Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why Marx Was Right
by Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press

I suspect no American academic would dare write a book with this title, for fear of losing the comforts of tenure for a cell at Guantanamo. But in the UK at least, the previously influential works of Karl Marx are being reevaluated for contemporary relevance—especially now that capitalism is not proving to be such a utopian success. Prominent among the scholars doing so is Terry Eagleton, who has the additional advantage of not being an economist or political scientist. He teaches literature and cultural theory in England, and would be a delightful writer on any subject. But he’s especially penetrating and persuasive on this one.

Eagleton begins each of his ten chapters with a set of common charges against Marx, and evaluates and largely rebuts them. Did Marx advocate cruel totalitarian regimes? “Maoism and Stalinism were botched, bloody experiments which made the very idea of socialism stink in the nostrils of many of those elsewhere in the world who had most to benefit from it. But what about capitalism?” Genocides, imperialism, exploitation and slavery also accompany capitalism.

And now “the capitalist way of life is threatening to destroy the planet altogether.” So maybe it’s time to reevaluate Marx, especially since (according to Eagleton) his ideas have been intentionally and successfully distorted. (Eagleton however may not fully appreciate the dour effect of Marx’s own turgid prose and that of many followers.)

Among Eagleton’s contentions are that Marx saw socialism building on capitalism, that he was not wedded to violence as the agent of change, and the point of his emphasis on materialism was that in order to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, people need to have enough to eat. “Only then can we learn to play the banjo, write erotic poetry or paint the front porch.”

Eagleton writes with erudition, clear logic and a Wildean wit. Among his conclusions about Marx: “His ideal was leisure, not labour. If he paid such unflagging attention to the economic, it was in order to diminish its power over humanity. His materialism was fully compatible with deeply held moral and spiritual convictions. He lavished praise on the middle class, and saw socialism as the inheritor of its great legacies of liberty, civil rights and material prosperity. His views on Nature and the environment were for the most part startlingly in advance of his time.”

Like a lot of antiwar and antiracism agitators who were supposed to be getting our orders from Moscow back in the day, I had read very little Marx, and I still haven’t. So I can’t say this book has made me any more Marxist, but I am well on the way to becoming an Eagletonist.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading: Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine
by Peter Lunenfeld
The MIT Press

What Marshall McLuhan did in analyzing the meaning of 1960s media, Peter Lunenfeld does for the electronic media of 2011—chiefly the computer and the Internet. Like McLuhan, he coins or adapts catchy new expressions for his concepts, like “unimodernism,” “unfinish,” “web n.0,” “info-triage,” “bespoke futures.” He also develops his ideas in cultural and historical context as McLuhan did. Lunenfeld teaches in the Design/Media Arts department at UCLA, but he has a degree in history from Columbia, and his feeling for history is one element that distinguishes this book from other computer-era analyses. (That said, Lunenfeld would probably hate this comparison with McLuhan, as he pretty much dismisses him.)

For Lunenfeld, the passive consumption of corporate-controlled junk food television has led to “cultural diabetes,” and the Internet is rapidly copying that model. But downloading information and entertainment is only half of the computer’s capability: there is also the exercise of creation and uploading. The war is between the corporate absorption of capabilities to provide consumer content versus individuals and sites that create their own content, share files and produce a culture of participation.

“When a new medium explodes on the scene, we have to find ways of responding to the demands on our time and attention,” he writes. For individuals, the computer becomes a healthy culture machine when we engage in both “mindful downloading” and “meaningful uploading.” But these activities can also benefit society, especially in the collaborative creation of “bespoke futures” (“bespoke” being an antique term for custom-made.)

Lunenfeld challenges web denizens to counter the assumed scenario of an apocalyptic future with fresh visions that come together through an interactive process in a scenario of a desirable future worth trying to achieve. “I am not talking about a singularity of utopian vision but instead a networked plurality of vision—a plutopia, as I call it—better suited to this century, this millennium.” If nothing else, he sees value in constructive dreaming beyond our fear-based Official Future.

The practical challenge is “to create a social media that goes beyond sociability into the realms of the useful.” If something like that doesn’t happen the war will be lost, as it has been with television.

Such a summary doesn’t do these concepts or their presentation justice, but this is generally the terrain. The Internet and computer biz history alone is fascinating, especially in sophisticated contexts like modernism and Bomb Culture.This is a relatively short, deftly written and attractively published book that folds relevant historical and personal anecdotes and contexts into the presentation of these intriguing, well-considered and subtle ideas. Applying the techniques of open-source software developers to attacking poverty and countering “fundamentalist death cults,” for example, sure seems worth trying. I haven’t come across a better book on this general topic, or a potentially more influential one.