Friday, November 18, 2005

Cultural and Symbolic Approaches

Among these traditions the human faculty to manipulate symbols is, in part, definitive of being human; further, the ability to manipulate symbols is contingent not only upon superior mental development (as compared to apes, for example) -- it is also contingent upon a cultural context.
Kenneth Burke's famous definition of man -- symbol-using, inventor of the negative, separated from natural conditions by instruments of [his] own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection -- offers an interesting commentary upon social science, itself, and upon the debates regarding mass culture, in particular. It is human nature, according to Burke, to be discontent (rotten with perfection), to be provoked into differencing as a symbolic activity ("this is good, but that is better," or "Bach but not Bird," for example). When applied to questions about the condition of modernity with regard to culture, one certainly can discern a tendency to be discontent with the present (as compared with a utopian past or future), to be fixated upon designating the superiority and inferiority of cultural forms, to separate (and be separated by) discourses.

Because culture is the arena in which symbols are created and invested with meaning, for Geertz (1973), culture necessarily precedes the development of language. Thus, prior to linguistic expressions culture (and, consequently, "terministic screens," "formulae," "pictures in our head") had already flavored the soup. There's no getting around culture except ... perhaps, by exposing its existence; as Sontag suggests in her essay, "On Style," the silences of a work of art (or of a culture, or a man) are as revealing as its utterances.

What are the silences of the debates of mass culture? What are its terministic screens?
Carey suggests (as have others), that our current, most dominant metaphor for understanding the nature of mass communication, is the transmission metaphor. Carey argues that in the transmission metaphor, "Communication was viewed as a process and a technology that would, sometimes for religious purposes, spread, transmit, and disseminate knowledge, ideas, and information farther and faster with the goal of controlling space and people" (1989, 17). On the one hand, liberalist visions of a superior mass culture suggest that the highest quality cultural forms could be made available to the masses for (ideological/moral/religious) purposes of obtaining an Enlightened society; allegedly, from this position, "democracy" would be improved once the citizenry had acquired certain intellectual standards. Yet, interestingly enough, once "the people" entered into that "democratic" domain of culture, they became "the masses." On the other hand, in radical Marxist visions of a superior culture, intrusions of "the people" (prior to the achievement of Communist utopia) upon the domain of culture were a priori dismissed as symptoms merely of "false consciousness." From both the democratic and socialist approaches, then, once the popular became popular it was suspect; thus one wonders -- for whom, exactly, were such perspectives attempting to argue? For "the people?" Or... for the theorists? In this context the second half of Carey's assertion (the goal of controlling space and people) becomes even more salient.

Of course, Carey offers an important contribution as partial corrective to the silences and screens of the considerations of communication and of culture. Rather than continue with the transmission metaphor, Carey suggests adopting a "ritual" metaphor. He explains,
A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs. If the archetypal case of communication under a transmission view is the extension of messages across geography for the purpose of control, the archetypal case under a ritual view is the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality (1989, 18).

There are two directions to pursue with regard to Carey's ritual view. First, in the context of "mass" culture, the ritual view demands a reorientation toward what is valued as legitimate, meaningful, quality, sacred, and aesthetic. Such a reorientation requires taking seriously that which has been relegated to the trash heaps of "mass" culture; it requires asking -- rather than telling -- people what is "good," "valuable," "quality," "aesthetic," and, even, "sacred."

The second direction in which I would apply Carey's ritual view is in the direction of the debate itself. I suggest that the mass culture debate --- typified as it is by incompatible but similarly silent positions -- constitutes in itself a set of ritual utterances, a set of ritual practices deployed, in varying degrees, for the purposes of the maintenance of an intellectual community.
Perhaps an elaboration upon this latter suggestion would be helpful; I will conclude, then, with a brief examination of the mass culture discourse from the perspective of "symbolic pollution" (Douglas 1966).


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