Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for September, 2011

The Most Important Product Is You!

“The Culture Industry” seems to be one of those seminal pieces in the cannon of Cultural Studies that elicits a visceral (and often negative) reaction from modern scholars. Heavily influenced by the Birmingham School, generations of scholars have been encouraged to recognize agency in audiences, with the Frankfurt School often placed in direct opposition to the ideals of modern inquiry. Read one way, Horkheimer and Adorno appear elitist, privileging what has come to be known as “high culture” (e.g., classical music and fine art) over the entertainment of the masses. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that the culture industry creates a classification scheme in which man exists; whereas man previously struggled to figure out his place in the world, this job is done for him by the culture industry and its resultant structure of artificial stratification. Ultimately, then, because he does not have to think about his position in culture, man is not engaged in his world in the same way as he was before, which therefore allows content to become formulaic and interchangeable.

Later echoed in Adorno’s “How to Look at Television,” “The Culture Industry” laments the predictable pattern of televisual media, with audiences knowing the ending of movies as soon as they begin. (Interestingly, there is some overlap with this and Horror with audiences expecting that offerings follow a convention—one might even argue that the “twist ending” has become its own sort of genre staple—and that a movie’s failure to follow their expectations leaves the audience disgruntled. This of course raises questions about whether modern audiences have been conditioned to expect certain things out of media or to engage in a particular type of relationship with their media and whether plot progression, at least in part, defines the genre.) Horkheimer and Adorno’s attitude speaks to a privileging of original ideas (and the intellectual effort that surrounds them) but the modern context seems to suggest that the combination of preexisting ideas in a new way holds some sort of cultural value.

Adorno’s “How to Look at Television” also points out a degradation in our relationship to media by highlighting the transition from inward-facing to outward-facing stances, equating such migration with movement away from subtlety. Although the point itself may very well be valid, it does not include a robust discussion of print versus televisual media:  Adorno’s footnote that mentions the different affordances of media (i.e., print allows for contemplation and mirrors introspection while television/movies rely on visual cues due to their nature as visual media) deserves further treatment as the implications of these media forms likely has repercussions on audience interactions with them. Almost necessarily, then, do we see a televisual viewing practice that does not typically rely on subtlety due to a different form of audience/media interaction.  (It might also be noted that the Saw movies have an interesting take on this in that they pride themselves on leaving visual “breadcrumbs” for viewers to discover upon repeated viewings although these efforts are rarely necessary for plot comprehension.)

To be fair, however, one might argue that Horkheimer and Adorno wrote in a radically different media context. Sixty years later, we might argue that there’s not that much left to discover and that prestige has now been shifted to recombinations of existent information. Moreover, Horkheimer and Adorno’s position also assumes a particular motivation of the audience (i.e., that the payoff is the conclusion instead of the journey) that may no longer be completely true for modern viewers.

Although Horkheimer and Adorno rightly raise concerns regarding a lack of independent thinking (or even the expectation of it!), we are perhaps seeing a reversal of this trend with transmedia and attempts at audience engagement. Shows now seem to want people to talk about their shows (message boards, Twitter, etc.) in order to keep them invested and although we might quibble about the quality of such discourse and whether it is genuine or reactionary, it seems that this practice must be reconciled with Horkheimer and Adorno’s original position. It should be noted, however, that the technology on which such interaction relies was not around when Horkheimer and Adorno wrote “The Culture Industry” and the Internet has likely helped to encourage audience agency (or at least made it more visible).

Seeking to challenge the notion that the Horkheimer and Adorno discounted audience agency, John Durham Peters argues for the presence of both industry and audience influence in the space of culture and furthermore that while audiences may be empowered, their actions serve to reinforce their submission to the dominant wishes of industry in a realization of hegemonic practice. Although Horkheimer and Adorno, writing in the shadow of World War II were undoubtedly concerned with the potential undue influence of mass media as a vehicle for fascist ideology—as evidenced by quotes such as “The radio becomes the universal mouthpiece of the Fuhrer” and “The gigantic fact that the speech penetrates everywhere replaces its content”—they were also concerned that the public had relinquished its ability to resist by choosing to pursue frivolous entertainment rather than freedom (Adorno, 1941). From this position, Peters extracts the argument that Horkheimer and Adorno did in fact recognize agency on the part of audiences, but also that such energies were misspent.

The notion of “the masses” has long been an area of interest for me as it manifests throughout suburban Gothic horror in the mid-20th century. In many ways, society was struggling to come to terms with new advances with technology and the implications for how these new inventions would bring about resultant changes in practice and structure. Below is an excerpt from a longer piece about a movie that also grappled with some of these issues.

Reacting to atrocities witnessed throughout the course of World War II, Americans in the 1950s became obsessed with notions of power and control, fearing that they would be subsumed by the invisible hand of a totalitarian regime. In particular, the relatively young medium of television became suspect as it represented a major broadcast system that seemed to have an almost hypnotic pull on its audience, leaving viewers entranced by its images. And images, according to author and historian Daniel Boorstin, were becoming increasingly prominent throughout the 19th century as part of the Graphic Revolution replete with the power to disassociate the real from its representation (1962). For cultural critics still reeling from the aftereffects of Fascism and totalitarianism, this was a dangerous proposition indeed.

Although these underlying anxieties of mid-century American society could be examined via a wide range of anthropological lenses and frameworks, visual media has historically provided a particularly vivid manifestation of the fears latent in the people of the United States (Haskell, 2004). This is, of course, not to imply that visual media is necessarily the best or only means by which we can understand prevailing ideologies in the years after World War II, but merely one of the most visible. However, as a critical examination of the entire media landscape of the 1950s would be beyond the scope of a single paper of this magnitude, discussion shall be primarily concentrated around Elia Kazan’s 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd with particular attention paid to the contrasting channels of cinema and television.[1] This paper will seek to briefly position A Face in the Crowd in the larger context of paranoia-driven cinema of the 1950s before using the film as an entryway to discuss critiques of mass culture. Given the film’s apparent sustained resonance as indicated by its relatively recent mention (Vallis, 2008; Hoberman, 2008b; Franklin, 2009), the arguments of Critical Theory will then be applied to modern American culture in an attempt to ascertain their continued validity. Finally, an argument will be made that acknowledges the potential dangers facing mass culture in the 21st century but also attempts to understand the processes that underlie these pitfalls and provides a suggestion for recourse in the form of cultural and media literacy.

Paranoia, Paranoia, Everyone’s Coming to Get Me

The post-war prosperity of the 1950s caused rapid changes in America, literally altering the landscape as families began to flood into the newly-formed suburbs. With the dream and promise of upward social mobility firmly ensconced in their heads, families rushed to claim their piece of the American dream, replete with the now-iconic front yard and white picket fence. And yet, ironically, a new set of worries began to fester underneath the idyllic façade of the suburbs as the troubles of the city were merely traded for fears of paranoia and invasion; the very act of flight led to entrapment by an ethos that subtly precluded the possibility of escape.

