Jerry Mander wrote a book many years ago, in 1977, called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Televsion. He worked in marketing for years before that. He recently wrote a piece for Monthly Review…
This is, obviously, a topic I come back to from many angles all the time. The colonizing of consciousness.
Now, Mander is right, but he doesn’t take this nearly far enough, for their are structural elements that mediate experience on even deeper levels than he suggests.
From an interview on globalization with Mander and Scott London:
London: I was working in the north of Norway in the mid-1980s. At the time, the Norwegian government was installing new satellite TV services and making them available to people in their homes. The town I was working in had a very vibrant local art and music scene. But almost overnight the people started picking up new stations like MTV and CNN. The effect on the young people was extraordinary. I got to see at first hand how the local scene was supplanted by the influx of foreign TV shows, pop videos, and global marketing. This the kind of “monoculture” you are talking about, I take it.
Mander: You put it very well. That’s one. But there are others, and the others may be more important. Helena Norberg-Hodge and Vandana Shiva, in particular, have written about the agricultural monoculture that is upon us now. Because of the global market, the varieties of produce that people used to grow is no longer available. In Peru and Chile, for example, there are hundreds of varieties of indigenous potatoes. People used to grow them and protect the seeds so they could pass them on to the next generation so that there was tremendous variety of potatoes. But now, with the export economy taking over everywhere in the world, you don’t grow a hundred varieties of potatoes anymore. Now you grow one kind of potato, or maybe two, because that is what is going to get exported to England, or that is what is going to be exported somewhere else.
Again, these are pretty obvious effects. You can walk into a pensione in Rajisthan in some small town, and find the kitchen staff watching MTV or Baywatch, and you wonder, how is this being processed? Look at pop music, and the fashion that follows. Kids in Lagos or Bangkok wearing Chicago Bulls caps, or Brooklyn Nets jerseys. Nobody plays basketball in Bangkok. But this is all obvious stuff, what is less obvious are the ways structural forms get embedded. And one of those is the idea of being a “fan”. People relate to product as fans. I like so and so, and I didn’t like so and so. In what way is this *like* expressed, or rather, what are the paremeters of *like*? What is enclosed within that?
“If you decide to watch television, then there’s no choice but to accept the stream of electronic images as it comes,” Mander says. “Since there is no way to stop the images, one merely gives over to them. More than this, one has to clear all channels of reception to allow them in more cleanly. Thinking only gets in the way.”
Other people’s vision is occupying your mind, they occupy and don’t pay rent. In fact, YOU pay rent. One of the amazing things about sales today is that people are asked to pay a price to, say, read a sports page. Once you do that, on an internet site, you go to read this article and you are faced with six different pop ups or drops, all advertising things. So you have paid to see more advertising. Or parking lots at shopping malls, where you must pay to park. You must pay to go and spend money inside.
So the fan is responding to product. That’s all. I like this product better than that one. I like Ranch Style Beans better than BarBQ Beans. Now, the smarter young viewer or consumer will elevate his or her taste. They may like aesthetically more sophisticated product. And here we have a dilemma. For the aesthetic appreciation, the disciminating choice, becomes eclipsed by the paid for *fan*, for the fan can only relate to this hierarchical marketed forum. Everything is on a mental shelf in a mental department store.
The intelligence of discimination is appopriated by the marketer. The world as marketplace, corporate marketplace. I have been reminded this week, in several different ways, of how artworks are co-opted, and how the last remnants of modernism continue, partly because nothing is there to replace them. All that is left is marketing.
“If forty million people see a commercial for a car, then forty million people have a car commercial in their heads, all at the same time. This is bound to have more beneficial effect on the commodity system than if, at that moment, all those people were thinking separate thoughts which, in some cases, might not be about commodities at all.”
This election period has revealed , very starkly, as none before, the sonambulistic trance of the modern US citizen. The rote behaviors, and the rote feelings. If people have internalized corporate kitsch image and narrative, and we know they have, then that includes gesture and emotion in some way. The attachment to favorite brands is all the same; brand Obama is the same as Brand Clearasil or Brand Toyota, or Brand Jay-Z. The sleepwalking trope raises its head over and over and over. For people, the young have been encouraged (by marketers) to form a brand of independent self. To create, from corporate parts, a unique self. It is all found material. It is all living only within an enclosed virtual world of commodity relation.
The aesthetic independence required for a radical vision to coalesce, especially to coalesce around a core group, has been neutered in large measure by the creation of an oppositonal marketed owner of artistic opinion. The young consumer, the discriminating consumer of smart products of culture.
*I love the new Coen Brothers film…”, or “I love the new david lynch film”, or “I love donnie darko”….etc. The more decontexualized the cultural product, the more de-politicized, the easier to own and *like*. One can even *like* acceptable political product, marketed politics. “I loved that new film about the inner city school teacher who helps her class….”, “Oh I saw that two years ago on Breaking Bad”.
The new “independent” consumer. You can create your own lifestyle, your own brand. Part of the brand is not just what products you buy, but what sense of marketing you prefer. It is horribly insidious. It is a strange sort of Borges-like drama played out amid a landscape that isn’t real.
