One of your correspondent’s favorite documentaries is Bill Moyers’ Consuming Images from 1989 on the media and the public mind. There was not much talk of the media in political science graduate school. Then the professors argued that the media simply pushed more information around faster, so there was not fundamental difference or impact on politics generally and American politics specifically.
Although the mainstream media has been impacting elections for decades—one only needs to consider The Candidate from 1972 to understand that people have been noting media impacts of politics for some time—the 2016 election indicates that something fundamental has changed. The Democrats are beyond upset, and President Obama has expelled Russian diplomats as he accuses them of “tampering” with the election.
However Moyers seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the media’s impacts, and he featured a range of insightful intellectuals including Neil Postman whose Entertaining Ourselves to Death is a must read. However I’d like to concentrate on Stuart Ewen, a New York-based author, historian and lecturer on media, consumer culture, and the compliance profession. He is also a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, in the departments of History, Sociology and Media Studies. Ewen is everything a New York intellectual should be and usually is not, which is to say provocative, articulate, and insightful. I am going to comment on each of Ewen’s quotes inConsuming Images because they were so important to me at that time I first heard them and the appear to stand up over time.
I think one of the things that people do when they create images around them is that they’re ascribing meaning to their existence. I think what happens within our culture is that those images that we produce for ourselves, insofar as we do that, their validity is almost always dependent upon their ability to be transformed into merchandise. In the process, of course, the meaning which may have driven us to create that image is lost.
Your correspondent studied the politics of the environment because it seemed protecting the earth, our island home, was the most important task, but Tocqueville noted:
It would frequently be easier to interest [Americans] in the punctilios of court etiquette than in the repairs of their common dwelling.
That is, people are easily distracted away from what’s truly important, especially in matters of status, elites, and hierarchy. Part of the American genius has been to redirect such impulses in the direction of commerce, though this redirection—some would call it social engineering—has not been without cost. And this cost has come at the conflation of connecting with, participating in, and protection of our common environment. Instead the images of media merchandise generally and advertising specifically evoke a consumerist society replete with acquisitiveness and solipsism. But more than images being transmuted into merchandise, such images are given preference and over time tend to dominate the marketplace of ideas. So while society creates images, it is also shaped by those images to the extent that they form a merchandise world of their own that crowds out the features that traditionally comprised the public space. And to the extent that images ascribe meaning to our existence, that means that merchandise ascribes meaning as well. Finally, the images as they transmute into merchandise change in ways that cannot be predicted, controlled, or considered helpful.