The Rebel Road…

I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man. – Ernesto Che Guevara

Popular Culture: A critique of cultural corporatocracy.

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The definition of culture shifts between dynamic spectrums. Depending on who you are or where you are from or even the era you happen to inhabit the definition of culture shifts and varies between culture “taken in its wide ethnographic sense, as that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” and the recent United Nations definition which states that culture is a “set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.”

Popular culture on the other hand is a somewhat more specialized branch of holistic culture. It is that part of culture which is accepted by the common man, in modern society. But this statement is problematic. Who is the common man? According to contemporary vernacular studies, the common man comes from the middle class or working class preferably known as the Proletariat. One could even say that popular culture stems from the collective psyche or group psyche of the individuals taking part in it. Therefore, it is a shared phenomenon.

As all shared things, there are certain rules that are followed, to maintain civility. These are the methods creating, disseminating and absorbing culture. Culture is created in the minds of the individuals. It is a process of internalizing their own ascribed meaning. The question thus becomes an ascription to what? The ascribed meaning is attached to any entity (whether real or imaginary) as long as that meaning is shared within a group of people; this becomes a cultural object. In this position cultural objects can be thought of as land marks in a vast expanse of culture. They guide and inform about a particular society and their values and in doing so, become pointers to the demarcation of what is acceptable and not acceptable in that particular society. Hence, a member of the society does not have a choice in his acceptance of the cultural object; he may hate it, or he may love it but he has to accept the connoted meaning.

It becomes important here to distinguish between Popular culture and High culture; popular culture, as described before, a product for the Proletariat where as High culture refers to that of the Bourgeoisie. According to Marx, the Bourgeois capitalists can only survive in their present form as long as they subjugate their Proletarian workforce. This is what we see in contemporary life. An example is the manner in which a jean, which symbolized “freedom” in American popular culture, has now been “taken-over” by huge firms like Levis, ascribing new meaning or at the least, potentially able to manipulate old meanings. The potential panorama of ascribed meanings makes jeans, just like any cultural object, open to exploitation for economic wealth. John Fiske comments, “The Manufacturers of jeans are aware of all this and attempt to exploit it for their commercial interests”.

It is this commercial interest that comes into play even in the matters of movie making. Celebrity manufacture is a method which has been around for as long as there have been movie studios. In the late 1930s, movie studios such as MGM had a vested interest in the way in which their lead characters were taken by the public so they had extensive contracts with the actors. These contracts gave them exclusive access to the actors as well as proprietary character image management rights. Today this process has become explicit with shows such as American Idol grooming and ‘manufacturing’ celebrities, right on the television. The importance of inherent talent is over-shadowed by projected image. Joshua Gamson explains this process thus, “Through testing and molding, studios designed star personalities; through vehicles, publicity, promotion, public appearances, gossip, fan clubs and photography, they built and disseminated the personalities; through press agents, publicity departments, and contracts, they controlled the images”.

As can be seen, there is a clear shift from the old method of internalization of self-created culture to one which is regulated and “edited” by big firms. This can also be referred to as a Cultural Corporatocracy. The big corporations take over nodal positions and manipulate base values and acceptances in order to create a need for their own products. This is done with the profit motive in mind. Therefore, in a typical capitalistic fashion, the profit motive dictates the acceptance of cultural objects and hence cultural norms in contemporary society. Quality is sacrificed if quantity will make a profit. Therefore, overproduction of commodities manufactured along cultural themes is a reality. Paul M. Hirsch says, “The number of books, records and low-budget films released annually far exceeds coverage capacity and consumer demand for these products”.

The natural outcome of such an attitude of corporate cultural aristocracy is one of rebellion. While the larger masses might opt for mindless conformity to this form of cultural oppression, a small percentage opts for methods of redressing the issues. One form of such methods is the textual poaching as done by the Star Trek fans. The way in which the fans own the Star Trek phenomenon, in spite the prior ownership rights of the corporations, and mould the trek-universe to conform to their own needs and whims shows the defiance against this corporate aristocracy. Henry Jenkins says, “The fans are reluctant poachers who steal only those things that they truly love, who seize televisual property only to protect it against abuse by those who created it and who have claimed ownership of it”.

As is obvious culture and society are not static, but in dynamic transition. Both influencing and changing each other. The cultural diamond however does not take into account the new corporate influences that are now the main driving force behind shifts in popular culture; the model must be updated to account for these changes. Only then can we effectively understand the role that culture will play in contemporary life and the future. As Chomsky said, “All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”

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Written by redtribution

August 19, 2007 at 9:26 pm

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