Television, Symbolic Capital and Empire   (August 25, 2009)

In which we connect American TV, an obession with social capital and Empire.

I watch television occasionally, but my selection of programming opens me up to either mockery (from my wife) or charges of elitism. Now that we receive a number of PBS channels over the digital airwaves, I have found another channel of interest beyond the usual PBS fare such as Nova, American Experience, etc.: the NASA channel.

Yes, NASA has its own TV channel which for some unknown reason is carried by a PBS affiliate in our region. My wife tells me I am one of five people watching it, a slight exaggeration but nonetheless in the ballpark.

Yes, I am a junkie for balding, pot-bellied engineers describing lunar or Mars missions, footage of the space station, the shuttle landing, etc.

Well, not exactly a junkie. Once a week keeps the monkey on my back satisfied. It's not that I'm elitist; all those "cops and docs" shows are too high-brow for my taste, which runs to "Kung Fu Theater" and Hollywood "blockbuster" flicks.

We've been house and cat-sitting for friends this past week and as a result we have had the opportunity to scan Comcast's full offering of premium cable. The experience has been both insightful and dismaying.

Having traveled fairly often to Europe and Asia, I've been awake at weird hours due to jetlag and thus can report what most of you already know: TV is dumb the world over. The U.S. has no lock on lowest-common-denominator TV; in fact, many popular U.S. shows have been cribbed from overseas, especially Britain.

Based on my brief unscientific survey, it seems the primary obsessions of Americans are as follows:

1. Weight loss.

2. Media recognition or exposure, i.e., qualifying for "Dance Your Fat Ass Off" or equivalent.

3. Looking superficially like a "Hollywood star" or "model," i.e. buffed, perfect makeup, etc.

I know this sounds like I've been living in a remote cave, but the commercials alone are positively guaranteed to drive viewers into a state of mental instability (ADD, full-blown depression, etc.) or stupor. Yes, you can mute them or TIVO them into oblivion, but we must remind ourselves of the salient fact about TV adverts: if nobody watched them or acted on them, then the corporate advertisers would not be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for TV ad campaigns. Hence we can deduct the adverts work most of the time.

If you haven't come across this classic book from the 1970s, I recommend it: Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television .

The advertisements are a parody of Empire in terminal decline. Handsome people fill the screen, and then one flashes a sad expression--uh-oh, a pharmaceutical ad for an anti-depressant. Literally 3/4 of the ad time is spent listing the side-effects, which might suggest to the nominally conscious viewer that this is powerful stuff and maybe not all that nifty for you: do not take this if you're pregnant, nursing, on blood thinners (well, there goes 9/10 the male population over 50), or if you've eaten a pepperoni pizza within the last 48 hours; do not use if driving machinery, playing video games or cooking with MSG or ibogaine, and do not mix with Zombiestria.

But I didn't reveal my brief exposure to the madness known as commercial broadcast TV (if he/she/it gets shot, falls, blows up and bleeds, it leads) to mock it. That is akin to shooting fish in a barrel, as we all know. I would be offended if someone criticized bad kung-fu movies for the same reason TV devotees would be offended by criticism of their favorite show: it's supposed to be bad.

No, I want to suggest TV is the penultimate expression of the American ambition for social capital. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu offered up a way of understanding TV-America's obsessions with weight loss, media exposure/fame, etc.

For Bourdieu, financial capital is but one form of wealth/influence; others include social capital, cultural capital, and symbolic capital. In Bourdieu's analysis, each individual carves out a position in a multidimensional social space; he or she is not defined only by social class membership, but by every kind of capital he or she can express/possess.

Bourdieu viewed symbolic capital (e.g., prestige, honor, attention) as a crucial source of power: Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste .

Bourdieu noted that the lower social classes enjoy familiar food served in large quantities and consequently are typically heavier than upper class types who dine on exotic cuisine in small portions.

Thus it was a revelation to see the astonishing variety of cooking shows on TV--in stark contrast to America's apparently declining ability or willingness to prepare real food on a regular basis. The more people watch exotic cooking on TV, the less they actually cook.

What it does express, I think, is the desire and ambition to be slim and knowledgeable about diverse cuisines--in other words, to acquire symbolic capital.

The same ambition can be seen in the "theater of the absurd" TV shows which offer opportunities (often horridly sordid) for "average" people to appear on TV: to gain attention and media exposure, and thus create symbolic capital ("I was on TV, hence I am now important.")

We can thus speculate that as the prospects of acquiring financial capital dwindle with the housing bubble's demise and the economy's slow-motion collapse, Americans are even more desperate to acquire social/symbolic capital.

Of the many ironies this presents, none is more obvious than the gulf between the products marketed on TV and the aspirations of upper-class symbolic status. To wit: the way to get thin and learn about world cuisines is to stop buying packaged foods of the type which are hyped on TV (ditto vitamins, supplements, weight loss schemes,etc.) and actually devote oneself to learning how to cook a variety of healthy cuisines.

There must be some vicarious satisfaction in watching famous chefs whip up exotic cuisine (no boring prep required on TV--everything's always chopped and ready); the other irony is that the only way to prepare such real food in real time is to turn off the TV.

