Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Culture Industry Reconsidered

Culture industry as a term was first used by Adorno and Horkheimer in the book Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1947. In their drafts, they talked about mass culture but later replaced that expression with ‘culture industry’. They did this so that they could exclude the interpretation of a set of intellectuals who advocated that mass culture arose spontaneously from the masses and is the contemporary form of popular art. He says that the culture industry instead merges the old and familiar into a new quality and all its products are tailored for consumption by the masses and manufactured according to a plan. Further, it forces together high and low art to the detriment of both. For Adorno, the masses are simply an “object of calculation” and the customer is never the king. The cultural commodities of this industry, as Brecht and Suhrkamp have expressed earlier are guided by their realization as ‘value’ and not by their own individual content, and the profit motive is primary for the entire practice of the culture industry. So, cultural entities in the culture industry are no longer also commodities, but they are commodities. While culture in the ‘true’ sense, not only adjusted itself to human beings but also honoured them by raising a protest against their living conditions. But what comes across in the culture industry as something new and progressive however remains disguised under an “eternal sameness”.

Adorno suggests to not take the word industry “too literally” but understand it with reference to a certain standardization of content and he takes the example of a Western that is familiar to every movie goer. With reference to cinema as a central sector of the culture industry, he says that although its production process may involve division of labour and there may be a conflict between artists and the industry that controls them, there still exists an individual form of production. But for Adorno, this individuality serves to reinforce ideology. Cinema’s ideology makes use of the star system that for him is borrowed from “individualistic art and its commercial exploitation.” The culture industry is industrial in a sociological sense in that it incorporates industrial forms of organization even when nothing is manufactured. For instance in the rationalization of office work rather that anything being really produced. There is no inner logic to the technique of the industry except for that of distribution and mechanical reproduction which always remains external. Walter Benjamin designated the traditional work of art with the concept of the ‘aura’ but for Adorno, the culture industry “conserves the decaying aura as a foggy mist”. Despite this, he feels that the industry is important as a “moment of the sprit that dominates today” and ignoring its influence would be naive. Yet, there is a “deceptive glitter” about the position to take it seriously. He thinks even though something touches a large number of lives, it is no guarantee of its quality and hence it would be required to take it seriously in a critical way. It is common for some intellectuals to simultaneously keep reservations against it and respect its power. For them products like pocket novels, family television shows or even horoscope columns are harmless and even democratic because it responds to a demand, even if it is a stimulated one. But any advice gained from it is empty and the emerging behaviour patterns “shamelessly conformist”.

This “two-faced irony” is not restricted to just the intellectuals but also the consumers. The consumers are split between the fun they get from the culture industry’s products and not a well concealed doubt about its blessings. Adorno thinks that the phrase, “the world wants to be deceived” has become truer than ever and consumers will fall for anything that will provide them a fleeting gratification even though its underlying structure lays transparent to them. The order that arises from the culture industry is never confronted with what it claims or whether it is in any real interest of human beings, and conformity gets replaced for consciousness behind which lie the most powerful interests. Adorno gives an example of how American producers are heard to say their films must appeal to the level of eleven year olds. The entire system of the culture industry surrounding the masses follows the same formulas and hardly deviates and the attitudes and stereotypes that the industry calls for are anything but harmless. Hence it is a “mass deception” that restricts the development of independent individuals.     

Author: Harmanpreet Kaur 

Simulacra and Simulations

In this essay, Baudrillard finds abstraction today to be no longer of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. For him, simulation is the generation of the real without origin or reality – a hyperreal. The imaginary representation that a cartographer creates between the map and the territory disappears with simulation that does not operate in a discursive way. The age of simulations begins with the “liquidation of all referentials” and then their resurrection in systems of signs. He elaborates that there is no longer any question of imitation or even parody but rather a question of substituting the real itself with signs of the real.

He says, “To simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t” and gives the example of someone who can simulate an illness by producing in himself some of the symptoms itself. If the simulator produces the symptoms, can he or she be ill at all? If symptoms can be produced, then every illness may be considered simulatable and medicine loses its meaning because it only knows how to treat “true” illnesses. He also gives the example of divine icons. He questions if their supreme divine authority lies in their incarnation in images as a visible theology or due to simulacra which deploys their power of fascination – that of substituting the visible icons for the pure idea of God. This is exactly what drove the iconoclasts to destroy images because they feared the omnipotence of simulacra and instead accorded them their actual worth in the process of despising and destroying them. Baudrillard says, “God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum.” On the other hand iconolaters through the representations of God, enacted his death and disappearance, for example the 
Jesuits who based their politics on the virtual disappearance of God. He suggests four phases of the image: it is a reflection of a basic reality – the image is a good appearance; it masks and perverts a basic reality – it is an evil appearance; it masks the absence of a basic reality – plays at being an appearance like in sorcery; and finally it bears no relation to any reality and it is its own pure simulacrum or simulation. This is a turning point for Baudrillard. He further says that when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.

