Resisting mediocrity and the interests it serves: how the Maltese media contributes to the creation of a mediocre audience and then blames this audience for the mediocrity of the media. All in the interests of the ruling social networks. A footnote to a comment by Raphael Vella.
Raphael Vella, writing last Sunday in a local English-language paper, argued that “television constantly adapts itself to the mentality of its audience. [Its programmes] essentially confirm the conservative tastes of a conservative public; they challenge no orthodoxies, change nothing, and definitely never tell people what they do not want to hear.”
He concludes that if television “consistently challenged the public’s preconceptions – as art does so often – the grand audience ratings it brags about would suffer as a result, and its power in relation to other cultural products like print journalism and the arts would be greatly diminished [and it…] would lose its cultural and commercial monopoly.”
Raphael’s comment is a good starting point for a radical discussion of the social and cultural role of the media in Malta (all of them, print, radio, television, web-based). The greatest merit of his intervention is that it problematises an institution that has – by and large – so far been allowed to promote – indeed to impose – its own self-image on society, thereby aborting critical counter-images and seducing society into accepting the media’s self-image as the only real and the only possible image.
In my view, nothing Raphael says is in itself incorrect. What he says, however, at least in this particular comment, is not sufficiently radical, in others words it does not quite go to the roots (radix) of the problem. Raphael Vella cites Pierre Bourdieu. Great! But what needs to be done is to follow the signposts planted by this great French sociologist all the way to the roots of the issue. If we, following Bourdieu, do so, then we will have to confront the fundamental problem of power in society, of how the ruling social groups conserve and consolidate their power. This will require us, incidentally, to make use of the conceptual tools developed by the intellectual giants on whose shoulders Bourdieu himself stands.
If we do opt for this radical approach we will wake up to a number of facts, some of which are not clearly recognised by Raphael in his comment. Here are some of them (take them as hypotheses to be tested, if you wish):
1. That all the media in Malta (all of them, not only the ‘popular’ television programmes Raphael focuses on) are tendentially – consciously or otherwise – accomplices in the reproduction of the cultural hegemony of this society’s ruling social groups and, therefore of the cultural preconditions of their social, economic and political power. This, so far, has been true irrespective of political party in power and of the party-political leanings of the owners of Maltese stations and newspapers.
2. That “art” is not spared unless and until it becomes conscious of these mechanisms and takes a position against them. Unless and until it does so, “art” in Malta will continue to be a tool of hegemony, happy in its illusion of independence from the mechanisms of power. To suggest that “art” is excluded from these mechanisms is to ultimately protect them. Unless you wake up to the realisation that you are a prisoner, you will never attempt to escape.
3. That these mechanisms of power are neither eternal nor inevitable. They have a history, they developed over time, they change in response to changing (local and international) conditions. If they are not inevitable they can be changed. It takes courage, intelligence, organisation, patience, skill, creativity and – yes – humility. For an artist it takes a lot humility to realise that she/he is not a Nietzschean superman outside of society, an independent artisan free from the constraints and conditioning of industrialised mass media. Once emancipated from this petty bourgeois illusion (an old fashioned categorisation? perhaps, but still valid), the artist is free to join the (by no means inevitable) efforts to change things (to the extent that conditions make such a change possible). With more artists and intellectuals willing and capable of undertaking a critique of the society they operate in – Raphael Vella is a relatively rare example, in this country, of one such artist – we can resist these mechanisms.
4. Mediocrity is not merely an aesthetic quality. It is also a political tool. It is the principal means by which the diversity and uniqueness of individuals is compressed into an anonymous mass with middling wants and tastes, a politically harmless audience with characteristics clustered around a socially constructed average. The Maltese media play a critical role in the production and reproduction of such an audience. When we are tempted to say – as Raphael comes dangerously close to conceding – that Maltese television is forced to give the audience what it wants upon pain of losing that audience, we absolve it from its involvement in the very creation of that sort of audience. This vicious circle – like Brecht’s Arturo Ui – can be resisted.
Raphael Vella’s article may be viewed at: