Tag Archives: media

On Culture and Power

This essay originally appeared in Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, a monthly feature in my newsletter. It has been edited slightly for this format.

Like many of you, I’ve been preoccupied by the issue of power in the United States. I’ve been thinking about how cultural change and policy interact; how power is conferred and reinforced, and how exactly to understand where our national cultural is at this moment in time. The last preoccupation is likely impossible until historians get a crack at things a few decades from now. Things are moving so fast that it’s difficult for social scientists to get a true handle on what’s going on.

Knowing full well that distrust of institutions is partly what contributed to our present, incomprehensible reality, I find myself wary of those with institutional power who have failed, over and over, to push back against the unilateral directives coming from our Executive branch. Deep down, I had more faith in both parties, and perhaps especially in the party with which I most frequently disagree. Surely Republicans held the sanctity of our national narrative in higher regard than this. Surely they would be the ones to say, “Enough” and take action to protect, if not the people being harmed, then the Constitution. I didn’t realize how much I was counting on them until I found myself shocked, again and again, by their lack of action. Here I was, assuming they were the party who truly cared about America. And now I’m not sure they even have the power to do anything, much less the will.

Power is tricky. At once simple and complicated, it can be easy to locate but difficult to trace. The origins of power are distinct, yet related to, the execution of power. But where is power located?

  • In individuals whose actions have consequences for others. An individual’s authority is granted by the populace over whom they have power – either explicitly (via democratic elections) implicitly (via cultural tradition) or by violence (see “military might,” below). Leaders have a social contract with the public over which they have power – without the public’s support, an individual cannot impose their will without additional sources of power (see below). Authority is earned and can erode if the social contract between the public and the individual leader is broken.
  • In institutions that provide the scaffolding of civil society. A few days ago, I read in the LA Times that the Getty released a statement condemning the recent executive order that resulted in a travel ban. The fact that an arts institution wrote a statement commenting on a federal action, released it, and was taken seriously by a media organization speaks to the power that institutions have within our society. But institutions, like individuals, also owe their cultural cache to the unspoken acknowledgment of the public, who confer upon them the status of institution within the broader social landscape. Institutions are authorities when it comes to certain types of knowledge, leaders by virtue of their reputations as depositories of society’s “best.”
  • The media is a special type of institution that has enormous power of information and the dissemination of knowledge. They often steer the direction of public discourse by choosing how to represent reality, and as such act as intermediaries between the state and its citizens. But the media, too, is dependent upon the public for their authority. The power to produce information as knowledge is granted by the people who interact with this institution and its knowledge. Once people distrust a source of information, that source’s power is diminished.
  • In military might – physical power. This is related to the power of individuals and the state/institutions, in that most state power is underwritten by the possibility of military force. That is, the threat of violence. I don’t agree with everything in this sobering Politico article, but this line illustrates the primacy of violence to any system of power: “We must (re)accept the notion that hard power is the guarantor of any international system: security is a precondition for anything (everything) else.”
  • In capitalist societies, power also lies in money. This is why you are often addressed as a consumer, and called upon to exercise your power by buying or refusing to buy certain items produced by certain companies. This is why the Citizens United decision was so important. Why people are up in arms with billionaires gaining direct access to government through cabinet appointments. The power that accumulated capital has over our institutions cannot be overstated, and it’s the reason – and it pains me to say this – a corporate response to the federal government may be our best hope to stop the deterioration of our national institutions and social structure.
  • But there’s an important location I’ve failed to devote separate attention: the public. The public is a consistent source of power, as many of the entities where power is located draw their authority from the complicity of the people. So ultimately, power is located in society.
  • In culture. People who shape policy respond to public sentiment, to cultural shifts. To shift the execution and consequences of power, culture must shift. Understandings of what power is, who or what can wield it, and in what ways, can change and thus alter the social fabric.

Our social fabric is partially held together by the nation-state and the ideologies it reinforces. The nation and the state are distinct, yet interrelated, entities. The nation is a cultural entity – comprised of its citizens. The state is the institutionalization of that national culture, backed by military might. Our national culture has always dehumanized people arriving from different places. Our state has always afforded different strata rights and privileges to groups of people arbitrarily delineated and made distinct from the un-marked “white” category of person who is automatically afforded full rights and humanity. How do we change culture and enact policy that aligns with our values and serves everyone; treats everyone as fully human?

