If we take it as a given that our interaction with mass media fundamentally shapes the way we view the world, then it becomes pretty clear that we can’t dismiss any function of that media as harmless escapism. Attempting to justify a dispensable television or cinematic product as some sort of “pure” entertainment becomes, under these circumstances, a rather dubious practice. Quite apart from the fact that this sort of attitude severely limits the opportunities for the distribution of serious work, it reinforces a generalized reduction of our ability to apprehend our own reality and ultimately diminishes our experience of life. From the half-minute television commercial to the latest big-budget action picture, the consumption of mass product deadens our experience in at least three significant ways: through over-simplification, through the promotion of passivity and through de-aestheticization, all of which are significantly linked. Below, I take a brief look at three mass cultural products—a television advertisement, a reality television program, and a film—and show how these products make use of all three strategies in order to deaden our experience of life.
Given the fact that the average television commercial lasts 30 seconds and requires an instant arresting of the viewer’s attention, it becomes a practical necessity that the advertising format present a simplified interpretation of life. But what is most harmful about the format is that, since the majority of ads are attempting to sell a lifestyle, they invite the viewer to regard his own life in similarly reductive terms. An ongoing series of ads for Yoplait yogurt, pitched to a certain middle-class, thirty-something female constituency, provides a telling example of this pure demographic definition. The spots feature representative members of the targeted contingent comparing the product favorably to a catalogue of pleasures (“shoe shopping” “foot massage”) understood to be held in common esteem by the commercial’s intended audience. By linking the product to the designators of a specific lifestyle, the creators of the ad carve out a simplified conception of identity which attempts to diminish the experience of a whole range of people who happen to fit the target demographic. The success of the commercial depends on the viewer’s passive acceptance of the self-definition being offered. By eliminating the need for the viewer to take an active role in establishing her own existence, the ad is able to sell a pre-packaged lifestyle that replaces any need to understand one’s own life except in the most simplistic terms with a neat equation of personal identity and demographic affiliation.
The popular television program American Idol also serves to simplify our experience of life, in this case by promoting an aesthetic homogenization and a corresponding debasement of artistic standards. The show, which consists of a talent contest between a group of would-be pop stars, perpetuates this homogenization under the guise of democratic plurality. The singers may be divided into several genres of performance—rock, country, R&B—but like the formatting of radio stations, this pretense of diversification hides the sameness inherent in the music, all of which would be better classified under the heading of pop. Far from taking their cue from Chuck Berry, Jimmie Rodgers, or Ray Charles (depending on their adherence to a chosen “genre”), the performers seem primarily influenced by the general blandness that has infected popular music in recent years, reducing mainstream radio (all of whose stations are controlled by the interests of a few corporations) to a kind of commercialized Muzak.
The show’s slight illusion of diversity is given further expression through the mock democratic process that concludes each season. After the judges have selected a group of finalists, television viewers are invited to vote for their favorite contestant, thus determining which of a handful of interchangeable pop singers is singled out for potential stardom. By providing the viewer with the appearance of choice, the show’s producers reinforce the impression that the musical selection offered by the mass media represents the full scope of aesthetic possibility, instead of a narrow range of homogeneous product. The fact that many consumers have come to define themselves by the genre of music they prefer (even though there is little difference between these genres in mainstream culture), shows how programs like American Idol seriously impair the average person’s ability to achieve any measure of self-understanding. Rather than asserting his individuality, someone who claims to listen to, for example, exclusively R & B, is buying into the strategies of self-definition designed by the promoters of mass media for their own commercial purposes. American Idol ensures that, by eliminating any question of aesthetic difference in music, the art form can be sold as pure, undifferentiated product.
It is, however, the cinematic medium that arguably exerts the most influence over our understanding of the world and, given that film has become the dominant art form of the early-21st century, bears the most responsibility for enhancing our conception of our own experience. One of the worst pictures of 2007, Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, provides an instructive example of the ways in which poor film product betrays this fundamental responsibility. Essentially a typical vigilante film, the picture sets up a neat dialectic between law and order and the personal brand of justice that always seems to win out within the confines of the genre. The film gives the illusion of addressing this dialectic by introducing a running dialogue between the vigilante (Jodie Foster) and a cop (Terence Howard) who stubbornly defends the legal process. But the cards are everywhere stacked in favor of Foster’s argument, as Howard’s repeated attempts to secure justice through proper legal channels prove ineffectual and only Foster’s vigilante actions achieve any measure of success in lessening the threat of urban criminality. The film’s conclusion neatly drops the pretense of the dialectic as Howard fully embraces Foster’s point-of-view, choosing to shoot rather than arrest a suspect.
The Brave One seems remarkably untroubled by its resolution, which is unsurprising, since it never really gave equal weight to both sides of its debate, Howard’s argument serving as little more than a bit of cursory misdirection to obscure the film’s unqualified acceptance of vigilantism. By paying lip service to the complexity of its central question, the picture then feels justified in presenting its simplified, one-sided conclusion as an earned, rather than assumed viewpoint. What is most harmful about the film is that it perpetuates in the viewer a way of thinking which looks to reduce complex arguments to their simplest possible formulations. As long as the other side of an argument is briefly acknowledged, the film suggests, there is no need to subject one’s own beliefs to any sort of interrogation or to recognize that there may be several ways of looking at a single problem.
The film further reduces our experience of the world with its drab and unimaginative aesthetic presentation. If one of the functions of art is to enrich our conception of life by allowing us to view the world in aesthetic terms, thus endowing daily existence with a new richness (after watching Sátántangó, for example, simply walking down a road can’t be viewed in the same light), then the mass of popular culture, despite its superficial resemblance to art, leads to a deadened sensory apprehension of the world. Rather than carve out an aesthetic program that exhibits any kind of visual richness, Neil Jordan limits his strategy to keeping his camera constantly moving, an approach that quickly leads to a cinematographic monotony, since the effect is to capture a series of drab, unrevealing images that disappear just before the viewer can register their banality. In addition, he insists on positioning his camera at a forty-five degree tilt for long stretches of time to suggest the mental imbalance of his heroine, but these sorts of amateurish tricks can’t disguise the dullness of what the camera actually captures. By limiting his aesthetic presentation to the hopelessly drab, Jordan invites the viewer to look at his own world (particularly if he lives in an urban environment) in similarly reductive terms.
For Frederic Jameson and other cultural critics attempting to define the conditions of post-modern existence, the transformation of reality into a series of artificially constructed images becomes one of the central facts of late-twentieth century (and early twenty-first century) life, a state of affairs in which, as Jameson puts it, “we seem condemned to seek the historical past”—and, by extension, the present—“through our own pop images”, the reality “remain[ing] forever out of reach”. So, if we are no longer given the possibility of viewing the world in any “pure” sense, but only as a series of simulacra derived from the perpetuation of mass culture, then it follows that exposing ourselves to the images offered by the majority of films and television programs inevitably deadens our powers of perception and causes the world to lose any aesthetic richness with which we are capable of endowing it. We may never be able to view the world as an unmediated entity, but we have the option to choose our mediation. If we fail to choose correctly, we risk having not merely our economic possibilities but our entire self-conception dictated by a few corporations whose interests lie squarely in perpetuating a vast reduction of the entire range of human experience. Only by looking for better models, for works of art that not only heighten our ability to view the world aesthetically, but which present a conception of human experience rich in complexity and demanding an active engagement on the audience’s part, can we regain a sense of the fullness of experience.
Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.