Synthetic Judaism and New Media Objects: Contemporary Jewish Culture (Lev Manovich)

I saw this article and photo a month or so back at Ynet and it got me thinking about the pre-packaged and simulated character of so many new Jewish culture objects. It probably began with the American bar and bat mitzvah in the 1970s, the mother of all mediated Jewish culture-events. The phenomenon is particularly developed around things relating to the Holocaust and to Israel such as the March of the Living to Auschwitz and free ten day Birthright tours to Israel. This particular program is unusually gross. American Jewish tourists get the chance to simulate killing “a terrorist,” in self-defense, of course. It’s not really different than a video game, except you get to shoot with real guns. It reduces political and moral problems to an “experience.”

It’s all so synthetic, our new synthetic Judaism. On one hand, this is a big deal, the transformation of contemporary Judaism, that demands the criticism of critics. On the other hand, it’s simply a part of the cultural environment, which we should all learn to accept, recognize, and negotiate.

Cultural critics in and out of academic Jewish Studies, especially Jewish Cultural Studies and Jewish Critical  Theory, have been complaining about this for a long time, focusing primarily on the political aspects as to how fabricated experiences are used to create political effects. Maybe Hannah Arendt’s critique of Ben Gurion’s manipulation of the Eichmann Trial was the first such instance of this kind of criticism. Jacob Neusner’s critique of Vicarious Judaism and Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s acid remark about the Disney-fication of the Western Wall in Jerusalem are highpoints in this Jewish cultural critique. I think what Hayim Soloveitchik identified as the postwar shift from the mimetic tradition of lived religious culture to today’s scripted, text-based, by-the-book traditionalism is also part of the story. Add to this all the whole criticism leveled at the Holocaust industry by Norman Finkelstein and others, and you complete the picture.  If you want, however, the right concept, there’s no place better than Clement Greenberg’s definition of “kitsch” in his seminal 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” as mechanical, formulaic, ersatz culture, as vicarious experience and faked sensation.

There is a lot to be said for but also against this kind of criticism. On the one hand, it patently obvious that so much out there that gets packaged as Judaism is complete trash, emotionally manipulative, and exploitative politically. These new cultural forms set up reality on the basis of something fake or “constructed.” We learned all about this ideology critique from Althusser and Barthes in the 1970s. On the other hand, if Andy Warhol and postmodernism have taught us anything, it would be that there is no such thing out there that isn’t in some sense always already vicarious, faked, or posed. Once you cast kitsch or faked experience in an uncompromisingly critical light, you have done so on the basis of setting up your own position as “really real.”  But if all sensation is mediated, than the difference is a relative one between “real” and “faked” sensation. We should be able to live with this recognition. The difference than is between the simplistic versus the developed forms of mediation, the ones that are automatic versus the ones that take time to roll out. This is a significant distinction, even if it is “only” relative.

Recently reading Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media casts the whole phenomenon in a more technical light. It allows you to see that these synthetic forms of Jewish culture or identity, these forms of synthetic Judaism, are not just the political effects that one could simply uncover and overturn by means of ideology-critique.  Call it political if you want, but it goes deeper than progressive critics might want to think, including in its ambit their own (our own) critical posture as well.

What I get from Manovich is the realization that all these forms of synthetic Judaism –rightwing, centrist, and leftwing—are all part of a new media environment and are determined by it, if only in part. If my friends will forgive me this remark, I’ll say that this includes all the forms of leftwing “activism” that one finds on Facebook, where the posts and the discussions are just as formulated, just as scripted and programmed, just as automatic, just as predictable as anything else out there on the new media landscape of contemporary culture.

A trip to Israel or to Auschwitz or a cluster of comments about Israel and Palestine or “the Israel Lobby” on Facebook or on a blog, all these are “new media objects.” Artificial and synthetic in character, they are an “organic” part of the culture, no different really than a hit by Rihanna or the design of a Facebook page or WordPress blogsite.

It’s not that I think there’s any way around this. Today, the choice is now not whether or not you are going to purchase a smart phone or join a social media site. The choice today is deciding not to purchase the phone, join Facebook, or buy your kind a Wii, or go to a trip to a West Bank settlement and pretend to shoot “terrorists.” Synthetic new media objects are going to define contemporary Judaism for a long time to come. It’s best to understand this, develop the necessary media literacy skills to sort things out, and to design better objects.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Synthetic Judaism and New Media Objects: Contemporary Jewish Culture (Lev Manovich)

  1. Pinchas Giller says:

    I think you would have to begin with Neo_Orientalism and the Betzalel school of the turn of the century, with their romanticized view of Biblical and 2nd Temple Israel that dovetailed into contemporary Social Realism, Arther Szyk, etc. That is a lot of “kitsch.”

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