Subversive Fictions: A Patina of Radicalism in Corporate Media Society

14 August 2011

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Cynthia Baron is the author of 'Reframing Screen Performance' and 'More Than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance'. She is Associate Professor in Theatre and Film at Bowling Green State University.


While simpleminded, it seems useful to ask: what is the attraction of “subversive” movies and media stars; how could fictional representations be subversive acts; how did contact with “subversive” movies become a politically radical gesture; why have “counterculture” audiences come to value “subversive” fictions? Work by Raymond Williams suggests that one way to answer questions like these is to consider, first, the degree to which we have become spectators of a world out there and, second, the way that industrial/post-industrial experience has channeled the expression of subjectivity into acts of consumption, to choices about what one watches and listens to, to decisions about what we value enough to bring into “private” space. His work provides a way to see that as a consequence of people being directed to engage in acts of “resistance” in the domain of consumption and taste-making, the “spectator-centered” approach to art and culture underlying Manny Farber’s cult criticism, Parker Tyler’s camp criticism, Andrew Sarris’s cult/camp criticism, and the non-aesthetic aesthetic of  counterculture “evangelist” Jonas Mekas has, for a half century, been an attractive option for people seeking to have a “real” relationship to a world out there (Taylor 26, 109).1

Taking its cue from Williams’s insight that dislocated and disembodied industrial/post-industrial life has shaped us into spectators of a world out there, caught in an “unfinished, transient, anxious relationship” with ourselves and others as we search and wait for the news from the outside that will create and confirm our identities, the essay proposes that spectator-centered visions of cultural resistance have, over the course of fifty years, led to the increasingly apolitical and disempowered pose of hipster counterculture (Raymond Williams on Television 13). That is, of course, a highly delimited thesis.

A comprehensive account of cultural and political resistance throughout the world would show that spectator-centered critiques are side shows. However, these safe forms of resistance have been given an inordinate amount of attention because they do not threaten the status quo. That attention makes it necessary to note that writing about fringe or popular media can be an act of cultural resistance but not a radical political act, and that resistance to what has been perceived as middlebrow taste and morality has actually enhanced corporate profits and engendered its own conformity. By conflating avant-garde aesthetics and avant-garde politics, by equating cultural commentary with political action, “subversive” representations and lifestyle choices have acquired increased significance, while for people shaped by and plugged into media culture, participation in actual social movements has come to seem increasingly foreign and remote, even suspect and inherently compromised.

Media culture and apolitical cultural resistance

Williams’s views about media culture, described in Television: Technology and Cultural Forms (1974) and elsewhere, evolve from his work on the “structure of feeling” embodied by various historically specific examples of modern drama (Drama from Ibsen to Brecht 19). They are also consonant with the foundational insights of the analysis that Guy Debord provides in Society of the Spectacle (1967). For, like Williams’s emphasis on the modern experience of being shut off from the world out there, Debord begins his discussion of “societies dominated by modern conditions of production” with the assessment: “Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at” (7; emphasis in original).

For Williams and Debord, the corollary to being cut off from a world out there is that people’s attention is directed to certain things (and away from others). Describing the way our attention gets focused on selected aspects of the world out there, Jonathan Crary notes that the cultural-technological components of modern life that fragment attention exist in a “reciprocal relationship to the rise of attentive norms and practices” (1). Confirming the work of Williams and Debord, Crary reminds us that people in media-saturated environments are shaped by “the disciplinary organization of labor, education, and mass consumption” (1-2).

These interlocking institutions not only frame our view of the world out there, the “picture” or “story” as broadcast to us is complete before we see it. Expressing a point made by Williams, Debord explains that the world out there is “a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned” (6). What is shown (and not shown) is beyond any individual’s control. As Debord puts it, the spectacle’s “sole message is: ‘What appears is good; what is good appears’” (9-10). Work such as Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, 1988) illustrates that fact by showing how the convergence of corporate ownership, massive bureaucracy, government interests, advertisers, and well placed private constituencies frame the world we are allowed and directed to see.

Because 24/7 coverage of sports, shopping, and entertainment news directs our attention to the next American Idol, for spectators watching the world, aspiration is channeled into being seen in the spotlight out there. If we can’t be in the spotlight, the next best thing is to have a connection to that experience, by watching and reifying the connection through purchases. By comparison, given the convergence of forces that have gained increased control over what we see in the world, today a person could go a lifetime without hearing any news about collective political action and extra-parliamentary opposition (see Hall, Williams, Thompson). Institutional powers have learned from their “mistakes” in the 1960s; the only public protests that should be covered are ones fomented and orchestrated by the powers themselves. Anything else must be demonized, ridiculed, or censored. As a consequence, today there is little reason that a media culture person would aspire to participate, for example, in the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra MST), which Noam Chomsky has called “the world’s most important social movement” (Patel 205).

It is possible that prosaic political resistance is currently coalescing and increasing; while invisible in mainstream media, challenges posed and solutions created by environmental groups, peace activists, human rights supporters, and others are discussed in small press publications and on independent media programs like Democracy Now. At the same time, it is very possible that absorption in the spectacle of corporate media culture is also on the rise. “Free time” and “dead time” can be filled by immersion in commercial press offerings, video games, corporate film, music and television, opinions and images for consumption brought into private space through the web. Growing up and living in media culture, people’s knowledge increasingly consists of “information” that facilitates consumption, and personal identity is to a greater extent formed by the “labor” required to consume pleasurably and effectively. In this context, cultural products take on a special significance; sophistication and individuality depends on “staying one step ahead of the consuming crowd” (Frank 30).

Media culture amplifies the likelihood for and influence of apolitical cultural resistance. With corporate media regulating access to the world out there, rebellion against the status quo through lifestyle and consumer choices is presented as the first, best, and only real option. Since these choices enhance rather than threaten corporate power and profit, they are publicized and promoted; given full coverage in all venues, these acts of “resistance” influence the choices of more and more individuals searching for a way to define themselves. In other words, in media culture, “mainstream cultural resistance” (note the oxymoron) is a hot commodity.