by Peter Hulm
What has first to have itself proved is of little value. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.
Both philosophically and psychologically, beauty and terror seem always to have been intimately linked. Analyzing the beautiful as part of the sublime, Kant (1790) pointed to Nature’s sublime as a source of fear, based on a recognition of the impotence of our resistance to it. Certainly, both beauty and terror go beyond the ability of language to encompass or exhaust their qualities in words.
Beauty is as subversive as any dream in thwarting attempts to maintain control over its reality through categorization and language. The beautiful can never be thoroughly explained, and that is one of its characteristics. As much as terror, it confronts us with an Event (in Alain Badiou’s terminology), an experience that changes the future, the past and the present. We certainly cannot be rationally argued into an appreciation of beauty or terror (except through an exercise of our imaginations) — and both share the major advantage, to their creator or manipulator, of not requiring proof to exert their power. Kant himself speaks of beauty as appealing to the imagination rather than the understanding, but I see little reason not to extend this definition to terror as well.
Freud explicated the paradox at a psychological level in “Screen Memories” (1899). The main argument of his essay is, of course, that the most powerful scenes that seem to come from our history may not be memories at all, but, drawing on a sexually charged period from his own student years, Freud’s sub-text is that we should distrust our strongest impressions of beauty because it may mask the cruelty in a repressed incident. Returning to the topic twenty years later in “The ‘Uncanny’” (1919), Freud noted with astonishment that treatises on aesthetics “in general prefer to concern themselves with what is beautiful, attractive and sublime” rather than the unheimlich, leaving him to tackle “all that is terrible — [...] all that arouses dread and creeping horror.” The curious aspect of this essay, which seems not much remarked, is that he clearly considers the uncanny as aesthetic rather than simply psychological in its essence.
In an exteriorization of Freudian theory, concerned with the creation of the subject through the individual’s relation with the world, the Lacanian-inspired British psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott (1971) found he needed to deal with both beauty and terror in considering the development of cultural experience. Beauty and terror, he suggested, meet in the imaginative space of the infant where play and creativity flourish, a place that is neither inside nor outside the child:“the potential space between the subjective object and the object objectively perceived.” The absence, destruction or invasion of this imaginative space is the cause of uncontrollable terror, while its reinforcement nourishes the child’s confidence in his/herself, the outside world and his/her capacities to deal with this world physically, socially and imaginatively.
I think it is worth insisting on the variety of these thinkers’ ideas on beauty and terror, because perhaps the oldest and most persistent linking of beauty with terror — the story of Odysseus and the Sirens (Homer’s Odyssey XII, 39) with the legend that the beauty of the siren song leads humans to destruction — seems superficially to be another sexist variation on the femme fatale myth. The “terror of beauty” story reappears throughout the centuries down to its formulaic debasement in the femme-fatale and temptress/bitch-goddess in Hollywood films and contemporary television series.
This debasement comes from the projection of the subject’s fear of the Lacanian Real into a psychotic reading of the Other’s behaviour. As Slavoj Žižek (1991) explains the mechanism: “The destiny of the femme fatale in film noir [...] exemplifies perfectly the Lacanian proposition that ‘Woman does not exist’: she is nothing but ‘the symptom of man,’ her power of fascination masks the void of her nonexistence, so that when she is finally rejected, her whole ontological consistency is dissolved.”
I’d even suggest that the “nonexistence” of the woman in such projections is a clue that the myth is not to be analyzed sexually. Similarly, if we go back to the original Oedipal story, the precipitating incidents come from the father’s efforts to kill or ignore his son, not from Oedipus. If we read Freud as attempting to introduce Darwinian theory into the psychology of the subject, the Oedipus complex springs from the son realizing that the father’s death is necessary to gain access to the pack’s females and learning that he himself risks death so that the father can continue to live, but, at the same time, realizing that neither of these killings can take place (except in Dostoevsky). Death, of the father or the son, is the price of life, but “unthinkable,” i.e. continually resurfacing in thought. Not for nothing is Oedipus partially disabled (with a club foot). Even the (forbidden) Freudian attraction of the mother, on this reading, is a screen for the iron logic of filiacide vs patricide. Portrayals of the bitch-goddess in popular culture in many cases seem more accurately applied to a dominating, enchanting, unpredictably violent Father for whom the Mother substitute is just a mask or screen.