As with many other major cultural shifts, the rapid change in the years following World War II caused Americans to muse over the direction in which they were now headed; despite a strong current of optimism that bolstered dreams of a not-far-off utopia, there remained a stubborn fear that the quickly shifting nature of society might have had unanticipated and unforeseen effects (Murphy, 2009). Life in the suburbs, it seemed, was too good to be true and inhabitants felt a constant tension as they imagined challenges to their newly rediscovered safety:  from threats of invasion to worries about conformity, and from dystopian futures to a current reality that could now be obliterated with nuclear weapons, people of the 1950s continually felt the weight of being a society under siege. An overwhelming sense of doubt, and more specifically, paranoia, characterized the age and latent fears manifested in media as the public began to struggle with the realization that the suburbs did not fully represent the picturesque spaces that they had been conceived to be. In fact, inhabitants were assaulted on a variety of levels as they became disenchanted with authority figures, feared assimilation and mind control (particularly through science and/or technology), began to distrust their neighbors (who could easily turn out to be Communists, spies, or even aliens!), and felt haunted by their pasts, all of which filled the movie screens of the decade (Jensen, 1971; Murphy, 2009; Wolfe, 2002).[2] Following solidly in this tradition, Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd picks up on some of the latent strains of paranoia in American culture while simultaneously serving as a platform for a set of critiques regarding mass culture.

Somewhere, a Star Is Made

The storyline of A Face in the Crowd is rather straightforward and yet deceptively complex in its undertones:  on the surface, we experience a rather heavy-handed morality tale in the form of country bumpkin Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a relative nobody who is plucked from obscurity and made (and subsequently broken) through powers associated with television. Yet, it is only when we begin to connect the movie to a larger societal context that we begin to understand the ramifications of the film’s message; a careful examination of A Face in the Crowd reveals striking suspicions regarding the role that media plays (in this case, primarily television and cinema) in shaping American culture. Stars, director Elia Kazan argues, are not so much born as made, a distinction that portends dire consequences.

It is worth noting that Kazan’s film was made during a time when the concept of the “celebrity” was being renegotiated by America; for a large part of its history, the United States, firmly grounded in a Puritan work ethic, had honored heroes who exemplified ideals associated with a culture of production and was struggling to reconcile these notions in the presence of an environment whose emphasis was now focused on consumption. Although modern audiences might initially find this shift difficult to appreciate, one need only consider that the premium placed on production is so central to American ideology that it continues to linger today:  in a culture that exhibits rampant consumerism, we still value the “self-made man” and sell the myth of America as a place where anyone can achieve success through hard work. To abandon these ideas would necessitate that we reinterpret the very meaning of “America.” Thus, we become more sympathetic to the critics of the day who lamented the loss of the greatness of man and bristled against the notion that fame or celebrity could be manufactured—such a system could would only result in individuals who were lacking and unworthy of their status (Gamson, 1994; Benjamin, 1973)

Such is the case it seems, with Larry Rhodes, who is discovered by roving reporter Marcia Jeffries in an Arkansas jail. Although it cannot be denied that Rhodes has some modicum of talent and a certain charisma that comes from being unafraid to speak one’s mind, Marcia ushers Rhodes onto the path of greatness by dubbing him “Lonesome” and thus creates a character that transforms Rhodes from a despondent drunk to a winsome drifter. This scene—the first major one in the movie—thusly introduces the important notion that those involved in the media can be implicitly involved in the manipulation of the information that travels over the airwaves. Subtly adding to the insidious nature of the media, A Face in the Crowd portrays Marcia as a character that seems likable enough, but also a person who is, in a way, exploiting the people in jail as she rushes in with her tape recorder intent on prying the stories from the characters she finds (or creates!) and does not exhibit much concern in truly understanding why these men are imprisoned in the first place. Taken to an extreme, we later come across the character of The General, who further perverts the connection between media and power as he conspires with Lonesome to remake the image of Senator Worthington Fuller as the congressman runs for President.

Yet, as Lonesome Rhodes grows in his role as a media personality, he quickly demonstrates that the power to manipulate does not lie solely with those who sit behind the cameras. In Memphis, Rhodes incites a riot against the Luffler mattress company and also solicits donations in order to help a Black woman rebuild her house. In light of this, we can see that while Kazan focuses on the negative implications of television and celebrity, that the relative good or bad that comes from these actions is not necessarily the point—instead, the one constant in all of the depicted scenarios is a public who is manipulated into performing actions on the behalf of others. Although the characters of Lonesome and The General are vilified throughout the film, it is the masses for which Kazan demonstrates true disdain.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions

Perhaps nowhere is this contempt more apparent than at the end of the film where, in an attempt to offer a small moment of solace to Marcia after her unmasking of Lonesome, writer Mel Miller notes, “We get wise to them, that’s our strength” (Kazan, 1957). And Miller is not wrong:  Western tradition has long recognized the correlation between knowledge and power and Miller’s assertion touches upon the revelatory clout inherent in the realignment of perception and reality as noted by public relations guru Howard Bragman (2008). A more critical examination of the film’s closing scene, however, raises an important question:  Who is Miller’s “we”? Although one might be tempted to read this line as indicative of an egalitarian philosophical view, it is important to note that the only two characters in the shot represent the film’s arguably upper-middle class, and pointedly Eastern-educated, elite—nowhere to be seen are representatives of the small Arkansas town from the film’s opening or denizens of Memphis, both of whom serve to characterize the majority of Lonesome’s devoted viewers.[3] In fact, if we take time to reflect upon the movie, we realize that the majority of the audience was only alerted to Lonesome’s dual nature after Marcia flipped a control room switch and revealed the underlying deterioration; the masses oscillated from one position to the next without understanding how or why and once again adopted a passive stance in their relationship with media. Moreover, as Courtney Maloney points out, Kazan’s depiction of the agency of the masses is actually limited in scope:  despite a montage of audience members vehemently phoning in, sponsors are simultaneously shown to be acting independently as they withdraw their association with Lonesome (1999). Moreover, the subtext of the scene distances the rational decision-making of the truly powerful from the impassioned beseeching of the masses, likening the power of the latter to that of a mob. Knowledge and its associated authority, clearly, are afforded to a select group.

This idea, that the world can be divided between those who “get wise” and those who do not, serves to develop a rather sharp classist criticism against the medium of television and those who would watch it:  moviegoers, by virtue of witnessing Kazan’s work, find themselves elevated in status and privy to “the man behind the curtain” (to borrow a phrase). In contrast, the malleable masses were considered to be pacified and placated by idealistic portrayals of life in the 1950s in the form of television programs like Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Clearly, Kazan creates a dichotomy imbued with a value judgment descended from the thoughts of prominent thinkers in the Frankfurt School who, as far as aesthetics were concerned, preferred the high culture of cinema to the conformity and manipulated tastes of television (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002; Adorno, 1985; Quart, 1989). This distinction between high and low culture would be a crucial supporting idea for critics as a prominent fear of mass culture was that it portended a collapse between concepts (e.g., fame, celebrity, or intellectual value) of objectively different quality, essentially rendering all manifestations the same and therefore all equally mundane (Boorstin, 1962; Hoberman, 2008b; Kierkegaard, 1962).  Even worse for critics, perhaps, was the perception of the masses’ refusal to grow out of its immature interests, a behavior that was characterized as both childlike and stubborn (Adorno, 1985).

And the fears of such theorists, all of whom were reacting to recent and rapid advances in broadcast technology, were not unfounded. Consider, for example, that radio had been popularized a scant fifty years prior and had vastly altered critics’ understanding of media’s potential impact, creating a precedent as it proliferated across the country and began to develop a platform for solidarity and nationalism. Yet, while the effects of radio were decidedly pro-social, due in part to its propagation of orchestral music and transmission of fireside chats, television was viewed as a corrosive force on society that spurred on the destruction of culture instead of enriching it.[4]For the critics of the Frankfurt School, television was indicative of an entrenched sentiment that regarded mass-produced culture as formulaic and perfectly suitable for a generation of passive consumers who sat enraptured in front of the glowing set. Associating the potential dissemination of propagandist ideology with television as a form of mass broadcast, cultural theorists evoked notions of totalitarian regimes akin to Hitler and Stalin in an effort to illustrate the potential subjugation of individual thought (Mattson, 2003). These simmering fears, aggrandized by their concurrence with the rising threat of Communism and collectivist cultures, found fertile soil in the already present anxiety-ridden ethos of the United States during the 1950s.


