Friday, November 18, 2005

The Revolution Historical Journey

While a detailed history of the emergence of the mass media would be a valuable component of a lengthier discussion of the history of mass culture theories, time does not permit more than a general overview, to which I now turn.

Prior to the print era in medieval Europe, generally only small groups of people -- assembled as church congregations or as townsfolk -- would be exposed, via the oral tradition, to the same message at the same time. Using techniques of memorization and recitation, news from afar (which could be only as distant as a mere 20 miles) might spread, via messengers, jongleurs and troubadors, from town to town, proceeding only as fast as the horse and the tongue could carry it. It wasn't until the early 1600s, some 150 years after Johannes Gutenberg invented his alphabetic, moveable type printing press that the precursors to modern newspapers began.

During that century and a half, Europe was recovering from the Black Plague; post-plague populations began rising, cities grew, markets grew, mechanization increased -- and so, as James Burke (1989) notes, did the paperwork. With the increased availability of paper -- and Gutenberg's technology -- bills, books, political tracts (such as Martin Luther's 95 Theses) could be printed, laws could be codified, and Church doctrines and texts could be standardized. In short, two opposing tensions of social control could emerge: on the one hand, authority could be increasingly centralized because it could quickly use the printing technology to its own advantage. The various governments could consolidate their power through law, and (with improved cartography, navigation and nautical technologies) could extend that power over larger terrain. By the mid-16th century Columbus, Cortez and Magellan had extended the grasp of empires, and, consequently, enlarged markets for trade. On the other hand, however, once laws, doctrines, observations of the natural world, and philosophies about that world could also be printed (in standardized forms), educated elite classes could discover discrepancies, contradictions between "the way it is" and their own lived experiences (and they might be exposed to reports from abroad of "exotic" or alien cultures). With the increasing distribution of printing presses -- and with the increasing education of the populace, an increasing number of people began publishing and reading.

By the mid-1600s the Enlightenment was in full swing; and the various natural sciences were emerging; the methods of rational logic, observation, and verification began to reveal gross distortions in Church doctrines explaining the natural world. Such distortions were becoming seen as doctrine rather than divine truth, and the power of the Church to define reality was forever undermined. Here's a brief list of some of the more extraordinary achievements of the 17th and early 18th centuries (compiled from Garraty and Gay 1972, Boorstin 1988, Crowley & Heyer 1989):

Time Line 1 :
· 1609 Publication of Astronomia Nova by Kepler, containing his statement on the first two laws of planetary motion
· 1610 Galileo publishes Sidereal Messenger, describing his telescopic observations of the heavens
· 1619 Kepler publishes Harmonia Mundi, announcing his discovery of the third law of planetary motion
· 1637 Descartes publishes Discourse on Method
· 1644 Milton publishes Areopagitica
· 1650 Hobbes publishes Leviathan
· 1660s Boyle publishes New Experiments in Physico-Mechanical Touching the Spring of the Air; legal definition of Negro (African and Carribean) slavery begun in Virginia and Maryland
· 1662 Royal Society of London is founded
· 1666 French Academy of Science is founded
· 1676 Roemer determines the finite velocity of light
· 1677 The existence of microscopic male spermatozoa is discovered by van Leeuwenhoek
· 1678 The wave theory of light is proposed by Huygens
· 1687 Newton publishes Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis
· 1690 Locke publishes Two Treatises of Civil Government; first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences begins and ends in its first issue
· 1704 Newton's Opticks is published, some of whose basic ideas had been communicated to the Royal Society in 1672; Boston News-Letter begun

As the feudal era drew to a close monarchies were increasingly replaced with governments that depended, in part, upon the support of the people (at least, those with suffrage); consequently, those governments tended to be more lenient toward the nascent press (DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach 1989). By the late 1600s and early 1700s a new social class had emerged: professional writers and intellectuals -- who saw themselves, for the first time in history, as the opposition to the Church -- who saw themselves, perhaps as importantly, as the self-appointed guardians and educators of the minds of ordinary people (Brantlinger 1983, 93). Also during the late 1600s and early 1700s the English government and its citizens grappled (sometimes viciously) with questions of press freedom, and much of the early press doctrine was exported to England's colonies in the New World. By 1721, James Franklin (with the help of his brother, Benjamin) had begun the first (successful) daily newspaper in the colonies, the New England Courant.