Our nation has always been broken. Our country exists because of colonialism: we are colonizers, reaping the benefits from land stolen from people white colonizers considered sub-human. Anthropology is itself a product of colonialism, and we have a moral responsibility to do no further harm with this form of knowledge production. That means listening to the people we aim to understand, ensuring they speak for themselves, bringing their truths to light. Deconstructing the many meanings of cultural practices.

We are constantly creating and reinforcing aspects of our society and culture as we go about the practice of living. This means we all have some power to shape reality, to effect change. I’ve been thinking about what I can do, besides calling my representatives, to help heal our nation. How cultural change can influence policy. It’s my duty to expend effort in service of the greater good, especially if my efforts can benefit those who have been repeatedly disadvantaged by our government, institutions, and other social systems.

After spending the past year half-heartedly trying to be a freelance writer, and falling back into grant writing and nonprofit communications, it’s clear that what I need to do is draw on my training in the social sciences and get to work. I’ll be looking for ways to contribute to organizations that are working for social justice, and that means acknowledging that while my experience of obtaining my MA was traumatic, it in no way negates the social science training that I have at my disposal. It’s my obligation, and my desire, to apply my training to the betterment of society.

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Heroic Temporal Authority: What Do You Know About Space, Old Man?

Once again, I’m going to use an incident as a jumping-off point for a more general thematic discussion, largely ignoring the issue itself. This time, it’s about authority, technology, and situated knowledge. And SPACE!

There was a story broadcast by a newsmagazine program about a week ago (might have been 20/20) about the advent and current ramping up of privatized space exploration. A man in charge of a large corporation that develops spacecraft was the primary interviewee, but I would like to discuss a small segment within the larger story. At one point, the interviewer brought up the fact that an Apollo astronaut (we’re going to go with Neil Armstrong because I’m pretty sure it was him, although I wasn’t taking notes at the time) testified in front of Congress against privatized space travel. He stated that no one but the government (NASA) had the technology or training to safely venture into space. Period. The interviewee was very sad that one of his heroes had spoken out against his dream.

Let’s unpack a bit before we blast off. Not that we’re going to blast off, because we’re not NASA and unpacking is the journey/focus here and deal with it. I’m not going to get into the private vs. public -ness of space travel at all. Rather, what I want to discuss revolves around issues of rhetorical authority–who has the authority to speak and about what subjects–historically situated knowledge, and hero-worship. These are all intertwined within this case and exemplify larger patterns in American culture.

1. Neil Armstrong is arguably held up as a national hero. He not only flew into space on a rocket, he walked on the moon! Our culture has remembered him as an icon of our incessant urge to conquer things. A living symbol of the American spirit. Someone who has inspired many a six-year-old to declare that someday, they are going to grow up to be an astronaut. This hero status affords people it is bestowed upon a certain measure of authority: we tend to listen to what they say. Even if they might not know what they are talking about…

2. Knowledge is situated. You know what you know because of your position in society (think occupation or whatnot) and in time (someone in 1670 wouldn’t know how to work my computer, and I don’t know how to work a plow). As I listened to the excerpt of Armstrong’s testimony, I blurted out “but what does he know now?!!” Armstrong was an astronaut in the 60s. Fifty years ago. As I’ve discussed before, as technology changes it tends to pass most people by. Unless the good astronaut has kept abreast of all the technological developments over the years, he has no way of actually knowing how capable a private company is of safely venturing into space. Armstrong’s knowledge–the knowledge he’s using to bolster his credibility as someone whose testimony matters–is situated in the quite distant past, technologically speaking. These issues of credibility bring us to…

3. Authority–where a speaker or writer gets the authority to speak on a topic. I’d argue that Armstrong’s authority is firmly planted in his status as a hero, although he is ostensibly drawing upon his scientific knowledge and that is partially how he is presented at the hearing and probably understood by the audience. But the point is that he’s given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his actual grasp of this technological knowledge because he’s a hero and has the public’s respect. The public sees him as an authority on all things space travel because he went into space and we have spent 50+ years celebrating him for this accomplishment. He’s the face of all the (old) technology he’s alluding to. Because of his hero-status, we–the public and Congress–overlook the fact that his understanding of today’s technology (and arguably economic markets, as that plays into this whole debate as well) is out-dated. His argument is based on credibility that isn’t there anymore and charismatic authority (hero-status).

