Last week, Nietzsche. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to priming and the culture industry.
Chris Bateman: Before we started our dialogues, I had just recently finished your marvellous book The Hallelujah Effect, which is (among other things) an analysis of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”, the phenomenon of cover versions, kd lang’s performance practice (and odd erasure in the literature), and commercial power over cultures – all of this rooted in your understanding of Nietzsche, of course. But the odd thing is, although I can now spot the Hallelujah effect – the deployment of covers of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” in movies and advertising shows it, for instance – I cannot give a concise definition. (Calling it psychological priming seems utterly inadequate.) Is this an artefact of continental philosophical practice? An analytic philosopher would have begun by laying out an overly precise definition, after all.
Babette Babich: That’s a ‘nice’ question in several senses of the term, including some questions with ‘teeth’ as it were. The focus on Cohen, the focus on k.d.lang more so, also the issue of the complexities of desire, male desire, female desire — part of which dynamic is at the heart of the current scandal of male erotic power in Hollywood, a scandal as old as the casting couch and with deep roots in our society. But what is the ‘hallelujah effect’ — surely it is not about Harvey Weinstein or Woody Allen (although much in the scandal is already written into the plot or is the plot of many a Woody Allen movie. To be sure, think of Harry Potter, we all root for the nebbishy guy, which is why Hermione gets to end up with Ron, that’s the plot J.K. Rowling wrote for her, while Harry gets to get one of Ron’s much younger sisters, etc.). But is The Hallelujah Effect a book about male desire and music, misogyny and beauty? Yes, and the book deals with all that but and at the same time the question as you frame it is fair and one that has led me to some sense of despair.
CB: How so? The text of the book does not hint at any such desperation, and indeed definitions are not obviously a cause of suffering — even among philosophers, although we are adept at finding ways to suffer about anything intellectual!
BB: I was led to write a kind of ‘prolegomena,’ framed out in 12 pages for readers interested in phenomenological media studies. I talk about entrainment and music and online porn, all on the first page and I am still not sure I come close to answering the question you raise. It’s all about the manufacturing of hits of whatever cultural kind from pop music to iPhones and it is about the manufacturing of minds. Thus, in my defence, what I call the Hallelujah effect is the same industrial strength efficacy Adorno points to in what he along with Max Horkheimer named ‘the Culture Industry,’ which is perfectly formulaic, and perfectly effective, meaning that it works, left and right and centre, and all the way up to the highest and most recondite levels of high culture and all the way to the most popular kinds of so-called low or pop culture, including pop songs, including commercial jingles – everything. Including Harvey Weinstein — especially Harvey.
CB: I’m afraid I have little to say in regard of the Weinstein scandal... it cannot possibly count as surprising (which is not to say it doesn’t count as horrifying) and I am inclined to observe that the political power of the US left turns itself all too often to finding celebrities to savage when it is unhappy with who is in the White House. I don’t think it a coincidence that the Don Imus scandal blew up while Bush Jr was in the Oval Office. If Nero relieved Roman tensions by throwing Christians to the lions, tensions in the States tend to be relieved by throwing celebrities into the brutality of the media. Which I suppose brings us to ‘the culture industry’, which is something I encounter quite often when I’m peer reviewing other people, although I have very little experience of Adorno or Horkheimer’s work first hand. This does seem to be a critical point about our current situation – and one that your book definitely takes on.
BB: The definition of the culture industry (which with a few missing details is also part and parcel of the Hallelujah Effect) is well laid out by Horkheimer and Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment in the chapter, hard to miss it, entitled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In the process, they themselves are freely varying points about broadcast culture, what we call media these days, already made by Günther Anders and the art psychologist Rudolf Arnheim in their different reflections on radio and Walter Benjamin in even larger part in his essay on the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility which is of course a matter of transmission and reception or media following Heidegger’s reflections on “The Origin of the Work of Art” and asking, as Benjamin asked (in good Frankfurt School fashion) about the very material, real, practical, effective conditions of and for the work of art, particularly considered in the age of mass culture, and the means of ‘creating’ that mass worker – and himself echoing and indebted to Günther Anders, the Canadian political theorist of media, or Dallas Smythe. Smythe is less noted than he should be (he’s unsung) as he is absolutely central to current claims regarding the ‘shallows’ set in motion by our brave new world wide net order but also exactly predating Galloway on goldfarming and of course Ian Bogost and, before Bogost, Evgeny Morozov and all the bubble folk like Eli Pariser. (I discuss just these things with my students in Philosophy and Digital Media this semester.) What Smythe claimed was that media (which he called “communications” circa 1977) is the “Blind Spot of Western Marxism.” For us today, the evolution continues and it’s digital media we need to be talking about, software included, and much discussion focuses on Benjamin and the material details one usually calls mechanical production though one can and should speak of technology in this respect just to be accurate or true to the German itself.
