Globalisation and Glocalisation

Fred Fejes, in his assessment of media imperialism, emphasises the dependency theory such that it’s relevance is not lost in a globalising world. This perspective of thinking is solidified when Both Manjunath Pendakur and Robert McChesney provides an illustrative account of how capitalist forces shape and influence the production of media, within and across nations, not just in terms of the content that the media produces, but also in terms of the strengthening of an already hegemonic economy. With India emerging as the core of the periphery in the last two decade, there are also strong forces within the country that seek to nationalise and globalise culture, portray consumerism in a productive manner, and redefine social structures. A further complication is brought forth by Joseph Straubhaar and Leela Fernandes, which will form the crux of this essay.

While dependency theorists argue of a dependency being formed by the peripheral nations to the core nations who have the industry to produce large film and television production, Straubhaar argues that there may be implicit references to audience passivity in such a perspective (Fejes also writes about this). He writes about how the cultural capital and language preferences have caused dependency to be more like “asymmetrical interdependence”, where even though nations with high capital majorly produce and earn through media, there exists a thriving industry of regional and local programming. The illustrations he provides when he takes the examples of Dominican Republic and Mozambique (non-industrialised nations with unstable economies and politics) producing media, can be even more closely examined within India itself. In spite of the hegemonic influences of the heavily produced Bollywood films, the South Indian film industry (especially Tamil and Telugu cinema) has been increasing its revenues in a very short time with an expected growth of 18% per annum in 2011[1]. Contrary to the perspective of dependency theorists, there is a thriving demand for local programming. Straubhaar addresses and attempts to explain such a phenomenon in the particular case of Brazilian television.

Straubhaar majorly divides his argument into two components:

  1. Language: Hindi Bollywood industry has evolved and achieved great success in India in spite of better produced English films from Hollywood. A clear distinction in such a scenario is language. While it may be easy to import action-adventures and slapstick comedies into an Indian audience, it is difficult to do so for other comedies, dramas and other such genres. Bollywood movies dubbed in Tamil or Telugu have proven to be only mildly successful in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh[2]. This idea can also be used to explain why many Hollywood films like Mrs. Doubtfire, Reservoir Dogs, Kramer vs. Kramer and others have been remade into Bollywood films (Chachi 420, Kaante and Akele Hum Akele Tum). Such remakes are made in Bollywood (from Tamil or Telugu cinema – for example, Bhool Bhulaiya, Singham, Ghajini et al.), Tamil cinema, and Telugu cinema (from Bollywood films – for example, Gopala Gopala, Green Signal and Settai) and may even be very successful. However, simply dubbed films across regions may not always be successful. Therefore, even though language does divide the market, it is hardly the major reason, and definitely not the sole one.
  2. Cultural proximity: Cultural capital can simply be defined as the sources of knowledge for an individual. These may be structures like education, family, friends and networks, religion, professional engagements, and media consumption itself. Cultural proximity is the inclination of people to engage with media in a particular manner, and is driven by one’s cultural capital. Straubhaar analyses the effects of cultural capital across class in the Brazilian society, and how different classes prefer different kinds of programming. In fact, this would explain the phenomenon of remakes in the Indian film industry in more depth; a majority of the people in a developing nation like Brazil (and also in India) prefer local programming not only because of language, but because the content of the media is more in line with their cultural capital. While middle classes may be more nationalized in terms of their media (due to which they watch TV Globo), poorer sections of Brazil tend to watch more local programming which is similar to rural culture and folklore (like SBT). It is important here to flag what Theodor Adorno reiterates in Culture Industry Reconsidered, about how “low culture” is not an intellectual pursuit, but means of escapism and profit only (especially considering the programming on SBT, which is akin to the quality and content of the Jerry Springer show). In India, regional channels are paying increasingly high amounts to producers of regional serials[3] with their own remakes of reality television and game shows like Bigg Boss, Minute to Win it, and Dancing with the stars, other than soap operas. Netflix (globalised, urban-centric media) has only 4.2 million subscribers (most of whom are probably upper middle class or upper class) in India owing to its high pricing[5]. However, class divisions amongst Indian audiences have not been closely examined.

This argument may seem to depart from the core of dependency theory as in the work of McChesney & Schiller, Pendakur and Fejes, but in fact, it provides a base to understand the future of regional programming. Due to the success of local programming, production houses like UTV Motion Pictures are producing and distributing regional films like Irudhi Suttru, Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai and Yatchan. In Marathi television, Hindi channels may be losing out on news viewership due to Marathi channels, but Zee Marathi still has the highest share of the market, followed by Star TV’s Star Pravah[4]. It opens way for capitalistic forces to monopolise even regional media, where production itself should be more regionally open. This also opens the discussion for hegemonic Indian production houses (akin to transnational corporations) and the perception of their products being shaped by regional identities, an idea that Fernandes discusses on a national and global scale.

