Saturday, September 3, 2011
Mass Culture and Terrorist Culture
1. The great fear of the nineteenth century was that amorphous blob called “the masses.” The masses were irrational, unpredictable, ungovernable, and extremely violent. From the construction of the wide boulevards in Paris to the castle-like armories across New York, the people in charge went out of their way to combat the monster in the heart of the great metropolis.
2. For a twenty-first century reader of nineteenth century newspapers, the stories about the riots and the general paranoia they engendered feel very much like today’s discourse about terrorism. Though the looters are still alive and kicking, and the terrorists seem to be on the wane and on the run, there is certainly an overall shift in good society’s “greatest fear.”
3. What is the most effective way to gain control over the masses and avoid the dreadful riot? More police officers and CCTV? Better jobs and social benefits? The twentieth century actually found a much better method to put the masses on a leash: It invented something called “mass culture.” To paraphrase Clement Greenberg, we could say that mass culture pretends to demand of its consumers not only their money, but also the promise to never revolt.
4. If you can’t beat the masses, entertain the masses. If the masses can see their own image and likeness in films, music, television, etc., then their sense of oppression is all of a sudden, as if by magic, less justified. When life feels like a dead end, you can easily band with others who feel the same and take to the streets. Alternatively, you can press play on your iPod and listen to your favorite rapper telling you about his fabulous exploits. You feel that you have a voice, you feel empowered, the anger goes away, and you decide to stay in your room.
5. European culture is still much more elitist than American culture, which is one way to explain why European cities are more vulnerable these days to riots than American cities. In the US everyone is equal...in front of their TV sets. Justice needs not be done, if it can only be seen as if it is done. Economically, kids in New York have as good a reason to smash a window as the kids in London. Culturally, they feel too good about themselves to even bother.
6. Mass culture, however, has been drugging the unstable masses to non-action long before hip hop. We have to keep things in perspective and realize that today’s anxiety from the rioting mob is a pale semblance of what it used to be a hundred years ago. Mass culture is such an effective mass tranquilizer that this (justified or unjustified) fear that people will suddenly unleash the animals inside of them is not unlike the zoogoers’ giddy fantasy that the tiger will escape from its cage.
7. If the comparison between the old fear of the masses and the new fear of terrorism is indeed viable, then the following thesis becomes very tempting: In precisely the same way that the best way to cope with “the masses” is to develop a powerful mass culture, then the best way to deal with terrorism is through what I would like to call “terrorist culture.” Terrorist culture will shape the culture of the twenty-first century exactly as mass culture shaped the culture of the previous century. Just as mass culture dispelled the fear of the masses, terrorist culture is quelling the terrorist boogeyman.
8. Banksy is the high priest of the burgeoning terrorist culture. Terrorist culture must (appear as if it) subvert(s) the cultural hegemony. Indeed, terrorist culture must (pretend to) undermine the insipid power of mass culture. While those in power have guns, the terrorists have homemade bombs. While the corporations inundate us with their fast food and stupid sitcoms, we can still make our own artisanal bread and shoot with our phones a quirky video and post it on YouTube. If only Harvard professors get to be critics for the New Yorker, we can write a blog.
9. Al-Qaeda is a DIY army. Voina is waging a cultural Jihad. If the capitals of mass culture are Manhattan and Hollywood, the capitals of terrorist culture are Brooklyn and San Francisco. If television was the prime tool to disseminate mass culture, smartphones are the best way to propagate terrorist culture. But if a revolution is “all over twitter” (rather than televised), does the statue of the sovereign make a sound as it tumbles (or tumblrs)?
10. Terrorist culture is no longer operating on the fringes of mass culture, the way Greenberg believed that the avant-garde must remain the obscure alternative to kitsch. Terrorist culture is becoming the dominant cultural force in the twenty-first century. In the same way that Adorno used to lament the demise of high culture in face of the rise of mass culture, some smartass will soon tell us how glorious were the days when mass culture gave us a sense of unity and democracy, while today’s terrorist culture is only leading to fragmentation and exclusivity.
11. Nevertheless, terrorist culture, like mass culture, is only a reaction against a deep-seated anxiety. They are both just a continuation of a war (on the masses, on terror) by other means. From this perspective, both mass and terrorist culture are probably doomed to do more harm than good, because they end up sacrificing a genuine revolutionary force on the altar of its own representation.