Commodification and Amusement: Postman on Television and Print Media

Recently, I finished reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. While this work was published in the 1980s and focuses on analyzing the effects of the rise television as the dominant mode of communication on public discourse, it still raise many insightful points. Postman’s central argument is that the typographic age of the 18th century (the age of the printed word) was able to foster rational argument, and a healthy democratic discourse while the age of television fails in this regard as we are bombarded with incoherent mixed messages, information for information’s sake and even when television tries to be serious it fails, because even the most serious program must be entertaining. Television as a medium cannot escape from the fact that it is a vehicle for amusement or entertainment. All of these points seem to me to be more or less valid, but Postman fails markedly in describing the way that print media and television both are connected to the logic of commodification. Thus his analysis is insufficiently historical as it takes two points in history and connects them without fully establishing the relation of these historical eras to one another.

Postman does provide a historical explanation of sorts, as he points to telegraphy and photography as forerunners that began the march towards television. Telegraphy conquered space and allowed messages to be shared across far distances very quickly and easily, while photography moved the focus away from the printed word and onto the image. But unfortunately this is merely a technological explanation; it just shows that there were other technologies that arose before television that made the way for it, but it does not show why the general technological trend towards conquering space and the image themselves replaced the printed word. This would be analogous to explaining the rise of automobile merely by reference to the horsedrawn carriage, but without asking why human beings have desired to have vehicles that move them from one place to another as quickly as possible. Consequently, while he gestures towards a historical explanation he does not go into enough detail in showing the relation between the rise of print media and the rise of television.

One important factor that unites the development of print media and television that Postman does not discuss is the logic of commodification. The logic of commodification renders all things whether tangible or intangible into objects that can be bought and sold on the market. This logic seems to be built into capitalism itself as more and more objects, ideas and practises are transformed into something that can be sold at a profit. The idea of selling bodily fluids would be unheard of in the 18th century for numerous reasons while today this is a common practise in the USA. The rise of the commodification of bodily matter cannot be disconnected from the rise of print media and television as a dominant mode of communication, as both are linked to an overarching trend in which all relations must be modeled on the relationship between commodities and buyers and sellers.

One way in which Postman fails to identify the link between the logic of commodification and the emergence of television is that Postman compares the typographic medium with television as if they were polar opposites, rather than seeing that the development of the medium of print is a forerunner to the development of television in that television serves to further entrench the logic of commodification that print itself had already served to entrench.  This can be seen in the way that Postman unequivocally praises print media for its rationality while decrying all television as a mere tool for amusement; he clearly does not identify any link between the two in terms of their relation to commodification, but sees them in an almost binary fashion. However, the link between the two forms of media are quite evident as while print media in the 18th century may have had a seriousness that much television does not have, it was still a commodity. Before print, mass copies of communications could not be created and so the idea of selling communication products as a commodity to the masses made no sense. It was only after the emergence of the printing press, and written communications could be produced on a mass scale that the idea of selling communications about the events of the day as a commodity began to make sense. Before the printing press the clergy largely was occupied with maintaining knowledge through the activities of scribes and others. These groups would maintain collections, but these collections were merely a store of wisdom for the limited few with access to them, rather than a source of information to sell to people. In this sense while there are many qualitative differences between print media and television there is a deep connection between the two because they both are part of an overall development in capitalist society towards the ever growing reach of commodification.

Furthermore, if we compare television to typographic media we see the way in which television further entrenched what print media had begun to entrench. As we just noted typographic media like any other can be bought and sold, and it was bought and sold during the 18th century when it was at its peak, but because typographic media was still rooted to a particular place because of the absence of technologies like the telegraph it was not a fully mass produced commodity. In the 18th century the news in Pennsylvania covered events relating to life in that area, and in this sense information about the context of life in Pennsylvania was bought and sold, but information about life in this area was not sold to those in Copenhagen as a commodity, as there was no simple means of getting the information to Copenhagen quickly. Consequently, the sale of the information was geographically limited. Postman notes the way in which news was confined to a context of life in the typographic age, but he does not note that the decontextualization of news so that it can be sent anywhere on the world is part of the overall logic of commodification that extends from the initial step of commodifying information for sale. The movement to wider distribution of news as commodity was made possible by the telegraph, but the reason the telegraph and television caught on as an important technology for distributing news was because of the already existing historical trend towards commodification of information that the printing press had served to establish. It is somewhat doubtful that the news of the day would have become the commodity for global consumption that it has become today if print media had not already transformed information into a commodity for sale to a mass audience. Consequently, the telegraph and television merely took the logic of commodification in communications to a further limit.

