Narrative in the culture industry creates certain templates or lenses, really, for viewing certain topics.
Poverty is an example. Poverty in the United States is measured by an arbitrary set of income numbers. There are two methods employed; poverty guidelines and poverty thresholds. Both are inadequate. The Census Bureau uses poverty threshold figures, which are, actually, only slightly different than the poverty guidelines — but they do shift slightly according to where you live. Cost of living etc is factored in.
There are around, as of 2009, 14% of Americans living in poverty. This is a very low ball figure. The cut off line for a family of four is twenty two thousand dollars a year. For a single adult its eleven thousand dollars a year income…gross…not net. There are eighteen million food insecure households in the United States as of 2011.
There are three times as many homeless children in the U.S. (1.5 million) as there were in 1983.
In media, the treatment of the poor is one of stigmatizing, of aberration, and pathologizing. The poor are almost always criminals. They are criminals FIRST. The first take, in almost all narrative, if one is showing the poor, is that of crime. The second trope is some form of sentimentalizing —often including children. This also usually includes a caring paternal/maternal figure who works for the man.
Within the sentimentalized narrative on the poor, there is always the ideological backdrop of *saving* and of the juxtaposition of hardworking poor and slacker/criminal poor. Again, the constant is that the system works. Its flawed, it has *bad apples* but it basically works. Places like Venezuela, where they decreased poverty by over half, the depiction is one of endless poverty and of institutional corruption. In US narrative there is corruption, but the story is about people fixing it, Eric Brockovich, or whoeverthefuckever. In movies whistle blowers are heroes, in real life they are John Kiriakou or Bradley Manning.
There are writers who express something of the genuine despair and pathology of the poor, without pretending the system didn’t cause it. Even back to Faulkner or James Cain, one saw poverty was a product of a system. Today’s rural noir writers like Daniel Woodrell or Mathew F. Stone capture the same. The sense of compassion, I’ve always thought, is what distinguishes great writers… from Jean Genet to Tolstoy to Melville. From Hammett to Iceberg Slim. There is no snark when you are compassionate. There is no snark because you cannot look with clarity at human suffering and not feel sorrow, a genuine spiritual grief. That silence that is primordial comes from having to look soberly at the wreckage of human lives.
In the United States the poverty, the soul deforming poverty of an America never seen in mass culture.
Camden, New Jersey. It sits across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. It is a city of just under 80,000….and with a poverty rate of 52%.
A mean household income of eighteen thousand dollars a year.
Camden is a port, and handles breakbulk and other container shipping at the Beckett Street terminal. The population is decreasing… having dropped around 2% each of the last three years. Voter turnout is around 18%. A major news TV show did a special on Camden. It was for TV a human zoo, but white folks were coming…to film first, help later….maybe. The tones of voice on that new magazine that featured Camden were very caring. They contained “compassion effects”. They cared….oh fuck, they cared so much. SHOCKING….its shocking…..
Paternalism. White people who care. Smiling kids, kids who *want* to do better, not those, you know, gang kids. Those criminals. Those addicts.
Diane Sawyer was married to Mike Nichols, who directed the deeply reactionary Charlie Wilson’s War, written by coke head Aaron Sorkin. But never mind…I digress.
Tacoma, Washington, on Puget Sound, thirty miles from Seattle. Another ‘poor relative’ city. Tacoma has a population (in decline) of around 200,000. Mean average income around nineteen thousand dollars a year. Around 16% live below the poverty line, but a very high percentage could be described as at risk for poverty.
The Tacoma Mall is the largest shopping center in the city, and is owned and was developed by the Simon Property Group. The Simon Property Group is owned by brothers Melvin and Herbert Simon.
Simon Property Group was formed in 1992 — when it became a publicly traded company (originally was founded in 1960 in Indiana).
In 1996, the Simon-DeBartolo Group was created when Simon Property merged with former rival DeBartolo Realty Corp. The DeBartolo Group is owned by Eddie DeBartolo. Debartolo gave the San Francisco 49ers football team to his son as a present. Hebert Simon, owner of Simon Property, and his brother Herbert, bought the Indiana Pacers basketball team in 1983.
The Aurora, Colorado mall shooting took place in a Simon Property owned mall.
Tacoma is, perhaps, best known for the ‘tacoma-aroma’…the acrid smell of wood pulp mills located in the tidal flats east of the city. I am told its not so bad anymore, only sometimes do you choke on a smell most resembling rotten eggs. If you look up historic sites in Tacoma, about all you come up with is Engine House No. 9, a fire station built in 1907. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and now houses a pub which brews its own beer. Oh, and there is the Murray Morgan Bridge, a steel lift bridge that spans the Thea Foss Waterway.
