“Enraged by Tea,” one of my all-time photophone favorites, from 2005.
The three essays discussed in this response paper relate to contemporary concepts around the analysis of visual culture through the interpretation of the philosophies of history, commodification, and language as refracted by The Man’s capitalistic hijacking of the involuntary human practice of looking.
While Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels use the terminology typically associated with the social proposals of communism including the expected references to the “proletariat” and the “bourgeois,” these selections from German Ideology constitute less a political manifesto than an intellectual proposal for the active reconfiguring of the recording and interpretation of history. Marx and Engels (and, for the consideration of these works, Barthes) are not particularly known for easily comprehensible prose styles. German Ideology capitalizes, so to speak, on the even more opaque writing of the greatest German ideologue of the time, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Marx and Engels propose that while there is some fundamental correctness to the Hegelian principle of the dialectic – ascertaining an absolute truth through logical dissection and argument – historians and philosophers following Hegel had simply got everything wrong. Rather than intangible evolved yearnings for “immanence” and “transcendence,” humanity is a material manifestation controlled by economics. This definition of “historical materialism” is preceded by “dialectic materialism,” which establishes both the sole existence of the physical (as opposed to ephemeral) world, and, more significantly in connection to visual culture studies, the establishment of the thesis/antithesis paradigm which eventually becomes known as “binary opposition.” (Marx – more Marx than Engels – also takes exception to other “Hegel deconstruction” scholars such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Max Stirner). In a certain titular and textual respect, these selections undercut some of the assumptions endemic to the concepts of alterity politics and false constructions of Otherness raised during the heights of Post-Modernism simply by presuming that such a thing as an ideology based not upon colonial dynamics or Western European cultural dominance but on the national identity of Germans.
For the purposes of this paper Roland Barthes most logically follows Marx and Engels both for his preoccupation with the false perceptions of the bourgeois (those perceptions held by the bourgeois, that is) and with the creation of a specific terminology from which to investigate social norms from a Marxist framework. Working through the middle decades of the 20th Century, Barthes is also similarly interested in opposites, or binaries (the writer and the reader, for example), and focuses most intently upon language as the reductive vector through which all communication is reduced to “secondary signification.”
“Myth Today” contains the graphical representation of the semiotic formula containing the signified, the signifier, and the sign, as well as a tier for the adjacent process of “secondary signification.” As with the case of his contemporary, Jacques Derrida, it is difficult to distill Barthes’s contributions to deconstructionism down to a single or even a few sentences, and “Myth Today,” with its insistent use of the first person and numerous parenthetical irrelevancies is not one of Barthes’s more impenetrable texts. However, somewhat comically, this essay remains popular within academics because of its use of simple illustrations. The loaded image of the saluting boy soldier on the cover of Paris Match allows for a relatively uncomplicated parsing of its ramifications with respect to “reading” race and international relations.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer share a byline on “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” though the rhythmic immediacy of the prose is uniquely Adorno’s. Adorno was a musicologist who dabbled in writing straightforward popular culture criticism and his penchant for declarative clarity and endlessly repeated aphorisms (“The fully enlightened Earth…” and so on) make all the more troubling the fact that the masses he wishes to connect with just do not get his weltanschauung and become more absorbed into the insatiable Matrix of The Man with each episode of The Hills. Subsequent essays by Guy Debord, Marina LaPalma, and even Régis Debray on approximately the same subject homage Adorno through the decades by restating the basic premise of the Frankfurt School, though Horkheimer and Adorno were quite proficient at repetition themselves.
“The Culture Industry…” contains some remarkably prescient observations with extraordinarily contemporary readings, particularly: “The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows,” and “A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself.” Horkheimer and Adorno essentially make the case that mass culture is a much a tool of social subjugation, propagated by The Man, as Marx claimed religion to be (though that somewhat rash and hyperbolic reading of Marx’s famous statement is often decontextualized).
Somewhat de-emphasized in this essay but notable as it is later seized and expounded upon and then refuted by Barthes is the diminution of the individual in the reception of “what the culture manufacturers offer…” “The Culture Industry” also has predictive value with respect to “The Bubba Factor,” arguing that the “stereotyped appropriation of everything,” coaxing reflexively self-congratulatory recognition responses to the infliction of “the arts” even as leisure begins to more and more closely resemble work and “amusement” is “intellectualized.”
Horkheimer and Adorno seem to make a little Walter Benjamin joke about “Jewish intellectuals” though undoubtedly (as his emerging correspondence reveals) the latter’s remaining work and sense of purposed right up to Negative Dialektik suffered from Benjamin’s loss.