By Marc Jampole
As we have seen, the elements of our cultural vocabulary come from many sources—works of high, low and commercial art and entertainment, news events, history as taught in elementary school, scientific discoveries, ethnic groups and other subcultures (such as urban Afro-American culture, college students or tattoo wearers) and other countries. From a bubbling cauldron of new and recycled cultural artifacts constantly emerge pieces of shared language that penetrate the consciousness of virtually all members of a society.
But while the bits of our shared cultural language can come from anywhere, the main mechanisms for sifting and shaping the cultural vocabulary have always remained firmly in the hands of ruling elites because of their control of the channels of distribution and dispersion of information and knowledge. During medieval times, for example, the church decided which of the thousands of Greek and Roman manuscripts monks would study and therefore copy and save. A political deal with a Roman emperor led to the widespread influence of Christianity on the cultural vocabulary of the West and the disappearance of the many rites and deities of Roman religious practice. Royalty of all kinds from kings to emperors to Rajas have promoted and suppressed literature and visual arts. Until well into the 18th century, the writers and artists who repeated and amplified myths and legends were either part of or supported by the ruling elite. Church and government have controlled education in most cultures.
The development of the printing press and capitalism transformed the ownership of communications vehicles, as commercial enterprises joined religions, aristocracy and government as the sieve that sorts our cultural ephemera to determine which will remain part of our vocabulary and which will disappear. Society’s wealthiest tend to own most commercial media, from newspapers to large websites, which means that the owners of the prime commercial means of transmitting cultural artifacts all come from the same social class and tend to have the same basic values and interests. In undemocratic societies, the commercial media tends to ally with the government. In a democratic society, the commercial media tends to be owned by those who have greatest access and control of the government.
It was, for example, a combination of public schools, text book publishers, movie producers, popular novelists, politically-motivated historians and politicians who promulgated the positive cultural myths surrounding slavery and the Confederacy once held throughout the United States. It was the combined efforts of all these gatekeepers of values and cultural imagery that enabled the dissemination of these false myths that predominated during the late 19th and 20th centuries; e.g., that plantation life was pleasant for slaves, that freed slaves were not prepared to act independently, and that the mediocre butcher Robert E. Lee was a great general who fought the United States only reluctantly. It has taken the Civil Rights movement and several generations of truth-telling historians, revised text books and mass entertainments such as “Roots” and “12 Years a Slave’ to begin to right the misperceptions about the Old South—to change our collective understanding of slavery and the cultural vocabulary we use to characterize it.
That the ruling elite tends to have the most to say in what cultural artifacts survive and remain part of our cultural vocabulary does not suggest any grand conspiracy theory. As C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite, G. William Domhoff in Who Rules America and others have noted, ruling elites share the same values, attend the same schools, play golf at the same clubs and serve on the same boards and associations. A conspiracy isn’t necessary for class action.
Technology plays two roles in the process of creating cultural vocabulary from the enormous and chaotic ocean of imagery and information that confronts. From the development of the printing press to the explosion of social media, new technology has always tended to speed up both the creation and the discarding of temporary pieces of cultural language. For example, the twerking fad of the late summer of 2013 lasted much less time than the hula hoop fad of the 1950s. While technology allows for a faster dispersion of information, it also fragments the mass market into literally thousands of sub-markets, each of which develops and speaks its own language, with its own jargon, each phrase of which could break out into the mainstream for a few weeks, or for centuries.
But technology isn’t just a vehicle for transmission; it is also responsible for the creation of a growing part of our cultural vocabulary: the selfie; the “nerd”; the ascension of Steve Jobs to a position equal to Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in American business mythology; calling our thought processes “software”; asking someone to put something back in its original place by saying “go to default.”
Tomorrow I will discuss what I call the cannibalization of cultural artifacts as a primary means of controlling and exploiting our shared cultural vocabulary.