The economic downturn corresponded to the downturn in logging and paper mills. Clear cutting has destroyed the once dense forests of the pacific northwest……but I digress….
The town of Gary, Indiana, located south of Chicago, another poor working class satellite city, population 110,000, and 26% living below the poverty line. Gary Indiana is perhaps best known for being the title of a song in Meredith Wilson’s 1957 musical, The Music Man. Nightmare on Elm Street was shot in Gary. Gary is 84% black, and there is only one white majority neighborhood…Black Oak (sic). At one time the largest employer…well, almost the only employer in Gary, was U.S. Steel. Then one day U.S. Steel made a 90% job cut. Two hundred thousands jobs left in the early 70s.
The violent crime index in Gary is 491, the U.S. average is 213. It is listed as the most underpoliced major city in the U.S.
Gary was dubbed the best city for blacks by Ebony magazine in 1955.
The narratives for crime tend to create an image of wanton de-contextualized pathology –the *bad guys*…and a city like El Paso features in a few films (and I beleive an upcoming series) as the site of border wars, for the lure of the south is indellible for Americans. The shadow lands of Mexico and beyond. It is over-determined as both a shadow mythic symbol, and a racist repository for threats of infestation.
In novels such as The Ultimate Good Luck, quite possibly Richard Ford’s best, the darkness is in the heart of white America, even as the sense of exoticism is played out on a landscape of lurid criminality. In Hollywood today, there is no such dialectic, there is only the sense of fear and menace coming northward.
El Paso is a city of 700,000, located across from Juarez, Mexico. It is a high crime, high unemployment arena for cartel expansion north. Mean annual income is thirty two thousand a year, and 23% of the population lives in poverty. It is 85% Hispanic.
Stockton, California. Central Valley, population 290,000, home of the annual Asparagus Festival, and the largest city to ever file for bankruptcy. It was rated the third most illiterate city in the country with under 17% of the population having a college degree. It is a city of migrant workers, unskilled laborers, and little industry or work. Unemployment is at, officially, 21%…among the highest in the nation for cities of more than one hundred thousand. Forbes magazine gave it the title “most miserable city to live in” in 2011. It is second most obese city (behind Montgomery, Alabama) with an obesity rate at 34%.
I like Stockton, is the thing. It is a city of suffering, though, but that is also its attraction, its seduction. It is a city of saints as well as dark souls and fat people.There is a poetry in Stockton, a sense that the historical traces of divergent communities have been allowed to stay, and decay, but not to be erased. Officially, 32% live below the poverty line. It’s easier though, to survive below that line in the warmth of the Central Valley, while it’s a lot harder to do that in Detroit or Camden.
There is also culture in Stockton. The University of the Pacific, an actually not bad small college, and one with an excellent music conservatory. It has a symphony, and it has an opera and a new dance company. Stockton doesn’t depress you when you drive in. The life of communities, whether poverty or just that of the working poor, those “at risk” to fall below this arbitrary line, are not often seen in the images of the culture industry.
The catagories of the camera, as Flusser has it, are on the outside of the camera….or they were. Today it is increasingly automated. The apparatus is defining the image, is deciding most of the catagories. The anti kitsch (anti culture industry) image must be sought in the conditions that produce it, firstly. Not just the material conditions, although that is first in a sense. The conditions of the apparatus, the technical dynamic, but the conditions of the aeshtetic that is being sought….for as Flusser says, the photographer is on a hunt. A hunt for possibility, for the unexpected (which I take to be mean the unseen, the forgotten, the erased memory, amnesia) and for quantum doubt. Phenomenological doubt. The manufacture of image in corporate media, in the culture industry, are technical and pre-vetted…the images of the poor contain a pre-calculated effect.
But the aesthetic is prior to the technical, to the categories of the camera. It is the illusive search for those small disruptions in awareness, the preparations for preparation, the creating of the possibilities for the accidental that is, of course the residue of design. With the photographic image, as it pertains to the corporate media, the culture industry, the sense of drowning beneath the weight of surplus image is palpable, it is acute — but the road out of this morass is found in the most marginalized places, in the desolate and forsaken places the system ignores, the Spectacle wants to erase. The places not already exhausted. The reclaimed aesthetic begins before the technical and it begins before any active process. It is a sense of internal subtraction.
The culture industry produces ever more risk averse product.
The new NBC series, Deception is the normalizing of extreme wealth as a familiar psychic landscape for America. People live through a screen reality. The intention is not to have you awaken to an engagement with a world around you, it is to put you to sleep. As Horkheimer noted, “The culture industry is like psychoanalysis in reverse.”
