JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

Though this crisis in community is a cultural crisis in all senses, it has been enacted especially dramatically in the industrialization of older forms of culture, and in their transformation into the business of entertainment during their assimilation by and integration into first finance and then corporate capital. Summarily designated as “Hollywood,” the corporate entertainment industry now comprises virtually all forms of film, television and recorded music, and all their various satellites, spin-offs, franchises, and surrogates, their pimps and proxies. These industries have now extended to the spheres of politics, sport, religion and other distinct areas of public life, reconstructing them within its own values and priorities, commodifying what once were popular activities and turning them too into entertainment. The traditions that inform the culture of popular participation may be implicitly or residually present in industrial culture, but only as they too are also reduced to entertainment.

The resulting divided culture, the culture of separated monopolized industrial production and of popular consumption, is the culture with which Los Angeles has become globally synonymous, and locally it is so overwhelmingly powerful that the forms of popular cultural practices in the city that are the present concern have become virtually invisible. For Hollywood’s ubiquitous and all-pervasive presence in Los Angeles makes its attractions and rewards the context for all popular cultural activity. So great is the gravitational pull of the industry’s stars and its star-system that all other arts are forced to revolve around it. The structural core-periphery tensions that shape the city geographically and economically thus generate parallel determinations within its culture: the minority arts of the local communities in Los Angeles are created in the tension between the centrifugal pull of independent and indigenous aspirations and the centripetal pull of corporate capitalist culture. In Los Angeles culture and geography are reciprocal: the social tensions of cultural marginality are isomorphic with the city’s spatiality.         

Until the 1950s “Hollywood” designated simply the companies that manufactured films and recouped their expenses and profit in theatrical ticket sales. But since then their production has simultaneously diversified and also consolidated what before were several separate industries while, especially with television, distribution sites have metastasized throughout the range of once-public places running from homes and schools to prisons and hospitals. The limits of the film text itself have eroded and fused into all its marketing extensions; sequels, t-shirts, theme-parks, lunch pails, toys, comic books, video games, the miasma of hype that makes it hard to imagine, let alone glimpse any space outside the business.

This apotheosized culture-as-capital is identified with Los Angeles more completely than an art form was ever before associated with a single place. Infants together in the first decade of the century when the movies were little more than a cottage industry, the city and the industry fostered each other’s growth to maturity. Late in 1907, the Selig company built a stage on Olive Street for the shooting of The Count of Monte Cristo, and two years later, the company established a permanent base in the city. Other companies followed, including a troupe of Biograph players to shoot the local epic Ramona, and the Keystone Comedy Company, and by 1912, over seventy production companies in Los Angeles employed three thousand people.

During the teens the manifest advantages of the region’s year-round sunshine and topographical variety persuaded even more companies to relocate to the region, and eventually some of them merged into larger combines that joined film production and distribution—the vertical integration of the industry. By mid-decade the industry’s annual payroll had reached $20 million, and the identification of Hollywood the medium and Hollywood the city was established, with sixty percent of U.S. films being produced there.[13] [open endnotes in new page] In the postwar years the studios surpassed the French, Italian and British film industries to become single most important source of production, and by the 1930s the U.S. film industry was dominant throughout the world. Even Carey McWilliams’s unusual rhetorical excess does not seem an inappropriate summary of the city’s debt to the medium:

“If ever an industry played the Fairy Prince to an impoverished Cinderella, it has been the motion-picture industry in relation to Los Angeles”[14]

After World War II and Hollywood’s second major global expansion, the other branches of the entertainment industries were assimilated to it. Though the rise of television coincided with a series of crises in the 1950s that forced the industry to restructure, in the early 1970s it again re-invented itself. Generating subsidiary industries as well as accelerating the development of other labor-intensive craft industries in the area, Hollywood attracted all the other components of the broadcasting industry. Since then, the television industry has itself expanded enormously and the two industries are now completely integrated, not only with each other, but also with the popular music industry, whose move west became conclusive in the 1980s. The strength of the industry’s infrastructure and the abundance of creative and technical workers in the area supported the economic explosion of the 1990s, lifting Southern California out of the slump caused by cut backs in the defense industries. With the expanded need for product to fill the new multi-channeled global television systems of the decade, by the turn of the century the annual business of the entertainment industries based in Los Angeles had grown to $40 billion, with more people in Los Angeles working in Hollywood than in electronics and aerospace combined.

