Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hidden Kingdoms: Television and Taste

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers. (Baldwin)

In everyday discussion, people often refer to “culture” and “media” as though they are entirely different entities.  While culture is seen as the realm of art, ideological traditions, and philosophy, media is taken to be an external, negative, even despotic force, used solely for the dissemination of information to mislead people.  In fact, media enunciates cultural trends, and must acknowledge the same philosophies and ethics as culture in order to retain its power.  Culture interprets media, and interprets media’s interpretations of itself, creating a feedback loop.  Pierre Bourdieu recognized the interconnectedness of media and cultural studies, and applied similar techniques to his analysis of each.  In his essay “The Aristocracy of Culture” he examines the cultural phenomenon of “taste,” and in “On Television” he described the relationship between society and television.  Both of these relationships are thought to exist apart from the scope of politics and the power dynamics of the public sphere, but in reality they are hidden channels of hegemony and control, Bourdieu contends, in part because they are not recognized as political.

There is a common myth, Bourdieu argues, that personal taste is “inborn” or genetic.  This is to him a cop-out, a way of writing off socially manufactured behaviors by relegating them to a field of discourse (genetics) that is not completely understood, or, at least, difficult for laypeople to discuss.  Nothing about taste is simple; it cannot be summed up in a short news story or magazine article, because both its social and genetic implications are multifaceted and mostly unexplored.  For this reason, perhaps, personal taste is one of the safest refuges of prejudice in popular discourse: while it is generally unacceptable to proclaim one’s “distaste” for Black Americans, for example, it is perfectly ordinary to denounce their cultural artifacts, such as rap music and certain clothing styles, on any number of levels (critics of Black art almost always prime their dismissals with the claim that they have nothing wrong with Black people themselves).  Bourdieu sets out on a path to show that cultural critiques are never simply about the manifest content of the work: “The ‘eye’ is a product of history reproduced by education. (Bourdieu, 324).”  A cultural critique, be it a film review or a book discussion group, is always a social interaction and an indicator of status in addition to being a “personal” opinion.

        How did the idea of the “unbiased” artistic critique come about? Most post-tribal societies can trace their history to a time when stratification was no secret – it was part of a sacred tradition and seen as a cultural necessity to hierarchically divide citizens.  An example of this is the Indian caste system, which can be traced back for many centuries.  Europe had an overabundance of societies of this kind.  Yet during the 18th and 19th centuries (around the same time as the emergence of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic), monarchies began to fall, and there was no longer a de jure division between the rich and the poor. 

Artistic fields began to deterritorialize and integrate along with sociopolitical ones: “Manet is an example: his painting upset the fundamental structure of all academic teaching of painting in the nineteenth century, the opposition between the contemporary and the traditional.  (Bourdieu, 329).”  But since there was no longer a political aristocracy, a cultural one began to emerge in order to keep some of the old ways (hence the title of Bourdieu’s essay, “The Aristocracy of Culture”).  Rather than birthright, one needed education in order to comprehend the “proper” cultural artifacts (the classics, for example). 

Bourdieu claims that these artifacts are written in certain “codes,” not for the purpose of aesthetic or intellectual benefit, but in order to prevent average people from comprehending them.  “A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded.  (Bourdieu, 323).”  Eventually, marginalized people could create codes of resistance, e.g. jazz music, in response to the aristocratic ethic.  These codes are not “lower” or less creative; they are simply different by necessity, as a consequence of the exclusive nature of the aristocratic codes.  This argument is often criticized for being a type of aesthetic relativism, because Bourdieu, like Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” is highlighting the cultural causes and effects of art rather than the manifest content or the beauty of the work itself.  In response to his critics, Bourdieu might say that the manifest content is not irrelevant, but should not be given a position of ultimate importance, since its code is not universally recognizable.  In a sense, this is quite similar to McLuhan’s “medium is the message” maxim: the medium (or the code, e.g. archaic or academic dialects) is inseparable from the message (or the content of the narrative, e.g. The Iliad).

Bourdieu's television, like Debord's "spectacle," is not primarily a mode of distribution of information or an artistic dialogue, but a social relationship between people.  "For example, the evening news on French TV brings together more people than all the French newspapers together, morning and evening editions included. (Bourdieu, 328)."  Like the potlatch of American Indian societies, it is a social field used for congregation and relaxation, as a respite from the day's work. The aspect of the social event of television-watching that makes it almost historically unprecedented and very different from the potlatch is its passive character: dialogue and analysis can only take place afterwards, as a (usually neglected) supplement to the social event.  This is neglected because, in many cases, explication and further examination of televised events are unnecessary, since the nature of television is, as Baudrillard put it, to embody “our fear of the dark, of night, of the other side of things.”  Television overcompensates in its quest to explain everything – like pornography, nothing is unshown, and nothing requires us to visualize or imagine anything beyond what is right in front of us.  Things may be left unknown, in a cliffhanger at the end of a soap opera, for example, but all those questions will be resolved if we tune in next week, or after watching the advertisements.

Television, while it is a massive gathering, is decidedly apolitical in most cases (with some exceptions, such as Venezuelan and Cuban national television stations). Bourdieu's dispute with the social effect of television is analogous to Benjamin's dispute with the aestheticization of politics and Debord's dispute with the spectacle: it mesmerizes its subjects and, in the process, neutralizes critical dialogue.  It makes sense, in a way, that political action en masse is the one thing that television must avoid at all costs, because this could jeopardize the profit motive, the cornerstone of the entire endeavor.  "[Television's] homogenization… smoothes over things, brings them into line, and depoliticizes them.  (Bourdieu, 328)." This is socially necessary, from the perspective of the current order of things: it takes a lot of work to make people apolitical.  This is why people must be exposed to it constantly, for many hours a day, and from a very young age in order for it to do its duty (a 1990 study found that children watch about 25 hours of television per week[1]).  The first stage of indoctrination is visual (flickering, flashing lights and bright colors have a hypnotic effect, especially on young children in their most malleable stages) and the second stage is ideological (consumerism, good work ethic, and wealth are shown as the ultimate yardsticks of one's worth). 

Throughout both essays, Bourdieu uses a specific method of sociological investigation that emerged from the structuralist tradition.  “What [men and women] can or cannot do is largely determined by the structure in which they are placed and the positions they occupy within that structure.  (Bourdieu, 334).”  The placing of individuals within structures (rather than focusing on ‘great’ or important individuals who affect a universal historical narrative) is the common thread that holds together the analyses of two seemingly unrelated phenomena, taste and television.  Yet this should not be interpreted as cynicism: Bourdieu is more willing than most professionals to appeal to idealistic visions of the future.  His visions, tellingly, do not depict better, more conscientious, or more moral individuals, but structures and fields that operate more democratically than the ones we have at the moment.  “If sociologists always disturb things,” he says, “it is because they force us to make conscious things we’d rather leave unconscious.  (Bourdieu, 333).”  As a historical figure, his goal is similar to Freud’s: to unveil the embarrassing aspects of society, and to make the invisible visible so that it can be modified to our satisfaction.

[1] Miller, Daphne, M.D. (1999). “Television’s Effect on Kids: It Can Be Harmful” [Electronic Version]. CNN.com.