Fernandes makes the argument that “the global” itself is defined by changing perceptions of national identity. The change in the discourse of what constituted national progress, from industrialisation and rural poverty alleviation to consumer goods as symbols of wealth and upward mobility of the middle classes, is testament to how globalisation was defined in India. This change occurred over a long period of time, starting from the post-independence perspective of thinking, to the late 1990s, post-liberalisation.

Fernandes flags several examples of “fetishization of hybridity”, which is when commodity fetishism evolves under a combination of global and national identity. When a corporation has to “Indianize” a product in order to create value for the market that exists in India, it leads to the creation of an image of the nation as well as how the global product fits in the context of India. This solidified the image that using an inherently Western product is not a threat to the Indian value system, in fact, the product fits perfectly well with Indian values, and this is what the transnational corporations used (and continue to use) in their advertising strategies. In the more recent times, the emergence of online shopping has become a site of such discussions. Take for instance the advertisement for Amazon “Garden ka sapna” produced for television[6]. With online shopping (especially Amazon) gaining traction amongst middle class families, Amazon has also sought to portray the nuclear families as their ideal customers, while also keeping nostalgia as the main factor for dreams that such families might have and the idea that they can be fulfilled by buying more items from Amazon. In spite of the fact that the urban protagonists in the advertisement yearn for a garden in a high-rise building, Amazon can fulfill this need and aspiration of a home with a garden.  

An argument that Fernandes makes is that the aspirations of the middle class were transformed under the effect of foreign capital flows. Take for instance, the recent advertisement of AMFI mutual funds[7]. The risk-averse tendencies of the Indian market is sought to be placated in the ad, while also asserting that using these financial products is beneficial to the middle-class household economy, and may lead to great profits, enough for upward mobility. This is more apparent in the older advertisement for ICICI mutual funds[8]. The idea that purchasing a house and a car is the ideal middle-class dream has itself defined who should identify as the middle class. There are also clear connections between the respectability of the middle class (and not the second-generation business persons) and the notion of the brand.

The most interesting aspect of Fernandes’ argument is drawn when she writes about gender becoming a symbolic site of the anxieties that plague the middle classes. With increasing foreign capital flows, there is always a fear of dependency on other countries, because the economic prosperity of both, the nation and the transnational, seems counter-intuitive. So while middle-class families may want to consume Western products (media or otherwise), there is also a need to protect women, who have generally been the bearers of value and honor in India. The notion that Indians should be buying Indian products is evidence of how internalized consumerism really is. For example, Patanjali, which has an advertising strategy built around using “herbal”, “natural” and inherently “safe” ingredients derived from tradition, released an advertisement advertising their range of beauty products[9]. Simply put, the advertisement idealises a certain kind of woman; who respects tradition, and demonises the other; who is “bindass and a wannabe type” of girl. The success of Patanjali in the FMCG market shows us that the anxiety over using Western products is real, but more than that, the baggage that Westernization brings to the gender roles to Indian tradition, is also anxiety-inducing.

  1. https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-07-03/tamil-films-give-bollywood-run-its-money  
  2. http://www.dnaindia.com/entertainment/report-why-hindi-films-dubbed-in-south-indian-languages-are-gaining-popularity-2149472
  3. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/media/entertainment/how-regional-channels-are-catching-with-local-versions-and-attracting-advertisers/articleshow/51950930.cms
  4. http://www.livemint.com/Consumer/ZDUEJi5dFGQdJY27NNuVFM/Marathi-channels-edging-out-Hindi.html
  5. https://qz.com/937773/netflix-has-a-big-battle-ahead-to-win-subscribers-in-india-kpmg-india-ficci-report/
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdFUTLSZP0I
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItA0PkrSCHQ
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDGEyUOmrjs
  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBh7VzLVh1U
  10. Straubhaar, Joseph D. “Beyond media imperialism: Assymetrical interdependence and cultural proximity.” Critical Studies in media communication 8.1 (1991): 39-59.
  11. Fernandes, Leela. “Nationalizing the global’: media images, cultural politics and the middle class in India.” Media, Culture & Society 22.5 (2000): 611-628.

 

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The Political Economy of International Communications

McChesney and Schiller, in “The Political Economy of International Communications”, largely argue about the changing political and economical atmosphere globally and how that has affected the production of media. They dispel the myth that the role of state should (and has) be minimised, by asserting that it has been the state that has, historically, taken initiative to encourage media use. In India, the Prasar Bharti Act of 1990[1] sought to grant autonomy to Prasar Bharti (comprising of Doordarshan Television Network and All India Radio) which had previously been under governmental control. The purpose and function of the agency was determined by the Government of India before this act which came into enactment only in 1997. Moreover, the SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment) of 1975 was started by the Department of Atomic Energy of Government of India along with NASA[2].

