Popular Interventions

Dear UTA,

Congratulations on publishing another intellectually stimulating and aesthetically captivating edition of UTA. I am particularly excited about UTA’s inclusion of articles that examine the economy of the radical media and the politics of “mainstream” entertainment.

Nicole Cohen’s “Beyond the Margins: A Roundtable on Radical Publishing” provides a much needed assessment of the material challenges faced by radical publishers today. The discussion of various funding models and the actual labour of producing radical content is very insightful, especially since it illuminates the left’s own “mode of media production.” While anti-capitalist movements cannot do without a vibrant anti-capitalist media, the task for radical publishers is greater than communicating with sympathetic audiences. They hold a mirror to our critique of capital and magnify our communities of resistance, but often fall short of attracting people who lack left subcultural capital. We should experiment with new strategies for appealing to those on the margins of the activist media. Popular culture provides some new tools.

With this in mind, I am optimistic about the practical implications of AK Thompson’s sophisticated discussion of the politics of mainstream entertainment in “Co-opting Capitalism: Avatar and the Thing Itself.” Thompson’s assessment of popular culture is a useful alternative to critics who view it only as a ruling class instrument of indoctrination. Popular films, TV shows, and video games are rarely “politically correct” (in the Trotskyist, rather than the Limbaughian, sense) but denigrating popular culture doesn’t help activists understand why so many people affectively respond to it and how it might be used for organizing.

To become popular, mass entertainment must resonate with the real hopes and fears, wish-fantasies and anxieties, of large audiences. For this reason, popular cultural texts rarely promote a singular ideological position: texts can be at once progressive and regressive, radical and conservative. In this context, Thompson encourages readers to “develop a new attentiveness to all the implicit and explicit citations of radical content in mainstream culture.” Deriving a method of cultural critique from the best that critical theory has to offer, Thompson judges the content of popular culture by its own declared promises and intrinsic potential. Here, the challenge is to extricate popular culture’s radical elements from the prison cell of the commodity form. Thompson’s reading of Avatar does this exceptionally well and is careful not to misrecognize the interpretation of popular culture as an actual political transformation.

I would like to extend Thompson’s interpretation by discussing Avatar’s production, distribution, marketing, and copyright ownership as a media commodity. We’ve had much to say about the film’s many meanings, but few left critics have discussed the capitalist base from which such meanings arise. This blindspot obscures how Avatar actually serves the “ruling class interests” of our oligarchic right-wing media nemesis: Rupert Murdoch.

Avatar was produced by 20th Century Fox, the audio-visual production arm of News Corporation, the world’s largest and most politically influential trans-national media conglomerate. Operating in more than 50 countries, it controls the right-wing FOX Broadcasting Company and 27 more stations and TV networks worldwide. News Corp. also controls more than 20 cable networks, four direct broadcast satellite TV stations, more than 300 newspapers (including Wall Street Journal and The Sun), the Harper Collins book cartel, the American Idol franchise, and the social networking site MySpace.com. Rupert Murdoch– conservative, war-monger, and multi-billionaire– is News Corp.’s founder and CEO.

Murdoch owns Avatar. This highlights the inadequacy of a strict base/superstructure model of global Hollywood’s cultural industries. Murdoch did not command director James Cameron to engineer Avatar for use as capitalist propaganda. This is because Avatar’s exchange-value is more important to Murdoch than Avatar’s many audience use-values (catharsis, anger, melancholy, escapism, redemptive fantasy, radicalization, and so on). The control of Avatar’s intellectual property (the commodity form) matters more than the content’s political resonance.

In Avatar’s marketing context, it is possible that we were co-opted. Our fan-like engagement with and critical debates about Avatar intersected with 20th Century Fox’s viral public relations effort, which put us to work as unpaid and unwitting promoters of the film. The right-wing spin cycle even made use of Avatar’s politics, citing it (and perhaps us) to confirm the conservative culture-war fantasy of a “Big Left Hollywood” conspiracy to subvert US national security. “OK, so the politics of Avatar are left-wing, anti-corporate and anti-imperialist” says Fox News commentator James Pinkerton. “A left-leaning Hollywood movie: no surprise there.” Fox’s dupes would be surprised that Murdoch himself controls both “left-leaning Hollywood” and the TV network that cynically exploits viewer hysteria to deliver their eyeballs to advertising clients.

But just because media conglomerates like News Corp. regularly co-opt and sell dissident fantasies to audiences doesn’t mean that those fantasies – and the audiences who identify with them – are illegitimate or politically dysfunctional. Although Avatar’s production context and reception context are intertwined in the same circuit of capitalist accumulation, they are not identical. Still, whether redeemed by the Left or trashed by Fox News, Avatar ultimately serves its capitalist master well. While Murdoch’s News Corp. judges the economic utility of our Marxist interpretations of its property, the energy drawn to Avatar’s wish image begins to ossify. For most of the world audience, Avatar “remain[s] the posited ‘resolution’ to the desires it provokes.” This is because we do not know how to co-opt and act upon popular culture’s radical appeal in the moment in which it circulates.

In contrast, indigenous people co-opted Avatarand its audience, repurposing the film to draw attention to their own struggles against imperialism. They used Avatar’s allegory to connect with mainstream audiences who had previously ignored their struggles. This tactic of co-opting popular culture’s radical elements should be emulated. I would like to see more activists devising practical tactics for promoting their struggles through popular culture. This culture is not merely escapist fluff or an unfortunate drain on the leisure time of pacified masses. It represents a relatively stable frame of political reference for millions of people. As Stuart Hall once argued, “popular culture is one of the sites where the struggle for and against the powerful is engaged.” Unless we are prepared to boycott blockbuster films and barricade ourselves in our own radical mediascape (a strategy I don’t endorse), we should try to understand, co-opt, and communicate through popular culture.

In solidarity,

Tanner Mirrlees