Mass culture performs a transformational work on real anxieties

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Discussing Fredric Jameson’s essay, ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture, Tania Modleski explains that Jameson “makes a two-pronged attack on some of the main ideas of the Frankfurt School. In the first place,” she writes, “he shows that high art – the ‘modernism’ valorized by the Frankfurt School and, more recently, by the Tel Quel group in France – has not remained apart from the processes of the ‘commodification of art.’ For instance, although modernism may have arisen out of a desire ‘not to be a commodity,’ the very effort of avoiding the repetition and ‘standardization’ characteristic of mass art means that modernism must stress ‘innovation and novelty,’ must therefore, capitulate to the “pressure… to ‘make it new'” and thus act in accordance ‘with the ever swifter historicity of consumer society, with its yearly or quarterly style and fashion changes.” (p.27)

“More important for our purposes,” Modleski continues, “is the other half of Jameson’s argument, which is the one he most fully develops. If, on the one hand, high art does not represent an absolute, uncompromised alternative to mass art, on the other hand, mass art may be said to possess some of the negative, critical functions the Frankfurt School and its numerous followers have attributed to high art alone. This is true on the most general level. As Hans Robert Jauss points out in a critique of Adorno’s theories, every work of art presupposes ‘an aesthetic distance on the part of the spectator; that is, it presupposes a negation of the immediate interests of his everyday life.’ But as Jameson shows, mass art often contains many specific criticisms of everyday life, in addition to this rather global ‘negation’ (which, however, was of the utmost importance in the Frankfurt School’s philosophy of art). As opposed to those critics who claim that mass art is designed to create ‘false anxieties,’ manipulate ‘false needs,’ and impose ‘false consciousness,’ Jameson argues that mass culture performs ‘a transformational work on [real] social and political anxieties and fantasies which must then have some effective presence in the mass cultural text in order subsequently to be ‘managed’ or repressed.”” (p.27)

“Jameson is right,” Modleski asserts, “to claim that his discussion leads us some distance away from the concept of mass art as ‘manipulation,’ as ‘sheer brainwashing.’ Nevertheless, there are problems with this part of his essay [the part discussing Norman Holland’s The Dynamics of Literary Response], specifically with his notion of the social ‘management of desire,’ which suggests that there is someone doing the managing. Indeed, in his remarks on The Godfather, which Jameson uses as a test case for his theory, he speaks of the ‘intent to mystify,’ thus conjuring up, like the text itself, a sort of ‘Godfather’ on whom to project blame. Jameson and other left-wing critics of mass culture are the latest heirs to the old reformist/Populist belief in a group of conspirators ruthlessly holding us back from the attainment of a golden age. Ironically, it is the politically conservative mass-culture critic who has on occasion warned against the tendency, as Leo Spitzer puts it, to ‘oversimplify the psychology of the advertiser [and, by extension, of any other so-called captain of consciousness] – who is not only a businessman but a human being: one who is endowed with all the normal potentialities of emotion and who finds expression of these in the exercise of his profession.’ More recently, European Marxists like Louis Althusser have opposed the facile assumption that there are two groups of people – those within ideology (the masses of people) and those on the outside who, without illusions themselves, manage to control the others by feeding them illusions. We are all ‘inside’ ideology, Althusser has persuasively argued.” (p.28)

“Therefore,” Modleski explains, “while my analyses support Jameson’s theory that mass-cultural texts both stimulate and allay social anxieties, both arouse and symbolically satisfy the ‘properly imperishable’ desires and fantasies of women, I avoid imputing to, for example, the board of directors of the Harlequin Company, an omniscience [-p.29] about the nature and effects of their product.” (pp.28-29)

“The work of Althusser, itself influenced by the psychoanalytic thought of Jacques Lacan, has spurred renewed interest in psychoanalysis among other Marxists. For, if the production of ideology is not the work of any identifiable group, it must be located elsewhere. Rejecting the notion of ‘false consciousness,’ many Marxists have turned to a study of the unconscious, as it is tructured in and by the family. This emphasis has the merit of beginning to explain why people cling to oppressive conditions even after it is pointed out to them that their own best interests lie elsewhere. It helps explain, for example, why the sales of Harlequin Romances have not simply remained steady in recent years but have actually increased along with the growth of feminism. Only by taking psychoanalytic insights into account, by understanding how deep-rooted are the anxieties and fantasies contained in (and by) popular narratives for women can we begin to explain why women are still requiring what Jameson calls the ‘symbolic satisfactions’ of the texts instead of looking for ‘real’ satisfactions.” (p.29)

Ref: Tania Modleski (1982) Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. Archon Books: Hamden, Connecticut

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