REFLECTIONS ON CAPITALIST CULTURE AND THE SYSTEMATIC MORONIZATION OF AMERICAN PUBLICS

Donald Lazere

 

 

HOME

 

 

CYRANOS' JOURNAL AND CJONLINE ARE © 1982-2005 CYRANO'S JOURNAL, INC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The PRE-EMINENT IMPORTANCE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY OF IDEOLOGY AS A means of political control was emphasized early in the century by Georg Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness, where he analyzed the false consciousness imposed by capitalist ideology on the working class that caused them to accept beliefs that are against their own self-interest, and by Antonio Gramsci in his formulation of "ideological hegemony" whereby the interests of the capitalist class are made to appear to all other segments of society as the natural, immutable order of the world.

By the 1930's the role of modern mass culture as a key agency of ideological hegemony became a central concern of the "Frankfurt School," which included Max Horkheimer, T.W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, and Herbert Marcuse, all of whom emigrated to the United States after the rise of Hitler ANd subsequently focused their attention on American Mass culture. The Frankfurt School critics perceived THat in the twentieth century mass culture has surpassed THe church and challenged the family and the state (with Which it has increasingly merged) among the most INfluential socializing forces. They also saw certain SImilarities between all modern mass societies, whether totalitarian dictatorships or capitalist democracies: whereas regimes such as fascism use police state repression and blatant propaganda to control the masses, in ostensibly free countries like the United States mass production and communication have created the less heavy-handed and brutal but little less efficient weapon of cultural conditioning, whereby the capitalist class is able to regiment mass consciousness and perpetuate what Marcuse terms "the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda."

 

Similar critiques of mass society were, of course, made through the forties and fifties by Orwell in 1984 and Huxley in Brave New World Revisited, by C. Wright Mills, Fromm (preeminently in The Sane Society in 1955, a book whose value has been underestimated), and "the New York intellectuals" associated with journals such as Partisan Review, Politics, the early Commentary, and Dissent, among whom the critics of mass culture included Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, Edmund Wilson, Paul Goodman, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, and James Baldwin. Thus the views on mass society of the New York intellectuals and the Frankfurt School dominated the monumental collection Mass Culture edited by Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White in 1957. Most of the New York intellectuals, however, with the exception of Goodman, Baldwin, and (to some extent) Mailer, by the fifties had backed away from their earlier Marxism and somewhat muted their criticisms of capitalism and the United States under the exigencies of Cold-War anticommunism; they now, like the elitist cultural conservatives, tended to hold the masses themselves, rather than their capitalistic manipulators, responsible for their benightedness. In rejecting the manipulation thesis, they prepared the way for the popular culture school, which, with McLuhan as mediator, simply focused on the positive rather than the negative aspects of what McQuade and Atwan accept as the "common culture" between commercial producers and consumers.

 

Marcuse's One Dimensional Man in 1964, then, added little that was radically new in theory to the various earlier critiques of mass society and culture. The catalytic effect of that book and Marcuse's subsequent works resulted from their coinciding historically with the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and (later) feminist movements, and with the reawakening awareness among the young--after the virtual moratorium on criticism of capitalism during the earlier Cold War--of the manipulativeness, dishonesty, and increasingly monopolistic power of the American state and corporate capitalism. The growing concern among critics since One Dimensional Man over the extent of mass-cultural thought control in the United States and other Western democracies is indicated in the titles of several recent books: Hans Magnus Enzensberger's The Consciousness Industry, Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, Herbert Schiller's The Mind Managers and Communication and Cultural Domination, Stuart Ewen's Captains of Consciousness, Stanley Aronowitz' False Prom ises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness, Robert Sobel's The Manipulators America in the Media Age, and Kevin Phillips' Mediacracy (All of these authors except the last two are leftist,,,Sobel and Phillips represent a movement by conservatives to coopt the leftist critique by locating power in media personnel themselves without considering them as agents of' corporate capitalism, and by focusing on the points of' opposition between media and the state rather than of' collaboration.)