So, even the smartest most sensitive young artist, or lover of art, is going to face the ideological hegemony of corporate media. Within that enclosure is film and TV and a good deal of internet. It also includes corporate news. Now, all this is very conscious and methodical. There are rewards for *liking* things. There are condemnations for not participating in these arranged talent shows, these pre-fabricated set of choices. So that even when something is created, and this is quite possible, is produced within this corporate hegemony, but contains something that reaches beyond its perhaps intended branding, or contains somehow, by accident or subterfuge, elements of the sacred and the transcendent or the subversive, the engagement with this ostensible product is mediated by the form of domination that is already firmly in place. This leads to questions (which I’ve raised before) about the nature of identity, and the historical evolution of the bourgeois idea of the individual. There is also at work the second generation of the camp aeshtetic. The elitist appreciation of junk, in other words. The famous Sontag essay Notes on Camp established the foundational principles of this. A love of the artifical, of exaggeration, but more importantly it established a private code, an almost secret insider appreciation of naive awfulness. This has evolved over time, again due to marketing’s appropriation of this counter aesthetic, and it now infects all aesthetic thought in one way or another.
Sontag said this: “The reason for the flourishing of the aristocratic posture among homosexuals also seems to parallel the Jewish case. For every sensibility is self-serving to the group that promotes it. Jewish liberalism is a gesture of self-legitimization. So is Camp taste, which definitely has something propagandistic about it. Needless to say, the propaganda operates in exactly the opposite direction. The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.”
But what was, at least partially, a political critique buried in all this, has given way to the homogenizing efforts of marketing, and the selling of ‘its good ’cause its bad’. Camp also started the trend toward putting almost everyhing in quotation marks. Post modernism used a good deal of this sensibility in a sort of fractured effort to promote a populist sensibility. The problem, again, was hegemony of corporate ownership. As Mander says, no industry is as contracted as media. Globally, the new seven sisters are the media conglomerates.
Style is artifice. Unfortunately, artifice is owned. Its corporate owned. Of course its not totally, and that’s the key. And one sees this with marketing firms sending scouts out to scour the streets looking for the latest organic trend of the underclass. The suburban co-option is the first tier here, where whats left of the white middle class buys that which has been created by the underclass. Those most outside a buyers demographic are always going to be the most creative.
Sontag mentions Jean Genet in passing. She says the camp elements in his novels are expressed too grimly, and the writing too successful, to qualify as camp. This is an important note. Genet has not been packaged and sold yet. Neither has Beckett or Pinter. Beckett’s image, like Che, is teetering on the border of co-option, but not his work. Its not fun, in the end. It is within the arena of things that are not fun, that liberation probably resides. If Kott is correct that tragedy has become the grotesque, then the map of what is possible in artworks gets a little clearer.
Sontag: “The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained. While it’s not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap. Not all liberals are Jews, but Jews have shown a peculiar affinity for liberal and reformist causes. So, not all homosexuals have Camp taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard — and the most articulate audience — of Camp. (The analogy is not frivolously chosen. Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture. Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities. The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.)”
I’m not sure this is any longer true. For one thing, marketing arrived. And the commodification of gay taste (if one can even say that). I no longer think the gay community creates sensibilites, but rather recycles an earlier form of subversive, now blantantly reactionary in most respects. The critique became its own hegemony in a sense. But only in a sense. That which has been commodified is by default reactionary. It is in the service of reinforcing the status quo. But again, one runs smack up against the Borgesian maze of cause and effect, and the errosion of real experience. The outsider is now, at least in part, an insider.
All this is to point out that camp has morphed into something else, much as tragedy has. A filmmaker and theatre director like Jodorowsky whose films twenty years ago, seemed like failed and portentious exercises in a kind of feeding on the corpse of surrealism, today take on a more interesting sense of outsider sensibility.
It may be that Jodorowsky’s seriousness of ambition has redeemed his work, and made it unsuitable for marketing. When there is nothing to sell, the artwork will emerge as other than it was intended. Whatever one makes of Jodorowsky’s mysticism, the films today look far better than they did thirty or even twenty years ago.
I have written of the uncanny, and how systematically these instabilities are erased, when possible, by corporate media. But we have reached the cultural tipping point, now. The ever faster turnaround of products and style has left narrative itself so truncated and attentuated that it can barely be called narrative anymore. The formulas have been repeated millions of times, literally. When one considers the most resistant artworks, at least in film, names like Pasolini, and Fassbinder come to mind immediatley, but also more recently Audiard, Dumont and Haneke. But not that many more.
It is why theatre, somehow, feels on the precipice of relevancy again. How that happens remains to be discovered.
But theatre is still based on relationship with a present audience. The audience is THERE, in the room. One of the problems in generating audiences for small theatres is exactly related to this; its easier to stay home and watch TV. Or watch TV on the internet. Theatre resists that control that has been exercised so completely on other mediums. There are myriad strategies for film and TV though, but the first step is going to always be finding a way to finance without corporate ownership. This is all painfully obvious I know.
If Mander is basically right, if consciousness is privatized, if everything, including ourselves, is for sale, then the collective has to be turned away from the spectacle somehow. This presidential election will be remembered at the final stage of an Orwellian project that began in the 1960s. The ideological mediation of cultural product is complete. We live in a strange distanced reality of pixels and screens. A highly inorganic reality of globalized commodification. A population that will now murder for their favorite brand, while accepting drone terror and mass incarcertaion. Change the channel. Oh, that’s better, American Idol. Our lives, our desire, is projected on the screen of our unconscious. But its never perfect. It can’t be. Our personal Oedipal drama still plays out. History has been erased or revised, but it still shaped us, and our very language is part of this personal narrative. The split self, the hollow men….bourgeois identity, none of that just disappears. There have to be cracks, there have to be fissures in the edifice of the corporate reality show.
The poetics of all systems are the great subversive element. Donne, Shakespeare, Hart Crane or James Wright…Vallejo, Lorca, Trakl, and Webern and Bartok. And on and on. Francis Bacon and Pasolini…the plays of Pinter and Peter Handke. The poetics can be labeled as the sacred or the ritualistic, or the mystical. They are no doubt all those things. They are also truthful. For resistance in culture is the truth.