here's the final draft of my fourth and final essay. this was really tough -- the question is lifted more or less verbatim from a rambling email i sent larry a few weeks ago. by using it in this context, he was essentially asking me to put my money where my mouth was. it's hardly great work, but i think i did a pretty good job for two days' work...
Adorno and Thomas Frank worry about the commercial increasingly impinging on the space of the public sphere. The music industry increasingly worries about their commercial music being treated as a public good (p2p, etc). Maybe a bigger framework would suggest not that either is impinging on the other, but that the categories are becoming less relevant. After all, commerce is simply a specialized form of social interaction. If we believe Bourdieu that there are other forms of capital (social, cultural), then we can understand new communication media and the resulting social practices as forming the foundation for a society in which every kind of capital is transacted like commodities -- or vice versa, where commodities are undifferentiated from other forms of social relations. How would such a development, or way of thinking, relate to traditional ways of thinking about the arts [traditional at least in the West since the 18th century or so]? Discuss.
There is an old television commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter cups that has reached such a level of cultural notoriety (at least among people in my age cohort) that it has become something of an archetype, a kind of shorthand for an entire cultural process. It goes something like this: Two upper crusty types are at the opera, sharing a booth. One of them is eating a candy bar, and the other is (improbably) holding an open jar of peanut butter. Somehow, they collide, and the candy bar lands in the peanut butter, much to the dismay of both men.
“Hey!” one of the men shouts, visibly enraged. “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!”
“You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!” the other ripostes with venom.
At this point, the two return to eating, and discover to their mutual delight that the peanut butter-chocolate combination is infinitely more appetizing than either ingredient was on its own. Peanut butter and chocolate are “two great tastes that taste great together,” the voice-over tells us as we watch the former rival combatants enjoying the fruits of their combined resources with an air of zealous bonhomie.
I relate this episode not just to pad my page count, but also to introduce a metaphor that may be useful in considering the situation under examination in this essay. Two rival positions have been staked out, each bitterly proclaiming the sanctity of its resources. On the peanut butter side, cultural purists of one stripe or another complain about the encroachment of commercialism into the worlds of discourse and aesthetics. On the chocolate side, commercial interests – especially the entertainment industry – are concerned that peer-to-peer file sharing and other forms of “infringement” increasingly threaten to turn their “intellectual property” into an unrestricted, unremunerative public resource. Perhaps, as the candy bar commercial would suggest, the collision between these seemingly irreconcilable factions represents an inevitable and desirable form of cultural alchemy that will ultimately produce something greater than the sum of its parts.
Commercialism has been cast as the villain in so many critiques of industrial and post-industrial society that it has practically become a given. Adorno and Horkheimer (1972) are among earliest and most vocal in this camp, arguing that the “absolute power of capitalism” (p. 120) has warped modern Western culture through a process of mass production that standardizes aesthetic practices and products and transforms the body politic into a brainwashed mass of infantilized consumers. In the course of this process, they argue, the pure artistic expression of “truth” has been replaced with popular culture’s logic of “style,” which exists only to manufacture and channel demand among the “deceived masses” (p. 133) for the latest commercial products.
Although cultural studies theorists have developed their models beyond Adorno and Horkheimer’s (1972) “Frankfurt School,” the threat of commercialism continues to loom large in much of the literature. Barthes (1977), whose analytical framework departs in many important respects from Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s (a comparison I explore more thoroughly in my essay on musicology), shares their apprehension at the cultural power of the marketplace. He laments that “the ‘truth’ of language” (p. 184) is being expunged by the proliferation of soulless, institutionalized forms of expression. This process, he argues, takes place through a commercial mechanism, which he calls “censorship by repletion” (p. 185), in which the market is flooded with so much of the bad stuff that the good stuff can’t survive.
Habermas (1962), another foundational social theorist who departs radically in many ways from Adorno and Horkheimer (1972), nonetheless shares their wariness of the cultural influence of commercial forces. Habermas’ vision of society is characterized by the “public sphere,” an institution in which private individuals join together as a public to discuss, debate and strategize about matters of collective import – primarily subjects of a political or economic nature. This public scrutiny of the state operates as an analog and a countermeasure to the government’s official legislative functions; no representative democracy can function without one.