Despite all that I have said above, I still think Postman’s book is worth a read, but I wish he would have spent more time discussing the way in which typographic media and television are part of the same historical trend, rather than fixating merely on the ways in which they are different. By taking this step he would have been better able to show the roots that underlie both developments.

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Capitalism, Commodification and Social Practises

One very common critique of capitalism is that capitalism encourages problematic forms of commodification that degrade social practises. This degradation of social practises occurs as practises that are supposed to operate according to non-market logic, begin to operate according to the logic of the market. For example, the development of commercial surrogacy indicates this trend as a couple, or an individual, will pay a woman to give birth to a child for them, just as they would pay someone to do their dry cleaning. This degrades the social practise of pregnancy according to some as pregnancy is a form of labour that is uniquely directed at care for one’s own child. To sell or buy this labour as a commodity is to fail to understand that the proper end of the labour of pregnancy is not monetary profit, but care of the child. It is an objectification and commodification of the labour of pregnancy.

Another similar argument points out that the transformation of the vocation of the artist into a job as a result of capitalist development can also cause problematic forms of commodification. The practise of the creation of art is at its ideal when it is directed towards the uncompromising creation of beauty, rather than towards the market logic of gain or profit, but if one is dependent for one’s subsistence on the creation of art than the point of your artistic creation will be infected by the desire for gain. In this case you are not creating for the sake of beauty, but for the sake of survival, and consequently when being an artist becomes a profession and thus one’s source of subsistence it can degrade the practise of artistic creation.  Somerset Maugham put this quite eloquently in Of Human Bondage when he says:

“You will hear people say that poverty is the best spur to the artist. They have never felt the iron of it in their flesh. They do not know how mean it makes you. It exposes you to endless humiliation, it cuts your wings, it eats into your soul like a cancer. It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank, and independent. I pity with all my heart the artist, whether he writes or paints, who is entirely dependent for subsistence upon his art.”

Many may disagree with either or both of my examples and suggest that neither of these forms of activity have a proper end, and that just as there is nothing wrong with practising law to support oneself, there is nothing wrong with selling one’s reproductive capacities or one’s artistic capacities for this reason.

I myself am unsure of whether there is anything inherently wrong with selling one’s reproductive capacities or one’s artistic capacities for the sake of survival or mere gain for that matter, but the expansion of commodification to all practises is problematic, for the alternative reason, that it threatens to destroy the multiplicity of unique goods in the world. As commodification extends more and more practises are transformed into practises that run according to the logic of the market.  The trouble with this kind of social transformation is that it makes practises that operate according to non-market principles more marginal.  By making these non-market practises more marginal the move towards greater commodification hampers elements of the human spirit that find their expression in non-market practises. For example, the commitment to scholarly research is hampered in a market society as research is turned into a deliverable that must be produced to receive an income, rather than as something that tries to better understand the world.

Our nature as humans is multifaceted and complex. We are not just clever beings who can pursue their interest in the market. Instead we are being who have a nature that reaches out towards many objects including truth, friendship, romantic love, beauty and athletic excellence, to mention a few.  Consequently, when our practises become dominated by the singular logic of the market we are rendered less, rather than more free as the practises within our society offer less of an opportunity to express and develop many of our most fundamentally human capacities.  Market mechanism may express certain elements of the human spirit such as rational self-interest, a certain form of inventiveness and discipline, but market practises do not fully reflect our nature, and thus practises that run according to non-market principles are a necessary bulwark of freedom in any capitalist society.  Consequently, while the commodification of practises may not be inherently wrong the general expansion of market principles into nearly all practises is problematic as it hampers certain valuable elements of the human soul.

Of course some may doubt the essentialist conception of human nature I have put forth, but while essentialism is frowned down upon for many historical reasons the idea that humans have a multifaceted nature that reaches out to many distinct and diverse goods seems deeply plausible. This notion seems plausible as in our lives we often find ourselves drawn to different and conflicting forms of value in the world that reflect different parts of ourselves. For example my capacity for human attachment and intimacy draws me to friends and romantic relationship, while my more general concern for others draws my concerns towards the realm of the political.