CB: I’m familiar with the Heidegger piece you mention here, and with Benjamin... for Heidegger, however, the concern in that lecture and essay is more about the relationship between truth and the work of art – a point that also occupies Badiou on many occasions. The question of technology is one that gets brought up more explicitly in his lecture and essay with that very specific title – which has been a frequent point of reference for me ever since I started wearing my cyberethicist hat. Indeed, my forthcoming book, The Virtuous Cyborg, is practically inspired by Heidegger’s challenge. But you were talking about Horkheimer and Adorno and I derailed the thread of our conversation. ‘The Culture Industry’.
BB: I was talking about the ‘Culture Industry’ per se and to be sure — but your remarks are directly related to that industry, at least to follow one thread. Thus although you are quite right to say that Heidegger is concerned with art and truth in his artwork essay, his concern there is expressed in terms of the dynamic materiality of the artwork as it works — and if it works. Hence his concern with the working of the work of art as truth. The mediation there for Heidegger, and this is where he cannot but be indebted to Nietzsche, is cultural and that means specific to a given world and time. Thus his supposed focus on the ‘great’ work of art, as Heidegger offers cliché force references to Van Gogh and to Klee, but also mentions specific loci, and he emphasizes Ge-Stell, the same frame up that he will speak of in his technology lectures.
CB: Let me just interject here for the benefit of non-Heidegger scholars that this term, ‘ge-stell’, in Heidegger is problematic in that it is a key concept but — and parallel to my earlier suggestion about your Hallelujah Effect and the continental philosophy tradition — it is never clearly defined (he defines it, but we couldn't consider his definition as clear). In English, it has been translated ‘enframing’, and Heidegger specifically links this concept to technology... because for him, the essence of technology is not the tools but the mindset it puts us in, that mindset that evaluates in terms of utility, that reduces everything to ‘standing reserve’, a resource to be exploited. This mindset, I might add, is the basic design principle of almost all videogames, and this is not coincidental but almost inevitable, although a huge tangent best saved for another time. You were drawing attention to the loci Heidegger links to this concept of ‘ge-stell’ or enframing?
BB: Yes, the loci he gives includes the cathedral at Bamberg and the Greek temple growing quasi-organically from the rock, just standing there “in the middle of the rock cleft valley,” just as he says that the shoes “merely stand there” and that “from Van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand.” Now before going too much further, it is worth noting the site in question – the temple at Paestum is set in relief against and from and with the rock. Bamberg, like Winchester, grows out of the rock as well, although both Bamberg and Winchester also happen to be engineering achievements steeped in water. But it is the temple in situ that makes all the difference for what has become the culture industry as folks who travel to Athens are increasingly well able to see as the Greeks museum-ify the Acropolis. Whatever cannot have a museum tent set over it, as at the temple at Bassae, is served almost as effectively by having a museum spring up next to it, which touristic convenience serves a very literal culture industry by providing a set supply of consumers with something to do. This is the point Heidegger advances in his technology essay but in his artwork essay he reminds us that the ancient Greeks use the same word to refer to both art and craft: techne. And it was Heidegger’s student, Günther Anders who really expands on Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s reflections on the Culture Industry because reflections on culture and reproducibility articulated in the era Anders characterized as the ‘second’ industrial revolution were linked, so Anders claims at length, to the obsolescence of the human as such: part of the unavoidable logic of the mechanized, broadcast – today we could say networked and digital – culture of culture, the entertainment industry, including music and theatre and film and television as well as journals and popular (but not less including academic and theoretical) books, all of which were dependent upon the medium for advertising and not less technoscience, the very ‘wake,’ as Heidegger would speak of the question, the auratic eclipse of what Benjamin assessed, once again, as the technological means of reproduction.
CB: Because being able to reproduce on the scale that we now can allows the same reproductions (movies, music, games, images, text...) to engulf human culture into industry, which was not possible even two hundred years ago, and which has accelerated and metamorphosed almost every decade in those two centuries – look at the remorseless rise of the internet as just one example. And it all leads us to where we are now with not only culture industry, but with the related capacity to dominate culture commercially. As the Belgian band Deus lament: “Well, what the hell is my place/If someone else will dictate/My singular culture?” The unsubvertible inexorability of commercial culture production. And this ties us back to your Hallelujah Effect.
