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Public Sphere Essay, Research Paper

The mathematical definition of the twentieth century corresponds to a hundred year period with a strictly defined beginning and an end. However, the picture differs when we look at the issue in a critical perspective. For most historians and social scientists, our century is characterized by vast and rapid changes in social, economical and political institutions. This analysis holds a large amount of validity even when the empirical data of a personal life experience is used. Therefore, the constraints for the definition of this era shall be closely related to institutional changes. At this point two major events turn out to be the “yardsticks” for a proper periodical limitation. The first one, being the Industrial Revolution, is the innovative locomotive behind the age of mass production, the assembly line and the long celebrated monumental factories symbolized by steel. It would be hardly possible to call our second “yardstick” a revolution, for it had developed within an evolutionary process that can not be defined by a single technological innovation. Nevertheless, the globalization of information and communication technologies is regarded to be the beginning of the post-industrial information age, the age of the Mass Media.

This new age that can well be seen as a step into the twenty-first century brought fundamental changes to the classical relations between capital, labor and society. The industrial production left its place to the production of information and related technologies, basically means of communication. The blue-collared laborers are replaced with professionals, and control of information became the new tool for holding economical and political power. Therefore, this notion of profiting from information via means of communication let the rise of the phenomenon of “culture industries”, and the idea of an artificially created popular culture.

What is Popular Culture?

Among many definitions of popular culture, the one written by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno seems to be the most compact and suitable one for our purpose. According to the two critics, “popular culture is light entertainment that is assembled by the culture industries, then is delivered through the channels of the mass media, and finally is absorbed voluntarily, to be interpreted by the individual who receives it. Back to the culture industries goes a flow of information in the form of ratings or sales figures that will influence the subsequent round of offerings.” John Fowles adds to this definition; “popular culture consists of symbols; the act of skiing is not an example of popular culture, but a dramatic movie featuring skiing is, because it is composed of images intended to be meaningful to spectators” (Fowles, 10).

Now we can develop the idea of popular culture, but first we shall keep two things in mind. To narrow down the concept of mass media, we will consider only television and not any other medium. Secondly, our television will be a commercial one, on which everything seen is for sale.

The production of popular culture is not the act of making a certain habit popular. It is creating images that can be associated with an already popular habit, and selling these images in forms of symbols. Therefore, the popularity created is not intended to promote the habit, but to promote being a part of the “populace” that massively consume the imagery of the specific act. If we get back to Fowles? example of skiing, we see that when this sport is made part of the popular culture through the “dramatic” movie, it is not actually the sport that is sold, but rather its image and the products that go with it, like berets, jackets and Quiksilver outfits. At this point, advertisement joins the game. The task of commercials is to get consumers to transfer the positive associations of the non-commodity material onto the commodity (Fowles, 11). Therefore, Marlboro does not only sell cigarettes, but also sells the Wild West and a little freedom with it. Although, advertisement and popular culture production are based on similar principals, they do not follow the same patterns, but in the very end they meet. The images that are associated with the advertised products are already brought into the domain of popular culture, like the Spice Girls, Ricky Martin and football stars.

However, an opposite process can also take place. While the freedom that we buy with a pack of cigarettes may not be a popular culture item; a Harley Davidson motorcycle, a pair of Cat boots, ice-blue Levi?s jeans, a black Diesel T-shirt, a silver Zippo lighter, a pair of Police sunglasses and a pack of Marlboro would definitely be popular culture items. The products themselves are individually popular, but only the unity of the images that are associated with them forms the popular culture. Therefore, while the advertisers enter the domain of the popular culture for promoting their products, they may also unintentionally formulate new stereotypes. This interaction between the two institutions in the end creates a consumer fetishism that is stuck in a vicious circle. First, skiing is brought into a symbolic imagery level, and is made a part of the popular culture. Then, this image is used by the advertisers to sell the products related not primarily to skiing but to its popular perception, and finally the images of these products are reused by the culture industry. As stated by Fowles, the biggest similarity between the popular culture and advertisement is that they are both products of culture industries- large capitalistic bastions whose activities are governed absolutely by the search of profit (Fowles,17).