Not the least interesting aspect of the path-breaking television series Six Feet Under , which starts with the death of a father that eventually also kills his most potent (i.e. heterosexual) son by forcing him to take on the head-of-family role, is that the bitch-goddess figure to whom the son is most psychologically drawn (Brenda) resists all male projections of the conventional vamp — one might say that she resolutely rejects nonexistence — while the real femme fatale (Lisa) kills the son (Nate) with domesticity, rejection (suicide) and parenthood. Significantly, Alan Ball, the creator of the series, has said he wanted to finally bring the ubiquity and inevitability of death into a mainstream drama series, and the closing episode in which all the main characters meet their death was entitled “Everyone’s Waiting.” What seems at first to be a family’s despairing search for sexual fulfillment and the standard Hollywood “creation of the couple” turns out to be about the devices (such as rushing towards excitement) that we use to avoid thinking of death (which always comes).
Primed by Freud to be suspicious of the beautiful, alerted by Kant to recognize the invincibility of Nature, encouraged by Winnicott to see the playful (even Trickster) side of all heroic presentations, persuaded by Lacan via Žižek to ignore the genderization of myths, we can reread the Siren story as demonstrating the multiple subterfuges required to stave off the intrusion of the horrifying, enticing Real (represented by catastrophe) into our narratives: Odysseus has himself strapped to the mast of his ship and blocks the ears of his rowing crew with beeswax. Odysseus here is in the same position as Keanu Reeves in The Matrix , or the artist who chooses to hear the Sirens’ song and courts disaster, while others remain deaf to its enchantments.
The association between beauty and terror can also be seen in its perversion. Almost every regime of terror seeks to give its actions an aesthetic gloss. Nazi aesthetics, with its pseudo-classicism, attacks on “degenerate” art and promotion of a “heroic” brutalism, were as much part of its ideology as its glorification of uniforms and parades in service of a terror-based society. The perversion is to seek to beautify terror and terrifying experiences. This aestheticization reaches deep into Hollywood and into academic criticism (the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, for example, are usually discussed in terms of Steven Spielberg’s skill in creating beautiful shots out of horrific experience, imitating the photographs of Robert Capa).
It’s a device that works. Napoleon and the Nazis remain of abiding interest (at least to British television). Tyrannies with no aesthetic gloss, such as Milosevic’s pan-Serbism or Rwanda’s interahamwe groups, are seen as particularly barbaric in modern history.
This still leaves unanswered the question: what is the terror that beauty acts as a screen for? The answer, I think, is time, i.e. entropy and its various forms (fate, death, indifference, catastrophe, invincibility). Even the quietest “beautiful” paintings, such as Vermeer’s interiors and domestic views, seem permeated with a recognition of the fragility of the moment — starting with the light, the insistence on the instant being viewed, and the many pointers to both the past and the future that haunt the immediate scene.
Caravaggio was the master of this tightrope walk over the yawning gulf of the present. The swagger of his street-smart urchins, despite their confidence, does not cloak the temporary nature of their self-deluded victories over time. Similarly, I cannot see Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-3) without hearing in my mind the continually changing traffic noises and drama that its formalism, deliberately or not, evokes through the kaleidoscope of colors. The terror, even when it is not depicted in these paintings, co-exists with the beauty, while the beauty holds the focus of our attention away from the terror.
Perhaps this is easier for us to see because contemporary artists, since Joseph Beuys, have brought unstable or impermanent materials deliberately to the forefront in their work (certainly we do not need to paint a distorted skull at the bottom of a canvas as Holbein did with The Ambassadors). Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin have given these modern practices general currency and widespread fame. More immediately poignant for me, perhaps because less theatrical in inspiration, are the bio-sculptures of Joann Goldin and the before-and-after work photos of Res Stolkiner (both of whom were students at the European Graduate School in the Media and Communications Department).
Beauty is, of course, a suspect category, particularly among artists, who in my experience tend to reject its application to their work. They prefer terms like “interesting,” “aesthetically worth exploring” or “an idea to play with” in talking of what they were trying to do in their work. Picasso seems to have been speaking for all of them when he said: “I do not seek, I find.”