It can, thus, be rightly concluded that there is a government influence in the sustenance of media. However, it is increasingly important to understand what influences the state in favouring policies. While media technologies could have been used to better public services, there was hardly any economic or political impulse to this. In fact, the state has always encouraged the use of media for commercial purposes, especially since liberalism has become the norm of even developing nations. The authors write specifically about inter-border relations between media corporations, but this can be understood as being within the nation as well. As Fred Fejes mentions in “Media Imperialism”, dependency theory is not just relevant between nations, but also within a nation where there is a core and a periphery (and the interests of the urban ruling class aligns with the transnational corporations). Larger companies devouring medium companies is a phenomenon that occurs frequently for purposes of expansion and debt restructuring, just as Reliance Communications Pvt. Ltd acquired MTNL and more recently, Aircel[3]. This directly correlates to the idea that overinflating a corporation’s value in spite of its rising debt is a common practice, and is solved by giving control to a larger corporation. This has marked the rise of neoliberalism in India as well.

According to the authors, there are larger political dependencies that drive the nature of relations between nations and their policies on media corporations and their operations. Corporations want to expand quickly, supra-nationally, or they may not survive. The authors also bring notice to the fact that even though the Internet was thought of to be more democratic than other technologies of media, it has not been able to liberate us as of yet. McChesney’s work “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy” delves into these details further.

The anti-competitive practices that corporations adopt are clear with the advent of Reliance Jio[4], where short term profits are sacrificed for long term monopoly over the telecommunications market. Moreover, the authors write about corporations, “overbilling of calling-card users, illegally transferring long-distance accounts to new carriers, charging telephone users for services they did not order”. These are issues that are most commonly complained about in India according to the National Consumer Helpline[5]. The particularities of these numbers are also noteworthy – the corporations in question, the industry in which most number of such issues are reported, and the common complaints. While there are flaws in using the Consumer helpline as a source for authentic data, it does illustrate the unethical policies that corporations might use, especially with the theoretical base that the authors create for us.

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As Baran & Davis trace in “The Rise of Media Industries and Mass Society Theory”, that while the direct effect of the content of media on audiences may be debatable and require more inquiry, questioning the profit-making intentions of the media industry is a much more urgent issue. However, making a tangential argument to what Adorno stresses in “Culture Industry Reconsidered” about how high culture is losing its authenticity and aura due to mass culture (while also writing about the profit-making intentions of media producers), the authors of this particular essay addresses the idea that populist content (mass culture) may be progressive in the traditional sense, but remains politically conservative so as to not challenge the existing power structures in society.

Dynamics of Cultural Policy Making: The US Film Industry in India

Manjunath Pendakur traces the history of policy making in India in specific regards to the US film industry. He makes direct correlations between how the state aided the MPEAA (Motion Picture Export Association of America) in hegemonizing the growing market for films in India, by forming cartels (which would otherwise be illegal within a country), imposing trade embargo and generating demand. It is also important to note that Jack Joseph Valenti, who was the president of MPEAA for almost 40 years, was a pro-copyright lobbyist for almost as long a time.

In spite of colonies like India gaining independence after the World War 2, there have been clear instances where countries from the core (in particular, US) have sought to imperialise the periphery by taking advantage of a market in India, while not generating a market in their own nation. This directly aids what Fred Fejes claims should be a way to look at media institutions; combining media imperialism and dependency theory that explains “undevelopment” of the media in previous colonies. The formation of a cartel helped corporations like Twentieth-century Fox, Paramount, Orion and others to claim prices for the distribution of films that suited their interests until 1971, although the formation of NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) in 1975 did regulate it (since the distribution was under the control of NFDC). However, the treaty of 1975 failed to bring into account that the interest-free loans given to government sponsored agencies were still repatriated. Moreover, the usage of political influence (trade embargo or the intervention of the embassies) was justified by Valenti as trying to evade the anti-competitive nature of certain states, while also forming cartels to dispense US films.

India’s demand to have Indian films also imported to the US was mostly ignored. Moreover, the traditional stance that Karanth committee was also concerned about was the content of the films that US exported. As Adorno emphasises in “Culture Industry Reconsidered” that instead of intellectually stimulating media, mass culture engages the audiences to standardized products, these films were cheap thrillers/horror, action and full of sex and violence, and not culturally relevant to India. Even though Baran & Davis point out in their analysis of mass society theory that this theoretical framework of direct influence on audiences lost support more recently, this does not change the fact that US was not willing to reciprocate with Indian films, most likely for commercial reasons, while manufacturing crass content for Indian audiences to generate demand.