The concentration of control over these media industries by a small number of corporations increased rapidly during the 1990s, representing the centralization of control of over the industry’s production parallel to the longer-standing globalization of the market. Japanese corporations began to invest heavily in the industry in the late 1980s, with Sony buying Columbia Pictures in 1989 for $3.4 billion, and Matsushita buying MCA (Universal) in 1990 for nearly $7 billion.[15] Though film production had been controlled by a handful of major studios since the 1930s, by the late 1990s the six largest of them accounted for 90% of theatrical revenue, and all but sixteen of the 148 features Hollywood released in 1997 were produced by only six firms. By that time, six firms also effectively monopolized more than 80% of the country’s cable television, and only four companies controlled one-third of all radio station income. [16]

Especially after the deregulation of the communications industries in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the elimination of restrictions on corporations moving across different branches of the communications industries led to enormous increases in conglomeratization. Just to take one, locally important example, the Walt Disney Company, with annual revenues of only $25.4 billion (by comparison, General Electric, owner of NBC grossed $129.9 billion in 2001): among Disney’s movie holdings are Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, and Miramax Film Corporation; it owns the ABC television network, together with the Disney Channel, Soap Net, all divisions of ESPN, and 80% of A & E and the History and Biography Channels; in addition to Disneyland itself, its theme park holdings include Disney World, Disney Cruise Line, and Disneylands in Paris, Tokyo and one planned for Hong Kong; and as well as extensive holdings in book publishing, it owns half of the magazines, U. S. Weekly, Discover and ESPN, fifty radio stations, 741 Disney stores, and extensive theatrical interest.[17] This list is just a selection, and diversification of an equivalent or greater extensiveness has been documented for AT & T, Sony, AOL/ Time Warner, Vivendi Universal, Viacom and one or two more of the integrated communications and entertainment cartels.

Some indication of the momentum of this consolidated corporate ownership of American culture is revealed in the periodic summaries by one of its most important analysts, Ben Bagdikian. When he published the first edition of his book The Media Monopoly in 1983, fifty corporations dominated mass media in the United States; by the second edition in 1987, the fifty companies had shrunk to twenty-nine. By 1997 that number had been further reduced to ten and by 2000 he found that only six dominant firms controlled more of the industry than the combined fifty seventeen years earlier.[18]

Manufacturing the culture that is marketed and consumed all over the world, the Los Angeles entertainment industry has become the vehicle, not so much of an American imperialism as the imperialism of capital itself, inflating into a global omnipotence the implications of the Supreme Court’s 1915 diagnosis that

“The exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit, like any other spectacles.”[19]

Just one instance of this voraciousness may suffice, the case of Jurassic Park: the film Jurassic Park was not only “accompanied by over 1,000 products identified as official Jurassic Park merchandise, distributed by 100 official Jurassic Park manufacturers around the world,” but the Jurassic Park logo from the merchandising was displayed in the film itself in the park’s gift shop; thus, the “film itself was a tie-in,” intradiegetically displaying its combined merchandising, product placement and other forms of economic proliferation.[20]

Though cultural activity has always been subject to economic transactions, only in the recent past have the culture industries themselves become so thoroughly integrated with each other, with all other forms of material production, and with the state. Training the world in consumerism, entertainment becomes capital’s mode of operation. As, writing in Los Angeles, Theodor Adorno noted half a century ago, corporate culture has amalgamated with advertising.[21] Or, as a Coca-Cola marketing chief more recently remarked, it is the medium in which capital operates:

“The culture that comes out of L.A.—films, television, recorded music, concerts—is the popular culture of the world and it is through that culture that we communicate with the consumers of Coke.”[22]

Guy Debord and others among the Situationists, the French philosophers who provided the most profound analysis of the assimilation of human life into this cultural-economic system, designated it as the Spectacle. In the “Society of the Spectacle,” the immediate relationships among people appear to have been replaced by relations between people and images, an imaginary relationship that also has the effect of concealing the actual social relations created by the capitalist system’s production of material wealth. The symbol and fulcrum of this condition, Los Angeles is thus the Capital of the Spectacle, and the comprehensive form of the city’s economic, spatial, social and cultural alienations is ontological:

“The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere.”[23]

Though the ruin of community, the alienation of the imagination and authentic social relations that constitutes the Spectacle, now affects almost everyone in the world, it affects people in Los Angeles especially powerfully and comprehensively. At once a cynosure and an ignis fatuus, and alternately enriching and depleting all other arts in the city, Hollywood attempts to frame all cultural practice in Los Angeles in its own economic imperatives and entrepreneurial ambitions; life here is enthralled by it.

To designate as “popular culture,” not Hollywood itself but practices outside and opposed to it contravenes what has become the term’s dominant usage, its reference to the consumer culture produced by capitalist industries. This recent transformation and narrowing of the concept of popular culture is not accidental, but rather has accompanied parallel transformations and narrowings in the cultural field as a whole. Commodity culture’s colonization of all areas of life—the individual psyche, the public realm, the political process, and indeed all forms of art—now appears to be so complete that, it is often argued, any popular practice outside it is impossible, if not inconceivable. And responding to the preoccupation of the cultural field by capital, many journalists and academics have made corresponding investments. Whereas early attempts to legitimate the study of what was then called “mass culture” approached it as sociological or ethnographical data, more recent methodologies employ aesthetic criteria that allow for newly positive understandings of its social role.

So though the fact of the structural integration of the dominant forms of contemporary culture in the general operations of capital is indisputable, its implications are widely disputed. More or less determinist positions like those of Adorno and the Situationists mentioned above, for example, that are rooted in Hegelian analyses of capitalism’s intrinsic alienation and so propose that cultural domination and exploitation follow necessarily from the economic structure of the entertainment industries, have become key points of reference, usually negative ones, in contemporary debates over the social implications of the mass consumption of culture produced by corporate interests.

