Filmmakers and cinematic mega-corporations ask themselves if movie theaters, already diminished by television, video, and the pirated circulation of films, will survive the easy dissemination of films via Internet. Faced with the rise of Amazon and Google, writers and editors doubt the future of the printed book, and from there the future of libraries. The music industry’s major labels see their sales plummet thanks also to pirated circulation and Web dissemination.
These transformations have occasioned enormous polemics about intellectual property and authors’ rights (Smiers, 2006) and about cultural reorganization as an economic and political resource (Yúdice, 2002). Here I want to signal some of its consequences for theories of culture, art, and communication.
One way to synthesize these changes is to pay attention to the passage from the early stages of modernity to its recent unraveling. Two notions can represent the changes that have occurred in the cultural development from the early stages of modernity — illustrated by and centered in literature and the arts — to recent modernization in which technological innovations and the globalization of the networks of production, circulation, and consumption configure new conditions for development. One is Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural field and the other is digital convergence, which today takes center stage in communication studies. Both synthesize this process and are possible ways to account theoretically for its challenges.
THE BLURRING OF THE FIELDS
Bourdieu (1999, 2003) had a great impact in the last decades of the 20th century by proposing an intermediate concept between individual artistic creativity and the socio-economic determination of works of art. His concepts of artistic camp and literary camp give us a way out of the polemic between aesthetic idealism, which exalts the liberty of the author, and Marxist sociology, which reduced works and artists to conditions of class.
Sociological studies from the second half of the 20th century show that artists do not act alone: they work in a field, as Pierre Bourdieu held, in which they interacted with other agents and institutions specializing in producing, exhibiting, selling, appraising, and appropriating art. According to Howard S. Becker (1984), whose more anthropological examination arises from ethnographic observation, to make art is a cooperative activity: since he was also a musician as well as an anthropologist, he dismissed the idea of the solitary creator and recognized that a concert usually requires a group effort, as happens with an orchestra, and moreover requires the collaboration of the composer, technicians, the schools in which these people are educated, publicity, and the makers of instruments. To study art, and to know when it is art, implies understanding the work in the context of its production, circulation, and appropriation. But what is that context today?
Bourdieu talked about fields and Becker talked about worlds of art, but both considered that the definition, valorization, and understanding of artistic practices happened in autonomous circuits and spaces. This independence and self-sufficiency in artistic practices has vanished. In contemporary societies, art has lost autonomy and aesthetics has seen its object of study disperse. The predominance of symbolic over economic value has diminished at the same time as the tendency toward commercialization of artistic practices has strengthened. Museums, for example, tend to interact not only with the commercial actors in the artistic field, such as galleries, but also with tourism, urbanization, and investors in real estate, fashion, and advertising.
Something similar is happening with literary production. Andr Schiffrin, in his study The Business of Books (2001), has documented the fading autonomy of the editorial field. The concentration of the major publishing houses into corporate conglomerates run by mass entertainment managers leads them to publish fewer titles (only those with a high print run) and tends to eliminate the books that sell slowly, even if they have been in print for years, would be valuable to criticism, and have constant sales. In the publishing world, the new bosses demand books that earn the kind of sales figures associated with television or electronics.
It is true that even publishing companies that value sales need to euphemize this interest in order to accumulate economic utilities that give importance to symbolic value. Bourdieu, who develops this argument at the end of his life in a 1999 text, where he analyzes the “conservative revolution in publishing,” recognized how the “heroic editors” declined and how the “publishers” and “literary populism” advanced, the “editors who don’t know how to read” but “how to count.” He was concerned with publishers such as Bernard Fixot, who transplanted the American system to France, in which “publishers are often in the hands of groups that have nothing to do with publishing, which is to say, banks, oil companies, electric companies” (Bourdieu, 1999, p. 245). He still saw the great publishing houses, such as Gallimard, as “noble conduct in decadence,” trying to combine “intemperate strategies of modernization,” “daring,” and “discoveries.” He used sociological analysis to argue a “resistance to market forces,” whose hope was “the small publishers who, rooted in a national tradition of the avant-garde that is irreversibly literary and political (this is also seen in the cinema), constitute themselves as defenders of authors and of investigative literature” (Bourdieu, 1999, p. 263).