A push for profit participation was thwarted significantly in 1983 (which was a very important criteria for subsequent treaties), and more recent advent of US television shows and films are a testament to this change towards the hegemony of the West. India has moved towards the core of the periphery in the recent times, and therefore, also makes for an imperialist influence to her neighbouring countries. The advent of channels like Zee TV and Sony with Indian television shows has been significant, and Pakistan’s former Information minister Javed Jabbar has expressed concerns about it (Sonwalkar 2001). Sonwalkar also notes that Nawaz Sharif, when he was in the opposition against the government of Benezir Bhutto in 1996, often pressed audiences to watch Zee TV instead of PTV (a Pakistani Channel).

  1. PIB: Focus”, 10 Aug, 2017, http://pib.nic.in/focus/fomore/prasar.html. Press Information Bureau. Web.
  2. Evaluation Report on Satellite Instructional Television Experiment”, 10 Aug, 2017,  http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/peoreport/cmpdmpeo/volume2/erosi.pdf. Programme Evaluation Organisation, Planning Commission of India. Web.
  3. Reliance Communications to Finalise 3 Deals.” The Economic Times, The Economic Times, 14 Feb. 2017, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/company/corporate-trends/reliance-communications-to-finalise-3-deals-including-merger-with-aircel-by-mid-2017/articleshow/57135115.cms.
  4. Srivas, Anuj. “Reliance Jio: The Good, Bad and Ugly of Ambani’s Digital Empire.” The Wire, 2 Sept. 2016, https://thewire.in/63301/the-good-bad-and-ugly-of-mukesh-ambanis-proposed-digital-empire/.
  5. McChesney, Robert Waterman, and Dan Schiller. The political economy of international communications: Foundations for the emerging global debate about media ownership and regulation. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 2003.
  6. Sonwalkar, Prasun. “India: Makings of little cultural/media imperialism?.” Gazette (Leiden, Netherlands) 63.6 (2001): 505-519.
  7. Pendakur, Manjunath. “Dynamics of cultural policy making: the US film industry in India.” Journal of communication 35.4 (1985): 52-72.

Media Imperialism

While Theodor Adorno, in “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, critiques the effect of profit-making interests on the quality of art produced in terms of its effect on masses, Fred Fejes makes a similar argument on a more international scale. Newer modes of questioning communications media has impulsed media to not be thought as a tool for development (which is a Western thought), but as an obstacle in developing nations. How transnational corporations structure their businesses in Third World countries is a matter of empirical research, but a theoretical grounding is necessary to anchor the questions and the scope of study, Fejes emphasises. Instead of generalizing models of development as ‘modernization’, the last decade has seen interest develop in the dependency theory. Dependency theory, although not described in detail in Fejes’ work, asserts that the economic interests of wealthy nations aid in deepening the inequality between “center” (dominant, industrialised states) and “periphery” (dependent states with low per capita GNPs) states. (Ferraro 2008)

Fejes also argues that within nations themselves, there is a fault line that places the urban sector (or the economically and politically powerful) aligning with the interests of dominant nations, and rural sector which is exploited for these economic interests. Keeping this in mind, it is also important to understand the historicity of these dominant structures, especially with a neocolonial approach. While Marxist views would argue that the end of imperialism occurs with power changing hands (for example, when British and France taking over German colonies after WW1), dependency theorists would argue that imperialism continues regardless of the specific identity of the dominant states. The idea that colonizing forces are modern and developed, and that developing nations are today at the position of developed nations in history, is thoroughly rejected by dependency theorists.

There are also internal conflicts in a country that aid in strengthening of an imperialist structure; caste and class may form the basis for this. It is not just the external factors that affect the development in periphery countries (Fejes asserts these are only good for conspiracy theories), but the way these interact with internal factors. Dependency theory also does not provide researchers with testable propositions, but frames a way of questioning the hegemony of power in developing nations. With this, Fejes concludes media should be analyzed in how it affects the power structures within a nation, and then this study should be linked with how transnational investments encourage dependency and dominance.

The main crux of the argument is to realise the commercial interests of transnational corporations, and how they seek to dominate national interests. For example, the advent of Free Basics (started as a partnership between Facebook and 6 other companies) to provide “free” internet in developing countries, while also violating net neutrality. In India, it was planned to be released with Reliance Communications (also a leading corporation in Indian communication technology) (Russell 2015). This clearly demonstrates the idea that internal power and economic structures (Reliance) share commercial interests with external factors (Facebook). While being marketed to provide internet access to communities without it, there were deep commercial interests in the venture that conflicted with national rights of privacy, net neutrality and data protection. Only Facebook-approved applications could be accessed with Free Basics (with Facebook as the only social-networking site and Whatsapp as the only messaging app), the submission guidelines for which disallowed HTTPS connections (which means that data going through the platform would be readable by Facebook) among other things[3]. While Free Basics was banned from India by TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) a year after it was started, it found roots in Pakistan with Telenor Pakistan (subsidiary of Norwegian Telenor). Free Basics is an example of the attempts of transnational corporations attempting to monopolise markets.

