Friday, November 18, 2005

Traditional Theories of Mass Culture

Traditionally, "mass," when used to refer to a group of people (as in "the masses"), is used as an aggregate concept that typically combines the following conditions: the masses are large, widely dispersed, anonymous, demographically heterogenous but behaviorally homogenous groups of people; they lack self-awareness as masses; they lack binding social ties with one another; they are an aggregate group of isolated individuals, and are incapable of organizing themselves as masses; and they are acted upon by external forces (McQuail 1988, DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach 1989).

This focus upon the nature of the ties or bonds between people in industrialized society derives from 19th century social philosophy, including the works of Comte, Tonnies and Durkheim.
Auguste Comte advocated the application of the "positive method" of science to society. Borrowing from the biological sciences, Comte envisioned society as an organism. Society, according to Comte, had structure, specialized parts which functioned together, and could be observed to undergo evolutionary change. Comte's social organism was threatened by the forces of over- specialization, which he attributed to the increasing division of labor; he argued that the links between individuals could be weakened by the division of labor because greater differentiation of society led to greater differentiation of experience; therefore, understanding between people would continue to erode. Comte viewed this erosion of common frameworks (or consensus) (and, thus, common linkages) between people as threatening to the equilibrium and harmony of the social organism (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach 1989); further, he attributed the existence of social disorder to intellectual disorder. His main prescription was the application of science (in particular, positivism) for the purposes of, essentially, fine-tuning the social organism (Ritzer 1988).

Tonnies' characterizations (or ideal types) of the social bonds corresponding to pre- industrial and industrialized societies have also been influential within traditional theories of mass society. Tonnies argued that the mutual integration of individual lives with one another created conditions of mutual commitment, or "a reciprocal, binding sentiment ... which keeps human beings together as members of a totality." This state of "reciprocal, binding sentiment" he called Gemeinschaft. In contrast, industrialized societies increasingly rely upon contractual relations between individuals; thus, relations become impersonal and are based on agreed-upon fulfillment of contractual obligations rather than an appreciation of the personal qualities of an individual. Tonnies termed this latter condition Gesellschaft, and he was concerned that gesellschaft ultimately harmed the well-being of society and the individual.

Durkheim incorporated the organicism and empiricism of Comte with Tonnies's emphasis on social solidarity in his major theoretical statements; however, unlike Tonnies, Durkheim did not accept the argument that conditions of Gesellschaft eliminated moral unity or binding connection between individuals. On the contrary, while he recognized that the division of labor in society could produce conditions of anomie, he tended to believe that the division of labor increased, rather than decreased the mutual integration of the social organism (a condition which he termed organic solidarity). Thus, the division of labor contributes to the heterogeneity of the social organism, which (by definition of progress and evolution) meant the social organism was becoming more complex and was, consequently, improving. However, with Comte, Durkheim believed that the countervening force against organic solidarity was the increase (by virtue of increasing divisions of labor) with which individuality was experienced and expressed.
T.S. Eliot's view of culture has a certain Durkheimian conservatism. Eliot argues that "culture" is a manifestation of patterns of society as a whole.

Eliot writes:
It is commonly assumed that there is culture, but that it is the property of a small section of society; and from this assumption it is usual to proceed to one of two conclusions: either that culture can be the concern of a small minority, and that therefore there is no place for it in the society of the future; or that in the society of the future the culture which has been the possession of the few must be at the disposal of everybody (Eliot 1949, 31).
Eliot takes issue with both of these assumptions, arguing that the culture of the individual cannot be isolated from the culture of the group. Culture, rather, is an accumulation; it can only give meaning to the complexities of life after the lived experiences of its inhabitants have already created meaning (it is, in Durkheimian terms, an expression of the "collective conscience"). In addition, Eliot argues that since culture is not the domain of any one group but is (ideally) the expression of the whole, "it is only by an overlapping and sharing of interests, by participation and mutual appreciation, that the cohesion necessary for culture can obtain." Thus, Eliot embraces a form of organic solidarity as essential to the formation of culture. This solidarity is likewise in tension with the forces of individualism. While Eliot initially appears to be offering a pluralistic and equalitarian argument, in his chapter, "The Class and the Elite," his position becomes more clear.

