MEDIA AS CULTURE: THE STATE OF THE FIASCO
I buy bolts and screws from a wholesale jobber in downtown San Francisco. A few years ago, they installed a television over their Will Call counter. The mollification of customer impatience, the television's ostensible utility, is belied by the fact that its screen faces away from them. Instead, it faces the firm's employees.
Culture, on these premises, is tabloid TV. Unwed mothers confronting the fathers of their children in front of a studio audience. "Real" crime. The war in Iraq. Soap operas. The trial of ex-football star O.J. Simpson, accused and spectacularly acquitted of hacking his wife and an innocent bystander to death, beamed down upon the exposed necks of the customers nearly every working day for four months.
The moderately acculturated are the folks who purchase fasteners there -- municipal plumbers, people who repair buses and fire hydrants and parking meters, machinists, maintenance men, high-rise construction suppliers, mechanics, cabinetmakers. But the thoroughly acculturated are the clerks and warehousemen who work there, who have decided they will have a television on throughout their working day, week, month, year – career.
One can only guess at what they might do in their off-hours.
If an unfortunate, that is to say boring, eighty per cent of this elite are male, racially, San Francisco being the Pacific Rim city it is, the mix at the Will Call counter is profound. The need to fasten, at least, knows no racial barrier.
As regards racism, the television "medium" saw the light a long time ago, when CBS or NBC gave the great and immensely popular and, as it happened, black, jazz singer, Nat King Cole, his own television show, in 1956. The "media" were the first to have the big realization that, if the "people" have a television, whoever controls the programming grasps them by their short hairs -- no matter what color they are. Put another way: while you're "entertaining" them, you can sell them anything you like. The homogeneity of money exceeds even that of fasteners, and comes in a single, universally acclaimed color.
To put it daintily, corporate sponsorship of the Nat King Cole show came up lacking. That is to say, though the network "stuck out it's neck" as they like to put it, in an attempt to broadcast the image of a black entertainer doing something other than parodying his own race, no corporate sponsor came forward with its checkbook to endorse Nat the King, and the show was canceled.
As a moment in TV history, it was Unforgettable. One can only imagine the corporate angst. Here was a major network blazing the trail -- and not only a trail but the high road -- to a virtually untapped market of roughly 16 million potential consumers, and they couldn't get a single racist advertiser to see the light.
Advertisers who otherwise seemed so perspicacious.
Over the ensuing two television generations, the corporate sponsors have resigned themselves to paying the price of their short-sightedness, and abandoned their racism as obstructionist. Today, in order to mine their ethnically diverse (not to say permanently schismed: all God's children will consume Disneyland, after all) markets, of which niches entrepreneurial pioneers have long since taken control by founding their own broadcast entities based on Korean, Japanese, Urdu, French, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Persian, Mongolian, Tagalog, Swahili, Thai, Cambodian, Malay (an incomplete list of what's available in San Francisco), the contrite sponsors must make each soap commercial multiple times -- once with black actors, again with white actors, a third time with Asians, a fourth with only women, in purdah, assuring one another the blacks in the burqas will come out really, truly black, and a fifth with everybody's favorite spunky Latina shaking the bleach bottle under the nose of her soiled,-rod-busting husband.
An expensive misjudgment, back there in the fifties. It's conceivable that the monolith characterized as the Monoculture (whose spawn are encouraged to teem in the glittering corporate ghettos of Mouseschwitz and Duckau) had played its cards right from the beginning, by now everybody would be (a) speaking American English and (b) using the One Laundry Soap Whose Cleaning Power Scours While Transcending All Racial and Ethnic Barriers. The pith of American filmmaker Steve Fagin is on record: "American culture is No Culture."
This is true and not true. A more accurate assessment might be that, like most humans, Americans don't know or care about "The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought," so long as they can get a cheeseburger and an hour of Star Trek in Moscow. That is to say, while America spews "culture" at a perhaps unprecedented rate, it neither knows, understands, nor cares what it's doing. The environmental impact of the totality of America's doing and thinking at any given moment is an effete synergy, best left to others to judge from the outside, at a great distance, preferably in retrospect as well; while, orbiting the furnace of the American psyche -- an ecosphere too busy, diverse, and insane to keep track of what's going on -- if small, artificially-created-for-our-delectation stars are taking their turns at phasing into and out of existence, that psyche's third-eye view of them and consequently itself is increasingly obscured by the useless junk shed by the machinery employed to birth them.