[1] It should be noted, however, that the comics of this time—those that belong to the end of the Golden Age and beginning of the Silver Age—also provide an additional understanding of the ways in which Americans indirectly wrestled with their fears.

[2] For a more exhaustive list of movies that support this point, see Wolfe, 2002.

[3] Let us also not forget the fact that Lonesome exhibits a rather patronizing attitude toward his audience in his later career, instituting the Cracker Barrel show with its manufactured country lackeys (Yates, 1974). In contrast to his first stint in Memphis, Lonesome has begun to embrace his country image as a means (if an inauthentic one) to connect with his audience, a point of contention to which we will return.

[4] Curiously, however, we see that this relationship between presidential addresses (like the aforementioned fireside chats) and mass media did not elicit notable complaints from critics who were generally wary of the merging of politics and entertainment (Quart, 1989; Benjamin, 1973). Although a larger discussion is warranted regarding the subtleties of this distinction, I would suggest that part of the differentiation stems from a high-low culture dichotomy. Although critics linked the negative presence of television with corporate advertising, James Twitchell suggests that there has always been a rather intimate relationship between arts and commerce, most saliently exhibited by wealthy citizens or entities who act as patrons (Twitchell, 1996).

 

Works Cited

Adorno, T. (1941). On Popular Music. Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, 9, 17-48.

Adorno, T. (1985). On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening. In A. Arato, & E. Gebhardt (Eds.), The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (pp. 270-299). New York, NY: Continuum.

Benjamin, W. (1973). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In H. Arendt (Ed.), Illuminations (H. Zohn, Trans., pp. 217-242). London, England: Schocken.

Boorstin, D. (1962). The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York, NY: Athenenum.

Bragman, H. (2008). Where’s My Fifteen Minutes?: Get Your Company, Your Cause, or Yourself the Recognition You Deserve. New York, NY: Portfolio.

Gamson, J. (1994). Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haskell, M. (2004, August 8). Whatever the Public Fears Most, It’s Right Up There on the Big Screen. The New York Times, pp. 4-5.

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Jensen, P. (1971). The Return of Dr. Caligari. Film Comment, 7(4), 36-45.

Kazan, E. (Director). (1957). A Face in the Crowd [Motion Picture].

Maloney, C. (1999). The Faces in Lonesome’s Crowd: Imaging the Mass Audience in “A Face in the Crowd”. Journal of Narrative Theory, 29(3), 251-277.

Mattson, K. (2003). Mass Culture Revisited: Beyond Tail Fins and Jitterbuggers. Radical Society, 30(1), 87-93.

Murphy, B. M. (2009). The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Quart, L. (1989). A Second Look. Cineaste, 17(2), pp. 30-31.

Wolfe, G. K. (2002). Dr. Strangelove, Red Alert, and Patterns of Paranoia in the 1950s. Journal of Popular Film, 57-67.


It’s My Privilege

I mentioned a poem to my discussion section today, in order to help my students see the importance of an issue that is dear to my heart. As minorities, I feel that we need to band together–there is a common theme that runs through these talks in that we are all being persecuted, in some fashion, because of who we are. We are hated or punished for things that we shouldn’t have to be apologetic about. Gender issues is one of the things that gets me up in the morning and causes me to get so mad that I can’t think straight; I’m so hurt sometimes by what I see that my only reaction is anger. In women, I see stories of struggle similar to my own; yet, unlike in other situations, I am in the position of power. I am an ally. I am part of the population who has power to change things. When it comes down to it, it’s not about reaching down to help women up–it’s about reaching across. It’s about realizing that women are, as they have always been, equals. It’s about realizing that those without power are stronger than I could ever be for they have put up with these issues all of their lives. Women are smart, are survivors, are capable, and tough. We ask so much of women and they have risen to the challenge; in a world that stacks the odds against them, women have managed to thrive. Surely, they are not the only ones to have done so, but their victories should be celebrated.

Below is the aforementioned poem that has helped me to understand the world from a different point of view. I hope that it helps you to do the same.

privilege
a poem for men who don’t understand what we mean when we say they have it

D.A. Clarke

reprinted from Banshee, Peregrine Press
Copyright (c) 1981 D. A. Clarke. All Rights Reserved

privilege is simple:
going for a pleasant stroll after dark,
not checking the back of your car as you get in, sleeping soundly,
speaking without interruption, and not remembering
dreams of rape, that follow you all day, that woke you crying, and
privilege
is not seeing your stripped, humiliated body
plastered in celebration across every magazine rack, privilege
is going to the movies and not seeing yourself
terrorized, defamed, battered, butchered
seeing something else

privilege is
riding your bicycle across town without being screamed at or
run off the road, not needing an abortion, taking off your shirt
on a hot day, in a crowd, not wishing you could type better
just in case, not shaving your legs, having a decent job and
expecting to keep it, not feeling the boss’s hand up your crotch,
dozing off on late-night busses, privilege
is being the hero in the TV show not the dumb broad,
living where your genitals are totemized not denied,
knowing your doctor won’t rape you

privilege is being
smiled at all day by nice helpful women, it is
the way you pass judgment on their appearance with magisterial authority,
the way you face a judge of your own sex in court and
are over-represented in Congress and are not strip searched for a traffic ticket
or used as a dart board by your friendly mechanic, privilege
is seeing your bearded face reflected through the history texts
not only of your high school days but all your life, not being
relegated to a paragraph
every other chapter, the way you occupy
entire volumes of poetry and more than your share of the couch unchallenged,
it is your mouthing smug, atrocious insults at women
who blink and change the subject — politely — privilege
is how seldom the rapist’s name appears in the papers
and the way you smirk over your PLAYBOY

it’s simple really, privilege
means someone else’s pain, your wealth
is my terror, your uniform
is a woman raped to death here, or in Cambodia or wherever
wherever your obscene privilege
writes your name in my blood, it’s that simple,
you’ve always had it, that’s why it doesn’t
seem to make you sick to your stomach,
you have it, we pay for it, now
do you understand?


In the Affirmative

Race is one of those things that immediately causes most people to take a position. We have all grown up in a world that is still struggling with racial equality and we have all been exposed to the racial profiling that took place after 9/11. Outwardly, we all recognize that it is no longer PC to call someone by a racial slur or to discriminate in an overt manner—and this is where we begin to enter dangerous territory.

Many of my students have grown up in an environment that shuns racism; we all profess to believe in equality. We think the lack of lynch mobs or ethnic cleansing in our surroundings means that we’ve somehow moved past all of this. But we still have Minute Men, we still have genocide, we still have the KKK, and we still have people dragged behind pickup trucks with their faces melting against asphalt. We exist in a country that is becoming more polarized than ever and it is frankly a little frightening. We are learning to turn our backs on each other and form communities that ascribe to the same beliefs that we do.

Racial issues affect all of you.

If you think that this statement is untrue, look at the world around you. Think about your place in your community and the niche that is carved out for you by others. Where does society tell you that you can exist? What is it safe for you to be? How much of this is determined by your physical features?