For an explanation, we can go to the philosopher Nelson Goodman (1976), who has disentangled some of the contradictions in the use of the term “beautiful”: “Folklore has it that the good picture is pretty. At the next higher level, ‘pretty’ is replaced by ‘beautiful,’ since the best pictures are often obviously not pretty. But again, many of them are in the most obvious sense ugly. If the beautiful excludes the ugly, beauty is no measure of aesthetic merit; but if the beautiful may be ugly, then ‘beauty’ becomes only an alternative and misleading word for aesthetic merit.”
For me, this does not go far enough. It skates over the fundamental social judgement involved in the labelling of something in aesthetic terms. Daniel C. Dennett (1998) points out: “Lovely qualities cannot be defined independent of the proclivities, susceptibilities, or dispositions of a class of observers. Actually that is a bit too strong. Lovely qualities would not be defined — there would be no point in defining them , in contrast to all other logically possible gerrymandered properties — independently of such a class of observers” (this seems to be one reason why artists refuse attempts to label their work “beautiful”).
Nevertheless, “beautiful” is widely applied to all kinds of objects and events, including some surprising categories, and attempts to disentangle the implications have produced the new field of philosophical study known as the aesthetics of everyday life (see Light and Smith, 2005, on food, weather, sport, etc, where what is experienced seems closer to the sublime than the Kantean “agreeable”). The work I’ve read so far all seems open to Dennett’s objection — they ignore the essential social dimension of the term’s use. How serious a shortcoming this is, I hope to demonstrate. In fact, I do not think we can appreciate the full implications of such categorization unless we take the social control over its use into account, and I’ll try to show what we gain by incorporating this aspect and seeing how this shifts the terms of the debate.
The social dimension of the use of the term “beauty” begs the question of who is setting themselves up as arbiters of the beautiful, as is implicit in Dennett’s observation. At the same time, as Pierre Bourdieu (1979) pointed out, taste is “the area par excellence of the denial of the social.” Thus, the artistic classes are allowed some freedom to apply their standards in a way that reinforces their elitism (particularly detachment from rather than involvement in an artistic work, the exact opposite of a creator’s usual experience), while popular aesthetics (a dominated aesthetic, as Bourdieu underlines) goes completely counter to the Kantian standard in expecting their beautiful images to meet norms of the appropriate and agreeable in what they depict (Bourdieu contrasts photographs of pebbles, barks and waves with the approval given to landscape scenes). Aesthetics thus denies its social origins and despises any aesthetic that proclaims its social relation.
Bourdieu also demonstrates how this fits into the Weberian class structure. Though in theory the self-taught specialist is as well-informed as a holder of an academic qualification, he notes: “The reader of Science et Vie [a popular French science magazine] who talks about the genetic code or the incest taboo exposes himself to ridicule as soon as he ventures outside the circle of his peers, whereas [the anthropologist Claude] Levi-Strauss or [the biologist Jacques] Monod can only derive additional prestige from his excursions into the field of music or philosophy.” Similarly, the least-educated regular cinemagoer knows as many actors’ names as the most highly educated, but gains no cultural prestige from this superior knowledge.
The application of terms such as “beauty” and “terror” (often not specified as such) is bound up in the same legitimized complex of ideas by which society sustains itself. This complex can be termed “culture,” but that seems too anodyne a word for the processes of control involved and its resistance to attempts to change the rules by which it operates or question the institutions of society that confer the legimitizing labels. A more practically useful term, which allows for a dominating aesthetic and a resistance to attempts to challenge its legitimacy, is “ideology.” At the very least, it enables us to distinguish between art and ideology, and the uses they make of beauty and terror.
In general, I’d say that art moves us because it seems to reveal, even if we are not very good at explaining what exactly is revealed or how (Armstrong 2004). Ideology’s manipulation of beauty and terror, by contrast, attempts rather to conceal. The beautiful is used to mask or compensate for the terror on which ideology depends, while not requiring its legitimacy to be proved (hence the emphasis on parades, uniforms and a new aesthetic, which have to be and can be shown, not simply argued).