 

The French situationist Debord's notion of la societe du spectacle has become central in New Left cultural criticism. As Norman Fruchter puts it,

The spectacle is the continuously produced and therefore continuously evolving pseudo-reality, predominantly visual which each individual encounters, inhabits, and accepts as public and official reality, thereby denying as much as is possible, the daily private reality of exploitation pain, suffering and inautheticity he or she experiences.

The 'colonization' of leisure time in the twentieth century, the manufacture of mindless distraction to fill people's every spare moment, is a more pervasive means of keeping the masses diverted from critical political consciousness than any bread and circuses devised by earlier ruling classes-even though the culture industry's immediate motivation may not be political mind control so much as profits. The majority of Americans are probably more knowledgeable about and emotionally involved in Kojak and the Super Bowl than about their society's gravest problems. Another aspect of the spectacle is that in our time politics is show business and show business is politics. Secretary of State Kissinger is interviewed by Howard Cosell on the telecast of the baseball play-offs and fervently declares, "I've been a Yankee fan all my life." All political sectors, from the President to the SLA (Symbionese Lieberation Army, eds), have learned every trick for getting maximum media exposure. One of the Croatian nationalists who skyjacked a jetliner to publicize their cause summed it up when he surrendered and broke in half the fake stick of dynamite with which he had terrorized the passengers, cracking, "That's show business!" For the television generation, the lines have become blurred bctween reality and make-believe; between news, drama, and salesmanship. The events of Watergate did not have the full stamp of' authenticity in the public's mind until they were aesthetically shaped on film as All the Prcsidenl's Men; the real Woodward and Bernstein now look like second-rate imitations of Redford and Hoffman.

 

The professional consultants who developed the format of rapid-fire, "top forty stories" local newscasts justified it by claiming, "People who watch television the most are unread, uneducated, untraveled and unable to concentrate on single subjects more than a minute or two." The fragmented discourse, the mixture of the important with the trivial, the deadening of sensitivity by the glut of senseless violence in TV and film "entertainment," the sheer overload of media messages tends ultimately to leave people in a state of confusion and apathy, unable to make critical distinctions and paralyzed from meaningful political action.

 

Some recent leftist critics like Ensensberger, Gitlin, and Aronowitz (in False Promises and elsewhere) have argued that the Orwellian-Marcusean vision of an irremediably stupefied society is based on an overly pessimistic undialectical analysis. They claim that the bureaucratic agencies of state and corporate control are too cumbersome to be fully effective, that indigenous expressions of cultural autonomy especially among the industrial working class, will always resist regimentation, and that the media inadvertently generate oppositional forces. Now, no one except the most paranoid leftists and rightists believes that the media are monolithic in intent or effect If television was largely responsible for the selling of President Nixon and of the Vietnam War, it was also later responsible for their unselling. And the most inane features of mass media call backfire on their producers. The insertion of commercials in the telecasts of Roots--especially one showing a suburban woman taking Rolaids to ease her upset stomach during an exciting furniture auction which followed the harrowing depiction of an eighteenth-century slave auction--probably nullified the impact of the latter for some viewers, but for others it brought home the grotesqueness both of commercial sponsorship and of the contrast between afffuent middle-class society and the degradation of blacks past and present. It is also true that freedom of cultural expression in the United States has tended to expand since the dismal period of the 1950's, although this is somewhat cyclical (we still have not fully recovered from the cycle of repression during the Vietnam War and following the black power and campus movements), has had to be fought for, and varies from medium to medium. (The monopolization of' ownership in print media is one regressive tendency; by the time this appears, Rupert Murdoch may own College English, along with The New York Post, New York, New West, and The Village Voice.) It is encouraging that TV shows and films critical of American society like Roots, Return to Manzanar, Fear on Trial, and The Selling Of The Pentagon, or Network, The Godfather (especially Part II), The Front, Bound for Glory, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Catch-22, and even King Kong, can be made and reach a wide audience today, which they could not have twenty years ago--even though they all have their ideological limitations, mainly in portraying purely individualistic rather than organized revolt against the corporate state, revolt that ends in either the escape or crushing of the hero, which in either case leaves the sociopolitical status quo unchanged.


