What if the truest antecedents of today’s all-encompassing mega-platforms aren’t the monopolies of industrial capitalism, but rather the Gesamtkunstwerk of Modernist art movements? This could be important because we come to understand new phenomenon by mapping them to the familiar, and we stand to miss important aspects of GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) if we focus solely on their familiar economic and technological structure and ignore their aesthetic, psychodynamic and epistemological significance.
Originating in Wagner’s own account of his Ring Cycle, the Gesamptkunstwerkcame to represent the dream of the avant-garde for the totalizing artwork, the artwork about everything, one that contains all the word’s meaning. It’s most easily understood by thinking about the notorious collection of Modernism’s impossible works: in addition to Wagner’s nine hour opera, there’s Finnegan’s Wake, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, and many more. Each tried in its own way to be everything: to contain the everyman (Musil’s Man Without Qualities) and the everyday (still commemorated annually on Bloomsday); to span all times (even temps perdu) as well as every language, mythology, and literary form. They reached back to the beginning (Woolf’s cosmogenesis at the beginning of The Waves) and ended at the end (Yeats’ things falling apart). Each synthesized languages, mytho-poetic universes, media and genre.
In today’s language, the Gesamtkunstwerk is predicated on the interoperability of artistic genre and media. To scale, symbolic meaning must flow freely between speech and image, text and music, even sense and non-sense. Gertrude Stein would have us believe “a rose is a rose is a rose”—that roses are interchangeable, their differences are of no consequence. Like Stein’s “rose,” modernists strove for autonomy of meaning, to liberate the signifier from its burdensome particularity—a sound, a word, that has no local, that’s free and open and universal. In other words, they sought a signifier that’s more similar to a bit of data than a unit of human language. Unbeknownst to the modernists, assimilating the endless diversity of arts and modes of expression into a single Gesamtkunstwerk would require that meaning be algorithmically modeled and smoothed, and that disparate genres have API’s and interoperable platforms.
And this, finally, might be the breakthrough that enables today’s megaplatforms: human meaning and experience can be surveilled, measured, sensor’ed, uploaded, scanned, and ultimately rationalized into machine readable data points (that can, in turn, be monetized, to pay for it all). And all this is paid for by the fact that we’re not just assimilated into a totalizing data set, we’re also assimilated into corporations. We’re not just being absorbed into the machine, but into the P & L sheet of everything-corporations. We’re served our own lives from the cloud, licensing our selves with subscriptions governed by unreadable EULA’s, uploaded and downloaded to/from databases of dubious security.
As the first half of the 20th century demonstrated, totalizing ambitions extend far beyond the avant-garde artist. Whether today’s tech oligarchs will share the fate of yesterday’s artists, monopolists, or totalitarian leaders—and at what cost—may be the defining question of our era.