BB: Wow! Yes! This is very true and you put it quite rhythmically thanks to Deus and I think the Belgians — I lived in Brussels for a year — are well-positioned in just this disconnect. Their ‘Popular Culture’ begins, after American swing and British sulphuring, by alluding to something rarely noted, unless one is at a pub: Belgians make beer, they do it brilliantly, every which way, but it is the Germans who are famed for beer, they invent chips, but the French take credit for that, in sum, and this is American exceptionalism in a song: “If you don't come from the States/You will always be late to be in popular culture” — as the refrain goes “From western slang/To showbiz spells/You’d almost think/There’s nothing else” and I could almost feel that we are back to singing a Flemish version of analytic philosophy, ‘Hallelujah I’m a bum. Hallelujah, bum again.’ Now Horkheimer and Adorno define the process and the effect of the culture industry again and again. And the Hallelujah Effect is a technique for eliciting, quite mechanically, quite like clockwork, very specific results, in accord with industry interests — there is nothing random about it and it does not really admit of subversion if Adorno is right, musically speaking, culturally or aesthetically speaking — and I fear he is. The reason is really because, and Marcuse saw this best and characterized it with the ridiculously complicated and even more ridiculously exactly accurate, exactly descriptive compound: repressive desublimation. Today’s cool language is all immanence and thing-ontology when it is not experimental philosophy — but repressive desublimation was cool/hot in the 1960s. I do not think we are beyond it.
CB: Something that very much concerns me is the sense that the issues raised in the 1960s and the 1970s haven’t ceased to be relevant, we have just become (worryingly) bored of them. Hence my repeated return to Ivan Illich, whose critique of contemporary culture remains as apposite as it ever was. But no, it doesn’t really matter what the problems are when academics are so desperate to justify their tenure or payscale advances by having carved out a niche, an ‘original contribution to knowledge’... there’s always some cool/hot new thing to escape the problems which have, disturbingly, become boring precisely because of overexposure. Maybe this is another aspect of priming that ought to be considered – priming to ignore. Although perhaps that’s the opposite of the Hallelujah Effect.
BB: I quite agree with you! Priming to ignore, as you put it, is the very mechanism of the Hallelujah Effect, its engine of the same: we get used to things, we disattend to things, and they continue to work on us, beneath our notice. Thus Kalle Lasn’s Adbusters tried to point to this, not that this can work because we are primed to ignore or disattend which entails that we are also primed to claim, whether we are consumers or academics, that priming has no effect on us. Thus researchers claim that free will drives the market — that or ‘rational choice’ — and thus that advertising has no effect. But as I point out in The Hallelujah Effect, researchers who make those claims are in academic fields like political science. Academic researchers in marketing make diametrically opposed claims and, as Horkheimer and Adorno emphasize to begin with, companies without exception invest in advertising. Now I did get your parenthetical warning about ‘priming’ earlier and I feel a little like Socrates (I have always wanted to feel a little like Socrates, every philosopher does…) trying to respond to Thrasymachus who tells him that he can’t use certain terms as they will not do. And I respect that just because that too is a problem of the effect of the Hallelujah Effect. Which only means, despite your disappointment with the language of ‘priming,’ that I cannot help but refer to it, adding the name of Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew but even more important a PR expert who was so good at the people he represented, Enrico Caruso, that they still enjoy reputations to this day. He lived until his death in 1994, just a county away from New York City, in Westchester.
CB: From philosophy to PR... an unexpected segue!
BB: The reason I mention him is because The Economist, which had reviewed the story of his life as part of their feature ‘History of Advertising’ with a review entitled ‘A Bigger Lie’, had a back page memorial for him when he died at 103. Bernays was the author of The Crystallization of Public Opinion and another book on Propaganda. Bernays was also the key to Adam Curtis’ 2002 BBC documentary, The Century of the Self. Priming is important because it crystallises public opinion: what he taught, what he sold for a living had this grand feature, so useful for corporate industry because it works. Public Relations, i.e., PR, i.e., the literal manipulation of men’s minds, is a science, use it and one has no need to force individuals to do anything but what they think they freely choose to do. Just that is the reason it works.
The dialogue continues next week: The Hallelujah Effect