On the other hand, the Marcusean critic can argue that cultural control has been so highly developed that the ruling powers can allow opposition culture a fairly loose rein, thus perpetuating the semblance of a free, pluralistic society, while still remaining able to insure that it lacks sufficient force to break through the overall constraints of the society of the spectacle.

The countercultural "revolution" of the sixties was quickly coopted and commercially debased. Provocative as " ABC-TV's Roots was, one wonders why it could not have been produced twenty-five years ago, when its impact might have changed the whole course both of American race relations and of television quality. (Moreover, if Roots had not first been shown in midwinter but in summertime, it might very likely have sparked ghetto riots.) When white viewers exclaimed, "We never knew" the true meaning of slavery before "Roots," one could take it as an affirmation of the political power of art, but one could also ask, why didn't you know? Slavery is not exactly an obscure episode in American history, and TV must bear a large burden of blame for previously obscuring not only black history but the whole sense of history in general for a generation of Americans. The current crop of popular anti-1950's blacklist films, TV shows, and books, as well as the Woody Guthrie revival in Bound for Glory and elsewhere, are other cases of too little too late. In 1960 I submitted an article to the liberal New York Post attempting to gain some recognition for Guthrie, who was slowly dying in poverty and obscurity in a state hospital. Although the article mentioned nothing about his politics, it was rejected because the editors learned that Guthrie was an unregenerate communist.

 

WHATEVER DEGREE OF FREEDOM and effectiveness opposition culture has in the United States, its ultimate constriction is the muting of any widely circulated fundamental questioning of the capitalistic economic system or advocacy of socialism as an alternative.

 

Throughout most of the Cold War, until quite recently, it has been virtually unheard of for any Democratic or Republican politician, any mass circulation newspaper reporter or commentator, any Hollywood film or TV show to say anything favorable about even non-communistic forms of socialism over "free-enterprise."

 

 

The most effective way this constriction is imposed is through a semantic ploy whereby in every phase of American public discourse capitalism as an economic system is confused or equated with political democracy freedom, and patriotism so that advocates of any variety of socialism (most of whom in fact believe that a socialist economy can be more conducive than capitalism to these political values) get defined into being anti-democratic and "un-American." [For an in-depth analysis of this kind of bizarre sleight-of-hand, see our Catalog of Media Biases.] Thus even social democrats in the United States get labeled as "radical" or "extremist," while in most other democracies today they, along with more militant socialist parties, form a majority of the population and have a respected place in political, cultural, and academic life. And Only in America are communists and anti-communistic socialists lumped together in the public mind.

 

 

Because American political debate is parochially confined to the terms of liberalism vs. conservatism or the Democratic vs. the Republican party rather than the terms of capitalism vs. socialism, capitalism is simply taken for granted on all sides, to the point where it is virtually invisible as a political entity or issue. Favoritisim toward capitalism is not perceived as a form of political partisanship. Hence newspeople, entertainers, or teachers can extol (or simply not question) the "free enterprise system"--the preferred euphemism--and still believe themselves to be "neutral" and "objective." In the same way the Advertising Council, which as William Lutz argues in this issue is in effect a propaganda agency for corporate capitalism, can ingenuously assert that its public service announcements are "non-commercial, nondenominational, non-partisan politically, and not designed to influence legislation." The obituary for Walt Disney in the Los Angeles Times claimed, "His characters knew no politics, and received affection from the young at heart of whatever political persuasion or ideology."

 

Compare this judgment with Michael Real's analysis, in his just published book Mass-Mediated Culture, of Disneyland, which he finds to be a microcosm of capitalist ideology, or with Dorfman and Mattelart's book How to Read Donald Duck, which sees the Disney comics distributed in Latin America as filled with propaganda for American corporate imperialism. And yet, isn't it an indication of how acculturated we have been that we do not normally recognize the actual products as equally blatant propaganda for capitalism? These examples perfectly illustrate Marx's definition of ideological hegemony, the capacity of any ruling class "to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society put in an ideal form; it will give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones. Indeed, as the only conceivable ones.

