Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Mutable Masses?

It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Notably, however, the fears associated with the masses have not been limited to one particular decade in American history:  across cultures and times, we can witness examples akin to tulip mania where unruly mobs exhibited relatively irrational behavior. Given the reoccurring nature of this phenomenon, which receives additional credence from psychological studies exploring groupthink and conformity (Janis, 1972; Asch, 1956), we might choose to examine how, if at all, the cultural critiques of the 1950s apply to contemporary society.

Recast, the criticisms of mass culture presumably resonate today in a context where popular culture holds sway over a generally uncritical public; we might convincingly argue that media saturation has served to develop a modern society in which celebrities run wild while evidencing sexual exploits like badges of honor, traditional communities have collapsed, and the proverbial apocalypse appears closer than ever. Moreover, having lost sight of our moral center while further solidifying our position as a culture of consumption since the 1950s, the masses have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to flash a credit card in response to advertising campaigns and to purchase unnecessary goods hawked by celebrity spokespeople in a process that demonstrates a marked fixation on appearance and the image in a process reminiscent of critiques drawn from A Face in the Crowd (Hoberman, 2008a; Ecksel, 2008). Primarily concerned with the melding of politics, news, and entertainment, which harkens back to Kierkegaard-inspiried critiques of mass culture, current critics charge that the public has at long last become what we most feared:  a mindless audience with sworn allegiances born out of fielty to the all-mighty image (Hoberman, 2008a).

Arguably the most striking (or memorable) recent expression of image, and subsequent comingling bewteen politics and entertainment, centered around Sarah Palin’s campaign for office in 2008. Indeed, much of the disucssion regarding Palin centered around her image and colloquisims rather than focusing solely on her abilities. [1] Throughout her run, Palin positioned herself as an everyman figure, summoning figures such as “Joe Six-Pack” and employing terms such as “hockey mom” in order to covey her relatability to her constituents.[2] In a piece on then-Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, columnist Jon Meacham questions this practice by writing:  “Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?” (2008). Palin, it seemed to Meacham, represented much more of the former than the latter; this position then  leads to the important suggestion that Palin was placed on the political bill in order to connect with voters (2008). Suddenly, a correlary between Palin and Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd becomes almost self-evident.

At our most cynical, we could argue that Palin is a Lonesome-type figure, cleverly manipulating her image in order to connect with the disenfranchised and disenchanted. More realistically, however, we might consider how Palin could understand her strength in terms of her relatability instead of her political acumen; she swims against the current as a candidate of the people (in perhaps the truest sense of the term) and provides hope that she will represent the voice of the common man, in the process challenging the status quo in a government that has seemingly lost touch with its base. In some ways, this argument continues to hold valence in post-election actions that demonstrate increasing support of the Tea Party movement.

However, regardless of our personal political stances, the larger pertinent issue raised by A Face in the Crowd is the continued existence of an audience whose decision-making process remains heavily influenced by image—we actually need to exert effort in order to extract our opinion of Sarah Palin the politician from the overall persona of Sarah Palin. Although admittedly powerful, author Mark Rowlands argues that a focus on image—and the reliance on the underlying ethereal quality described by Daniel Boorstin as being “well known for [one’s] well-knownness” (Boorstin, 1962, p. 221)—is ultimately damning as the public’s inability to distinguish between items of quality leads them to focus on the wrong questions (and, perhaps worse, to not even realize that we are asking the wrong questions) in ways that have very real consequences. Extrapolating from Rowlands, we might argue that, as a culture that is obsessed with image and reputation, we have, in some ways, forgotten how to judge the things that really matter because we have lost a sense of what our standards should be.

Ever the Same?

So while the criticisms of critics from the Frankfurt School might appear to hold true today, we also need to realize that modern audiences exist in a world that is, in some ways, starkly different from that of the 1950s. To be sure, the mainstream media continues to exist in a slightly expanded form but new commentary on the state of American culture must account for the myriad ways in which current audiences interact with the world around them. For instance, work published after Theodor Adorno’s time has argued against the passive nature of audiences, recognizing the agency of individual actors (Mattson, 2003; Shudson, 1984).[3] Moreover, the new activity on the part of audiences has done much to comingle the once distinctly separate areas of high and low culture in a process that would have likely confounded members of the Frankfurt School. The current cultural landscape encompasses remix efforts such as Auto-Tune the News along with displays of street art in museum galleries; projects once firmly rooted in folk or pop art have transcended definitional boundaries to become more accepted—and even valued—in the lives of all citizens. While Adorno might be tempted to cite this as evidence of high culture’s debasement, we might instead argue that these new manifestations have challenged the long-held elitism surrounding the relative worth of particular forms of art.

Additionally, examples like Auto-Tune the News suggest that advances in technology have also had a large impact on the cultural landscape of America over the past half century, with exponential growth occurring after the widespread deployment of the Internet and the resulting World Wide Web. While the Internet certainly provided increased access to information, it also created the scaffolding for social media products that allowed new modes of participation for users. Viewed in the context of image, technology has helped to construct a world in which reputations are made and broken in an instant and we have more information circulating in the system than ever before; the appearance of technology, then, has not only increased the velocity of the system but has also amplified it.