Habermas (1962) acknowledges that capitalism played a vital role in the rise of the public sphere – offering individuals an opportunity to transact and exercise power independently of the state power apparatus. If the public sphere is founded on a modernist notion of individual rights and free control of productive property, these ideas in turn owe their existence to the rise of the bourgeoisie and to the emergence of the capitalist ethos. Yet Habermas also associates commercialism with the degradation of the public sphere. The rise of consumerism, he argues, has spurred a general loss of interest in political discourse and transformed the public sphere from an arena of debate into an arena of marketing and advertising. Thus, like Adorno and Horkheimer (1972) and Barthes (1977), Habermas laments that “truth” has taken a backseat to the cultural dictates of the marketplace.
More recent scholars have echoed these concerns. Paddison (1982), in his critique of the Frankfurt School, takes issue with Adorno’s (2002) conflation of “serious music” with honesty and “popular music” with corruption. Yet he concedes that “increasingly sophisticated mechanisms of marketing and distribution make it ever more difficult for any music – whether serious or popular, traditional or avant-garde, Western or non-Western – to resist its fate as a commodity” (p. 217).
Wicke (1982) sums up the concerns of many social critics and scholars (cf. Peterson and Berger, 1975; 1996) when he voices concern that this commodification of music will lead to aesthetic homogeneity. “As a form of social practice,” he argues:
music always bears the stamp of the social nature and the concrete organisational structure of the relationships through which it is produced, distributed and assimilated. If these relationships carry the stigma of exchange-value characteristics, then this carries with it a growing tendency towards homogenisation on the part of the perceptual, concrete aesthetic character of the musical sound-shape. (p. 225)
In a similar, if more extreme, vein Lasn (1999) equates consumerism with a religious cult, and complains that “culture isn’t created from the bottom up by the people anymore – it’s fed to us top-down by corporations” (p. 189).
Frank (1997a; b; c) offers an analysis that is a bit more sophisticated than Lasn’s (1999), but eventually arrives at similar conclusions. He acknowledges that commercial messages have increasingly impinged on the public sphere, and that commercial aesthetics have become increasingly culturally dominant. Yet he suggests that “what’s happened is not co-optation or appropriation, but a simple and direct confluence of interest” (1997b, p. 44) between corporate interests and counterculture. Frank demonstrates this point by examining the ways in which the 1960s counterculture aesthetic helped to reorganize the operating principles of the advertising industry, yet was itself largely a product of that industry. He calls this legacy of institutionalized counterculture “a commercial template for our times” (1997c, p. 235). However, Frank does not equate this “confluence of interest” between advertisers and the counterculture with “public interest” in any generally accepted sense of the term. To the contrary, he argues that a “basic concern” facing contemporary society is “the power of each person to make his own life without the droning dictation of business interests” (1997a, p. 158).
I could append a nearly infinite number of additional examples, but at some point the law of diminishing returns would set in (if it hasn’t already). The point is clear: there is a prominent and enduring trend of anti-commercial rhetoric in social theory from the early part of the 20th century to the present day. Despite diverse and often conflicting philosophies, these theorists remain remarkably consistent on one point: culture (aesthetic expression, the public sphere) is a space of Truth and Honesty, and commercial interests have sullied it (warped it, transformed it, appropriated it) with Falsehoods for the purpose of making money. In other words, the cultural peanut butter is tainted with the flavor of commercial chocolate.
Miles away (in terms of scholarly geography) are arrayed a group of commercial interests making set of arguments about “intellectual property” that, at first glance, would seem to be largely unrelated to the arguments of the social theorists discussed above. As Vaidhyanathan (2001) relates, intellectual property is a fairly recent invention. The category is an amalgam of disparate legal ideas such as copyright, trademark, and patent – ideas originating with the Enlightenment-era notion that financial compensation is an effective incentive encouraging people to share their ideas with one another in a free society. As Vaidhyanathan and Lessig (2004) discuss extensively, the scope of these legal categories has expanded gradually over the years – at the behest of corporate lobbyists – to equate the fruits of intellectual labor with material property.
