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MASS CULTURE
Alan Dent

 

Hoggart was right. Forty years on, those who sneered at him as sniffy and anti-revolutionary are still wiping the egg from their chins. Mass culture and its billionaire backers undermine what good the billions-of-pounds-a-year education system can do. it is as if we let our infants learn to walk only to break their legs.

Mass culture offers a counterfeit individualism. Millions discover in mass culture tokens of their self hood which they share with millions. As if this is a real selfhood. Mass culture despises and destroys the very basis of selfhood: distinction. What we consume as an undifferentiated mass can't feed our individuality. It never admits the distantiation which is the very ground of maturity. Mass culture is baby culture. The grown-ups have been put to bed by the infants.

Go to the bookshop or the library. Select a title; it may be one that not a thousand people in the entire land have read. But turn on the T.V and you know that tens, and world-wide maybe hundreds, of millions are watching the same images. Mass media demand conformity They are, as currently used, the sworn enemies of freedom.

Mass culture embraces a neurosis of exorbitant expectation: it peddles dreams of luscious wealth, extravagant fame, exotic habits to keep alive the unconscious wish for absolute satisfaction, a wish which transmogrified into political thinking engenders the monstrous deception that if the few can live like gods, each of us may, by some fantastic chance, become one of them.

Modern media impose a consciousness never previously known: that of living in a permanent present. Reality is what can be transmitted to your front-room. Hence the terrifying prevalence of homes with more T.V. sets than serious books.

The continuous present of modern media destroys the mind in its capacity for breadth. When the meaning of your life derives from myths too old to be dated, the mind expands. When it inheres in T.V. programmes outdated before they are transmitted, it shrinks to the size of a pap.

That fear of real aloneness, which is the offspring of the profound emotional isolation our culture imposes, is the source of our glib gregariousness, our culture of shared superficiality, which is itself a form of isolation. Popular culture is so cheap, shallow, disposable, ephemeral, precisely because it is produced to make money. Remove the huge financial rewards from popular culture and its practitioners themselves would be sickened by it.

Mass culture is the revenge of the rich on democracy. Once stern and forbidding, as soon as the majority gained political power, the fear that they might use it to secure economic power turned sternness into soppiness and the forbidding brow of Victorian capitalism was, at length, replaced by the empty smile of the T.V personality. Mass culture is the sugariness of the car salesman elevated to a philosophy. The dull stars, idealess personalities, idiot commentators, the entire circus is exploitation disguised as friendliness. Mass culture exploits its audience's needfulness - hence its appeal to the young. Mass culture is ipso facto youth culture. It acknowledges no past and it has no memory. The Victorian capitalist has been replaced by the game-show host. Capitalism has colonized those arenas where once a culture arose spontaneously amongst the people and was therefore tinged with subversion. Herculean effort has been exerted to turn pleasure into profit. But much further, for what is sold is not merely a product to be consumed, but an identity that must be lived. Capitalism's most important modern product is dreams and this because material production has become so efficient. The mass are now kept in their place not by the workhouse, the overseer, the subsistence wage and the denial of suffrage, but by a soppy identification with narcissistic stars, who join the capitalists, accrue wealth to make Croesus blush and are dupes themselves of the dream they have been bribed to peddle.

Mass culture subsists on flattery and flatterers are two-faced and cowardly. Those who protest that an attack on mass culture is an attack on the mass themselves and therefore anti-democratic have missed the point that mass culture aims at the destruction of democracy. It plies that widespread confusion of realms so disastrous for our times. Democracy (which in its common usage means merely suffrage) is a political not a cultural concept. Cultural suffrage is a confused idea.. Votes will not determine quality. Mass culture proposes exactly this: what the mass buy is good, what they ignore is irrelevant. But suffrage doesn't impose value. People must have the right to determine who holds power, but they won't always choose sensibly. Politicians hold power because of a question of numbers, not a question of value. Thatcher was a bigot, Blair is pusillanimous. Suffrage implies only that what the majority will, shall prevail, it doesn't imply that this shall be good.

Mass culture is a culture of loudness. By its nature, whatever is not raucous may fail to attract a crowd. Mass culture embraces the mentality of a street brawl - everyone is either participating, watching or caught up in spite of themselves. Mass culture is the imposture of culture. Those we should celebrate for the depth, seriousness, wit, truth, beauty, humanity or subversivness of their creations are known to a minority. In their place come the self-seeking charlatans and the result is a weakening of idealism, a turning from strenuous but fulfilling effort, a veneration of the glib and shallow, a lack of a sense of past and tradition. Culture is supposed to last but pop culture has built-in obsolescence. What endures is not the accomplished form but the attendant fantasy.

Mass culture exploits the good nature of the majority Just as people are conscientiously committed to their jobs out of combination of decency and pusillanimity, so they accept trashy mass culture out of misplaced liberalism and thoughtless tolerance. Conscientiousness and liberalism are virtues with which wealth and power plays fast and loose. The majority in their innocence and gullibility are slow to recognize their exploitation Paradoxically, they need to cultivate the vices of suspicion, cussedness, recalcitrance and ultimately the greater virtue of refusal.

Mass culture postures as democratic. In truth it believes the majority are morons unworthy of anything but infantile entertainment. But behind its blandness is viciousness. If you showed Oedipus Rex at peak viewing time, the self-appointed moral guardians would be apoplectic.

There is a panic about seriousness in mass culture. Neurotic and infantile, its nightmare is the incursion of the truth. Hence the proliferation of programmes about the police with their crude message of them and us. Without the forces of order, all the worst in our nature would break through The slightly more difficult idea that the forces of order help to keep the worst in ascendance is ruled out. Everywhere in mass culture you find this division between the worthy and the unworthy: the goodies wear white hats, the baddies black. Along with this idealized version of ourselves comes the idealization of power and the demonization of those who challenge or mock it. The respectable middle-classes wear the white hats, the respectable working-class a shade of grey, beyond that you're definitely a baddy.

Not being worthy of anything better than a game show that would bore an intelligent eight-year-old goes hand-in-hand with not being worth more than a job that would send an imaginative six-year-old crazy. Doing dull, poorly-paid work to buy a television whose message is that dull, poorly-paid work is all you're good for is one of the many heartless ironies of our time.