The culture industry, for the most part, belongs to ideology rather than art. The mass media — if hard to position within culture because of their banality and repetitiousness, stereotyping and reliance on visual clichés in the name of immediacy of impact, universality of communication, and achievement of broad understanding (Fiske 1990) — definitely seek to claim an important place in what Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1962) called the consciousness industry. The social critic Curtis White (2003-4) attributes “the frenzy of communication” in advanced societies to the consciousness industry’s “pre-emptive efforts to saturate the field in which the imagination might do its work.”
At this point, it is worth reminding ourselves of Raymond Williams’ famous words nearly fifty years ago: “There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses” ( 1958). The corollary is that for people to react as masses, the mass needs to be created via the industry’s communication practices, just as the beautiful is a category that needs to be socially defined, and in a society of ubiquitous media, the industry is well-placed to be the channeler of ideology’s definitions — if not the definer — of the beautiful and what is to be feared.
Why mass media should seek to constitute its audience as a mass might seem, sixty years after the launch of mass television, to be hardly worth asking. In fact, television since the 1960s — as Todd Gitlin (1986) has shown through his study of car commercials, cop and action series (and, I’d add, news anchor teams) — encourages viewers to think of themselves as loners in a congenial group (whereas 1950s TV focused on loners outside society). The ideological use of such constructions has been outlined by Jean Baudrillard (1970): “For the millions of people without a history, and happy to be that way, it is necessary to deculpabilize their passivity. […] This quietude of the private sphere must appear like a stolen (literally, snatched) value, constantly threatened, surrounded by a world whose destiny is catastrophic. The violence and inhumanity of the external world is necessary not only so that security is experienced more profoundly as such (in the economy of pleasure) but also so that at every moment it feels justified in being chosen as such” (my translation).
Nothing seems closer to hand for this purpose — or more appropriate for ideology’s symbolic manipulation — than the crowd as projected by the mass media (particularly television). Indeed, in addition to cinematic dramas of involvement, television presents us with an unending stream of unfamiliar images, scenes of anonymous (but “readable”) theatre (in news, fiction and advertising) and commented actions that provide an interpretation of what the crowd “out there” is up to.
Why we should need television to interpret the invisible crowd outside our room is another question that might hardly seem worth asking in modern society. It’s difficult for members of an intensely urban society to realize how new this feeling of confusion is. In the last half of the 18th century, Goethe wrote of Naples that only in its crowds “do I feel really quiet and solitary [...] It is a remarkable and salutary experience.” Similar enthusiasm for moving among crowds is recorded by Carl Philip Mortiz, Heinrich Kleist and Baudelaire (Plotz 2000). William Wordsworth was a celebrator of French revolutionary crowds: “I seemed to move among them as a bird moves through the air” ( Prelude Book 6).
But, records John Plotz, a few years later Wordsworth was also the first to record a feeling of threat and dissolution of personality in the undifferentiated, purposeless city crowd. By the start of the 19th century, London had over one million inhabitants (compared to 580,000 in Paris). Walking its streets, Wordsworth realized “The face of every one / That passes by me is a mystery” ( Prelude Book 7). He makes “the unprecedented and striking claim that those crowds have gone to work on him,” notes Plotz. Wordsworth declares: “All laws of acting, thinking, speaking man — / Went from me.”
The crowd’s indecipherability, causing or representing “blank confusion,” an experience not just of extreme alienation but of an assault on the individual’s sense of consciousness, runs through 19th- and early 20th-century history. It culminates perhaps in Elias Canetti’s unique Crowds and Power (1960), where the crowd is compared to fire in its speed, insatiability and rapid changeability (21), reminiscent of the rioting crowd in Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust (1939).
Depicting the ordinary crowd as always containing within it the seeds of violence and destruction has a long, anti-democratic political pedigree from the start of the 19th century, when Wordsworth first recorded his inescapable terror in the crowd’s sheer presence. “Crowd,” reports John Plotz, came back into English as a term of abuse in that period to mask the purpose of gatherings: “Used to re- (or mis-) describe radical politics, an old word found a new meaning. [This covered] both the fledgling radical demonstrations of the teens and Chartism’s mammoth ‘simultaneous meetings’ and petition processions of the 1840s.” The politicians, he observes, were “unwilling to grant [these meetings] the status of demonstration, assembly, march, or congregation.”