It’s fairly dangerous when we allow our heroes to influence our thinking–and our national policies–without first thinking critically about what they know and if we should give them the authority to speak about it. Since rhetorical authority is granted by the listener/reader, one has to wonder if his testimony was taken seriously. If it was, then Congress is as blinded by our culture’s tendency to lift our heroes up to infallible heights. (Of course, Armstrong may actually know what he’s talking about, technologically speaking. Unfortunately for him, my analysis about the interconnectedness of rhetorical authority, hero status, and situated knowledge assumes that he is not because that’s what I felt like writing about.)

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State of the Union: Still Genderfuckedup

The night of the State of the Union Address, the local news on NBC devoted a couple of minutes to a story that championed the fashion sense of one of the guests of honor, discursively linking the honoree’s taking notice of footwear to the honoree’s gendered identity. Noticing shoes became an index of woman-ness, of femininity. Liking shoes makes a woman. Awesome message, NBC. Just what our already strictly gendered society needs to hear.  The entire eye-roll-inducing segment can be found here. Take a gander.

It began innocuously enough. The anchor, Robert Kovacik, began to tell viewers about a couple of local residents who received honorary invitations to the State of the Union Address. But nearly all of the story focused on the white woman talking about Jill Biden’s shoes, with only a cursory mention of the other honoree: a local lawyer named Juan Jose Radin. We learned nothing else about him, not even if he was interviewed. No, the entire story featured Sergeant Ashley Berg and how asking Jill Biden where she got her shoes may have landed her that ticket to the SOTU. This conjecture isn’t corroborated, it’s just that: conjecture. And yet NBC chose to harp on it. So I will harp on their choice of harpitute (shut up, let me have my fun).

Kovacik introduces Sergeant Berg thusly: “Ashley Berg has served two tours of duty in Iraq. A decorated sergeant, who is still [news-pause-for-effect] a woman.” And this line sets the tone, dictates the focus, and frames Berg as both frivolous and doing her gender proud in spite of being an Iraq War veteran. In the context of the binary gender system in which Americans live, this frames her being a sergeant–or in the military at all–as a masculine thing. But she is vindicated–that is, she retains her feminine gender identity–by liking shoes.

Because shoes are being constructed as a metonym of/for female interest, thereby indicating that the person doing the liking is gendered female. Is a real woman. (Thanks, American conflation of gender and sex!) Liking shoes is being linked to the grand category of “things women like,” and is thus gendered feminine in this segment, and arguably much of the time in the American imagination. (I want to say it’s an acting second-order indexical, but I’ll have to check my ling-anth math on that one.) Anyway, the point is that Kovacik, or whoever wrote the segment, is making a big deal out of what would normally be considered a woman-y thing to like because this particular woman’s career is in the military. Part of her identity is being a soldier, which is a traditionally male-gendered pursuit and identity. This constructed juxtaposition is the reason there’s a 2-plus minute story at all.

Let’s be clear: I’m not critiquing the sergeant’s taking note of Jill Biden’s shoes, her liking shoes in general, or anything like that. Liking shoes is not bad. Noticing them in the middle of Iraq does not make Sergeant Berg one thing or another. No, my beef is with NBC’s framing of the story, which they decided was going to be all about this service person’s supposed shoe fetish/fixation. I’m not denying that the sergeant said what she said about shoes or claiming that the news story invented the fact that she genuinely seems to enjoy shoes. She said those things and is proud of having said them, and all that is grand.

My point is that NBC asked her the questions and edited her interview to make the focus on the shoes. They decided the story was going to be about how novel-and-yet-expected it was that a female soldier would still like shoes. That you could put war into a woman, but you can’t take the woman out of a soldier. The story-maker/interviewer, Robert Kovacik, was the one who framed the narrative as simultaneously surprising (look! even women soldiers like shoes!) and predictable (of course the soldier can’t stop thinking about shoes; she’s a woman!)

A little later in the story, Kovacik moves on to when Sergeant Berg visits the White House before the Address, “where Ashley once again notices what some may not.” What she notices is the interior decor of the White House. Once again, the story is choosing to focus on the sergeant’s taking note of fashion–of both sartorial and interior decorating ilk. There is precious little mention of her accomplishments, which is to be expected, if we want to be cynical about it. After all, what’s most important about women in this country is their looks, and by extension, how well they notice the way other things look. That is, it is the female gender that is expected to notice appearances.

