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Symbolism of Popular Culture

The Symbolism of Segmentation

“Therefore during the modification of the descendants of any one species, and during the incessant struggle of all species to increase in numbers, the more diversified these descendants become, the better will their chance of succeeding in the battle of life.”

Charles Darwin
The Origin of Species

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts ... they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Collected Sonnets

Truth is often found in paradox. And America represents history's most paradoxical idea. The paradox is contained in the ideas of freedom and equality, materialism and transcendentalism.

The American paradox has been most apparent in the rise and fall of mass culture in the America of the twentieth century. The first two-thirds of the century was dominated by mass culture and its attendant systems of mass production, mass media, mass consumption and mass markets. The last third of the century has been dominated by niche markets, custom production and segmented markets. Looking back at the twentieth century, mass culture was the all-defining "zeitgeist" of America in the first part of the century while segmented culture was the defining "zeitgeist" of America in the second part of the century.

One could view this change from a mass culture to a segmented culture as a breakdown of the American culture. Certainly there is a nostalgia for our mass culture past within many today who are old enough to remember those years. Culture today seems to be exploding out from the center in all directions. Like the poem of Yeats, the "center" no longer holds.

But the change can also be viewed in a symbolic manner as playing out in a cultural context the concepts of freedom and liberty. The apex of American mass culture in the 1950s might represent the fullest expression of the equality symbol while our modern segmentation might represent the peak of the freedom and liberty symbol. Mass America was a great equalizer of experience (rather than, as commonly taught, opportunity) where citizens shared common experiences. The current segmented America is a great un-equalizer where citizens share few common experiences, have great freedom yet feel disconnected to the large culture.

Since the beginning of American history, these concepts have been vague, flag waving slogans repeated by schoolchildren like mantras but never inwardly felt or experienced in a personal sense. The ultimate destiny of America might be the working out of these concepts in a cultural and personal sense rather than an ideological sense. It might be to have them understood and felt by the common citizen on a daily basis rather than just the select few. It might be to have both of the concepts become the possession of each citizen rather than the historic division into political groups over the concepts.

The Landscape of Segmentation

Almost any contemporary observer of the juxtapositions of contemporary American culture would be hard-pressed to define segmentation as representing a type of symbolic destiny of America. In fact placing any type of general definition on it would be difficult. But while it is difficult to define the core of modern American culture, there are a number of observations one might make about large scale commonalities of the modern segmented "zeitgeist."

One of the central motifs is an increase in the quantity of life as distinct from the quality of life. During the era of mass culture there was less things or products in culture. Segmentation has brought more things. Cultural observers for the most part debate quality issues when the true modern zeitgeist really revolves around a quantity issue. There is more and more of less and less today. In yesterday's mass culture era there was less and less of more and more.

Dominance of Extraversion

There is reason to suspect that segmentation might be related to a particular psychological attitude. In Psychological Types, Carl Jung proposed the existence of two basic psychological attitudes: introversion and extroversion. Introversion is inner directed and extroversion outer directed.

The long range change of American society from inner directed to outer directed was the main thesis of David Reisman's legendary book The Lonely Crowd. Published in 1950, few books about American culture have had such a lasting and wide-ranging influence. The change Reisman observed was from an inner-directed personality type defined by self-reliant and purposeful to "other directed" personality types brought up to rely on the cues from others, particularly peer groups, coworkers, and mass media, in addition to parents, to find their way in the world.

Reisman argues that an inner directed attitude was appropriate in the nineteenth century, an era of imperial and capitalistic expansion. It created a highly individualized character to weather the storms and stresses of an unstable and unpredictable world. However, with the transformation from a production economy to a service and consumption oriented society dominated by large bureaucratic business corporations and governments, the inner-directed attitude became outmoded. A new kind of social character was required in the new, emerging social order. As Reisman notes, "It was now less important to concentrate on the hardness of matter than on the softness and malleability of minds."

In effect, Reisman foreshadowed the rise of a symbolism as a tool of control by anticipating that the future would hold unprecedented uses for "men whose tool is symbolism and whose aim is some observable response from people." This group would include, among others, advertisers, marketers, communicators, therapists, educators, media personalities and intellectuals.

