The Benefit of Narrative: Politics is Local

When we read, hear or view narrative fiction, we do so for a similar personal benefit, whether we’re viewing Masterpiece Theater, Alien (n), Yojimbo, Hercules Poirot, Pather Panchali, Catcher In The Rye, Star Wars etc.  It’s the same kind of benefit that anyone has ever received from narrative. What is that personal benefit?

In the middle of the 20th century, sociologists were trying to understand how ordinary, God fearing citizens of a civilized nation (Germany) could bring themselves to do their part in the holocaust and the horror that came to be called, World War II. So psychologists and sociologists at academic institutions conducted studies with students and they reached the conclusion that most people in Europe and America were deriving their principles from media. The how and why of this conclusion was the subject of a book, The Lonely Crowd; A Study of the Changing American Character (1950) and for many years, it was perennially on the New York Times list of best-selling books. It had its critics but ideas expressed in it caught the attention of Madison Avenue, Wall Street, political campaign strategists, the military industry and media companies.

What does it mean that we adapt our principles from media? Simply  that we learn what our peers approve from the media. If we fear and at the same time desire both acceptance and aloneness, when we identify with virtual peers in narratives, we are emotionally sensitive. Long before radio, television and cinema, though most people learned core values in their homes, from traditions but we inherit the logic of narratives and now, with streaming video, tradition plays a very small role in the values adopted by children. While academics study the development of these forms of media as an evolution of technology and craft, schools of film and television have no interest in promulgating core values of the culture. We can evaluate media by cultural results. We should do a national survey. How are things for you?  Really! Are they better or are they worse than they were 10, 20 years ago?

Entrepreneurs use media to create consumer needs they can feel powerful about filling. Sex sells. Fictional narrative promulgates the priority of  values. An emotion in response to diamonds could be created and the Anglo American diamond cartel locked up supply..  Planting emotional needs in the culture is like fruit ripening on the tree only the forest is a human culture. (You can see them from space.) God is dead and with God went The American Dream, and lo, though it is seen in advertisements for cigarettes, home mortgages, automobiles, bank accounts, military recruitment, household appliances, liquor and so on, for these are born of values reflected in the eyes of actors and motivations of characters in all genres of streaming video. Regrettably, popular uprisings curtailed depiction of graphic sex, drugs, orgasms and cigarettes, though very real in the context of the dream, not germane to manipulation of values.

David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd, published a second book of essays, Individualism Reconsidered & Other Essays (1954), in which he looked at the U.S. culture that had developed from these values. He wrote, ”What is feared as failure in American society is, above all, aloneness. And aloneness is terrifying because it means there is no one, no group, no approved cause, to submit to.’’ This statement parallels conclusions of psychologist Erich Fromm about the rise of Nazism in his book, Escape From Freedom (1941). And, like Fromm, Riesman  saw a need to encourage ”the nerve to be oneself when that self is not approved of by the dominant ethic of a society.” He doesn’t offer advice on this, should you decide to go that way.

Tobacco, liquor, sex, gasoline are inexorably taxed but Walmart , Target, Home Depot and such have advertising budgets that  promote consumer ethics.  The counter-culture’s job is to repudiate such values. The value is thus defined by the repudiation. Counter-culture is typically associated with hippies, drug culture and left wing politics, however, core values appealed to in advertisements and modeled in narrative fiction reveals a worshipful attitude toward material goods, consumerism and capitalism and a sardonic view of traditional religious affiliation. Repudiation of these values would be communal ownership; emphasis on sex and God.

We hear sometimes about  the Hollywood Black List, which began in 1947 resulted from the fear of infiltration of our media industry by a 5th column of foreign ideologues. In actually the purge was  of people with ideas that questioned the consumerism. The purge was effective for the same reason that a  proscription continues against media that undermines consumerism, which is, that reasons still exist why it’s better to be rich than to be poor. As long as people have hope that they will get their piece of the dream, any ideology that purports to level the playing field will fail. It is for this reason that, in terms of real change in the politics of social justice and economic equivalence, very little can be done at the level of national government and the only venue susceptible to significant action is at the level of local government.

What I’ve Learned in Film School

Current interest in yoga and practices of meditation and the fascination of spectator sports is motivated by a desire to feel; to experience life viscerally, emotionally and completely in a culture in which we are protected from feeling by technology and fear.

Viewers emotionally experience danger of the real, unknowable, unpredictable world when viewing film narratives, knowing that they are physically insulated, that it’s all pretend. Narrative works through emotional, not rational cognition and the forms of narrative in each culture are derived from the way individuals in that culture are conditioned by their environment to feel in the presence of recognized circumstances. We interpret the world as an after-thought; as a narrative in stories we tell ourselves (and others) about what we thought had happened. Narrative films tap this process.

Throughout knowable history, in voices in song, oral storytelling, print, plays, music, film, dance, sculpture and graphic arts, narratives evoke emotional cognition, an experience that colors the viewer’s perceptions of the world by associating feelings with appearances. Narratives have a primary purpose in shaping human perceptions and the social relevance of responses to perceptions. This is a defining characteristic of humans, not seen in other species.

As individuals, communities, cultures and a planetary civilization, our emotional perceptions guide our choices in managing our lives and communities. Since the turn of the 20th century, this guidance led humanity through two world wars, two global economic crashes, widespread deforestation, radioactive contamination of the seas and now a global climate change, which is an ecological catastrophe. There’s a reason to suspect a better appreciation for the uses and purposes of narrative may be required to change the course.

Sociological studies after the end of WWII by David Riesman and associates described in The Lonely Crowd (1950), revealed how mass media shapes core values of the population. Cinema conveys values that have led to social and ecological problems. Core values promulgated in media create political will that, in this democracy, has sustained impoverishment, warfare and environmental neglect. Our world would be a different place had we not this kind of media and the most obvious change would be more local autonomy, a down-sizing of scale to much smaller governmental units.

Traditional studies of cinema in America have promoted a global media industry and the social and environmental conditions that the media sometimes pretends to oppose. To affect these conditions by democratic action, requires a cinema that is not committed to global values.

Banning of talent in the witch hunt led by Senators Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon beginning in 1947 began a political purge that shifted creative control out of the hands of artists to reactionary capitalists that are not interested in the voices of labor and biased against social welfare . Film historians, scholars and theorists now focus on form and ignore that censorship in Hollywood works by green lighting content that meets criteria. Counter culture material isn’t prohibited, it’s given notes for changes required for it to be funded. Form follows function in film and when historians and theorists ignore the function of content, they ascribe choices of form to irrelevant historical influence.