It is important to understand the above relationship between the two agents for formulating the trilogy of political/ economical system- television and the popular culture. Therefore, we shall consider the organization of TV channels in terms of program selection and commercial distribution. The programs on TV are structured according to time slots during which a certain type of audience is assumed to be in front of the screen. The purpose of a soap opera is not only satisfying the desires of middle class housewives, but also satisfying the demands of the advertisers promoting products that are assumed to be consumed by these housewives. Consequently, the housewife who is a part of the popular culture created by the soap opera, actually serves a large system that starts with the material production of the detergent, then passes through the advertisement process and finally reaches the TV channel to be associated with the cultural product of the programmers. Therefore, it is no surprise to see the “Young and Restless” stars in cosmetic commercials.

While contrasting advertisement and popular culture, Fowles states that the ads aim at changing behavior, whereas popular culture aims at maintenance (Fowles, 13). However, we shall keep in mind that to maintain a certain behavior, the intended behavior must first be achieved, and to be considered as a part of the popular culture, this behavior must have an accepted validity among a large group of people that see it as the “in” act. The role of the media industries (that is television in our study) is providing these two constraints of popular culture; creation and giving acceptable validity.

How and Why Television Creates the Popular Culture?

To understand the process of popular culture production via TV, first we shall look at a theory on social influence. “If one believes that a sheet of glass is fragile, one can test that belief by hitting it with a hammer. The subjective validity of this belief depends on physical reality testing. However, a belief like socialism is the way forward for humanity can not be tested the same way. Such a belief is correct, valid and proper to the extent that it is anchored in a group of people with similar beliefs, opinions and attitudes” (Turner, 19). This hypothesis by Festinger is supported by three additional points: 1) If other people agree and share our attitudes, then we are more likely to consider them as subjectively valid. 2) We prefer to join groups of people with whom we agree, which in the end causes a stronger agreement of a specific issue. 3) And finally, the less we are able to make physical testing the more important becomes the agreement of similar others to validate our beliefs (Turner, 20). In addition, according to Deutsch and Gerard, informational influence is influence to accept information from another as evidence about objective reality. Conformity is motivated by the desire to form an accurate view of reality and to act correctly, and is increased by the uncertainty about the correctness of one?s judgment and the ambiguity of the stimulus situation (Turner, 34).

We always have a considerable amount of uncertainty about our decisions, and always look for conformation from a friend or an authority. The role of television at this point is its power of being the collection of all possible organs of conformation. It is the most trustworthy medium, because it combines both audio and video, and therefore it is also the medium that is closest to reality.

However, the influential power of television is not enough alone. The culture industries must also have a certain amount of information about the populace in order to formulate proper popular culture items. As Mosco puts it; “electronic communication and information systems (from ATMs to TV) make it possible to gather massive amount of information about the choices of different groups of people, so as to better manage and control group behavior (Roach, 46). Through this surveillance mechanism, and the technological power of the television itself, the culture industry is able to drag a considerable amount of the audience into the popular culture. However, our concern here will not be on a theoretical approach. Taking the above theories as the backgrounds of the later analysis, we will move towards an examination of the structural organization of media companies to form a connection with the political and economical system, and then we will take a look at the practices of popular culture production in order to reach concrete evidences on its role in controlling the public and maintaining the stability.

In 1961, president Eisenhower talked about an acquisition of unwarranted influence by what he called the “military- industrial complex”, and stated that measures had to be taken to guard against this “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” (Roach, 17). Colleen Roach makes an addition to this analysis, and underlines that since 1961, a new component has been added to the military- industrial complex; communication, and gives the following example: “In 1986, the intersection between communication, industry and the military became most apparent when General Electric (GE), one of the world?s major defense contractors, bought RCA and with it NBC” (Roach, 17). Lee and Solomon give supporting evidence about the integration of the media and the military- industry:

The boards of directors of the Big Three (CBS,ABC,NBC) are composed of executives, lawyers, financiers and former government officials who represent the biggest banks and corporations in the U.S., including military and nuclear contractors?There are numerous interlocks between the board of directors of the New York Times and the nuclear industry, which partially explains why it has been a fanatical supporter of nuclear weapons (Roach, 18).

Understanding the connection between the media and the military- industry gives us something more than its war promoting function, but shows its role in the decision making mechanism of culture industries. Their close tie with the heavy industry, and the connection of these industries to the political system draws a clear picture about what commercial channels can show, and what they want to show. Considering the fact that after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the pictures of the irradiated Japanese were not made available to the American public until 1980?s (Roach, 25), the picture becomes clearer, and the following example dramatically approves this.

In November 1983 the Americans had the chance to watch ABC?s The Day After, which was about the survival of a small number of Americans after an atomic blast. The film dramatically showed the dark side of the nuclear technology, and in 1982 a Canadian director, Terri Nash made a documentary called, If You Love This Planet, and won the Academy Award. In his work, he used the Japanese films about the effects of the atomic bomb. However, “as of 1987, the U.S. Justice Department requires registration of screenings and persons viewing the film which it classifies as political propaganda”, says O?Neill, and continues:

The difference between the two films is one that nuclear TV cannot stand, namely, that in one case we see the actual horror of a bomb dropped by Americans and that, in the other case, we see the fictional horror of a bomb imagined by Americans to have been dropped upon Americans by someone else. Thus TV is engaged in a retrospective political history on the nuclear front which parallels the current remaking of the Vietnam War and America?s re-humanization of military adventure (O?Neill, 190-91).

The difference between the two films is actually nothing more than the difference between the reality and the popular culture images. On the one hand we have the pictures of a real atomic disaster that has painfully become a part of the American culture, and on the other hand we have the images of a blast, but not in terms of its real-life dangers, rather as a picturesque mushroom cloud (Roach, 26). ABC, first brings the reality into a harmless visual level where a fear of a nuclear assault is evoked among the public. At this level the public unconsciously legitimize the armament, since it is now seen as a protection from a horrifying end. Therefore, the channel satisfies its partners in the military industry. On a second level, ABC performs an example of good citizenship by making the public aware of such a danger. This as a result lets the rise of a confidence for the government since it had allowed the citizens learn how bad nuclear weapons really are, so a possible protest against the state policy (which could happen if real pictures were shown) is prevented and social stability is maintained. Therefore, by putting a cloak over the reality, a popular and harmlessly visual image of nuclear war is created, right in the eve of the Reaganist Star Wars project. The process would probably be completed with the manufacturing of “Say No to Nukes” T-shirts by an ABC side company.

Our next example is about how a popular culture phenomenon can turn into a mania, and what the social consequences of this mania can be, even if not intended.

In November 1980, 70 million Americans had turned on their televisions to learn the murderer of J.R in the famous TV series Dallas. After the show, 150 TV stations 3500 professional and 2500 amateur radio stations announced the murderer in the news headlines and broadcasted commentaries about the issue. During this specific episode of the series, a one minute commercial was sold for 500 000 US dollars (Senyap?l?, 112). In the same day Istanbul Martial Law Headquarters announced that they had arrested the murderers of Prof. Cavit Orhan T?tengil, Prof. ?mit Do?anay and Kemal T?rkler. However, Oktay Ek?i, a journalist in the H?rriyet newspaper, reports that no phone calls were made to the newspaper in order to ask who the perpetrators of these political assassinations were, but underlines that they were tired of telling the readers that the murderer of J.R was Christine (Senyap?l?, 121).

