What is Mass Culture?

Simply put, I define “mass culture” as a broad, overarching term that attempts to describe the collective values, ideas, practices, social mores of a society that has been cultivated through the society’s collective exposure to the same media. Media in this regard is also a broad term that encompasses communication tools such as television, film, advertisements, radio and the Internet.

What initially shaped my understanding of the term “mass culture” was exploring these terms and their meanings individually. The word “mass” implies the majority, the common people; and when used in a specific context, it connotes that of high densities, capacities and magnitudes. As for the term “Culture”, I have come to understand it as a broadly defined vague term that signifies the collective values, beliefs and codes in society and the subgroups in society through constant exposure and discussions of “Culture” in Sociology .

I gained a deeper understanding of the developments of the term “Mass Culture” as I explored the work of critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s ideas in “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”. For Adorno and Horkheimer, they believe that mass culture was exploitative and created for the masses (instead of by the masses) to serve the interests of the capitalist class and justify industrial expansion in the 1940’s. Adorno and Horkheimer’s work still bears some relevance in today’s context as I reflected on the similarities of how mass culture is curated and produced in Singapore by the political elites. Cultural policies such as celebrating Racial Harmony Day and racial and religious festivities of Chinese, Malays and Indians for strategic displays of multiculturalism in Singapore.

To conclude, I think it is important for us to engage with mass culture as it allows us to understand what collective experiences society aims to cultivate and perpetuate. Of course, there are many concerns and criticisms of engaging with mass culture such as a potential to destroy individuality and gloss over the cultures of minority groups. However, I feel that engaging with mass culture allows for both advocacy of social, economic, and political concerns of a society and allows an individual to understand their place and position in society.

Mediums of Mass Culture

Mass culture is the set of ideas and values that develop from a common exposure to the same media, news sources, music, and art. Mass culture is broadcast or otherwise distributed to individuals instead of arising from their day-to-day interactions with each other. It is the name given to a set of ideas and values that develop when people are exposed to the same media sources. My perspective of mass culture is that it is part n parcel of our everyday life, especially so in this globalized society we lived in.

I view mass culture as an important aspect of our everyday life, especially so in this globalized society that we lived in. Mass culture encompasses a variety products that are mass-produced for mass audiences, such as newspaper, magazines, television programmes, films and books. We come into contact with almost all of these components day in day out so much so that we cannot live without them.

After going through the class readings, I was influenced by Theodor Adorno articulation of how we view television. He mentioned that “men were formerly presented as erotically aggressive and women on the defensive, whereas this has been largely reversed in modern mass culture”. To this, I agree. Indeed, television programmes nowadays are deviating from the olden projection of erotically aggressive men. Even if it is casted in the olden days, men are better-behaved despite being chauvinistic.

“Every spectator of a television mystery knows with absolute certainty how it is going to end. Tension is but superficially maintained and is unlikely to have a serious effect any more. On the contrary, the spectator feels on safe ground all the time”. To this, I beg to differ because the suspense and tension of a show depends largely on the plot and sound effect. Moreover, as technology advances, sound and visual effects are more sophisticated to create the suspense.

Concentrating on Mass Culture

It is hard to find anyone who has eluded the hegemonic grasp of mass culture. I’d say it is almost impossible to grow up in Singapore and somehow evade one’s eyes from every form of television, internet, advertisement or corporate influence and still develop as a functional social human being.

The rise of mass culture addressed by Horkheimer and Benjamin has not only come true; it is less of a ‘rise’ and more of an ‘explosion.’ However, the rise of exhibition value and capitalistic brainwashing and the decline of cult power and deep thought that mass culture served harbinger seems to me not as evident.

The emergence of the internet and increased global connectivity allows access to a massive amount of media. It is true that much of the media created today is mindless and capitalistic in nature and true to their fears.  Many classic works have emerged from the depths of mass culture. There is clearly still a demand for powerful thought-provoking works. Works that despite being replicated and for the masses, can be enjoyed and ‘concentrated’ on. Enjoyment and thought provoking do not need to be mutually exclusive and with enough independent sources of content creators, a hegemonic monopoly cannot be attained. And as long as there is a demand for it, ‘artistic’ mass culture will continue to be produced.

(To me, the argument of reproducability also does not stand. Why does an orchestrated performance of a classical piece not face the same accusations of a re-created classic painting? Does a novel or a poem reduce in value because it is printed on paper? Mass produced mediums should not be a weakness of art but its own artistic decision.)

Being Critical of Mass-media Entertainment?

Mass culture is related to the culture industry, such as the culture products mass produced for mass audiences. For mass-media entertainment, mass culture “[represents] life for [sic] pure entertainment or distraction” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944:31). As someone who sometimes watches anime for leisure, I have noticed a growing disposition towards wish-fulfilment fantasies, with anime such as Mahōka Kōkō no Rettōsei (Mahouka) and Sword Art Online becoming highly popular, pointing to its successful entertainment of the masses.

In wish-fulfilment fantasies, the plot revolves around the main character getting their way: the created world is designed to “construct a delusion of validation” (iblessall, 2017). For instance, part of the allure of Mahouka is its subtext that if the main characters are not seen as amazing, it is because the system is broken (Guy, 2017). Problematically, by presenting itself as not a wish-fulfilment story, it “absolves the audience of the need to self-reflect” (iblessall, 2017). Bland protagonists enable the audience to self-insert, removing another barrier between fantasy and reality. The wholesale absorption of themes is reflected in forum discussions centering around the plot and ignoring or even celebrating problematic messages. Hence, the culture industry imposes its ideology on the consumer (During, 1991:4) by positioning itself as pure entertainment. Its ubiquity also enables its hegemony: audiences are taught by other mass culture products, and “react automatically” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944:35). Clearly, critical engagement with mass culture is vital.