To label a culture effete is to declare it distinguished by self-serving solipsism, indulgence in the trivial, and decadence; as no longer productive; as unable to seed itself. America's currently working on perhaps its greatest contribution to global culture, the ultimate machine that will be used to simultaneously track and disseminate the planet's self-awareness of its self- destruction. To say that a global monoculture has come into existance is to recognize the power of television, telecommunications, the Internet; it is to recognize the inevitable result of complete realization of Buckminster Fuller's prediction, with side-effects unimagined -- or, at least, unexpressed -- by him, that one day the global consciousness would achieve what he termed "simultaneous world-around awareness." He didn't go on to elaborate exactly of what we would all be simultaneously aware, probably because, as a wise old man, it was only too obvious and depressing for him to contemplate.
On the one hand, there is a good case to be made for, say, the acceleration of the end of apartheid by the electronic version of this cognizance. For a while the whole world was watching South Africa. What had been possible for the Boers to do to the native population of South Africa within the long shadow of steamship communications was virtually wiped out by the image of an Inkatha teenager with a burning tire around his neck, transmitted within minutes of the event. Carefully tinted infernos, Dickensian exposition, newspaper photography augured this awareness; but today the image is moving, and there's an audio track of the screams. Very few people can undergo such emotive manipulation without determining, somewhere within their souls, that perhaps Something could, even must, be done.
But an odd thing happened on the way to the United Nations. In a teeth-grinding parody of both Nature's abhorrence of a vacuum and of mankind's ever-kindled curiosity, of Man's and Nature's mutual haunting by the phantom of Silence, in complicity if not outright conspiracy with their consumers the "media" have since determined the necessity to eruct their product constantly, with an increasingly cavalier in fact desperate disregard for content that threatens to overwhelm entirely any conceivable relevance to the human condition -- or, worse, to become the human condition.
The medium has, at least, become the message; and the message is: There is no message. "Don't go away. Until we can re-establish the broken connection to riot-torn Soweto, let's have a look at what a great white shark did to a surfer this afternoon, just a few miles south of Johannesburg -- But first, this important message…"
…There is no message.
As a bookmark, "Don't go away, we'll be right back," has become a cruel joke played on the consciousness of mankind. Unless you count the occult locus of their conspiracy toward mutual oblivion, neither the addressor nor the addressee is anywhere to go away from or get back to. One is reminded of a lyric sung by Dan Hicks, "How can I miss you if you won't go away?"
On the other hand, why should the television viewer go anywhere? It's a big, dangerous world, outside the screen. People are getting necklaced, right there in South Africa! Better to sit home and watch, clinging to the reassuring neck of the remote control ... The buttoned wand has two phases: non- and pseudo- awareness.
One is also reminded of a cartoon drawn by the English poet, Tom Raworth. It depicts a cozy living room, in which a television with rabbit ears faces a steel box with a combination lock on it. The caption reads, "Safe in front of television."
The birthing and dying artificial stars are represented by a select handful of exclusive agents, who carefully vend them to consumer via film, TV, glossy magazines, and, lately, that ultimate shopping channel, the World Wide Web. On CompuServe any morning, you can be "Online with Your Favorite Stars!" Yours maybe; not mine. Whose agential entities judge the celestial revenue, shift their radiation from venue to venue, adjust the brightness and contrast of their images. On the whole, these agents control a great deal of the ordure that the vast majority of the American population have been schooled to consider, even proudly, as "their" very own culture, which, depacketed into the spoon and held to the candle, cooks down to a tripartite cocktail of money, celebrity, and vicariousness
This mono-non-culture is bigger than America. one billion people -- just under one fifth of the entire population of the planet -- watch the annual American football game called Superbowl, a "sporting" event which, if without precedent in scope, has only too great a lineage in stupidity. Two years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle, as a novelty nod to one of the city's waxing white-collar industries, actually published a long article in its "entertainment" section "previewing" and "reviewing" not the Superbowl itself, every aspect of which had and continued to be done to death in the surrounding pages, but the commercials slated to accompany its broadcast. These commercials were rated by the same live-or-die system the paper uses to rate films and theatrical events -- a little anthropoid in a homburg, ecstatically jumping out of his theater seat, or sedately applauding in it, or snoozing in it, or, the critical kiss of death, having deserted his seat altogether.