References:

  1. Ferraro, Vincent. “Dependency theory: An introduction.” The development economics reader 12.2 (2008): 58-64.
  2. Russell, Jon. “Facebook Takes Internet.org And Its Free Mobile Data Services To India.”TechCrunch. TechCrunch, 09 Feb. 2015. Web. 27 July 2017. <https://techcrunch.com/2015/02/09/internet-org-india/&gt;.
  3. Facebook. “Technical Guidelines – Free Basics – Documentation.” Facebook for Developers. Facebook, n.d. Web. 27 July 2017. <https://developers.facebook.com/docs/internet-org/platform-technical-guidelines>.
  4. Fejes, Fred. “Media imperialism: An assessment.” Media, Culture & Society 3.3 (1981): 281-289.

Baran & Davis: The Rise of Media Industries and Mass Society Theory

Stanley Baran and Dennis Davis construct an argument and a critique of the mass society theory by tracing its development and inadequacies. The rise of industrialism in the late 19th century in Europe and United States, ushered investment and usage of new forms of technology, causing “functional displacement” of previous forms of technologies being used in media. The passage of information amongst large groups of people became cheaper, and the media industry capitalise on this to attract even semi-literate people to consume media in the form of comic strips, sports and exaggerated accounts of events. The idea of yellow journalism was initiated to lure more readers by reporting fictitious accounts and gathering sketchy details about events (akin to the contemporary “clickbait” culture of online reporting).

With technologies being rapidly replaced, several components of the media industries would take the support of lawsuits (copyright violations) to maintain a dominant control over the business of media. This is also evident in India when All India Bakchod, a YouTube channel media producer, claimed that they were disallowed to make a parody of a trailer by Yash Raj Films[1]. Moreover, according to Baran and Davis, a lot of research conducted during this time to critique television and it’s influence was driven by selfish interests rooted in profit-making intentions and instinctive fearful reactions. This becomes even more relevant because new media challenges the existing social order, and creates new institutions for self-regulation (like filtering of explicit content and offensive material on social media).

Baran and Davis list several assumptions that the mass society theory makes, which are mostly based in the dissolution of a stable social order – which protects individuals from manipulation and isolation. This can be remedied by a totalitarian social order that controls the media. However, the idea that masses can be easily manipulated was rarely supported by conclusive evidence, and that media was just one of many influences in larger lines of thought in society. Moreover, the changes in social order have challenged complex power structures, and emancipated previously marginalised communities. The idea that media is propagating the false narrative of nationalism in contemporary India is weak before also asking the question of why masses want to construct a national identity during a time of political division, religious and social turmoil, and rapid globalisation. The notion of a faltering high culture is deconstructed by questioning the cultural capital of the representatives of high culture, and the increase in representation with new media. However, the easy availability of hegemonic American media content across the world should still be a matter of importance.

The dichotomies defined by Ferdinand Tonnies and Emile Durkheim, whether between folk communities and modern societies, or mechanical and organic solidarity, deepen the chasm between theorists who yearn for a social order that existed in the past, and those who extol modern society for its power to perfect a democracy. The mass society theory has garnered little support during contemporary discussions, especially due to lack of concrete evidence. However, the monopoly and profit-driven intentions of the media industry is an issue still very relevant. For example, the film Dangal was directed by Nitesh Tiwari, who was a creative director at an advertising agency. The makers of this film were heavily invested in marketing for the film correctly, advertising aspects of the film that would appeal to various demographics, having a solid presence on various media (new and old), and capitalising on the “clickbait” nature of the video “Fat to Fit” uploaded on YouTube before the release of the film (which garnered over 17 million views)[2][3].

[1] All India Bakchod. 18 December 2013. 23:17.  https://www.facebook.com/IndiaBakchod/posts/645142952196369

[2] Srivastava, Prachi. “The Marketing Story Behind Aamir Khan’s Dangal” Advertising Age. N.p., 23 Dec. 2016. Web. 13 July 2017. <http://www.adageindia.in/marketing/cmo-strategy/the-marketing-story-behind-aamir-khans-dangal/articleshow/56125282.cms>.

[3] “Fat To Fit” YouTube, uploaded by UTV Motion Pictures, 28 November 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aVw1gZ9Ncg

[4] Baran, Stanley J., and Dennis K. Davis. The Era Of Mass Society And Mass Culture. Mass communication theory: Foundations, ferment, and future (pp. 44-70). Cengage Learning, 2011.

