Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: Politics in the age of mechanical reproducibility

Sunday, September 11, 2016 - 8:25pm

Throughout the ongoing election cycle, I have been made acutely aware of our national media’s tendency to remove politicians from their histories, forgetting the ways in which politicians have demonstrably impacted our lives and focusing instead on their words, their outfits and their "personalities" (an idea that, given the extremely limited access we have to these people’s lives, I question outright).

These figures, then, become nothing more than TV characters whom we watch, judge, mock, make into memes, etc. And why should we care about two characters whom the heavy majority of us find untrustworthy and corrupt? Why should we be moved to action? We already have Don Draper, SpongeBob and the Gilmore Girls to worry about. And I actually trust them. Predictably, we turn off the TV when these political figureheads appear, leaving us apathetic and unamused. 

This notion of the media dehistoricizing objects is not a new one — and I think it’s fair to refer to our political figures in this way because, for most of us, they will never be anything more than images on our screen.

In his formative 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in The Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin discusses the effects of the emerging film industry on its contemporary audience. He notes that sharp, clear reproductions of original images have never been more easily attained.

Before film, art could still be replicated. The difference, according to Benjamin, lies in film’s ability to “place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain.” And while the reproduced piece might otherwise feel and look like the original, Benjamin asserts that this process of reproduction will inherently leave the copy lacking authenticity. The original piece, Benjamin claims, maintains a certain aura obliterated with the new capability to endlessly, relentlessly replicate the object. This process, in effect, deconstructs the concept of originality all together — what is an “original” if it will always be placed into some new context the object could never attain by itself?

Think of your favorite Drake “Hotline Bling” meme. Is the video itself the original, or is it that meme, which puts Drake into an entirely new conversation with some other idea — maybe an inside joke between you and your friends? Doesn’t that meme become the original object? Every time we put something into this sort of new context, are we not recreating an original? But how could an original be recreated?

Our national media enacts this same method of removing objects from their larger historical context, thereby obliterating the sense of the original. Just as a TV character might evolve with each episode of its show, politicians become new figures every time we hear about them, in new contexts that operate singularly, neglecting to address their larger histories.

An example: Michael Bloomberg, who instituted racist and unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policing in New York City while mayor, spoke in prime time at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. I was shocked Bloomberg was allowed to speak, especially at a convention for a party that claims to be the voice of marginalized people in this country. Liberal media outlets, in anticipation of Bloomberg’s speech, described him as “the nation’s leading independent and a pragmatic business leader.” And, because of his career as a businessman, Bloomberg’s pro-Clinton sentiments would prove that Trump, even among his colleagues, is disliked.

Here, we see Bloomberg lifted out of the muck of his history, without a stain, in order to further the Democratic Party’s message. But we must remain skeptical of this, to examine our political figures’ histories and policies, because these are the ways in which they actually impact us. 

At the convention, we do not even need to listen to Bloomberg’s words to examine his efforts to detach himself from his own history. The mayor of Atlanta, Ga., Kasim Reed, introduced Bloomberg: “Please welcome, the three-time mayor of the City of New York…,” which sounds exactly like the introduction athletes receive: getting the audience excited about the present moment, about the sporting event to come. This moment glorifies the future and ignores, for the moment, the past. For now, they are on your team; they are here to help.

Bloomberg then took the stage, with blaring saxophones accompanying him — almost the exact track celebrities receive as they come onstage to talk with David Letterman. Perhaps this is all that matters: his fame, his name recognition. The fact that he, that guy with that name, is endorsing our candidate… It must be terrific!

Bloomberg began his remarks by thanking Mr. Reed, mispronouncing his first name in the process. I should also note the irony that Reed is a Black man, introducing a figure who actively implemented a policing program that consistently violated the civil liberties of people of color. I posit this scheduling decision was designed to make us, on some level, look past Bloomberg’s past entirely. Not only is he at the Democratic convention, but he’s being introduced by a Black man who’s talking about Bloomberg as a “mentor” and a “friend.” Why should we worry about all that stuff he used to do? He’s here now.

What we see here is Bloomberg as the work of art in the age of its mechanical reproducibility. The original object, with its tattered and destructive history, is long gone. The past has been effaced. The reproduced Bloomberg saunters onstage, triumphing the capture of his original. He can now begin anew.

These are the mechanics of mechanical reproduction. Right in front of our eyes, shameless, unembarrassed. Now what?

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu