The Rise Of Mass Culture And Its Effects On Culture

Mass Culture

The subject of any culture is man as an individual, as a personality, as the “unrepeatable individuality.” The subject or object of mass culture is a mass or a “man-mass.”[1] A man has a soul; a mass has nothing but needs. Therefore, every culture is a bringing up of man, while mass culture is just a supply of needs.

Culture tends toward individualization; mass culture leads in the opposite direction, to spiritual uniformity. At this point, mass culture diverges both from ethics and from culture. The mass production of “spiritual goods,” the copies, the tawdry and worthless literature, leads to impersonalization. Mass culture, as distinguished from authentic culture, limits human freedom by just this “uniforming” tendency since “freedom is resistance to uniformity.”[2]

One widespread mistake is the identification of mass culture with popular culture. This is injurious to the latter, for popular culture, distinguished from mass culture, is authentic, active, and immediate. It is innocent of tawdriness and kitsch,[3] which are entirely the products of the big city.

Popular culture is based on consensus and participation, while the predominating principle of mass culture is manipulation. Rites, dances, and songs are common possessions of a village or a tribe. The performers are the spectators and vice versa. When the feast be-gins, everybody takes part in it, everybody becomes a performer. Mass culture offers quite a different example. People are strictly separated into “producers” and “consumers” of “cultural goods.” Is there anybody who really believes that he can influence the television programs, of course unless he belongs to the small group of those who make them? The so-called “mass media” (press, Radio, and television) are in fact the means of mass manipulation. On one side are the editorial offices of a small number of people who created the program, on the other side is a passive audience of millions.

An inquiry carried out in 1971 showed that the average Englishman spends 16 to 18 hours a week watching TV.[4] Television has been steadily replacing literature, its equivalent in the cultural field. Every third French person never reads a book, and the French nation spends its free time watching TV.[5] The inquiry also indicated that, for more than 87 percent of the population, the main “cultural” pastime is watching a TV program, while ballet and opera hold the last place on the list. An inquiry taken on the occasion of the “Book Week” in 1976 showed that the situation in Japan is the same. About 30 percent of the Japanese do not read books, while each of them spends 2.5 hours daily watching TV. Professor Horikava from San Francisco University claims that the aptitude of the rising generation is below university criteria. Horikava explains that, in a simple way, television has replaced literature and thinking and has therefore reduced intellectual activity. It offers ready-made solutions for all problems in life.[6] Our time offers examples of how mass culture media (radio, film, and television, being a govemment monopoly) can be used for a mass delusion of the worst kind. There is no need for brutal force to rule people against their will. That can be now attained in a “legal way” by paralyzing the people’s will, by offering them cut-and-dried truths, and by preventing them from thinking and arriving at their own opinions of men and events.

“Mass” psychology proved, and practice confirmed, that it is possible by persistent repetition to convince people of myths which have nothing in common with reality.[7] The psychology of mass media, especially of television, has been conceived in such a way as to subordinate not only the conscious but even the instinctive and emotional side of man and to create in him the feeling that the imposed opinions are his own.[8]

All totalitarian societies saw their opportunity in television and rushed to use it. Television, therefore, became a threat to freedom, more dangerous than the police, the gendarmes, the prisons, and the concentration camps. I think that the following generations, if their ability to think freely will not be fully destroyed, will be shocked by the martyrdom of the present generation which is exposed without interruption to the impact of that uncontrolled power. If past constitutions were made with the aim of restraining rulers’ power, a new constitution would be needed to restrain the power of this new danger threatening to establish a spiritual slavery of the worst kind.

Mass culture is characterized by a state of mind, the one Johan Huizinga referred to as “puerility.” Huizinga notices that contemporary man behaves childishly, in the negative sense of the word – that is, in a way which is equal to the mental level of puberty: banal amusements; the absence of authentic humor; the need for strong sensations; the inclination to mass parades and slogans; and the expression of an exaggerated hate or love, blame or praise, which have a mass and brutal aspect.

Finally, we meet up with different attitudes to the machine and technology. Culture has a “fear of machines,” an instinctive aversion to technology: “The machine is the first sin of culture.”[9] This attitude comes from the feeling that the machine, from the beginning being a means for manipulating things, now becomes a means for manipulating man – let’s remember the warnings expressed by Ta-gore, Tolstoy, Heidegger, Neizvestni, Faulkner, and others. On the other hand, the Marxist Henry Lefèbvre holds a quite different opinion: “The highest level of freedom will be reached only in a society in which technology develops all its potential – in a communist society.”[10] In fact, a society which has utopia as its direct or indirect paragon finds its natural ally in machines and technology. Machines help – they do not prevent – the manipulation of men and things. They help create uniformity by means of education and mass media; they require the collaboration or the group work of a great number of people organized in a similar mechanism (a “collective”) and centrally managed; and finally, they offer the prospect of complete control by society (read: authority) over the individual by means of direct or indirect inspection into what he is doing, saying, and thinking.

[Islam Between East and West by ‘Alija Izetbegovic, p. 53-56]


[1] The term “man-mass” was introduced into literature by Jos Ortega Y. Gasset in his The Revolt of the Masses (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1932). A mass is a group of anonymous, faceless units. A group of people, having lost their personalities, becomes degraded to a mass. Man-mass is the final product of civilization without culture. He is free of the doubts and the “prejudices” of culture.
[2] Max Horkheimer: Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972).
[3] The latter term stands for artistic or literary material of low quality, designed to appeal to current popular taste.
[4] “Data from the publication Society Trends, a statistical annual of the British government.
[5] These are the conclusions of the inquiry made by the magazine Le Point in 1975.
[6] Naoyoshi Horikawa: Gendai masu komyunikeshon ron (n.p., 1974).
[7] Until 1945, the Japanese were taught that Micado had been the child of the goddess of the Sun and that Japan had been created before the rest of the world. Students were taught that myth even by university professors. That case belongs now to the past.
Today, we are meeting some new myths in the forms of the “leader cults” in Russia, China, and North Korea (the cults of Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Kim Il Sung). All these myths have the same pattern. For example: “Every word of the esteemed and beloved leader comrade Kim Il Sung has entered deeply into our hearts like water penetrating the thirsty earth. … We shall resolutely continue the performance of the great plan of the communist development designed by our esteemed and beloved leader comrade Kim Il Sung,” from the article All That People Love Is Good by Kim John Hui. A stone on which the “esteemed and beloved comrade” sat during a speech is exhibited in a glass sarcophagus in a factory yard.
[8] In this matter, we can recommend Djura Sunjic’s excellent book Fishermen For Human Souls (Belgrad: Zadruga, 1977).
[9] Nikolai Berdyaev: The Modern Crisis of Culture, Serbocroatian trans. (Beograd: Hriscanska Biblioteka, 1932), and: “The only people who saw through industrialism in those early days were the poets. Blake, as everybody knows, thought that mills were the work of Satan. … It took a longish time – over twenty years – before ordinary men began to see what a monster had been created,” in Kenneth Clark: Civilization (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1962), p. 321.
[10] Henri Lefebvre: Everyday Life in the Modern World, trans. Sacha Rabinovitch (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).

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