 

Theodor Adorno: Culture Industry Reconsidered

Right at the outset of the essay “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, Theodor Adorno corrects his previous work with Max Horkheimer by replacing the word “mass culture” with “cultural industry.” “Mass culture”, he articulates, suggests that the culture is being produced by the masses, which he debates is false.

Adorno’s inclination to argue from a Marxist perspective is clear; he is a harsh critic of commodity fetishism and the fact that the culture industry was serving capitalism. He argues that while cultural artefacts boast of being for the masses (the term mass-media suggests this), the industry that produces them understand the masses not as the subject of the artefact, but as the object. The culture industry assumes that ideologies that exist within the masses cannot be changed, and that the masses will consume what they desire to consume. The idea of commodity fetishism takes the form of art having value in accordance with its monetary worth, and not the art itself due to its intrinsic form. This blatant preference for profit while producing art, the planning and lack of spontaneity in art, are aspects that Adorno is uncomfortable with. For example, in India, the level at which Eros International Media Ltd functions, with operations in many countries and languages while making high revenue, is evidence of this. This argument is clear when he writes,

“Cultural entities typical of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through.”

While questioning the intention with which the culture industry manufactures cultural entities, Adorno also outlines how popular art standardizes the way in which masses perceive ideologies. He argues that culture produces encourages “eternal sameness”. His disdain towards industrialisation of art is apparent, especially when he argues that products of the culture industry seek to create illusions only as far as relieving the masses of the real issues that plague the world. Since the manufacturing of culture is so firmly rooted in technology, the correction of art does not lie within artistic boundaries (say, correction in the content), but in the techniques used to produce the art, which results in a lack of “aesthetic autonomy.”

When Adorno writes about popular art with skepticism, he underlines the fact that just because popular art caters to the masses, does not mean that the quality of the art cannot be questioned, especially when questioning makes the critic arrogant. In fact, the monopolistic nature is the reason why the culture industry needs to be questioned. Moreover, the industry cannot be allowed to exist freely without criticism simply because it provides the masses with social orientation during times of distress. Adorno is also inclined to believe that popular culture does have regressive effects on its viewers (“that steady drops hollow the stone”), even while admitting that such research has not been performed yet.

“The color film demolishes the genial old tavern to a greater extent than bombs ever could: the film exterminates its imago. No homeland can survive being processed by the films which celebrate it, and which thereby turn the unique character on which it thrives into an interchangeable sameness.”

Although Adorno’s essay was written in 1963, a lot of symptoms of the culture industry are relevant more so now than ever before. Adorno does leave room for the possibility of individual expression in the culture industry in spite of all the criticisms, but that has also been sandpapered away today. This is especially so because the individual human need to make art is lost, and behind every piece of art (film, music and television), there are contributions from many individuals whose primary purpose is not to make art, but to create an image that can be sold.

What Adorno is writing may be misconstrued as being elitist and uplifting “high culture”, criticising “low culture”, and asserting that only the former can intellectually stimulate people and fulfills all the needs that art can provide. This becomes especially questionable when high culture has generally been consumed by people with higher economic, social and cultural capital. However, in my opinion, Adorno assumes, in fact, that it is the culture industry that is creating the needs of the masses for profit-making interests. Does this mean that the mass audiences are “vulnerable” enough to not know what their true needs are, and that capitalism can misguide them into thinking that what they need are consumable goods? This raises the question of what Adorno considers to be art, and what art does to humans. Why do we have an inherent need to consume and/or produce art? And are new forms of media functionally replacing older media without also replacing all the needs that media and art fulfilled in the first place? The question of whether people today are more isolated than ever due to crumbling social order and transformations is an important one to ask. If the state of means of production in a neoliberal society alienates people from the larger picture of how goods are produced and what their contribution is during production, can the same be said about media and art? If we assume that we consume art as social beings, does the manufacture of art cause us to lose sight of our social needs?

Reference:

  1. Adorno, Theodor W., and Anson G. Rabinbach. “Culture industry reconsidered.” New German Critique 6 (1975): 12-19.

Dangal (2016)

Most Aamir Khan movies have one thing in common; his own character is a somewhat stoic, heroic and most importantly, a benevolent man who more or less does the morally right thing most of the time and this becomes the godliness in his being. This syndrome of certain male actors as being cast the supreme ‘hero’ of the film is not limited to Aamir Khan alone but seeps in in movies by Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Akshay Kumar. Movies that come to mind where there are elements of such a phenomenon taking place is Airlift, Taare Zameen Par, Chak De India, 3 idiots, Dabangg, Fan, PK, and Talaash. Dangal was also a movie like that.

dangal_poster

The authenticity of the movie has to be appreciated at the onset itself. The village in Haryana, the language, the life of the Phogats, and the reactions of the villagers when Daya fails to give birth to a son, all set up the film quite well. I especially loved the performance by the two child actors who played Gita and Babita (Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar respectively) which made the movie a very enjoyable experience. The music was easy on the ears, complementing the movie quite well.