The triple ironies of black lead actors only reinforces the illusion. It is the almost perfect pastiche of narrative devices…..beautiful, rich, wealthy family, AND she’s a cop!
The ruins of the industrial landscape of the first world are traces of history (per Benjamin) in which a genuine poetics might emerge. The need to create the genre enclosure is a complex one. Is Stockton the sci fi landscape for a dystopian futurist narrative? Does that erase the history of the San Joaquin Delta, of the Tuleberg and Fat City, or the mining companies and labor tensions? One of the only films, actually, that captured a sense of place and history was Huston’s Fat City, even if only in a minor way. Most product today is tuned to the technical catagories of image creation, and manufactured test marketed homogenization (marketed of course as diversity). If you are offered fifty seven colors of toothbrush, you think you have great freedom of choice. All of them are, however, overpriced and made by two companies in the same factory.
“On the basis of these criteria, the ‘best’ photographs are those in in which photographers win out against the camera’s program in the sense of their human intentions, i.e. they subordinate the camera to human intention. It goes without saying that there are ‘good’ photographs in which the human spirit wins out against the program. But in the photographic universe as a whole, one cas see how programs are succeeding moe and more in redirecting human intentions in the interests of camera functions.”
I keep feeling in more and more acute ways the destruction of history. If history exists at all, it exists as in revisionist form. It is kistch t-shirt stand souvenir history.
One of the tropes of narrative in the culture industry has to do with intelligence. The poor are stupid. The fact is, the U.S. education system is funded by local government. This means rich neighborhoods have good schools with quality supplies, while poor areas have bad schools and no materials. Couple this is the depiction of inner city or any impoverished community in the media, and a certain attendant apathy sets in. The parents are under-achieving, so must their children be under-achieving. Here we return to the Diane Sawyer model above: lets rescue a few children, special ones hopefully, and chronicle this liberal do-gooding in the same way celebrities volunteer at soup kitchens on Christmas. The poor are poor all year long. It is shown as a given though that poor schools are the result of bad students. Criminally minded students often. There is a parallel theme that crops up, and that is the poor school helped by a single crusading teacher. It is a contradiction to the master narrative, but one that is accepted without question.
There are places invisible to the culture industry. Even when ‘shown’, they are obscured and mystified. They are reproduced in modified fashion.
Today’s artists (and I touched on this with last entry on Abramovic) are too often seen as immaterial labor — rather than as labor period. The management of various art markets is the province of the managerial class, serving the owners of the system. The artist should not be seen as immaterial, nor his or her labor. The artist simply creates, under various conditions, all conditions, but the artwork is packaged by management. Running alongside this is the culture industry and the kitsch entertainment that is spewed out. New TV series are cancelled if they don’t have an audience within a week or two. The series itself is meaningless, only the numbers matter. The fine arts are dominated by both academia and gallery owners and arts dealers. The prestige artforms….symphonies and ballet and opera and so on are dealt with by an artificial scarcity —that effectively distances them from everyday life. Everyone and everything is connected to the structural demands of celebrity. Distance from community. The artist produces image, but its the circulation that matters.
Imperial County, California. The poorest county in the largest state. 27% of the population of Imperial County lives in poverty. The largest city is Calexico with 38,000, and Brawley next with 24,000. It is hot and most of the work is picking vegetables. Amtrak trains run through Imperial County, but none stop. The nearest stop is Yuma, Arizona. Imperial County was the subject of a very worthy book by William Vollman. It is one of the most invisible places in the country. It is only three hours drive, maybe less, from downtown Los Angeles.
Imperial County IS the home of the Sonny Bono Salton Sean National Wildlife Refuge, located entirely below sea level, with an annual mean temperature of over 100f.
The Salton Sea has had several movies made about it. It is a bit of domestic orientalism, in a sense. The actual groteque nightmare of the Sea is rarely addressed. It is simply a place for weirdos to go.
Yazoo, Mississippi. Population 28,000. Mean average income twenty one thousand dollars. 53% black, 44% white. Part of one of the poorest regions in the country. Yazoo county is larger than Rhode Island and the biggest county in Mississippi. There is no industry at all in Yazoo, County. The word Yazoo is Choctaw for Death River. The folk figure Casey Jones, railroad engineer, was from Yazoo….so the story goes. People subsist farm in Yazoo.
The culture industry now works toward monopolizing of attention. It de-territorializes, removing the artist from any community, mostly by eliminating community, or more often the idea of community. The subject floats in a generalized register where symbol and myth are rinsed free of history and politics. The re-claiming of an aesthetic that comes before commodification, and before the colonizing of the Spectacle, means seeing what you are being encouraged not to see.