segunda-feira, dezembro 14, 2009

Visual Mass Culture


Image by Enki Bilal
The fall of the Roman Empire is normally attributed to the year of 476, when Rome lost the political and military hegemony within its territory. However, Rome was more than a large territory politically dominated by a government centralized in the Italian peninsula. Rome was culture, language, technology, religion; Rome was a way of life. Nowadays it is accepted that the Catholic Church and La Cosa Nostra are remnants of the Roman Empire, still alive today. Unquestionably, as a country the USA is the Roman Empire of today, the only country that was able to dominate a considerable portion of the world in several fields of influence like political, cultural and through military force. The role of the US culture in building and maintaining the Empire is normally considered of minor importance. However, after World War II, acculturation phenomena in European and Asian nations slowly “Americanized” the local cultures into what they are today. For example, while looking at Japanese culture, it is possible to identify the US as the source of most of the references used in building and shaping the dominant culture today. Similar phenomena can be observed in India, China, Korea, Germany, France and even my Portugal. The US culture lives all over the world, properly mutated and adapted to the already existent cultural features. Would Bollywood exist without Hollywood? This rhetorical question is not a naïve question; it contains the value of visual mass culture in the propagation of the Empire through acculturation. Cinema was the most powerful tool in this acculturation phenomena and the most influential form of popular mass culture. Probably Internet will take over some of the role in acculturation that is being played by cinema through youtube, web TV, web radio, web newspapers and blogs.
How long would the Roman Empire have lasted if it contained a cultural weapon as strong as the visual mass culture emanating from Hollywood during the 20th century? Cinema carved myths and stories that never really happened on the memories of modern societies, exerting a primordial influence in the reflection of world History, of the US past and its potentialities. Ben-Hur and Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra present historical references that are millions of years separated from each other. The reality portrayed in Western movies never existed. More recently, the princess lover of the main character in Mel Gibson’s Brave Heart was in reality a child when the represented historical scene really happened. In addition, as a foreigner living in the US, I often realize that only independent movie productions really portrait the society that I face every day. When a society looks at its past with a misinformed eye, the efficacy and sense in the motivating ideas that are used to shape a present and a future may be compromised.
Visual mass culture also presents a strong influence in more individualistic and micro social aspects of societies, like fashion, styles of life and in the end consumerism. On the other hand, many popular visual references also play a clear instructive role in the social development of individuals. Children need to be taught many things in order to be successful adults. However, due to several taboos, children are not taught how to have sex, how to kiss, how to love or practice excesses. These activities need to be taught, they are not instinctive and are normally learned through the visual references of cinema, Internet and pornography. In my opinion, being sex one of the richest and most important human needs in the quest of happiness, it is appalling to even consider that the sexually ignorant and barbaric content of sex scenes in pornography is teaching teenagers and adults how to make love.
The danger of living more through the impulses originated from visual mass culture than from those originated from reality is being faced today in society. Even if it is true, such reality is still in an embryonic stage and there is no clear historical distance to analyze it.

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