After Chak De India, this seemed like the next easily digestible movie about gender (after the failure that had been Mary Kom), and it made me excited to be standing in solidarity with women who make it through the patriarchal world of sports. All through the movie, I was thinking about how much courage, perseverance and hard work would it have taken both Gita and Babita Phogat to make it into wrestling, a sport that has more connotations about gender than most other games. Unlike the movie MS Dhoni, this movie was even about the sport; with many wrestling matches being shown almost in its entirety. The moves, the techniques, and the way to play the sport was explicitly explained, which made a person averse to sports (like me) enjoy it quite a bit.

As a feminist, the first half of the film kept my adrenaline high. It was wonderful to see a woman wrestle her way to the top steadily, and I kept rooting for her during her matches against the men of the dangal. However, the fact was that the main character of the movie was definitely Mahavir Phogat, and not Gita or Babita Phogat. They were important characters, definitely, but they were secondary. We see the world through Mahavir’s eyes; we start with his story, his dreams, his aspirations, and his insistence on having his daughters achieve his dream of getting a medal for the country. When Gita is supposed to enter the dangal as a participant, the confrontation about her gender is performed by Mahavir himself. The most that the women are shown to face in terms of what they are choosing to do, is the rampant bullying at school, which they are not able to overcome anyway. It is Mahavir who takes the charge on defying gender roles; by FORCING his daughters to wrestle when they clearly have no interest in it, and maybe not just because they are women. We feel the sadness in the music and the overall mood of the film when Gita leaves the training of his father, and goes to the NSA. It is not an upbeat, cheery moment; but the withdrawal of a father’s influence from his daughter’s life.  It is Mahavir, a looming patriarch, leading the charge on changing how women are perceived in the society. There is nothing inherently wrong with this either; in a patriarchal society, it is important for the dominant gender to take charge to make life better for the rest of the society, and that is exactly what happens in the film. The bigger dream, however, was to win a gold medal for India, and that sense of nationalism is heavier during the latter part of the film (especially with the National Anthem in the middle of the film).

Although, in a way, the film takes a moral high-ground when Gita’s friend tells her that at least their father was treating them as his children, and not marrying them off as soon as they turned 14. It is not like there are only two options a father has when it comes to daughters; either marry them off at 14, or force them to undergo extremely rigorous training to become national wrestlers.

I would also like to draw attention to the double-standards of society in making fun of boys being beat up. When Gita and Babita beat up the two boys for calling them names, it is a comedic moment. When their mother chides them because they got beat up by two girls, most people in the audience laughed. There are several jokes about men not being ‘manly’ enough, which evoked several cringes from me during the movie. The upliftment of women does not necessarily have to bring insults and accusations of ‘femininity’ towards men; that way, there is no battle being won.

Personally, however, I would have loved to see a more focussed picture of what it was like to be Gita Phogat. What was she feeling when she had to step into a dangal for the first time, wrestle with men, being gawked at by men? Was she as confident as she looked in those scenes? This is a dangal where no woman has ever set foot in before. The first woman at a place like that must have something unique to share, an experience that I would have loved to see on screen. If nothing else, it has evoked in me a sense of curiosity about Phogat herself, and her struggles to become a female wrestler, coming from a small village in Haryana. Phogat herself admitted that 99% of the film is truly inspired from her own life and very accurate. However, glimpses into the minds of the women was more expressively done in Chak De India where you see a player’s tiff with her partner, with her parents, her in-laws and society. Maybe it just wasn’t possible with a film like Dangal, but at the end of the film, I was left asking for more.

The pressure that the girls faced in terms of how forceful their father was in training them was only natural. Any sport would require a lot of practice, even when the player themselves was not prepared for it. That is why sportspersons have coaches, to push them harder and to bring them to their full potential. I suppose that would have been the case regardless of the gender of the children of Mahavir Phogat. He is just as tough with Gita and Babita’s cousin, the narrator of the story, if not less, and in that way, Mahavir truly brings his own daughters at an equal standing.

Overall, Dangal is definitely a film that was worth the wait. It is a heart-warming story of how a man and his daughters, defy all expectations of society and set out to do what no one has hoped for (which the commentator during the matches mentions several times, quite rudely, if you ask me). Is it a better movie than Chak De India, a movie that set the standard quite high for all sports and gender related movies? Definitely not.

