American Abattoirs

 

Introduction

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The American abattoir paved the road to Auschwitz.  The industrialization of death developed at the turn of the century in the US stockyards was adopted by the Nazi Concentration camps, where sectors of humanity relegated into the realm of ‘subhuman’ were slaughtered.  History repeats itself with the algorithms of domination shifting not in construct but in context. The assembly-line technology and eugenic ideology that buttresses the mechanized mass murder of animals share the rationalized cruelty that has historically been used in the Western context against humans in the ‘state of exception’.  Branded inferior, crammed into railcars, forced into labor and killed when no longer of use, the victims of the Holocaust experienced the same fate as the chattel of slaughterhouses do today.  The justification for this brutality is hinged on the ‘biological inferiority’ of the victims who are dehumanized and denigrated as animals. The “anthropological machine” distinguishing humans from animals collapses when man is stripped down to ‘bare life’ (Agamben). Thus, as long as the exploitation and violent slaughter of animals occurs unrefuted, the potential for genocide remains.  As history has shown us time and time again: the realm of nonhuman is not solely occupied by animals.

Historical Context:

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Patriarchy, slavery and the social matrix of speciesism emerged in tandem to one another from the same region that fathered agriculture in the Middle East during the Chalcolithic Age.  Sumer, now modern Iraq, was the first civilization to engage in core agricultural practices such as organized irrigation and specialized labor with slaves and animals.  They raised cattle, sheep and pigs, used ox for draught their beast of burden and equids for transport (Sayce 99). The knowledge to store food as standing reserve meant migration was no longer necessary to survive. The population density bred social hierarchies supported at its base by slaves (Kramer 47).  In Sumer, there were only two social strata’s to belong to: lu the free man and arad the slave (Kramer 47).  Technologies such as branding irons, chains and cages that were developed to dominate animals paved way for the domination over humans too. The “human rule over the lower creatures provided the mental analogue in which many political and social arrangements are based” (Patterson 280). Caged and castrated, slaves were treated no different from chattel.

Thousands of years later, the tools developed in the Middle East for domestication were used by the Europeans during colonization to shackle slaves. “When the European settlers arrived in Tasmania in 1772, the indigenous people seem not to have noticed them…By 1830 their numbers had been reduced from around five hundred to seventy-two. In their intervening years they had been used for slave labour and sexual pleasure, tortured and mutilated. They had been hunted like vermin and their skins had been sold for a government bounty. When the males were killed, female survivors were turned loose with the heads of their husbands tied around their necks. Males who were not killed were usually castrated. Children were clubbed to death.” (Gray 91).

This horrific account illustrates how the indigenous people of Tasmania were enslaved, skinned and slaughtered by the Europeans. Meanwhile across the globe, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was at its peak in the 18th century.  Africans were taken from their native land, branded, bred, and sold as property.  Linguistically these acts of violence and exploitation are tied to animals- branded, skinned, slaughtered, sold.  Be that as it may, “as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other” (Pythagoras in Patterson 210).   Racism, colonialism, anti-Semitism and sexism all stem from the same systems of domination that initially subjugated animals. Until we cease to exploit living beings as resources, the threat of man being stripped of his humanity looms.  Although we cringe at the inhumane actions of our ancestors, the scale and efficiency of murder and oppression has only advanced, while the notion of ‘human’ remains increasingly obscured.

“Progress and mass murder run in tandem” (Gray 96).  At the turn of the twentieth century, German biologist Ernst Haeckel claimed that non-western races were “psychologically nearer to the mammals (apes and dogs) than to civilized Europeans” (Patterson 241).  By then, the hegemonic hierarchy that secured white supremacy was solidified by the emergence of eugenics. The disdain for difference blinded the backward minded to believe the human gene pool needed to be “reformed” through the extermination of “undesirable” populations.  This ideology guised as science shares striking similarities with the agricultural practice of breeding stronger animals while castrating the weak in order to produce desirable offsprings. At the turn of the twentieth century, sixty-thousand ‘defective’ citizens were sterilized in the United States.  The implementation of eugenic legislation in America came in tandem to the industrialization of abattoirs.  Inspired, Adolf Hitler praised the US as pioneers of modernity. Yet, the influence America had on the Nazi Regime both ideologically (eugenics) and technologically (Fordism) ran deeper.

The roots of Fordism are often misconstrued to stem from Taylorism, yet this could not be further from the truth.  Scientific management had little influence on the assembly line paradigm perfected by Ford.  In his memoir, he declares that his inspiration stemmed from a childhood visit to the meatpacking district of Chicago (Crowther 23). In 1865, conveyor belts were introduced into slaughterhouses to expedite the rate animals were gutted.  Impressed by the efficiency of this industrialized slaughter,  Ford constructed his factories in mimesis. Thus, the concept for the assembly line originated in factories of dis-assembly.  The mass production model behind abattoirs and automobiles manufacture proved to be an effective technology regardless the sphere, so much as to inspire Ford to later share this with the Nazi party.

As an outspoken anti-Semite, Henry Ford’s newspaper ‘Dearborn Independent’ ran for eight years (1920-1927) reaching 700,000 readers a month. Later, he published ‘The International Jew’, a compilation of pamphlets incorporating the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Grider 2010). Aside from equipping the German army with vehicles, Ford also funneled funds to the Nazi Regime.  Adolph Hitler, a longtime admirer of Ford, praised the American Industrialist in Mein Kampf and awarded him the Grand Cross of the German Eagle for his “humanitarian ideals” (Patterson 23). I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration” (Grider 2010), Hitler once said with portrait of the automobile manufacture on the wall of his Munich office.  Although, “Henry Ford gave America and the world the mass-produced automobile. He also inspired Hitler to mass-produce hate and genocide on a level never seen before in human history. The efficiency in which Hitler killed his victims happened at a rate akin to Ford’s cars being produced on the assembly line” (Grider 2010).  The efficient methodology of Fordism was employed as an apparatus for industrialized mass murder.  After all, the idea for the assembly line came from slaughterhouses and proved to be just as effective on living beings.  In the end, there is a thin line differentiating humans from nonhumans. Once stripped down to bare life, man is no different from animal.

Zoe and Bio

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From Aristotle to Auschwitz, law has harnessed the power to distinguish citizen from body. Antiquity unveils that the original political moment was also the original human one. In Ancient Greece, there were two words for life to express what we’ve come to articulate in one: zoe and bios (Agamben 2000: 130). Bios is qualified, political and codified life.  Filtered through the state, it is the conditioned mode of life specific to a single individual or group.  Zoe, on the other hand, is ‘bare life’.  It represents the raw biological make-up and simple fact of living common to all beings.  Classical politics distinguished “clearly between zoe and bios, between bare life and political life, between human beings as simply living being, whose place was in the home, and human being as political subjects, whose place was in the polis” (Agamben 2000: 138).  The anthropological machine has two historic expressions: the anthro-machine of antiquity humanized the animal, while the modern apparatus animalizes the human- the total humanization of the animal coincides with a total animalization of man.