He then gives the example of Disneyland as a perfect model to illustrate the orders of simulation. It is a play of illusions and phantasms and a social microcosm. Inside it a whole range of gadgets attract the crowds while outside exists solitude in the parking lot. All the values of the United States are recreated and exalted here in miniature and comic strip form. He explains that Disneyland is presented to be the imaginary to make believe that the rest is real, when in fact the rest of America is no longer real – but hyperreal. Disneyland is neither true nor false but a “deterrence machine” set up to reiterate the fiction of the real. He next discusses Watergate. He finds that it was not a scandal but succeeded in perpetuating the idea that it was a scandal by injecting a “large dose of political morality on a global scale”. Since capital is itself immoral, it can only function behind a moral superstructure, that which the Washington Post journalists furthered. It cannot be denounced according to moral or
economic judgements but according to symbolic law.

Baudrillard gives another example of the Moebius strip to illustrate how referentials and their discourses mingle in a circular way – if history took its force from opposing itself to nature and the discourse of desire opposed itself to that of power then today their signifiers and scenarios are exchanged. Further everything proves its existence by its opposite: real by the imaginary, truth by scandal, work by strike, art by anti-art, theatre by anti-theatre etc. Thus every situation and power “speaks of itself by denial”. Power can stage its own murder to regain legitimacy eg. Kennedy murders.

Law and order too might be nothing more than a simulation. It is impossible now to prove the real, to isolate the real, and illusion is no longer possible because the real is not possible anymore. Thus the order, or the weapon of power is to “reinject realness and referentiality” everywhere so that we are convinced of the social reality, the economy and production. It is melancholy for societies without power that gave rise to fascism. And ironically it is through the death of the social that socialism will emerge, as through the death of God that religions emerged. Thus “power is no longer present except to conceal that there is none”. Also, real work and real production has also disappeared. Ideology is a betrayal of reality by signs and simulation corresponds to reduplication by signs. Ideology will always want to restore the objective process but it is impossible to restore the truth beneath the simulacrum.

Author: Harmanpreet Kaur

Symbolic exchange and death

In Symbolic exchange and death, Baudrillard essentially mounts a critique of the capitalist understanding of value itself. In critiquing the law of value, he mainly approaches it from a Marxist economic theory of use and exchange value and from the post War French linguistic scenario including Barthes and Saussure who talk about symbolic value of signs and meaning making.

Symbolic exchange, as Baudrillard explains, is central to all forms of meaning making and helps in the organization of social order and hierarchies. The difference from other forms of exchange is that in symbolic exchange is that the value of an exchanged object does not value the act of exchanging it. The title refers to the perception of time in so- called primitive cultures, which relies on a cyclical model instead of a linear one. Life and death are not separate, but are coextensive forms of presence. In regular, ritual festivities, the living “animate” the deceased, make them part of their present so that both the living and the dead inhabit the same space. This collapses the binary of forms (life/death) and places them as complementary to each other. This time of the ritual is also a period where the regular activities of daily life are suspended and riches are wasted in order to exhibit one’s social standing within the group. This ability to waste, to give all that one has in a symbolic act, marks an individuals social rank and is a source of recognition. Baudrillard finds these forms of negating exchange as destruction or rendering obsolete of the law of value, which then helps mount a critique of capitalism. For him, capitalism also cancels death and thus cancels all alternatives to it, making simulation and hyper reality central to its reproduction.

Apart from the economic critique, he looks at linguistic theory and the conception of signification. Baudrillard rejects semiotics’ obsession with the meaning of signs, and the entire idea of determining meaning formation as if only one meaning is produced in the interaction of free floating signs. Taking on Barthes’ idea of associative meanings and one literal meaning, Baudrillard goes a step further to say that every literal meaning (or the dominant meaning as seen in an act of signification) is nothing but a possible associative meaning. Basically, he is referring to the consciousness of the ambivalence of signs and the impossibility to fix them. Thus the symbolic becomes subversive and simulation gains immense power in the mass media.

To summarize, in Baudrillard’s argument there is a clear urge to shift our understanding of linear models of time and the exchange-use-symbolic value model of thinking. He takes the help of social interactions from pre-modern societies and the metaphor of death to move away from them.