Although the media often showcases deleterious qualities of the masses’ relationship with these processes (the suicide of a student at Rutgers University being a recent and poignant example), we are not often exposed to the incredible pro-social benefits of a platform like Twitter or Facebook. While we might be tempted to associate such pursuits with online predators (a valid concern, to be sure) or, at best, unproductive in regard to civic engagement (Gladwell, 2010), to do so would to ignore the powerfully positive uses of this technology (Burnett, 2010; Lehrer, 2010; Johnston, 2010). Indeed, we need only look at a newer generation of activist groups who have built upon Howard Rheingold’s concept of “smart mobs” in order to leverage online technologies to their benefit (2002)—a recent example can be found in the efforts of groups like The Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center to win money in the Chase Community Giving competition (Business Wire, 2010). Clearly, if the masses can self-organize and contribute to society, the critiques of mass culture as nothing more than passive receptors of media messages need to be revised.

Reconsidering the Masses

If we accept the argument that audiences can play an active part in their relationship with media, we then need to look for a framework that begin to address media’s role in individuals’ lives and to examine the motivations and intentions that underlie media consumption. Although we might still find that media is a corrosive force in society, we must also realize that, while potentially exploiting an existing flaw, it does not necessarily create the initial problem (MacGregor, 2000).

A fundamental building block in the understanding of media’s potential impact is the increased propensity for individuals (particularly youth) to focus on external indicators of self-worth, with the current cultural climate of consumerism causing individuals to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they do not have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) as opposed to their strengths. Simultaneously both an exacerbation of this problem and an entity proffering solutions, constructs like advertising provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by instilling brands as a substitute for value:  the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon individuals, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if people aren’t good at anything, they can still be associated with the right brands and be okay. Although we might be tempted to blame advertising for this situation, it actually merely serves to exploit our general unease about our relationship to the world, a process also reminiscent of narcissism (Lasch, 1979).

Historian Christopher Lasch goes on to argue that, once anchored by institutions such as religion, we have become generally disconnected from our traditional anchors and thus have come to substitute media messages and morality tales for actual ethical and spiritual education (1979). The overlapping role of religion and advertising is noted by James Twitchell, who contends that, “Like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996, 110). Thus, we might classify religion, advertising, entertainment, and celebrity as examples of belief systems (i.e., a certain way of seeing the world complete with their own set of values) and use these paradigms to begin to understand their respective (and ultimately somewhat similar!) effects on the masses.

A Higher Power

Ideologies such as those found in popular culture, religion, or advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996, 29). Each manifestation also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of advertising, entertainment, religion, and art (as associated with high/pop/folk culture) play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, in terms of the external:  God, works of art, and name brands all serve as tools of classification. While cynics might note that this stance bears some similarities to the carnival sideshows of P. T. Barnum—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (Gamson, 1994; Lasch, 1979)—the terms survive because they continue to speak to a deep desire for structure; the myth of advertising works for the same reasons that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers. Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of [the culture of advertising] is felt where we least expect it:  in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, 124). Constructs like advertising or entertainment, it seems, not only allow us to assemble a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of individuals in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how overarching ideologies can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process evidenced by the ability of the aforementioned concepts to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu.

Given our reconsideration of mid-century cultural critiques, it follows that we should necessarily reevaluate proposed solutions to the adverse issues present within mass culture. We recall the advice of A Face in the Crowd’s Mel Miller (i.e., “We get wise to them”) and reject its elitist overtones while remaining mindful of its core belief. We recognize that priding ourselves on being smart enough to see through the illusions present in mass culture, while pitying those who have yet to understand how they are being herded like so many sheep, makes us guilty of the narcissism we once ascribed to the masses—and perhaps even more dangerous than the uneducated because we are convinced that we know better. We see that aspects of mass culture address deeply embedded desires and that our best hope for improving culture is to satisfy these needs while educating audiences so that they can better understand how and why media affects them. Our job as critics is to encourage critical thinking on the part of audiences, dissecting media and presenting it to individuals so that they can make informed choices about their consumption patterns; our challenge is to convincingly demonstrate that engagement with media is a crucial and fundamental part of the process. If we ascribe to these principles, we can preserve the masses’ autonomy and not merely replace one dominant ideology with another.


[1] Certainly being a female did not help this as American women are typically subject to a “halo effect” wherein their attractiveness (i.e., appearance) affects their perception (Kaplan, 1978)

[2] Palin has continued the trend, currently employing the term “mama grizzlies,” a call-to-arms that hopes to rally the willingness of women to fight in order to protect things that they believe in. Interestingly, a term that reaffirms the traditional role of women as nurturing matriarchs has been linked to feminist movements, a move that seems to confuse the empowerment of women with a socially conservative construct of their role in American life (Dannenfelser, 2010).

[3] We can also see much work conducted in the realm of fan studies that supports the practice of subversive readings or “textual poaching,” a term coined by Henry Jenkins (1992), in order to discuss contemporary methods of meaning making and resistance by fans.

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