The Multiculturalism Festival in Canada

Multiculturalism is a policy that is not only enshrined in law in Canada, but also an element of our national identity. It is said that, unlike the US which insists on trying to build a singular homogeneous national culture based on the differing historical cultures of its inhabitants, Canada will have a permanently heterogeneous national culture which celebrates cultural diversity, rather than trying to overcome it. Furthermore, it is noted that Canada is a cultural mosaic, with each culture making up a different part of the Canadian whole. This approach to national identity certainly has the strength of rendering Canada more inclusive and respectful of other’s cultures, but certain elements of the practise of this are less about inclusiveness and generating respect and understanding of other cultures, and more about consumerism, and commodification. One such element of the practise of multiculturalism that is more concerned with consumerism and commodification than anything else is the multicultural festival.

Multicultural festivals are held across Canada, and go by various names such as Heritage Days or Carassauga, but their essential substance is the same. There are pavilions for each culture interesting in creating one, and at these pavilions the general public can try food from the culture, or see the culture’s traditional dress, or dances. Purportedly these festivals provide an opportunity to celebrate Canada’s diversity, but while these festivals offer an opportunity for members of a culture to display elements of their culture which is certainly positive they do not facilitate deep understanding of, or respect for other cultures among the wider population. Most of the attendees at these festivals go to try the food of cultures that they are unfamiliar with and see their traditional dances, dresses or artifacts, but the attendees are not given context to understand the food, dress, or dances of the culture. Rather, people line up and give their money and order their food, or sit or stand politely and enjoy the entertainment provided by the traditional dances, songs and dress of the people. But does this kind of mode of interaction with members of another culture generate understanding of, or respect for another culture? It does not seem to be the case that it does. By purchasing food from a cultural pavilion I merely realize that a culture makes a certain kind of dish, but I have no understanding of what role this food plays in their culture, or what role food in general does. Likewise, if I see a traditional dance, song or dress of the culture I do not learn what the traditional dance or song celebrates or honours, or what purpose is served by the traditional dress. In this way the attendees of the multicultural festival may at most learn a set of facts about another culture (ie what food they eat, what their traditional dress looks like etc), but cultures cannot be understood by learning unrelated facts about that culture. Rather, understanding a culture requires a more overarching understanding of the meanings of the society and how those meanings are embodied in a set of practises. Consequently it does not seem to be the case that the multicultural festival generates understanding of, and respect for other cultures.

Now, it might not be a problem that the multicultural festival does not generate understanding of, and respect for other cultures if this festival was merely regarded as an opportunity to see some exotic dances, songs, and clothing as well as try some interesting, unique food. But shouldn’t part of a festival that honours diversity be a concerted attempt to generate intercultural dialogue, and understanding, rather than reducing cultures to producers of good food, and pleasant entertainment for the consumer? It does seem that honouring cultural diversity would require a concerted attempt to generate intercultural dialogue and understanding, because we only come to appreciate, understand and respect other cultures if we understand the. Furthermore we can only appreciate cultural diversity itself when we come to recognize the value that others cultures have, and this also requires a genuine understanding of the meanings embodied in the practises that constitute a culture. Consequently, the multiculturalism festival fails to adequately meet the end that it avowedly tries to secure, the celebration of diversity, as it reduces cultures to producers of commodities (good food and entertaining dances and songs) for a mass of consumers, and thus it is more of an exercise in consumerism and commodification than it is in the celebration of cultural diversity. We can see that consumerism and commodification are the guiding principles of the multiculturalism festival through the analysis provided earlier, as we see attendees of the festival consuming food and entertainment provided by the culture, rather than engaging in a dialogue with members of that other culture to understand their practises. This is surely a case of consumerism and commodification if anything is.

One further reason why it is problematic that the multiculturalism festival does not meets it avowed aim of celebrating diversity is because this encourages people to see celebrating diversity as enjoying commodities from other cultures. If we are told that by going to a multicultural festival we are celebrating diversity then we will tend to think that celebrating diversity just means being a consumer who is open to enjoying the products of other cultures. Therefore, the multiculturalism festival not only fails to meet the end that it aims at, but rather also encourages people to have the mistaken understanding that celebrating diversity is a matter of being a consumer who does not prejudge commodities based on their cultural origin. But, for the reasons pointed out above, this commodified view of celebrating diversity has little to do with generating the intercultural dialogue required to genuinely celebrate diversity.

