Sunday, April 26, 2009

On YouTube

Post-modernity has taken its place as one dominant mode of aesthetic expression in the arts. It is, in fact, pretty hoary, having been put in place some time in the "Swinging Sixties" by everyone from visual artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to fiction writers like Donald Barthelme and Italo Calvino to poets like Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery. However, there is a wide gulf (in America and elsewhere) between dominant modes of aesthetic expression and the standard phenomenological status of individual subjects in the populace. This is true for the simple reason that the arts tend to be marginalized as a force, and the frantic creation and interpretation of signs and significations that dominates the mass media does not often include what artists would call authentically cultural. The idea of "authentic culture" is contentious, and in fact the ethos and praxis of post-modernity chafes against its overdetermined confines. The conflation of "high" and "low" forms in post-modern art has created a scenario in which it is difficult to tell what is "authentic" (or simply "art") and what is not. There are means of leveling which bring the presence of this gulf home; say the name "Roy Lichtenstein" to an average man on the street and see what he says. Nevertheless, forms have developed on the Net that have made post-modern consciousness available to subjects for whom "Culture," as we know it, might be unknown or even anathematized. One particularly relevant form of this phenomenon is YouTube, which is capable of creating not only a kind of post-modern awareness, but a kind of post-modern subject, who feels and enacts a kind of personal agency in the realm of the "fast, fluid, and without boundaries."

Post-modern art, like Modernist art, often features standard formal elements presented in fractured ways. Continuity is often not a big priority, and narrative cohesion is not privileged above parataxis and other "broken" means of presentation and representation. Ashbery's poems, especially, evince this quality. Or Bruce Nauman's early video works, that go out of their way to skirt the edges of narrativity and present fragments of an elusive whole. The connection to earlier Mods like Joyce and Eliot is too explicit to require enumeration. YouTube allows subjects, also, to play the role of master in a self-created, fragmented narrative framework. There are very few "wholes" on YouTube to begin with; it is composed of many disparate pieces, presented, importantly, as pieces, not as wholes. Reception Velocity is a factor; you can be in the middle of one "piece," get bored and choose another. This is important, in the differentiation of YouTube from post-modern movies like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Subjects who go to a movie theater or rent a movie usually feel compelled to sit through the whole thing. There is an element that is volitional; you can walk out, or stop the movie; but, especially in a capitalist milieu, the tendency is to "get what you pay for," whether you like it or not. As a subject does this, they are immersed in totalized narrative and "wholeness," even if the narrative happens to be jagged or fractured. YouTube, in the spirit of the Net (and IT) engenders no such responsibility. Few go to YouTube to find "wholes" (though short wholes like music videos might constitute an exception), most go to glimpse pieces and fragments of things. This navigating between pieces is precisely the sort of terrain that post-modern artists have been investigating for forty-odd years. Now, it has become part of the collective subjectivity of America and elsewhere.

YouTube, of course, goes beyond these confines, because it is available for participation from individual subjects. The heteroglossia of this site can be taken personally; subjects are encouraged to contribute their own work, specifically meant to generate heteroglot encounters. Warhol imagined that TV was the epitome of post-modern cosnsciousness; the rapid-fire signs, the sense of a "hot medium," the breezy and endless imparting of all kinds and fashions of information. YouTube, and other Net programs, instead one-up television, because they function as television you can be on. In the post-modern realm of the Net, it isn't that everyone is famous for 15 minutes; it's that everyone's a little bit famous. One of the quagmires that people, unfortunately, fall into, on YouTube and elsewhere, is a kind of ersatz capitalism about their "famed" work on the Net. Ersatz capitalism pays tribute to bourgeois narrowness by imitating its ethos, while eliding its substance. This manifests as people who are obsessed with Net quantification, which is the absolute enemy of Internet Theory and everything I am developing here. People who count hits as a measure of potency (on YouTube, or MySpace, or blogs), neglecting that the lack of material reimbursement makes this kind of measuring as ersatz as an eleven dollar bill. I have posited that the Net has the potentiality to be truly democratic (the America around "America"), but if it turns into another realm of competitive ideology (with nothing to justify this but pure ego), the democratic aspect is lost.

Human nature is human nature; the Net is only as democratic as the subjects who populate it. Ultimately, the goal of this project is to elevate the level of discourse on the Net (in my own modest way), away from competitiveness and towards a "World Citizen" egalitarianism, away from ersatz capitalism (which lamely imitates an already corrupt ethos) and towards a realm of democratic heterglot encounter. YouTube is a useful metaphor for the way digital realities are altering mass consciousness, "digitalizing" it, which in this case offers a turn towards post-modern modes of experiencing and participating in the world. I am saying that the manner in which YouTube effects subjects has the potential to be a positive thing. "Cultivation" is even more hoary than "post-modern"; it began with Sameul Taylor Coleridge, moved through Carlyle and Arnold in the 19th century, but it is still relevant. Arnold saw Culture saving society and preventing Anarchy; "cultivated" people would never riot. I do not think that either the Net itself or this discourse can save society (or even individual subjects) from Anarchy; however, it may give the pass-word for a new kind of intellectual freedom, a new mode of intellectual consciousness.

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