On a related note, the concept of Affirmative Action was explored by Thursday’s session—something that I happen to know a little about. Some students voiced concerns over the practice while others stated that they did not support it. Let me start off by saying that I get where these students were coming from as I was no different in college. Like it or not, however, all of you have been affected by Affirmative Action. USC as an institution values diversity and practices Affirmative Action; the term, however, does not mean what most people assume it to. In our eyes, Affirmative Action is about providing equity and access to education. You might think that such programs lend a helping hand to indigents at the expense of “more qualified” individuals; I would challenge you, however, to think about what makes one student more qualified. Is it test scores? Is it GPA? Is it the fact that you went to a fancy prep school and deserve to be at USC? Do you think that this somehow makes you better than someone else?

Now think about how many other people are just like you.

Affirmative Action aims to recognize the strengths that different individuals can bring to the table. Do Latinos and Blacks who have had to struggle to finish high school have a different perspective on the world than Asians (who might have benefited from positive aspects of the Model Minority myth)? Do these students see things in a way that you don’t? Is there a benefit to interacting with them and learning how other people think?

Affirmative Action doesn’t just apply to Blacks and Latinos, however. Are you Southeast Asian? Are you first generation? Are you from a low socioeconomic class? Did you have to work in high school to help your family? Are you from a state that does not typically send a lot of students to USC? Are you from a minority religion? Do you hold atypical political beliefs? Are you a female interested in Math or Science? Are you a male interested in Communication? If any of the above are true, then you have benefitted from the type of thinking that supports Affirmative Action.

Moreover, you all benefit from the diversity that Affirmative Action creates. The depth of experiences that you have at USC is in part due to the voices that we bring in. Every student has value.

And, to turn things a bit, if you think that Affirmative Action is wrong, let’s think about football. Many of the students on the team were individuals who may have scored lower than you on SATs or received lower GPAs. Why aren’t as many people upset that these “lesser qualified” people were admitted? Is it because you enjoy going to football games? Do you only extract value from people when it suits you? My point is that the entire USC community benefits from the presence of gifted athletes (who manage to graduate just fine, by the way) and that these individuals—analogous to ethnic minorities—can bring something invaluable to the table.

I think that the reaction against Affirmative Action stems from fear:  we instinctively lash out in order to protect ourselves when we feel threatened by the encroachment of undesirables.  We want to secure our hard-earned victories and may feel that our achievement are cheapened by the acceptance of people whom we do not respect.

Fight it.

Fight to see the similarities that you have with others; fight to see their worth. Think about how important it is for other people to see you and fight to feel the same way about others. Fight against the indoctrination that you’ve suffered for so long that has engrained these patterns of thinking into your minds. Fight the urge to think that you’re more important than you are. Fight the need to feel comfortable and fight the urge to judge. Fight for your life and fight for your life to be the way that it should be. Fight to understand the things that we’ve been talking about this semester; fight to find meaning in our discussions. Fight to make the world better for your children, for your friends, and for yourself. Fight for people who don’t have a voice. Fight in whatever way you can…but just fight.

It has been my pleasure to work with you this semester and there’s no real way to convey how hopeful I am that this will be a turning point in your lives. I don’t expect that you’ll all become crusaders for API rights (nor should you feel compelled to), but I do hope that we’ve been able to get you to see things for the first time or to feel empowered to make change happen. Take the critical thinking skills that you’ve learned from CIRCLE and go out and find your cause. We’ve got a long way to go, but you’ve already taken the first steps.


The Real-Life Implications of Virtual Selves

“The end is nigh!”—the plethora of words, phrases, and warnings associated with the impending apocalypse has saturated American culture to the point of being jaded, as picketing figures bearing signs have become a fixture of political cartoons and echoes of the Book of Revelation appear in popular media like Legion and the short-lived television series Revelations. On a secular level, we grapple with the notion that our existence is a fragile one at best, with doom portended by natural disasters (e.g, Floodland and The Day after Tomorrow), rogue asteroids (e.g., Life as We Knew It and Armageddon), nuclear fallout (e.g., Z for Zachariah and The Terminator), biological malfunction (e.g., The Chrysalids and Children of Men) and the increasingly-visible zombie apocalypse (e.g., Rot and Ruin and The Walking Dead). Clearly, recent popular media offerings manifest the strain evident in our ongoing relationship with the end of days; to be an American in the modern age is to realize that everything under—and including—the sun will kill us if given half a chance. Given the prevalence of the themes like death and destruction in the current entertainment environment, it comes as no surprise that we turn to fiction to craft a kind of saving grace; although these impulses do not necessarily take the form of traditional utopias, our current culture definitely seems to yearn for something—or, more accurately, somewhere—better.

In particular, teenagers, as the subject of Young Adult (YA) fiction, have long been subjects for this kind of exploration with contemporary authors like Cory Doctorow, Paolo Bacigalupi, and M. T. Anderson exploring the myriad issues that American teenagers face as they build upon a trend that includes foundational works by Madeline L’Engle, Lois Lowry, and Robert C. O’Brien. Arguably darker in tone than previous iterations, modern YA dystopia now wrestles with the dangers of depression, purposelessness, self-harm, sexual trauma, and suicide. For American teenagers, psychological collapse can be just as damning as physical decay. Yet, rather than ascribe this shift to an increasingly rebellious, moody, or distraught teenage demographic, we might consider the cultural factors that contribute to the appeal of YA fiction in general—and themes of utopia/dystopia in particular—as manifestations spill beyond the confines of YA fiction, presenting through teenage characters in programming ostensibly designed for adult audiences as evidenced by television shows like Caprica (2009-2010).

 

Transcendence through Technology

A spin-off of, and prequel to, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Caprica transported viewers to a world filled with futuristic technology, arguably the most prevalent of which was the holoband. Operating on basic notions of virtual reality and presence, the holoband allowed users to, in Matrix parlance, “jack into” an alternate computer-generated space, fittingly labeled by users as “V world.”[1] But despite its prominent place in the vocabulary of the show, the program itself never seemed to be overly concerned with the gadget; instead of spending an inordinate amount of time explaining how the device worked, Caprica chose to explore the effect that it had on society.

Calling forth a tradition steeped in teenage hacker protagonists (or, at the very least, ones that belonged to the “younger” generation), our first exposure to V world—and to the series itself—comes in the form of an introduction to an underground space created by teenagers as an escape from the real world. Featuring graphic sex[2], violence, and murder, this iteration does not appear to align with traditional notions of a utopia but does represent the manifestation of Caprican teenagers’ desires for a world that is both something and somewhere else. And although immersive virtual environments are not necessarily a new feature in Science Fiction television,[3] with references stretching from Star Trek’s holodeck to Virtuality, Caprica’s real contribution to the field was its choice to foreground the process of V world’s creation and the implications of this construct for the shows inhabitants.

Taken at face value, shards like the one shown in Caprica’s first scene might appear to be nothing more than virtual parlors, the near-future extension of chat rooms[4] for a host of bored teenagers. And in some ways, we’d be justified in this reading as many, if not most, of the inhabitants of Caprica likely conceptualize the space in this fashion. Cultural critics might readily identify V world as a proxy for modern entertainment outlets, blaming media forms for increases in the expression of uncouth urges. Understood in this fashion, V world represents the worst of humanity as it provides an unreal (and surreal) existence that is without responsibilities or consequences. But Caprica also pushes beyond a surface understanding of virtuality, continually arguing for the importance of creation through one of its main characters, Zoe.[5]

Seen one way, the very foundation of virtual reality and software—programming—is itself the language and act of world creation, with code serving as architecture (Pesce, 1999). If we accept Lawrence Lessig’s maxim that “code is law” (2006), we begin to see that cyberspace, as a construct, is infinitely malleable and the question then becomes not one of “What can we do?” but “What should we do?” In other words, if given the basic tools, what kind of existence will we create and why?