According to the contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, politics is structured by the inclusion and exclusion of ‘bare life’ or sacred life (Homo Sacer).  It is a life unprotected by law, a life susceptible to being stripped of all rights and taken without remorse.  Without bios, humans are no different from animals.  The power to dictate who’s to be incorporated within the political apparatus and who’s to be excluded is a form of biopolitical social control that rest in the hands of the sovereign.  It is when bios is estranged from zoe that the grounds for ethnic genocide finds justification in the ‘state of exception’.  Bare life is the determining factor of whether a certain body should be kept alive or abandoned. The failure of democracy and threat of ethnic cleansing sleep in the disjuncture between bios and zoe, which invites the horrors that awake with bare life. The strength of the sovereign rests on this self-serving dialectic that creates this zone of in-distinction obscured by the anthropological machine.  “Concentration and extermination camps are an experiment of this sort, an extreme and monstrous attempt to decide between the human and the inhuman, which has ended up dragging the very possibility of the distinction to its ruin” (Agamben, 2000: 13).

State of Exception

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Biopolitics cannibalizes ‘form of life’- a term coined by Agamben to describe the fusion of zoe and bios that seizes the sovereign’s power over life and power to dictate bare life. Yet ‘form of life’ is a mere illusion, as the constitutive power structure is fundamentally un-constituted.  “Biopower’s supreme ambition is to produce, in a human body, the absolute separation of the living being and the speaking being, zoe and bios, the inhuman and the human” (Agamben, 1999: 156).  In Modern thanatopolitics, the abrogation of juridical order exercised by the government in the state of exception is the rule. The dominance of the sovereign lies not in the responsibility to uphold the legal system, but rather in its ability to suspend the law.  “In every case, the state of exception marks a threshold at which logic and praxis blur with each other and a pure violence without logos claims to realize an enunciation without any real reference” (Agamben, 2000: 40).  The always present possibility of judicial suspension aligns itself with the discourse of ‘potentiality’ that fuels the sociopolitical neurosis of our ‘risk society’.  Thus, collective compliance is secured through the deeply ingrained fear that at any given moment a citizen can be denationalized and stripped of all rights.

The contemporary logic of control is typified by the indeterminacy of inclusion and exclusion.  The concentration camps is the ‘state of exception’ horrifically realized.  The Third Reich in Nazi Germany ruled under “a state of exception that lasted twelve years. In this sense, modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of the state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system” (Agamben, 2000: 2).  The concentration camp is the arena of suffering where the state of exception is the rule, where humans are stripped down to bare life.  The incarcerated are subject to conditions outside the realm of law, morality, dignity or justice.  The suffering they experience is inhumane, or as the word suggest: unfit for humans. As victims of violence decry that “they were treated like animals”, the myopic paradox of humanism is revealed.

The Need to Dehumanize Victims

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Historically, domination over humans begins with the dehumanization and denigration of its victims.  In the era of imperialism and colonization: Native Americans, Africans and Filipinos were characterized as monkeys, beasts and swine. In perceiving their victims as animals, or nonhuman, colonists could enslave, slaughter and hunt people down without remorse.  Through this perverse rationalization people of ‘inferior race’ suffer the same cruel fate of animals.  During the Nazi regime, Jews and gypsies were vilified “inferior” as rats, insects, vermin and pigs.  Stripped down to bare life, citizens were transformed into bodies- hollowed flesh as soulless as a beast. The “Might is Right” ideology that justifies animal slaughter buttressed fascist propaganda.  In the words of the Fuhrer: “man owes everything that is of importance to the principle of struggle and to one race [Aryan race] which has carried itself forward successfully. Take away the Nordic Germans and nothing remains but the dance of apes. He who does not possess power loses the right to life.”

Disparity between Animals and Humans

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Species supremacy is reinforced by the destructive dogmas of humanism. According to German philosopher Martin Heidegger: stone has no world, animal is poor in world and human is world forming- a ‘Shepard of Being’.  Heidegger saw “everything that lives solely from the standpoint of its relation with humans” (Gray 50), yet his notion of ‘human‘ was infiltrated by a deep rooted racism. An enthusiast of eugenics, Heidegger believed “mankind needed to rid itself of the nomadic gene, with its asocial and anarchic components, in the human chromosome” (Gray 93).  His loyalty to the Nazi party was disparate from “cowardice and power worship” (Gray 51).  He saw the fate of Jews as an extreme case of ‘being-towards-death’ where mass murder was “premeditated for the sake of a vast project of world improvement” (Gray 96).  The sick rationale behind the extermination was perversely packaged as the ‘final solution’.  This incomprehensible notion was as real as the black smoke darkening the white winter sky over the constellation of concentration camps ultimately responsible for murdering millions.

In a speech given ensuing the War, Martin Heidegger states: “Hundreds of thousands die en masse. Do they die? They succumb. They are done in. Do they die? They become mere quanta, items in an inventory in the business of manufacturing corpses. Do they die? They are liquidated inconspicuously in extermination camps. And even apart from that, right now millions of impoverished people are perishing from hunger in China. But to die is to endure death in its essence. To be able to die means to be capable of this endurance. We are capable of this only if the essence of death makes our own essence possible” (Sheehan 48).  Here Heidegger argues that the victims were not only deprived of their existence, but were denied the dignity of a respectful death.  They were eradicated like animals in an abattoir, as if surplus inventory, standing reserve, a body emptied of any true agency or identity.

When the distinction between animal and human life blur, ethics collapse.  Yet, what is man if not the result of ceaseless caesurae? Irreducibly divided between animality and humanity to the point of obscurity, the chasm of separation is “the endless identity crisis known as humanity” (Pettman 151).  Yet, how can human rights be fastened if the notion of human is not fixed? Identity is built on binaries. Humans live in the space of the question: what is it to be human?  The fragile separation between animals and humans isn’t built on biological justifications, but on a socially conceived lack that is shattered by the enfants sauvages found at the edge of Medieval villages living ‘like animals’.  Stripped of language, clothing, currency and social conditioning, the line dividing human from nonhuman is completely obscured. It is in this in-distinction that danger lies.

As a symptom of our neurosis, man has over the centuries needed to assert his difference from animals to secure his hierarchical superiority in the ‘Great Chain of Beings’. “Once again, the human is animal plus or minus n, in either case, an exception that proves the rule” (Pettman 142).  It is true that there are characteristics distinctly human, like reason, misery, self-doubt and boredom. Yet “they carry within themselves the power and the violence to jolt us into a nonhuman zone. (“I felt like a piece of meat” or “I was trapped like an animal” or “I was sick as a dog”)” (Pettman 139). Outside of emotive expressions, man is defined by specific social characteristics that are arguably byproducts of our neurotic condition.  Humans are promise-making species plagued with the existential anxiety of “being towards death”.  Money is species specific, as is our technological dependency, our capacity for language and the shame that spawns the need for clothing.  The self-regulating awareness innate to humans is “partly in virtue of the way that their consciousness is structured by biopower, by its language and technique of self making” (Youatt 395).  With that said, everything that makes us ‘human’ is learned through social conditioning.  A child does not know shame or boredom, it does not fear death or understand reason.  Sociability is contingent on conditioning. If not culturally acclimated, children are no different from animals.

So is the freedom to consciously choose one’s ‘life activity’ the only thing that sets humans apart from animals?  Like Heidegger, Karl Marx aligns with the belief that animals only understand the singularity of survival- their life-activity, whereas man creates his own life activity, producing in concert what is needed to survive.  “Physically man lives only on products of nature, whether they appear in the form of food, heating, clothes, a dwelling. The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganic body” (Marx 31).  Although man may “treat himself as a universal and therefore a free being…as a natural, corporeal, sensuous objective being, he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature- like animals and plants”  (Marx 31).  Disillusioned, man fails to move beyond the understanding of self to realize that he too is processed and captive. Furthermore, the ability to consciously engage in one’s life activity is contingent on class and circumstance.  In the case of Holocaust and other horrific forms of violence and oppression, the victims are stripped of this right.  Like animals, their life activity is reduced to sheer survival.

