12 December 2014

Television, Culture and Consumerism

Television encourages viewers to consume images that most people would otherwise not have access to in the course of a typical life. While this might sound like a benefit, television is not simply about seeing new and different things. It is also about selling. Television programming evolved hand-in-hand with consumerism, at first in its birthplace in America during the mid-20th century, but increasingly everywhere else in the world as well. In a way, television has spread the ethos of consumerism around the globe. It has also spread voyeurism, a more insidious form of consumerism, in the way it reveals what used to be private aspects of human life to public view. Television has normalized consumerism and voyeurism, and in turn these cultural preferences, encouraged by television, exert an influence over the medium, so that there is a reciprocity between television and society. The TV industries monitor the flow of this give-and-take relationship by sophisticated marketing surveys to tailor programs to what they perceive as the interests of their consumer-viewers. Many viewers are unaware that their habits are carefully monitored and that the television industries have created various market segments, or what they call "audiences," to buy and sell in the global marketplace, just like any other commodity. Although viewers think that they are sitting at home watching the tube, the tube is also watching them, and their viewing habits are traded in a marketplace that is still primarily driven by advertising.

24 August 2014

Cinema and Representation in China

The distance between Hong Kong and China can perhaps be measured by what is considered representable in each culture. Hong Kong is permeated by advertising, like a Western city. It is dominated by writing: signs of all descriptions festoon city buildings and stretch across the street. The Chinese cities we visited in 1981 (including 'sophisticated' Shanghai) treated sign writing functionally, to indicate a locale or slogan that needed indicating; advertising had begun to appear, but tentatively. In cinema, too, the same contrast appears. Hong Kong cinema has developed a strong tradition of depictions of violence, involving its own system of performances and special effects, its own codes and conventions. The Chinese film-makers we met in Shanghai were assessing their first foray into the explicit depiction of familial violence: a scene in Family Festivities (1980) in which a husband slaps his wife who has been intriguing to break up the extended family group into a series of independent nuclear households. Such a level of aggression is new in Chinese cinema, and the scene was shot so as not to emphasise the physicality of the moment of husband striking wife. However, it is dangerous to treat such comparisons as emblematic of general features of a society. All that we can do is to record certain impressions.

09 August 2014

Social Amnesia and the American Culture of Carnage

On 20 April 1999, armed to the teeth with bombs and automatic weapons, two teenaged students named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stormed into their suburban high school in Littleton, Colorado, and carried out a horrific display of murder and mayhem before committing suicide. When the smoke cleared, 12 students and 1 teacher lay dead, with many more wounded, and Americans were left to sort out another seemingly senseless act of what has come to be called 'teen violence.' Law enforcement and the media soon swarmed the site as investigators looked for clues and reporters sought answers. National news outlets entirely pre-empted normal programming for several hours afterwards, in a bizarre spectacle of suffering, anguish, and confusion. Over the next few days, as the events in Littleton had receded somewhat into the usual corporate media stew of consumerism and the latest war, speculation about the incident ran rampant.

27 July 2014

Redefining Black Independent Cinema

In August 1984, the Los Angeles Times first-string film critic, Charles Champlin, devoted his column to the subject 'A Black Film Bonanza Hollywood Ignored.' He--and the Los Angeles filmgoing audience--were discovering for the first time the wealth of Black cinema that had been produced in recent years. Beneath the facade of Hollywood'd glitter and Southern California's 'me' culture, Los Angeles is becoming a city of color. The largest ethnic group in its public schools is Latino, and it has one of the largest Asian populations in the US. It is a city with a long history of organizing for affirmative action in the workplace and schools. Los Angeles has been the source of some of the most pioneering and important independent works in recent years, much of which has been produced in these Third World communities.

09 July 2014

Microbroadcasting vs. the Media Monopoly

People around the world are becoming disgusted with the state of the airwaves. Despite threats of fines and violence, pirate radio activists are turning out and turning on their own stations in defiance of government broadcast regulators. Thousands of Taiwanese police blitzed 14 unauthorized radio outlets, many of which returned to the air following the raid. Twelve people were killed in a raid on a pro-democratic pirate station in Haiti, but the soldiers failed to seize the transmitter. A pirate station broadcasting from a traffic island in Mexico City was also shut down by a phalanx of police. Microbroadcasters in Canada and the U.S. haven't yet been subject to such brutality, but the battle to exercise their claimed right to the public airwaves is no less fierce. The movement's North American epicenter is the San Francisco Bay area where unlicensed FM stations offer a non-commercial alternative. It is also home to the movement's unofficial spokesperson, Stephen Dunifer.