The resistance to commercialization weakened as many publishing houses, such as Gallimard in France, Sudamericana in Argentina, and various historical publishers in Spain (Crtica, Espasa Calpe, Grijalbo) were bought by transnational corporations willing to pay a high price for the prestige of their authors, the same authors who they later left in the catalogue or expelled from it based only on their sales figures.
If the artistic and literary fields have become so dependent on investment and commercialization, it was not only because of the advance of the economic on the cultural. It was also because of the restructuring of markets and the merger of companies that come from different branches of production. Digital convergence in the publishing and audiovisual industries created interrelated structures for the production of texts, images, and all kinds of messages that in turn are integrated on television, online, and in mobile technology. Consequently, the cultural habitus has adapted to this media convergence: we see on the television or computer screen what before we only found in cinema, in newspapers and books, what we only heard over the telephone and on stereo systems, or what we only could know by going to museums or concert halls (Garca Canclini, 2009).
Digital convergence and the consequent multimedia integration integrate us in the same act as readers, spectators, and Internet users. If before we would have had the experience of seeing literary works such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Kafka’s The Trial on cinema screens, literature, audiovisual narration, and musical works primarily circulated in different networks and this made it possible for the literary field, the artistic fields, and the media fields to be independent. Not only do the condition of the reader and the condition of the spectator overlap with more and more frequency; both are reinvented when, as Internet users, we download books, movies, and songs from the Web.
AUTONOMOUS MEDIA FIELDS?
Can cultural theory retain any value today? It is significant that Bourdieu’s conceptualization was constructed in relation with modern developments in visual arts and literature, but the notion of a field — and the conjunction of the mechanisms of his theory of culture — failed in the few pages that Bourdieu dedicated to the mass media and culture industries. As I analyzed elsewhere (see Chapter 3 in Garca Canclini, 2004), Bourdieu’s attempt to justify television’s autonomy and that of the “journalistic field” is inconsistent.
The powerful market pressures to which the media is subject make it evident how the development of capitalism affects cultural production. Beyond the massification of art and literature, along with the industrialization of their processes of production, the rules of circulation and valorization of these artistic fields have been placed in similar conditions to the so-called media industries.
This issue is of interest not only for writers and artists but also for those who defend the possibility of making art cinema or cultural television. Does not the distinction between cultural television and the rest of television still apply? On the one hand, this attribution of the word cultural to certain television channels is problematic: anthropology recognizes all symbolic manifestations — high or low, of different ethnicities or groups — as cultural. Nevertheless, certain administrators and researchers in the field of culture have reclaimed certain differentiated spaces — museums, theaters, concert halls, cinemas, and television channels — where works are valued according to specifically aesthetic criteria, without being subjected to religious proscriptions, political control, or to the market.
The so-called cultural channels try to preserve a more autonomous scene, not so much against religious or political pressure but more so against the commercial conditions. In some countries they have managed to dedicate a few frequencies to public or cultural interest, their economic success notwithstanding. Is this differentiation in mediated cultural politics sustainable in a contemporary theory of culture?
Perhaps the problem may be stated another way. Defending the autonomy of the media in the face of political and religious powers is necessary according to a certain logic of modernity which has succeeded in advancing scientific knowledge, artistic innovation, and freedoms of speech in politics. However, given that the independence that is now sought in audiovisual industries has more to do with commercial competition than with religious or political control, it is worth asking whether repeating the strategies of autonomy developed by fine arts and the avant-garde, at this stage, would be adequate.
It is important to recall that independence in the cultural fields had more than just laudable effects. Creative autonomy in the arts was associated with elitism or dedicated to a select few, and with the supposedly unconditional exaltation of the creative artist. Both modernist aesthetic movements became more and more impractical as the production of books and music industrialized, as the museums were converted into companies, and as the notion of the artist was reformulated as producer and communicator. There are still visual artists who seek innovation and experimentation, but many artistic institutions that formerly struggled for their autonomy now maintain themselves by making agreements with design, urban speculation, tourism, and fashion.