Cats and alterations in personality

‘If the mind is a machine, then anything can control it – anything, that is, that understands the code and has access to the machinery’

Let us take for example the orb spider. Typically, the orb spider weaves a web that is no less than an engineering marvel, a mosaic of spiral non-sticky web and a final sticky web line to hold the entire web together. It must be a matter of great pride for the spider to achieve such a feat in a matter of hours. However, these plans can be foiled by the Polysphincta gutfreundi, a small tropical wasp whose entire image is built on what it does to the orb-weaver spider. The female wasp lays an egg in the abdomen on the spider, after which a tiny larvae emerges out of it, deriving nutrition from its host’s body. However, that is not enough for the larva. The larva needs a safe spot to undergo metamorphosis and emerge a wasp, and what better than to use the extraordinary intellect of the spider in building itself a home. The larva imparts certain chemicals in the spider that makes it weave the web just a little differently. This “drugged” spider is under the influence of the larva, weaving to its tunes and constructing a web for the benefit of the larva. These webs are strong and specifically designed to keep the larva’s cocoon suspended and away from the sight of larger predators.

 

spiralorb

If the larva is removed from the spider’s body by human intervention, the spider lives and returns to its normal web-making abilities soon enough.

The rabies virus, too, evokes the feelings of rage in its host so that the host bites another living being, and transmits the virus to more hosts.

Such a parasite exists closer to home, and much more elusive than a rabies virus. Let us talk about the infamous Toxoplasma gondii.

This protozoan has a fairly complicated life cycle which begins inside a very common animal, and only inside this animal.

Cats.

Inside cats, the protozoan spends time reproducing and generally having a gala time, after which zygote-filled cysts are released along with the cat’s poo. From here on, it can go anywhere it wants – water, soil, food, other hosts, and even humans (but we will get to that later). Depending on who ingests this infection that is now free to roam the world, the infection is concentrated in various parts of the body. In pigs (if that is the intermediate host), they are mostly in the muscles, and in the case of rodents, they are mostly in the brain. Inside this intermediate host, the protozoan can’t really reproduce, so it yearns for a way out and into a cat again, where it can continue to reproduce more protozoa. However, this might not always be possible.

In rodents, this protozoan has evolutionarily built a great way of escaping. It has been proven, that rats infected with Toxoplasma doesn’t hate cats quite as much. In fact, the smell of cat’s urine even sexually arouses the rodent towards the source. It also makes the rodents wary of predators around it, and makes for very easy prey for cats. Most of what the rodents do after being infected is a way for the cat to devour the host, and as such makes it the protozoan’s doing. It can happily reproduce again in a cat’s body.

When the passage from the intermediate host to the cat’s body is not really possible, the protozoan just chills in the host’s body for as long as it can, which is generally the lifespan of the animal. Globally, 30-50% of humans are infected with Toxoplasma gondii. And it alters the personalities of humans too.

Other than decreased reaction times, the infected humans showed a lot of changes in terms of their behaviour. The interesting part is that it shows up differently in both men and women. To quote a study,


Compared with uninfected men, males who had the parasite were more introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them, and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand, presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women.

Compared with uninfected people of the same sex, infected men were more likely to wear rumpled old clothes; infected women tended to be more meticulously attired, many showing up for the study in expensive, designer-brand clothing. Infected men tended to have fewer friends, while infected women tended to have more. 


 

The underlying difference that the study found was how differently genders handled anxiety and emotional strain, and that is the kind of alteration that affected people when they were infected with the protozoan. Of course, if a woman is an introvert, Toxo would not turn her into a raving extrovert, just a little less of an introvert. But over a larger sample size, the evidence is shocking.

This brings up the question that if Toxo can affect and alter the personalities of so many without them even realizing it, would it affect the entire human culture as a whole? When 30-50% of the human population is affected by this protozoan, does it seep into the cultural and societal aspects of our lives?

References:

http://insider.si.edu/2010/01/drugged-spiders-web-spinning-may-hold-keys-to-determining-how-animal-behavior-is-controlled/

Flegr, J (Jan 2013). “Influence of latent Toxoplasmainfection on human personality, physiology and morphology: Pros and cons of the Toxoplasma-human model in studying the manipulation hypothesis”. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 216 (Pt 1): 127–33.

Webster JP, Kaushik M, Bristow GC, McConkey GA (Jan 2013). Toxoplasma gondii infection, from predation to schizophrenia: can animal behaviour help us understand human behaviour?”. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 216 (Pt 1): 99–112.

Lafferty, Kevin D. “Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 273.1602 (2006): 2749-2755.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2015/10/29/parasite-human-brain-control/#.WFe4GqJ95MI

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/03/how-your-cat-is-making-you-crazy/308873/