As a result of this gradual enclosure of thought and expression, Lessig (2004) argues, a greater portion of what we typically call “culture” is now owned and controlled by commercial interests than at any point in the history of humankind. While Lessig and Vaidhyanathan (2001) are inclined to view this as a negative development with dire consequences for the future of public (and even private) expression, there is another point of view that strong intellectual property laws are necessary in this day and age.
Proponents of expanding intellectual property controls – many (but not all) of them representatives of corporate interests – argue that the major organs of public culture, such as television, movies, the news media and the commercial music industry, could never exist without the legal ownership of ideas. The argument runs something like this: as the tools of expression increase in complexity (e.g. from pen and paper to cameras and broadcasting towers), so does the cost to operate them. This, in turn, requires an increase in the revenues associated with such expression, and thus entails an increase in the associated financial risk as well. Movie studios, record labels, and other such organizations exist in order to organize the capital and take on the financial risk associated with creative expression in the industrial age because creative individuals, for the most part, cannot. And even these organizations would never make the initial investment it takes to catalyze the process if they didn’t have some form of assurance that revenues would eventually be forthcoming. Intellectual property – the legal right to prevent people from accessing such ideas and expressions without permission in exchange for payment – is exactly the assurance they seek.
The above description is obviously a major oversimplification, and the details of the argument change depending on which individuals, organizations or species of creative expression are involved. Yet the basic premise – intellectual property as a form of protection for free expression – remains consistent. Clearly, this argument relies heavily on the original logic behind patent, trademark and copyright – namely, that creative expression can be motivated through financial means. However, in practice, the exercise of intellectual property law often seems more like corporate protection from consumers. I will briefly cite two examples to demonstrate my point: legal action against trademark violation and legal action against peer-to-peer file sharing.
As Bollier (2005) convincingly argues, trademarked language and symbols like the names of companies, products, and celebrities have become part of our cultural lingua franca in the media age. It would be difficult to pass a full day in the company of one’s friends and family without uttering the name of some trademarked entity – whether the title of a movie, the name of a store, or even a brand of food or clothing. “Taken as a whole,” Bollier writes, “such symbols comprise a cultural currency; they help us communicate in succinct, widely understood ways” (p. 82). Consequently, he argues, when trademark law is used to exert complete control over the use of these terms in public discourse, the net effect is the “absolute control over the flow of symbols in our society” (p. 82).
Bollier (2005) catalogs several recent instances in which trademark law has been used in exactly this way. In 1997, Mattel sued the band Aqua and their record label after they released a song called “Barbie Girl” riffing ironically on the Barbie doll’s girlish image and womanly proportions. In this suit, unlike many other similar ones waged by the company, the defendant prevailed. In 1991, the film studio MGM-Pathé successfully sued to prevent a neighborhood patrol group on the lookout for gay-bashers in New York’s West Village from calling itself the Pink Panthers. To this day, McDonald’s routinely threatens legal action against people and organizations using its trademarked phrases, which include such common and/or innocuous phrases as “Immunize for Healthy Lives,” “Fun Always,” and “Hey, It Could Happen.” In each of these cases, the trademark owner has sought legal recourse to protect unauthorized individuals from using their legally protected language in an unsanctioned context.
Parallel arguments have been made by media and entertainment companies seeking to exercise copyright control over the distribution of files online via peer-to-peer file sharing services, which allow millions of people simultaneously to exchange digitized files like songs, movies, or pictures.
These services unquestionably represent a challenge to the traditional ways in which the entertainment industry does business. When recorded media was “stuck” to physical objects like CDs and cassette tapes, it possessed two qualities that economists refer to as rivalry (meaning only one person or group can use a resource at a time) and excludability (meaning that a person or group can be prevented from accessing a resource). According to standard economic theory, resources that are both rival and excludable fall under the category of “private goods,” best treated as property and exploited through the market system. However, as soon as music became decoupled from its physical delivery mechanisms, it ceased to be either rival or excludable, recategorizing it as a “public good.” Public goods are notoriously difficult to profit from via traditional market practices; rather, they tend to be managed by governmental or non-profit entities (Johnson, 2000).
