Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 2, No. 2, 1989
Performance Theory Australia
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Tom O'Regan

Puritanic rationalism:
John Berger's Ways of Seeing and media and culture studies

Jan Bruck & John Docker

In the postwar rise of mass media studies few texts in Britain and Australia proved more useful for a fledgling teaching area struggling to find its feet than John Berger's BBC TV series Ways of Seeing (1972). It was accompanied by The Book, which also proved influential, but it was the film that was most handy in providing visual material. The grateful teacher could set it up, dim the lights, warn the students to take notes and not just sit there enjoying themselves or falling asleep in the dark, and let it roll. Ways of Seeing quickly became useful, indispensable, institutional, canonical. Each new intake of students could be introduced to its sharp insights into, its range of perspectives on, modem mass culture.

Usually in mass media analyses - as in literary studies - it is not august critical texts but the 'primary' texts of film or TV or advertising that are deconstructed, unravelled, dismembered, their every signifying corner exposed to the harsh light of scrutiny. In this essay we propose to place Ways of Seeing itself under the microscope, to see why it might have been so mesmeric, so seductive for the new discipline. For looking at it now, in the later eighties, we and our students find it odd rather than compelling, doctrinaire rather. than enlightening. Without denying the historical significance of Berger's work, his contribution to cultural studies, we feel it is time for a critical look.

What insights can Ways of Seeing give us into the formative cultural theory of media studies? What theoretical developments since make it look dated? But first we should remind ourselves of how our chosen text constructed itself, and ask not only what were its narrative and presentational modes, its play of discourses, its contexts, but also what cultural theories it interacted with and what sociological position it has within the history of cultural studies. We should make it clear that we are analyzing Part IV of Ways of Seeing, on advertising, the program most frequently used in media studies courses.

This Is the BBC

In terms of genre, the way it organises its conventions, Ways of Seeing presents itself to its audience as only a BBC documentary can. Straight after the title, a BBC-talking-head appears, a teacher, John Berger himself. Of utmost importance today, we learn, is what to think of the multiplicity of advertising images that surround us, on walls, on screens, in magazines, images of an alternative way of life, images which enter into our minds and dreams. As the camera slowly and heavily introduces us to the look of the 'contemporary world', the world of the 1970s, two more discourses of authority declare their presence. A voice-over will tell us what to think about what we're going to see, along with music which will interweave with the voiceover in guiding us.

We will proceed by history. Let us ponder on the similarities and differences between new and old, between modern advertising imagery and the high bourgeois oil painting of previous centuries. Here are some comparative images, women in oil paintings, women in advertising. It's clear that the equivalent of the model in colour photography is the idealised nymph or goddess of old. More generally in these oil paintings we can see inscribed a celebration by the bourgeois owner of his possessions, his household of women, children, servants, his house, land, and animals. In these paintings a key idea is that you are what you have, but the exploitation which supports his wealth is repressed and hidden from view.

Modern advertising imagery suggests a Western culture based not on what you possess but on the dreams associated with what you buy. There is a new element in the modern world that is not present in the graceful, elegant culture of those who had lived in the large country houses and enjoyed the classical oil paintings: glamour, which, Berger declares, is the state of being envied. In pre-modern society it was apparently useless to envy others because all social places were fixed, ascribed from birth.

Modern society, however, says our narrator, has achieved a certain degree of democracy, so that everyone potentially can attain wealth, though only a few, mainly pop, screen, and sport superstars, actually achieve high glamorous status. Advertising and publicity play upon fear and anxiety, the fear and anxiety of not being desirable, not being enviable. In the actual monotony of modern people's lives, advertising and publicity seize upon what might lie ahead: the passivity of the present is replaced by the activity of an imaginary future. They promise that if you buy various products then, magically, you will be transformed, you will enjoy the good life, of sophistication, maturity, abundance, conviviality, friendship, virility, attractiveness, sexuality, romance, love. And just as in the era of the oil painting, what is hidden in such images is labour, the relentless repetitive factory work that goes into making glamorous products. This work is mostly done by women, exploited for their hard labour just as they are exploited as objects in the advertisements we are forced to see.

There's another element that is historically new, the sheer multiplicity and heterogeneity of images everywhere, from magazines to hoardings: everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. Such heterogeneity has disastrous consequences if we hold out any hope of the world being a rational place. Here the narrator is at his most passionate. What are we to think of images of Third World revolution being used to sell useless products in the West? What are we to think when we open up our Sunday Times Magazine to see ads for expensive drinks immediately alongside photos of refugees who have fled East Pakistan? In juxtaposing dreams of luxury with faces of misery and despair, in emptying out any meaning revolution has for oppressed Third World peoples, in denying the reality of poverty and exploitation, the heterogeneity of the Western publicity machine is making the world disconnected, incoherent, obscene. It is making reality itself unrecognisable. Between such images there is, says the narrator, "such a fissure, such a disconnection, such incoherence that one can only say this culture is mad". We are faced with contrasts that are "incomprehensible".

