media notes #8: Benedict Anderson on newspapers

“In this perspective, the newspaper is merely an ‘extreme form’ of the book, a book sold on a colossal scale, but of ephemeral popularity. Might we say: one-day best-sellers? The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing -curious that one of the earlier mass-produced commodities should so prefigure the inbuilt obsolescence of modern durables- nonetheless, for just this reason, creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (‘imagining’) of the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only on this day, not that.

The significance of this mass ceremony -Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers- is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned? At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbours, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life.”

Bonus: Alexis de Tocqueville on newspapers

“The effect of a newspaper is not only to suggest the same purpose to a great number of persons, but to furnish means for executing in common the designs which they may have singly conceived. The principal citizens who inhabit an aristocratic country discern each other from afar; and if they wish to unite their forces, they move towards each other, drawing a multitude of men after them. In democratic countries, on the contrary, it frequently happens that a great number of men who wish or who want to combine cannot accomplish it because as they are very insignificant and lost amid the crowd, they cannot see and do not know where to find one another. A newspaper then takes up the notion or the feeling that had occurred simultaneously, but singly, to each of them. All are then immediately guided towards this beacon; and these wandering minds, which had long sought each other in darkness, at length meet and unite. The newspaper brought them together, and the newspaper is still necessary to keep them united.”

media notes #7: Sound/History by Rick Altman

What is cinema? If when considering cinema you only account for “image” then there’s an obvious history, but “cinema’s sound identity has undergone constant redefintion.” In cinema’s early -pre-1930’s- period, it combined with various audio media to the extent that they cannot be seen separately.

Media is constantly changing, be wary of projecting the current conception onto the past. Because it combines “image and sound technologies” film can integrate or “blend in” any relevant new technique that “serves a particular aesthetic or economic purpose.”

“Nickelodeons” were largely a silent format -a matter of “moving photographs” on literal film. The “familiar audio/visual phenomenon we now call cinema” is not present at this early moment. Soon after however, films began to be shot “in view of a specific accompaniment.” As the cliché has it “the silents were never silent.”

The “phonograph” or “graphophone” was then combined with “the picture machine” to create “the singing and talking moving picture.” This process is primarily identified with the company Cameraphone who initiated the “star system” via their “decision to record vaudeville on film.” However, “it would take nearly two decades to install a durable sound film system.”

“We make more sense of the film industry by understanding it as a complex of related production strategies.” Thanks to this dynamism, early film “could pass rapidly from opera to cartoons and back.”

“Televison was referred to as radio throughout the twenties.” With regards to film and radio “the borders of the media remained an open question” and they had not “definitively separated” by 1922. Film audio was simulcast over radio to multiple theaters in the “Rothacker process.”

The “Victrola” was a “revolution in the phonograph field.” Early sound films “were an outgrowth of the record industry” and emphasized audio, “a telephone, plus a phonograph plus a radio” as one critic put it. “What is a talking picture but a phonograph record with plenty of amplification behind it?” wrote another.

“Representational technologies” like the above audio/visual innovations “take on multiple identities,” are “constantly redefined” and “are subject to the vagaries of reception.” This is opposed to simple notions of “substitution” or “succession”. “Equivalence and improvement in one area are accompanied by a zone of non-equivalence in another.”

Cinema’s history of “conflation with other media” precludes any notion of a succession of “true equivalents.” “Representational technologies” tend “toward multiple definition,” in the case of early cinema “as a circus,” an “exhibition,” or “theater.” In the history of cinema definition is a multifaceted “ongoing struggle” of “jurisdiction.”

media notes #6: Adorno on stereotypes and TV

Stereotypes “are an indispensable element of the organization and anticipation of experience, preventing us from falling into mental disorganization and chaos, no art can entirely dispense with them.”

But “reified and rigid” stereotypes are a threat in the present “setup of cultural industry.” “The more opaque and complicated modern life becomes, the more people are tempted to cling desperately to clichés which bring some order…”

“We should never forget that there are two sides to every psychodynamic phenomenon, the unconscious or id element and the rationalization.” The latter can be legitimate, but even where legitimate, as in moral messages that are cheesy but positive and true, “mechanical oversimplifications” risk “distorting.”