Rather than reacting to this challenge by changing the nature of its goods so they would once again be rival and excludible (e.g. by offering songs or movies within the context of an integrated service with various software-driven bells and whistles or agreeing on an industry-wide standard for secure high-definition discs), the entertainment industry’s first response was to use copyright law in a fruitless attempt to curtail online file sharing. In addition to suing the manufacturers and proprietors of peer-to-peer software, this also meant suing their own consumers. By the end of 2004, nearly 7,000 music fans had been targeted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in file-sharing lawsuits, and nearly all of them had been forced to pay thousands of dollars in settlement fees (McGuire, 2004).
In short, organizations that use intellectual property to profit from the control of creative expression have been simultaneously working to expand the scope of intellectual property protections and pursuing legal means to prevent individuals from recirculating their brands, phrases and creative works freely in the public arena. In an age of increasing technological mediation and increasingly decentralized information distribution, these organizations would argue, draconian legal action has emerged as the only viable means to prevent the public from stealing their property and redistributing it publicly. To invoke my guiding metaphor yet again, these companies are concerned about their intellectual chocolate being swallowed whole in the public peanut butter.
Thus, to recap: on the one side, we have cultural watchdogs bemoaning the commercialization of public discourse. On the other, we have industry watchdogs bemoaning the cultural appropriation of private intellectual property. Perhaps these two trends are related – are, in fact, simply flip sides of a larger trend. Perhaps the dividing lines between cultural and commercial exchange are eroding, and a new paradigm – a social discursive peanut butter cup – is emerging to take their places.
Many of today’s broadest social thinkers certainly suggest that this may be the case. Giddens (1990), for example, argues that “today, ‘money proper’ is independent of the means whereby it is represented, taking the form of pure information” (p. 25). Similarly, Castells (2000) speaks of the emerging global communications network as engendering a “space of flows” (p. 408) in which information, capital, technology, organizations, and symbols swirl among the nodes and hubs represented by individuals, institutions and places. Bell (1999) speaks of the shift from financial to human capital as one of the definitive aspects of post-industrial society. In his model, knowledge has replaced labor as the cornerstone of the global economy – in other words, industry is now constituted by the act of sharing ideas.
Cultural theorists suggest a move in this direction as well. Bourdieu (1984) considers money to be only one form of capital, alongside “cultural capital,” “educational capital” and “social capital.” Each of these is transacted in different ways, he argues, and each plays a vital role in establishing an individual’s social rank and power. The idea of cultural capital has gained widespread acceptance throughout cultural studies literature, appearing without needing to be defined in the work of authors such as Hall (1996), Frith (1996), Gendron (2002), Bernard-Donals (1994), and Thornton (1996). Bollier (2005) makes the culture-commerce connection even more explicit; above, I quoted him referring to corporate trademarks a form of “cultural currency” (p. 82). Similarly, the idea of social capital has been taken up by sociologists and network theorists (Monge & Contractor, 2003), who have in recent years begun to devise ways of measuring social capital based on the structure of an individual’s relationships with others in a social network.
Thus, it could be argued that these scholars are converging, each from his or her own theoretical and methodological perspective, on a single point: In a networked, post-industrial age, commerce has ceased to represent a unique form of information exchange. Every aspect of human communication, from simple conversations to creative expression to the exchange of goods and services, has become intermeshed in a web of interdependency, creating a common meta-language of networked exchange. This meta-language retains some aspects of commerce (e.g. quantifiability) and some aspects of cultural expression (e.g. identity-construction). For the sake of brevity (and to exercise the prerogative of coinage that secretly motivates every social theorist), I will call this meta-language the “lingua textura,” meaning the “language of the web.”
Clearly, the emergence of the lingua textura has implications for every aspect of human society, beyond simply the collision of culture and commerce. It has profound consequences, for example, in the realm of aesthetic theory, which has since Kant’s time been dominated by the definition of art as inherently non-functional symbolic expression. As Gross (1995) relates, the Western artistic tradition has for the past three centuries been dominated by the notion that art is necessarily innovative and unique, and is the product of a creative individual endowed with the quality of artistic genius. This paradigm, which defines art in terms of its irrelevance to daily life, has the effect of banishing arts and artists to a cultural “reservation” (p. 3), a form of limbo that, like religion and its practitioners, is viewed by the quotidian world with a combination of reverence and contempt.