One answer to this presents in the form of Zoe, who creates an avatar that is not just a representation of herself but is, in effect, a type of virtual clone that is imbued with all of Zoe’s memories. Here we invoke a deep lineage of creation stories in Science Fiction that exhibit resonance with Frankenstein and even the Judeo-Christian God who creates man in his image. In effect, Zoe has not just created a piece of software but has, in fact, created life!—a discovery whose implications are immediate and pervasive in the world of Caprica. Although Zoe has not created a physical copy of her “self” (which would raise an entirely different set of issues), she has achieved two important milestones through her development of artificial sentience: the cyberpunk dream of integrating oneself into a large-scale computer network and the manufacture of a form of eternal life.[6]

Despite Caprica’s status as Science Fiction, we see glimpses of Zoe’s process in modern day culture as we increasingly upload bits of our identities onto the Internet, creating a type of personal information databank as we cultivate our digital selves.[7] Although these bits of information have not been constructed into a cohesive persona (much less one that is capable of achieving consciousness), we already sense that our online presence will likely outlive our physical bodies—long after we are dust, our photos, tweets, and blogs will most likely persist in some form, even if it is just on the dusty backup server of a search engine company—and, if we look closely, Caprica causes us to ruminate on how our data lives on after we’re gone. With no one to tend to it, does our data run amok? Take on a life of its own? Or does it adhere to the vision that we once had for it?

Proposing an entirely different type of transcendence, another character in Caprica, Sister Clarice, hopes to use Zoe’s work in service of a project called “apotheosis.” Representing a more traditional type of utopia in that it represents a paradisiacal space offset from the normal, Clarice aims to construct a type of virtual heaven for believers of the One True God,[8] offering an eternal virtual life at the cost of one’s physical existence. Perhaps speaking to a sense of disengagement with the existent world, Clarice’s vision also reflects a tradition that conceptualizes cyberspace as a chance where humanity can try again, a blank slate where society can be re-engineered. Using the same principles that are available to Zoe, Clarice sees a chance to not only upload copies of existent human beings, but bring forth an entire world through code. Throughout the series, Clarice strives to realize her vision, culminating in a confrontation with Zoe’s avatar who has, by this time, obtained a measure of mastery over the virtual domain. Suggesting that apotheosis cannot be granted, only earned, Clarice’s dream of apotheosis literally crumbles around her as her followers give up their lives in vain.

Although it is unlikely that we will see a version of Clarice’s apotheosis anytime in the near future, the notion of constructed immersive virtual worlds does not seem so far off. At its core, Caprica asks us, as a society, to think carefully about the types of spaces that we endeavor to realize and the ideologies that drive such efforts. If we understand religion as a structured set of beliefs that structure and order this world through our belief in the next, we can see the overlap between traditional forms of religion and the efforts of technologists like hackers, computer scientists, and engineers. As noted by Mark Pesce, Vernor Vinge’s novella True Names spoke to a measure of apotheosis and offered a new way of understanding the relationship between the present and the future—what Vinge offered to hackers was, in fact, a new form of religion (Pesce, 1999). Furthermore, aren’t we, as creators of these virtual worlds fulfilling one of the functions of God? Revisiting the overlap between doomsday/apocalyptic/dystopian fiction as noted in the paper’s opening and Science Fiction, we see a rather seamless integration of ideas that challenges the traditional notion of a profane/sacred divide; in their own ways, both the writings of religion and science both concern themselves with some of the same themes, although they may, at times, use seemingly incompatible language.

Ultimately, however, the most powerful statement made by Caprica comes about as a result of the extension to arguments made on screen:  by invoking virtual reality, the series begs viewers to consider the overlay of an entirely subjective reality onto a more objective one.[9] Not only presenting the coexistence of multiple realities as a fact, Caprica asks us to understand how actions undertaken in one world affect the other. On a literal level, we see that the rail line of New Cap City (a virtual analogue of Caprica City, the capital of the planet of Caprica)[10] is degraded (i.e., “updated) to reflect a destroyed offline train, but, more significantly, the efforts of Zoe and Clarice speak to the ways in which our faith in virtual worlds can have a profound impact on “real” ones. How, then, do our own beliefs about alternate realities (be it heaven, spirits, string theory, or media-generated fiction) shape actions that greatly affect our current existence? What does our vision of the future make startlingly clear to us and what does it occlude? What will happen as future developments in technology increase our sense of presence and further blur the line between fiction and reality? What will we do if the presence of eternal virtual life means that “life” loses its meaning? Will we reinscribe rules onto the world to bring mortality back (and with it, a sense of urgency and finality) like Capricans did in New Cap City? Will there come a day where we choose a virtual existence over a physical one, participating in a mass exodus to cyberspace as we initiate a type of secular rapture?

As we have seen, online environments have allowed for incredible amounts of innovation and, on some days, the future seems inexplicably bright. Shows like Caprica are valuable for us as they provide a framework through which the average viewer can discuss issues of presence and virtuality without getting overly bogged down by technospeak. On some level, we surely understand the issues we see on screen as dilemmas that are playing out in a very human drama and Science Fiction offerings like Caprica provide us with a way to talk about subjects that we will confront in the future although we may not even realize that we are doing so at the time. Without a doubt, we should nurture this potential while remaining mindful of our actions; we should strive to attain apotheosis but never forget why we wanted to get there in the first place.

Works Cited

Lessig, L. (2006, January). Socialtext. Retrieved September 10, 2011, from Code 2.0: https://www.socialtext.net/codev2/

Pesce, M. (1999, December 19). MIT Communications Forum. Retrieved September 12, 2011, from Magic Mirror: The Novel as a Software Development Platform: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/pesce.html


[1] Although the show is generally quite smart about displaying the right kind of content for the medium of television (e.g., flushing out the world through channel surfing, which not only gives viewers glimpses of the world of Caprica but also reinforces the notion that Capricans experience their world through technology), the ability to visualize V world (and the transitions into it) are certainly an element unique to an audio-visual presentation. One of the strengths of the show, I think, is its ability to add layers of information through visuals that do not call attention to themselves. These details, which are not crucial to the story, flush out the world of Caprica in a way that a book could not, for while a book must generally mention items (or at least allude to them) in order to bring them into existence, the show does not have to ever name aspects of the world or actively acknowledge that they exist. Moreover, I think that there is something rather interesting about presenting a heavily visual concept through a visual medium that allows viewers to identify with the material in a way that they could not if it were presented through text (or even a comic book). Likewise, reading Neal Stephenson’s A Diamond Age (which prominently features a book) allows one to reflect on one’s own interaction with the book itself—an opportunity that would not be afforded to you if you watched a television or movie adaptation.

[2] By American cable television standards, with the unrated and extended pilot featuring some nudity.

[3] Much less Science Fiction as a genre!

[4] One could equally make the case that V world also represents a logical extension of MUDs, MOOs, and MMORPGs. The closest modern analogy might, in fact, be a type of Second Life space where users interact in a variety of ways through avatars that represent users’ virtual selves.