Animal Domination, Human Domination

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The conceit of anthropocentrism is rooted in the inability to recognize the role non-humans play in shaping history.  Humanity does not exist, only humans, who “bear within themselves the mark of the inhuman” (Agamben, 1999: 77).  This hybridization obscures fixed notions of civil rights. The modern anthropological machine differentiates citizen from body, man from human. The justification for cruelty is constructed on the dismissal of the victim being primitive, barbarian, savage and akin to animals.  Yet, the fate of human beings is not far off from the fate of animals. “In terms of human- animal relations, it is the former that hoard “sovereign jouissance” for themselves, by virtue of assumed authority and ownership. But when it comes to human-human relations, the question of “who wears the pants”—in its most nuanced and metaphysical sense—becomes harder to identify with any certainty” (Pettman 140).  Heidegger’s theory of “enframing” buttresses the notion that human’s relationship with nature influences how we relate to one another (Zimmerman 23). The power apparatus that allows for human domination over animals emerges from the same violent pathology that subjugates humans to suffering.

Isaac Bashevis Singer argues that “everything the Nazis did to Jews we are today practicing on animals” (Patterson 221). “The very same mindset that made the Holocaust possible – that we can do anything we want to those we decide are ‘different or inferior’ – is what allows us to commit atrocities against animals every single day. The fact is, all animals feel pain, fear and loneliness. We’re asking people to recognize that what Jews and others went through in the Holocaust is what animals go through every day in factory farms” (Prescott 2003).

In the United States today, we’re all aware (to various degrees) of the brutality that takes place to satisfy our hunger for cheap meat- yet few call for reform. During WWII the “good Germans” lived in denial of the Holocaust even as outside the crematoriums ash fell from the sky.  The cruel experimentation conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele on Jewish prisoners was also met with silent indifference.  Stripped down to bare life, the victims of these tests were met with the same disregard as the 50-100 million animals experimented on annually today. It is significant to mention that Mengele’s father founded the slaughterhouse machinery company, Karl Mengele & Sons, which may have planted the seed of cruelty exercised first on animals.  Also during WWII, lampshades were made from human skin and sold as highly coveted commodities in Germany.  Similarly today, fur coat and alligator skin are fetishized objects of seduction stripped of the stigma of sporting another specie’s skin.

In tracing the trajectory of exploitation, it is clear that the atrocities inflicted on humans have been rehearsed on animals. We are surrounded by “an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them” (Coetzee 21).   Descartes’ notion Cognito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) aligns animals with machines- facilitating cruelty sans the sting of remorse.  This perverse perception is applicable to a spectrum of suffering.  “The oppression of human over human has deep roots in the oppression of human over animal” (Best 23).  As long as ethical responsibility fails to embrace all living creatures, these moral limitations are as much a threat to humanity as they are to animals.

The American Abattoir

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The facility “to manage vast assemblies of nonhumans“ (Latour 181) with exceptional efficiency emerges from a myriad of technological advancements.  In the mid-twentieth century, Dr. Temple Grandin redesigned the corrals of the slaughterhouse to shield chattel from seeing what lies ahead- thus thwarting the animal’s survival instincts to reverse directions.  Similarly, when prisoners were sent to the gas chamber in Auschwitz, they were told they’d be taking a shower to prevent panic.  In his 1949 lecture “Das Gestell”, Martin Heidegger claimed that “agriculture is now a motorized food-industry — in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps” (Sheehan 41).  In the sixty years ago that have passed since that statement was made, the top four beef companies in the US went from controlling 20 percent of the market to 80 percent.  In the United States alone, nine billion animals are killed annually- twenty-seven million a day, nineteen-thousand a minute.  According to interviews conducted by HFA (Humane Farming Association) with countless slaughterhouse workers: animals are beaten, boiled and dismembered alive. Yet the conditions for those employed in these abattoirs is also alarming, as it is neither humane nor inhumane, a blurring of distinction that obscures the human, subhuman and animal binaries.

The meat industry is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. The ‘sociotechnical assemblage’ of the labor force produces ‘imbroglios’ of humans and animals.  Workers must gut the carcasses coming down the line at an unprecedented pace- their flesh as vulnerable as that of the cadaver passing by.  The U.S. Labor Department reported that “29.3 percent of meat-workers suffer from injury or illness, compared to 9.7 percent for the rest of manufacturing” (Prescott 2003).  However, this statistic may be greatly underestimated. Due to the competitive nature of the industry, meatpackers tend to hire the cheapest labor possible: immigrants or “denizens” – a term referring to non-citizen residents, bio’s bodies used until no longer in need. Lured over the border by radio advertisements paid for by U.S. meat companies, these migrant workers are denied the rights of citizens, zoe. The language barrier also plays a tremendous role, as it’s the barrier “between the living being and the speaking being, the inhuman and the human” (Agamben, 1999: 135). Communicability bestows the right to cry out in the face of injustice, when this is taken away man is reduced to a form of bare life.  ‘If there is no articulation between the living being and language, if the ‘I’ stands suspended in this disjunction, then there can be no testimony” (Agamben, 1999: 130).

With xenophobia on the rise, forms of work take on a political character.   The fragility of human rights and the rights of citizens is due to the marked disparity between the human and the citizen, bio and zoe, people and People.  “In the American Constitution one reads without any sort of distinction: ‘We the People of the United States’ but when Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address invokes: ‘a government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ a repetition implicitly sets another people against the first” ( Agamben, 2000: 30). Yet this evolution in rhetoric is nothing new- from Antiquity to Modernity there has been a distinction between citizens (political beings) and bodies (bare life).  The notion of life mutates as it moves through different formulations of sovereignty.   These networks of industrial power and control obscure the internalized ecology and subdivision between nonhumans and humans.  As social relations extend their reach through the mega-machine, humans are economically entangled with an increasingly large number of nonhumans. Marx describes this obscured myriad of labor and material relations in factories as “circles of hell”.  Yet unlike Dante’s journey to God, there is no salvation in slaughterhouses, only a dead-end blanketed in blood.

Conclusion

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Historically, any form of domination over humans begins with the dehumanization and denigration of its victims. The ideology and justification that buttresses the industrialized killing of animals threatens humanity with the prospect that they too may be at the mercy of such cruelty. The technologies developed in the American abattoirs of the early twentieth century served as a blueprint for the Nazi death machine.  Until speciesism is dismantled, the myth of progress will continue to perpetuate inequality, oppression and violence.  It “is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers a la Hitler and concentration camps a la Stalin.  There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is” (Patterson 199).  Animals liberation goes hand and hand with human libration.  These factories for disassembly have become an intrinsic mode of production in Biocapitalism. Yet in this arena of social production an opaque zone of in-distinction grows out from a failure of consciousness and consequence.  As the question of human becomes increasingly obscured, this flexible set of ethics threatens to turn back on us.  There is no truth to search for, but an illusion to deconstruct.  What’s needed is a psychological change, not socio-institutional change.  Without this awareness, the moral progress and egalitarian inclusivity that human liberation is hinged on is impossible to conceive.

Bibliography

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Agamben, Giorgio. The Open: Man and Animal. Stanford University Press, Palo Alto: 2004.

Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without End. Trans. Vincenzo Vinetti and Cesare Casarino. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 2000.

Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz. trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Zone Books, New York: 1999.

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, Stanford: 1998.

Berardi, Franco (aka Bifo). “Biopolitics and Connective Mutation”. Trans. Tiziana Terranova. Culture Machine, Vol. 7. Open Humanities Press: 2005.

Best, Steven. Animal Liberation and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution. Rowman and Littlefield Books, New York: 2008.

Coetzee, J. M. The Lives of Animals. Princeton, New Jersey: 2002.

Crowther, Samuel.  Henry Ford: My Life And Work. Book Jungle, New York: 2006

Frayn, Michael. “Prospectus” + “Home Address” + “Conspectus,” The Human Touch. Faber & Faber, London:  2006.

Gray, John. Straw Dogs. Granta, London: 2002.

Grider, Geoffrey. “Henry Ford, Adolph Hitler’s Inspiration For Treatment Of Jews”. NowtheEndBegins. 9 May 2010. 11 Nov 2010. http://www.nowtheendbegins.com/pages/antisemitism/henry-ford-was-hitlers-inspiration.htm.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology,” The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Harper & Row, New York: 1977.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. Cradle of Civilization. Time Incorporated, New York: 1969.

Latour, Bruno. “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans,” Readings in the Philosophy of Technology, (ed.) David Kaplan . Rowman & Littlefield, Latham: 2004.

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Trans. Martin Mulligan. Progress Publishers, Moscow: 1959.

Patterson, Charles. The Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. New York, Lantern Books: 2002.

Sayce, Rev. A.H. The Archaeology of Cuneiform Inscriptions. 2nd Edition. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London: 98-100.

Sheehan, Thomas. “Heidegger and the Nazi” a review of Victor Farias’ Heidegger et le nazisme, in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXV, n°10, June 16, 1988. pp.38-47

Rockmore, Tom. On Heidegger’s Nazism and Philosophy. University of California Press, Berkeley: 1992.

Prescott, Matt. “PETA Press Release”. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). 3 April 2003. 23 Nov. 2010  http://www.peta.org/mc/NewsItem.asp?id=2106.

Rose, Nikolas. The Politics of Life Itself:  Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton University Press, Princeton: 2007.

Youatt, Rafi. “Counting Species: Biopower and the Global Biodiversity Census,” Environmental Values. Vol. 17, no. 3, 2008.

Zimmerman, Michael. “Heidegger, Buddhism, and deep ecology” in C. Guignon, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. Cambridge University Press, New York: 1993.

A Response to Le Corbusier’s “New York is Not a Completed City”

As skyscrapers spring up at an alarming rate, the tremendous rapidity of New York City’s incessant construction render it an unfinished breeding ground of possibilities. In his work, Le Corbusier unveils the reasons for which he prefers New York to most European cities- particularly Paris.  His rationale is rooted in an appreciation for the architecture, infrastructure and cleanliness of New York, not to mention the metropolis’ unpredictability. New York, pregnant with prospect, is unique in that it is “a city in the process of becoming.  Today it belongs to the world.” (98) Personified as Janus, the Roman god of beginning, past and future, New York emerges as an epicenter in a crowd of international cities.  Yet, “at present, it is like a house-moving, all the furniture in confusion scattered about, unkempt.” (99) It is for this reason that Le Corbusier claims the city has yet to be completed.  This volatility, however, leaves the question as to whether it will evolve to be “an ass or a king”(99) unanswered. Perhaps it is this blind anticipation that fuels Le Corbusier’s predilection for New York.  Paralleling it with Paris, he dissects the disparity between the two and aspires to distinguish what exactly it is about New York that makes it unlike any other city.  First off, he comments on its immaculate conditions, asserting that “cleanliness is a national virtue in America” (99).  Moreover, there is a unique style to New York’s cleanliness, which baptizes the city with a revived vibe.  European cities, he argues, embrace the faithful abrasion of time as if “to prove that they possess an age-old culture” (100).  Yet the dust gathered from several centuries, he finds, elicit the impression of negligence. The dilapidated, old buildings lacing the streets of European cities are not only waging war against steady decay but are also inefficient in that they fail to fully utilize space.  In short, the cities of Europe sprawl out rather than up. The skyscrapers of New York mark a  “new event in human history” (99).  Salvaging each inch of land, such edifices prove to be a genius means of concentrating the masses. The Soviets pawn off the structures as “capitalist” and in a sense they are.  The architectural movement is incredibly economical, as is the infrastructure of the city.  Le Corbusier argues that the labyrinth of tiny cobblestone streets in Paris is backwards and confusing rendering the composition of the city complicated, rather then charming. The avenues ending with magnificent edifices are superfluous and stem from an age-old traditions rooted in the prior appeasement of royalty. The anatomical simplicity of New York, on the other hand, yields a “Euclidean clearness.” (101) Constructed in the vein of a grid, the metropolis is divided by twelve parallel avenues intersected by several hundred streets, all of which at right angles to one another and numerically named.   With such order your “mind is free instead of being given over every minute to the complicated game imposed on it by the puzzle of our European cities.” (100) However, interestingly enough, Le Corbusier refers to this layout as something of the “American way” yet the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and even the French built many of their cities in a like fashion.  The quotation marks perhaps are meant to undermine the statement, as the “American way” is in truth just a cornucopia of countless culturesa

Review of ‘La Jetee’

Far ahead of its time, La Jetee was a film produced in 1968.  The picture is constituted of a string of striking black and white photographs. There is no dialog, and thus the plot would be difficult to follow if not for the voice of a narrator carrying one through the film, explicating the significance of each image.  It opens with a man standing at the edge of a jetee at Orly.  There is disturbing calm, an inexplicable stillness that is abruptly broken by the roar of warplanes.  As weapons rain down from the sky, the world comes to a sudden halt.  Paris is left in ruins after the onslaught of a nuclear holocaust marking the end of world war III.  There is a sequence of unsettling pictures illustrating the extent of destruction.  Considering this film was produced before the introduction of Photoshop, the directors were incredibly successful in depicting the devastation of Paris in such a realistic fashion.

The scene shifts from the misery aboveground to the desperation underground, where the few to survive have migrated after the contamination of the city rendered it inhabitable.  In their struggle to subsist, scientists begin conducting experiments of time travel on several prisoners in the vein hope of determining ways in which mankind can survive.  Plagued by desperation, they construct a bizarre contraption that they believe can successfully manipulate the constraints of time; unfortunately its only flaw is rooted in their test subjects.  Once witnessing their past, the prisoners return to the present riddled with insanity.  However, one man’s obsession with a recurring vision of his childhood renders him a faithful guineas pig.   The scientists believe that if he is able to live vicariously through the memories of his past, he perhaps harbors the facility to drift into the future.  The film is laced with ambiguity.  The main character is referred to incessantly and simply as the Man.  As the experiments progress, his memories grow to be increasingly vivid.

The face of a woman sleeps in the folds of his memories.  She graces his recollections of the past, each time becoming more tangible, more concrete. “Time builds itself painlessly around them.”  There is a stark disparity between the pictures of his past, soft and surreal, and those of his present, which are of harsh contrast and dark shadows. The use of lighting in this film is manipulated to convey the sentiment of each passing scene. What’s left to the darkness is often times more telling than that which is illuminated.  The simplicity of several shots stemming from his past unveils the beauty of everyday life.  Suspended in time, the Man slowly falls in love with the Woman.  The sequence of images epitomizes photography’s ability to immortalize and steal fragments of time.  The beautiful black and white photographs are interrupted only once by a fleeting moment of film. This occurs when the woman, lying in bed, opens her eyelids and looks directly into the camera.  This is perhaps a symbolic allusion to the truth the man will ultimately arrive at: time is beyond one’s control.  However, this is one of many interpretations, I’m sure.  The absence of explanation leaves much to one’s imagination.