It should be noted that nothing in what I have written above means to suggest that the Canada’s multicultural policy is bad, rather I have merely tried to highlight some of the shortcomings of the multicultural festival as an element of Canada’s overall multiculturalism policy.

Prostitution, Puritanism, Commodification and Wage Labour

A little while ago the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws as unconstitutional. While this act by the Supreme Court never suggested that prostitution should be legal, it did argue that Canada’s current laws needed to be replaced as the current laws endangered the health and safety of sex trade workers. As a result of this the whole issue of prostitution’s status under the law has become a topic for public discussion.

The interesting element of these discussions of prostitution is the earnest piety with which both left leaning and right leaning politicians condemn prostitution as necessarily exploitative and immoral. I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that currently sex trade workers are exploited, victims of violence and subject to being connected with human trafficking, and I am not sure if the connection between these criminal activities and prostitution can easily be cut. But, the fact that currently sex trade workers tend to be subject to these dangers, does not necessarily show that prostitution is exploitative, but only that prostitution is exploitative under the particular conditions under which it exists within the contemporary Canadian context. And yet the partisans of both left and right seem to act as if the current state of prostitution in Canada means that sex trade work is necessarily exploitative and needs to be condemned by means of law. There are of course some contrasting voices that want to reform the sex trade industry such that it becomes a legitimate form of economic activity, but these are a very small minority. Thus, the Canadian public discussion of this issue is dominated by a very broad condemnation of prostitution.

I suspect that this condemnation of prostitution is due to the idea that there is something particularly degrading about prostitution such that even under the most perfect egalitarian conditions engaging in prostitution would be a sign that someone was mentally ill or depraved. This idea is rarely expressed clearly, but it seems to fit with the fact that we are the heirs to a tradition of thought and practise in which sexual purity was a central element of morality, and the fact that many people will say that they cannot see any reasons for engaging in prostitution other than poverty, desperation or mental illness. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that there is a strand of thought in Canada about prostitution which sees prostitution as necessarily degrading. Let us call this perspective `Pious Puritanism.` For the remainder of this entry I will argue that the ideas underlying pious puritanism are valid, but that they imply a broader critique of commodification and wage labour itself.

Pious Puritanism suggests that prostitution is deeply degrading under any condition. This raises the question of why prostitution is degrading, One reason to think that prostitution is degrading is that it represents the infiltration of norms of economic activity into a sphere in which norms of romantic affection ought to dominate, and economic norms should be barred entry. Just as it would be absurd and degrading for someone to treat their romantic partner as someone who they exchange goods and services with on the basis of a binding commercial contract, so too it is absurd and degrading to sell sex to another. Underlying this thought process is the idea that our sexual and romantic capacities should not be rendered into commodities that can be traded for money. Let us call this objection to prostitution the romantic criticism.

One other reason why someone might object to prostitution in principle is that prostitution treats a person merely as a sexual object to be bought and paid for. The problem with this form of objectification is that it renders the sex trade worker into an instrument of another`s pleasure, to be used. Even though this form of objectification does not actively coerce the sex trade worker it fails to positively appreciate that the sex trade worker is more than somebody to be paid and used. Let us call this objection the sexual objectification criticism.

While I find both of these criticisms compelling they point beyond the target of prostitution. In the case of the romantic critique it might seem as though prostitution is unique in that it commodifies aspects of us that should not be commodified. But it seems equally degrading to commodify one`s character traits such as loyalty, leadership or amicability, and yet when people apply for jobs they typically have a list of traits on their resume that they intend to sell to their prospective employer in order to get a job. In this way those who apply for jobs and work in the mainstream post-industrial economy are not merely selling their labour, they are selling themselves. Consequently, just as the sexual aspect of persons should not be commodified, so too it seems that the virtues that people have should not be commodified. It seems deeply demeaning to have to sell traits that are fundamental to who you are in order to get a job. As a result, the romantic critique seems to point to powerful reasons to be suspicious of prostitution, but it also point to the fact that there are other problematic forms of commodification within post-industrial societies like Canada.