What is striking is how the century’s political theorists of rights and liberty ( post Tom Paine) – for example, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill – were apt to project their fear of the crowd against democratic impulses, (Watkins 1964). The still-revered Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 study Psychologie des Foules (plural, mistranslated into English as The [singular, i.e. uniform] Crowd) asserted innate and timeless (threatening and unpredictable) qualities to the crowd in a historically specific period of labour and feminist agitation and tried to institutionalize reactionary ideas into scientific dogma in order to “contain the unruly energies of revolutionary or suffrage-minded assemblies” (Plotz).
The crowd as a source of terror is an ideological artefact that lives on in television news through the truism that only violent demonstrations receive more than passing mention in broadcasts. If there is any doubt about whether this process operates today, one need only look at the International Herald-Tribune of February 6, 2006 where the New York Times reporters describe what on television looked like obviously directed crowds in Beirut as “a mob of protestors.” Similarly, or obversely, efforts to depict an assembled crowd as purposeful tend to be as embarrassing and kitschy as Eisenstein’s propaganda efforts. The shock of Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi films comes from their success in exploiting conventional aesthetics, though here again the crowd is construed as adulatory of a deliberately constructed heroic figure, regimented and united in a purpose that comes from outside the crowd rather than from recognition of its own interests.
This is why the change in mass media attitudes towards the crowd that came about during the 1960s — epitomized in the legend that has been constructed around the “ Woodstock” festival (which actually took place in Bethel, New York, not Woodstock) in August 1969 — is of major significance in communications history. It also provided a template for mass media treatment of events that could be patterned using the same mode of discourse.
This might seem a rather long-winded way to speak of something very simple: that after a long period when ideology insisted, for anti-democratic purposes, on the terror that an uncontrollable crowd could cause (and also insisted on featuring aspects of that uncontrollability), with Woodstock the media switched to treating some crowds as beautiful. But as The New Yorker ’s Michael Arlen reminded us shortly afterwards (1974/5): “Virtually nothing created for the public is created either intuitively or innocently.” Martin Heidegger (1977) has pointed cultural critics to a more sophisticated understanding of technology/enframing than considering the transformation a simple media reaction to events. The apparently ideologically neutral enframing, he writes, “drives out every other possibility of revealing” (p. 27). The technology, he adds, “blocks the shining forth […] of truth” (p. 28).
As a result, we are alerted to consider the screening which an ideological enframing of an event as beautiful seeks to impose, and, as Freud has indicated, it is likely to conceal a terror in our psychic history or — to use Winnicott as our guide — to foster a false sense of confidence in our ability to master the world, to put us in the heroic position of Odysseus with regard to the dangers that threaten.
At this distance, it is easy to forget that a decade and a half of social and political revolution, as well as numerous riots, preceded Woodstock. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were only the consumerist version of a much broader movement towards social and democratic enlightenment (politics with a human face) made possible by the contraceptive pill, marijuana/acid culture and the electric guitar. At least from 1953 onward the nuclear mushroom cloud over everyone’s future was much bigger than a man’s hand (as John Cage has pointed out), with the Vietnam War to remind young people at least that they lived under a politics of indifference.
Nothing I’ve read captures the seriousness with which people took their situation better than Stephen K. Levine’s memoir in POIESIS VII, 2005: it was a time when many thinking people joined reflective theory with focused action in diverse aspects of their lives, as well as getting zonked out of their heads on soft drugs and hard living. The '60s were years when large demonstrations and meetings for a political purpose made manifest their legitimacy to the participating public and their families, even if the media usually treated them as wayward gatherings that just failed to turn into riots (Schudson 1995).
In Mark Kurlanksy’s somewhat hyperbolic phrase, though preceded by 15 years of continuous revolutionary development, 1968 was “the year that rocked the world” (2005). Americans in the US started the year looking back on a record number of destructive riots in black inner cities.The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists put forward its clock indicating how close it considered the world was edging to nuclear devastation for the first time in five years: from twelve minutes to midnight to seven minutes before Armaggedon.