Portraits of People Seeing Their Younger Self in a Mirror

TwistedSifter

 

Tom Hussey is an award-winning lifestyle advertising photographer based in Dallas, Texas. In a series entitled Reflections, Hussey shows a series of elderly people looking in a mirror at their younger self.

According to an interview with PetaPixel, the idea first struck when Hussey was talking to a WWII veteran named Gardner. On the cusp of his 80th birthday, Gardner opined that he still felt like a young man.

The conversation would inspire Hussey to photograph Gardner looking into a bathroom mirror with a reflection of his younger self looking back at him. The resulting image was used in his portfolio and years later was picked up by Novartis as the concept for an advertising campaign for their Alzheimer’s drug.

The resulting campaign was posted by Hussey to Behance back in 2009. Since then it has been the third most ‘appreciated’ project on the entire website, with…

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A Response to Marshall Berman’s “In a Forest of Symbols”

Marshall Berman feels as if the onslaught of modernity is deracinating the roots of the past, whereas Le Corbusier believes that the aforementioned is indispensable if humanity aspires to progress.  To fully understand the reasoning behind each conflicting argument, one must consider the disparity in experiences from which each perspective stems. Marshall Berman’s[1] birth in the early1950’s unveils his life laced the dawn and progression of modernity, which perhaps triggered his inclination towards Marxism.  Le Corbusier[2], on the other hand, was an architect born in the late nineteenth century. The repercussions of modernism were unknown to him, as he lived to see only the birth of the movement.  In his article, Marshal Berman illustrates growing up in the Bronx as his neighborhood deteriorated at the hands of Robert Moses.  An architectural giant, Moses’ was responsible for the construction of the West Side Highway, Grand Central Parkway, the Triborough Bridge and, most notably, the Cross-Bronx Expressway. In response to the implications of such grand endeavors, Berman cites Moses’, effectively exemplifying his cruelty: “there are more houses in the way…more people in the way…when you operate in an over built metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” (Robert Moses, Berman 134) Coined as progress, the Cross-Bronx Expressway cut through the neighborhood of Berman’s childhood, shattering the economy and littering the streets with abandoned buildings.  Even today the scars have yet to mend, as “rage, despair and violence spread like plagues” (Berman 153) through the decaying district.  For Berman, this is not progress.  He believes that the paradox of modernity is such that the movement towards ‘urban renewal’ has savagely devastated “the only kind of environment in which modern values can be realized” (Berman 150) and that its very development “has made the modern city itself old-fashioned, obsolete.” (Berman 143) Le Corbusier, on the other hand, embraces the architectural vision of Moses, which sought “to overawe and overwhelm.” (Berman 142)  For him, these “monoliths of steel and cement, devoid of vision or nuance or play” define progress. (Berman 142) He praises, in his text, the architects who “rush in with their heads down; after having worked over the ‘styles’ firmly and worthily” (Le Corbusier 99) for they pave the “paths of the modern spirit.” (Le Corbusier 99) Berman, too, admitted at first to having a shred of faith in the modernist movement, as in the late 1930’s, Moses’, at the height of his career, established parks and edifices which esteemed the masses. He concedes that “the uptown Hudson riverfront, one of Moses’ finest urban landscape, is especially striking when we realize that it was a wasteland of hoboes’ shacks and garbage dumps before he got there.” (Berman 138) Furthermore, neither one can deny “Moses’ projects marked not only a new phase in the modernization of urban space, but a new breakthrough in modernist vision and thought.” (Berman 139)  Yet, unfortunately, as the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. After the onslaught of World War II, Moses’ vision was perverted as “ the ‘modern movement’ in architecture and urbanism turned radically against modern romance: they marched to Le Corbusier’s battle cry, ‘we must kill the street.”’ (Berman 149)  Like a Venus Fly Trap, the perpetual reformation of New York City, to this day, attracts countless.  Le Corbusier embraces this incessant progression and curses the ‘urban romance’ that Berman nostalgically reflects upon. In the end, Berman surrenders to the diluted American dream. Helpless, he acknowledges the tragedy of modernity, as progress paves over the past.


[1] Berman, Marshall, Adventures in Marxism, London; New York : Verso, c1999.

[2] Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, London, J. Rodker, 1929

A Response to John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing”

John Berger’s essay, “Way of Seeing” dissects the camera’s sway in our society and the repercussions of reproduction.  Before photography, the human eye was regarded as “the vanishing point of infinity” (18).   However, the facility to steal fragments of time and space viciously veered the way man perceived the world. All of a sudden, “the visible…became fugitive” (18).  This marked a turning point in our history, enabling humanity to view “the art of the past as nobody saw it before” (16). It is the art of immortalization. However, this is but a thread in a tapestry of reasoning rendering the repercussions photographs have had on our culture. The invention of the camera facilitated the means of mass-producing a single image.  Berger illustrates how the onslaught of reproduction, in a sense, perverted the meaning of original works of art.  The countless paintings lacing the walls of museums from Paris to New York are regarded in a different light.  The “Mona Lisa,” for lack of a better example, has been printed exorbitant number of times, and thus “its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings” (19).  To be graced with the opportunity to visit the Louvre and stand before the painting in the flesh, one will realize that the meaning “no longer lies in what it uniquely says but in what it uniquely is” (21).   We have been conditioned to embrace original works of art with the mindset: it is “authentic and therefore it is beautiful” (21). Moreover, the value of the work is affirmed not by its meaning, but by it’s market value.  The sway of money and our intellect are intrinsically connected, which unveils why art has evolved as something preserved for the wealthy. This fabricated hype “which now surrounds original works of art, and which is ultimately dependant upon their market value, has become a substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible.” (23) On the other hand, reproduction has afforded the lower class the ability to appreciate artwork never before at their disposal.  This is the paradox photography presents us with.

Eye Contact with Strangers

Georg Zimmel’s belief that the “blasé attitude” is a symptom of self-preservation subsist even a hundred years after having made the claim, however due to gender disparities this mentality has evolved in separate yet similar directions. First off, one must acknowledge that Georg Zimmel’s argument stems from the perspective of a man at the turn of the twentieth century.  Interestingly enough, his perception of the implications a city has on the subjective self sustain, despite the onslaught of modernity.  Undeniably, there is a conditioned indifference many adopt in a city which triggers the tunnel vision so heavily relied upon to navigate the streets.  Zimmel justifies in his work, “The Metropolis and the Mental Life,” how this mindset is a repercussion of incessant stimulus, what he fails to shed light on, however, is how the experience may differ according to gender.  Men are more apt to rely on what Zimmel refers to as the “matter of fact” (4) attitude which fuels the “money economy” with its impersonal embrace towards “social intercourse” (4).  This mindset proves indispensable in the financial world, where money “reduces all quality and individuality to the question: how much?” (4) Furthermore the crowd of competition feeds the stipulation for specialization, as it is crucial to seem indispensable in the economic “arena of struggle.” (17) Women exhibit similar behavioral tendencies, however the reasoning behind their self-preservation is rooted in a skepticism stemming from socialization.  The burden of uterus and fragility of femininity necessitates a reserved nature often times disguised as distrust.  Unfortunately, such a demeanor elicits an isolation that renders one susceptible to loneliness.  This claim comes from personal experiences I myself have had in New York.  As I cut through the streets littered with strangers, I’ve learned to avert my eyes.  However, last week I made accidental eye contact with a man standing outside a dry cleaner.  I thought little of it, and continued on my way.  Four blocks later, he came up behind me, panting, asking where I was going and if he could follow.  It took me three more blocks to impress upon him my disinterest. The man’s behavior was inappropriate, but would have been alarming if it were to have happened during the night.  This experience unveiled the irony of the human condition. Women, by and large, invest hours into their appearance in hopes of grabbing the interest of others.  The unfortunate reality is that females are inclined to view themselves through the eyes of others.   Amid a sea of faces, a woman’s desire to draw attention to herself constructs an interesting paradox. This species of specialization is perhaps rooted in our evolutionary impulse to procreate.