Postmodernism and Consumer Society

In “Post Modernism and Consumer Society”, Frederic Jameson outlines a few of the major traits of postmodernism. He described in his essay that how postmodernism is different to modernism. Jameson believes that postmodernism is a reaction against high modernism, a form of expression which found vulgar and irreverent by the preceding generation. But now these are standard against the current generation. The difference between high culture and mass culture are gone or at least beginning to fade in postmodernism era he said.

Jameson used different terms like pastiche, death of the subject, nostalgia and schizophrenia to understand postmodernism. According to Jameson Pastiche means parodyor mimicry. He explains “Pastiche is like parody, the imitation of a particular or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language; but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic”.

The idea of pastiche leads to a discussion of the ‘death of the subject’. He explains that the modernists felt like they were doing something new, something individual. But Jameson states that this sense of the individual in the postmodern is gone. He is proposing that there is no longer individualism. He states that “older bourgeois individual subject no longer exists”. It means that we are in the age of corporate capitalism, and homogeneous world, individuality does not exist at all. He further said that the idea of individuality didn’t even exist in the past or in the modern era; it in fact never existed at all. The idea of the individual “is merely a philosophical and cultural mystification which sought to persuade people that they ‘had’ individual subjects and possessed this unique personal identity”. The conclusion Jameson leads to form this discussion is that modern art is dead; there is no originality, only perpetual copies of pre- existing elements and forms, or, pastiche, “to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum”. Jameson described the term schizophrenia as the second marker of postmodernist society. Jameson describes this in discussing the schizophrenic language experience as one where, “isolated, disconnected,
discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up in a coherent sequence”.

Jameson then describes a number of films that seem to embody pastiche- replicating certain ideas in an undifferentiated and meaningless way. He gives the example of American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chinatown (1974), explaining that this is pastiche because the general plot is derived from the plots of older films and TV shows of the 1930’s to 50’s. Jameson points out that nostalgia films or pastiche films are often less about the past and more about a false realism. Jameson says, “If there is any realism left here it is a ‘realism’ which springs from the shock of grasping that confinement and of realizing that, for whatever peculiar reasons, we seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about the past, which itself remains forever out of reach”.

In conclusion, Jameson discusses the consumer society and the social impact of art in the early 20th century versus the social impact of art today. He says, ““I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late, consumer or multinational capitalism”. Modernism was described as “critical, negative, contestatory, subversive, and oppositional and the like”. He discussed two features of postmodernism--the transformation of reality into images and the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents. In this way, then, postmodernism replicates or reproduces or reinforces the logic of consumer capitalism.

Author: Sattyendra Kumar

The Commodity as Spectacle

With a Marxist approach of ‘commodity fetishism’, Guy Debord in this essay critiques the ‘spectacle’ of the commodity that has overtaken its actual presence and use-value. He says that the society is dominated by things which are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. This gives birth to the world of ‘spectacle’ which is constructed of images which seem to be superior to the actual world. Debord asserts that in the world of the spectacle, all that was once lived has become mere representation and commodity rules over all lived experience. The commodity form, instead of being qualitative has become ‘quantitative’ where it is characterized by self-equivalence/currency-value. Although the commodity turns away from its quantitative value, but its development still depends on the qualitative.

Debord further observes that the commodity production has for long retained its ‘artisanal’ value where the quantitative was masked by the qualitative. However, with large-scale trade this production became quantitative. The commodities thus acquired an economic power and transformed human-labour into wage-labour which then gave rise to ‘abundance’. He argues that with such commodity production, societies do solve the problems of basic survival but they themselves get entrapped into its vicious circle. The economy transforms the world but it transforms the world into a world of the economy. This ‘abundance’ of commodities gives rise to what Debord calls ‘augmented survival’.

The ‘spectacle’ allows the commodity to attain a social life. Debord asserts that if the first industrial revolution alienated the worker from the product of their own labour, the second industrial revolution has alienated them from not just production but also consumption. The proletarian who was once a ‘producer’ of commodity has now also become a ‘consumer’ due to the ‘abundance’ of commodities. This is where ‘spectacle’ comes into play. To correspond to the growing pseudo-needs of people, Debord suggests that new opportunities for employment must be created in the service and the tertiary sector. He examines how exchange-value gained an upper hand over use value and the process of exchange became indistinguishable from utility. The undermining of use-value gave birth to a new form of privation. The new privation, in the realm of ‘augmented survival’ does not limit itself to basic survival but goes much ahead of that.
In Debord’s words, “The real consumer thus becomes a consumer of illusion. The commodity is
this illusion, which is in fact real, and the spectacle is its most general form.”

