13 June 2010

"Mass Media" --> Pack Media

Print culture, mass media -- terms of convenience, yes; but also the terms we use to homogenize differences across structures of communication.

What's lost?

I've been thinking quite a bit about multitudes, particularly the rarely-mentioned "many"s that crop up throughout sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature -- (that will have to remain for another post) -- and it's got me wondering about multitudes of media. It's become common to think of our current media ecology as one of mass media, by which hordes of people experience the same media content, simultaneously or at least closely in time. Television, film and radio are mass media; newspaper are mass media, as are magazines. Cable news is sometimes confusingly referred to as "mass media," since CNN, Fox News, et al. broadcast the same content countrywide. Printed books stretching back to the fifteenth-century are also lumped together with "mass media," even though prior to the nineteenth century print runs rarely exceeded 1,500 copies and, as Adrian Johns and others have shown, the "sameness" of any given copy within an edition was disputable due to rampant piracy and the use of stop-press corrections. In fact, although the term wasn't first used until 1923 in a book on Advertising & Selling (OED), the category "mass media" now anachronistically subsumes any form that delivers its content to more than one individual: the alphabet as mass media, manuscript as mass media, sound as mass media.

Quick media studies background for readers not acquainted: scholarship on media effects often takes the "mass-ness" of mass media for granted. Here, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's idea of media as "manufacturing consent" within a political populace is perhaps the best known and most widely influential example. However, influenced by the Birmingham school of cultural studies, other scholars like Henry Jenkins have challenged the notion that mass media and popular culture in general brainwash us, turning us all into consumeristic automata. Here, sites of resistance -- fan cultures, remixing, acts of appropriation -- are put forth to exemplify how the channels between creator and consumers are open, active, and contested, always subject to negotiation. For both groups -- the Chomskyan media effects crowd and those who attempt to legitimate popular culture -- the question turns on how active or passive the consumer is.

As much as I love Chomsky, I'm the kind of person who just has to believe in resistance -- in the freedom to resist, the freedom to challenge authority, power. Losing this capacity means losing the capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism. Thus I want to believe that remix culture is a complex negotiation of values -- that the "textual poaching" of fan communities tears down the autonomy of authors and the relentless "sameness" of the work they produce. But this has never sat well with me. If appropriative uses of popular culture in some way challenge the hegemony of the very stuff they're made of, then revolution is reduced to a novel arrangement of old conditions -- in fact, is thereby premised on the very conditions it hopes to challenge. Mash-ups, cut-ups, remixes and rewrites expose virtual potentials in popular culture -- alternative dimensions, hidden absurdities, its underbelly of nonsense -- but are rarely productive of new worlds in themselves. They make us want revolution; but they aren't necessarily revolutionary.

I don't think the problem lies in popular culture itself, but with our very notion of "mass media." Mass -- from the Latin massa, a lumpish clump of dough; what is "mass" about television, radio, print? So-called "mass media" content is produced by relatively small groups of people negotiating particular sets of values and institutions; it's disseminated to large, diverse groups of people, broken into individuals or small clusters spatially isolated from each other, and is increasingly consumed on multiple scalable platforms, at different points in time. Even in a media culture less fragmented than our own -- say, for instance, 1950s television -- content was consumed in anything but a lumpish way. The "masses" sat alone in their living rooms, physically and psychologically insulated; they read alone in crowds, on subways and buses. Even the dark, raucus space of a movie theatre, crowded with noisy strangers, is designed to produce singular moments of connection between a film and its viewers or, at most, the viewer and his or her date, locked into an affective triangle.

I find myself unquestioningly typing the phase "mass media" over and over again in a paper on Dracula. I stop myself. Why?