“The standard device employed is that of the spurious personalization of objective issues.” Personalization of issues is necessary but not to the extent of presenting “individuals as mere specimens of an abstraction.” TVs “phony psychology of the big shots” leads to identification with power.

Two examples of stereotypes in mass culture: “a pretty girl can do no wrong” and is “exploitative, demanding” etc. and the artist as a “maladjusted, introverted” weakling in contrast to the “man of action.”

“As happens frequently in mass culture, the roles of the sexes are reversed -the girl is utterly aggressive, and the boy, utterly afraid of her, describes himself as ‘woman-handled’ when she manages to kiss him.”

These “illustrations and examples” are not new but they are newly relevant in light of “the cultural and pedagogical problem presented by television.” The aim is to knowingly “face psychological mechanisms operating on various levels in order not to become blind and passive victims.”

media notes #5: The Roles of Radio by Harold Mendelsohn

Radio functions as a “diverting companion” and fills the void during routine and boring tasks as well as consoling feelings of social isolation and loneliness. It can also add an “adult” voice for those starved of such, like mothers of young children.

“Radio serves as a reliable, nonthreatening, pleasant human surrogate” that keeps listeners “in touch” with social “realities.” The wide variety of stations make radio adaptable to the listening “mood or psychological frame of mind.” This mood function serves to both sustain and create.

Radio listeners do not tire of listening to the same news over and over again, whether new details are added or not. News radio provides a sense of vicarious participation in “the great events of the day.” “In a world of overwhelming complexity where the role of the individual in shaping events is becoming ever more remote, ‘keeping up’ with the news easily becomes a substitute” for involvement.

“Radio allows the listener to “participate” psychologically in the news events of the day” and “share with others a wide variety of events of common interest.” The “talk” content of radio is “social lubricant” as it provides listeners with subjects of conversation. In this way, casual communication between people is made easier.

media notes #4: Understanding Radio by Marshall McLuhan

England and America were immunized against radio by their long histories of literacy and industrialism. Their “intense visual organization” contrasts with the “more earthy and less visual European cultures.” There, the “tribal drum” of radio is “magic” and “began to resonate with the note of fascism.” Highly literate people are bewildered.

Radio listeners are deeply involved, people “carry transistor sets in order to provide a private world for themselves amidst crowds.” “Radio affects people most intimately, person-to-person, offering a world of unspoken communication between speaker and listener.”

Hitlers rise to power is “directly owing to radio.” “Radio provided the first massive experience of electronic implosion: that reversal of the entire direction and meaning of literate Western civilization.” Highly literate societies “have managed to absorb and to neutralize the radio implosion,” elsewhere the exposure is “utterly explosive.”

Typographic technology and literacy represent one grand logic that impacts societies key components. “Continuity, uniformity, repeatability” had permeated England and America. In contrast, the middle-European world had “ready access” to the rich nonvisual resources of auditory and tactile form and felt “the hot impact of radio.” “The message of radio is one of violent, unified implosion and resonance.”

Literacy “fostered an extreme of individualism” while radio revived “the ancient exposure of kinship webs of deep tribal involvement.” Radio “is really a subliminal echo chamber of magical power to touch remote extensions of ourselves and forgotten chords.” Radio is “an extension of the central nervous system that is matched only by human speech itself.”

“The phonetic alphabet and the printed word exploded the closed tribal world into the open society of fragmented functions and specialist knowledge.” Radio has the power to “retribalize mankind.” This has gone virtually unremarked upon and that itself is what needs explaining.

media notes #3: Media Hot and Cold by Marshall McLuhan

A “hot medium” extends one single sense in high definition. “High definition is the state of being well filled with data.” Speech is a cool medium because “so much has to be filled in by the listener.” “Hot media” “do not leave so much to be filled in.” “Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation.”

The printed word broke up the old medieval social structure with its “individualistic patterns.” The “hotting-up of the medium of writing to repeatable print intensity led to nationalism and the religious wars of the sixteenth century.” Stone bound time, print unified spaces and the ages.

Intensity and high definition engender specialism and fragmentation. We can’t accept every shock to our sensibility fully and directly so a “cooling system” is necessary, particularly in periods of technological change.