The only hope might be if those with a world political view, those few who resolutely resist the magic of advertising imagery, at least understand what is happening and try to do something about it before society is engulfed: before it is too late, before the distinctions, of time and space, poverty and plenty, revolution and oppression, the local and the exotic, far and near, are rendered meaningless.

That, in general, is what we learn from Ways of Seeing's lessons in art history.

A Cultural Theory for Our Era

We can now ask why Ways of Seeing might have been so attractive for teachers of media studies. For one thing, Ways of Seeing was a Marxist reply to another TV series, Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, which studiously avoided economic, social, and ideological aspects of art, so that art history emerged as a narrative of isolated men of genius. I For another, Berger was not formally dressed, sitting in an office with rows of books, of unassailable Knowledge, behind him. He wasn't wearing a tie, and he was out in the street where it was all happening. Ways of Seeing - could be seen as iconoclastic. For yet another, it broke with a tradition of cultural theory, descended from the modernists of the twenties and thirties, from Eliot, Pound, Q.D. Leavis, F.R. Leavis, which opposed the finer cultures of the past to modern mass civilisation, the 'American' mass culture of Hollywood, advertising, cheap novels, jazz, funfairs and all the rest. In linking modern advertising culture with the oil painting tradition, Ways of Seeing was suggesting that there was no superior past to comfort ourselves with; nor was the modern scourge of the mass media simply an invasion of 'Americanisation', for the English advertising industry participated in it just as freely.

In so far as modernism's grand nostalgia and its sense of English and European cultural superiority was diffused amongst the BBC's middleclass viewers, Ways of Seeing was a controversial intervention. It also spoke for the radical critics so important in the development of media studies. Like Barthes in Mythologies, Ways of Seeing was taking the mass media seriously, arguing that mass culture was too important to ignore, that through it we could explore the consciousness, or more likely, the unconsciousness of the masses out there who responded to it. And that was a major clue to the state of the modern world.

Ways of Seeing did not, however, break entirely with the high modernists. It shared with them the sense that society is in a state of crisis. And it adopted one of the key structuring attitudes of modernism, the attitude, as Andreas Huyssen has evoked it, that mass culture is modernism's other, the spectre that haunts it, the threat against which high art has to shore up its terrain. Huyssen argues that we should see the modernist aesthetic, so prominent this century in literature, music, architecture, the visual arts, so influential in cultural criticism and theory, as a reaction formation. The modernist aesthetic defines itself by its opposition not only to bourgeois culture, but to the mass culture and entertainment which it sees not as a manifestation of the culture of the lower classes themselves but as the primary forms of bourgeois cultural articulation: the "essential enemy", the "bourgeois norm", as Barthes says in the 1970 preface to Mythologies. The modernist aesthetic must work by permanent contrast, it must never be contaminated by mass culture, nor should it be realist, that is, try and reflect everyday life. It must be self-referential, separate, pure.

Huyssen argues that the modernist text is a result of resistance, abstention, and suppression, resistance to the lure of mass culture, abstention from the pleasure of trying to please a larger audience, suppression of everything that might be threatening to the rigorous demands of being modern and at the edge of time. It's only since the 1960s that modernism's great divide, its primary binary opposition of mass culture and an authentic, autonomous aesthetic, has been challenged by postmodernism and its blurring of boundaries between high art and mass culture. 2

Ways of Seeing also shares with modernism the assumption that the cultural intellectual, high above the ruck of everyday life and mass culture, can speak with unassailable sweep and vision about and on behalf of the plight of civilisation and humanity: in this opposition, the cultural intellectual is the other to humanity's blindness and unconsciousness. The modernist cultural intellectual can comprehend the movements of civilisation, history, and time, and can perceive the alternatives required - a claim to authority and totality that postmodernism is currently challenging.

Some Tropes

We can now see how easily Ways of Seeing intermeshes with the major movements in cultural theory that have been influenced by modernism. One example is the critical theory of the Frankfurt school, particularly in Adorno and Horkheimer's writings. Another is Screen theory - the most prominent school in 1970s English media studies.

The tropes of Screen theory are familiar. It began with the assumption that modern mass culture was descended not, as might be expected, from the 'lower genres' (popular narratives; carnivalesque; the popular theatre of clowning, melodrama, pantomime, burlesque, music hall; broadsides and ballads; the long history of comics), but, by an as yet unexplained historical process, from the high bourgeois novel. This was the classic realist text, which denied self-reflexivity and pretended to be a window onto the real. The mass readers/spectators of the realist text, because of psychoanalytic processes beyond their flimsy conscious control, misrecognised themselves as free subjects when really they were subject to the dominant discourses of capitalist society inscribed in the text. The narrative pleasure of such texts bound the readers/spectators into this illusion and this domination. The more they enjoyed something the more trapped they were.