The change from an inner-directed attitude to an outer-directed one was evident in all areas of the modern world. It was particularly evident with the education of children where one observed "an enormous ideological shift favoring submission to the group" and a regime in which "the peer group is the measure of all things" and "the individual has few defenses the group cannot batter down." This new culture valued smooth socialization and "adjustment far more than it did independence or dissent." Popularity and social skills became far more important than the pursuit of excellence or fidelity to inner standards of behavior. In this new environment, parents did not want their children to be different. Rather, they wanted them to conform.

But the outer directed attitude had a far greater reach into culture than just the education system. For instance, in politics Reisman observes that an outer-directed American electorate saw themselves as consumers rather than producers, an attitude that had the effect of making them passive, disengaged and indifferent.

Whether Reisman's long-range analysis of this major attitude shift in American culture is correct, whether it has a direct relationship to Jung's key psychological attitudes, whether extroversion has a relationship to segmentation is still open to debate. Any long range trend analysis always tends to take a linear rather than a cyclical view of change and therefore opens itself up to attack from cyclic theorists. For example, cyclic theorists such as Strauss and Howe, authors of The Fourth Turning, might argue that within the period Reisman discusses, there have been a number of cycles or shifts back and forth. Rather than a linear trend towards extroversion, they might see a battle between extroversion and introversion throughout American history.

Still, the idea of a long term trend in American attitude and its relationship to segmentation is something that is difficult to dismiss.

Proliferation of Products

The break-up of the mass market and the segmentation of American culture has brought forth an unprecedented proliferation of products and brands. For example, new product introductions in 1997 reached a record high as packaged goods companies introduced 25,261 new food, beverage, health & beauty aids, household, miscellaneous and pet products. This number surpassed the previous record of 24,496 products of 1996.

While the quantity is at a record high, the quality of new introductions slipped compared to 1996. Based on Market Intelligence's Innovation Ratings, 5.8% of 1997's new products featured innovations in any one of the following six areas: formulation, positioning, packaging, technology, creating a market and merchandising. That's a large decline from the 1996 Innovation Rating of 7.2% and far below the peak year of innovation rate in 1986 at 18.6%.

The increasing rise of new products in the marketplace makes it increasingly difficult for products to dominate the market as they did in the earlier days of mass markets and mass media. The rise of new product introductions in the 1990s has been phenomenal with an increase of over 60% from 1990 new product introductions at 15,879 to the 25,261 in 1997.

But products are not merely the useful and practical things we buy each day at the supermarket but also those we buy for entertainment such as movies and various other entertainment media. And similar to the proliferation of products in the packaged goods industry, entertainment products are also proliferating with an increasing amount of choices.

As key business media have reported, sectors of the entertainment business once ruled by a few giants are now crowded with a dozen or more players all hustling to create content that will win audiences. It is a new environment and the old entertainment paradigm of producing something and exploiting it across various markets, venues and formats (Disney's Lion King) is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

All of this in the midst of a growing audience fragmentation. As Booz, Allen & Hamilton media consultant Michael Wolf notes, "There is such a tremendous glut of products out there, as well as this need to keep spending more and more to exceed the quality standards established by other producers."

The effect is changing the business patterns of the entertainment industry. The dynamic of spending more on content to reach smaller and smaller audiences is weakening margins across all segments of the industry. For example, Disney's operating margins have fallen 6% in ten years from 25% in 1987 to 19% in 1997. Viacom's have were 13% in 1987 and in 1997 were less than half that amount.

In the golden age of mass culture, media was considered more of a delivery vehicle for audiences but McCluhan reminded us that they carried the real message within their context. Today in the modern segmented world media need to be seen as products. The Fox Network was one of the first to understand this and makes sure that the audience always sees the Fox logo on the screen at all times.

As it is in packaged goods and entertainment, there is a growing proliferation of media products as more and more options become available for media audiences. The greatest segmentation is within the television media. Television was once the king of mass market media. In the 1960s most Americans watched the big three networks every night. But in the last thirty years, this has changed dramatically.

During the 1970s, more choices were brought about by the introduction of UHF stations and the new cable industry which brought channels like HBO and Ted Turner's TBS. In the 1980s, the VCR became commonplace, allowing consumers to watch recorded shows and movies whenever they want. Cable exploded with new networks like CNN and MTV. In the 1990s, direct-broadcast satellites were introduced, offering hundreds of channels and cable systems were upgraded with more channels.

In the first years of the new millennium, digital compression and two-way networks will allow cable companies to offer more channels. The direct-broadcast satellite services will grow more entrenched. New programming linked to the internet will take hold. The result will be 300 choices at any moment. By 2010, broadcasters may use high-definition TV spectrum to launch more channels. Internet chat will evolve into networked virtual reality games and interactive movies. There will now be 1,000 channels according to forecasts from News Corporation.

Fragmentation Of Knowledge

An increase in the quantity of cultural content is directly related to an increase in fragmentation of culture. Whether one comes before the other or whether they are both relatively simultaneous events is open to debate. However, some general observations can be made about the unusual, segmented modern American landscape.

The segmentation of culture is perhaps best expressed in the emergence of a modern attitude called post-modern. Initially an intellectual debate within the halls of academia, it has broken out into culture and serves as a type of world view of living in the late twentieth century. One of the best investigations of the cultural dimensions of post-modern is The Postmodern Turn by Steven Best and Douglas Kellner. It offers an analysis of the emergence of a postmodern attitude in the arts, science, politics, and theory. As Best and Kellner note, "Postmodernists reject unifying, totalizing, and universal schemes in favor of new emphases on difference, plurality, fragmentation, and complexity."

The fragmentation of knowledge is discussed in leading academic and cultural journals such as The Wilson Quarterly where it is the lead section in the Winter 1998 issue. Editor Jay Tolson writes in "The Many and The One" of the prevailing view among many today that all knowledge is ultimately subjective and that everything is relative and that there are no longer any universals. E.O.Wilson of Harvard, though, argues that now is a time for the "consilience" of knowledge, that it is possible for knowledge to become unified.

Absence Of A Paradigm

Paradigms are models of the world around which knowledge of particular periods can organize around. They offer overriding perspectives or world views for particular eras. In fact, they are the central forces in defining eras. But they are never "actors" on center stage, acting out the dynamics of the historical moment. Rather they are a type of background "zeitgeist" of contextual factors influencing the performance of the actors on stage such as the setting, dramatic structure and time.

They are really those organizing symbols that Carl Jung has called archetypes. In fact, Jung has said that the segmentation of modern man is directly attributable to the lack of one central organizing symbol or archetype. Jung's view is shared by many others outside the Jungian community. One of these is the well-known religious historian Huston Smith who sees the absence of a modern paradigm as the key element in the confusion of our post-modern period. In Forgotten Truth, he notes that "This absence of a model for the world is the deepest definition of postmodernism and the confusion of our times."

The greatest paradigm shift in modern history has been the Copernican Revolution and the shift in knowledge of the world at the center of the universe to knowledge that it revolved around another center. The revolution came in the form of a book published in 1543 by Nicholas Copernicus called De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium. Copernicus was attempting to devise an astronomical theory that would more accurately predict the position of celestial bodies. In doing so, though, he found he had to challenge the view of the universe inherited from Ptolemy and Aristotle that the earth is the motionless center of a system around which the sun, stars and planets revolve.

In the postmodern world, there is nothing approaching an all-encompassing Copernican perspective. The closest science comes to paradigms are really those which seem to reject uniform views of the world for segmented and specific views. This is well illustrated in the emergence of leading scientific theories of the moment such as chaos theory, complexity theory and fractals. Similar to the post-modern attitude, they center around orientations such as relativism, subjectivism and perspectivism.

The same confusion and segmentation can also be seen in the debates in the humanities area regarding cultural theory paradigms. Of course there are the post-modern theorists but they are challenged by various other schools of thought such as Marxist, feminist and structuralism and post-structuralism.

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