[5] Although beyond the scope of this paper, Zoe also represents an interesting figure as both the daughter of the founder of holoband technology and a hacker who actively worked to subvert her father’s creation. Representing a certain type of stability/structure through her blood relation, Zoe also introduced an incredible amount of instability into the system. Building upon the aforementioned hacker tradition, which itself incorporates ideas about youth movements from the 1960s and lone tinkerer/inventor motifs from Science Fiction in the early 20th century, Zoe embodies teenage rebellion even as she figures in a father-daughter relationship, which speaks to a particular type of familial bond/relationship of protection and perhaps stability.

[6] Although the link is not directly made, fans of Battlestar Galactica might see this as the start of resurrection, a process that allows consciousness to be recycled after a body dies.

[7] In addition, of course, is the data that is collected about us involuntarily or without our express consent.

[8] As background context for those who are unfamiliar with the show, the majority of Capricans worship a pantheon of gods, with monotheism looked upon negatively as it is associated with a fundamentalist terrorist organization called Soldiers of The One.

[9] One might in fact argue that there is no such thing as an “objective” reality as all experiences are filtered in various ways through culture, personal history, memory, and context. What I hope to indicate here, however, is that the reality experienced in the V world is almost entirely divorced from the physical world of its users (with the possible exception of avatars that resembled one’s “real” appearance) and that virtual interactions, while still very real, are, in a way, less grounded than their offline counterparts.

[10] Readers unfamiliar with the show should note that “Caprica” refers to both the name of the series and a planet that is part of a set of colonies. Throughout the paper, italicized versions of the word have been used to refer to the television show while an unaltered font has been employed to refer to the planet.


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.


Love Me or Hate Me, Still an Obsession

Reacting to atrocities witnessed throughout the course of World War II, Americans in the 1950s became obsessed with notions of power and control, fearing that they would be subsumed by the invisible hand of a totalitarian regime. In particular, the relatively young medium of television became suspect as it represented a major broadcast system that seemed to have an almost hypnotic pull on its audience, leaving viewers entranced by its images. And images, according to author and historian Daniel Boorstin, were becoming increasingly prominent throughout the 19th century as part of the Graphic Revolution replete with the power to disassociate the real from its representation (1962). For cultural critics still reeling from the aftereffects of Fascism and totalitarianism, this was a dangerous proposition indeed.

Although these underlying anxieties of mid-century American society could be examined via a wide range of anthropological lenses and frameworks, visual media has historically provided a particularly vivid manifestation of the fears latent in the people of the United States (Haskell, 2004). This is, of course, not to imply that visual media is necessarily the best or only means by which we can understand prevailing ideologies in the years after World War II, but merely one of the most visible. However, as a critical examination of the entire media landscape of the 1950s would be beyond the scope of a single paper of this magnitude, discussion shall be primarily concentrated around Elia Kazan’s 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd with particular attention paid to the contrasting channels of cinema and television.[1] This paper will seek to briefly position A Face in the Crowd in the larger context of paranoia-driven cinema of the 1950s before using the film as an entryway to discuss critiques of mass culture. Given the film’s apparent sustained resonance as indicated by its relatively recent mention (Vallis, 2008; Hoberman, 2008b; Franklin, 2009), the arguments of Critical Theory will then be applied to modern American culture in an attempt to ascertain their continued validity. Finally, an argument will be made that acknowledges the potential dangers facing mass culture in the 21st century but also attempts to understand the processes that underlie these pitfalls and provides a suggestion for recourse in the form of cultural and media literacy.

Paranoia, Paranoia, Everyone’s Coming to Get Me

The post-war prosperity of the 1950s caused rapid changes in America, literally altering the landscape as families began to flood into the newly-formed suburbs. With the dream and promise of upward social mobility firmly ensconced in their heads, families rushed to claim their piece of the American dream, replete with the now-iconic front yard and white picket fence. And yet, ironically, a new set of worries began to fester underneath the idyllic façade of the suburbs as the troubles of the city were merely traded for fears of paranoia and invasion; the very act of flight led to entrapment by an ethos that subtly precluded the possibility of escape.

As with many other major cultural shifts, the rapid change in the years following World War II caused Americans to muse over the direction in which they were now headed; despite a strong current of optimism that bolstered dreams of a not-far-off utopia, there remained a stubborn fear that the quickly shifting nature of society might have had unanticipated and unforeseen effects (Murphy, 2009). Life in the suburbs, it seemed, was too good to be true and inhabitants felt a constant tension as they imagined challenges to their newly rediscovered safety:  from threats of invasion to worries about conformity, and from dystopian futures to a current reality that could now be obliterated with nuclear weapons, people of the 1950s continually felt the weight of being a society under siege. An overwhelming sense of doubt, and more specifically, paranoia, characterized the age and latent fears manifested in media as the public began to struggle with the realization that the suburbs did not fully represent the picturesque spaces that they had been conceived to be. In fact, inhabitants were assaulted on a variety of levels as they became disenchanted with authority figures, feared assimilation and mind control (particularly through science and/or technology), began to distrust their neighbors (who could easily turn out to be Communists, spies, or even aliens!), and felt haunted by their pasts, all of which filled the movie screens of the decade (Jensen, 1971; Murphy, 2009; Wolfe, 2002).[2] Following solidly in this tradition, Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd picks up on some of the latent strains of paranoia in American culture while simultaneously serving as a platform for a set of critiques regarding mass culture.

Somewhere, a Star Is Made

The storyline of A Face in the Crowd is rather straightforward and yet deceptively complex in its undertones:  on the surface, we experience a rather heavy-handed morality tale in the form of country bumpkin Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a relative nobody who is plucked from obscurity and made (and subsequently broken) through powers associated with television. Yet, it is only when we begin to connect the movie to a larger societal context that we begin to understand the ramifications of the film’s message; a careful examination of A Face in the Crowd reveals striking suspicions regarding the role that media plays (in this case, primarily television and cinema) in shaping American culture. Stars, director Elia Kazan argues, are not so much born as made, a distinction that portends dire consequences.

It is worth noting that Kazan’s film was made during a time when the concept of the “celebrity” was being renegotiated by America; for a large part of its history, the United States, firmly grounded in a Puritan work ethic, had honored heroes who exemplified ideals associated with a culture of production and was struggling to reconcile these notions in the presence of an environment whose emphasis was now focused on consumption. Although modern audiences might initially find this shift difficult to appreciate, one need only consider that the premium placed on production is so central to American ideology that it continues to linger today:  in a culture that exhibits rampant consumerism, we still value the “self-made man” and sell the myth of America as a place where anyone can achieve success through hard work. To abandon these ideas would necessitate that we reinterpret the very meaning of “America.” Thus, we become more sympathetic to the critics of the day who lamented the loss of the greatness of man and bristled against the notion that fame or celebrity could be manufactured—such a system could would only result in individuals who were lacking and unworthy of their status (Gamson, 1994; Benjamin, 1973)

Such is the case it seems, with Larry Rhodes, who is discovered by roving reporter Marcia Jeffries in an Arkansas jail. Although it cannot be denied that Rhodes has some modicum of talent and a certain charisma that comes from being unafraid to speak one’s mind, Marcia ushers Rhodes onto the path of greatness by dubbing him “Lonesome” and thus creates a character that transforms Rhodes from a despondent drunk to a winsome drifter. This scene—the first major one in the movie—thusly introduces the important notion that those involved in the media can be implicitly involved in the manipulation of the information that travels over the airwaves. Subtly adding to the insidious nature of the media, A Face in the Crowd portrays Marcia as a character that seems likable enough, but also a person who is, in a way, exploiting the people in jail as she rushes in with her tape recorder intent on prying the stories from the characters she finds (or creates!) and does not exhibit much concern in truly understanding why these men are imprisoned in the first place. Taken to an extreme, we later come across the character of The General, who further perverts the connection between media and power as he conspires with Lonesome to remake the image of Senator Worthington Fuller as the congressman runs for President.