Another fragment. I've been reading Elias Canetti on packs -- packs of wolves, packs of people:
In the pack which, from time to time, forms out of the group, and which most strongly expresses its feeling of unity, the individual can never lose himself as completely as modern man can in any crowd today. In the changing constellation of the pack, in its dances and expeditions, he will again and again find himself at its edge. He may be in the center, and then, immediately afterwards, at the edge again; at the edge and then back in the centre. When the pack forms a ring around the fire, each man will have neighbors to the right and left, but no one behind him; his back is naked and exposed to the wilderness.

// Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 93
Deleuze and Guattari "recognize this as the schizo position, being on the periphery, holding on by a hand or a foot" (A Thousand Plateaus, 33-4). While, contra the pack, the mass subject identifies the "individual with the group, the group with the leader, and the leader with the group," forcing one to "get close to the center, never be at the edge," the ring-shaped pack has no "inside" or "outside," since each point along its surface is wholly equal in relation to every other point and to its surroundings. By arranging itself in this way, the pack can fluidly traverse its environment, molding itself to the topography of the terrain and its inhabitants without its structure hardening into hierarchies of leadership, as happens with the "masses"; for each member is as safe or as vulnerable as the next.

Thinking about mass media as pack media breaks through the producer/consumer dichotomies without appealing to awkward portmanteau like "produsage." It refuses a hard distinction between those who make media and those who consume it, since the pack produces and consumes in toto, each producer also acting as a consumer, and each consumer also locked into a productive relationship with other pack members. It allows for thinking of individuals as operating together without dissolving themselves into the lumpish mass. And it helps us think through how culture -- media culture, popular culture, remix culture -- makes meaning from minute points of connection, rather than a one-size-fits-all one-to-many schema.


Anonymous said...


one way to look at this issue of the 'mass audience' rather than arguing over whether it really exists or not is as both an ideological fiction and a market commodity -- the mass audience is a subject position constructed by the corporate media that no individual ever really embodies, but which every individual helps to produce. ideologically this means something like zizek's claim that production and consumption of ideological messages rely on a naive other 'supposed to believe' while the individual thinks of him or herself as outside this belief, not convinced, etc. beavis and butthead's critical viewing of mtv is a good example of a self-conscious production of the naive other in that it parodically doubles the viewer's own 'ironic' position toward TV content (the ironic/knowing viewer is the one who doesn't believe but keeps watching anyway). with the vogue for 'interactivity' and appropriating 'amateur' content, media corporations are slowly getting better at tailoring their messages to appeal to different demographics.

and in terms of political economy, this means that the mass audience is a commodity traded on financial markets -- Nielsen ratings are used to value shows and companies and attract advertisers, who also need to quantitatively measure their audience in order to value themselves, etc. chomsky and herman's analytic is still a good guide for what can and can't be said in the 'mass media,' not in order to brainwash people but to maintain the value of the 'mass audience' as a commodity/currency.

jon beller's 'cinematic mode of production' is good for this, though a bit old (1999) -- it follows some earlier theorists of the 'attention economy' like herbert simon in treating attention as a form of exploited labor.

Whitney said...

Hi! Thanks -- great points and pointers. I think there's a danger in appealing to Zizek, though, since the effectiveness of work on "mass"ness lies in explaining how it proliferates and is reproduced within sites that already take it for granted. In other words, if the question is *why*, he's got a good answer that negotiates the active/passive consumer barricades. But if the question is *what* -- if, for instance, an historian of the late nineteenth-century is looking at the *emergence* of so-called mass media, asking what's different between a British reader in 1890 or in 1590 -- appealing to ideological messages is not much help; there's an ongoing problem of grounding, only exacerbated when we conflate explanations of persistent (constantly being reproduced) phenomena with their historical emergence.

Anonymous said...

well i would say the material grounding for what zizek is talking about is the mass audience as a commodity -- his own writing is useless for historical work, it's true. i'm in agreement with you that 'mass culture' as an analytic term is also useless. the development of 'the audience' as a commodity supported by attendant ideologies (rather than any technology or 'culturally' determined worldview) is the only reading of mass culture i've ever found that has any heft, and approaches the question of 'what.'

- traxus4420