It might be perhaps interesting, as a matter of closeted or even inverted schadenfreud, to note that this rating system is never applied to the opera, the symphony, or the ballet. While party line might be that, as cultural artifacts, such endeavors are preciously beyond the consideration of a guy writing on deadline over his sandwich, the actuality is that it is as precisely what they are -- cultural artifacts and, as such always, in America at least, on artificial life-support -- that makes them too precariously propped among us to rank in so cavalier a manner.
In the States and likely elsewhere people throw Superbowl parties. They invite their friends, serve food and drink. Somewhere on the premises a television broadcasts the big game, and it's the focus of the party. That year of the advertising critical reviews, this writer attended his one and only Superbowl party ever (there have been thirty years of these parties), drawn in because it was hosted and attended by an assortment of the talent -- writers, gaffers, camera-people, producers -- who worked on at least five or six of the ten or fifteen Superbowl commercials.
It was almost interesting. As cameras spun and launched away from impeccably crepuscular jeeps perched atop Utah's awe-inspiring Factory Butte, hearts were broken, careers were made and unmade, a diabetic surfer showed me his new insulin pump, booze was consumed, some expensive guys played some expensive football, and food was fantastic. With the single exception of the present writer, everybody at the party owned their own house, drove a new car, vacationed abroad. A single minute of the commercial time sponsoring Superbowl "XXIX" (there's a 20% chance that yours is of the brains it ate in 1995) cost $2.2 million dollars. At $20,000 per year, this is enough money to send 27-1/2 scholars through the full four years required for a diploma at Stanford, about thirty miles down the freeway from San Francisco's advertising "ghetto". And this, too, one might note, is symptomatic of "culture". The sleepy west coast town by the bay that once exported labor movements wholesale has by now almost thoroughly exported -- not to say extirpated -- its entire blue-collar work force. People who make actual things -- like chairs or sculpture -- or who fix things -- like sinks or buses -- , as opposed to making and fixing TV commercials or stock purchases, have not been able to afford to live here for a generation. The cops and firemen moved out two generations ago.
Theoretically, one of the things one should be able to study at Stanford is how to make television commercials. At $20,000 a year, better to learn this trade than something a little less lucrative like, say, how to write novels. Curiously, while far, too many people have gone to college to study the making of novels, absolutely nobody, to my knowledge, has ever gone to college to learn how to make television commercials.
Where does all this money come from, and where does it go? These are interesting questions. For two or three thousand dollars, Queen Isabella endorsed Columbus and changed the world. A "global cobbler" recently endorsed the commercial-making career of a twenty-year-old golf-playing Stanford junior to the tune of "fourteen to twenty-five" million dollars. Except to observe that the young man came out of his gilded daze long enough to realize that it was probably no longer necessary that he continue to attend Stanford University to learn how to do anything anymore, not even to play golf, and dropped out, it is probably safe to say that the corporate shoemaker, with its $14-25 million investment, changed nothing. This, with one interesting American-psyche-type caveat.
The young player happens to be an African-American, that is to say, he is a black man. And in the sense that watching him play golf is entertainment, he is Nat King Cole exactly forty years later. The corporate sponsors have learned their lesson, learned it well. In the history of professional golf nobody has ever spent this kind of money on a player, black or not. Though it's mightily tempting, we'll leave the comparison between jazz and golf for another essay, another day, perhaps another life.
There surfaced in the media a half-hearted attempt to make a big deal of this sea change; but it soon sank beneath the waves made by the passage of Big Money through the shoal waters of sports intellection. In fact, nobody has spent this kind of money on anybody within the context of this particular sport, and damned few other contexts, either, ever. While it is true that this black athlete is breaking down some barriers -- by drawing any kind of corporate money at all; by competing in professional golf tournaments on the grounds of country clubs to which, historically at least, based on strictly on his race, he could never have attained membership -- it is at least an equal if not higher verity to observe that our global cobbler has digested whole the lessons to be derived of the mistakes of its forbears in the advertising business. If anyone thinks this outfit, having gauged the payoff, wouldn't get Nat King Cole to sing in their sneakers without a second thought as to the zeros spilling off the end of the endorsement check, they've missed, in my opinion, a rather major transition.
