Both the creation of American mass culture and its current segmentation is viewed as the result of conscious forces by others. Much blame laid at the feet of the advertising industry.
The past twenty five years have brought forth some important new scholarship on the cultural history of America and the central place advertising has played in this history. Some of the key works are Advertising The American Dream by Roland Marchand, Fables of Abundance by Jackson Lears and Captains of Consciousness by Stuart Ewen. They represent pioneer work in seeing the place of advertising in American culture. A central point of all of them is the role that advertising played in creating mass culture in America. The need was for mass consumption of similar products created by an economic system based around mass production.
But just as the advertising industry played a key role in creating the mass culture, it may have also played a key role in its destruction. This is the interesting hypothesis of Breaking Up America by Joseph Turow, a professor in the Annenberg School of Communication. Turow shows how it has been in the interest of the advertising industry to segment America and package individuals and groups to make them useful marketing targets. He places the shift as beginning in the mid-1970s with the rejection of mass marketing and movement towards target marketing.
While the creation of mass and segmented culture may be tied closely to the ideology of consumption fostered by the advertising industry, this ideology is part of the broader political and economic ideology of a capitalistic system. Segmentation may very be represent the natural evolution of the capitalistic system.
This evolution was seen in an almost visionary manner in 1848 with the publication of a slim little volume by Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels titled The Communist Manifesto. The leading English historian Eric Hobsbawn notes that this "vision" is one of the things that gives the Manifesto its force and relevance to our modern capitalistic culture. As Hobsbawm notes, "the world transformed by capitalism that he described in 1848...is recognizably the world in which we live 150 years later...what might in 1848 have struck an uncommitted reader as revolutionary rhetoric...can now be read as a concise characterization of capitalism at the end of the twentieth century."
Media has played a key role both in the creation of a mass culture and the creation of a segmented culture. There are a number of theories in this area but two of the more important ones relate to recent segmentation in American media and the trend during the past few hundred years towards segmentation in the West centered around a key media. The latter takes a broad look at types of media and is part of the media theories of Marshall McLuhan.
1. Recent Trends Of American Media
Apart from advertising, the battle between mass media may have also played an important part in the segmentation of America. In The Republic of Mass Culture, communications professor James Baughman argues that the advent of television forced the other key mass media of films, newspapers, periodicals and radio to segment their audience. "Although the established mass media's managers had anticipated television's arrival," he writes, "the rapidity with which TV came to dominate what might be called the 'republic' of mass culture presented them with a severe challenge." Before the late 1940s when regular network telecasts and a boom in TV set sales began, Baughman observes, radio, motion pictures, newspapers, and magazines had enjoyed a rough equality. "This equilibrium was upset by TV's advent."
Baughman notes that the result of the incredible rise of TV transformed the other mass media into secondary activities for most Americans. After much trial and error, each mass media ceased competing with television for the larger audience and developed its own strategies. In effect, the strategies of the other mass media were "niche" strategies where smaller audiences than television were targeted. The novel content of other media like radio ranged from rock 'n' roll for teenage radio listeners in the 1950s to the more sexually explicit films that began to appear in the 1960s.
Whether one accepts the argument that television is to blame for the segmentation of American media or not, the fact remains that modern media consists of a vast segmented system with little resemblance to the handful of mass media outlets dominant during the first half of the century. Cable television offers five hundred channels in the late 90s and this number is predicted to go up to two thousand in a few years. Once there were only a few national magazines like Life and Saturday Evening Post with circulations over one million. In 1998, the internet site Imediafax lists 112 magazines with million plus circulation. And the media of the internet continues to grow at an extraordinary rate.
The question of whether media (and advertising) reflects a segmented culture or causes a segemented culture is open to debate. The answer may ultimately be both.
2. Historic Trends Of Western Media
One of Marshall McLuhan's key observations is that the development of the visual media of print was the major cause of a linear, rational world. Previous to the creation of the alphabet and finally the printing press, the auditory medium of speech was the prevalent form of communication. McLuhan located a crucial difference between primitive culture and modern culture in the difference in these two major forms of media. As he noted in his book The Medium is the Message, "Where a visual space is an organized continuum of a uniformed connected kind, the ear world is a world of simultaneous relationships."
One of the results of the creation of an alphabet is that the world is chopped up into pieces which all have a linear connection. This is the dominant form in western culture and this dominance involves the visual sense reigning over the other senses. "We are so visually biased," he notes in The Medium is the Message, "that we call our wisest men visionaries, or seers!"
Importantly, though, McLuhan saw the electronic media (which was just coming to prominence in the 60s in the midst of his books and theories) as again returning culture and society to a situation similar to the primitive cultures. He prophesized that electronic media promises to regain the non-linear.
Throughout history, technology has been linked to progress and growth and in Western culture. As such, progress and growth have been given the blessing of leaders, governments and religions as "good" and morally right. Especially technology associated with the production of information. As David Shenk notes in Data Smog, information technology has been an unambiguous virtue as a means of sustaining and developing culture. This was so because the ability to consume information kept pace with the ability to produce it.
However, around the middle of the twentieth century, the relationship between processing and producing information began to drastically change and much more information was produced than could be processed. Unprocessed information led to greater segmentation and ultimately greater confusion rather than greater knowledge.
The Symbolism of Segmentation
The different views of segmentation are similar in viewing segmentation as the natural process of the linear movement of time. The underlying paradigm of this scenario is that the long term trend of linear, historical time has been movement from an original unconscious and unified state towards a conscious and segmented state. The growth of consciousness brings fragmentation and segmentation.
In this sense, history taken as a whole, might be seen as a movement away from symbols. Carl Jung explains the segmentation of the modern world in this manner. In his Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Jung notes the increasing fragmentation of the modern psyche is a symptom of the key spiritual problem of the times which is the lack of belief systems and a dominant archetype or symbol. For Jung, fragmentation and segmentation is the result of weak, worn-out symbols. But are symbols always in the process of becoming weaker and wearing out as evolution progresses along a linear path? Or, as Jung suggested, is this a problem of the "times" and more cyclic in nature?
A key challenge for symbolism is seeing how the linear concept might fit with the cyclic concept. The question becomes one of how growth, change and diversity, propounded by Darwin and his evolutionary view of the world, relates to a dualistic, cyclic concept of the world proposed by symbolism. Can a dynamic back and forth movement find an integration with a one way movement? From the few species, diversity of species arise. But so far, the diversity has not moved back to the few. It is this cyclic duality which is lacking in the Darwinian and evolutionary view of the world.
There are a few points to offer towards this apparent dilemma. One is that the very idea and concept of evolution might be part of a duality itself. In this sense, one might relate evolution to a particular belief system and question not the correctness of the belief system but the why of its appearance at a particular point in time. Might a belief in a linear, evolutionary view of history be a product of a particular culture and period of time and conversely a belief in a non-linear and cyclic view of history also be a product of a particular culture and point in time?
One of the interesting questions in following this line of thought is determining whether history has shown a back and forth dualtiy of linear and non-linear belief systems. Here, one might briefly note the dominance of evolutionary views in the late nineteenth century and a dominance of cyclic views in the late twentieth century represented in the popularity of the New Age movement and such books as The Fourth Turning. By viewing evolution and segmentation as dual belief systems, they in effect, become symbols.
Another approach to integrating evolution with symbolism is to admit the long term evolutionary trend towards segmentation but to see it populated with numerous cycles. One key cycle involves the individual life and the movement from unity at birth to segmentation in adulthood and then back to unity in old age and death. As Jung noted, psychic growth is really cyclical rather than linear with the movement from the unconscious unity of childhood to the segmented, consciousness of adulthood returning finally to the unity of unconsciousness in old age and death. This same type of cycle might also relate to the birth and death of nations and entire civilizations.
A different approach is to see linear evolution as part of a great overriding cycle which will eventually return again back to where it started from. In this respect, we see a linear view of history because the great cycle which history moves towards has not completed itself yet. Evolution can be seen as a sequence within a great cycle in this way. The sequence can be broadened to a cosmic scale with the Big Bang theory of explosion outward with all matter created from this initial explosion.
In effect, the Big Bang theory offers a counterpart to the Darwinian evolutionary theory on a cosmic scale with its concomitant hypothesis of an expanding universe. What evolution talks about on an earthly scale the expanding universe theory talks about on a cosmic scale. Both are based around the paradigm of growth and diversity rather than cycles and repetition.
Just as the cyclic view is the duality of the evolutionary view, the idea of an imploding universe is the dual idea to the idea of an expanding universe. Therefore, on a cosmic scale the great cycle will not complete itself until all matter has once again imploded back to where it has exploded from. The ideas of explosion and implosion, of retreating galaxies and approaching galaxies, often no more than colors on a sophisticated spectrum analysis of the universe, or certain modalities of sound to our big radio telescopes, may really be the key paradigms of the new millenium. Just as evolutionary theory of Darwin offered a paradigm based around growth and diversity, or Copernicus offered a paradigm based around the idea of the center. The new paradigm may be based on the cosmic idea of expansion or retraction. In many ways, it has to be considered the ultimate paradigm.
One of the more interesting side questions relating to these various concepts (and directly to our investigation regarding the symbolism of popular culture) is whether there is a correspondence between evolutionary and expanding universe belief systems and cyclic, imploding universe belief systems. The laws of symbolism and synchronicity would suggest that evolutionary and expanding universe views dominate belief systems at particular times in culture while cyclic and imploding views dominate thought at other times in culture. The Big Bang theory is the evolutionary theory in modern dress.
The dual American ideas of freedom and equality at the heart of the American paradox might be different ways of expressing the historical battle between linear and cyclical, the evolutionary paradigm of diversity, growth and change and the symbolic paradigm of commonality and repetition.
Understanding and containing these concepts within the context of the individual citizen might be the ultimate destiny of America. Perhaps this destiny has already been achieved in our post-modern world. A number of observers have called our period a type of end of history. And perhaps it is. But symbolism always understands that the end also marks the beginning for the end and the beginning are key symbolic dualities.
In this twilight period of post-modern perhaps all of us wait for the manifestation of some new symbol and duality in the coming millennium.