Tuesday, November 20, 2012

the fetish of communication

In his article “The Cell Phone and the Crowd,” Rafael identifies “the fetish of communication,” a utopian fascination that suggests the possibility of dissolving class divisions. (Rafael, 400) Rafael’s discussion is specific cell phone use in the Philippines, but the same logic is often applied to any so-called democratizing force. As we have discussed in this class before, modern technology like the Internet are seen as giving communication the “messianic promise of refashioning the heterogeneous crowd into a people addressing and addressed by the promise of justice.” (Rafael, 400) Not only does the technology seemingly provide the possibility for increasingly infinite nodes in a network that is constant growing and shifting, but it also creates as body by “refashioning” a heterogeneous crowd, a body where emotions circulate, allowing for the possibility of something like the contagious flash mob.
            Thus, technology is a democratizing force in that it provides the possibility of a reorganization of bodies, bodies united in their anonymity and mass ritual. Indeed, Rafael is describing how the cell phone created a crowd that was conscious of itself as a movement with a common goal, and accepting of “anonymity as a condition of possibility for sociality.” (Rafael, 403) I am reminded of Anderson and his identification of the fact that members of a community will never know all of the members of their community. (Anderson, 6) Media like the novel and newspaper were original print forms that provided a mass ceremony of unification for a community. Similarly, the cell phone creates a unified practice, a field of exchange that offers the same possibilities. And, in a sense, a crowd offers the same – “the potential for reaching across social, spatial, and temporal divides.” (Rafael, 414)
            In this potential there perhaps exists an inherent paradox that I would like to discuss further. The crowd, as described by Rafael, is “a medium for the recurrence of [a] fantasy that emanates from the utopian side of bourgeois nationalist wishfulness: the abolition of social hierarchy.” (Rafael, 415/6) This statement echoes the ideals put forth in the “fetish of communication.” Both the cell phone and the crowd suggest democratization. In the case of the Arab Spring, technology and the crowd are seen as crucial agents. But I wonder how we might understand this fetishization in light of Ranciere’s ideas about democracy. As he says, democracy is founded on a paradox, that “the very ground for the power of ruling is that there is no ground at all.” (Ranciere, 50) He suggests that democracy is always at odds with itself. So, what do we understand the cell phone and the crowd as offering, if not a paradoxical fantasy? Do they also provide a site of emergence for democracy’s Other? What is the significance of a democratizing device like the crowd or the cell phone in a space where democracy is not a part of the dominant ideology? Is it more or less powerful in such a space? Is it powerful at all? What is at stake in fetishizing communication?

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