And hey. This is hardly to say that racism no longer exists in America. It does. There still exist plenty of white idiots who routinely dismiss anyone black with the "N-word", and do not hesitate to deride anyone Asian with a select half-dozen of equally cliched epithets. I myself have come up against the utter disdain for anybody white that's at least as common in the Chinese community as the reciprocal prejudice is amongst the gringos -- and every bit as stupid and short-sighted. It's also a side trip. People can busily make feeble distinctions as to race, creed, color, religion, and baggy pants all they want; but it makes no difference because, sooner than later, the Superbowl is going to get them all.
And if the Superbowl doesn't get them, the O.J. Simpson trial will. And if neither of those acts works, well ... Be assured. The Mono-non-culture is working on the problem.
A survey quoted in the San Francisco Examiner (Oct. 9, 1996) found that, regarding the life-expectancy of two "institutions" founded at about the same time, in the 1960s, Medicare -- a Federal program that guarantees a certain amount of health-care to certain qualifying people over 65 years old -- and General Hospital -- a daytime soap opera -- , a majority of 18-to-34-year-old voters believe that the television program has a better chance of survival than the health program.
They could be right.
Jurors in the O.J. Simpson trial flatly declared that the prosecution failed to prove the football player committed two grisly murders with malice aforethought, and found him not guilty. Like the young voters, like many Americans, these jurors failed to admit to themselves what was driving this murder case, failed miserably at distinguishing between smoke and fire. The smoke of race carried the day, so far as the jury were concerned; none of them would admit that the trial was, instead, a steady burn fueled by money and celebrity and vicariousness. In one sense, one very real sense, the defense managed to find a few people whom nobody had gotten around to telling yet that, in the big mono-picture, racism is effectively over; and that Mr. O.J Simpson himself was one of the very best examples of this actuality.
I say was because, eight or ten months later, a better example came along. He plays golf.
Considered as a payoff for a national consciousness, the entire Simpson affair smacked of the value of the cellophane-wrapped prize fished up out of a box of rolled oats. Millions sat, transfixed and distracted, while forests went to the blade, entire populations were wiped out by their better-armed brothers, AIDS raged uncured, and the world population, much of the current crop of which was conceived under the glare of a television screen, edged toward an unsustainable, unstable total of six billion.
Television is handling a great many things for us now. Escapism? The question of race? These are but peanuts to its true voracity. Not only has television replaced real life for many, it's also replaced their dreaming. People who have no tangible relationship with reality are badly enough adjusted, but at least a few of them can hope to be artists. But people with no dream life are psychotic. And what of people with an artificial dream life? And what are we to make of an entire planet of people with not only an artificial dream life, but the same artificial dream life?
This writer came across a fascinating example of such a personality a number of years ago. She was an attractive woman, married at the time. She held a good job. But as one came to know her, it became increasingly difficult and finally impossible to deny a definitive, in fact reigning, otherness of her reality. Her only true moments of committed, un-nervous levity came, finally, in front of one of her four or five televisions. Gaily, happily, she could chat at length about the "personalities" on screen. It mattered little that the salients of the actors had long since become more or less interchangeable with those of the characters they played on their television shows, let alone that in either case, most of those salients are manufactured wholesale. Intimate details of actor's lives, fictional or "reported", were "known" to her. She could retail, in depth, startling relationships between these creatures and others of their ilk. Listening to her talk, on her couch, in the flickering darkness in front of her biggest television, was as unreal as one imagines in the ideas of spending a night on psilocybin in an Irish dolmen in the company of William Butler Yeats and a ouija board; and, if perhaps less exciting, it was more terrifying. Where had her information come from? Why, she supposed, it was commonly held as factual among the cognoscenti -- that is, among those who devour the publicity releases salted as "news" among the columns of magazines and televised "news"-casts and gossip- oriented talkshows. So-and-so there, on the left of your screen, had fallen madly in love with his co-star and finally abandoned his wife while she was in detox. But the wife had bounced back in a season pilot especially designed for her by her lesbian lover's husband's backlot production team. How long had this affair been going on? Since the first year of syndication, at least Ah ... yes. Weren't we were going out for dinner? We have to wait until this installment is over -- fifteen minutes. Then we have to be back in an hour and a half for the season finale of Deep Space Nine…