The American colonial press was by no means a "mass" press; rather, it would take a Revolutionary War (the results of which included the First Amendment privileges of the free press), increasing industrialization, urbanization and intensifying commercialization (leading to an intensified division of labor) -- combined with widespread education -- before the real mass press of the penny era could emerge. The early years of American newspapers are characterized by partisan loyalty and patronage. Their readership (in both the Revolutionary and party press eras) tended to be the wealthy, educated upper classes of elites; their news tended to focus upon political events and trade; they were sold by subscription, delivered by mail, and tended to be fairly expensive. During both the colonial and party press eras newspapers often challenged government authority (and/or critics of the government); thus, these newspapers helped to establish, circulate, legitimate and reify the emerging authority of particular social sectors -- namely, the intelligentsia (in addition to local governmental authorities and capitalists).

By the 1830s the penny press era had arrived in the U.S. Sold on the streets for a penny, these newspapers broke with convention and catered their news to the working person of the emerging middle class. Sensational, flamboyant, profit-driven, the penny newspapers depended upon advertising revenues for their profits; in fact, they helped pioneer the field of advertising. However, it was not until after the invention of the telegraph and the construction of railroads that the mass press had truly arrived.

The telegraph was rapidly adopted during the mid-1800s. The first telegraphic demonstration using Morse code was conducted by Samuel Morse in 1844; during the 1850s the first newswire agency, the Associated Press, and Western Union Telegraph Company, were established; by 1866, one of the often unappreciated wonders of the modern world -- the TransAtlantic cable -- was laid between Newfoundland and Ireland. Because the telegraph enabled the swift exchange of information between distant cities, its impacts were felt in the shifting trade practices from arbitrage to speculation, of levelling prices between regions, and, with the addition of swift transportation via the railroads, of facilitating the emergence of national markets (Carey 1989).

Meanwhile improvements upon printing technologies -- including the development of rotary and web presses -- enabled a faster, more frequent publishing schedule at the printing houses -- which the Sears & Roebuck catalog put to good use, securing one of the first national markets. Earlier, in the 1840s, cheap paper and steam presses had helped make possible a growing market for popular literature; by the end of the century the book trade had grown so rapidly that magazines began offering digests of some of the "better quality" fare.

After the Civil War, the U.S. press experienced one of its strongest growth periods. Industrialization and urbanization were proceeding rapidly, absorbing the growing immigrant population; shops and department stores increased in number, drawing (with the help of streetcars) thousands into the cities to shop and marvel at the new luxuries being imported or factory-made. The growth of consumption -- tied as it is to industrialization, commercialization, and urbanization -- is also key to the growth of the mass press. The penny newspapers were more than happy to help the stores and the manufacturers advertise their wares, prices, and amenities; advertising prices were set according to circulation, and the newspapers began offering discount rates for frequent advertisers.

By the late 1800s, advertisers, keen for an edge against the growing competition, began promoting brand loyalty. In the context of an immigrant society wherein shifting economic and social practices intervened in traditional modes of living, brand loyalty became, according to Boorstin, a way of acculturation into the American fabric: "Old-fashioned political and religious communities now became only two among many new, once unimagined fellowships. Americans were increasingly held to others not by a few iron bonds, but by countless gossamer webs knitted together by the trivia of their lives" (Boorstin 1973, 148). The gossamer webs to which Boorstin refers are "consumptive communities" -- that is, affiliations between people based upon the products ("trivia") they used, rather than based upon their cultural traditions. Advertisers played upon this development as it emerged, appealing to a diverse population's anxieties about "fitting in" in the new society.

The newspapers of the day were strategic in assisting advertisers reach the thousands of potential customers. As Boorstin says, "City newspapers had become the streetcars of the mind. They were putting the thoughts of tens of thousands of people in new cities on tracks, drawing them to the centers where they joined the hasty fellowship of new consumption communities" (Boorstin 1973, 106). This link between newspapers and advertisers was a formula for success; manufacturers and shopkeepers benefitted in sales from increased advertising (and some were able to convert such profits into additional stores, even chains of stores), and the newspapers grew richer, as well.