The duty of a radical cultural politics was clear. A dedicated minority had to try and destroy, in media studies courses and in alternative aesthetic practice, the classic realist text, past, present, and forever. In its place it would create a radical screen art (film, video) which, by drawing attention to its own making and by dislocating narrative, would force readers/ spectators to be less mesmerised, less carried away by the story and the characters, by illusory spectacle. They would then be capable of another kind of response, detached rational contemplation. They would be disturbed by the self-reflexive text into thought, into consciousness itself, a consciousness that, in an ascetic way, is apparently incompatible with pleasure. This is the only response allowed by what became a dominating discourse in the entwined Frankfurt school/Screen theory media studies orthodoxies - puritanic rationalism. 3

Listen to the Music

In Ways of Seeing it is fascinating to observe the encounter between its music and what the narrator gloomily refers to as "the pleasures" of photo advertising. As we are shown photo ads of people (stimulated by some product) enjoying themselves drinking, loving, and so on, the music becomes almost 'medieval' in its suggestions of the monkish, the monastic. As the camera passes over, and then returns and passes over again, a model's breast (in that golden colour advertising lends to the body), as if daring itself before temptation, the music maintains its monkish tone. The music says, listen, look, my rational control, and so my ability to stay detached and deconstruct this advertisement and the ideological work it is doing, is, under the most extreme provocation known to man, holding. So can yours.

Next fascinating example. As we are shown the advertising photograph of an Arab desert, with huddled nomads sitting together, the desert itself exotic and dangerous, with death in the shape of an animal's skull in a drift of sand, we see European models standing next to the nomads wearing only underwear. The humour of this is not going to seduce the music. It plays over the scene with its slightly absurd solemn monastic tones.

In Ways of Seeing, then, an almost bizarre conflict is played out before our eyes and ears between the music - gloomy, foreboding, threatening, fretting, trying for an almost clinical detachment - and the careless hedonism, erotic excess, fantastic juxtapositions, humour, jokes and gags of the ads. The music is a discourse of certainty - detached rational contemplation is the only way, the only way, the only way - determined to master the hedonism of mass culture. In Mikhail Bakhtin's terms, the music is a monologic discourse, trying to suppress doubt and difference, trying to prevent other discourses being permitted within the beleaguered walls of the proper perspective.

And other possible perspectives there certainly are. Benjamin and Brecht in the thirties argued that because spectators are enjoying a film or play doesn't prevent them from thinking: pleasure and reason are not necessarily enemies. Theorists of popular culture in early modern Europe argue that popular audiences of Shakespearean theatre revealed "multiconsciousness": that in responding to tragedy and comedy, pathos and irony, intensity and parody, such audiences were not choosing the either/or of rationalism, either you think or you feel, either you stay detached or you succumb to emotion. They were doing both simultaneously.

Other theorists feel that nineteenth-century music hall continues this tradition. In its mixing of seriousness and almost simultaneous parody involving people and detaching them at the same time - music hall culture also confidently invited popular audiences to reveal "multiconsciousness". 4 Surely twentieth-century popular culture, having (we might expect) inherited popular traditions, also invites its spectators to enjoy such a quality of consciousness?

Yet this kind of thinking would question a key thesis of puritanic rationalism - we cannot both reason and enjoy, since enjoyment is assumed to be a property of the senses, is instinctive and primitive. In Ways of Seeing the voice-over and the music do everything they can to warn us against a non-rationalist mode of response. Do they succeed?

The Poetics of Excess

Some contemporary responses to the program provide clues. Narrator Berger tells his viewers at the end to judge on what they've seen from their own experience, as if he is breaking from usual BBC documentary conventions where the voice-over, bespeaking the authority of class and education, is highly directive. Yet students today respond to the film as if its pedagogical mode of address is so directive that it's almost quaint. It's risible. They're amused by the contrast of the music and the eroticism and humour of many of the ads shown and condemned. They comment at the end of our august text that it's a bit bleak, so solemn, no sense of humour, dead dismal. They're not impressed, not convinced, indeed, they show themselves to be highly resistant readers.