Finally, my friend's husband left her for a younger woman who, coincidentally, cared little if at all for television. That is to say, she could -- and does -- watch a great deal without becoming noticeably debilitated. But then, she's young. Last I heard, his ex-wife had changed jobs. But she is at home nearly every night, viewing, viewing, viewing. Though her house is small, there's a TV in every room. She cooks watching one, goes to sleep, wakes up, dresses and sits on the patio in front of one. They are loud, too. Sometimes they're all on at once, so can go from room to room, attending her chores, cleaning, talking on the telephone without missing a moment of whatever program she's interested in. She's extended her interest enough to become an expert, too, in her "knowledge" of celebrity, of "show business", of motion pictures and television programming. As others do for the Superbowl, she holds an annual party for the Academy Awards. But, complete with ninety-proof strawberry daiquiris, appetizers, and select marijuana, the guest list is very exclusive: only she is invited. She's certain that no one is as knowledgeable as herself about movies, TV, and celebrity, and so, anyone else would be a distraction. How wrong could she be? The whole world knows about Whoopi Goldberg's breast-reduction surgery! Celebrity is contingent on intimacy! But my friend's ex-wife can't stand any interruption to the rapture of the Oscar-cast. The ceremonies are sacred to her. She handicaps their results. The televisions are loud. You can hear them in the street -- the applause as the winners are announced; snatches of musical themes; even the sentimental preamble to the special Oscar for this year's deceased cinematographer. She keeps a list of her picks. The newspapers help out every year with huge spreads, showing all the contenders, the nominees, those who got shafted last year, sentimental favorites whose recognition is long overdue, the history of the Oscar statuette... My friend kibitzes the pundits, knows their tastes, blind spots, foibles, their little corruptions... It's her world. She's usually right about the winners. It takes all night. The big categories come last, and late. She'll go to her job tomorrow with a little contented smile. She picked them all. Best Actress and Actor, Best Supporting, Best Screenplay, Best Film. Maybe even the Best Original Song ... She's screened all the nominees at least once She knows what's what... This year, she notes complacently, more black people are being nominated than ever before…
The American writer Cynthia Ozik, polled by a newspaper as to her favorite entertainment, responded, "Frankly, I'm not entertained by entertainment."
There's hope for some of us
The rest of us are watching television.
In Junichiro Tanazaki's great novel, The Makioka Sisters, there is a tale of a wood cutter, walking home after a hard day in the woods, who comes across two gods in a glade playing a game of cosmic Go.
The game is shaping up to be a good one. The players are well-matched -- immortals in fact. Intrigued, his work done, the woodcutter lays aside his ax and sits down in the grass to watch.
Indeed, it was a very good game. The advantage changed hands several times. The competition was intense, requiring much concentration, and the woodcutter watched to the end. Then, one god having won, the other having lost, the woodcutter stood up, stretched, and turned to finish the walk home.
Reaching for his ax he was startled to discover that, so much time had passed as he tarried to witness the immortal match, his ax's wooden handle had rotted to dust.
Ours is a culture of attrition, not of materials, but of resources. The woodcutter is the consumer. The two gods and their game are the Superbowl, the O.J. Simpson trial, television, Hollywood, entertainment. The ax is the consumer's mind, and its handle his connection to it. One day, getting up from the couch in front of the television to go to the kitchen for another beer the Average Consumer will discover that his mind is no longer his, if it exists at all. The world his mind was designed and evolved to manipulate and understand will no longer exist or, if it does, it will no longer respond to the derived input. His actuality replaced, his dreams dreamt for him, our consumer, the sensorium where his mind used to be now awash in the endorphins of "culture", will perhaps notice the missing part -- perhaps not. He will perhaps make it out to the kitchen, find and operate the bottle-opener correctly, make it back to the couch. Safe in front of television, the beer in one hand, in the other his magic wand of mono-non-cultural awareness.
The question is, will he find the means, the will, the desire, to manufacture himself a new handle? So that he can reestablish the connection, if only for just long enough to make the startling discovery that the very culture that ended racism has also deprived him of his mind?
|CyberCorpse, Exquisite Corpse © 1999|