Bhamini Lakshminarayan (M2015MC013)
Media Studies
Dr. Sunitha Chitrapu 
9th July, 2015

Reading Response #1: Locating the Media in Mass Appeal

Mass society theory argues that the media is a powerful tool whose work can have far-reaching and long-term consequences on the society that we live in and the way we make sense of the world. The readings we have looked at in this regard are Adorno and Rabinbach (1975) and Baran and Davis (2009).

According to Adorno and other mass society theorists, the media has the capability to undermine and destroy the essential social order and normative frameworks within which society operates. However, he believes that the media has not brought this about because of the inherently capitalistic nature of the current media industry – the desire for accumulation has created a “culture industry” within which neither the content nor the consumer is of primary importance, but rather, the distribution and organisation based around the proft motive. While the argument about the structured approach to the content distributed is undeniable, based on the evident oligopolistic scenario in every media field – be it film, music, publishing, or otherwise – the text also seems to romanticise the pre-capitalistic mode of society. Every large artistic and literary movement through the ages has been possible because of the patronage of the elite; one cannot live on artistic enthusiasm alone. Furthermore, as Baran and Davis point out in their text, pre-capitalistic society was one of hardship, in which there was very little scope to even consider individualistic artistic aspirations – or, as Adorno calls it, the “autonomous aesthetic” – unless one was white, male, and from the upper classes.
 Adorno makes a stark distinction between “high” and “low” art and argues that the culture industry has led to their fusion – that we can no longer distinguish between them, which he sees as a problem. However, I find the very distinction that he makes problematic because of its inherently elitist nature, which Baran and Davis also point out. The only reason this fusion could be considered a “bad” thing is if one is concerned about the dilution of one’s “superior” forms of artistry, and I argue that it is also of note that what is “high” and “low” art is largely a function of the time in which it is viewed – Shakespeare was low art in his time and is revered now; comic books were considered aesthetically childish and morally detrimental, but writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman have given the graphic novel a certain mainstream legitimacy. Furthermore, the mainstream appeal of a cultural artefact should in no way dilute its artistic relevance – I offer as an example a band like The Beatles, who were signed onto a mainstream music label, produced songs of mass appeal, but were still original, exploratory, and political in their music and lyrics.

Adorno’s text is a vitriolic and harsh argument against the mainstream media industry, in which he casts capitalism in the role of the antagonist and the public as passive victims, lacking in the power of making informed and discerning choices as all of their demands are stimulated by the industry itself. He claims that the media replicates the dominant discourse, and that the content produced by the culture industry is “vacous, banal, or worse, and the behaviour patterns are shamelessly conformist.” I find myself strongly disagreeing with this judgement – the LGBTQIA+ movements have used the media as a vehicle to establish their legitimacy in the safe, “hypothetical” scenarios on our television screens. Cult classic television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer had lesbian main characters as early as 2000, when the “alternative” sexuality movement had yet to reach its prime on television; today the television show Modern Family has a gay gouple with an adopted daughter – both of these are examples of aesthetics and family dynamics that are not considered “normal” by the vast majority of the elite, white, male middle class in the United States, where the shows are produced, and yet, these narratives are run on mainstream network television.

In the Baran and Davis reading, we are referred to the work of Ferdinand Tonnies, who argues that the media has led to a breakdown of traditional community values. I argue that they both reflect evolving community values, as well as help to normalise them in spaces where they are still contentious. Emile Durkheim, through his own lens of social order theory, comes to a similar conclusion about the weakening strength of the moral fibre of society. However, I find myself opposed to the harsh value judgements made by Adorno as well as the authors referred to by Baran and Davis, not least because they seem to be a taking a paternalistic stance on what Plato’s “good life” entails, and thus the “useful” values that society should possess are; as well as on what forms of expression are valid and legitimate in expressing the struggles and contradictions required to achieve it.

Finally, while both readings offer a valuable insight into the power of the media and its ability to influence thought through the social mass theory, I find myself unable to locate them without criticism in the year 2015. With the spread of social media networks and channels like Youtube, Instagram, SoundCloud, and others, there has been a turning point in the media available to the masses – self-authorship has been made a social reality. These channels create a new dimension that must be critically analysed when looking at cultural artefacts that generate mass appeal – the phenomenon of “going viral” creates a new space for activism and terrorism in equal parts, which can generate momentum for intellectual, aesthetic, and social change in the evolving media framework.

______________

References

Adorno, T.W., & Rabinbach, A.G. (1975). Culture Industry Reconsidered. New German Critique, 6, (Autumn). 12-19. Print.

Baran, S. J., & Davis, D. K. (2009). The Era of Mass Society and Mass Culture. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment and Future. Boston, MA: Wadsworth. 44-70. Print.

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One thought on “Locating the Media in Mass Appeal

  1. This article gave me a lot of food for thought and I certainly agree with some of the points you make such as the fact that Adorno’s argument must be re-evaluated in light of new technological changes as well as in light of the fact that these changes provide new sites of resistance.

    However I find it hard to understand how you don’t see that Adorno had a point. Your point about comics being low but being given a legitimacy by authors such as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore doesn’t undermine Adorno’s central argument that since the production of cultural products is driven by the profit motive their actual content is in turn determined by the profit motive too. Furthermore this can be seen to have led to to a standardisation of the products of the culture industry such as comics and/or superhero films aswell. Consider the transformers films, or the avengers films or even the batman films. In regard to the first two I mention Adorno’s observation that these are fundamentally standardised products on account of their commodity character is exactly right, and in regard to the more recent batman films in particular these are sites that directly reproduce capitalist narratives and ideologies, they are hardly sites of resistance. The work of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore must be distinguished from the examples I have cited and you are right to do so, but that doesn’t put you in a position to dismiss Adorno’s remarks about dominant tendencies through reference to examples which are merely niche tendencies.

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