Time Line 2 :
· 1785 Edmund Cartwright patents power loom
· 1789 Washington inaugurated first President
· 1793 Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin;
· 1798 Whitney builds a firearms factory new New Haven; Alien and Sedition Act passes in Congress
· 1801 Jefferson takes over as President; Sedition Act is permitted to expire (Alien Act is still on the books)
· 1804 Hegel publishes Phenomenology of Mind
· 1808 Slave trade in the US ends
· 1811 Pittsburgh's first rolling mill opens
· 1820 Pony express riders race between Boston, New York and Washington carrying Congressional news
· 1821 Adoption of gold standard in England
· 1822 First textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts
· 1829 George Stephenson perfects the steam locomotive (first built in 1814)
· 1830 Railroads put to use in US (transcontinental railway complete in 1869)
· 1830-42 Auguste Comte develops his positivist philosophy
· 1833-39 Invention of photography
· 1833 Benjamin Day begins the New York Sun
· 1835 Tocqueville publishes Democracy in America; James Gordon Bennett launches the New York Herald
· 1841 Horace Greeley starts the New York Tribune
· 1840 What is Property? published by Proudhon
· 1843 Marx is expelled from Germany, meets Engels in 1844
· 1844 Telegraph links Washington & Baltimore
· 1845 Engels publishes The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844
· 1848 Marx and Engels publish The Communist Manifesto
· 1859 Value added by manufacturing exceeds value of agricultural products sold
· 1860 Lincoln elected
· 1861 Civil War begins
· 1863 Emancipation Proclamation is issued
· 1865 End of Civil War, 13th Amendment
· 1866 First transatlantic cable is laid
· 1867 Marx publishes his first volume of Das Capital
· 1879 Edison patents the electric light
· 1884 Eastman perfects the roll film
· 1895 Marconi & Popoff transmit first wireless signals
· 1903 "The Great Train Robbery"
· 1912 News of Titanic sinking conveyed internationally by wireless

The mass press may have been the most obvious -- and first -- medium to cater to a (presumed) homogenized, aggregate audience; certainly, the scandalous, breakfast-linen-soiling, penny newspapers were regarded with jaundiced eye by members of the educated classes. Yet the more sensational penny newspapers were only part of a larger picture of the emerging "popular" culture. By the turn of the century the book trade had produced an enormous quantity of "pulp" literature of "dubious" moral, educational and artistic value. And, within the next three decades the U.S. would witness the rise of vaudeville and nickelodeons, the development and proliferation of movies and movie theaters, the emergence of broadcast radio, the growth of popular magazines, the increasing sophistication in the reproduction of images, and the rise of comic books. By the end of the second world war nearly everyone in the country had radios (and the post-colonial world was being wired for sound as part of the war effort), weekly movie attendance in the States had hit 90 million more than once, and the first experiments with television were underway (having been postponed during WWII).

With each of these developments social practices changed; new alliances between formerly unconnected groups were forged on the basis of taste and consumptive status; religious and moral codes were threatened not only by the "questionable" content of the various media, but also by the increasing contact among previously isolated groups and by the increasing access of these groups to differing lifestyles and worldviews. The rapid transformations in the social and economic structures -- combined with profound shifts in the cultural fabric away from theological or autocratic authority toward a secularized intelligentsia -- set the stage for the expansion of social and cultural critics and philosophers who observed these trends with varying degrees of disdain, alarm, or approval.

The emergence of "mass society" and "mass culture" thus occur at several crucial contextual intersections:
a) the context of the traditions of the Enlightenment, which valued social and intellectual progress and improvement,
b) the context of the emergence of Art and Culture as domains of privileged access to the literate, upper classes,
c) the context of the emergence of localized popular cultures,
d) the context of increasing commercialization of culture (and Culture) via the new mass media, and
e) the peculiar predicament of American society, in which national identity would collide with pluralist values. This assortment of contingencies has been interpreted by theorists of mass culture in a variety of ways, and it is to the theorists and their traditions that I now turn.


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