accessible to academics, for graduate students as a “personally guided tour of cultural studies’ intellectual genealogy.” The Birmingham Centre from which Cultural Studies was organized, was closed in 2002 with the traditional phrase uttered by senior university management: “restructuring.” One wonders, had protests against its closure been successful, what types of projects and analysis the Centre would have funded today. The economies of Silicon Valley, and the political and cultural organization against them have made for contradictory, polarizing, and altogether disjointed discourses that have yet come together in an array of harmonious resistances. Under a Trump presidency, such contradictions are only likely to increase and with it, our need to evaluate them.
Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion.