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Terry Tapp writes about cultural warfare. 

Nato Thompson, Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life (Melville House Books, 2017), 288 pp.

Nato Thompson is the activist-curator and decade-long artistic director of Creative Time and Philadelphia Contemporary. His curatorial interests, like his essays, focus on the intersection of politics and contemporary art, in particular the phenomenon of “culture-jamming,” the use of art to heighten our awareness of social and political issues and to potentially bring about progressive change. His latest book, Culture as Weapon, explores the foundational convergence of culture and politics into what he refers to as “mass culture.”

cultura as weapon

In the early twentieth century, technological development and psychological research led to two extremely powerful methods for controlling the behavior of large groups of people: mass media and the public relations profession. These soon combined into “mass culture,” which we should distinguish from those shared human pursuits collected under the rubric of a “culture.” In Culture as Weapon, Thompson examines a number of events in the late twentieth and twenty-first century, when mass culture was deployed by corporate and governmental powers against societies. I use the term deployed to convey Thompson’s main point – in the case of popular culture, what we are witnessing is not an American “cultural war” along the axis of democracy and colonialism, freedom and torture, economic opportunity and oligarchic control. Rather, it is a battle in which “culture” is not the trophy but the weapon, with mass culture as a particularly powerful tool in the arsenal. Far from a fair conflict, the way in which mass culture is deployed resembles a one-sided assault launched by corporate powers, the military or  real estate developers, whose target appears to be the public.

While Thompson provides a number of examples, two recent cases of oft-hidden manipulation stand out. The first is the “cultural turn” of the American military. He notes that the wars following World War II and the Korean War did not resemble the “nation-state at war” type of conflict but were straightforward extensions of colonial practices. Under colonial rule, violence alone cannot subdue the colonized population and so it must be supplemented with methods of coercing the victims into accepting colonial occupation, imposed rule, and resource exploitation. This is the situation that took place in Iraq in 2005, two years after President Bush declared the war to be over. The number of Iraqi casualties was escalating and chaos was spreading. It was at this point that Generals David Petraeus and James Amos, along with other advisers, crafted “Field Manual 3-24.” Field Manual 3-24 was a guide to counterinsurgency operations, the first such book written in over two decades. It emphasized military attempts to “shape public perception” by interacting with the disempowered populace and, eventually, assisting them in stabilizing their daily lives as opposed to the standard “shock and awe” response of the American military to insurgent uprisings. This goal of perception management resembles the mechanisms of mass culture.

Another telling deployment of mass culture, aimed at manipulating public perception, is “Cause-Related Marketing.” Its spurious benevolence is a thinly-veiled attempt at branding, likely to deceive the customers from the underlying unethical behaviors. For example, the Ronald McDonald House and its related charities provide housing for the families of hospitalized children and “create, identify, and support programs that directly improve the health and well-being of children and families.” It is not difficult to see the incompatibility of McDonald’s marketing campaigns and McDonald’s products, which have long been proven to have a deleterious effect on public health, especially that of children, with the purpose of these charities. Likewise, this “noble” cause does not excuse the abhorrent treatment of McDonald’s wage workers and the impact of the corporate job culture on families. Cause-Related Marketing seeks to attenuate any of the discomforts that these incompatibilities might arise.

While these examples are distinctly contemporary, these power dynamics have been present in mass culture from the very beginning. In fact, they originated in places that might seem alien to the American perspective, such as the Nuremberg rallies in the Third Reich. In their showy aesthetics, these spectacular gatherings differed little from epic rock concerts, complete with light shows and various ritualized activities, such as paying tribute to Nazi flags, including the “supposedly bloodstained flag of those killed in Hitler’s failed military coup, the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923.” The United States embraced mass culture around the same time. In the early nineteen-twenties, John D. Rockefeller employed Ivy Lee, an early master of public relations. Lee’s task was to diffuse the wanton criticism of the Rockefellers and the decisive scarring of their image after the violent suppression of the Ludlow miner strike, an event known as the “Ludlow Massacre” in which two dozen people, including two women and eleven children, were burnt to death in their tents. (The miners were correct to hold the Rockefellers, the owners of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, responsible.) In an attempt at “transparency,” Lee orchestrated a sweeping PR campaign, flooding the public with reports from the Colorado militia, Rockefeller’s own testimony in which he claimed to be in favor of fair wages and unions, and other maneuvers that helped to obfuscate Rockefeller’s culpability.

Thompson suggests that we, the public, would be wise to fight mass culture with its own tools: “If culture is the province not only of advertising, but also of politics and the news media, then it seems foolish not to play the culture game.” This possible strategy has to address two questions. First, “how do we resist the politics of fear?” Thompson suggest that we attempt to project images of hope, such as the ones produced in the campaign against the AIDS-related hysteria in the late nineteen-eighties, in which testimonies of love, compassion and humanity opposed the widespread, fear-inducing propaganda. More recently, he sees in the Occupy Wall Street movement a source of hope. Second, Thompson asks how the public could take charge of the narrative that it is presented. Quoting Stephen Duncombe, he states: “Both fascism and commercialism share core characteristics of spectacle: looking beyond reason, rationality and self-evident truth and making use of story, myth, fantasy and imagination to further their respective agendas.” Encouraging the public to take control of the narrative and decide which stories it wants to take center stage, Thompson advocates the use of social media and new technologies, such as cameras implemented in the smartphone, in order to reveal what might be hidden or ignored by mainstream media, such as the mistreatment of black men by law enforcement officers.

The well-planned stories of mass culture, stemming from the offices of public relations firms, and the snapshot-like footage of racist attacks on unarmed citizens are vastly different. Thompson convincingly argues that the Left could seize the tools of mass culture in a counter-attack. Yet, rather than appealing to reason, these tools would by their very nature reaffirm the importance of emotions, such as fear or moral indignation, frustrating our desires and redirecting them to more “appropriate” targets. While for the Left these targets might be socially progressive rather than business-friendly, this mechanism of coercion remains the same. In fact, it is this very bypassing of rationality that is the essence of mass culture, which does not attempt to attack the public – a necessary facilitator of its own existence – but rather to render reason irrelevant. Since rational and well-informed subjects are the implicit basis of any democracy, rendering them powerless or removing them from the political scene can quickly slip into mob mentality. If the removal of rationality in favor of emotions is the aim of mass culture, it attacks the essence of democracy itself.

We live in a time of in which our emotions are orchestrated through a myriad of screens, in which public opinion and political change are mediated through hashtag campaigns and Twitter accounts. By detailing the history of this general sort of manipulation and the techniques by which we are influenced, Thompson’s book provides an excellent set of considerations for anyone trying to navigate this media environment and to make progressive choices.

Terry Tapp is an artist and writer, originally from Kentucky. Terry spent many years working trade jobs, wandering through the American south, all the while creating art and writing. His work is rooted in his heritage in Central Appalachia, reflecting on politics and work, human evolution and possibility, insurrection, and storytelling. Terry lives in New York City, NY.

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