According to Eliot, social philosophers tend to envision the social differentiation and the division of labor in the society "of the future" as completely isomorphic with individual talents. In such a perfectly functioning society, so the argument goes, since each will be fulfilled there would be no distinctions of superiority. Eliot sees this as an "atomic view" of society; the emergence of elites is not only inevitable, but necessary, according to Eliot, for the superior intellects (scientists, leaders, philosophers) can help guide a culture's understanding of itself. The real problem, rather, is that the modern condition has increasingly isolated elites from one another; their cohesion, thus, is essential to the optimum integration of all sectors of society within culture. And for Eliot, the real fear from mass culture is its tendency to level or equalize all cultural forms (Brantlinger 1983, 202). He regarded his contemporary culture as being clearly "in decline:" "We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity" ( 1968, 91).

Thus, Eliot is unwilling to surrender too much self-determination to ordinary people; rather, ordinary folk require the guidance of enlightened elites (similar, in a sense, to Durkheim's "social physicians" who might cure particular pathologies of the social organism). Finally, like Durkheim, Eliot is cautious regarding the separation of the individual from the "ties that bind."
The traditional approaches to the study of mass culture tend to assert, as Brantlinger argues, a "negative classicism," in which the Culture of yesteryear was superior to the "mass culture" of today; based upon this premise, modern civilization is seen to be in a state of decay, a slouching toward Rome, so to speak. Given this set of assumptions, it should therefore be no surprise that traditional approaches seek to salvage some golden moment of the past which was better -- or which has the potential for rescuing the future -- in order to prevent or obstruct the recurring Fall of Rome.

"Mass culture" from this perspective is typically a pejorative concept in that it implies a condition of inferiority in the quality of the cultural form(s) mediated or commodified, as compared (implicitly) to "high culture," Culture, or Art -- each of which has been canonized and legitimized by the application of intellectual and/or aesthetic criteria of value, within a tradition of critique. Mass culture also implies a condition of both spectacle and spectatorship, in which the aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual and/or cultural qualities of "true" Culture/Art are eliminated in exchange for sensational, titillating, vulgar or demeaning content (i.e., spectacle), and which requires the "passive" consumption from its audiences rather than their active participation in its creation (i.e., spectatorship). Additionally, mass culture, from this perspective, is believed (as alluded to above) to level taste, intellect, and the general social enlightenment by virtue of having to consider too many (rather than only the superior) preferences; in short, too many attempts to appeal to too many people waters down the culture into into mere tasteless (and nutritionless) broth.

Ironically, one could make the argument that the very means and practices that enabled the Enlightenment also provided the means and practices of spectatorship. For example, John Dewey, in his spectator theory of education, argues that the modern educational system forces students to be spectators to the knowledge-gathering and -generating process. Since they are required to read the observations or analyses of people who have already observed something, they are actually spectators to spectators. Dewey argues that knowledge can really only be acquired through interaction, through discourse, through the exchange of common symbols; it is a conversational and processual activity, rather than a passive, spectatorial activity. Dewey's observations, combined with Walter Ong's arguments that it was printing (not writing) that fixed the word into visual space, suggest that the conditions of spectatorship were created with the emergence of print culture and of institutionalized centers for learning (from which emerge cultural elites). This particular tension -- that the Enlightenment contains the seeds of its own destruction -- will be of special interest to the Frankfurt School scholars, discussed below.

Finally, "popular culture" traditionally shares some of the features of mass culture, in that popular culture also lacks a canonized set of aesthetic criteria exterior to itself by which to judge its forms; however, popular culture has, historically, referred to a localized set of cultural forms or customs that are related in some substantial way (even functionally) to the lived experiences of its consumers. For example, embroidery as a form of popular culture not only expressed the aesthetic sentiments of its producers, it could also be worn. Popular cultures have tended to be viewed as much more local, more authentic (in a folk-sense), and, typically, vulnerable to omission in official "historical" accounts of the times (with some exceptions, of course). Handlin (1961) argues that once a popular culture is mediated the local ties to lived experiences are eliminated; thus, with mass culture, the relevance, intimacy and spontaneity of emotion characteristic of a popular culture is diffused. Consequently whatever was organic, was authentic, or was expressive of a particular group's lived experience is disconnected from the cultural form; the result is that the massification of the popular renders whatever was valuable in the popular ineffective for the maintenance of the culture.


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