 

Even the kind of immediate politico-economic problems whose understanding is a necessary precondition to the ultimate questioning of capitalism have been played down in news reporting and every other form of American Culture since the Cold War began. The continued existence of gross extremes of wealth and poverty, the role in foreign policy of international finance and corporate competition for markets, monetary policy, inflation and unemployment--nothing influences our lives so directly, yet is so little understood, so negligibly reported on, analyzed, or dramatized in popular media. The inner workings are mystified: "It's all too complicated for us: only the President and Arthur Burns can understand it." Nevertheless, the political, economic, and environmental crises that have shaken the United States in the last decade have generated a resurgent sense throughout the country that socialism may be the only viable long-range means of solving these problems.

 

There is a movement supported by socialists like Michael Harrington and William Domhoff to establish an openly socialistic wing in the Democratic Party. Several independent socialist general circulation publications have been started in the last few years, including In These Times, and Working Papers for a New Society--although Ramparts folded and the survival of any publication not subsidized by capitalist advertising dollars is precarious. More articles advocating socialism have appeared recently than at any time since the outset of the Cold War in liberal (but not socialist) journals like Harper's. The Nation, and The Village Voice. The most significant sign of a socialist renaissance is that such bulwarks of capitalist ideological hegemony as the Advertising Council, Time (in a cover article), and TV Guide have recently been compelled to acknowledge it and print defenses of capitalism--thereby making the momentous concession that capitalism is a contestable entity, not invisible andinalterable as the air we breathe. When Nixon had to drop his facade of blithe obliviousness toward his attackers and attest, "I am not a crook," you knew he was in big trouble.

 

The basic problem of mass culture under capitalism is that most major media of public information are owned by businessmen and supported by advertisers whose need to maximize profits works against artistic integrity and freedom of expression. They are going to be naturally inclined to restrict ideological content to that which favors their particular interests and those of capitalism in general. Defenders of capitalism argue that if an opposition movement, even for socialism, becomes so widespread that it becomes profitable to cater to it, the culture industry will do so, thereby proving that the profit motive guarantees free expression. One can agree with this in theory, but still point out a catch in practice: the long range self-interest of capitalists is likely to motivate them to use their control of media to keep oppositional opinion from ever emerging in the first place, so that if opposition does survive, it is in spite of, not because of, the profit motive. And it remains to be seen just how far corporate capitalism will go in publicizing a movement for its own abolition.

 

Few American socialists would want to replace capitalism with bureaucratic state monopoly and Soviet-style commissars in culture or any politicoeconomic area-although this is what many Americans have been misled to think socialists believe in. The model for a democrat-socialist communications system would have a pluralistic structure something like that envisioned by Robert Cirino or one in which a diversity of non-profit media would be financed by local communities (like WNYC in New York), public corporations like BBC and PBS, direct support from listeners and viewers (Pacifica Radio, pay-TV), universities and school systems, workers' and consumers' cooperatives, trade unions, and other interest groups. Most sober-minded socialists recognize that instituting such a system would entail its own problems and that once instituted it would undoubtedly have its own flaws; there is no certainty that it would even necessarily be an improvement in every respect over the capitalistic system, but it can provide in its theoretical structure plausible possibilities for improvement precluded by the structure of capitalism.

 

Readers may find these articles in Cyrano to be one-sidedly critical of capitalism. It is not our intention to argue that this is the only defensible viewpoint, or that there is nothing good about capitalism, or that any variety of socialism provides the final answer to every political or cultural problem. What the weighting of the issue is intended to demonstrate, by contrast with the weighting of most American mass cultural media and scholarship in this field, is that they are equally, uncritically one-sided in favor of capitalism, thereby constricting our capacity for objective criticism or for conceiving of possible preferable alternatives to our established institutions.