The spectacle, for Debord is the other side of money- the abstract general equivalent of all commodities, for in it (spectacle) a unified image of the commodity world is visible. “The spectacle is not just the servant of pseudo-use – it is, in itself, the pseudo-use of life.” He feels that with an ‘economic abundance’, the social labour has become visible as a result of abstract representation. By replacing the necessity of human needs with the necessity of economic development, the satisfaction of primary human needs is being replaced by the “pseudo-needs”. The society of the spectacle, thus, does not need a developing economy for survival, but one which has to provide for the survival of the economy itself.

Unity and Division within Appearances

In this chapter, Debord discusses the paradoxical characteristic of the ‘spectacle’ where it is “at once united and divided”. The contradiction in the society, which emerges from the spectacle, is itself being contradicted by the society. For example, the class struggle that divides the society is actually aimed at unifying it with the purpose of running the same socio-economic system. The society that constructs the ‘spectacle’ does not dominate underdeveloped regions only through economic hegemony but also through the hegemony of the ‘spectacle’ itself. Just the way, society of spectacle promotes a desire for pseudo-needs and pseudo-goods; Debord believes that “it may also offer false models of revolution to local revolutionaries”. He feels that the roots of spectacle stand firm in the economy and it is economy that dominates the spectacular market.

For Debord, the glitter of the ‘spectacle’ produces a banality where although all commodities are different but all are superficially coated with the ‘spectacle’ tending to look the same. Rebelliousness also arises from the ‘spectacle’ by contradicting it and yet allowing to merge within the unity of the spectacle. The reason for this, Debord figures is “that dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economics of affluence finds a way of applying its production methods to this particular raw material”.

Debord looks at the phenomenon of stardom and believes that stars are “spectacular representations of living human beings”. Celebrities are also a result of production who embrace an appearance/spectacle hiding behind the real-self. He further claims that an individual, in the course of becoming a star or embracing the ‘spectacle’, becomes an enemy of the individual within him and of many other individuals. In order to become a model that others would identify with, he loses his power to identify himself. Therefore, although the celebrities might portray different personalities on the outside, within they enjoy the same consumption and satisfaction. He goes on to say that the people who we admire are the ones who embrace a level of reality
lower than that of the most insignificant individual life.

Debord feels that the consumption of abundance has established itself in the antagonism between youth and adulthood where an adult is nowhere to be found and youth is not proper to people who are young. This antagonism characterizes the economic system where the things that rule are young. Such spectacular antagonism conceals the unity of poverty. In such cases, the spectacle is in a concentrated or diffused form. While the concentrated form of the spectacle is characterized by bureaucratic capitalism, the diffused form is associated with the abundance of commodities where each commodity’s presence is justified due to the ‘abundance’ factor. Giving the spectacular logic of the automobiles, Debord says that for a perfect traffic flow, the spectacle calls for the destruction of the old city centers whereas the spectacle of the city itself proposes that these sections be turned to museums. So the satisfaction derived from the consumption of the whole is questioned from the outset as the consumer can consume it only in fragments.

In the society of the spectacle, every commodity fights for itself and imposes its presence over the other and in this process actualizes itself in a higher order than its original self. In the word of Debord, “the commodity becoming worldly coincides with the world’s being transformed into commodity”. In this abundance of commodities, they have lost their use-value or intrinsic value but are only bought for their spectacular value. Debord feels that as the “mass of commodities become more and more absurd, absurdity itself becomes a commodity”. For Debord, the pseudo-need imposed by modern consumerism cannot be opposed by any genuine need which is not
itself shaped by society and its history and this eventually leads to the “falsification of life”.

Debord gives example of the falsified nature of advertising and the fake promise of products they offer. With every new product, the consumers are made to believe that this is the ultimate one for them until a new product arrives with a new promise or “disillusionment”. This continual process of product replacement hints at the fake gratification of the product and the illusory nature of the society of the spectacle. Each new lie of the advertising industry acknowledges the one told before. At the end, Debord also claims that the ‘spectacle’ lacks permanence and is an ever-changing phenomenon.

Author: Ritika Pant

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rethinking Genre

Christine Gledhill in her essay ‘Rethinking Genre’ stresses on genre to be a cyclical concept. For her, it helps to fill the gap that is left open by theory that once promised to grasp films as a part of a totalising ‘social formation’ or ‘historical conjuncture’. For example film noir was always understood in terms of the post-war social malaise in American cities in the 40’s and 50’s. But Steve Neale comments that the mental condition of a nation cannot be read from consumer choice at the box office. Thus in the study of genre for Gledhill, texts and aesthetics intersect with industry and institution, history and society, culture and audiences. Genre is capable of understanding culture in a wider context in relationship to rather than as an originating source of aesthetic mutations and textual complications.

