Introduction to Proposed Manuscript: Violent Entertainment
(i) Violence includes economic violence against the poorest and weakest sections of the masses at the hands of capital.
At least 1 billion of the world’s people are reduced to living below the poverty line. Many are forced to decimate wildlife
to the point of extinction, in order to obtain food. Most are deprived of an education beyond primary school.
We must not forget violence in all its forms, starting with economic violence or the extraction of surplus value by the capitalist class from the class of direct producers. The result is growing inequality; poverty, ignorance and debasement for the majority, commensurate with the accumulation of more and more wealth and power for the minority; disequilibrium of the system arising from its fundamental contradictions; e.g. frequent, deeper economic crises. This inevitably leads to more economic violence, more crime and endless wars.
Such is the nature of global capitalism; i.e. ‘late’ capitalism, which, due to its own insoluble contradictions, has now reached the stage of its decline and transition (with or without a social revolution).
Today this provides the context for the appeal of political Islam/jihadist terrorism in deprived areas of the world where islam is the dominant religion, such as parts of Pakistan/Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Yemen, etc. (Whereas in developed societies with a secular tradition, the causative factors are more complex.)
(ii) Violent entertainment in a violent world is an obscenity and a self-imposed threat to humanity. As Benjamin says in the Epilogue to his Art Essay(1936): …the fascist Marinetti…expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. [Mankind's] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.
(iii) The debate between Benjamin and Adorno in the 1930s around the question of cultural vanguardism is germane to the question of violent entertainment. Then, of course, the masses were confronted with two repressive regimes: Stalinism on the one side and fascism on the other. Another world war was imminent. Benjamin, of course, is preoccupied with this, how it was reflected in the mass media of the day, rather than violent entertainment per se. (Cf. Adorno during the postwar period, the age of mass consumerism/the culture industry.) Be that as it may, Benjamin muddies the water, re the question of prime causes: Is it technology, in particular, the mechanised arts - especially film/the cinema - or the subjective factor, which is responsible for mankind's self-alienation? e.g. what kind of aesthetics/the creation of a new aesthetic based on new technology; for what purpose (propaganda, to make money. (N.B. This confusion could also arise from the translation of the German text into English.) Benjamin seems to err on the side of the latter. In this regard, of course, he is right: Technology, per se, is not responsible for the glorification of war/the state - violence in general - Rather it is the misuse of technology, either by state diktat, i.e. Stalinism/fascism - or by today's corporate media - which is the problem.
Benjamin understands Marx: In the Epilogue, he refers to the fact that the proletariat own nothing except their labour power, which they must surrender to the capitalist in return for wages. As Marx says in his EPM, under private property relations the worker becomes a commodity. '[F]rom being a man [he] becomes an abstract activity and a stomach, so he becomes more and more dependent on every fluctuation in the market price.' And so on. 1 Therefore, to continue with Benjamin: 'The masses have a right to change property relations. [But] Fascism [as the defender of capitalism] seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life....All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war'. Benjamin then cites, by way of example, Marinetti's neo-Futurist manifesto, wherein the latter writes, 'War is beautiful', etc. 2
By so doing Benjamin shifts his focus to the aesthetic realm and to Futurism in particular. Futurism was a forerunner of the avant garde in the early 20th century. It also originated within the movement called aestheticism or 'art-for-art's-sake'. This title is also misleading, because such art could easily lend itself to the production of aestheticised objects, e.g. ceramic vases and lamps, albeit for the bourgeoisie and the middle classes, not the masses. But the ideal of the beautiful (whether traditional or modernist) could also be used by the new mechanised arts, in particular photography and film, which the masses can afford. Photography makes it possible to reproduce images of famous art works, for example, which can then be used to make cheap cards or calendars. Whereas the film is able to create its own aesthetic for a mass cinema audience; by means of the technology of film making itself; e.g. camera angles, different perspectives, even the montage effect. All can be used to aestheticise, not just everyday life, but even the militarism of nazi storm troopers. Leni Riefenstahl's film, Triumph of the Will (1934) is a prime example.
