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Enhancements for the Imperial Life

Fashionism Takes Command

by SAUL LANDAU

"Fascism has taken hold," friends warn, referring to how Bush has used the Patriot Act to whittle away liberties (like habeas corpus) and increase the power of Homeland Security.

"It’s fashionism, not fascism," offers another friend, referring to the thousands of unsolicited daily messages offered by media, which lead us to lose focus on the political world. For example, how do we mentally balance urgent ads for cut rate cell phones with experts charging that our military is seriously over-extended in Iraq and Afghanistan? Can we psychologically multitask between buying something at a "pre-season sale" and assuaging anxiety when experts declare that the rest of the world hates us because of our cruel, illegal and aggressive actions, especially in the Middle East?

Simultaneously, as newspaper, magazine, web, TV and radio ads remind us of our individual inadequacies, they also alert us that our environment is rapidly eroding. One side of the newspaper page exhorts us to buy a new car so as to increase our prestige and enhance the satisfaction of our sex lives, while the parallel column offers us examples of the corrupt, star-studded, super commercialized culture in which we appear as wannabes.

For example, the San Jose Mercury News (July 15) revealed that muscle magazines pay $5 million as a consultant to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned on an anti-special interests platform and pledged to take no salary as governor. The salary derives from magazine sales which, in turn, come from ads placed by makers of ‘supplements." Coincidentally, the Governator vetoed a bill that would have prevented students from participating in high school sports if they used those "performance-enhancing" ingredients.

The "news" shotguns us daily with mixed ammunition: perennial gang and drug-related violence, Congressmen getting free trips or taking sordid money for re-election, stars marrying, divorcing or entering drug treatment programs. Where do we focus?

The commercial media operates without a brain, unable to guide its audience or direct its message toward the public good. It presents history unfolding as a series of mostly catastrophic facts without context or analysis, while commercials tell us what to buy to become perfect.

When technology arises and gets ingested by society it also becomes what Karl Marx referred to as a "force of production." Such "forces" also change habits thanks to the hidden hand inside the new inventions. This elusive commander then shapes daily patterns. Think how the automobile has changed life in one century! Consider TV’s impact! How have computers altered our routines and the way we think of Time and Space. These instruments extend beyond the consumption sphere; they form the basis of the productive and distributive systems. They restructure entire labor forces. Look how computers have changed the task of taking inventory in large department stores or super markets!

Technology also enters the world of fashion and thus modifies aesthetics. Those pernicious and invisible dominators that squirrel themselves inside of ‘technology" have now hit the toddler market.

According to an Oct 2003 report released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (www.kff.org), millions of those who can barely walk have already been immersed for hours a day in TV and video watching. They learn to use computers and play video games before they can read. Some barely learn to read even as they grow up.

"Children six and under spend an average of two hours a day using screen media (1:58), about the same amount of time they spend playing outside (2:01), and well over the amount they spend reading or being read to (39 minutes)."

Thanks to interactive digital media technology, 48% of children six and under have used a computer (31% of 0-3 year-olds and 70% of 4-6 year-olds). Just under a third (30%) play video games (14% of 0-3 year-olds and 50% of 4-6 year-olds). Even the youngest children–those under two–are widely exposed to electronic media. Forty-three percent of those under two watch TV every day, and 26% have a TV in their bedroom (the American Academy of Pediatrics "urges parents to avoid television for children under 2 years old"). In any given day, two-thirds (68%) of children under two will use a screen medium, for an average of just over two hours (2:05).

Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health, who led the team that issued the report said that the "wiring" trend goes beyond adolescents and to "babies in diapers as well. So much new media is being targeted at infants and toddlers, it’s critical that we learn more about the impact it’s having on child development."

The study also shows that kids with a ‘tV in their bedroom or who live in "heavy" TV households average 22 minutes more a day watching than other children, and less time reading or playing outside."

Those living in "heavy" TV households are more likely to watch every day (77% v. 56%), and to watch for 34 minutes more a day and are less likely to read. In fact, they are less likely than other children to be able to read at all. Only 34% of children ages 4-6 from "heavy" TV households can read, compared to 56% of other children that age.

Millions of kids stay in their rooms, absorbed in virtual reality games that ooze from plasma screens. Speakers bark loud sound which, along with digital illusion has also altered the modern aesthetic. Indeed, certain sounds and images automatically refer to violence.

Thanks to the digital revolution "fashionism" has reached new markets and depths. Entertainment business executives have used their hackers, animators, designers and programmers to elevate what was once known as special effects into a department of virtual defects.

Those who write plots and dialogue now assume as axiomatic the needs for graphic displays of blood, bone and gore. Sound engineers rev up the slurps and thwacks, the subtle tones of explosions and gunshots–and in the R rated films, the familiar bedroom epiphanies.

So urgently does the profit bell ring in the ears of the Pavlovian dogs of Hollywood CEOs that they use technology to thwart the right wing censors that hover like birds of prey over anything that might give children–or themselves?–a hint of lusty sex.

Obedient to the aggressive tastes of the active prudes, the profit side of Hollywood decides how to accommodate to their aesthetic and thus produce and distribute such products in the theaters. The makers of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Batman Begins, for examples, substitute violence for sex, and thus escape the dreaded R rating. Thrill-seeking underage movie goers pour into the theaters to watch ferocious scenes in the virtual sphere. With photo-shopped special effects the standards set by the NRA and mighty fundamentalist reverends no longer stand as impediments. Violence, after all, is healthier than watching people doing "it"–things that millions of ordinary people have done for thousands of years.

Don’t get confused. The Hollywood formula contains the same basic ingredients that the original Hollywood moguls distilled for desperate audiences more than a century ago. A handsome–and often rich–hero saves the world from an evil fanatic. This usually accompanies a romance that brings him happiness for the rest of his life–until the sequel, anyhow.

Technology, however, has infinite hidden hands. Can it enhance violence enough to lure the 12-25 year olds to theaters and away form DVDs?

By removing sex from movies so as to avoid parental permission provisions for theater entry, Hollywood marketing geniuses may drive those old enough to actually have sex at home, stimulated by watching violence on the smaller screen.

"Pow, crash, bang."

"Hey, this turns me on."

"Me too."

"I don’t want to miss any of the action."

Huffing and puffing for ten minutes. "You think we missed something?"

"Did you stop the DVD? Well, go back to where we got distracted."

Those too young–Viagra has overcome age–to enjoy themselves can still enjoy themselves virtually with DVD copies rented by older siblings. Imagine, their parents leave them happily at their computers–with baby sitters supposedly doing homework–and go to an R rated movie.

Yes, cultural trivialization proceeds apace with daily Baghdad carnage reports. The new "fashions" in clothes, houses, games, computers and cell phones define American culture, the product that Bush offers to the rest of the world as "freedom." With it, presumably, he would finish "liberating" Iraq–or just finish Iraq. So, when Bush insists that Congress restore the Patriot Act intact, it’s jot fascism, but "fashionism" he means.

SAUL LANDAU teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.