If someone were commissioned to produce a film about the coronavirus pandemic that would convey the simultaneity of drama and tristesse in lockdown, it would almost certainly not be a box office hit. This is because the experience, probably shared by most people in this situation, was one of isolation and uncertainty. The isolation was necessary to prevent possible contagion, and the uncertainty stemmed from not knowing how the pandemic would progress, if mutations of the virus were possible, and if developing countermeasures would succeed. There is a bitter irony in the fact that the very global crisis that has the potential to shake the existing social orders first ensures that social institutions such as the state or the government take measures that reinforce the mechanisms of the current capitalist social order. While advocates of a neoliberal ideology like to praise globalization as an egalitarian mechanism that provides for a “growing together” of the earth’s people, in fact, an advance of capitalist modes of production and socialization is accompanied by the opposite process. Competition and pressure to perform alienate people from one another; under the growth paradigm, society disintegrates into high achievers and superfluous people. In mass society, success always has the character of getting ahead.
“Since the principle of the capitalist production process does not originate purely in nature, it must burst the natural organisms which are means or resistances to it. Popular community and personality pass away when calculability is required; man alone, as a particle of mass, can climb smoothly up tables and operate machines.”1
But the boundaries are fluid and those who were top performers yesterday may be written off tomorrow. Out of the mass of disposable individuals, certain ones seem to emerge again and again by chance, escaping arbitrariness because they “make a name for themselves.” The “stars” of society function as figures the public projects upon, maintaining the hope for others that they can also make it someday.
The cultural industry has always had the function of diversion above all else. This is at the same time supported by the possibility of the audience identifying with the protagonists as a substitute, because these protagonists, in contrast, are able to cope with and solve conflicts that the audience perceives as painful. In this respect, this epochal crisis is not suitable as material for a blockbuster. For above all, the lack of options for action and the limitations on social interaction were the defining conditions for most people in the lockdown. No heroic story can unfold in such an environment.
What aesthetic experience is possible in mass society and mass culture? It was precisely in the lockdown that it became apparent that aesthetic experience is managed as a consumable commodity. Because art and culture have been revealed to be expendable in a state of emergency, it becomes apparent that they have a certain value, albeit small due to this expendability. The lack of distraction is an indication that aesthetic experience, if pleasing, is part of the now suspended normality. Are these the symptoms of a society of the spectacle?2 It is obvious and has also been recognized some time ago that the sphere of aesthetic production, of artistic creation, is just as subject to the rules of capitalist value creation as all other spheres. But it goes even further.
The masses themselves also develop their own aesthetic power. Think of the stands in a soccer stadium, where fans form a collective with an intoxicating archaic violence. But even less staged mass phenomena possess their own aesthetic form, which is always concretized and which, however, can usually only be recognized as such from the outside. Walking through a city, it could almost seem as if it consisted only of streets: facades, paths, squares, people, vehicles, and entrances. But viewed from above, it is striking that these public spaces only form something like streams of a larger overall pattern. These patterns occur on a small scale and on a large scale. Government always means managing these masses, although at the same time, as in the case of China, there is a need for increasingly sophisticated access to the mass particles. The masses remain, technology helps.
Digital encounters have in the past developed a special aesthetic quality. Whether leisure or work—in the lockdown, encounters were shifted to digital spaces, for good reason. The face, an essential point of sincere recognition from a philosophical point of view, became a digital mask. The immediacy of the other was thus shifted to the more or less correct representation of pixels. Even the display of the assigned portrait-like windows in the video conference, made possible by technology developed for this purpose, became a prefabricated arrangement of social interaction.
Leisure is a luxury. Even and especially in lockdown, the disproportion between occupation and leisure became apparent. While on the one hand the pressure of profitability was sold as happiness to work, on the other hand the monotony of private boredom, lacking the pleasures of public life, was experienced as despair. Caught between wage labor and the entertainment industry, the individual is merely one of many, no one special. This is countered by the need for self-realization, for the expression of specialness, which, however, is dependent on being able to bring home the bacon. Thus it comes about that wage labor in the present is in contrast to the Hegelian idea of labor. The latter conceived of that as a subjective form of reflection in the world. The subject who works recognizes himself in his work and thus gains self-consciousness. The subject in wage labor is kept from recognizing himself in the world through his own work by the occupation that secures his livelihood. It remains external to him and the world, alienated. At the same time, He is always haunted by the fear of being interchangeable, of not being special as an individual, but of being one of many. This is a mass phenomenon.
Of course, entry into the masses does not take place everywhere, but if it does, it feeds on the mechanisms described. In the leisurely occupation there is the possibility of reestablishing the relationship of recognition between subject and work. In communal work, disposability fades and the collective ornament becomes a work of art, because the masses make themselves a community.
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