(iv) The Epilogue to Benjamin’s Art Essay reveals that the strategy of cultural vanguardism was in crisis: Much of his Art essay is devoted to the idea that leftwing intellectuals, and the avant garde, must use the mechanised arts for political ends: as an alternative to the vanguard party, as another means to raise the political consciousness of the masses; so that the latter are able to to move from existing consciousness to adequate or communist consciousness; which is an urgent necessity, if another more destructive imperialist war is to be avoided, which will engulf almost the entire world. So there was a lot riding on cultural vanguardism! (One can speculate as to why Benjamin rejected the vanguard party. Was it because he preferred to be an independent leftwing intellectual; not subject to party discipline; or was he disillusioned with the rise of a self-serving bureaucratic party, which threatened the revolution itself? N.B. He began to draw such conclusions as a result of a visit to the Soviet Union in 1926. A combination of the two is the most likely answer.)
Whatever, re his positive attitude towards the mechanised arts as a material mediation for the revolution, albeit guided by leftwing intellectuals/the avant garde, i.e. the strategy of cultural vanguardism, the Epilogue to his Art essay reveals that Benjamin has made a volte face. Whilst he does not reject the strategy, he appears to have lost confidence in the efficacy of any countervailing force to fascism, as an excrescence of the capitalist system. He appears to have moved from rational optimism to rational pessimism. In this sense he sides with Adorno, whether consciously or not. We do not know why. (The answer to that question must be investigated elsewhere.) Compare Benjamin’s final demand - 'communists must ‘politicise art' - with the negative stance which dominates the whole of the Epilogue (see above). In this regard, his final appeal must be seen as a vain attempt to adhere to his previous position. But realistically, how were communists supposed to do this, post 1933? They were either in concentration camps or, like Benjamin himself, forced to flee abroad.
At the time, Adorno criticised Benjamin for two main reasons: Firstly, because he fails to see the masses as dialectical subjects,
in need of a totalising theory such as revolutionary marxism. Secondly, the consciousness of the masses does not change from existing/
actual consciousness to adequate consciousness spontaneously or by means of shock effects, administered via the reproduction of images,
sounds, etc. Whether intentional or not, Benjamin errs on the side of a mechanical, deterministic position and is undialectical. It is unfortunate but true: Adorno, not Benjamin , was closer to reality and what subsequently transpired.
(v) With hindsight - which Benjamin did not have - the strategy of cultural vanguardism must be considered a failure. The door was left open for the rise of the culture industry during the postwar period, with its emphasis on violent entertainment as a means of distraction for the masses (along with trivia, e.g. the rom-com, etc.)
Who or what opened that door? Answer: The Stalinist betrayal of the international revolution. In defiance of capitalism as a global system, the Stalinist bureaucracy chose the path of socialism-in-one-country, which was, in terms of the numbers, an even worse example of instrumental reason - at the expense of human beings, the environment, etc. - than fascism. It led to a dead-end and the restoration of capitalism everywhere. But now capitalist triumphalism has given way to chaos and endless crisis.
Today the masses are disillusioned with communism, let alone the idea of human emancipation. The intelligentsia is also in disarray: Poststructuralism and its populist offshoot, cynical postmodernism have filled the vacuum left by scientific marxism. On the other hand, this allowed capitalism to evolve into its present form (late capitalism); cf. 'the Frankfurt School's... 'total system', which expressed Adorno's and Horkheimer's sense of an increasingly closed organisation of the world into a seamless web of media technology, multinational corporations, and international bureaucratic control.' 3
(vi) The vacuum left by cultural vanguardism is filled by an unmitigated culture industry. (Adorno defines the latter as commercialised entertainment.) Today violence as entertainment plays a central role within the culture industry The culture industry is facilitated by technology or the mass reproducibility of sounds, images (in addition to text); concretely the radio, magazines, feature films, DVD copies, television. In this sense, along with Marx’s analysis of alienated labour, private property relations, the bourgeois hierarchical division of labour, commodity fetishism, the culture industry, adds to the sum total of man’s self-alienation. But today, as a result of the latest advances in communications technology, it has become broader and deeper. Based on Adorno’s argument….