 

Criticism of the economic functions of advertising within the capitalistic system needs to be aired--functions such as the artificial stimulation of demand for the absorption of surplus production, encouragement of waste, depletion of resources and planned obsolescence, creation of the illusion of differences between an inefficient multiplicity of essentially similar products, and the facilitation of excessively high pricing and monopolization of the market by "brand-name" products. A good format for studying these issues is provided in William Lutz's reader The Age of Communication, in which several essays in favor of advertising are balanced by chapters from books by Marxist economists Baran and Sweezy and by Sandman, Rubin, and Sachsman, "The Absorption of Surplus: The Sales Effort" and "The Economics of Advertising," both of which are to the left of another, liberal perspective, "The Unseemly Economics of Opulence" by John Kenneth GaLbraith.

 

(The differences between authors like these representing different positions on the left, as well as between them and conservatives, also present a useful subject for rhetorical analysis.)

 

This kind of broadened debate can easily lead some readers to the conclusion that all of advertising's deceptiveness, wastefulness, and mind-numbing effects are justifiable and perhaps even necessary within the imperatives of a capitalist economy--because advertising stimulates production, which results (theoretically) in lower prices and higher employment. At this point, capitalism must either be accepted as a given in our societv--in which case the pro-advertising side wins the debate, or else the discussion must lead into the larger issue of various modes of socialistic alternatives to capitalism.

 

I have continued this debate by having readers evaluate defenses of capitalism by Democratic and Republican politicians, establishment media like Time, or authors like Milton Friedman, William Buckley, or Ayn Rand, in comparison to the case for socialism as stated, for one good example, in Michael Lerner's clearly, rationally argued book The New Socialist Revolution.

 

Turning to the study of news reporting, readers can look for examples in TV or print news of inaccurate, ambiguous or slanted uses of words like liberal, conservative, and radical, free enterprise, capitalism, communism, and socialism, fascism, democracy and "the free world." On politically biased or censored news, Robert Cirino's Power to Persuade covers the subject well in an inexpensive textbook format. Virtually all recent debate on this question has been in terms of liberal vs. conservative bias. To put the debate into the context of capitalistic vs. socialistic bias, exercises along the lines of Cirino's "An Alternative American Communications System" can be devised. In order for teachers to expose themselves and students to socialist perspectives, the scholarly journals we normally read can be supplemented by New Left Review, Monthly Review, Socialist Revolution, New Polifics, Telos, Praxis, and Working Papers. Weekly or biweekly independent socialist newsmagazines like In These Times, International Bulletin, and The National Guardian can be contrasted to Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, and monthlies like Liberation, Mother Jones, and The Progressive to Readers Digest, Harpers, Atlantic, National Review or American Opinion. The political slant of local establishment newspapers can be compared with that of The Militant (Socialist Workers Party), Weekly People (Socialist Labor Party), Challenge (Progressive Labor Party), People's World or Daily World (Communist Party U.S.A.). After regular exposure to these journals students are apt to find them no more biased in favor of socialism or a particular socialist party than much of the liberal-to-conservative press is toward capitalism and one or the other of the capitalist parties.

 

In the study of entertainment and recreation, the need for a counterbalance to the popular culture school can be seen in Marsden's discussion, in Popular Culture and the Teaching of English, of the production TV shows: "Our Popular Culture is created by the combined creative efforts of many people and it involves their working together for the benefit of all. The finished product is the best entertaining and culturally significant product the cast and crew are able to produce within the tight schedules and other limitations placed upon them." Marsden does not mention, among the limitations placed upon them, censorship by sponsors, producers, networks, local stations and pressure groups. In Lutz's The Age of Communication two articles by scriptwriter David Rintels, "How Much Truth Does 'The FBI' Tell About the FBI?' and "Will Marcus Welby Always Make You Well?," describe the pressures applied by the American Medical Association and law enforcement agencies to turn TV medical and police series into propaganda for the professional establishment. Rintels and other TV writers described their own experiences of censorship in a recent PBS program, "You Should See What You're Missing," parts of which were published by In These Times, November 29,1976.