If these individualist and autonomist conceptions lose their validity in painting and literature, they are even less pertinent in communication industries, where large investments and working in teams of many professions are required. All of the channels are in their way cultural, and they all need the same economic, technological, and production support that any competitive company requires in the audiovisual market.
What would the possible and desirable autonomy of cinema and television look like in a time of digital convergence and globalized interculturality? I propose the following hypothesis: by recognizing the central role played by pleasure and by the spectacle of industrialization and mass communication consumption itself, we can differentiate certain communication spaces because they postulate a problematized vision of the social and the personal as a characteristic of complex pleasures.
What do we mean by a problematized and problematizing vision? A perspective on historic and current events that does not offer only one point of view, that does not repeat the dominant readings, and which does not like a majority constructed by the techno-market, but which rather considers the variety of tastes, the value of different cultures, and helps us to understand their interaction. It is not about fulfilling the cultural function of media by having roundtable discussions on television or statistical studies of citizen opinion congealed into survey figures, but rather about constructing spaces for reasonable negotiation of conflict on the screen. In so doing there is recourse to two very attractive activities: narration with images and staging controversy. The proposed problematization is not uniquely directed at society, but at the communicative instrument itself. Because public television suffers less from mercantile coercion and the pressure for immediate commercial success, and because it is not obliged to use formats with proven success, it can experiment with the expressive potential of the medium. Jess Martn Barbero says it is not a matter of creating fringe programming with cultural or political content but rather to “present culture as a project that cuts across any content or genre.” It would not be a matter of assuring quality by transmitting already recognized culture, but rather “a multidimensional conception of competitiveness: the professionalism, innovation and social relevancy of its [public television’s] relevancy” (Martin Barbero, 2001, pp. 15-16). The combination of these three criteria transcends the rigid notion of “quality control,” a characteristic of the corporate restructuring of culture as an efficient realization of technical standards and economic production values. We can take a step farther if we incorporate into the definition of cultural cinema or television the aesthetic debates of recent years surrounding the possibility of thinking value and quality outside of its market value, for example in the movements that work on cultural memory, the dense comprehension of social signification and experimentation with languages as a resource for saying and doing in other ways.
AUTONOMY AND INTERCULTURALITY
From this perspective, the character or cultural value of media is not so much the consequence of its autonomy as it is of its expressive participation in diversity and interculturality. Why does journalistic information in newspapers and magazines, like the circulation of books and music, exhibit a greater diversity than what films and television bring us? In cinema, the result of U.S. corporations’ (or those dependent on their politics) monopolistic control of the chains of production, distribution, and exhibition is that in Latin America and other regions approximately 90% of screenings are English-language Hollywood films. Public television expresses, in general, the hegemonic culture of its country, insofar as it is produced in only one language, with its highest quotient of original programming in the most developed nations. The proliferation of channels that cable brought and which now grows with digitalization is formally dedicated to reproduce the programming of U.S. corporations.
In other fields of social life, expressions of historical cultural diversity have increased. Some Latin American countries such as Brazil, Bolivia, and Colombia understand themselves as multicultural in their constitutions and assure a better place for indigenous ethnicities in education, public service, and in political rights and representation. In a few nations, indigenous people and people of African descent have become representatives or in some exceptional cases have become members of governmental cabinets. Music, sports, and radio are places where this creative capacity of nonhegemonic ethnicities is most evident.
Commercial television, despite having better facility for transport and translation of content than other cultural vehicles, shows itself stubbornly homogeneous. Representation of indigenous languages and cultures is practically nonexistent. But not even Spanish has been able to generate a solid audiovisual industry, despite being the dominant language in education and daily life for nearly the entire region, with almost 500 million native speakers if we add together Latin Americans, Spaniards, and the 45 million people who speak Spanish in the United States. Spanish-speaking households in the United States, 70% of which have cable television, choose from among ten channels broadcasting in Spanish, including Fox Sports, MTV, the Discovery Channel, and CNN (Prado, 2007). Programming is run by companies in which capital and opinion are at a distance from the Spanish-speaking community, which accentuates the homogenization of the linguistic habitus and reduces the diversity of Mexicans, Columbians, Dominicans, Cubans, Argentines, Puerto Ricans, and other nationalities who have migrated in mass numbers to the United States.