Indeed in Ways of Seeing hedonism fights back. The hedonism of the ads does not succumb to the music and voice-over: it stands up to their puritanic rationalism, even mocks and parodies it. Advertising will do anything to draw attention to products. It will incorporate pleasure, particularly the sensuous and erotic, humour, intertextuality, self-reflexivity, contrasts and juxtapositions. In this sense advertising draws on the 'poetics of excess' of much popular dramaturgy, the way performance is frequently carried to such an extreme that it hovers near, or begins to, parody itself. We could think of a long line of performers, from music hall (George Leybourne, Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd) to modern mass culture (Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Madonna). Monroe might be a fascinating cultural figure for many reasons, but one of them could be the quality so consciously developed further by Madonna: in embodying a particular ideal of femininity in such an extreme way, Monroe as a screen presence is at the same time inviting parody of femininity, inviting detached reflection on it. In taking conventionality to its excess she relativises it. The poetics of excess draws on philosophical aspects of 'carnivalesque', the questioning through laughter and parody and self-parody of all claims to absolute truth and value, including its own.

Let's return to the Oriental ad we've been shown in Ways of Seeing. We can now offer a very different reading to that of the narrator. The photo of Western models in underclothes in the desert sun takes fashion to an extreme, and so calls attention to the crazy lengths advertising will go to to draw attention to itself. It highlights how much these women's bodies are being used for a slightly crazy Western luxury. It suggests Western life is possibly a bit insane compared to the simpler (in terms of material possessions) life of the nomads. Further, it questions one of the major dominative discourses of the last couple of centuries, Orientalism. We see the Arab nomads in Orientalist terms, as unbridgeably alien, exotic, other, their lives associated with the elemental, with danger and death. But in the crazy excess of the photo it is the nomads who suddenly appear sensible and the Western models and Western luxury which appear 'other', strange, slightly lunatic. The unabashed humour of the photo permits all these possibilities - of Orientalism and anti-Orientalism, of Western luxury and Western insanity, of European female figures defiantly posing in the burning sun and the crazy misuse of their bodies to make an ad in such conditions - to jostle together, unresolved. We might say that the complex semiology of the photo resists, indeed laughingly shrugs off, the monologic of the voiceover and music.

The Plight of the Bourgeois Public Sphere

What the narrator most passionately can't stand in advertising, we've noticed, is its profligate heterogeneity, its fantastic juxtapositions. As the talking head, the voice over, and the music see it, the Oriental ad, for example, in its unfeeling juxtaposition of Eastern poverty and Western fashion, renders meaningless deprivation and difference. Our thinking about them is immediately wiped out by Western hedonism and luxury.

The assumption of puritanic rationalism here - the world is only comprehensible if we proceed by one discourse at a time, one mode (thinking or feeling) at a time, heterogeneity destroys reflection - goes back deep in the history of the Enlightenment and the formation of the bourgeois public sphere'. In their The Poetics and Politics of Transgression Stallybrass and White (drawing on Bakhtin) argue that the triumph of this sphere has had severe historical costs. Against the presumptions of rank, the new professional classes, from the seventeenth century on, carved out a democratic, or potentially democratic, sphere of rational discussion, of reasoned disagreement, conducted in an atmosphere of politeness, refinement, decorum, restraint. But this sphere was also carved out in opposition to the sphere of carnivalesque popular culture, with its festive pleasures and its enjoyment of, in Bakhtin's term, 'grotesque realism'. Henceforth, the rationalism of the 'bourgeois public sphere' would leave its practitioners without the cultural capital to appreciate, enjoy, understand, and 'read' carnivalesque popular culture, pre-modern and modern, a culture it had thrown off as inimical to reason. 5

For Bakhtin, carnivalesque was not 'irrational'. With its masks and monsters and feasts and games and dramas and processions, it was many things at once. It was festive pleasure, the world turned topsy-turvy, destruction and creation; it was a theory of time and history and destiny; it was utopia, cosmology, philosophy. The very pleasures of carnival were at the same time philosophical modes. The extravagant juxtapositions, the grotesque mixing and confrontations of high and low, upper-class and lower-class, spiritual and material, young and old, male and female, daily identity and festive mask, serious conventions and their parodies, gloomy medieval eschatological time and joyous utopian vision - all this crazy heterogeneity precisely permits thinking about difference.

In similar terms we can argue that the crazy heterogeneity and grotesque juxtapositions that the narrator in Ways of Seeing thinks are "mad", precisely invite reflection about First and Third World differences. Rather than differences being submerged and lost they can be foregrounded and highlighted; they can confront one another. It may well be that the middle-class readers of the Sunday Times Magazine can't find it within themselves to take up this invitation and mode of reflection. But that is a state they share with Ways of Seeing's narrator.

We can, now, turn our narrator's words around. It is not the heterogeneity of the mass media which is "mad" . Rather, his training in the 'bourgeois public sphere' - which trains Marxists and non-Marxists, readers of Capital and of the Sunday Times Magazine, alike - has left him "mad" in his literalmindedness. How quaint and absurd does the narrator of Ways of Seeing now appear as he stands there, symbolic figure of puritanic rationalism, amidst the heterogeneous excess that jostles all around him. The educator needs educating, yet he appears totally confident, from within his puritanic rationalist discourse, of guiding and enlightening.