And the narrative is constructed so that Sergeant Berg conforms to this role beautifully. There is a cut to Berg’s interview, where she is talking about her experience of visiting the White House. The excerpt Kovacik, his NBC producers chose was: “They had chandeliers that were undescribable [sic]. Um, they have carpets to match the ceiling, which, I think is really cool.” Somehow, her noticing the ostentatious interior decor of the White House proves that she’s a special sort of Sergeant because she’s still a woman: she notices appearances! She likes fancy things! But wouldn’t any other non-rich American notice this? Visitors are supposed to be impressed by the way the White House is decorated. Not according to this news story. No, sir. Only women notice these types of things. All this serves to present Sergeant Berg as a somewhat shallow member of the military and an upstanding example of an American woman.

The interview cuts out most of the context that is unrelated to the fashion angle, harping on the idea that this female “decorated sergeant” and veteran of a war was singled out from her peers to attend the State of the Union Address because she appreciated Jill Biden’s shoes. Toward the end, Kovacik describes Berg as “the smiling sergeant with a sense of style,” allowing American society to breathe a sigh of relief. You see, America, no matter how war-worn and accomplished a woman may be, however far she may appear to deviate from the prescribed gender norms of her society, she remains a bastion of ideal femininity.

Narrative is constructed, and the truth is what you discursively make it. Unfortunately, Kovacik and his producers chose a narrative that relied heavily on (arguably negative) gender stereotypes. So thanks for reinforcing the status quo, NBC. Thanks a lot.

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Filed under Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Media

Merrily Spring-boarding from a Book Review to Thoughts on Nostalgia: A Review of a Review of “Ready Player One”

In the September 5th issue of Time magazine, there was a one-page book review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. This post isn’t going to discuss the book itself, as I haven’t read it, but rather some issues that the reviewer, Douglas Wolk, touched upon in his article.

Briefly, the book seems to be about 1980s video games being played  in a dystopian future, and one game in particular that, if beaten, can give the winner unimaginable riches. In his review, Mr. Wolk points out that this book has been talked about for a while now, and that this talk is “acutely nostalgic.” Then he goes on to a section entitled “Pop Culture Eats Itself.” Yum!

Wolk ties the excitement surrounding this novel to a particular idea presented in Simon Reynold’s Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. The idea being that the current turn in artistic expression is toward rehashing. Toward the celebration of the bygone. Toward nostalgia. Sequels and mass-culture entertainment drawn from existing stories and cultural landmarks abound. The presumption is that art used to, once upon a “better” time, strive for originality. (This is itself a nostalgic lament.) I would point out that all this re-making and referencing capitalizes on an imagined audience’s predilection for nostalgia. After all, movies and books and even some visual art gets produced because those with the money to back these projects believe that they will see a return on their investment. This artistic turn toward nostalgia that Wolk and Reynolds note we’re being bombarded with in popular culture is in no small part in the service of marketing. In the service of commodifying (self)reflexive nostalgia to feed the masses, in the hopes that they might fill the pocket-books of the creators and their patrons (if we want to stick with the idea that this is all art in some form or another).*

Onto a second, slightly related point that comes up in the article about the value of nostalgia in and of itself–at least in the world of (pop)art/culture. Again, my thoughts have strict limitations as I have not read any of the books being referenced in his review (shame on me!), but when Wolk writes that we should rue the day that science fiction starts looking toward the past (and, oh crap, thanks to Cline’s book, that day is today!), I wonder what kind of “trouble” he thinks we’re in, either creatively or socially. He concedes that “all that crap clearly meant something to people,” but bemoans the fact that Cline’s book doesn’t explore this. It just presents the 1980s games as a saving grace in and of themselves for the inhabitants of the dystopian future. (Oh yeah, there was also that winning money thing.) Wolk thinks there should be more commentary on that meaning.

Wolk essentially criticizes Cline’s novel for glorifying something that isn’t real enough; that does little to push the boundaries and say something new as it presents the nostalgic for mass consumption. Or maybe he’s angry that the glorification offers little analysis or critique. In any case, Wolk claims that this building-upon and making-new is an artist’s job, “not just to offer up comforting familiarity as a talisman against the void.” But I wonder if perhaps this could be one of the points of Cline’s book: that nostalgia is emptier than we’d like it to be.

*One final tidbit: Wolk refers to what he sees as Cline’s overuse of pop-culture references to the 1980s as “maddeningly fetishistic.” Exactly.

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Book Reviews, Commodification, Media

Mouthing Off: Using the Absence of Sex to Sell

Linguistic anthropologists do it with words. And so do advertisers.