Other ironies abound as well.

Correspondent Ernesto M. (with whom I've been discussing Empire and democracy-- Are Empire and Democracy Compatible? August 21, 2009) described a bizarre TV show in which consumers beg for "permission" to spend like drunken sailors:

I was watching the Suzy Ormon show yesterday. She has this segment where people call in and "apply" to spend money on certain things. She evaluates their request based upon their financial circumstances and either "approves" or "denies" it. Yesterday, the "denies" were 5-for-5 and you should have seen the ridiculous things people were going to spend their money on. Yes, this is a TV show but I consider it a reasonable reflection of the way middle and upper middle-class America do and especially did live during the mania.

These people were not broke but were hardly that well off, yet were considering spending thousands or tens or thousands on "toys". $120,000 to build a log cabin as a second home, $2,000 for U2 concerts, $20,000 for a boat and so forth. I consider it irrefutable that millions of people (and tens of millions on a smaller scale) who are in financial difficulty now were spending money in similar ways before "bad luck" overtook them. And now, many are receiving public assistance which they have absolutely no business receiving. They made incompetent financial choices and deserve to reap the consequences of their incompetence.

This makes me wonder if Americans are seeking to spend wildly while they can, since they now grasp that "bad luck" is indeed coming their way.

There is little evidence of the global American Empire on network TV. But then there is little evidence that this is a democracy, either; judging by cable and prime-time network TV, we might as well be living in a debt-serf "plantation" colonial State which plucks residents at random to compete for the symbolic glories of media exposure.

We might also speculate that TV's larger role is to gain the populace's "permission" for wildly irresponsible spending on a national scale. If only 40% of eligible voters actually cast a ballot, and the two choices offered are merely different flavors of the same financial-rentier power Elite, then what exactly is democracy?

Ernesto M:

On the idea of whether "democracy" is consistent with empire or not, it would depend upon someone's definition of "democracy". It certainly is not consistent with the idea that the country will be run by and for the benefit of "the people" because that is simply an idealistic illusion of incurable romanticism for the gullible fool.

Me, I'm not interested in "democracy" but in individual liberty and the protection of individual private property rights. (I consider the political process to be completely dishonest and dishonorable; elections are simply advanced auctions of stolen merchandise as H.L Mencken stated.) Historically, "democracy" or representative government generally has been more conducive to than other political systems but I would mainly attribute that to the lack of political competition.

"Democracy" has reached the status of a religion where the mindless clones in the media and the public never or hardly ever question the general outcome of "the system". Or they have a hypocritical double standard where they distinguish between personal freedom and economic freedom. When it comes to personal freedom, few to no restrictions are permitted ( for the "liberal") or there is an effort to regulate many personal choices that the government has no business regulating in the first place (primarily the "conservative" position but also shared by some "liberals").

The hypocrisy of it comes from the fact that almost everyone believes that any economic decision made through the political process is legitimate (to pay for irresponsible lifestyle choices or bad decisions that did not work out) which of course is complete nonsense.

In other words, as long as we as a nation get "permission," any amount of visibly irresponsible borrow-and-spend-like-drunken-sailors is legitimate.

Why is the American Empire so invisible on TV? Maybe because it's invisible to Americans in general. Although some 27% of Americans now hold passports, that number jumped hugely in the last few years from 21% as a result of the new requirement that you now need a passport to visit Canada and Mexico.

Americans are Tuning Out the World.

As the world becomes accustomed to the American way of life, Americans are tuning out the rest of the world. US citizens have paid less and less attention to foreign affairs since the 1970s, writes journalist Alkman Granitsas. The number of university students studying foreign languages has declined, and fewer Americans travel overseas than their counterparts in other developed countries. News coverage of foreign affairs has also decreased.

I know it may seem far afield to see American TV as a peculiar mirror in which the reflection of the American Empire does not appear, but as Ernesto points out, the overseas reach of the U.S. is perhaps only understood from outside the U.S.:

Ernesto M:

I was in India last year in New Delhi. On the way to the hotel from the airport, we passed the American Embassy. I was really surprised at how large the complex was. The driver pointed it out to us and it was two city "blocks". And by "blocks', I am not referring to a typical one of city size but what must have been at least one mile square - each. There literally must be thousands of employees on that facility. The driver also pointed out the school just for the staff (probably just or mainly for foreigners since a lot of locals presumably work there too) on the complex which will further give you an idea of the size. (We also passed the British complex and the US property must have been at least twice as large, though the British one was also very large.)

I never gave it much thought before my trip, but the only reason why that could possibly be necessary would be to "run interference" for the "national" commercial interests. We both know it isn't because there are many American tourists or expatriates who lost their passports or have problems with the local government.

I had a similar experience in Bangkok, Thailand, a few years ago when I passed the enormous American Embassy off Sukhumvit Road. Sited in the business center of crowded Bangkok, the U.S. embassy is surrounded by security and spacious lawns--perhaps the largest such expanse of open greenery other than one large public park and various Thai governmental complexes.

I didn't see the Chinese or Russian embassies, but I doubt they have equivalent open space and location; those assets are both financial and symbolic capital.

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