(vii) Commercialised entertainment, in particular, the endless production of violent thrillers, horror films, etc., is a distraction from REAL violence in capitalist society: Violent entertainment, e.g. the films of Tarantino, is today’s equivalent of Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. It performs the same function.
(viii) Today the situation to which Benjamin refers - i.e. the way in which the mass media is able to aestheticise reality, violence in particular, is made worse by neo-liberalism, i.e. ‘free market’ capitalism; in particular, an entertainment industry owned and controlled by monopolistic corporations, e.g. Columbus, MGM, Sony, Fox Television, etc. In this sense, the culture industry is more ‘advanced’ than it was in Adorno’s time. It reproduces images of the commodity form wrapped up in the idea that crime, war, violence are the natural order of things.
(ix) On the one hand, the culture industry - in which violent entertainment plays a central role - reflects, and on the other, it reinforces man’s self-alienation. It is a product of commodity fetishism. But now this acquires a ‘doubling-up’ effect: Alienated labour acquires a new form because, (a) The worker is reduced to a commodity, is alienated from his product, as well as his fellow workers; finally, he is alienated from himself. (b) He suffers from commodity fetishism as well. Cf. religious fetishism: In the religious world, ‘ productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life,...entering into relation with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.’ 4 But the commodities in this case are not just the need for money to acquire use values, which man needs in order to live (such as food/clothing/shelter). Mass consumerism/the mass media society also creates false needs, such as entertainment, including reproducible images (e.g. a film or DVD, etc.), whose main function is to justify the violence of the system.
Thus I return to what I call the ‘doubling up’ effect: The fetishism of commodities leads to the fetishism of violence, via the technologies of mass reproducibility. (Add to this list, the fetishism of technology: Pause to consider the rising demand for the latest iPhones, leading to world record sales for the Apple company!)
(x) Meanwhile film’s potential - and television - to be an art form for the masses, as well as a means for mass entertainment, is in danger of being lost altogether, as a result of the relentless commodification of ‘everything’, linked to technology in the hands of large, privately owned corporations.
Hence we are now seeing the decline of the independent film maker - or auteur - along with the TV dramatist, serious arts programmes, etc.; also the decline of the independent critic of film, television, theatre, etc. (N.B. By ‘independent’ I mean any production, film, drama or review which is independent of market values. The latter demands ‘industrially produced artefacts’ or ‘commodities calculated to fulfil the needs of the masses. These needs are not genuine but are themselves products of the culture industry. The audience is meant to amuse itself, but this amusement is nothing but the elimination of critical thought....amusement means agreement [with the system].’ 5
Despite this, today the main tendency is for the film maker, even the film critic, to become the willing servants of the corporate media. Given the competitive market which they find themselves in, they need to conform with the needs of the industry.
(xi) Hollywood has become Hollyworld - which goes hand-in-hand with the rise of global capitalism/finance capital: In the 1990s, 2000s, films from the seven major distributors - Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, Columbia, 20th Century Fox, MGM/UA, and Disney (Buena Vista) - reached nearly every country in the world.. This was achieved following the acquisition of these ‘majors’ by foreign corporations. In addition, all the majors...drew [their] financing from foreign sources, ranging from large companies like France’s Canal Plus to investment circles formed for the purpose of speculating in movies. As wings of multi-national conglomerates, the studios attracted high-powered international investment. In 2000, 98% of film funds raised by German tax shelters went to finance Hollywood pictures....Always international, the Majors depended more than ever on their standing as the main source of popular cinema. Since the 1970s, U.S. films routinely won over half of box-office receipts in western Europe and Latin America.’ 6
(xii) Despite the rise of the internet and the personal computer, which enables the masses to make their own entertainment, we find that, in essence, it is a mirror image of the conditions and values that are perpetuated by the corporate-owned mass media.
Today the culture industry has become even more accessible to the masses, more ‘democratic’ in a sense; because the latter can now produce their own ‘stuff’ by means of the personal computer, which can then be posted on the internet. Although You Tube, for example, can be used in a positive way, e.g. show rare clips of an artist’s performance, etc. the bulk of the items which appear on it are trivia or degrading. Now we have the ‘smart phone’, which enables its owner to access the internet even when they are not at home, e.g. in the street. Violent entertainment, exemplified by the Hollywood feature film or the video game, not forgetting the pornography industry, degrade and dehumanise both actors and viewers. All can now be imitated and reproduced by any individuals who have the means and the technical know-how.
