“Today a country belongs to a person who controls communication.”
The above mentioned line, reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s essay “Towards a semiological warfare”, magnifies in its relevance due to the powerful position media occupies today. Media is a broad category that imbibes within itself print (from late fifteenth century onwards)), audio recordings (from late nineteenth century onwards), cinema (from about 1900 onwards), radio (from about 1910 onwards), television (from about 1950 onwards), internet (from about 1990 onwards) and, as many call it, the ‘seventh mass media’, mobile phones (from about 2000 onwards). Having achieved the purpose of reaching a larger bracket of society, media in contemporary times has succeeded in what diplomatic relations, human activists, messengers of God couldn’t do – unite people. However, the very purpose of its much deserved triumph lays defeated as one realizes the negative tags it attaches to itself in contemporary times.
In order to comprehend media, let us drift a little to Marxist critic Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. He states that with the passage of centuries art has been reproduced in several ways, thereby giving easy access to humans eventually, and so resulting in mass consumption. However, the only thing that is flawed in this argument is his argument of “authenticity” which depreciates as a piece of art undergoes several imitations. Moreover, its “aura” declines with the reduction in originality as multiple copies are now conceivable. Hence, from this discussion of Benjamin’s essay it becomes clear that today’s media engages in a parasitic relation with the masses, and media and advertisement as forms of art, though accessible to all, have now lost their shine as they now stand far removed from the reality with working of Platonic imitation.
Thus, aura is trivialized, emerging into a new dangerous kind of aura which is narcotic, and the aesthetic product now stands falsified – as in most cases it projects a lie of better and improved varieties by passing through several layers of politicization. This transition produced for mass consumption leads to intoxication of our masses. For instance, ‘translations’ and ‘adaptations’ that are taking place at a fast pace these days from their original medium like written documents to screens have, on a closer look, something definitely unsettling about them.
Let us look at one of such productions of translation which will help one to observe the unsettling factor as well as aid us to understand as to what Benjamin is trying to convey through his essay. Viewing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” one notices it is a story about a woman named Charlotte and her descent into madness which in a way is worsened by her husband John’s inability to understand her as he always leaves her restricted in their rented accommodation with himself always being engaged in outdoor work. This is a short piece of narrative; however, there are several additions in the cinematic representations, as for example if the short story ends with Charlotte crawling over her fainted lover after having turned into a lunatic as the story suggests, the screen adaptation depicts her entry into the outer world as she can be seen crawling in the garden outside her rented residence once she transgresses from normalcy to a lady who now is captured by madness. This disparity in the representation is perhaps to make it more liable for the continuation of story on the screen if needed in the future. Therefore, though translations make it exciting to ‘view’ the written work many times, it is said that a ‘lot is lost in translation’. Going back to Benjamin one can now grasp what he meant when he stated that a reduction of aura which takes place in “reproduction” that “substitutes a mass existence” for the “unique existence” of the original. Not only that, for it also becomes clear as to why he regarded “film” as a “powerful agent” in “shattering of tradition”.
Another such instance is the case of advertisements where the daily recurrence of cosmetic advertisements almost makes the receiver believe that the usage of it will transform her into a high-end model. That is nothing but a sham provided by the visual world. It gets worse as there is no end to these artificial utopic visionary states as sometimes the mass stands enchanted, swayed away by the exaggerated visions of idealistic, bizarre appearances, so much so that the reel life begins to be enacted in real life. In fact, the definition propounded by critic B. Bagdikian in his work “The Media Monopoly” further supplements the picture: “advertisement is the art of arresting the human intelligence just long enough to get money from it”. Thus, not only is it (most of the times) effecting the social existence but also is whirling away the little pecuniary benefits by engulfing us in a quicksand of temptations.
This mass cretinization can also be seen in the way the youth today is infatuated by the celebrity culture propagated through medium of contemporary media. The audience begins to idolize stars, models. This aura created around the actors is a replacement of the original aura in source as unlike contemporary times where aura is restricted to stars in the earlier periods aura surrounded the entire object of art as a whole. Moreover, this aura gives birth to a sedative form of media where there is no end to its demand and there is a continuous desire for more. One must note here that it is primarily the contemporary media that has had a mass-ified effect unlike earlier forms where there was still preservation of the charm or aura that surrounded it, as in books, and, to some extend, radio. One reason that can be attributed to this madness is industrialization, which eventually lead to the upliftment of economies which in turn propagated excessive inflow of goods which further aggravated the situation with sudden progress in the field of science and technology in the 20th century.
The constant obsession with this mode has only led to the loss of creativity of Homo Sapiens who now have almost lost their abilities to observe and offer critical inputs. It is now electronic media and advertisements which guide humans how they should look like, how to stay joyful. Thereby, humans’ own self-worth is lost and is controlled by the ‘other’. It is this very electronic media which sets standards for humans, and in case they fail to fit in it they are considered misfit in the eyes of public. The overdose of media, as it’s observed by many, drives people away from the truths of life as they form a new world of bubble around themselves to which they keep themselves restricted.
