These dynamics are not organic. In the same way that the genre films of Hollywood or Berlin were not a necessary upshot of film technology, social media as we know it is not a necessary upshot of the internet. Mainstream social media, as Benjamin said of film, actively amplifies and “preserves that magic of the personality” and “the false gleam of its commodity character.” Instead of democratizing communication, access to information, or political influence, the internet—primarily through social media—has been made to democratize the cult of the star.
It’s a commonplace to say that on these platforms you are the product being sold to advertisers, but you’re also made into a product sold to your friends and acquaintances. The latter commodification underpins the former and is arguably more damaging. We are forced into the cult of stardom by design choices and profiteering that have fostered a new kind of interpersonal consumption and a set of attendant pathologies.
One result is a proliferation of the mental anguish once reserved for Hollywood stars. When your persona replaces your self, the connections you form with it remain forever tenuous. You can’t trust anyone, since they only ever engage with a commodified version of yourself. You become needy—dependent on constant affirmation that is, by design, never enough.
Another result is the further aestheticization of politics. Like stars, political content and opinion no longer exist at a distance from their audience. They are absorbed and re-expressed by them as an appendage to the consumer’s personality. The average Twitter political junkie casts about for content much like Trump does, creating a pastiche of causes, grievances, and commentaries as she curates the daily disposable micro-dramas in her orbit. (Some part of the overwrought aversion to Trump is self-recognition.)
For the Twitter star, truth is prized (when it is prized at all) not for its inherent value but for its secondary aesthetic value. Science, expertise, and “facts” become fetishized and, in the process, undermined. Conspiracy theories flourish because they express deeply felt resentments or fantasies that require only emotional “correctness.” Even initially well-grounded views begin to wander toward the terrain of conspiracy theory as their value as an aesthetic accessory begins to overwhelm their empirical merit. A view held as a feature of one’s identity is much harder to revise in the face of new facts than one that is simply an interpretation based on the available evidence. Your views become precious parts of a narrative about the world starring you. As such, any challenge to them begins to feel existential. Objections to your views automatically take on the character of “gaslighting”: they can’t be taken to reflect a legitimate difference in interpretation, but instead represent a more radical attempt to undermine your experience of the world and sow self-doubt.
The aestheticization of politics occludes important social and political issues that cut across the culture war and might present an opportunity for solidarity—issues like globalization, governance by “public-private partnership,” a crisis of meaning. Meanwhile, it mires in exaggeration and venal idiocy the problems that do end up enmeshed in the culture war: the legacy of racism, global warming, COVID-19, to name a few.
Even if aestheticized politics mainly serve to distract from any actual changes to an unjust and anti-democratic economic structure, they are far from completely inert. Aesthetic expression may not change the balance of power but it can lead to other serious results, as we saw on January 6. In its search for a totalizing fulfillment, such a politics courts disaster.
In the most extreme example, Hitler, the failed artist and master propagandist, attempted to bring his deranged political vision to reality. As Benjamin wrote in 1935, “‘Fiat ars—pereat mundus,’ says fascism.” May art be made, and the world perish. Benjamin concludes his essay by writing about fascism’s drive toward war as an aesthetic climax:
Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.
Of late we’ve seen both Right and Left speculate about the possibility of a second civil war. Thus far, only the most deluded and troubled march the streets looking for a fight. But there is a more widespread tendency to revel, whether in enlightened despair or morbid curiosity, in apocalyptic futures. At the same time, our leading tech industrialists and their acolytes indulge in fantasies wherein technology facilitates a transcendence of the human condition. Benjamin would see this as further evidence of our self-alienation. Media that drive us relentlessly outside ourselves and turn us into god-like spectators of even our own personalities tend ultimately toward visions of fantastical transcendence or destruction. If it’s all a TV show, as people like to pretend on Twitter, then there must be a finale.
Benjamin believed that instead of aestheticizing politics, we ought to “politicize art.” Although he offers no real explanation of what that might mean, he is certainly not referring to the kind of the ham-fisted pseudo-satire or “statement art” that is often criticized today for being too political. In Benjamin’s terms, that kind of political art is not strictly speaking political at all. It aestheticizes political content, removing it to a sphere of fashion where it can’t be contested or truly engaged with, only embraced or reviled. This kind of art or media is actually anti-political, because it is convinced that everything is already settled and it’s just a matter of whether the viewer “gets it” or is, in that heavily self-alienated phrasing, “on the right side of history.”
So it is not that the new media needs to be depoliticized; rather, this media must be genuinely politicized for the first time. This would involve rescuing it from cult and culture war so that it can fulfill its democratic potential. It would mean envisioning and building alternative platforms that are not designed and controlled with only profit in mind. The interest in extracting as much money as possible from human attention requires and produces isolated, narcissistic subjects concerned most of all with their own appearance and incapable of banding together for any higher purpose.
We can already see glimpses of a more genuinely politicized media. Well-intentioned writers invested in genuine discussion and debate attempt valiantly to open up a space for something like real politics on their Twitter feeds, even if they frequently succumb to protective irony and defensiveness themselves. Meanwhile, with the “GameStonk” episode on Reddit in January, we saw a creative (and hilarious) attempt to protest and change property relations, even if it came with a large dose of materialism and trolling. And Substack has demonstrated the earnest, nearly desperate desire for a less-aestheticized journalism, even if the platform’s financial model still seems dependent on Twitter stars and the dynamics that drive engagement there.
These successes, such as they are, share a common feature. They occupy a middle ground between the isolated user and the undifferentiated whole. Whether by accident or intention, they delimit an actual community, however fragile, where like-minded people can talk to one another without having to curate themselves for the entire world. They offer a partial refuge from the self-alienating abyss that the average social-media user faces—a single scantily protected individual confronting an endlessly diverting but also endlessly hostile arcade. It is in these kinds of mediated communities that we might escape from the cult of stardom and begin to make real politics possible again.