25 June 2014

Politics and Femininity in 'The Chess Players'

Like most great Indian myth-makers of the last two hundred years, Satyajit Ray is at his most creative when dealing with problems of women and femininity. There can be no better way of acknowledging his 'presence' in the contemporary Indian consciousness than by recognising the social criticisms his construction of womanhood offers. I shall try to give some flavour of this presence by partly re-reviewing a film of his which is apparently concerned only with men and with a 'manly' pursuit, politics. This film, 'Shatranj Ke Khilari' ('The Chess Players'), is based on a famous short story by Munshi Premchand and is Ray's only full-length Hindi film, directed at what may be called a pan-Indian audience. That it failed to reach its intended audience is of course well known. We do no know how far the failure was due to the film itself and how far to the structure of the Indian film industry, but that is not a specially relevant question in this context. For my concern in this re-review is to show that there is not only a politics of statecraft but also a politics of culture, and that all great artists have to deal with the second kind of politics, even when overtly refusing to challenge its basic axioms.

09 June 2014

A Celebratory Event in Muslim Culture

The mawlid is a celebratory event and genre to be found in Muslim lands from the Atlantic coast of Africa all the way to Indonesia and the southern islands of the Philippines. Many spellings and pronunciations have been given to the title of this religious literary form and its various embellishments--mevlit, mevlut, maulud, malid, milad, molid, mulid and moulid being but a partial listing. These terms and the varying phenomena to which they are applied have been utilized in non-Arabic-speaking as well as Arabic-speaking regions of the Muslim world. All variants are colloquializations of the Arabic word, mawlid, which for purposes of consistency will be used throughout this article. The term mawlid has carried many different meanings. Derived from the Arabic root verb wulida ('to be born'), mawlid means 'the event of birth' or 'the place of birth.' In these literal senses, it applies to any birth. More specifically, however, it has denoted the birth, the birthday or the birthplace of Muhammad the Prophet of Islam, and with this meaning it is also rendered as mawlid al-nabi, i.e., 'Birthday of the Prophet.'

26 May 2014

Traditional Music of Southern Laos

Between the time when French musicologist Jacques Brunet recorded the music of Southern Laos in the early 1970s and the re-issue of these recordings on CD in 1992, Laos (by that time having become the People's Democratic Republic of Laos) had experienced war trauma, the flight of great numbers of people, isolation, and the beginning of healing. During the Vietnam war the United States dropped unimaginable quantities of bombs throughout the south (along the so-called 'Ho Chi Minh Trail') and in much of the northeast. In some provinces, virtually every town and sizable village were destroyed. Economic and social development were also stopped or rolled back. Provinces which once had running water and electricity, at least in the main town, ceased to have either. Where tourists formerly visited (e.g., Vat Phu near Champassak), there were only abandoned restaurants and a little-used hotel. In 1991 modern tourist hotels remained under construction just as they had been when workers walked off the job in 1975. Travel within Laos by both Lao and non-Lao was strictly regulated by the government; consequently, few were able to visit formerly familiar sites such as Luang Phabang, Vat Phu, or the Bolovens Plateau. Therefore, this set of recordings has a strange air of nostalgia, especially since it had been re-issued with the same notes used in the original Phillips recording of 1973.

12 May 2014

Mass Media and the Emergence of Salsa

The music which came to be called salsa developed out of Cuban dance genres--especially the son, 'guaracha' and 'rumba'--which had evolved into a cohesive set of commercial popular styles by the 1920s. By the 1940ss, these genres, as promoted by RCA Victor (which monopolized the record industry in Cuba) enjoyed considerable international appeal, and Latino communities in New York had come to play an important role in the evolution of Cuban music. Puerto Ricans had so eagerly adopted Cuban music for decades (especially since the introduction of radio in 1922) that they had come to regard such genres as the 'son' and 'guaracha' more or less as their own (generally at the expense of indigenous genres like 'plena' and 'bomba'). Meanwhile, since the 1920s, New York City had become the scene of a lively dialectic blending and competition of diverse grassroots Latin American musics and commercialized version thereof. Many Cuban musicians had come to base themselves in New York City, where, together with Puerto Rican bandleaders like Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, they established New York as a center for the music that would eventually come to be labelled 'salsa' by the record industry.

21 April 2014

The New Time Religion of Advertising

One of North America's foremost media theorists, Sut Jhally is professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and founder and director of the Media Education Foundation. He has written numerous books and articles on advertising, social communications and cultural politics. In the following interview with Kalle Lasn and Nicholas Racz, conducted in the Vancouver offices of 'Adbusters' magazine in 1993, professor Jhally suggests that modern advertising has become a cultural force resembling a religion. He implicates this 'new time religion' in the culture of consumerism threatening to bring about environmental collapse on a planetary scale. The way out of this mess, he suggests, is to mount a 'reformation' in attitudes toward ourselves.