Meanwhile in Spain, despite the growth of Latin American audiences from growing immigration, in the 2006-2007 season barely 1% of the programming in the standard channels came from Latin America. In Emili Prado’s words, this tiny percentage assigned to Latin American production “lays bare any illusion about the function of language as the force behind a television market” (Prado, 2007). With only this 1%, this communicative politics, so conceptually distant from any particular linguistic or cultural community, is even less able to offer a vision of the diversity of Latin America or to facilitate affinities based in greater understanding. If multicultural richness is piled up and confused in the funnel of a monolingual or bilingual (Spanish/English) television, there remains even less space for intercultural conflict. In Latin America and in the United States, where the processes are somewhat distinct but which stem from a similar monopolistic concentration of corporations and the predominance of immediate economic gain without public regulation, television cannot represent the diversity, the creative fecundity, and the complexity of intercultural relations.
Digitalization will extend the number of channels per bandwidth, satellite, or on cable and new networks. We will see advancement in the erosion of national frontiers controlled by states, and we will see diminishment in the efficacy of national actors. But a regional association to regulate the expansion and public contribution to an endogenous creation and to a more diverse circulation of many voices and images may make of television a strategic instrument for comprehension and community.
Many studies and meetings of international organisms (Álvarez Monzoncillo et al., 2007; Fundación Telefónica, 2007) coincide in highlighting that globalized interculturality makes the construction of not just national but also regional alliances necessary. Digital convergence is producing a radical integration of all media: radio, music, news, and television reinvent themselves as they combine into a single system. They fuse, as we have been saying, the productive corporations of television with those of cinema, Internet servers, and publishers. Consumers receive in our screens — whether they are television, computer, or iPhone – audio, images, written text, and data transmission, in addition to photos and videos that we or our friends generate or upload to the Web. The transnational or “denationalized” production of the greater part of these cultural benefits makes it difficult for each national state, alone, to represent the public interest.
The passage from primary modernity, in which culture is condensed in the arts and literature, to this stage of convergence of all languages due to digitalization requires another kind of cultural politics, just as it requires other strategies for the formation of publics (Garcia Canclini & Piedras, 2008). The eventual modalities of sociocultural interaction and of access to benefits and messages make a politics separated by field hardly productive. To rethink the politics of publishing on the one hand and audiovisual or telecommunication politics on the other will make the inefficacy of public organisms even worse. It would be more fruitful to take on the intermediality that technological convergence brings us, as a collection of interrelated spaces and networks.
In conclusion, we can pull out two consequences of this theoretical displacement of cultural fields and technological convergence. First, in such an interconnected world, where historical inequalities are added to new gaps created by migration, culture industries and unequal access to digital communication, the question of how to make a cultural cinema and television should be specified with an investigation about how to deal with interculturality.
Second, with the growth of globalized interactions, the politics of cultural cooperation among nations is seen as necessary to move on to a politic of international coproduction. In the context of Latin America, the tendencies toward monopolistic concentration of audiovisual production and its distribution have encountered small-scale compensations in recent years: alliances within a subregion, notoriously the Mercosur, in the audiovisual field; the program Ibermedia in support of cinematographic coproduction, which includes Spain, Portugal, and 16 countries in Latin America; and the Internet, which daily brings Latin America into the world and the world to our screens.
Perhaps the most eloquent example of this move from simple cooperation, the interchange of products between two countries, to forms of coproduction, would be Ibermedia, a program created in 1998. From 1982-1998 only 59 films were coproduced between Spain and Latin America, whereas in the six years after the creation of Ibermedia 164 films were made thanks to the growth of national systems of cinematic support in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, just as Ibermedia provides economic support to coproductions.
The passage from the notion of cultural field to digital convergence is complemented, in cultural politics, by an intermedial conception of action and with a reconceptualization of international cooperation, most of all in public management, which seeks, by means of coproduction, a more fluid exchange among societies.
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Source: Popular Communication, 2009