A Review of Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think”

This article, written in July of 1945, “calls for a new relationship between the thinking man and the sum of our knowledge”(1).  In the late 1940’s, physicists whose prior objectives were rooted in World War II had to viciously veer focus once peace settlements were reached.  With their hands suddenly free, their efforts could now be aimed towards the betterment of human life, rather than the destruction. This article reflects on the benefits scientific development has had on the humanity. These advancements have, in a respect, released man “from the bondage of bare existence” (2), as they have improved mental and physical health and facilitated communication amongst the masses.  However, the old methods of consolidating research have become inadequate due to the proliferation of knowledge.  In response, Bush calls upon a means to store results so that the “truly significant attainments” (2) stemming from years of study won’t get “lost in the mass of the inconsequential” (2).  If to solve the problems plaguing the present, one must look to the past.  Man has constructed “a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records” (13).  There are countless disconnected conclusions that, if organized, great progress could result. This is not to say, that progress hasn’t already been made, however.  Bush examines the inventions of the past, noting that we are already capable of things once thought impossible.  In the first half of the twentieth century, scientist had already produced “cheap complex devices of great reliability” (3), with regard to the advancements in photography and microfilm.  However, this only the beginning, he predicts.  The machines yet to come will be far more versatile.  Prolific scientists thread together a tapestry of possibilities, marking a new event in human history.  In spite of this, Bush illustrates where he feels further progress can be made.  With developments in microfilm, he believes “the Encyclopedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox” (5). However, compression, although economical, is useless if the information is not consulted.  Once again, Bush stresses the significance of specialization and consolidation, as “man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge” (8).   The results of research must be available for distribution, as the mass production and reproduction of information fuels further development in the scientific field.  Thus, “specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress and the effort to bridge between disciplines” (2).  In response to this need, Bush presents his design for the Memex, which appears to be early blueprints of a computer. It is a device, he explains, wherein one can “store all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility” (10). It will be far more reliable than “any human operator and a thousand times faster” (2). Furthermore, the Memex will be capable of associative reasoning, something innate to the human mind.  As scientists have adapted a logical process in which to examine the world, these machines will also be able to “manipulate the premises in accordance with formal logic” (7).  As he delves into greater detail about the intricacies of this machine, it grows increasingly difficult to discern whether he regards such a device as a tool, or as a being.  Despite the fact that he refers to the design as an instrument and “mechanical aid” (2), he has the tendency to personify it.  For instance, he states that the “machines will have enormous appetites” (6).  Moreover, the “adoption” (9) of this “human mechanism” (12) will facilitate life, as it will have the faculty of logical reasoning.  This sets the stage for the development of an unhealthy dependency between mankind and the machine, perhaps one, which at the turn of the century, society gradually begins to exhibit.

A Response to Georg Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life”

In his essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” Georg Simmel dissects the onslaught of metropolitan life and the struggle to preserve one’s individuality.   The aforementioned has laced the evolution of man for several centuries.  At first distinguished as far back as the 18th century as the ability to extricate oneself from the oppressive bonds that once plagued civilizations of the past, the shift of collective mindset in the nineteenth century bred the necessity to render oneself indispensable by means of specialization in the economy and society alike.  However, in this day and age, Simmel illustrates individuality as one’s facility to sustain their subjective self in the face of life in the metropolis.  Such is not an easy feat, as the pressures and sway of society can undoubtedly manipulate one’s character.  Georg Simmel aspires to explicate how we as humans have adapted to the incessant stimulus of the metropolitan life.  The pulse of the city compels the masses to build a resistance, or rather an indifference, to the sensory overload of the streets flooded with unpredictability. The sense of urgency roused by the complexities of urban existence triggers an over-stimulation of the nervous system. Moreover, the city gives refuge to an economy driven by mass-production, consumerism and, of course, money, all of which rely heavily on the “matter-of-fact attitude” (4) stemming from this conditioned indifference.  However, this is but a thread in a tapestry of characteristic one must harbor if to live and work within the organized chaos of a metropolis.  The stability of a city depends almost entirely on the “punctuality, calculability and exactness” (6) of those who fuel it.  Our innate impulsive, irrational nature is thus suppressed out of necessity. In short, the metropolises have assaulted the senses to the point where the modern man has become unresponsive and reserved in the vein hope of self-preservation, which in turn renders what Simmel refers to as the “blasé attitude” (6).  This concentration of calculating minds defined by utter indifference facilitates the effectively and fuels the productivity of the “money economy” (7).   In truth, we blindly subsist as pawns in an inter-reliant economic pyramid. Be that as it may, within this immense network of dependencies there is freedom, Simmel asserts, explaining that “social development proceeds at once in two different, yet corresponding directions” (10), as it branches out those in positions of power loose complete control of those who constitute the anatomy of the structure. Unfortunately, despite the brilliance of harboring such freedom in a crowd of possibilities, the reserved nature so heavily relied upon in the metropolis for self-preservation elicits a lonesome isolation amid a sea of strangers.   Without emerging as indispensable, one drowns.  Simmel concludes his argument stating that it is not for us to pass judgment, but rather to solely acknowledge this undercurrent of truth that runs beneath the glut of asphalt.

TERMS:

—      Blasé: “ A life in boundless pursuit of pleasure makes one blasé because it agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally cease to react at all.” (7)

—      Specialization: “In order to find a source of income which is not yet exhausted, and to find a function which cannot readily be displaced, it is necessary to specialize in one’s service” (14)

—      Metropolis: “ It is the function of the metropolis to provide an arena for this struggle and its reconciliation.”

—      Money: “ Money, with all it’s colorless and indifference, becomes the common denominator of all values”

—      Cities:  “Cities are, first of all, seats of the highest economic division of labor.” (13)

Review of “Cell Yell: Thanks for (Not) Sharing”

In his article “Cell Yell: Thanks for (Not) Sharing”, Eric A. Taub explains how people have become frustrated with inconsiderate cell-phone users. People by and large seem to have forgotten their manners. Unfortunately, we have developed into a society where signs need to be put up to tell people how to behave, for example “no cell phone use”. I believe it is very rude for people to have loud and inappropriate conversations in public places, such as restaurants and while riding public transportation.

