Culture as Weapon - Nato Thompson.pdf - 1 CULTURE AS WEAPON Copyright \u00a9 2016 by Nato Thompson First Melville House Printing January 2017 Melville House

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Unformatted text preview: 1 CULTURE AS WEAPON Copyright © 2016 by Nato Thompson First Melville House Printing: January 2017 Melville House Publishing 46 John Street Brooklyn, NY 11201 and 8 Blackstock Mews Islington London N4 2BT mhpbooks.com facebook.com/mhpbooks @melvillehouse Ebook ISBN 9781612195742 eBook design adapted from printed book design by Jo Anne Metsch v4.1 a 2 CONTENTS Cover Title Page Copyright Introduction 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. The Real Culture War The Persuaders The Persuaders, Part II Fear Machines The Real Estate Show The Insurgents: Community-Based Practice as Military Methodology 7. Sounding the Trumpet: Charity and the Image of Doing Good 8. Corporate Sociability: IKEA, the Apple Store, Starbucks, and Other Corporate Annexes of the Civic 9. The Ever-So-Personal Computer Acknowledgments Notes About the Author 3 INTRODUCTION As every artist knows, Plato argued that artists should be banned from society. A believer that we live in a pale shadow of a world of perfect forms, he felt that the arts were dangerous imitations, three degrees removed from the world of ideal forms. He feared that the arts could stir the passions of the populace, muddying the objective rationality required in the republic. Plato’s opinion certainly runs counter to the operating logic of society today. The United States is a consumer society awash in the products of culture. I consider movies, online programming, video games, advertisements, sports, retail outlets, music, art museums, and social networking all a part of the arts, as they all influence our emotions, actions, and our very understanding of ourselves as citizens. And as much as politicians would never call themselves artists, they all understand the value of showmanship and public relations when it comes to the machinations of governance. But as much as I would like to simply discard Plato’s warning, it certainly haunted the writing of this book. For that artistic technique of stirring the passions and appealing to the intimate side in each of us has become inseparable from power. In Culture as Weapon, I do not seek to uncover a cultural conspiracy that puppet masters deploy culture to brainwash us. Instead, I want to explain the ways in which those in power have to use culture to maintain and expand their influence, and the role that we all play in that process. Throughout the twentieth century and into the contemporary era, the world has witnessed the realization of age-old avant-garde demand that art become part of the everyday. Art and life have in fact merged. 4 At first blush, this train of thought strikes us as fairly obvious. We understand that media is a crucial part of how the world works. We understand that advertising has creeped into many facets of consumer life. And we even understand that spin has come to be a critical part of the political landscape. Ultimately, we understand that message-craft and manipulating the world to cater to how we feel has ingrained itself into every mechanism of power. So, if none of this is new, why write a book? Simply stated, the industries dependent on shaping how we think have reached an unprecedented scale. As a global strategy deployed at every level, culture has become a profound, and ubiquitous, weapon. Communications and public-relations departments have become essential parts of every business. Global spending on advertising reached nearly $600 billion in 2015.1 One in seven people on the planet are on Facebook. By 2011, 91 percent of children ages two to seventeen played video games.2 In the United States, teenagers spend nearly nine hours a day looking at screens.3 And those are just the measurable aspects of culture’s exponential growth. There are countless philosophical questions to be asked: How has the role of music in everyday life changed in the last one hundred years? How many scripted television shows can one watch? How many more creative ways are there to shape the city? And yet, we remain unappreciative of just how dramatic this shift in the techniques of power has become. In particular, we continue to read the world as though it still has one foot solidly planted in the realm of reason. It is in our global DNA to identify as rational subjects. But perhaps, this Enlightenment-era thinking could use a heavy pause as we discover just how emotional, affective, we truly are. Certainly this turn away from an Enlightment belief in our own rationality stands on the shoulders of great thinkers from Adorno to Gramsci, from cultural studies of the Birmingham school with figures such as Stuart Hall, Dick Hebidge, and Raymond Williams, to more contemporary, less structuralist, approaches by Judith Butler. But while I invoke some of these theories in the book, my main goal is to make sense of just how affective, how culturally 5 savvy are the institutions—Apple stores, Facebook, real-estate moguls, to name just a few—that we confront daily. I hope to demonstrate a broad-strokes reading of the uses of culture. We will define culture simply. And in doing so, we begin to see it everywhere, from counterinsurgency tactics in the Iraq War to the origins of IKEA to rock bands singing for aid for Africa to the design of the Mac to the war on drugs. It is a motley assemblage of seemingly disparate phenomena—and intentionally so. For power is visible in the hands of our elected officials as often as it is hidden in a package of inanity. The many forms of power in our world have sophisticated approaches to reaching that very needy, fearful, and social creature we call ourselves. One of my key hopes for this book is to echo something that Walter Lippmann had voiced long ago: that democracy is a fallible project rhetorically dependent on a rational subject, who, quite frankly, does not exist. In fact, the illusion of the rational subject has been extremely helpful in hiding the totality of these techniques. Understanding the power of association and the uses of emotion can explain a U.S. election better than a lens of capitalism. Just as Marxist philosophers in Britain sought to understand why the British populace turned away from Labour through the rise of Margaret Thatcher, just as Thomas Frank struggled to understand why working-class Kansas voted Republican, and just as, further back, Karl Marx asked why the French people rallied around the tyrant Louis Bonaparte in 1852, I want to