Under the light of the above cases, two points must be made. Elihu Katz had argued in his “And Deliver Us from Segmentation” article that the existence of multiple commercial channels would lead to the atomization of the society. Due to a variety of profit oriented programs, the audience would be watching different programs at the same time, while in the case of a single public channel the opposite would occur, and a public sphere would be formed around the, say nine o?clock news (taking the example of the Israeli channel). However, considering the seventy million Americans getting united around the Dallas series, the problem takes a different phase. The commercial channel unites the society, but not with the principles of participatory democracy and political consciousness, rather with the principles created by the marketing executives. The public sphere transforms into an apolitical unity which functions for the consumerist ideals, more precisely for the popular culture. In the Turkish case the apolitical character of the new public sphere becomes clearer. The citizens isolate themselves from the sensitive political environment of the time, and they unite around a popular culture item; J.R.

On the other hand, according to John Fiske for the existence of popular culture there must be a widespread consumption, which is evident in our cases, and a widespread disapproval. This final point brings out a problematic issue. Can we really say that the seventy million Americans interpreted the message of the series in an opposing way by letting the power bloc benefit 500.000 dollars per minute form the commercials, and allowing hundreds of TV and thousands of radio stations exploit this popular culture item, which is ,for Fiske, the unique creation of the audience. However, Fiske would probably argue that the Turkish audience had managed to oppose the power bloc by keeping themselves out of the mainstream politics and creating a popular culture, but it is highly controversial to say that this act which takes the viewers away from reality, into an imagery world, is actually an anarchistic guerrilla activity of the audience organized to oppose the power bloc.

In 1992, a TV channel that was fully established on the purpose of entertainment, MTV, took a mission that was totally not expectable. The channel started two campaigns called “Chose or Loose”, and “Rock the Vote”, in order to increase the voting rate among the young generation. The result was highly positive; polls taken in late October showed that 75% of the 18 to 29 age group said that they would vote, compared to the 40% in 1988. In addition the votes were heavily in favor of Clinton who had accepted to present himself on MTV, unlike Bush (Edelstein, 110). Although the picture may look positive at first, with a deeper analysis it becomes dramatic. The only way of appealing to the young generation seems to be through a music channel, which is based on the creation and consumption of popular culture. The reality for them is the one that appears between Rock videos and designer jeans ads. The “in” thing to do is what Steven Tyler of Aerosmith does, so when he raises his hand and shouts; “Rock the Vote”, the mechanism is activated and the kids are popularly politicized. This impact of popular culture items on the young generation keeps them under the control of the culture industry (of course not completely). Their free thinking ability is almost limited with the mediated images that they receive from their idols, and the picture becomes more dramatic when we consider that under such circumstances the mechanism can well be activated in an opposite way, that is to keep them out of politics. When there is a propaganda (even a post-modern one like this), there is always the danger of a counter-propaganda that can turn the process into an inverse direction.

The Final Words

The culture industries have close ties with larger sectors of the capitalist economy. Moreover, they are directed with the principles of profit maximization, which makes them alone strong capitalistic “bastions”. Therefore, the continuity of the system is their main principle for survival. Motivated by these two facts they aim at creating a popular culture market, which serves both their economical goals and maintains the political stability. For this, they use methods of social influence and surveillance techniques, and in the end we have an apolitical, pop-public sphere in which the society is visually united around the principles of consumerist fetishism. Consequently, Marlboro smoking BMW riders with Che Guevara T-shirts, who secretly worship their cellular phones in commercial breaks, dominate our post-modern society.

O?Neill, John. Plato?s Cave: Desire, Power, and the Specular Functions of the Media. New Jersey: Ablex Publishing, 1991.

Roach, Colleen. Communication and Culture in War and Peace. Newburry Park: Sage Publications, 1993.

Senyap?l?, ?nder. Toplum ve ?leti?im. Ankara: Turhan Kitabevi, 1981.

Turner, John C. Social Influence. California: Brooks/ Cole Publishing, 1991.

Edelstein, Alex. Total Propaganda: From Mass Culture to Popular Culture. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.

Fowles, Jib. Advertising and Popular Culture. London: Sage Publications, 1996.

Stevenson, N. Understanding Media Cultures. Sage, 1995.

Katz, Elihu. And Deliver Us from Segmentation.

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