Sunday, April 10, 2011

Self-Affirmation and the "Participatory Culture"

This is an essay that I wrote for an scholarship contest provided by Templeton Press

The essay is a critique of an original essay written by Lee Siegel: "Participatory Culture and The Assault on Democracy"

My critique was definitely sloppy. I wrote it amidst other responsibilities and did not manage my time well. There are some good ideas, however. Please, leave your comments and thoughts!

Self-Affirmation and the "Participatory Culture"

It is not difficult to perceive the fear and frustration emanating from the words of Lee Siegel in his essay Participatory Culture and The Assault on Democracy[1]. With emotionally driven phrases like “the most serious threat to freedom in America”[2] or “there is no escape from culture into a personal space,”[3] Siegel’s essay is a genuine expression of dismay directed towards the dramatic changes that have been occurring in large, industrialized nations since the major world wars. The essay discusses several important themes: the emergence of mass-produced culture in America, the Frankfurt School interpretation of this mass-produced culture, self-concept and individualism, interactive media and internet technology, and American democracy. Well-read readers will certainly chuckle at the quips Siegel makes about mass culture’s treatment of Tolstoy or Flaubert, those familiar with online cultural phenomena like YouTube and Facebook are likely to get a laugh as well. While Siegel and the thinkers he acknowledges are absolutely correct in identifying a problem with contemporary American culture and political-economy, he proceeds to paint an unreasonable portrait of a grim, dystopian future. Young Americans, inheriting an economic and political system that is simultaneously collapsing under its own weight and rife with opportunity for restructuring and radical innovation, are compelled by Siegel to adopt a view of culture that is fundamentally alienating, hierarchical, and hopeless. By evaluating the various dichotomies and theories of culture, interactive media, individualism and self-concept presented throughout Participatory Culture, there is a glimmer hope for those willing to think and act for themselves.

The irreconcilable choices that are presented to the reader in Participatory Culture can be a little overwhelming, many of them seem unnecessary. Consider Siegel’s interpretation of music in contemporary culture:

Indeed, the participatory turn accounts for the way rhythm has overtaken melody in popular music: it’s easier to assimilate rhythm’s sameness to your fantasies than to step out of yourself and follow melody’s different changes. Rhythm is music’s first person, as the close-up is film’s.[4]

This claim speaks to the toe-tapper in all of us; rhythm is immediately engaging for any organism and is most certainly the oldest element of music. The emergence of popular musical genres like R&B, drum and bass, techno and hip-hop may suggest that rhythm is becoming more important to musicians today, but the melodies and harmonies of Classical Beethoven do not occur in a rhythmic vacuum – rhythm and time provide the context for all music. Some might also suggest that mass culture has not forgotten the great musicians of yesteryear[5]. More importantly however, Siegel is using this claim about the shift in musical development as proof of the existence of mass culture’s negative preoccupation with itself and encouraging the reader to choose between his interpretation of culture and the imaginary shame that comes from enjoying a funky beat. Siegel also cites other trends in the arts – a growing interest in first-person fiction, three-dimensional cinematography, and video games – as indicative of some essential moral dilemma. Despite his subjective aesthetic value-judgments, readers should not be deterred from gleaning the greater truth from his arguments about mass culture.

Another dubious dichotomy which relies on aesthetic prejudice and moral condescension is that of old versus new art. Siegel attacks contemporary artists when he offers these straw men arguments: “the hallmark of great popular art used to be the way a performer put an original twist on a standard genre of formula,” “…it used to be that performers strove to create excellence and originality within a popular style, in order to become popular,” and “In today’s culture, you strive only to be popular – in order to become popular.”[6] The examples he provides of today’s popular art range from talking cats on YouTube to American Idol and James Cameron’s Avatar, a film so formulaic that the Internet can’t resist making fun of it.[7] An extensive list of innovative and genre-bending artists in the 21st century could be provided as evidence against Siegel’s claims, as if the utility or beauty of aesthetic values could be objectively defined and cardinally ordered; suffice it to say that young American artists exist, are self-inspired and are not toiling away in vain. Siegel may be reacting to the sheer volume of stuff produced and shared as a result of the advanced breakthroughs in Internet technology in the last decade (e.g. YouTube); undoubtedly, there are many more people sharing media with each other than ever before. To claim that an interactive platform like YouTube is somehow threatening to art is simply nonsensical; an environment where artists can share freely and easily is the first place that someone should expect to find a New Renaissance in the arts.[8] The political-economy that many Americans are enduring now, one filled with astronomical government debt, wars, and an attack on basic human rights at home and abroad, also inspires the artist to create in novel ways.[9]

The disdain that Siegel expresses over interactive media and the growing cultural interest in participating in the creation of media should be immediately alarming to the reader, young or old. Having the essential desire to contribute – to discover one’s own creative power – and the technology to make that happen is absolutely a boon for contemporary society. The potential to apply this technology towards positive social change is limitless.[10] When Siegel criticizes the spirit of Wikipedia, claiming that its creation was motivated by “a more fundamental principle: the more people who were allowed to participate in Wikipedia, the more people who would read Wikipedia,”[11] one might conclude that Siegel would prefer the generation and dissemination of knowledge to be controlled by a “more qualified” class of working intellectuals, or that the common desire to contribute is somehow negative. To be clear, the context of this criticism, along with his criticism of popular art and music, is just the wider interpretation of mass culture as being motivated by the pursuit of nothing more than popularity for the sake of popularity. Does it occur to Siegel that the average person might take advantage of the opportunity to contribute to the production of media and information because he or she genuinely feels powerless against corporate media monopolies and the governments which grant them power?[12] Given this question, Siegel’s understanding of mass culture deserves some scrutiny.