Moreover, if one looks at this growing greed more closely, one observes the working of crony capitalism with fascist ideology occupying a central role. This becomes apparent because media and advertisement are not just meant for promoting a certain idea but are also authoritative ways to hypnotize people. As A. Shah clearly goes on to state, “advertising has turned luxuries into needs and created needs where there never was one before”. This spell casting is also a way for monetary gains. Thus, the mass now has become nothing but a passive recipient of a ‘show that must go on’, less for the benefit of mankind but more for capitalist gains, thereby establishing almost a hierarchy where the media governs much like the colonizers who were always looking forward to stretch their tentacles to consume the entire world, reminding us of Lenin’s declaration “imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism.”
This also connects to construction of two ideologies which, though very different, ironically exist together – communism and fascism. The fascist aspect as already highlighted above gets into making unavoidable the dependence that humans have begun to have with on technology; almost like fascist authority, it has swallowed several aspects of our creative life. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to claim that anywhere where there is existence of hierarchy, the modes of media and advertisement are places highest in the hierarchical spaces. The introduction of Media then also leads to a destabilizing of class powers. Coming to the idea of a stateless society one witnesses it in the birth of a global village – a space where the entire human race comes together irrespective of varied divisions in society (though to be ruled over unconsciously again by the fascist authorities who have veiled themselves behind the garb of technology working in the modern times through art forms like media and advertisement.)
Another worrying factor is that though it manages to disseminate various images and ideas to its audience, these various ideas are temporary and are soon replaced by newer forms. This is clearly noticeable with the speed with which mobile phones and other gadgets are disposed off to be replaced with newer and more advanced ones. Thus, not only does this copied kind of reproduction decline in its aura but also the presence of aura is also for a shorter time span. This demarcation of a lesser time period of various modes of media and advertisement only leaves the audience craving for more. As W.H.Auden had famously stated, “What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.”
Thus, media and advertisement in this sense become ways to exacerbate the demand-supply issue many times. Mobile phones, for example, which now contain whole worlds within themselves, have left humans totally reliable on this technology and have put their own creative self on a stop mode. Let us further try to understand this by looking at another form of mass consumption-advertisement by referring to data compiled by a Washington D.C based nonprofit health organization ‘Food and Water Watch’, according to which children, or a decent percentage of child audiences, see almost more than five thousands advertisements every year and in case of teenagers the number goes up to six thousand or above. The need for more doesn’t subside as one can clearly take note of it from the figures. This aspect of need and greed not only leads to the ‘yeh dil mange more’ calling but also boosts huge market profits – as was observed in the data of 2006 where children experienced almost 1.6 million dollars of advertisements.
Hence, consumerism gets attached to what was created as a source of entertainment, engulfing not only the creativity of humans but also their income. However, it can’t be denied that media deserves applause at times – its ability to convert the entire world into a single globalized village is one such example. Thus, this populist culture leads to the intermingling of varied thoughts, belief-traditions of different races, religions and castes, henceforth promoting unity among various diversities. However, it also results in disappearance of ages old customs firstly by – as one imbibes within oneself many a times – these modernized ideas, and secondly when one is not able to balance with ease the aspects of traditional vs. the modern. Similarly, though it reduces one’s imagination, it cannot be ignored that it does manage to inculcate via several mediums, knowledge within individuals from all strata of society. This can be clearly evidenced in the vast number of news channels, education channels, like Discovery, National Geography, Doordarshan Gyan and many more which are easily accessible to all and have an unbelievable ability to take one to places from where the flow of knowledge commences – this very access to ground zeroes has left audiences mesmerized, which as discussed above is a different aura with streaks of negativism.
One should also remember that the role of media is not one sided but a reflexive one, for it affects audience as well as is affected by them. A lot depends on the way humans deal with functions of power. Thus, it becomes relevant in contemporary times, saturated as they are with technology of electronic media, to be able to unravel the true purpose of media and its objectives such that in the coming centuries one is able to approach technology (which undeniably would have progressed further) with a restricted, well calculated stand that doesn’t leave human beings caught in the web of media and advertisement powers.
Auden, W. H. The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. UK: Random House, 1990. Print.
Bagdikian, Ben H. The Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. Print.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. New York: Prism Key Press, 2010. Print.
Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hypperreality: Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. Print.
Gilman, Charlotte P. The Yellow Wallpaper and other Stories. Minneapolis: Filiquarian Publishing LLC, 2007. Print.
Lenin, Vladimir. The Highest Stage of Capitalism. UK: Penguin, 2010. Print.
Inayat Chaudhary has done her bachelors in English Literature from Kamala Nehru College, Delhi University, and Masters in English Literature from Hindu College, Delhi University. Her research interests are Gender Studies and Modern Indian Literature with a focus on literature revolving particularly around the 1947 partition of India. She likes reading books and travelling. She may be contacted at email@example.com.