(xiii) We now live in the age of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’. To quote Adorno’s ‘successor’, for the Situationist, Guy Debord, the society of the spectacle comprises: corporate news/propaganda, advertising, mass consumption, including the entertainment industry. Moreover, the spectacle ‘serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system.’ and ‘governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself.’ 7
(xiv) Late capitalism = capitalist decline. According to Hillel Ticktin, capitalism is in decline, because ‘the poles of contradiction’ have ‘become more and more difficult to mediate... Bureaucracy is...mediation between use value and exchange value, which has become necessary because all other forms of mediation have broken down.... [therefore] finance capital became a new and necessary form to mediate that contradiction.’ (Cf. previous forms, which have been tried and found to be no longer useful for the maintenance of capitalism: imperialism, two World Wars, the Cold War.)
Today finance capital is also in crisis, because it is a parasitic form of uncontrolled capital, which is extremely ‘liquid’ in character, able to generate new capital at a higher rate; albeit it cannot separate itself from the real productive forces. This now includes not just traditional manufacturing industries, pensions, but also the culture industry, the mass media, etc. But then Ticktin asks, ‘What happens, however, if there is no mediation possible between the poles of contradiction. Then disintegration ensues.’ 8
But should we define this in the narrow sense, i.e. only in terms of political economy or should we use a broader definition, which includes human culture, humanity itself?
(xv) Contrary to the postmodernists claim, re the rise of the new mass media - that art has become democratised - the masses continue to be excluded from the sphere of aesthetics. This is because, (a) according to the postmodernists, art can be anything; albeit art cannot be made by anybody. Few would-be artists end up becoming recognised as such. To do that, one must gain the approval of the art institution, which is increasingly tied to the art market. The art market decides what is art; this has nothing to do with the aesthetic value of the artwork; the latter maybe worthless in that sense; yet an unmade bed can co-exist in the Tate Modern, alongside the political photomontages of John Heartfield, etc. (b) Under capitalism, labour is alienated; (b) under the existing social division of labour, which, essentially, creates a division between intellectual and practical labour, the masses are deprived of an aesthetic sensibility, which allow them to make aesthetic objects, be they practical use values (e.g. architecture) or individualised impractical use values (artworks), as well as make valid critical judgements about art in general. (So this does not mean that the masses are stupid.) That is the reality.
(xvi) Despite all of the above, as marxists, we are opposed to censorship of the arts/mass media. This has traditionally been the role of the bourgeois state. Today the latter, under the guise of protecting its citizens from terrorism, is in the process of eroding the democratic freedoms it was forced to concede to the masses over the past hundred years.
The current film censorship laws, for example, strike a balance between freedom of expression and the need to protect minors from extreme acts of gratuitous violence, exploitative/sado-machistic pornography. Thus we do not campaign against the film rating system, per se. Rather, where appropriate, we point out the degrading effects of violent entertainment, etc. in our intellectual work, as well as in our propaganda.
(xvii) But such work cannot be substituted for the politico-economic struggle in the ‘anti-aesthetic sphere of reality’. There's the rub!
1. EPM, Penguin Edition, 1975, p 285.
2, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Illuminations, p 241.
3. Aesthetics and Politics, Conclusion, Verso Books, 1986, p 208.
4. Capital, Ch. 1, Commodities, Student’s Edition, Ed. C. J. Arthur, Lawrence and Wishart, London,
London, 1992, p 32.
5. Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944, quoted by Kai Hammermeister in The German Aesthetic Tradition,
Cambridge University Press, 2002, p 200.
6. Film History, An Introduction (Second Edition), Kristen Thompson & David Bordell, McGraw - Hill,
University of Wisconsin, 2003, p 706.
7. Society of the Spectacle, Zone books, 1995, p 13.
8. Decline as Concept and its Consequences, Hillel Ticktin, in Critique 39, Journal of Socialist Theory, Vol. 34,
no. 3, August 2006, Routledge, pp 154-5.