On the one hand, it is argued that corporate culture, especially broadcast television, has been pivotal in the disintegration of the democratic process, the collapse of community, the rise of the New Right, and the emergence of a universal cynicism.[24] But as with all other forms of capitalist production, the culture industries’ need constantly to reconstruct themselves produces disjunctions and contradictions that render the overall system unstable and vulnerable to intervention by the people involved in its various stages. So on the other hand, other commentators emphasize the possibilities that the industrial production of entertainment does not preclude authorial self-expression during the process of its manufacture, nor does mass consumption of it preclude the audiences’ parallel assertion of their own identity and creativity, specifically their ability to mobilize their own critical, against-the-grain reception of its intended messages.

When such creative responses to entertainment become socially extensive, they produce fan cultures that may elaborate the imaginary identifications we all make with others who share our tastes into virtual or even real communities that become to various degrees independent of the original mass media sources; the Grateful Dead and Star Trek fan cultures are among those most often cited as sustaining such communities. Indeed an entire academic discipline now exists, premised on the moments of autonomy and alterity that the system as a whole allows, and so on the supposition that resistance to capitalist culture is marshaled within its own processes: Cultural Studies.

Though the Cultural Studies literature is now so immense that every position on the question of the relation between culture and political economy in these industries can somewhere be found in it, its main tradition derived from the work of the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s and 1980. The Birmingham group formulated itself initially around the investigation of the more or less delinquent activity of specifically working-class subcultures: dress, hair-styles, dance-movements and so on—the traditional field of anthropology or sociology rather than the aesthetic per se. It proposed that these subcultures reflected the transformed class tensions of advanced capitalist society and were, at least partially, ritually symbolic continuations of earlier and more overtly political working-class social contestations. In this formulation, popular culture was understood to comprise "Resistance Through Rituals,"[25] that is, specifically working-class opposition to the dominant culture, which in Britain at that time was still the culture of the bourgeois and the aristocratic establishment, not yet melted into air by the entertainment industry.

The primacy of this working-class resistance to the dominant culture was largely lost in the Americanization and “postmodernization” of the Birmingham project that produced contemporary Cultural Studies. Occurring during the Reagan/ Thatcher era’s assaults on trade unions and all other forms of working-class self-organization, the transformation of the discipline entailed parallel offensives. The term “popular culture” was decisively relocated from working-class oppositional subcultures to the entertainment industry, which in the United States (and increasingly so in Britain and the rest of the world) had itself become the dominant culture. Its exclusive reference became the consumer culture manufactured by corporate industries rather than street-level attempts to resist or transform it, let alone to sustain alternatives to it.

Popular culture was now produced by corporate capital, not by the people. As the term acquired the market definition of popular, its specific associations with the working class and hence the possibility that culture could focus structural social resistance were dumped. In a period where the significant crises in capitalism were explained as crises in over-production, to be assuaged by increasing the consumption of commodities of all and every kind, the academic study of culture followed suit by deploying itself primarily around the consumption of commodity culture.[26] The academy became yet another stage where capitalist culture as a whole was legitimated and naturalized; affirming rather than interrogating the status quo, Cultural Studies amalgamated with advertising.

Though the present work does not assume that any autonomous sphere of popular culture, whether specified as the activity of an ethnic or sexual minority or as some fraction of the working class understood more generally, may now exist outside the gravitational field of the culture industries, it is oriented to those popular practices that attempt to produce themselves outside the priorities and process of the culture of capital, and so outside the field that Cultural Studies now demarks. Though they are surrounded by and inevitably linked to Hollywood, the initiatives considered in this book are displaced from it in multiple ways, but especially in being pursued as essentially amateur practices, and almost all in mediums that the entertainment industry has not occupied. Hollywood and Los Angeles, the industry and the city, culture and geography form the context, comprise the cloth on the edges of which participatory popular cultures weave new forms of community.

In this they mark the continuation of the cultural resistance that began when the arts were first industrialized in the print business of eighteenth century England. William Blake earned a meager living for himself and his wife on the edges of this industry, but he devoted himself to the composition of epic poems that he illustrated and engraved himself, the two of them coloring the printed sheets by hand. In these poems, Blake detailed a mythology describing the emergence of the modern world system—the specters of science, imperialism, the industrial revolution, and commodity culture—but also envisioning revolutionary republican attempts to humanize it. He coined the name Los for his central figure, an anagram for “Sol,” the sun, that also punned on the loss that surrounded him. Blake imagined Los as a blacksmith, hammering out a vision of a fully-human, fully-emancipated commonality. In the furnaces of his imagination, Los labored to build Jerusalem, or Liberty, by producing a genuinely popular culture, a Republican Art, such as could be made at home like Blake’s own, or one owned and exhibited by the general public, like early Renaissance frescoes—or modern murals.

Some two hundred years later, the word Los became current among working-class Latinos, many of them displaced from their homelands by the global forces of capital and empire, as the name for the city to which they had fled, a city where they hoped to find liberty and fellowship and which they sometimes illuminated with exquisite, spontaneous frescoes.[27] From one of the first to one of the most recent instances of crucial cultural resistance, the Sons and Daughters of Los continue to contend in their furnaces.

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