10Lecture24 min

The majority culture

Alexei Levinson on the organization of mass society

Experts: Alexei Levinson

Text expansion for the Lecture

The majority culture

Alexei Levinson on the organization of mass society

Mass society in the form in which it has emerged in the western countries, is one of the elements associated with the society’s transition from a traditional state into the state which is characteristic for the most recent times; from a society divided into layers which almost do not intersect with each other, from a class society to a classless society, or, how people began to say at some point, to mass society.

Mass society is also one of the conditions for mass culture to emerge. In this category it is important that these are people who have the same life circumstances. So, they have the same desires, aspirations, ideals, etc. Mass society arose when mass production did. Say “mass production” and we think assembly lines, but it’s not only things, goods that are made: people are made, too. This is important. Thus there is production of things, goods, and mass production of people. Not just individuals but whole crowds.

People are mass-produced through e.g. school, the army, mass media. This is even more familiar to us. There’s been much of talk of mass media, television brainwashing people, making them the same. Schools introduce standardized coursebooks. The idea is that all learn the same things, march in lockstep, follow the same orders, are driven by the exact same ideals.

I must say, this happens. According to the Levada Center where I work the idea that Crimea is Russia is supported by 84% of the country. It is known that the Russian president’s performance is also supported by over 80%, sometimes even 88–89%, which is practically everybody. So, we see the phenomena of mass society here and now.

It is a very important state of society. It differs from the traditional society, which was divided into disparate classes, groups, nationalities, etc. It differs from the state which has replaced mass society and industrial society, i.e. post-industrial society which already covers much of the globe. Mass culture consists of various kinds of notions, texts visual signs, etc., which are fed to consumers by the means most convenient to them. Mass culture differs from high culture in firstly its volume. High-culture products are deemed to be unique, they must necessarily be one of a kind, for every artist is unique and also his/her every creation. The products of mass culture are based on the opposite principle. They are not unique but widely available. They are either imposed on all in one conception, or they are in demand, sought out by all. Of course I put “all” in quotes, but “all” means at least the majority, for based on the rules of this society, it has the last word. Mass culture is a culture of volume. This is why its emergence is related to technologies allowing for mass production of certain meanings, certain texts.

Besides mass production, this culture is also characterized by accessibility.

A wide range of important roles play out in society. First of all, this mass society consists of somewhat identical people and needs uniting mechanisms, structures, systems, etc. Mass culture is one such mechanism.

Consider these people brought together in space and time, e.g. football match: 80,000 people gather simultaneously, they are experiencing the same emotions. Synchronous emotions are a key tool for conformity, for bringing people to the same thoughts, aspirations. It’s a tool which keeps working after the common experience is over. If we are all watching this TV show right now, then the show means more for each of us than if I were watching it alone. This synchronization is very important. The very fact of it. That means it unites, integrates people into a society.

Today mass culture even allows for some differentiation, i.e. “we are something, you are other”. We are fans of Dinamo, you are Spartak fans. Clearly there’s a gulf between us. An outside observer might say, “You guys are utterly the same”, but nevertheless. People can sense a certain difference, and mass culture, since there is not only one singer on the screen, not a single football team, not a single film is being broadcast, but a lot of them are displayed, it gives the opportunity of this seeming, this symbolic differentiation. This is us and you are them.

Also, mass culture is necessarily dynamic. It does not stay in one place. Something’s always happening within, things come and they go. The mechanism of fashion works there. Fashion is important for mass production and regulating mass demand.

Fashion works about like this: a set of people like something particular. But if you and me seek some higher status in this society, we can differentiate ourselves from everybody else: if everyone likes one thing, we’ll like something else. If everyone likes stripes, we start wearing checkered clothes. If everyone likes one band, we’ll have our own. We carefully defend this borderline, show how we’re different from the rest. This gains us some higher position.

Naturally, some also switch to our clothes our tastes. Then, our position’s under threat. Outsiders come along, appropriate our symbols, start using them for their own purposes. We also see how they wear our clothes but in the wrong way, tastelessly. What can we do, then? We introduce something else that wasn’t there earlier. We abandon our former positions to those people trying to imitate us. Now we’re already wearing something else, i.e. clothes with polka dots, not checkered ones any more. The cycle eventually repeats, then we must go to further extremes.

