Mass reproduction & reproduction of the masses


In “Illuminations“, pg. 251, Walter Benjamin makes the following remark:

“Mass reproduction is aided especially by the reproduction of the masses.”

In order to comment on that, let us start from a film. The Bildungsroman of StaSi agent Wiesler in “The Life of Others” is clearly depicting a world where one could end up in jail for a non conformist interpretation of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right” or for an off-center reading of Dostoevsky.

The socialist world had the greatest respect for the poetic word: to the extent one could die because of it. Mandelstam and Bulgakov, Pasternak and Shostakovitch all had to face the consequences of their artistic genius. The aesopic nature of the Polish cinema in the 1960, to take another example (think of ‘Mother Johanna of the Angels‘),  reflects the fact that the poetic word could pierce the screen of power. The locus classicus for this sort of ideas is of course, George Steiner’s “Archives of Eden” (jstor) and his “In Bluebeard’s Castle“.

Why was that the case? Was it because the preservation of the poetic aura is the necessary condition for a message to be effective, and Baudelaire’s books of poems at the supermarket next to groceries are pointless offerings? Or was it because the secret of the poetic word was its concentration in very few hands, hence its disruptive power was in essence totally correlated with its social scarcity?

Arguably the failure of the Socialist movements in the “short 20th century” is attributable  to the leninist vanguardism of the ‘What is to be done?‘ according to which a selected elite should drive forward the ignorant masses. On the contrary, it can be argued that it is only the raising level of consciousness of the general population that can both (i) prevent the excesses of vanguardism and (ii) insure that the social targets are achieved in a way that is meaningful to all the people.

Rosa Luxembourg in her critique of Lenin, see here, raised the same argument more than 100 years back. Its poignancy is still with us.  Take the ‘Guardian‘, one of Europe’s best newspaper (arguably the best).


Alan Rusbridger has been its editor in chief  for more than 10 years, steering the newspaper -among other accomplishments – to win a Pulitzer.
On the 9 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, he confronted the issue of how to inform the public in a world which is very different from just 20 years back and he wrote those perceptive words:

Is there an economic model for serious news? Let’s hope so – but the gales blowing through my old industry are now truly frightening. When I stepped down from the Guardian just over a year ago, my Guardian Media Group colleagues were happy to go on the record to emphasise their confidence in increasing digital revenues and a future based on growth. But something profound and alarming has been happening in recent months and all our eyes ought to be on the West Coast giants – especially, but not only, Facebook – that are cleaning up quite extraordinarily.

There is only one truly proven business model for serious general news – that of the BBC. Yes, it sometimes infuriates me, too. But it is an astonishingly wide-ranging, accurate and ethical institution that […] ought, in any sane world, to be listed, not cut.

But many people today clearly find organisations that are not primarily driven by profit beyond comprehension. What would they make of the Scott family, who could have been multimillionaires but decided instead, back in 1936, to give away the Manchester Guardian for a quid? They placed the Guardian into a trust because its greatest editor, C P Scott, saw it as a public good, or even a moral force, rather than an engine of profit or personal gain.

For most of its 195-year life, the Guardian has struggled to make money […]. Quite often (as today), the Guardian has lost more than it should, or could, in any given year. Clearly, the business model needs to change. But looking around the world, I don’t think that anyone can truthfully claim to have cracked it.

When the impeccable elitist Lord Reith set in motion BBC, “its self-assigned obligation to raise popular standards rather than condescend to them” -in the words of Tony Judt, “Ill fares the Land”, pg. 53 – was uncompromisingly clear.

Once, I used to think that the issues raised by Noam Chomsky in say, “Manufacturing Consent” or for that matter Glenn Greenwald in “No Place to Hide”, about some sort of interlocking directorate of revolving doors between journalism and politics was the likely explanation of that failure. Upon closer inspection and mature reflection, I have come to a simpler, information-theoretic conclusion. Information of good quality, challenging the expected value of conformist opinions, disruptive of worn out consensus, is costly. Providing it, as Alan correctly states, is very difficult. As human beings , we love patterns, repetitions, habits: we find unattractive what challenges our opinions, no matter how unmeditated. This is the true problem: whoever wants to know, she/he has the instruments to decipher the noise: be it books, the internet, high quality newspapers etc. The problem is, once again, how much energy are we willing to spend on that.
The conundrum of mass reproduction highlighted by W. Benjamin is still with us.


Categories: Society

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