Pomo Notes

These are a series of thoughts and quotations intended to get you thinking about various aspects of modern life relating to media and cultural issues. Hence quotes about economics and English language as well as about advertising and film. Use and enjoy.

24 March 2011

Watching Treme and other bigname H.B.O. series in what is otherwise a golden age of television, I was struck by how often actors are listed without any indication of the parts they play, as if their personality has been swallowed by the allconsuming maw of programming. The alternative explanation is, of course, that the actors are so well-known that we do not need to know their series names. But that is not true of the minor characters. The system is reclaiming power over the stars.

20 March 2011

The morning after a "super-moon", BBC TV offered some unedifying photos of the moon at its perigee and the information that if you missed it, you would have to wait five years to see the next one. Nothing to explain why the moon looked so large or what exactly it was:(it had come closest to Earth in 18 years).

Anthony Cook, astronomical observer for the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles had predicted: "The biggest effect will be on the illumination of the ground—but not enough to be very noticeable to the casual observer." It was still nothing like the view in 1993 and only a bit larger than a 2008 supermoon.

So, no story?

But if you thought it worthwhile passing on the information, you might have indicated that Cook estimated the moon as appearing 20% brighter and 15% bigger than a regular full moon. You might also have explained why 15% bigger results in 20% more (?apparent) light. You could point out that the Moon's distance from Earth varies between 357,000 km at perigee and 406,000 km at apogee.

Even though the moon came a little closer to Earth in December 2008, Geoff Chester of the United States Naval Observatory notes that if we compare distances when the moon officially turns full, the 19 March full moon won by 33.6 km.

Something worth saying then, if you think it is worth mentioning. But not according to BBC TV.

Just a slip? I don't think so. I became suddenly aware (again) of how little information television news gives its viewers these days, even on major stories. The Libyan rebellion and Japan earthquake aftermath were the top news that weekend. But instead of information, we were offered on-the-spot reports far away from the scenes of fighting in Libya or the nuclear power plants in Japan, lots of speculation about what governments would do, but hardly anything but hearsay and brief references to official statements.

It brought to mind Alain Badiou's comment about the "profoundly illogical regime of communication" as typifying modern experience ('Philosophy and Desire' in Infinite Thought, 1999:41). He writes: "Communication transmits a universe made up of disconnected images, remarks, statements and commentaries whose accepted principle is incoherence. Day after day communication undoes all relations and all principles, in an untenable juxtaposition that dissolves every relation between the elements it sweeps along in its flow. And what is perhaps even more distressing is that mass communication presents the world as a spectacle devoid of memory, a spectacle in which new images and new remarks cover, erase and consign to oblivion the very images and remarks that have just been shown and said" (ibid).

Designs on your time: advertising in the 1990s

The invisible purchaser

Since Roland Barthes we have become accustomed to looking at advertisements as embodying the myths of our society: instead of Zeus and Venus we have the powerful father, the busy but competent mother, the eager young woman, the mischievous child: all healed, all made better -- made happy -- by shopping and consumption. However, I do not remember Barthes remarking on the notable rarity of the most characteristic experience of modern consumers: paying out their money and budgeting. It is seen when advertisers want to emphasize savings but not much elsewhere.

High tech, low demands

The huge resources and talent poured into advertising are often considered shocking (to puritanical critics) rather than part of the way in which advertising communicates and "educates" its consumers into consumption. Michael Arlen devoted a book to the making of a 30-second commercial for a telephone company with the slogan "Reach out and touch someone". Misleading metaphors are a standard device of advertising agencies. Telephones today seem plagued by junk calls. They often represent an excuse not to see someone in so far as they are not taken for granted through their ability to contact someone without having to make an emotional choice. But that is not the major point, which is that the deployment of all these expensive resources has a function and purpose. If the technology is devoted to producing cutting-edge or rarely seen effects, the banality of the message is more acceptable. Readers of texts, in the semiological jargon, will more readily accept stereotyping and more obvious propaganda if the technological means used to put across this conventionality is appropriately heightened. Many viewers, and certainly journalists, were mesmerized by the films of "smart weapons" devoted to destroying cities in Iraq and Serbia. And John Fiske has made a useful investigation of the concept of redundancy related to popular culture. See: John Fiske (1990) Introduction to Communication Studies (2nd edition), Routledge ISBN 0 415 04672-6.

Film

Hollywood is often a good guide to what is not true about the lives of its audiences. In Eddie Murphy's cop movies, his character Axel Foley orders white colleagues around, shows skepticism of the competence of other officers, and chases a hostage-taker across San Francisco. The action stunts are ludicrous in terms of realism, exciting for their over-the-top athletics (spectacle is a critically much neglected aspect of the appeal of Hollywood films), but the spectacular can also be seen as a way of making acceptable the lie about the lives of blacks and police in society. In real life, not many blacks can treat their white counterparts dismissively. Their professional views are routinely dismissed (when they insist on being treated as blacks rather than colleagues, as so many Hollywood films suggest in a strange reinforcement of stereotyping), while no police officer would be so determined a loner and stay long on the force as Dirty Harry and Axel Foley suggest.

Economics and nations

Nations is exactly not what Adam Smith's famous work is about. "Classical political economy, and notably Adam Smith's, had been formulated as a critique of the 'mercantile system', i.e. of precisely the system in which governments treated national economies as ensembles to be developed by state effort and policy. Free trade and the free market were directed precisely against this concept of national economic development, which Smith thought he had demonstrated to be counter-productive. Economic theory was thus elaborated uniquely on the basis of individual units of enterprise -- persons or firms -- rationally maximizing their gains and minimizing their losses in a market which had no specific spatial extension. At the limit it was, and could not but be, the world markets. While Smith was far from opposed to certain functions of government which were relevant to the economy, so far as the general theory of economic growth was concerned, it had no place for the nation, or any collectivity larger than the firm, which, incidentally, it did not bother to investigate much.

"Thus J.E. Cairnes, at the peak of the liberal era, even spent ten pages seriously considering the proposition that a theory of international trade was unnecessary, as distinct from any other trade between individuals. He concluded that, while international transactions were undoubtedly becoming steadily easier, there was still enough frictions left to justify sepearate consideration of the problem of trade between states.[...] Conversely, John Rae wrote his 1834 book specifically to demonstrate against Smith that individual and national interests were not identical, i.e. that the principles that guided the individual's pursuit of self-interest did not necessarily maximize the wealth of the nation. [...] Those who refused to take to Smith unconditionally were not to be neglected, but their economic theories could not compete with the classical school. The term 'national economy' only appears in Palgraves Dictionary of Political Economy in connection with German economic theory. The term 'nation' itself had disappeared from the equivalent French work of the 1890s." -- E. J. Hobsbawm (1990) Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, Canto 1991, ISBN 0-521-43961-2, p26-27.