We can see a similar restricted vision in a prominent American media studies text, Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman argues that because television is a primarily visual medium which speaks to us predominantly through images that merely reflect the world without analyzing it, we cannot understand complex relations and events, particularly economic and political constellations. The ever changing sequence of images does not allow the viewer time for critical reflection, but condemns mass audiences to instinctive rather than intelligent reception. Through television we can know the faces of politicians, but not their arguments, ideas and programs. Television is displacing literate discourse which alone can produce argument and critical analysis. In Postman's negative epistemology of mass culture, there is an unbridgeable gulf between print and the audio-visual, between the sacred book and the devilish medium of television. Writing and reading are the discourse of rationality. Watching television, however, is a purely passive activity, it merely stimulates the visual and aural senses, not the thinking mind. It generates pleasure, not understanding. And since the masses are the prime consumers of television, their contentment only proves that it suits and satisfies their primitive instinctual way of understanding, or rather not understanding, the world. 6

Postman does not call for alternative screen forms, but clings to the superiority of pre-modern print media. His simple binary opposition of print and television is highly questionable. Television is obviously not a purely visual medium, it works as much through verbal discourse and through music and sound effects. What is seen, spoken and heard often imply complex semiological relations, of interaction, counterpoint, contrast, irony, parody. Amusing Ourselves to Death appeals to and speaks for the print-trained in our society, those who have never felt comfortable with the rise of the electronic media, and who continue to feel that the print medium in which they excel and by which they are socially advantaged should dominate the production of knowledge. The visual is dismissed as but a pretender. The print-trained cannot see that the visual is rich in meaning, is polysemy, that it has the power of condensation, shock, memorability, ambiguity, subtlety, and that its ambiguity and complexity invite from its viewers divergent readings and interpretations. They would like a return to a past 'public sphere' where ease and familiarity in the forms of literate discourse ensured intellectual centrality and authority. They feel displaced, threatened, and aggrieved: if only history could be rolled back, if only the electronic media and particularly popular television would disappear, or be made to disappear.

The Idolatrous Gullible Masses

A major assumption in Ways of Seeing is that the mass of people believe the dreams associated with ads, the whole advertising culture. When they see an ad, they automatically believe its magic, that the good life will follow buying the advertised product or service. All you therefore have to do is an immanent analysis of a text, since what that text desires of its audience it gets. We don't need a sociology of reception, we don't need ethnographic research into how particular groups of people (divided by class, education, cultural capital, subculture, ethnicity, ag, gender, region, country, continents) respond to texts. Such research might show that some people enjoy ads without believing their magical promises, that other people might dislike them, that children enjoy them and also hugely enjoy parodying them, that others might resist them as our students resisted the pedagogical discourses of Ways of Seeing.

No, you can read off from the texts themselves all you want to know about the state of mass culture and its audiences. In Ways of Seeing advertising has the place that film will have in Screen theory: its seductive visual glamour apparently mesmerises whole populations, at all times in the same way. You don't need sociology and ethnography. All you need is a universal psychoanalytic theory of a mass 'subject'.

Close here is the image of the mass spectator as automaton, a key trope in Adorno and Horkheimer's culture industry essay in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Close too is another image: the media as a kind of beady-eyed snake, that locks the mass spectator into its hypnotic gaze, and leads her/ him to death of the mind, incapable any longer of reason, incapable of distinguishing between image and reality. 7 Such mass spectators have become part - another trope that is near - of a great army of the walking (or perhaps sitting) dead. We can think here of nineteenth- and twentieth century discourses of the modern city as inhabited by ghostly denizens ( "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many"). We can also think of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, where the underground mass of workers suffer from deprivation and ceaseless repetitive work: the horror of industrialism. Now we see everywhere a mass of consumers, allowed above ground, who are blinded by a ceaseless surfeit of media images and hollow pleasures: the horror of the postindustrial, postmodern world.

This trope of the mass as idolatrous - an ancient idea, which gained impetus during the Enlightenment with its notion of a reasoning and enlightened elite [8] - is a powerful shaping presence in media studies. It's clear in the Frankfurt school, in Ways of Seeing, in Screen theory, in Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. It's clear also in major early texts of structuralism, as in Barthes' Mythologies and Eco's writings on James Bond. In "The World of Wrestling" Barthes gives us an interesting account of the dramaturgy of wrestling as spectacle not sport, tracing its cultural history in popular theatre, commedia dell'arte, pantomime, Moliere. With each wrestler a character representing a grandiloquent sign, of the bastard, the traitor, the passive, the arrogant, the conceited, the effeminate, wrestling is a drama of Justice, of Good and Evil. For Barthes, this is ultimately reprehensible. Wrestling presents an understanding of the moral universe that is without ambiguity, without contradiction. And this is what the public wants, and has always wanted, as in Spectacle and Religious Worship in general in history. Not everyone, however, is taken in. While the public is simple in its understanding, intellectuals with semiotic reading skills can entertain contradiction, ambiguity, multivocality. (We might wonder about this, however, when we read the essay on "Toys" in Mythologies and find Barthes drawing a remarkably simple, almost Manichean distinction between pre-industrial craft wooden toys as ideally good, of the softness and warmth of the earth, and plastic toys as wholly evil, as metallic, cold, and destructive of all imagination.)

Eco, in an essay on Fleming's Bond novels, also gives us an account of binary oppositions, of couplets of good and evil. He then concludes, much as Barthes had done, that such a dichotomous mode of thought and its attendant narrative structures are typical of escapist entertainment. For Eco, as for Barthes, such simple oppositions are the creation of popular demand itself, the fault of the masses in history. Fleming's tales, with their clear dichotomies and use of stock figures, are at one with fairy-tales and myths through the ages, for the popular demand has ever been for a simple Manichean ideology, an intolerant contrast of good and evil, without surprise, nuance, subtlety, or contradiction, a "static inherent conservatism". "Democratic" writing, the preserve of those who refuse to give in to the tyranny of "popular demand", is, by contrast, that which entertains nuance, contradiction, distinctions.

It is the distinction between the mass as idolatrous and intellectuals as the only group of people capable of ambiguity and ambivalence that is Manichean, the opposition between two simple rounded signs, Good and Evil, Us and Them. 9

TV Advertising

This simple Manichean opposition also surges forward in an otherwise illuminating essay by Martin Esslin on the TV commercial as drama. 10 In "Aristotle and the Advertisers" Esslin argues that the bulk of drama today is to be found not on the stage but in the mass media, in film, TV, and radio. Among these the TV ad might be the most significant. For it too is a form of drama, indeed it obeys the classical rules. It has, characteristically, a three-beat structure. At the beginning a problem is posed, suggesting disaster, even tragedy. Then a wise friend or confidant offers a solution, culminating in a moment of insight, of conversion, the turning point of the action. The third beat shows the happy solution to what was a potentially tragic situation, usually accompanied by a visual revelation of the product's symbol, container, trademark, or logo. This mini-drama, of tragedy averted, containing quick subtle characterisation and a musical accompaniment that rises to a triumphant coda at the conclusion to the action, all happens within less than a minute. It is a triumph of drama at its most compressed, most pure.

Esslin argues that because the TV commercial is so powerful as drama its impact is subliminal. It activates powerful subconscious drives and deep animal magnetisms which dominate the lives of men and women. Further, the TV ad often involves authority figures drawn from the mass media world, a Bob Hope, John Wayne, John Travolta, Farrah Fawcett-Majors. These great figures are the demigods and mythical heroes of our society, they are Hercules, Ulysses, Dionysos, Aphrodite, they confer the blessings of their archetypal fictional personality image upon the products they endorse and hence upon humanity in general. The TV ad, then, is a species of ritual-drama, a form of religion, a mode of worship. The subconscious minds of the mass dance around the advertised products like around the golden calf of old. The miraculous products which keep averting tragedy and disaster are animating spirits, and the religion is hence a primitive kind of polytheism, closely akin to animistic and fetishistic beliefs.

This is the religion the masses actually live by, whatever their formal beliefs, this is the religion our children absorb almost from the day of their birth. This is the basic, pre-print tribal condition of the masses, now made global (McLuhan is cited here) by the folk-drama of the electronic media. The vast majority of humanity, even after the introduction of universal education and literacy, has remained on a "fairly primitive level of intellectual development".

It is wrong to blame the dramaturgy and values of the TV ad on the advertising industry; the "TV commercial universe" is the outcrop of the fantasies and beliefs of the masses themselves. It's all their fault. They are simple. They live at an unconscious level. They are oafishly idolatrous, superstitious, credulous. They are wide-eyed believers in spirits and miracles. They are not only incapable of scepticism, distance, doubt, criticism, but are also without any cultural traditions of their own, such as parody, that might foster scepticism and independence of thought and attitude.

Mass Culture as Female

We can also locate Ways of Seeing in another interesting paradigm. Recall the struggle between the music, 'medieval', monastic - masculine - and the sirens of advertising, particularly that remarkable moment when the camera passes over, and then returns and passes over again, a model's breast as if daring itself before temptation. At first sight it appears odd indeed, in a text concerned to be so pro-feminist, that such music calls on such an anti-female discourse - the female as temptress of the irrational, the carnal, the sensual, that which destroys the tranquillity necessary for contemplation. It seems a little odd in general that, given the massive diversity of mass culture, Ways of Seeing should pursue its particular focus on the nude and near-nude in advertising, as if it is fascinated despite itself. But there might be an explanation.