This separation of art and life, Gross (1995) argues, has been enforced and reflected in pedagogical and other institutional traditions. Our culture, Gross and Blacking (1974) argue, doesn’t nourish aesthetic symbolic competency the way it does linguistic competency. Our innate musical talents, for example, are not developed in any meaningful way through institutionalized cultural practices, the way speech and even literacy are. Similarly, I would add that, by banishing art to the realm of the non-functional, it is distinguished from and compared poorly to the commercial sphere, which is commonly seen as “the real world,” and emphasized accordingly in the education of our young.
However, this Romantic “art-for-art’s-sake” model of aesthetic production doesn’t stand any more of a chance of surviving in the age of the lingua textura than do the notion of culture and commerce as separate and inviolable spheres of human intercourse. If there is no clear dividing line between aesthetic, political and commercial symbolic lexicons, grammars, and sites of interaction, then there can be no clear dividing line between species of communicants, or between the messages they send.
This erosion of boundaries is clearly at work in the so-called “postmodern” rupture that has characterized art worlds in recent decades. In the world of music, for instance, Kramer (2002) argues that postmodern work is structurally inconsistent, intertextual, referential, appropriative, transcendent of social hierarchies, and transparently related to the production technologies that are used in its creation. Similarly, Taylor (2002) argues that postmodernism in music is not a compositional ethic, but a mode of presentation and marketing that surrounds music making.
These are all qualities that point to the shift of creative expression from a self-contained, specialized aesthetic language to a lingua textura capable of simultaneously serving diverse communicative and transactive purposes. In Taylor’s (2002) words, “aspects of [postmodern] musical style cannot be dissociated from other factors surrounding the composition, dissemination, and reception of a work, and these other factors contribute to the sound of postmodern musics” (p. 103). That is to say, the interpenetration of aesthetics, technology and commerce is complete.
This shift has not just taken place in the rarefied world of academic, or “serious” music, but also in the world of popular music. Gracyk (1996) argues that rock was the first musical form to emphasize the recording over live performance as the definitive objet d’art. However, such a development undermines the very notion of a definitive objet d’art, tangling the creative expressive act in a web of technology and commerce. This is why Gracyk argues that “it makes little sense to judge rock from the standpoint of noncommercial or anticommercial criteria” (p. 185).
Other, more recent popular music styles such as dub reggae (Hebdige, 1987), hip-hop (Rose, 1994) and mash-ups (Sinnreich, 2004) embrace their discursive entanglement even more directly, using the tools of sampling, scratching, dubbing and versioning to create art works that are in many respects constituted of other forms of communication and other sounds of human activity (e.g. speech, industrial noise, commercial jingles).
Like the other new forms of cultural discourse enabled by the lingua textura discussed above, these new popular music styles have challenged the idea of intellectual property even as the legal category has grown in scope, strength and ubiquity. The notion of musical copyright, for example, is based on the traditional idea of an individual author, making a discrete work within the sphere of the arts. If there is no such thing as an individual author, a discrete work, or a separate sphere for artistic expression, then such definitions cannot hold. Similarly, in Bollier’s (2005) words, “if the justifications used by trademark law make sense in the context of the marketplace, they make much less sense now that the marketplace has become our culture” (p. 81, emphasis in original).
Yet, for my Reese’s peanut butter cup metaphor to hold together, the clash of these formerly disparate worlds would have to create something bigger and better than the sum of its parts, a newly emergent reality with internal cohesion, in which “two great tastes” would truly “taste great together.” This means that, if the lingua textura has indeed become our new cultural foundation, we have to find ways to accommodate the multiplicity of voices speaking this language, and the multiplicity of needs they communicate.
People need to be able to express themselves freely to one another secure in the knowledge that they won’t be served with subpoenas or heavy fines. Institutions must be able to organize capital and other resources for the purpose of cultural transaction secure in the knowledge that remuneration will come in one form or another. In short, a new set of laws, practices and cultural norms must emerge to accommodate these sweeping changes. That I, as a scholar, would even think to use a candy bar commercial as the metaphorical framework for a serious academic essay shows how much discourse has changed. The extent to which I am able to get away with it will be one small indication of how ready we are for these changes.
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