The sexual objectification critique also properly sheds light on some of the problematic aspects of prostitution, but it doing so it also points to a broader critique of wage labour. If there is a problem with failing to positively appreciate that sex trade workers are more than sexual objects, than isn`t it also problematic for employers to fail to properly appreciate that their employees are more than a mere paid resource with particular capacities? This latter case seems to be a case of objectification as much as the former case does, and thus it is hard to see why objectifying someone as a sexual object is problematic, while objectifying them as a technical IT resource for instance would not be. We tend to be more comfortable with the latter form of objectification as we actively participate in it, simply by calling someone for IT support, but that does not render it any less of a form of objectification unless we treat the IT worker as more than just a resource that we have to pay. Thus, it seems that the sexual objectification critique points to the fact that wage labour itself is problematic. Thus, it seems that the romantic critique and sexual objectification critique of prostitution actually point towards a broader critique of practises of commodification and wage labour.

If the two critiques elaborated above point towards a broader critique of commodification and wage labour this means that anyone who finds prostitution problematic for the reasons associated with these critiques should also find certain elements of the economic systems of post-industrial society deeply problematic. I am certainly someone who finds both prostitution and many elements of the economic systems of post-industrial societies problematic, but it seems that within our culture there is a general tendency to have disdain for prostitution, while ignoring the fact that many of the reasons behind people’s condemnation of prostitution point to a broader critique of commodification and wage labour. It is important for us to recognize that this perspective is deeply in tension, if not contradictory, and thus problematic.

Music, Commodification, Creativity and Beauty

During this week a colleague of mine and I were discussing a band that she quite enjoys. I commented that while I think this band are good at what they do, I find their music derivative and therefore have never really given them much attention. Her response to this was that she sees nothing wrong with a band being derivative if they produce enjoyable, good music. My response to her comment expressed the idea that part of the point of the creation of art is to create something unique and distinctive, as opposed to something that is merely a re-creation of something that already exists. Ultimately, there was no resolution to the discussion, but this conversation got me thinking about the nature of music and its relation to modes of production and consumption within post-industrial society. I will argue that while music may not need to be creative or original to be good, that the presence of original music is necessary in post-industrial society as original music forces us to recognize the beauty of art, so that we can fully appreciate it, rather than merely seeing music as a commodity and consuming it.

Within contemporary post-industrial society music is not only an art form; it is also a mass produced commodity. The commodity nature of music means that we tend to consume music as opposed to appreciating its beauty; we listen to music not as a response to beauty of the music, but rather because we know that we will gain enjoyment from listening to the music. In this sense we look for the musical product that is most likely to give us a reasonable rate of return in terms of enjoyment relative to our investment in the product. As a result of this, beauty becomes dissociated from music as we do not see music as something beautiful that we need to fully grasp, and appreciate, but rather see it as something that merely delivers enjoyment, just like any other commodity.

Derivative music is typically consumed unthinkingly. If I have a heard a particular form of music before, and I stumble upon another band that performs this style well, my experience of their music will not draw attention to the beauty of the music, as the music will simply appear to me as something ordinary that provides me with enjoyment, rather than a beautiful object that needs to be appreciated. In this sense the consumption of derivative music sits fairly comfortably with the dissociation of music and beauty.

On the other hand, original music serves to reconnect music and beauty such that the listener is drawn to appreciate the beauty of the piece of music, rather than merely seeing the music as an instrument of enjoyment. This occurs as original music provides us with a unique experience that pulls us out of our everyday pre-reflective mode of operation. When I hear a form of music that I have never heard before, whether I like it or not, I am drawn to understand that form of music precisely because it is so alien. The alien nature of the music calls on me to grasp it. Furthermore, in trying to understand that form of music I am drawn to recognize its beauty. Consequently, original music as opposed to derivative music allows us to once again realize that music is more than a commodity; rather, it is an attempt to create something beautiful.

Seeing the relationship between music and beauty is important because this relationship is integral to the practise of the composition of music. The composer of music is not a clever entrepreneur trying to create an attractive product, but an artist trying to create some new manifestation of beauty in the world. Therefore, If one sees music merely as something that provides enjoyment one has failed to understand the practise of the composition of music. This failure seems particularly egregious as the creation of music seems to be a significant practise in nearly all human societies and thus to lack understanding of this practise, is to lack understanding of the human condition in general.

So it seems that both my colleague and I made valid points. Derivative music can be beautiful, and consequently good, but creativity is necessary in music, in a post-industrial society, as the experience of creative music ensures that people will be able to see, and fully appreciate, that music is not merely a commodity, but the attempt to create something beautiful.