We are living in a time when wireless technology has perpetrated all aspects of our society. As a result, the masses have grown to abuse the luxury of a cell phone, for instance while using it to discuss a private subject in public. Taub states “people are very upset when they are forced to hear the results of a strangers medical test, says Coral Page, a Boston public relations consultant and founder of Cell Manner”.  I can understand how this can be of some annoyance.  I know from personal experiences that after a long day, the last thing I want to deal with while taking the bus home to my house has to listen to loud strangers personal issues.  In fact, I almost always look for a quiet spot, which allow me to relax my body and my mind a little bit while I am in the bus.  However, if someone sits down next to you with a cell phone, you don’t have much of a choice but to endure the noise of their conversation.  One day, I remember there was a lady who was talking so loud that she her voice could be heard throughout the bus. In all honesty, no one on the bus cared that her two friends, who were once a couple before, had cheated on one another and as a result of it they were infected by HIV virus.  It is very sad, but nobody’s business but those involved.  I understand that the pulse of the city we live in doesn’t allow us to have much time for our family and friends, but nonetheless we have to keep in mind the importance of having consideration for the feeling of others around us- especially in public places where people like me who’ve already had a tough day don’t deserve to hear the drama of strangers.

The problem is that more people each day are buying cell phones, thus there are more possibilities that this utter lack of manners will grow. It is so obnoxious when rude people walk into a restaurant with their cells attached to their ears. Taub notes that “a bagel shop in Westlake Village, California banned the use of cell phones while ordering last years because customers routinely asked for the wrong food when they were busy jabbering.”  I work in a restaurant as a waitress and oftentimes have to deal with people who are so preoccupied with their conversations on their cell that they are not only boorish but oblivious to how rude they are acting. I have people that walk in with their cell- phone, and for a while I would greet them as I would for any customer, but when I realized they ignored me, I’ve stopped. What’s worst is that they then feel slighted when I walk away from them as if I didn’t want to help them. Later, I’ll return to ask once if they are ready to order. Now I help others customers who really need my attention, and ignore those on the cell phone as they ignore me. However, this cane be problematic because it puts me in the middle of it, where the rude customer starts waiving their hands and screaming claiming that nobody has attended to them. These customers are incredibly annoying and at times all I want to do is kick them out of the restaurant and say “get out and don’t come back here anymore,” but I guess I would be out of a job so I keep my mouth shut. It’s not that I don’t believe people have important issues to resolve by phone, but I feel as if all too often people become so consumed in their conversation on their cell that they neglect how their behavior may be affecting the people around them.

Eric A. Taub paper discusses all these points and sheds light on how the conduct of society has changed with the introduction of cell phones. I very much agree with much of what Taub states in his paper, as I believe that our society has slowly lost respect for one another in order to satisfy their own needs by carrying on a conversation via cell phone.

Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz

Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz serves as an example for how the cultural identity of a place can fall victim to the homogeny engendered by multinational corporations. One of the most historically charged places in Berlin, Potsdamer Platz serves not only as a symbol of the city’s turbulent past, but also as an emblem of the victory of capitalism’s consumer culture.  Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Platz was an urban wasteland torn between the East and the West.  The collapse of the Soviet Union reunited Berlin at this square, in fact the first portion of the wall to go was the section which divided Potsdamer Platz.  Seduced by the historic symbolism that was sure to attract tourists, conglomerates such as Sony launched rapid commercial development starting in the early 1990’s.  As a result, Potsdamer Platz has evolved into a haven of multinational corporations, baptized in fluorescent light and reeking of Western consumerism. The cultural capital that initially rendered the Platz so priceless is paradoxically responsible for diluting its authenticity. Stripped of its character, this urban transformation denotes disneyfication, a word employed to denigrate a society that has succumb to the generic and dull uniformity inspired by corporate globalization. A widespread nostalgia for the former East Berlin, coined by the term ostalgia, unveils an unspoken rejection of the capitalist culture that was embraced seventeen years prior. Disguised as the “American Dream”, conglomerates such as McDonalds, Nike and Coca Cola have homogenized and commodified the cultural identity of the Platz and the city it unites.

HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF POTSDAMER PLATZ

Taking its name from the Potsdamer Tor, Potsdamer Platz became the center of Berlin in 1838 with the construction of the Potsdamer Bahnhof railway station. (1997: 26). In the first half of the twentieth century, explains Alan Scott, author of The Limits of Globalization, civic life flourished in the district. Geographically the center of the city, the Platz was initially intersected by five of Berlin’s busiest avenues (Scott 1997:27). Flooded with people coming from all walks of life, the square came to symbolize the vivacity of the city. However, as a result of allied bombing raids and heavy artillery bombardment in World War II, nearly all the streets and buildings of Potsdamer Platz were left in ruins. The Platz became an urban wasteland subdivided by American, British and Soviet sectors. The Berlin Wall, laced with barbed wire, anti-tank obstacles and watchtowers, cut through its center, making a no man’s land of what was once the city’s center.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.  Amid the rubble and ruins left behind from the decades of dispute, the end of the Cold War was laced with hope. In the years to follow Berlin’s reunification, Potsdamer Platz became Europe’s biggest urban development project. The district was divided up into four parts and sold to commercial investors (Scott 1997: 26). It wasn’t long before the weeds and debris that accumulated after years of neglect were paved over and great monoliths of glass and steel were erected. Freed from the constraints of the communist regime, many embraced the urban reconstruction generated by capitalism without reservations, believing that better days were to come. Commercialized and replanned, the urban transformation of the Platz was regarded by many as a testament of their independence and a symbol of their reunification. With this rapid redevelopment, Columbia professor Andreas Huyssen argues that “the Germans, like everyone else in the Europe of the Cold War, got Disney” (1998: 1) which at first was “a blast of fresh air from a window opened onto the world” (Huyssen 1998: 1).  However, decades later, these American imports were to be viewed by many as cultural imperialism. Yet, the commercial development ensuing the fall of the Wall came about so suddenly that the citizens of Berlin didn’t heed notice to the city’s cultural decay until the effects of Americanization were unmistakable.  The corporate culture that resulted from this gentrification steamrollered the remnants of the old city center and serve as an example of how quickly multinational corporations colonize places that could yield potential profit.

MONOPOLY RENT

The monopoly rent of Potsdamer Platz is rendered by the symbolic and geographic significance fueling its tourist industry, but it is also culpable in part for Berlin’s cultural corrosion in that it triggered the onslaught of the conglomerates. Driven by economic interest, they recognized the district’s cultural capital and began heavily investing in its gentrification realizing that its historical importance to Berlin would ultimately manifest as a tourist attraction. The term monopoly rent implies that “culture has become a commodity” (Harvey 2002: 1) that can be profited from. David Harvey employs this term to explain why areas in close proximity to a city’s center or of historic significance often fall victim to heavy commercialization (Harvey 2002: 2). Sony, the former Daimler-Benz, Asea Brown Boveri, Deutsche Bahn and other companies made a rush to build their headquarters on what they regarded as prime real estate.  In the year 2000, the Sony Center opened its international headquarters in Potsdamer Platz, erecting seven buildings and a light-flooded arena. (Scott 1997: 26) The Arkaden, American socio-economist Alan Scott asserts, was the next to come (1997:26).  Between 1993 and 1998, a completely new quarter arose on the land owned by DaimlerChrysler composed of office buildings, stores, hotels, apartments and restaurants. The shopping and entertainment mecca covers 40,000 square yards and houses over 140 shops and restaurants. (Scott 1997: 27) Where there was once nothing, now lays the Grand Hyatt Berlin, Cinemax, a musical theater, a casino and a sea of tourist.