In Huyssen's view, not only did modernism position mass culture as its other, but that other was female, a perception that developed apace in the late nineteenth century. Mass culture - the realm of pulp, of romances, serialised feuilleton novels, popular and family magazines, the stuff of lending libraries, fictional bestsellers, and the like - was frivolous, dissipating, trivial. It offered mere inconsequential pleasure. It appealed to the senses, not mind and knowledge. It meant you consumed, you didn't produce. You were passive, not active. It was a morass into which you sank, your reason never heard of again. Modernist art, however, opposing itself to the easy seductions of the despised feminine cultural realm, would strive to be everything that was the reverse, separate, hard, ironic, discriminating, controlled, rigorous, rational. Huyssen argues that in this way - in its insistence on male superiority, instrumental rationality, teleological progress in the development of the authentic art work, fortified ego boundaries, discipline, self-control - modernism subliminally shared characteristics with its supposed adversary, bourgeois society and modernisation. But this paradigm has, Huyssen suggests, been challenged in recent times by feminism and by the postmodernist valorising of the 10w', of 'feminine' forms, of whimsy and pleasure, and of collage and pastiche rather than rigorous rationality.

Andrew Ross sees in American mass culture debates a persistent rhetoric of sexual seduction. There's Phillip Rahv arguing in 1952 that "if under present conditions we cannot stop the ruthless expansion of mass-culture, the least we can do is to keep apart and refuse its favours". Paul Lazarfeld and Robert Merton saw the masses as betrayed by the feminised mass culture laid out before them. They liken the masses to a young man so deeply smitten by the charms of his (inconstant and treacherous) lady love that he spends his every hour with such as she; consequently instead of young mass man going to Columbia University he spends all his time with the Columbia Broadcasting System. 11

Then there's Baudrillard, waiting to top off the argument. As Meaghan Morris points out, 12 Baudrillard's evocations of mass culture groan aloud with metaphors of an harassed sexuality. Only Irony, Discrimination and Theory might yet resist the lure of the screen: those good old masculine forces. Baudrillard's "The Ecstasy of Communication" is an explicit science fiction play of images of a post-cataclysmic world. 13 Whereas in most science fiction, however, the disaster is nuclear war, for Baudrillard it is communication. Before modern communications invaded every home, the public/private distinction had meaning, as did the very mode of making distinctions and noticing oppositions, the preconditions of thought. That's when there were oppositions; when there used to be spatial distance between you and the world; when domestic life was private, your body was private, you could have dreams, fantasy, inner life, metaphysics; when there also used to be meaningful public spaces, the street, the monument, the market, theatres of the social and political. But now the TV screen and the radio are in your house, your room, and you are just a terminal to receive their circuits of communication. Instead of distance and separation, you and your body are now part of the "universe of communication", of connections, contact, contiguity, feedback and interface.

Television in particular now regulates everything, your work in the home as well as your consumption, play, social relations and leisure. The simple presence of the television screen changes the rest of the home into a kind of archaic envelope, a vestige of human relations whose very survival remains perplexing. Our body, now controlled by electronic commands, becomes useless, deserted and condemned, superfluous. Everything is now concentrated in the receiving brain, which becomes the chief organ: fans of Dr Who might think here of the evil scientist who invented the Daleks, he of the wasted tiny body and the huge head. And if you leave your home and venture outside to the countryside, you find it too is now a deserted body, because all events occur in the towns, themselves reduced to a few miniaturised highlights - the forlorn and wasted landscape of a hundred science fiction post-cataclysmic visions. The modem public space, says Baudrillard, has become like a "large soft body with many heads".

We now live in an ecstasy of communication, an ecstasy that is "obscene" - a word almost hysterically repeated throughout this dystopian essay because everything, private and public, is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication. In the pornography of communication, nothing is secret or invisible any more. The flow of useless arbitrary information is excessive, like the sexual close-up in a porno film. There is now also a new sexuality. The hot, sexual obscenity and passion of former times, says Baudrillard, has been succeeded by the cold obscenity of today's contactual communication. The promiscuity that now reigns over the communication networks is not one of an older carnal, visceral promiscuity and depth of repression, but of a superficial saturation, an incessant solicitation.

As you fall into this media saturation, you succumb to fascination, delirium, vertigo, a vertigo that is lunar cold. We now suffer the "injection of all exteriority", indeed we have become new kinds of schizophrenics for a new age, and feel the schizophrenic's terror: "too great a proximity of everything, the unclean promiscuity of everything which touches, invests and penetrates without resistance"; the terror of being "open to everything in spite of himself"; the terror of no defence, no retreat, complete passivity, a screen traversed by networks, without obstacle.