 

Cirino's You're Being More Than Entertained and Real's Mass-Mediated Culture also analyze the propagandistic nature of medical shows; Real similarly analyzes the pro-capitafistic bias in mass-mediated sports and organized religion, which has heretofore received inadequate critical attention in America as a form of mass culture and factor in the formation of political consciousness. The psychological effects of TV and film violence have, of course, been widely studied, but these studies need to be placed within the context provided by Marcuse in works such as An Essay on Liberation and Repressive Tolerance relating the sanctioning of violence to the institutionalized aggression and destructiveness fostered by capitalism.

 

(It is noteworthy, in this regard, that in Vietnam the euphemism for killing was "to waste.") Similarly, much good material is now available about the image of women and blacks and other minorities in media, but the politico-economic correlatives of sexism and racism need to be emphasized. There is a flourishing movement of film and TV semiotics at least some of which is politically astute (although, typically, semiology has tended to be defanged politically in transit from Europe to the United States), as represented by journals like Jump Cut and Cineaste. For more creative activities, discussion topics can be generated by reformulating scenarios for familiar TV shows and films from differing political ideologies, as Cirino does, or by taking part in some of the many current movements for media activism: theater, film and TV-making collectives, production for cable and open-studio television, increased citizen access to commercial media through free speech messages and other public service broadcasting, investigation of local media for sex and race bias in hiring and programming, and expanded uses of citizen-band radio.

 

ONE OF THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY MOMENTS in the recent history of mass media comes in the climactic scene of the Paddy Chayefsky-Sidney Lumet film Network. Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch), the ex-newscaster turned into the populist Mad Prophet of the Airways as a media hype, has told his reviewers about the sale of the network to Arab capitalists and incited them to send millions of protest telegrams to the White House, thereby blocking the sale. He is brought before the chairman of the board of the master conglomerate that has heretofore owned the network, the arch-capitalist Arthur Jensen, played by Ned Beatty. In a monologue echoing Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor," Jensen paternally chastises Beale for his naivete, and reveals to him the Mystery: all of the ideals propagated by governments and media--democracy, liberty, patriotism--are a fraud. The ostensible oppositions between the United States and the Arab countries or the Soviet Union, between "the free world" and totalitarianism, are illusions. The ultimate reality underlying world politics is money--dollars, petrodollars, rubles, franks. There are no nations, there is only the worldwide network offinance and corporations, whose workings have the impersonal inevitability of the primal forces of nature.

 

Arthur Jensen's corporate cosmology may be an oversimplification of political economy, closer to the John Birch society world-view than to a sophisticated Marxist analysis, overlooking the very real conflicts between and within capitalist, communist, and Third World economic blocs or the present domination by American-centered corporations of national and international policy. Nevertheless, what is stunning about the scene is that it transcends the platitudinous account of world politics that is normally promulgated without challenge in the conventional discourse of American politics and mass media; it at least comes close to what most Americans sense vaguely to bethe truth, as is indicated by the gasps and applause of audiences watching the scene.

 

The subsequent denouement of Network merits further analysis because it sums up the central issues in the relationship between mass culture and political consciousness. The chastened Howard Beale returns to his program as the apostle of Arthur Jensen's corporate cosmology. But the message he has gotten and conveys to his viewers is that the individual is insignificant and powerless to resist the impersonal forces of corporate politics. As a result of taking this counterrevolutionary line he is shot, on the air, by the "leftist" Ecumenical Liberation Army. Ironically, though, it is not his counterrevolutionary message per se that incites the assassination but the fact that his defeatism has caused the network's ratings and profits to drop. As a consequence of being granted air time by the network, the "revolutionaries" have been coopted into the ratings profit rat race and are recruited for the murder by the network executives beneath Jensen for whom short term profits--even garnered through anti-capitalistic programs--are more important than the unprofitable preaching of the corporate ideology of Arthur Jensen.