make a further contribution to the cultural study of why people don’t act rationally. While it is certainly demonstrable that one can encourage a consumer to purchase Coca-Cola through a clever, large-scale advertising campaign, it remains unclear how the aggregate of advertising approaches collectively affect the opinions and actions of that consumer. It also remains unclear the secondary results of cultural manipulation when deployed by politicians, whether in the case of war abroad or at home. These cumulative effects of the deployment of affect has made for a very messy social terrain. It is sort of like a greenhouse effect of cultural production that changes our sense of the world around us. 6 Some compelling implications arise when we read power through its use of culture. For example, power has contributed to the strategies and vulnerabilities of social movements by manipulating media and public perception. Media activism and social movements that cull from the techniques of advertising to make a larger point have a long history, but it is useful to appreciate the double-edged nature of deploying culture. Simple facts—that fear motivates faster than hope, that appeals to emotion do not rely on the truth, or that rationality need not drive enthusiasm—make the terrain of activism that uses culture more precarious. From an arts perspective, I would like to place what is considerated the traditional arts (theater, visual arts, dance, and film) into conversation with not only the commercial arts, but also public relations and advertising. In this way, we can position this more broad definition of art as something that has a potentiality for being both deeply coercive and absolutely powerful. After a century of cultural manipulation, it would be naive to discuss art without simultaneously discussing the manner in which art is already deployed by power daily. With real-estate developers and the tech boom both boldly embracing the power of art to change society, with the deployment of the use of the term creative to rebrand innovative capitalist design as an art, one has to appreciate, and perhaps second-guess, just how far art has come. By demystifying the inherent good of art, one can place art in the same conversation as other phenomena of daily life. As much as this book is about public opinion, I know that public opinion is not everything. In fact, I would say a large part of power doesn’t depend on public opinion. The Fortune 500 companies list Walmart at number one with its basic approach of low-cost consumer goods being its strategy. The second company is ExxonMobil, who continues to churn out oil for an energy dependent globe. For both of these companies, power resides in getting the basic goods to people while controlling that market. Yes, they advertise and to some degree shape their brand, but that isn’t the formula for their massive sales. So while the uses of culture have grown immensely, they don’t exist in a vacuum. 7 That said, how we understand the world certainly remains a key part of our collective journey. It’s an obvious thing to say. But perhaps we have to appreciate that we, as evolutionary creatures, are ultimately fearful social beings who try our best to grapple with phenomena beyond our ken. We try to understand everything from climate change to global war to capitalism to biotechnology. But we can only process that information through the lens of our intimate selves. We interpret the world by way of our personal needs and desires, and so we are vulnerable to larger powers who know how to speak to those needs. 8 1 THE REAL CULTURE WAR There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. —PATRICK BUCHANAN Donald Trump’s extraordinary ascent in 2015 and 2016 may have undermined much of what we understand about American politics, but it has also reaffirmed a truth almost forgotten: as Pat Buchanan goes, so goes the Republican Party. When Buchanan spoke at the 1992 Republican convention, his hyperbolic appeals to the human soul echoed a growing furor in his party. After eight years of Reagan and four years of Bush, it was no longer enough to define American values. It was time to look inward—to fight the war within. Buchanan did not get the Republican nomination, but his diagnosis (“a religious war…for the soul of America”) would have a tremendous impact in the years to come. But what, exactly, was that impact? For those American liberals who still remember the culture war—and their number is decreasing—the story is a straightforward one: the fear of change —of cultural irrelevance—was used by Republicans to sustain an increasingly white, increasingly aging coalition. Postmodernity had sunk its teeth into the heart of the United States, and the salt of the earth were scrambling to get their bearings: the parts of the United States that had frowned upon the upheaval of the 1960s could be mobilized into action. Artists would be collateral damage. 9 In the popular liberal lore, then, the culture war has become synonymous with a cheap form of politics perpetuated by the American right. But the culture wars were more than a battle between darkness and light, between conservatism and liberalism, between the past and the future. Something else was at work. Everyone who works in the arts has been indoctrinated into the origin story of the culture war. From within, it was a story of contraction and fear. In the span of only a few years in the late 1980s and early ’90s, direct grants to artists were eliminated, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was forced to confront a pattern of budgets cuts that diminished an already impoverished federal department. The arts became a focal point for a party determined to galvanize the masses of white anger against liberalism, democracy, and freedom of expression. The land of Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley, of AIDS activism and socialist leanings, of queer-friendly attitudes and bohemian lifestyles—this land was condemned and stigmatized. Looking back, though, it’s hard not to see a double game at work. If the narrative of evil Republicans and victimized Democrats seems somehow too familiar, too cozy, that’s because it is. To see the culture wars as a story of culture—of Culture—as a victim is to miss the methods with which the war was fought. The culture war wasn’t a war on culture—at least, not exclusively. It was also a war that used culture. This strategic deployment of culture was both an improvement and an innovation; many of these methods had been developed decades earlier in the field of public relations. Three