Mass culture for Baudrillard - television, advertising, radio - is a succubus invading terrified Postmodern Man.


As we near the nineties, media studies exhibits no clear dominant approaches. The older orthodoxy - a discursive formation composed of shifting combinations of modernism, rationalism, structuralism, formalism, elitism - is wearing badly. Screen theory in particular is tottering, eroded by a fantastic cultural history (deriving modern popular culture from Middlemarch) and by clear evidence that mass culture is now, as it always has been, saturated with self-parody and self-reflexivity, ambiguity and ambivalence, polyphony and heteroglossia. If you've seen the American TV series, Moonlighting, mixing comedy and detective drama, romance and parody of romance, and suddenly hear main character David Addison say during one crazy moment, "Who says we don't have good plots?" you're likely to think a major plank of Screen theory has fallen through the floor.

Ways of Seeing has always supported 'left pessimism' in media theory, and now gives assistance to the puritanic rationalist critiques of a 'postmodern' world. Other kinds of postmodernism, however, those stressing the mixing of 'high' and 'low' genres and the pleasure of heterogeneity and juxtaposition in collage and pastiche, might not be so sympathetic to Ways of Seeing's narrow rationalism. Nor, perhaps, would poststructuralists be very happy with the denial of ambiguity and ambivalence, of multiplicity of values and meanings, in Ways of Seeing's perceptions of past and contemporary art. The formalist assumption in Ways of Seeing that we can read off the minds and hearts, indeed the very unconscious, of readers/ spectators/audiences from texts alone is sharply questioned in ethnographic studies: we only have to think of Dorothy Hobson's Crossroads or Janice Radway's Reading the Romance. Given such studies, the lack of ethnography in Ways of Seeing, the lack of interest in allowing the supposed victims of advertising and consumerism to speak for themselves, is spectacular. And Ways of Seeing is clearly pre-Bakhtin in its image, drawn from oil painting, of past European society as stable and unified in values, whereas Bakhtin has made contemporary theory very much aware how much popular culture in early modern Europe involved flourishing traditions of carnivalesque that mocked those in authority and parodied official ideas of society, history, destiny, fate, as unalterable. 14


1 . Peter Fuller, Seeing Berger: A Revaluation of Ways of Seeing (London: Writers and Readers, 1980) pp.2-3,23. See, however, Fuller's revaluation of Kenneth Clark in "The Value of Art", New Society, 29 January 1988, where he argues that Clark did not ignore the harsh social and economic contexts of classical painting. Fuller then calls for a return, in these unpropitious times, to the values espoused by Clark: the good, the true, and the beautiful.

2. Andreas Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other", in Tania Modleski, ed. Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986). See also Huyssen, After the Great Divide (London: Macmillan, 1988) ch.10.

3. See John Docker, "In Defence of Popular TV", Continuum, V. 1, N.2., 1988.

4. S.L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (Durham: Duke University Press, 1944); Peter Davison, Contemporary Drama and the Popular Dramatic Tradition in England (London: Macmillan, 1982). See also Peter Bailey, "Champagne Charlie: Performance and Ideology in the Music Hall Swell Song", in J.S. Bratton ed. Music Hall: Performance and Style (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986).

5. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986).

6. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (London: Methuen, 1987).

7. Cf. Lorraine Mortimer, "Godard and Reflexivity ...ivity...ivity", Arena 60,1982, p.99.

8. Martin Bernal, Black Athena, The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (London: Free Association Books, 1987) pp.l74-77.

9. Umberto Eco, "The Narrative Structure in Fleming" in his The Bond Affair (1966), reprinted in Bernard Waites, Tony Bennett and Graham Martin ed. Popular Culture: Past and Present (London: Croom Helm, 1982).

10. Martin Esslin, "Aristotle and the Advertisers: The Television Commercial Considered as a Form of Drama", in Horace Newcomb ed. Television: The Critical View (New York: O.U.P., 1982).

11. Andrew Ross, "Containing Culture in the Cold War," Cultural Studies, V. 1, n.3, 1987, p.346, note 1.

12. Meaghan Morris, "Room 101 Or a Few Worst Things in the World", in Andre Frankovits ed. Seduced and Abandoned: The Baudrillard Scene (Sydney: Stonemoss, 1984) pp.96-99.

13. Jean Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication", in Hal Foster ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern (Washington: Culture Bay Press, 1983).

14. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984). See also Natalie Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975), ch.5, "Women on Top"; Barbara Babcock, ed. The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978); Peter Stallybrass, "'Drunk with the cup of liberty': Robin Hood, the carnivalesque, and the rhetoric of violence in early modern England", Semiotica, 54,1/2 (1985).

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