By 1969 Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated in the United States, the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam had showed that even the capital of the major city defended by American military power was not immune to assault, and the Prague Spring had come and gone. Dissent briefly flourished in Poland, and students had launched a cultural revolution on the European continent. Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election as President. The Chicago Democratic Convention led to a “police riot” (according to the government commission) against war protestors. The cynicism of activists towards conventional politics was cemented by the election of Richard Nixon as president.*
This was the background to the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Festival. It began and ended in ambiguity. The organizers picked the slogan “Three Days of Peace and Music” partly to placate local officials but also to appeal to anti-war sentiment (Wikipedia 2006b). For whatever reason, it attracted more than 500,000 people in place of the expected 50,000. In the film that followed (1970), the anti-war stance of many performances and the complaints about poor facilities and chaotic organization were subsumed in the patina of hedonism glazing over the event through the use of ecstatic audience shots and of stage comments to the crowd such as: “This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place, and I think you people have proven something to the world: that a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I God-bless you for it!” (Max Yasgur on imdb). This, the media decided, was the era of the Beautiful People, born in Carnaby Street and finding its dopey nirvana in Haight-Ashbury. Thus the mass media began rewriting its attitude towards the 1960s as it shortly afterwards retouched its self-image with regard to US involvement in Vietnam: Michael Schudson notes: “Contrary to some popular reconstructions of television coverage, the TV coverage of the Vietnam war provided very little combat footage in the years during which opposition to the war mounted” (1995, p. 118).
The political dimension of Woodstock can be contrasted with the British Isle of Wight festival, launched in 1968, and also held in August 1969, which claimed to have brought together 600,000 people in 1970 (Wikipedia 2006c). It was a purely commercial operation, had no political aspects, faced opposition to “hippies” and “freaks” and proved a financial disaster that stopped the UK from organizing similar events for many years. The groundbreaking Concert for Bangladesh, superbly organized by former Beatle George Harrison in August 1971, took place at Madison Square Garden in New York. However, the US and UK Governments held up earnings from the album and DVD “for years,” and only a small part of the $15 million US raised reached those in need, leaving Harrison disgusted, reports Wikipedia (2006e). This was nevertheless treated by media as a concert to raise aid funds rather than challenge the politics of the government of the day. The same ‘non-political’ pattern was applied to the 1985 multi-venue Live Aid concert, with 1.5 billion viewers worldwide, raising some $245 million eventually, which brought Bono and Bob Geldof (the later stars of Live Eight) together (Wikipedia 2006f).
None of these events seemed to need a construction of the crowd, though Joan Baez told the US audience of Live Aid: “This is your Woodstock, and it’s long overdue,” and Bob Dylan crassly (in Geldof’s opinion) suggested that some of the money raised should go to US farmers facing foreclosure because of mortgage debt, leading to the creation of Farm Aid and the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 (Wikipedia 2006f).
In 1986 Geldof organized Sport Aid (which was a comparative failure only in the US) to raise funds for Africa (on none of the official websites devoted to these events is it easy to find out how exactly much money was raised or how it was spent). The Live Aid site, which also covers Live Eight, reports: “These concerts led to pledged donations and royalties of over $140 million towards the devastating famine in Africa” (http://www.live-aid-dvd.com/services.htm).
The 1999 concert Net Aid — in which Bono performed — is considered to have been a flop, gaining only 2.4 million hits for the Website instead of the expected one billion (Wikipedia 2006h).
Live Eight was going to be different. Bono in particular, the Irish son of a Roman Catholic father and a Protestant mother, has often made political issues the theme of his songs, and has declared that pop singers are better than politicians at stirring public involvement. He appeared on the same podium as the British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Davos Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in 2005 to essentially support Blair’s programme for the G8 summit that the UK leader would be chairing that year.
Bono also made a deliberate reference to Woodstock in his US concerts promoting the End Poverty Now! campaign. The San Jose Mercury reported: “Bono asked those in the audience to raise their cell phones, extending a tradition begun in the dark ages of the 1969 Woodstock festival, when 300,000 people raised lit matches and turned the audience into a sea of stars” (textually.org).