“Practice Safe Breath.” That’s the tagline of an ad campaign for Dentyne Ice gum. It’s a clever conceit: in these commercials, couples are usually getting hot and heavy, or it’s implied that they want to. Then there’s the inevitable pause: did you, um…remember the, uh…? Shit, I’ll be right back. A race to the roommate’s room. Please, buddy, just this once, I’ll get you back. She’s super hot and what’s even better is that she’s actually on the couch. Disinterested roommate motions to the top drawer of his night-stand, where the hero gratefully extracts a…pack of gum. Whew! First base shenanigans can continue without fear.

This is all designed to evoke the culturally sanctioned practice of having “safe” sex with condoms. And this association is designed to be viewed as a clever twist on the familiar, thereby making consumers want to buy this particular gum because its ads are clever-funny. By triggering these now-ingrained cultural associations with the phrase “practice safe breath,” this commercial effectively implies the existence of sex by withholding it; by providing a twist ending to its little romantic vignettes: haha, dirty-minded viewers! You thought we were talking about condoms but we were really talking about gum! Aren’t we clever and hip?

The very existence of this ad campaign, and the reason its commercials work and make sense, is due to the fact that practicing safe sex has become mainstream–it’s solidified in our cultural vocabulary and social practice. So much so that it is now assumed that everyone knows they should (ah, prescriptive society…) use some sort of protection and shouldn’t have to be told via PSAs or Trojan commercials with pigs standing in for men who don’t carry condoms. (I will avoid digressing into a tirade on the use of nonhuman animals as representative of negative human character attributes, so count yourselves as lucky. This time.)

On another level, these commercials work (in that they may contribute to a rise in the company’s sales) by catering to the social fear of ruining one’s romantic chances with a perceived bodily imperfection. Our bodies, our anxieties. Advertising has a long history of creating problems for which there just happens to be a commodified solution–and ads are so ubiquitous that they end up influencing social opinion and practice by hammering at these invented problems.

Take our cultural obsession with fresh breath, to which this Dentyne Ice campaign owes its existence. The social problem of “bad breath” was effectively produced by advertisers in the 1920s, and maybe earlier, I’m just too lazy to check my sources on this. A slew of print ads ran in highly circulated magazines and newspapers showing beautiful but sad-looking young women in front of mirrors, wondering why they weren’t being courted like their friends. What’s wrong with me? Alas, it was because of an invisible problem: halitosis! Thankfully, there were products to cure her of this (invented) ailment. And she got knocked up happily ever after. Thanks, advertising!

In this sense, the language in advertisements is perlocutionary–the phrases work performatively to create the problem for which the product being advertised is the solution in situ. Saying it makes it so.* I’m not claiming any of this is my idea (see Marchand 1985 and Strasser 1989 for the ad stuff, and Austin 1962 for the problematic performativity thing)–I’m merely pointing to the Dentyne Ice campaign as a recent example of it.

To go back to the first point, where the idea of safe sex has been taken up and re-worked within the context of the campaign to evoke both its origin (safe sex) and to mean something different that still lies within the parameters of canoodling. It’s a wink to everyone in the cultural know: see what we did there? We changed one word and made you think of gum as a conduit to sex. The implication is that “safe breath” leads to “safe sex” even as it remembers it as its phraseological parent. Or at least a second date and maybe second base, for which there are other commercially advertised products that can answer to even more invented bodily “problems” you will encounter there.

Dentyne Ice’s website even has a large banner now that expands on the whole play-on-PSAs/Trojan commercials trope: Society for a Safe Breath America! This is your mouth on ice. All the familiar phrases are there “responsibly,” “taking a stand,” “show your support.” It’s like a MADD-AntiDrug-PlannedParenthood mashup of slogans over there. All being taken up, placed in a new context, given newish meaning, (and effectively made fun of) to sell gum. Language and our very cultural concepts are here but tools of the capitalist machine, placed in the hands of advertisers to help us see the error of our ways and offer us help to correct them…for just $1.49

So keep worrying about your bodies, everyone, because we your friendly advertisers all know what you really want (sexy fun times) and we aren’t afraid to feed all these anxieties we’ve so generously given to you so we can offer relief in the form of commodities. You’re welcome.

*I’m ignoring the other, very important side of this, which is uptake, because this analysis is a reading only, not an exploration of how people interact with these advertisements. This aside has been brought to you by the wish to nip a certain intelligent PhD candidate’s inevitable critique of my half-hearted analysis in the bud.

References

Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marchand, Rolland. 1985. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strasser, Susan. 1989. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Wordplay