decades later, we can see examples across the political and social spectrum. Today, culture is a weapon deployed by Democrats and Republicans, by the news media and by powerful corporations, by architects and social-media developers. To an extent that would have been difficult to fathom in the early 1990s, competing uses of culture are no longer a sideshow; they have moved toward the very center of American life. This is not to suggest, of course, that there exists some glorious, logical past in which our politics were free of irrationality, emotion, or fear. As long as there have been politicians, business leaders, ad executives, activists, artists, hucksters, and public10 relations experts, there has been a shared awareness that battles in public life are not fought and won purely on the basis of logic and information. What has changed is scale. Advertising now pervades every aspect of daily life, and public-relations departments—once a novelty—have become critical components of every business and nonprofit. This is, above all, a book about that investigates the consequences of this shift in scale. It is about the transformative change in the uses of culture by the disparate network of people and institutions we’ll call—perhaps a bit hyperbolically—“the powerful.” But it is also a book about artists. Emotion, affect, manipulation —the very tools key to the cultural shift I intend to describe are, after all, tools artists have deployed for centuries. These tools have been captured and coopted, and this, in turn, has had an impact on how artists work. (This is not to say that all artists—or most artists—have stood in opposition to power. Indeed, throughout history, many of them produced little more than a kind of advertising campaign for the powerful—think of court painters or sculptors who ultimately produced fetish objects for the wealthy.) Which artists are most salient to this discussion of the deployment of culture by the powerful? Whose work and life overlap with the concerns I’m laying out in this book? I’d like to briefly suggest three imperfect categories of artists. First, there are the oracles: artists that conjure visions of the future through their art. These are artists such as Andy Warhol, who could see, with peculiar clarity, the imminent fusion of consumerism and visual culture. Second, there are the resisters: artists who use their art to resist the forces of the powerful. This group could include everyone from antiwar poster artists, to artist-activists like Abbie Hoffman (who dumped dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to demonstrate the inherent greed of American financial capitalism), to artists who practice a more conceptual approach, such as Adrian Piper, whose interventions in New York urban life in the 1970s brought into relief questions of race and gender. 11 Third, there are the world makers. These are artists who create, through their art, alternative ways of living. Think of Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer who, in giving an active visual representation of homosexual culture, brought a world into the public light. This, then, is a story approached from two angles. Throughout this book, I will hone in on groups and individuals who understand that culture is a tool. The goal is not to counterpoise the noble artist against the cynical advertising executive: I am more interested in the evolution and growing complexity of cultural manipulation over the last few decades than I am in condemning that manipulation. Still, I do not want to draw a false equivalence. Art, even at its most public and most ambitious, doesn’t have nearly the kind of effect that the culture industries can have. It’s also true that the story art can tell is more contingent, more radical, and ultimately far less beholden to power. We will move back and forth, in historic leaps and bounds, between artists and the groups that deploy culture to their own ends. This approach requires explicating certain industries and histories in detail, even if some of the protagonists—Starbucks, IKEA, the advertising executives paid to market luxury condominiums—seem prosaic and banal. But in that banality lies the truth of culture as it exists today: culture is a dangerous device, culture is a twenty-first-century weapon. We will first turn to the culture war, a historic moment when the two parts of our story—culture as weapon, launched by the powerful, and culture as a tool, deployed by artists—found themselves facing off in the battlefield of politics. 12 MORNING IN AMERICA In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign against Jimmy Carter hadn’t required much cultural weaponry: skyrocketing oil prices, the hostage crisis in Tehran, and the early spasms of deindustrialization were potent symbols; they didn’t need significant elaboration. But for reelection in 1984, Reagan made a stronger pitch. Some of the largest advertising agencies in the country helped the campaign develop a tone that would stand not only for the candidate, but also for his era. By the time the advertising executive Hal Riney created “Morning in America,” the most influential ad of the 1984 campaign, he had been in the advertising industry for decades, including a stint in the military’s publicrelations office. “Morning in America” brought to life the nostalgic vision for the future that would help secure Reagan’s second term. The ad begins with images of Americans quietly at work. A fishing boat heads out to sea in the dawn, a businessman exits his taxi, a farmer works his fields, a paperboy delivers the papers, another businessman waves goodbye to his family before getting in his station wagon. Homes are fixed, families are wed. Riney himself delivers the voiceover: It’s morning again in America. Today, more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon, 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago? The advertisement’s strength lies in its subtle shifts from the general to the specific, its leaps between the vague past and the concrete present. In any given sentence, we move from jobs to 13 homes to marriage to inflation to nostalgia, the ad’s animating spirit. Another of the campaign’s ads—also produced by Riney— perhaps best captures the flip side of Reagan’s “aw shucks” American optimism. Titled “Bear,” the advertisement is an extraordinary document of American Cold...
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  • Summer '15
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  • Cold War, Pat Buchanan, culture war, Kulturkampf

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