Rant.

This response is to chapter 2 The corporation and the production of culture from Herbert I. Schiller’s 1989 book Culture, Inc. The corporate takeover of public expression.

Being from 1989, the article initially seemed out of date but as I read on I realised that the climate of corporation produced culture hasn’t exactly receded and that it’s even possibly more ingrained and compounded than Schiller might have imagined. The chapter talks about the reasons why we are where we are now, and the kind of ingrained culture and organisational tactics and structure that make it hard for creative people to achieve success in this current framework.[1]

The chapter starts by defining the cultural industry as being from anything published, like books, film and music, to symbolic services like museums, art galleries, theme parks and malls (Schiller, 1989, pp. 30–31). I find it problematic seeing art galleries and malls as both being cultural experiences, but asking which has more effect and impact on society leads to uncomfortable answers.

Schiller talks about the separation of culture as part of everyday life and the process of marketing it and selling it back to the people as a product that not all can afford and what we, as society in general (a massive generalization I know) have lost from this process (Schiller, 1989, p. 31). That separation means that the cultural goods and symbols produced are no longer of the people but are centered in the ideology of a privileged corporate few; the owners of that production line, not the makers.

Schiller acerbically writes that the “heavy public consumption of cultural products and services … represent a daily, if not hourly, diet of systemic values, spooned out to whichever public happens to be engaged” (Schiller, 1989, p. 33). The modern interaction with media through the internet means that the cultural industries “deeply structured and persuasive character” (Schiller 1989, p. 33), is even further amplified by constant contact and repetition.[2]

So, did this kind of constant contact create a modern vacuous public? Maybe. The Kardashians seem to be far more popular than seems right, and they in turn are even used to sell us products like Pepsi.

Schiller talks of the possibility of diverse programming on Cable TV and although “Keeping up with the Kardashians” exists, it does exist alongside varied shows on our modern day version of Cable; subscription streaming TV networks. Shows like ”Black Mirror” which critiques modern culture and its relationships to new, emerging and impending technologies, so there seems to be hope for TV yet. Shows like “Black Mirror” could also be seen as a corporation using its stable resources to finance possible risks or mistakes (Schiller, 1989, p. 43). It does seem at the moment that the Film industry is re-making (mediocre) gritty reboots of (better) older movies all the time instead of making new risky ones. Maybe Subscription TV is where all the risks are being taken.

However, due to crowdfunding, independent philanthropy and (dwindling) government grants, independent films are being made and shown at Indie film festivals all over the world to crowds who are loving it. Hooray for art! And hooray for the artists who have found success!

But although the corporate voice has little authenticity, it has much agency and Schiller describes how allowing “some small scale production is one means of ‘managing creativity’” (Schiller, 1989, p.42). The artists are kept intentionally underfunded so that they don’t come into competition with the big players, but kept in action and in competition with each other, defining clear winners[3] that the corporations can tap for new talent and assimilate into the production line. So, the artists are kept poor on purpose, its profitable. Just not for the artists.

In art school (the factory for making creatives) we are even told how to start attracting attention from the corporate galleries. Like Schiller says “it is not enough to write the book, you also have to sell it” (Schiller, 1989, p. 37). The advice given is to dress so that you can be described across the room easily and quickly, for example: The lady in the sequin leopard skin onesie. Hopefully this peacock like behavior means that the artist is memorable and can start to climb the ladder to real success.

So why do ‘we the people’ allow for this to happen? Schiller was writing about the dangers of this in the 1980s, why didn’t we step up and do something about it rather than letting the monopolies merge again and again to gain so much power? “In the first edition of The Media Monopoly (1982), Bagdikian declared that ‘The fifty men and women [sic] who head these corporations would fit in a large room.’” (Bagdikian as cited by Schiller, 1989, p. 35). Schiller then adds that “in 1987, a much smaller room would have been more than adequate” (Schiller, 1989, p. 35). I can’t help but wonder if in 2017 all those heads of corporations would fit into one generously stocked limo.

Maybe it’s not that we have become the mindless drones that were expected but that the system has become so ingrained. The public has been programmed to accept it, not just the idea of the giant global monopolies, but hierarchies and power structures stretching back through human history (religion and royalty I’m looking at you here). We automatically fit that structure into our narratives and into our organisations without really questioning it, a collective assumption that that is just the way it works.[4] (There is a nice tie in here to the idea of underlying assumptions in p.30 of the reading “The concept of organisational culture: Why bother?” In E. Shein’s Organisational culture and leadership.)

We are all still dealing with this ideological atmosphere that can smother other options. This kind of ideology can be hard to shake, especially when it is written in as the successful default.[5] That’s why new models for organisational culture and leadership are so important. The more we have success stories that work in variant models the more the status quo will crumble.

The internet brought with it such possibility for diversity, more than Schiller and his Cable TV example could have dreamed of, now with it as a tool for research, exploration and (in places) authentic culture growing, it can be a machine to spread new working models of success. Perhaps a new shift might happen where authenticity and culture both organizational and social might occur.

Or perhaps this is the system[6] and you must subvert it and use it. Make it work for your needs, do with it what you will.[7]

[1] The entire time I was reading this article and writing about it I had the 2006 song “Running the world” by Jarvis Cocker stuck in my head, a gloriously chirpy cynical song about the free market. Because his lyrics are applicable to many of the themes in this response, and because now in my head this article and the song are inextricably linked, I am including them as footnotes* in the text. I have included a link to the proper Youtube version here: https://youtu.be/xRGGbyZzuTg. You should watch it.  Maybe before you read all this. WARNING. The song drops the C bomb often, so you might want to make sure the kids aren’t around.

* Yes, I know this is a blatant misuse of footnotes. So is putting a footnote in a footnote probably.

Another misuse of footnotes would be to fill them with profanities and make them pink. Which I have also done. Dr. Ralph doesn’t like footnotes. Let’s see if we can win him over.

[2] Because as Jarvis Cocker sings; “Cunts are still running the world” (Cocker, 2006, hidden track).

[3] Well did you hear, there’s a natural order
   Those most deserving will end up with the most
   That the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top
   Well I say, “Shit floats” (Cocker, 2006, hidden track).

[4] The free market is perfectly natural
Do you think that I’m some kind of dummy?
It’s the ideal way to order the world
“Fuck the morals, does it make any money?” (Cocker, 2006, hidden track).
[5] Ah, it stinks, it sucks, it’s anthropologically unjust
Oh, but the takings are up by a third, oh so
Cunts are still running the world (Cocker, 2006, hidden track).

[6] “Smash the system” (Cocker as cited by Rough Trade Records 2007).

[7] Because “Cunts are still running the world” (Cocker, 2006, hidden track).

References

Cocker, J. (2006). Running the world. On Jarvis. [CD]. London, England: Rough Trade Records.

Rough Trade Records. (2007). Jarvis – running the world. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/xRGGbyZzuTg.

Schiller, H. I. (1989).  Culture, Inc.: The corporate takeover of public expression. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

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