Genre is also increasingly a boundary phenomenon. According to Collins, postmodern culture dissolves the boundaries between high and low, literary and vernacular, artistic and commercial and causes a cultural confusion as all areas of cultural production meet in a mass mediated market place. But genre also gets introduced into film studies as an alternative to auteurism, where it puts art back into popular fiction and simultaneously reclaims the commercial products of Hollywood for critical appraisal. The productivity of genre lies in the fact that boundaries are defined, eroded and redrawn. Genre analysis hence tells us much more about the cultural work of producing and knowing genre films. Gledhill states three important areas that combine within genre analysis - Industrial mechanism, aesthetic practice and cultural-critical discursivity.

Genres are also a system of intersecting fictional worlds. There is usually a presupposition that an ‘original’ underlies the hybridity of genre as not only an industrial but also a cultural process. But take for instance, melodrama as a form has been founded on plagiarism, and the notion of a singular becomes inappropriate here. Further, there is no simple identification to be made between gender, male or female and melodrama at any point in its history. As an industrial process, Alloway, Maltby and Altman favour the concept of ‘cycle’ over genre. Tino Balio speaks of ‘production trends’ and Barbara Klinger of the ‘local genre’. Thus the industry does not work with genres directly but to guide production studios who invariably look to replicate a successful film, exploit an asset like a star, a set or a formula that comes out of a mix of elements from different genres. There is an inevitable mismatch between industrial and critical histories. For example, Maltby points out that the gangster film cycle lasted three years while its cultural life extends to the present day.

Gledhill explains that the life of a genre is cyclical and the cultural historian lacks any fixed point from which to survey its panorama. For example, film noir emerges both as a critical concept and a production category and films that were not promoted as ‘women’s films’ were also reconceived under this genre. Also, Melodrama is not a singular genre but combining two broad based cultural traditions - a mix of folk and new urban entertainment forms and middle-class fiction and theatre of sentimental drama and comedy. The melodramatic machine combines news events, popular paintings, songs, romantic poetry, circus acts etc. and generates a wide diversity of genres and draws from several modes as well.
Gledhill describes ‘modality’ as an aesthetic articulation that adapts itself across genres, decades and
national cultures. Melodrama is doubly a source of fascination and threat as it recognised a range of audiences from different classes and nationalities. Thomas Elsaesser, Peter Brooks and Ben Singer suggest melodrama has a capacity to respond to the questions of modernity. The modality of melodrama encapsulates a secular world driven by capitalism and the clash of moral imperatives. Cinematic technology like melodrama emerges out of the merging of two sets of class and gender traditions - fairground with parlour entertainment and cinema of ‘attractions’ with a cinema of narrative fiction. Melodrama also combines bodily eloquence with spectacle.

Gledhill is critical of the term ‘classic’ which is attached to mainstream film narrative tying it to a novelistic past and neglecting cinema’s melodramatic legacy. She finds melodramatic modality to continue to dominate mainstream cinema under the new names of Hollywood genres to the present day. There is further a polarisation of melodrama and realism as critical values under the middle-class intellectual elite. Realism is associated with restraint and reasoning and valued as masculine while emotion and pathos are read as feminine. But melodrama exploits a realism associated with sexualised images from popular Freudism as well as the violence of the western, thriller, action and horror film. She states that desire is generated at the boundaries. Hence genres construct fictional worlds out of textual encounters between languages, discourses, images and documents according to a particular genre’s codes while social and cultural conflicts provide material for renewed generic enactments in them.
There are encounters at the boundaries—for example, the serial queen or the ‘true’ woman as today’s action heroine. The overlapping images and boundaries mean that they are ripe for reconstruction and re-imagination. The job of the critics whether journalist, academic or counter-cultural is to make these connections across generic boundaries and bring into view new patterns. For example, film noir’s return generating new sub genres of neo-noir, tech noir etc.

For Gledhill then, there is a fluidity between boundaries that divide one genre from another but also between fictional and social imaginaries. Genre system complicates the use of film history for in historical research one cannot find a true identity of genre in some past origin, but an identity that is still in the making. The boundaries of genre don’t stay within the fictional but seep into cultural and critical discourse where they are made and remade by audiences, students, scholars and critics.

Author: Harmanpreet Kaur