In less than two decades, Potsdamer Platz has evolved into a haven of consumption. The question of whether this should really to be perceived as progress needs to be addressed.  Although for over fifty years the area subsisted as a wasteland, such rapid redevelopment renders an almost opposite extreme, as “the famous hub between East and West Berlin is in great danger of becoming a high-tech mall” (Huyssen 1998: 3).  McDonalds, Levi, Reebok, KFC and Coke all serve as corporate cohorts spreading the influence of the American “way of life,” which is rooted namely in consumerism. Before long, Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz will lose its architectural, historical and cultural distinctiveness to this excessive development, as it will become yet another victim of Americanization.  Amid the clutter of corporate giants, it will grow increasingly difficult for the Platz to evade the homogenizing implications of this urban transformation.

OSTALGIA

The widespread ostalgia plaguing Berlin unveils an unspoken social grievance for the loss of the city’s cultural identity to the gluttony of consumerism and the homogeny of commercialization.  Disappointed with the present circumstances, ostalgia afflicts the many who knew the East Berlin of the past. This nostalgic impulse serves as a reminder that the social and political differences dividing Europe prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union still exist.  After the fall of the wall, Berlin struggled to reconcile the economic disproportion between the East and West, as the East proved unprepared for the abrupt transition from dictatorship to democracy, command to market economy.  Over a decade later, the city has yet to mend its differences in the face of overwhelming commercial development, a fluctuating economy and a society torn apart by conflicting mentalities.  Many Berlin citizens consider the commercialization bred by capitalism to be cultural imperialism.  The onslaught of American products has penetrated Berlin’s society to the point where German citizens are faced with an identity crisis. In a sense, the panic cultivated by the Western world concerning the Domino Effect ironically proved true, however the dominos fell in the opposite direction- towards capitalism, rather than communism- the consequences of which, some would argue, are no better.

DISNEYFICATION

As the Americanization of global culture metastasize, the threat of disneyfication grows.  Stripping a country of its cultural inheritance, this term refers to the process in which a place undergoes urban transformation according to Disney standards, ultimately rendering it a diluted version of its original.  The theme park has, in some respect, become a model for both urban and commercial development.  Shopping malls, food chains and reconstructed city centers are all evidence of this societal impulse towards escapism and consumerism. Yet from this “relentless commercialization of culture connected with the Disney Empire” (Huyssen 1998: 2) a contradiction emerges, as the democratic aspirations of a society along with its cultural inheritance are lost to corporate globalization. The more Europe surrenders to disneyfication, David Harvey explains, “the less unique and special it becomes.  The bland homogeneity that goes with pure commodification erases monopoly advantages” (2002:4). Thus, the symbolic capital of a city is self-destructive, as it engenders the economic development that inevitably homogenizes it. The cities of the Western World have, in consequence, become dreadfully generic. This unfortunate paradox is evident in Potsdamer Platz, where its cultural capital of is both responsible and threatened by its urban redevelopment. The generic homogeny plaguing the Platz is ironic in that it was the initial inimitability of the district that rendered it a tourist attraction and led to its corporate gentrification. Uprooting its past and exploiting its historical significance, these companies have commodified and commercialized the very thing that rendered the Platz so unique and, in doing so, destroyed it.

CULTURAL HOMOGENY

The broader social implications of this cultural homogeny suggest that corporations are culpable in part for the loss of non-replicable cultures. The uniqueness, originality and authenticity of innumerable cities have been lost to strip malls littered with fast food eateries and trademark brands. Baseball caps, blue jeans and Nikes sneakers have now become the uniform for teenagers around the world, from Krakow to Santiago. What’s worst, political journalist Ciochetto exclaims, is that many companies consciously use their “products to change the cultural values of consumers” (2006) employing the American Dream as a marketing strategy. Thinly veiled by this disguise, McDonalds, Coca Cola, Starbucks and Levi along with a string of other corporate giants have successfully infiltrated countless countries around the world. Spawned by capitalism, these conglomerates have proven to have the faculty to dilute the cultural inheritance of a place. The Western myths of “affluence, strength, freedom, individualism and opportunity have been some of the most seductive ideas of the twentieth century, and these ideas have been transposed onto these all-American products” (Ciochetto 2006: 31). Blindly, we consume unaware of the role we play in feeding these massive corporations.

MULTI-NATIONAL CORPORATIONS

The plethora of food and clothing chains lacing our malls and crowding our cities are, despite the multiplicity of trademarks, owned and operated by just a few corporate giants.  The implications of this shed light on the unsettling possibility that this economic globalization and cultural homogeny has been executed by only a handful of powerful companies. The strength and wealth of these mega-corporations is evident upon acknowledging some of the sale statistics compiled by socio-economist Norenna Hertz for her work, The Silent Takeover.  Together, General Motors and Ford turn a profit “greater than the gross domestic profit of the whole of sub-Saharan Africa” (2001: 304). Even more alarming, “Wal-Mart now has a turnover higher than the revenues of most of the states of Eastern Europe” (Hertz 2001: 304).  It is nearly incomprehensible to grasp how so money and power has fallen into the hands of so few.

These multinational corporations are a product of American capitalism, as the United States fosters the only economic system conducive enough to spawn companies of such enormous wealth and unbalanced power. In part, their growth is a result of the competition innate to capitalism, as it triggers oftentimes the centralization of companies. Microsoft, Murdoch and Virgin all serve as examples for how companies over the course of the past several decades have evolved into inexorable economic powers.  In fact,  “of the world’s 100 largest economies, 51 are now corporations, only 49 are nation-states” (Hertz 2001: 304). Even more unsettling, seventy percent of the world trade is controlled by less than hundred large companies- a majority of which is rooted in North America (Ciochetto 2006: 32).   In an age when corporations have so much control on the global field, power is kept in the few. Disguising itself behind a sea of trademarks, these corporate giants mislead you to believe that their product is a manifestation of the American dream, while profiting off your needless and blind consumption.

CONCLUSION

The cultural homogeny and disneyfication plaguing Potsdamer Platz unveils the implications of corporate globalization. The historical significance of Potsdamer Platz after the fall of a Berlin Wall lent it an unparalleled cultural capital that in turn rendered it an indisputable tourist attraction. Given that culture is commodity in an age of global homogeny, the monopoly rent of the district caught the eye of countless corporations whose aspirations to turn a profit inspired their investment in its gentification.  After more than a decade of urban transformation, Potsdamer Platz has become a haven of consumption.  The disneyfication of the district renders an unfortunate paradox, as multinational corporations have diluted the authenticity of the historic site.  The widespread sentiment of ostalgia serves as testament of the people of Berlin’s discontent with the homogenous repercussions capitalism has had on their culture.  This dull homogeny rendered by the corporate gentrification and disneyfication of Potsdamer Platz is just one example of how the Americanization of global culture has infiltrated city after city by means of multinational corporations.  

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ciochetto, L. (2006, September/October). Advertising and the Globalization of Aspiration. Adbuster: Journal of the Mental Environment, (67), 31-32.

Harvey, D. (2002). The Art of Rent: Globalization, monopoly and the commodification of Culture. Socialist Register. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from http://socialistregister.com/recent/2002/harvey2002.

Hertz, N. (2001). The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy (p.304). New York: Free Press.

Huyssen, A. (1998, Winter/Spring). Fear of Mice: the transformation of Times Square. Harvard Design Magazine, (4), 1-4.

Scott, A. 1997. “The Future of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz” Pp. 25-28 in The Limits of Globalization: cases and arguments. New York, NY: Routledge.