Yet, as Lonesome Rhodes grows in his role as a media personality, he quickly demonstrates that the power to manipulate does not lie solely with those who sit behind the cameras. In Memphis, Rhodes incites a riot against the Luffler mattress company and also solicits donations in order to help a Black woman rebuild her house. In light of this, we can see that while Kazan focuses on the negative implications of television and celebrity, that the relative good or bad that comes from these actions is not necessarily the point—instead, the one constant in all of the depicted scenarios is a public who is manipulated into performing actions on the behalf of others. Although the characters of Lonesome and The General are vilified throughout the film, it is the masses for which Kazan demonstrates true disdain.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions

Perhaps nowhere is this contempt more apparent than at the end of the film where, in an attempt to offer a small moment of solace to Marcia after her unmasking of Lonesome, writer Mel Miller notes, “We get wise to them, that’s our strength” (Kazan, 1957). And Miller is not wrong:  Western tradition has long recognized the correlation between knowledge and power and Miller’s assertion touches upon the revelatory clout inherent in the realignment of perception and reality as noted by public relations guru Howard Bragman (2008). A more critical examination of the film’s closing scene, however, raises an important question:  Who is Miller’s “we”? Although one might be tempted to read this line as indicative of an egalitarian philosophical view, it is important to note that the only two characters in the shot represent the film’s arguably upper-middle class, and pointedly Eastern-educated, elite—nowhere to be seen are representatives of the small Arkansas town from the film’s opening or denizens of Memphis, both of whom serve to characterize the majority of Lonesome’s devoted viewers.[3] In fact, if we take time to reflect upon the movie, we realize that the majority of the audience was only alerted to Lonesome’s dual nature after Marcia flipped a control room switch and revealed the underlying deterioration; the masses oscillated from one position to the next without understanding how or why and once again adopted a passive stance in their relationship with media. Moreover, as Courtney Maloney points out, Kazan’s depiction of the agency of the masses is actually limited in scope:  despite a montage of audience members vehemently phoning in, sponsors are simultaneously shown to be acting independently as they withdraw their association with Lonesome (1999). Moreover, the subtext of the scene distances the rational decision-making of the truly powerful from the impassioned beseeching of the masses, likening the power of the latter to that of a mob. Knowledge and its associated authority, clearly, are afforded to a select group.

This idea, that the world can be divided between those who “get wise” and those who do not, serves to develop a rather sharp classist criticism against the medium of television and those who would watch it:  moviegoers, by virtue of witnessing Kazan’s work, find themselves elevated in status and privy to “the man behind the curtain” (to borrow a phrase). In contrast, the malleable masses were considered to be pacified and placated by idealistic portrayals of life in the 1950s in the form of television programs like Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Clearly, Kazan creates a dichotomy imbued with a value judgment descended from the thoughts of prominent thinkers in the Frankfurt School who, as far as aesthetics were concerned, preferred the high culture of cinema to the conformity and manipulated tastes of television (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002; Adorno, 1985; Quart, 1989). This distinction between high and low culture would be a crucial supporting idea for critics as a prominent fear of mass culture was that it portended a collapse between concepts (e.g., fame, celebrity, or intellectual value) of objectively different quality, essentially rendering all manifestations the same and therefore all equally mundane (Boorstin, 1962; Hoberman, 2008b; Kierkegaard, 1962).  Even worse for critics, perhaps, was the perception of the masses’ refusal to grow out of its immature interests, a behavior that was characterized as both childlike and stubborn (Adorno, 1985).

And the fears of such theorists, all of whom were reacting to recent and rapid advances in broadcast technology, were not unfounded. Consider, for example, that radio had been popularized a scant fifty years prior and had vastly altered critics’ understanding of media’s potential impact, creating a precedent as it proliferated across the country and began to develop a platform for solidarity and nationalism. Yet, while the effects of radio were decidedly pro-social, due in part to its propagation of orchestral music and transmission of fireside chats, television was viewed as a corrosive force on society that spurred on the destruction of culture instead of enriching it.[4] For the critics of the Frankfurt School, television was indicative of an entrenched sentiment that regarded mass-produced culture as formulaic and perfectly suitable for a generation of passive consumers who sat enraptured in front of the glowing set. Associating the potential dissemination of propagandist ideology with television as a form of mass broadcast, cultural theorists evoked notions of totalitarian regimes akin to Hitler and Stalin in an effort to illustrate the potential subjugation of individual thought (Mattson, 2003). These simmering fears, aggrandized by their concurrence with the rising threat of Communism and collectivist cultures, found fertile soil in the already present anxiety-ridden ethos of the United States during the 1950s.


[1] It should be noted, however, that the comics of this time—those that belong to the end of the Golden Age and beginning of the Silver Age—also provide an additional understanding of the ways in which Americans indirectly wrestled with their fears.

[2] For a more exhaustive list of movies that support this point, see Wolfe, 2002.

[3] Let us also not forget the fact that Lonesome exhibits a rather patronizing attitude toward his audience in his later career, instituting the Cracker Barrel show with its manufactured country lackeys (Yates, 1974). In contrast to his first stint in Memphis, Lonesome has begun to embrace his country image as a means (if an inauthentic one) to connect with his audience, a point of contention to which we will return.

[4] Curiously, however, we see that this relationship between presidential addresses (like the aforementioned fireside chats) and mass media did not elicit notable complaints from critics who were generally wary of the merging of politics and entertainment (Quart, 1989; Benjamin, 1973). Although a larger discussion is warranted regarding the subtleties of this distinction, I would suggest that part of the differentiation stems from a high-low culture dichotomy. Although critics linked the negative presence of television with corporate advertising, James Twitchell suggests that there has always been a rather intimate relationship between arts and commerce, most saliently exhibited by wealthy citizens or entities who act as patrons (Twitchell, 1996).


The Truth Shall Set You Free?

Young people handle dystopia every day:  in their lives, their dysfunctional families, their violence-ridden schools.

—Lois Lowry[1]

The Age of Information.

Today, more than ever, individuals are awash in a sea of information that swirls around us invisible as it is inescapable. In many ways, we are still grappling with the concept as struggle to sort, filter, and conceptualize that which surrounds us. We complain about the overbearing nature of algorithms—or, perhaps more frighteningly, do not comment at all—but this is not the first time that Western society has pondered the role and influence of information in our lives.

Access to information provides an important thematic lens through which we can view dystopic fiction and although it does not account for the entirety of the genre’s appeal in and of itself (or, for that matter, the increase in its popularity), we will see that understanding the attraction of dystopia provides some insight into the the societies that produce it and elucidates the ways in which the genre allows individuals to reflect on themes present in the world around them—themes that are ultimately intimately connected with the access and flow of information. My interest here lies specifically in YA dystopic fiction and its resonance with the developmental process of teenagers.