The filmmaker and producer John Ellis has observed that because of the sheer volume of television production: “A critic’s attempt to catch all of broadcast TV is doomed to failure” (1982/92) . However, the broadcasts were strictly controlled, and my impressions are confirmed by others who saw the concerts separately.
Though the organizers declared their aim was to increase awareness and political pressure (Wikipedia 2006b), trying to create a new kind of Net politics and mobile-ization on issues, the concert broadcasters took over the Woodstock pattern of audience shots and non-political commentary. While appearing to celebrate the occasion, television managed to frame the events as largely an ego-trip by ageing (and mainly white or rich-world) rock stars for the benefit of a pleasure-seeking audience young enough to be their children. The Woodstock generation returned (and brought along its children) but with only a ghost of its involvement in politics.
It was clear to viewers that the giant screen behind the stage showed a number of films and presentations related to poverty in Africa. The BBC talkshow host who dominated the proceedings, however, declared that the channel could not focus on the politics because of BBC’s policy of objectivity. MTV, for its part, was criticized for cutting away from performers to commercials, playing few songs in full, and giving prominence to ill-informed DJs.
Though the Internet petition obtained over 35 million names (Wikipedia) and an estimated three billion people watched the ten concerts on July 2 (Live Eight Website), little follow-up has materialized. If anything, Live Eight has produced a backlash, through an inability (unlike 60s activism) to turn its awareness-raising efforts into substantial political capital when blanketed under a dead cloud of hedonism. The activist commentator George Monbiot almost immediately criticized both Bono and Geldof for underwriting the G8 Summit’s backing for enforced liberalization and privatization that would be as onerous as the debt being relieved (Monbiot 2005). The UK Premier’s statements on Africa treated its problems as caused by some inscrutable force of nature: “He has never acknowledged that — as even the World Bank’s studies show — it has moved backwards partly because of the neoliberal policies it has been forced to follow by the powerful nations: policies that have just been extended by the debt-relief package Bono and Geldof praised,” Monbiot wrote. On what is recognized as the key issue of trade improvement for developing nations, the G8 offered no relief.
Hardly any viewers heard about the politics, or the complete failure of a parallel Sail 8 activity. The media largely replaced the terror of politics with aesthetics, and by separating them, cast the political as potentially frightening to the anonymous viewer as well as to the authorities.
We certainly know that what is considered beautiful is socially constructed, both in society and in nature. But the media’s role in organizing objects into aesthetically approved categories is not restricted to manipulating opinions. The media of the late 18th century created a taste for ruins and mossy places; 19th century media developed a cult of the beach and fresh air, and the 20th encouraged the wave-surfer lifestyle and the weekend wilderness explorer.
Similarly, food, architecture and sport styles, for example, do not become popular simply because of their aesthetic variation or originality. The media recognize, capitalize on and market (to consumers and advertisers) their role as amplifiers and channelers of trends. Philosophers of everyday life therefore need to incorporate into their thinking not just the way in which ideology seeks to incorporate definitions of the beautiful, but the way in which this is used by media for ideology’s political ends. And the lesson of the ‘60s might be that it still takes more than a concert and a slogan to bring about political change. The resistance of ideology to reform cannot yet be broken down by music alone.
This should hardly surprise activists who have successfully used digital technologies for otherwise impossible political actions (such as the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle — “the coming-out of the anti-globalization movement in the United States,” according to Wikipedia ). The demonstrators not only exploited Habermas’s “public sphere” of dialogue and debate (1962/1989). The loose coalition of demonstrating organizations included a number — labour unions, Christian groups and environmental groups — that were already well-embedded in established power systems (Wikipedia 2006i), reinforced by apparently sympathetic words from President Clinton, recognizing that their concerns needed to be taken into consideration. Later anti-globalization protests directed against the WTO have failed to make the same impact (ibid).
The new-media critic Douglas Rushkoff shares this skepticism: “What these efforts miss is the real reason affiliations are so politically powerful in the first place: It’s because they represent lasting coalitions of constituents who are willing to put mass weight and effort behind their cause. […Most SMS-activist initiatives] are simply instances of large numbers of people momentarily willing to take their orders from above. […] Reductive and essentially passive, these methods will ultimately favor the kinds of constituencies who take their commands from above, anyway. Once church leaders begin telling their flocks to sign onto action lists, it’ll make Bono look like a sideshow.” (http://www.rushkoff.com/ TheFeatureArchive/ SMSactivism.html).