 

It can be argued that at this point Chayefsky's black humor and cynically ironic twists about the media's capacity to jumble together the political left and right have gottten out of hand, reducing the serious political theme of teh film to absurdity, discrediting the entire political left as an oppositional force, and leaving an unduly defeatist impression. Still, the satire on the symbiotic relation between the media and radical crackpot fringe groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army is not all that far from reality. The ultimate ironic twist in Network comes in the film's final scene. Howard Beale's bullet-riddled body is shown on the TV studio monitor alongside another monitor showing a familiar kiddies' cereal commercial. The studio audience, and presumably the home viewers, have sat impassively through the shooting and continue impassively watching the commercial. Their steady exposure to TV fare has benumbed them to the differences between violence on crime shows and in real life, between commercials and news, between images and reality. They-we-are finally like the protagonist in Antonioni's Blow-Up for whom a murder is only a scene to be impersonally photographed, or like Jean Baptiste Clamence in Camus's The Fall, for whom "fundamentally nothing mattered. War, suicide, love, poverty got my attention, of course, when circumstances forced me, but a courteous, superficial attention ... How shall I express it? Everything slid off -- yes, just rolled off me." And over the scene of the monitors the film's final credits are superimposed, drawing the film audience into complicity with the TV audience.

 

Is the audience of Network expected to leave the theater thinking, as Howard Beale has earlier exhorted his viewers to shout, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more"--and then to do something about it in the way of political action? Or are they expected distractedly to let the film's political truths roll off them, washed away in the daily torrent of media trivia? Would the film have a stronger effect if its conclusion was unequivocally, affirmatively revolutionary? Would the corporate executives who finance films and TV allow a show to go all the way in advocating the overthrow of capitalism--if the show was profitable? One reason they might indeed do so is the likelihood that the paralyzing mentality induced in the public by the overload of media messages is sufficient to defuse the most subversive message.

 

The contradictions between content and institutional context in productions like Network and Roots illustrate the necessity (and. of course, the difficulty), of determining whether everything valuable in American mass culture justifies everything meretricious, as in the popular culture view, or whether the meretricious ultimately nullifies the valuable. The recent growth of oppositional tendencies in both mass culture itself and scholarship about it does show that the United States is still far from being a closed society. Whether these tendencies will prevail or are eventually swallowed up in the effective totalization of the societv of the spectacle will depend on many unpredictable variables, political and economic more than cultural foremost among them the rapidly shifting balance of worldwide power and the crisis-ridden American and international economy.

 

Yet, regardless of the outcome, if the American people are to play their crucial role in stopping the present terrifying slide toward further war, oppression and nuclear annihilation, the nation's universe of discourse must be broadened as quickly and as effectively as possible. For only the cultivation of a critical consciousness can give us today the necessary tools to fulfill our moral duties and consolidate our liberation.

 

 

Notes

I The decreasing emphasis on capitalism as a factor in mass culture that characterized "end of ideology" criticism during the Cold War can been seen in the revisions in attitude and vocabulary between Dwignt Macdonald's "A Theory of Popular Culture" in Politics (1944), "A Theory of Mass Culture" in the Rosenberg-White Mass Culture (1953), and "Masscult and Midcult" in Partisan Review (1960) and Macdonald's Against the American Grain (1962)-although Macdonald remained more critical of capitalism than most Cold War liberals.

 

A similar rejection of the manipulation thesis is apparent in David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1953) and Daniel Boorstin's The Image (1962). Boorstin, after a brilliant exposition, of mind-manipulation by business and government, concludes, "While we have given others great power to deceive us, to create pseudoevents, celebrities, and images, they could not have done so without our collaboration. If there is a crime of deception being committed in America today, each of us is the principal, and all others are only accessories . . . Each of us must disenchant himself, must moderate his expectations, must prepare himself to receive messages coming in from the outside." (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1964), p. 260.

 

 

Donald Lazere, professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, lives in Oakland and has written extensively on the application of English studies to critical thinking on politics and mass culture. He is a founding member of the NCTE Committee on Public Doublespeak and a founding contributing editor to Cyrano.