Old hierarchies collapse in the face of hot mediums. On the other hand, media like radio send societies back in time as “nonspecialist electric technology retribalizes.” “The instant speed of electricity confers the mythic dimension on ordinary industrial social action today.”

A Theory of Mass Culture by Dwight Macdonald – Summary Essay

The following is a summary of A Theory of Mass Culture by Dwight Macdonald. He was a mid-20th century cultural critic.

High culture and mass culture are properly separated. Mass culture is the proper term as opposed to popular culture. Why? Because something can be popular without having been calibrated to a mass audience.

Political democracy and popular education broke the elite hold on culture. Business took advantage by using new techniques of cheap production to serve a fresh crowd of consumers. Modern technology like movies and television are particularly well suited to distribution at scale.

Kitsch -the German word for mass culture- mines high culture and extracts from it. Eventually kitsch begins to draw on itself. Folk Art preceded mass culture as the common peoples culture and was “from below.” In contrast, mass culture is dictated from above and geared to passive consumers. Mass culture demolished the wall separating high from low and integrated the masses into a degraded form of high culture.

High and low culture now compete intellectually which is absurd and chaotic. High culture is threatened by the brutal overwhelming quantity of kitsch. Kitsch “predigests art for the spectator.” Everything is mixed and scrambled together, destroying value judgement. After all, judgement would imply “discrimination” and mass culture refuses to discriminate. “All is grist to the mill.”

Academicism was an institutional artistic movement that attempted to compete with mass culture “by imitation.” In contrast, the Avant Garde refuses to compete. The height of Avant Gardism was 1890-1930 when “bourgeois values” were challenged both politically and culturally. The “chronic state of war” -including “Cold”- does not encourage rebellion in art or politics. Since its turn of the century high point the Avant Garde has been watered down with mass elements.

There is nothing more vulgar than sophisticated kitsch. The advent of sound film blurred the lines between Hollywood and Broadway to the detriment of both. Chaplin was Folk Art. Technological division of labour ended genuine artistic authorship as it fragmented aesthetic unity. A deep and shared cultural tradition can maintain aesthetic unity but the USA does not have one. The culture worker is just as alienated as the labourer.

In the age of mass culture children access grownup media and adults consume kid’s media. “Momism” -sentimental worship of mother- is rife in this context. Peter Pans result from the contemporary cult of youth.

The mid-20th century saw the rise of entertainers as “idols of consumption” in contrast to an earlier era personified by “idols of production.” Detective stories went form starring “scientific” characters like Sherlock Holmes to featuring bumbling incompetents. The masses don’t understand science and interpret the superficial aesthetics of science -laboratories and white coats- as Frankenstein-style “horror.”

Critics of mass culture don’t realize that it is not consumed by “people” but rather “masses.” Organization as a mass means loss of identity and atomization. Sheer scale is a challenge as there are simply too many people. In genuine communities there is a mutually beneficial relationship between the individual and the wider group. Not so with mass man, he doesn’t have a community at all.

media notes #1: Ernest van den Haag

The following is a summary of the thought of Ernest van den Haag. He was a mid-20th century critic of the mass media and pop culture.

Mass media alienates people from personal experience. When someone turns to the mass media out of loneliness and boredom, isolation and addiction result. Mass media is inescapable and therefore an invasion of privacy. No matter where we are, mass media takes us “somewhere else” and the outcome is loneliness in the company of others.

Mass media homogenizes because it is aimed at the “average.” The “stream” of mass media lessens capacity for experience and is simultaneously “invasion” and “evasion.” Parents tranquilize their kids with mass media, especially TV. The result is an early cheapening of taste.

While art “deepens perception,” pop culture leaves one vaguely discontented and is a “substitute gratification.” Substitute gratifications prevent real ones. The “din” of pop culture represses individuality. Repression with pop culture creates “insatiable longing.”

Pop culture provokes emotion without involving “the whole individual.” It bypasses reality and makes ultimate gratification impossible. The boredom that follows means that even when real “events” occur they are simply distractions.

Capacity for genuine experience is ruined and people with “no life” are the outcome. These empty characters look for the “inside story of others lives” and other vicarious trifles. In sum, pop culture and mass media distract from “the human predicament,” blocking deep individuation.

My Notes:

It’s striking how little has changed at the level of pop-critique.