Technology, and the language of technology (which includes the vocabulary of politics), can be assimilated or rejected by ideology-based systems (administered societies), even when digital activism is considered one of the post-modern fine arts. The history of crowd presentation hints at how, using the visual language of beauty and terror, media can turn in their tracks without needing to explain their turn-arounds or concede a loss of legitimacy (one could trace the same process in the rise of environmental politics). Meanwhile, whatever is threatening to ideological control over the accepted images and discourse can be portrayed as vaguely susceptible to uncontrollable forces: the terror alert indicator always stands at orange.
All of these confusions came together in a television play produced around the issues by one of the major forces behind Live-8, the screenwriter Richard Curtis, author of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill . The 90-minute teleplay The Girl in the Café was broadcast on US television before Live-8, but after the concert and the G-8 demonstration on the BBC in the UK (on 14 July 2005).
The Curtis drama constructed its own version of the crowd by making the girl of the title as anonymous as possible: the woman (hardly a girl, despite the title of the play) has served a prison sentence for violence against her male partner who killed a child (we learn at the end). She emphasizes her anonymity by suppressing all these facts, and she refuses to tell the senior civil servant who meets her in the café whether the child was hers. In fact, she questions whether it matters (which it might not to a third person, but surely a parent would feel differently). Her Scottish accent is not explained. She insists that she has nothing to do when the civil servant preparing for a G-8 summit wonders how she could be free to join him in Iceland for the meeting. She says has no obligations as a “student” of sorts: she later explains she had lots of time to study in prison. The civil servant is shown as being torn between attraction to her beauty and terror at the disturbances she causes to everyday bureaucratic administration of power with her insistence on talking at official functions of international action to end world poverty, even to reluctant governmental ministers. Her anonymity is depicted as a threat to the authorities while her blankness is the reason she is treated as a heroine. On television, the femme fatale has become the threatening crowd.
* In 2022, the onetime U.S. administration's European specialist Fiona Hill, an immigrant from Northern England's working class, identified current efforts in U.S. companies like Starbucks and Amazon to workers' disenchantment with politics as a site for community action (Lex Fridman YouTube 4 November 2022 at 1:06:50).
Two further citations are germane to the discussion:
The critic George Steiner writes: "There is in the most confident metaphysical construct, in the most affirmative work of art a memento mori, a labor, implicit or explicit, to hold at bay the seepage of fatal time, of entropy into each and every living form."
This is, of course, Martin Heidegger's understanding of poiesis, borrowed from Plato's Symposium (1955/1977): "That revealing which holds complete sway in all the fine arts, in poetry, and in everything poetical that obtained poiesis as its proper name" (p34).
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Jean Baudrillard, La Société de Consommation, 1970.
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Canetti, Elias. Masse und Macht/ Crowds and Power, Classen Verlag, 1960, Gollancz and Viking 1962, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859, Chapters II and III.
Dennett, Daniel C., Brainchildren, 1998, p144
Ellis, John, Visible Fictions. Routledge, 1982/1992, p2.
Enzensberger, Hans Magnus, “Bewusstseins-Industrie,” In Einzelheiten I: Bewusstseins-Industrie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1962:7.
Fiske, John, Introduction to Communications Studies, Routledge, 2nd edition, 1990, p12-13.
Freud, Sigmund, Über Deckerinnerungen/Screen Memories . 1899. Collected PapersV, Hogarth 1953.
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Gitlin, Todd, “Car commercials and Miami Vice,” in Todd Gitlin (ed.) Watching Television, Pantheon, 1986, p150.
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Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays, trans. William Lovitt, Harper & Row, , 1977.
imdb. Woodstock (1970): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066580/quotes.
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Light, Andrew and Smith, Jonathan M. (eds), The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2005.
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Monbiot, George, “Bards of the Powerful,” Guardian 21 June 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,5220235-103677,00.html
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Curtis White, The Middle Mind: Why Consumer Culture is Turning Us into the Living Dead, HarperCollins 2003, Allen Lane (with new introduction) 2004.
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