Lois Lowry’s quote suggests that today’s youth might be familiar with tangible aspects of dystopia even if they do not necessarily exist in a state of dystopia themselves; dystopia, then, is fundamentally relatable to youth.[2] Interpersonal violence in schools—on both the physical and virtual levels—has become a growing problem and can be seen as a real life analogue to the war-torn wastelands of YA dystopia; although the physical destruction present in fiction might not manifest in the everyday, youth may identify with the emotional states of those who struggle to survive.[3] And, given the recent and high-profile nature of bullying, issues of survival are likely salient for modern youth.[4]

As a writer, it should come as no surprise that Lowry, like literary critic Darko Suvin, primarily describes the concept of dystopia in literary terms; while a valid, if limited perspective, this does not preclude the term also possessing socio-political implications, with one potentially arguing that the relatable nature of dystopia extends far beyond the iterations outlined by Lowry into the realm of ideology.[5] On a basic level, dystopia often asks protagonists to perform a type of self-assessment while simultaneously evaluating preexisting hierarchal structures and systems of authority.[6] Given that this process asks individuals to contrast themselves with the society that surrounds them, one might make the argument that the themes of utopia and dystopia possess an implicit political element, regardless of authors’ intentions.

Moreover, consider the prevalent construct of the secret as a defining characteristic of dystopian societies like those presented in the classic works of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.[7] Often located in the cultural history of the dystopia (e.g., “What events caused us to reach this point?”) or the sustained lies of the present (e.g., “This is for your protection”), acquisition of new (hidden) knowledge represents a fundamental part of the protagonist’s—and, by extension, the reader’s—journey. For young adults, this literary progression can mirror the development occurring in real life as individuals challenge established notions during the coming-of-age process; viewed through the lens of anthropology, dystopian fiction represents a liminal space for both the protagonist and the reader in which old assumptions and knowledge are questioned during a metaphorical rite of passage. [8],[9] And, although the journey itself provides a crucial model trajectory for youth, perhaps more important, however, is the nature of the secret being kept:  as Lowry alludes to, modern youth undoubtedly realize that their world—our world—like that of any dystopia, contains elements of ugliness. The real secret, then, is not the presence of a corrupted underbelly but rather why rot exists in the first place.

Aside from the type of knowledge or even the issues latent in its accessibility, however, we can see that modern culture is undergoing a rather radical reconfiguration with regard to the social structures surrounding information flow. Although we still struggle with the sometimes antagonistic relationship between citizens and the State mirrored in classic and YA dystopia, we have also developed another dimension:  citizen versus citizen. Spurred on by innovations in technology that have made mobile gadgetry increasingly affordable and accessible to the public, on-location reporting has grown from the relatively useful process of crowdsourcing information to a practice that includes surveillance, documentation, and vigilante justice as we display our moral outrage over someone else’s ungodly behavior through platforms like paparazzi photos, tweeting of overheard conversations, and the ever-popular blog—we, in effect, have assumed the mantle of Big Brother. It would seem that, like Dr. Moreau, we have been granted knowledge and ability without wisdom.

Moreover, let us consider how youth currently exist in a culture of confession that was not apparent during previous cycles of utopia/dystopia. Spurred on in part by daytime talk shows, reality television, press conference apologies, and websites like PostSecret, the current environment is suffused with secrets and those willing to share their intimate stories for a price. Somewhat in opposition to confession’s traditional role in Catholicism, secrets now play an active role in public life despite their private nature, a process that mirrors the juxtaposition of personal and public histories by protagonists in YA dystopia.[10],[11] Moreover, we quickly come to see the increased relevancy of this trend when we consider how individuals, groups, organizations, and societies begin to define themselves in terms of the secrets that they hold about others and themselves. The prevalence of events like corporate espionage, copyright infringement lawsuits, and breakdowns in communication between youth and parents all point to entities that wish to contain and restrict information flow. If being an American in the 20th century meant being defined by material possessions, being an American in the 21st century is to be defined by information and secrets. And, if this is indeed the case, how might we view our existence as one that occurs in a series of ever-expanding dystopias? As it turns out, Lowry might have been more correct than she realized when she noted young people’s familiarity with dystopia.

But perhaps this development is not so surprising if we consider the increasing commodification of knowledge in postmodern culture. If we ascribe to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s argument regarding the closely intertwined relationship between knowledge and production—specifically that the cultivation of new knowledge in order to further production—and therefore that information sets are a means to an end and not an end in and of themselves, we witness a startling change in the relationship between society and knowledge.[12] In opposition to the idealistic pursuit that occurred during the Enlightenment period, modern conceptualizations seem to understand knowledge in terms of leverage—in other words, we, like all good consumers, perennially ask the question, “What can you do for me?” Furthermore, the influence of commercialism on Education (i.e., the institution charged with conveying information from one generation to the next) has been probed, conjecturing that educational priorities might be dictated by concerns of the market.[13] Notably, these cultural shifts have not disavowed the value of knowledge but have changed how such worth is determined and classified.

The Frankfurt School’s pessimistic views of mass culture’s relationship with economic influences and independent thought aside, Lyotard also points to the danger posed by the (then) newly-formed entity of the multinational corporation as a body that could potentially supersede or subvert the authority of the nation-state.[14] Businesses like Facebook and Google accumulate enormous amounts of information (often with our willing, if unwitting, participation) and therefore amass incredible power, with the genius of these organizations residing in their ability to facilitate access to our own information! Without castigating such companies—although some assuredly do—we can glimpse similarities between these establishments’ penchant for controlling the dissemination of information and the totalitarian dictatorships prevalent in so many dystopian societies. In spite of the current fervor surrounding the defense of rights outlined in the Constitution, we largely continue to ignore how companies like Google and Facebook have gained the potential to impact concepts like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of information; algorithms designed to act as filters allow us to cut through the noise but also severely reduce our ability to conceptualize what is missing. These potential problems, combined with current debates over issues like privacy, piracy, and Net Neutrality indicate that power no longer solely resides in knowledge but increasingly in access to it.


[1] Lois Lowry, quoted in Hintz, Carrie, and Elaine Ostry. Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults. (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[2] One might even argue that those who read dystopian fiction most likely do not inhabit a dystopian world, for they would not have the leisure time to consume such fiction.

[3] This point, of course, should not be taken in a manner that discounts the legitimate struggles of children who grow up in conflict states.

[4] See Ken Rigby, New Perspectives on Bullying. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002and Marilyn A. Campbell “Cyber Bullying: An Old Problem in a New Guise?” Australian Journal of Guidance and Counseling 15, no. 1 (2005): 68-76.

[5] Clare Archer-Lean, “Revisiting Literary Utopias and Dystopias: Some New Genres.” Social Alternatives 28, no. 3 (2009): 3-7.

[6] Kennon, Patricia. “‘Belonging’ in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction: New Communities Created by Children.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 15, no. 2 (2005): 40-49.

[7] Patrick Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” Critical Survey 17, no. 1 (2005): 6-21.

[8] Hintz and Ostry, Utopian and Dystopian. 2003.

[9] Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” 2005.

[10] Shannon McHugh and Chris Tokuhama, “PostSecret: These Are My Confessions.” The Norman Lear Center. June 10, 2010. http://blog.learcenter.org/2010/06/postsecret_these_are_my_confes.html

[11] John Stephens, “Post-Disaster Fiction: The Problematics of a Genre.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 3, no. 3 (1992): 126-130.

[12] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979).

[13] Suzanne de Castell and Mary Bryson, “Retooling Play: Dystopia, Dysphoria, and Difference.” In From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. (Cambidge: The MIT Press, 1998).

[14] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition. 1979.