Suffice it to say, that’s the basis for a huge economy, with a turnover worth billion. Simply put there are so-called secondary markets. What was in fashion in some circles will shift. Not only do some people leave, but also some join in. That is what secondary, tertiary, quaternary markets are. Our society, our country can be said to be a tertiary market, even a quaternary one in relation to a wide range of fashionable processes.

This mass society becomes even more complex, albeit quasi-complex, for generally these are currents in still water. Maybe to go from one state into another, new configurations of meanings are needed. Not just going from stripes to checkered clothes; new concepts are fed into mass culture. Let us draw it somewhere here and connect it with mass culture and with real high culture. Although important processes are going on within, it represents a special block, where configurations of meanings, texts from high culture are processed for further use in mass culture. This processing might be quite delicate.

I’d like us all to realize how much we’re inside the reality called mass culture.

Recall how we exchange quotes from “Seventeen Moments of Spring”, “Operation Y”, or other films by Leonid Gaidai. That’s why we call these films classics. We can see how our Russian mass culture unites us. People who don’t get these quotes are partly outsiders.

I’m deliberately stating we’re united by certain texts, film creations from 2–4 decades ago.

Generally speaking, it’s not a healthy phenomenon for our present existence. It’d have been better if we were united by present-day concepts, ones created by contemporary artists in modern Russia.

I’m sure my words are being watched, esteemed viewers, from the screens of your computers, iPads, smartphones. Thus my subject, mass culture, exists right now on a totally different technical basis. It’s a state of affairs that’s extraordinarily important for it. New distribution channels allow for the existence not of mass culture but a new kind of culture, one that can be differentiated with regard to its consumers.

The internet reaches everyone. Sometimes it’s content that concerns everyone. However, the internet has brought a possibility for all to exist not as a mass society but one consisting of groups of people. A society in which people belong to multiple social structures at the same time. The most simple is a division based on roles. At home I’m a son, brother, father. I go somewhere and am a passenger, a pedestrian, or I’m a teacher in a classroom, or a worker in a factory, or a manager in an office. Each time these are different social contexts, I come together with different people.

Besides this physical movement in space, entering into different contexts, there are myriad states changing inside me. I also change without changing my location. Or imagine some people at a business meeting, then they have a coffee break. Certainly there are things to be discussed before the break and things after. It is likely that I do some more important networking not during official meetings, I do it exactly at the coffee break. I know how to play this complicated game. This game can be 10 times more complicated if I’m immersed in this culture. I am much less in need of what is the same for all of us and for all life situations, what has created mass culture. I need culture, but I do not need culture, I need cultures, or subcultures, things that belong to culture as its part. They will play this differentiating role, and this role of fashion, they will even unite me with some very big whole which is called “everybody”. It will not happen all the time though, but only when I need it.

Because the future that we are approaching, trying maybe to slow down our motion, but we are approaching it necessarily and inevitably, the future where the mass society, is replaced by a society that can be called a society of minorities. Each person simply belongs to some minority.

A minority is not those in a pitiful state, who need special protection, to be defended. And it’s not that minority who will govern the rest, a gang of some oligarchs, some other people, more privileged than everybody else. Minorities are those who are united around something: some value, lifestyle, some particular worldview. I’m not going to draw it with chalk because it’s not time yet. I’ll draw it like this, almost invisibly. Minorities contribute to the fabric of the society that’s going to emerge.

Even though we can be enemies, we might not like someone. I can despise someone, and someone despises me because I am here, and I despise him because he’s there. The whole pallet of human feelings is here, life in its entirety. This life becomes more and more rich and interesting, and we need to know how to live it, we need to be socialized in it. The present mass culture of the internet pretty much does that. It does it haphazardly: there are many complaints, criticism. People blame it for all the things they blamed mass culture on. “It makes our children dumb, zombies who only sit in front of the screens”, etc. I won’t repeat all that. Frankly speaking, it’s not interesting. It is the reaction of our society which made the transition from stove heating to something else, and now thinks that it was better with the stove: the wood crackled in the fire and we could watch…

Very well. Whoever wants to can have a fireplace at their cottage, if you have a cottage. Or at least draw it on the wall. It can be done, one can make this nostalgia an inherent part of our life, even something decorative, but of course we can’t make it the most important thing.