As a plebeian, mass culture is a part of my life, especially with technology and society integrating it into my everyday live. However, constant critical engagement is difficult. Moreover, as Gramsci in During (1991:4) points out, “counter-hegemonic strategies must [sic] be constantly revised.” Indelicately put, it takes too much effort to always view mass-media entertainment through critical lens, especially when it is meant to be leisure.

The mess behind mass culture?

As During (1999) astutely noted, the “discipline (of culture has) become internationalised,” (p. 13) reflecting how culture itself, has also been internationalised by a globalised media. (p. 14) This process underscoring the homogeneity displayed in both the content and platforms of mass culture.

This implication is aligned with my own perception of mass culture, particularly from social media and its accessibility. Whilst designed as communication platforms, they also reflect the amalgamation of trends that are inherently temporary in nature.

The temporality of the trends reiterates the dynamism of mass culture and its capacity to contain and accommodate shifting trends. Trending hashtags on Twitter only have a shelf-life of about 11 minutes. (hashtags.org) Yet 140 characters can still impart values to a global audience- Donald Trump’s tweets being the best/worst example.

The plurality of the words “mass culture” however, betrays the singularity society has been reduced to today by the media. They point towards a larger narrative behind the creation of culture.

During’s point that “culture is neither an end in itself nor the product of autonomous agents… but a mechanism for transmitting forms of governmentality,” (p. 16) highlights the ideological nature of culture. This is only supported by Adorno and Horkheimer (1944) who use the film production process as a metaphor in their essay for the manipulation that goes into the creation of culture by those in power.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s example remains applicable in today’s world. Interestingly, while the film still holds relevance in imparting values, the shortening attention span of individuals (The Huffington Post, 2018) insists that content be delivered shorter and quicker but at a greater frequency which allows for better retention. As a daily consumer of mass media myself, I am intrigued to see how this affects the capacity of mass culture and its creators.

 

Word count: 299 words

Author: Samantha Loh

Why We Can’t Think: Mass Culture

Mass culture is a set of ideas and values developed from common exposure to media, music, and art. As a product of consumerism, it is omnipresent. As such it becomes important to engage with mass culture to stay relevant and to be socially accepted. I feel that mass culture manipulates people and averts them from thinking on their own, causing detrimental impacts. 

I cannot agree more with, Adorno and Horkheimer (1944) who refer to mass culture as objects of manipulation. Mass culture today easily brainwashes people. Extensive cultural appropriation today, stands testament. 

Victoria’s Secret Models in Native American headgear
Vogue model in Geisha costume
Sikh turbans used on Gucci runways

Mass culture manipulates people into thinking a certain way. It glamourises through marketing and advertising. It exploits its reach through mass media to portray the using and distortion of other cultures as acceptable. Therefore, people do not see that cultural appropriation is wrong. Rather the fear of not subscribing to this manipulates them into conforming- propagating cultural erosion. 

I also feel the “loss of aura” that Benjamin (1936) highlights is useful in explaining why increasingly individuals today cannot think for themselves (The Guardian, 2017). He elaborates that art, or anything, is not authentic when presented through the lens of someone else. Individuals are directed towards and eventually adopt someone else’s ideas and views because they are bombarded with music, art, photographs and more reflecting another’s perspective. The availability and accessibility to the internet only accelerates this process. 

Living in a modern, highly developed society I have the luxury to source out for perspectives from various sources. I educate myself with various perspectives in order not to be the passive audience these writers talk about. As a young adult today, I take it as a personal responsibility to practice objectivity when presented ideas and views brought on by mass culture and be as little a victim to its consumerism. 

Word count: 294 words 

The Singaporean Con(ned)sumer: Knowing Dupes

Mass culture is the ideas and values arising from common exposure to cultural activities, media and art. According to Adorno and Horkheimer (1944), through the consumption of mass culture, designed to satisfy our entertainment needs, the Culture Industry eradicates autonomous thinking and subjects the consumer to conformity for its own reproduction. I contend that on top of the harm of subjugating us as passive consumers, it is important to engage with mass culture because of our paradoxical relationship with it as knowing dupes – “the compulsive imitation by consumers of cultural commodities which they recognise as false” (1944:71) which I find myself implicated in.

As an undergraduate subjected to the demands of school work, films and television are the best avenues to escape pressure and seek pleasure lacking in one’s busy life, given my limited time and money. Unfortunately, while mass culture appears to offer refuge,it impinges on our autonomy. This, as Adorno and Horkheimer argue, occurs through the standardized, schematic and repetitive nature of its ‘aesthetics’ that reinforces patterns of thoughts and understanding which prohibits autonomous thinking. Local films and TV shows from ‘Ah Boys to Men’ to ‘Tanglin’ for example, project a common, often repetitive, ‘Singaporean world’ with normative ideas of family, gender and aspirations as a seamless extension of reality. I am confronted with familiarity that offers little space for imagining new possibilities or active interpretation. Despite knowing this well (and the harm it entails), I resolve to enjoy it anyway because as knowing dupes, I seek amusement to escape work and ‘to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947:137).

Adorno and Horkheimer posit that only high culture truly frees us from labour. However, its costliness (in time and money) makes mass culture our commonly pursued option to gratify our needs. Therefore, as knowing dupes, we need to engage with mass culture to question critically the ways of thinking (of unquestioned norms and ideals) that mass culture reinforces.