Firstly, no theory of popular culture enjoys complete agreement amongst thinkers, and there is nothing wrong with that – granted the complexity of human behavior and thought, this should really come as no surprise.[13] Siegel describes mass culture as that culture with the capacity for the average person to be at once a producer as well as a consumer.[14] Siegel introduces the reader to the Frankfurt School theory of mass culture via Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, two thinkers motivated by Marxist class analysis and theory of capitalism. According to the Frankfurt School, mass culture or the “culture industry” is the product of industrialization and the division of labor in the 19th century, the emergence of a working class, and the subsequent mass-production of art and entertainment.[15] When it comes to political and economic discourse, the Frankfurt School identifies a true threat in media monopolies, as Siegel quotes Marcuse: “Under the rule of monopolistic media – themselves a mere instrument of economic and political power – a mentality is created for which right and wrong, true and false are predefined…”[16] However, the theory begins to take a turn towards authoritarianism and elitism; Siegel shares Adorno’s belief that the “commodification” of culture is a threat to the properly exclusive “high” culture (e.g. Michelangelo and da Vinci) and “popular” or folk culture (e.g. storytelling amidst grinding poverty) – to merge the two would destabilize what they perceive as prerequisite moral and aesthetic values for the emergence of either a socialist revolution or a true American democracy.[17] In in his book An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, Dominic Strinati explains that elite values are first assumed and then unquestioningly applied to the criticism of other cultures.[18] The simple truth is that high, popular and mass culture are all high-level abstractions which vary from person to person; clearly, some people have never even considered a theory of popular culture. Aesthetic values are truly the last thing to be considered when facing real-world problems like poverty and war.

What is especially bizarre is Siegel’s contradictory identification with the elitist sentiment of the Frankfurt School theory and his intellectual divorce from it:

For Adorno, Marcuse… the answer to brutish, dehumanizing culture and politics was dismantling of “the rule of monopolistic media” and the establishment of participatory culture, in which, presumably, access and transparency would be the order of the day.[19]

The contradiction lies in the fact that Siegel employs the Frankfurt School theory of culture industry and mass culture in his analysis of contemporary American culture, identifies the emerging trend of interactivity in media production, unreasonably condemns the trend as negatively contributing to the decay of the American political-economy, and then suggests that the Frankfurt School theorists and others ultimately advocated this decay. This misrepresentation of the Frankfurt School seems outlandish; it is entirely possible that Adorno and others would have agreed with the elitist claims that Siegel advances and would have seen interactive media as some new form of capitalist exploitation.

Compared to Siegel’s inspired theory of mass culture, his ideas of individualism and self-concept are very meaningful to the discussion of social progress. Describing the individuals of mass culture as simultaneously being “extra vulnerable to approval,” lacking in self-awareness, and with “egos… both larger than their environment and entirely submerged in it,”[20] the reader begins to see mass culture as modulating between utter self-doubt and unyielding arrogance – an inconsistent view of self-concept. Siegel is absolutely on to something when he identifies in mass culture a genuine problem with self-esteem[21]; this discovery is truly at the core of all personal and social problems. Nathaniel Branden – the former disciple of Ayn Rand and successful Objectivist-inspired psychotherapist – describes self-esteem:

Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think… it is confidence in our ability to learn, make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change.[22]

With a reasonable definition of self-esteem provided, one can see the contrast in the understanding of self-esteem between Siegel, who uses of the term “amour-propre[23] or self-esteem dependent on the opinions of others in and Braden, who points out that self-esteem is not fundamentally a function of how others see and evaluate us.[24] Looking at individuality, Siegel trips over his words when, evaluating the views of the Frankfurt School, he claims that “the ‘monopolistic media’ left a great deal of room for the cultivation of individual taste and freedom”[25] and in a later passage makes the claim that “no spaces for the cultivation for our individuality exist between us and the media monopolies...”[26]. An Objectivist or rational egoist, after reading Participatory Culture, might dismiss Siegel’s views of self and individuality as contradictory, but would certainly agree that the values and virtues of individual actors in mass culture contribute to the sort of socio-political climate they generate.

The view of mass culture that Siegel and the Frankfurt school share, one of total obsequiousness to the elitist agendas of corporations and governments, is simply not true. Art and culture are not dead, the Internet is powerful tool for social change, and the self is something to be cultivated, not restrained. Views of culture that treat millions of people as homogeneous blobs are counterproductive to meaningful change. This is the task set forth for young Americans today: to participate in the creation of their freedom, online or off, and to place that value at the center of their society, as an ever-present ideal.

[1] Siegel. (SOURCE)

[2] Siegel. (SOURCE): Final ¶

[3] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 24

[4] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 6

[6] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 8

[11] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 10

[13] Hinds, Motz, and Nelson. Popular Culture Theory and Methedology: A Basic Introduction (pg. 274)

[14] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 3

[16] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 16

[17] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 21

[18] Strinati. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (pg. 36)

[19] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 18

[20] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 15

[22] Branden. On Self

[23] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 13

[24] Branden. Honoring the Self: Self-Esteem and Personal Transformation (pg. 5)

[25] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 19

[26] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 23

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