Tag Archives: Channel 4

Black Mirror and the Culture Industry

I’ve just got around to watching the Charlie Brooker scripted Black Mirror on Channel 4 and I have to say it’s just brilliant.  Dark, warped, frequently nightmarish tales befitting an age of hyperconsumption and the collapse of meaningful social and cultural exchange.

I won’t take either programme to pieces here, don’t worry.  I was compelled to jot a couple of notes down regarding the inspired climax of the second piece Fifteen Million Merits, where Bingham, played wonderfully by  Daniel Kaluuya (recently seen in BBC’s The Fades) tricks his way onto an X Factor-style talent show in a dystopian (not so distant) future where the whole population appears to inhabit digital media cells and must cycle on exercise bikes every day whilst watching the crass, empty, pornographic output provided by said talent show.

Holding a piece of broken glass to his throat to prevent his interruption and ensure attention, Bingham launches an extended, “Networkesque” rant against the nightmare world he finds himself trapped in.  The “judges”, far from dismissing his speech, declare themselves impressed Not, of course, with the content or meaning of Bingham’s diatribe, but rather its “heartfelt” and “true” nature.  The lead judge then offers Bingham a show doing exactly what he’s just done, twice a week, for half an hour.

Isn’t this exactly the essence of the culture industry in late capitalism, as expressed so devastatingly by Adorno & Horkheimer?  A mass culture so truly omnipotent that any capacity for resistance to it becomes impossible by dint of its capacity to absorb, sterilise and commodify anything which might approach such a thing, even the anguished, fractured scream of an individual driven to the brink of sanity by the mere awareness of this vacuous culture.  “Something is provided for everyone,” they wrote in 1947 “so that none may escape”.

Adorno and Horkheimer did not live to see the birth of reality television, youtube or facebook, but their writings cast a long (fore)shadow across the 20th Century, persistently relevant to the degeneration of culture in mass society.  That you, the individual, may despise the culture industry is no reason for you to leave,

You can’t anyway,

Come back, we could use someone like you,

Or research has shown that a lot of people feel empty and unsatisfied to the point of suicide by what we produce.

I think you could do great things in that market…

“What is decisive today is the necessity inherent in the system not to leave the customer alone, not for a moment to allow him any suspicion that resistance is possible.  The principle dictates that he should be shown all his needs as capable of fulfilment , but that those needs should be so pre-determined that he feels himself to be the eternal consumer, the object of the culture industry”

(Adorno & Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment)


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Sri Lanka, Atrocity and the Politics of Looking

Last night’s heavily trailed documentary from Channel 4: Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields turned out, as expected, to be as harrowing as it was important, bringing to mind John Pilger’s “Cambodia: Year Zero”. Pilger’s piece inspired an extraordinary public response in the UK during the late 1970’s characterised by financial as well as moral support.   Last night’s film was no less disturbing and may yet prove to be as effective.

The conclusion, it seemed, was that all available evidence and legal consensus pointed to the conclusion that the Sri Lankan government was guilty of systematic  war crimes including; direct artillery targeting of civilians in “no fire zones”, denial of humanitarian access to civilians trapped in a conflict zone and, perhaps most gravely, the rape and murder of prisoners of war, both civilian and surrendering fighters. The prime faice evidence and corroboration from expert witnesses during the program would leave one in no doubt that these were the most terrible of crimes and even the most conservative estimates of 30-40,000 civilians killed would necessitate (given the international community’s newly (re) found discovery of legal and armed humanitarian intervention), at the very least, the indictment of senior military and political figures in the Rajapaksa government by the International Criminal Court and the establishment of an international criminal tribunal along the lines of those established after Yugoslavia/Rwanda).

These (seemingly obvious issues) aside, the main thrust of the questions raised by some corners of British political and media discourse seems to have focused more on the moral issues raised by the showing of films of executions and war crimes themselves: i.e. whether the images were gratuitous, unhelpful or ghoulish. This almost breathtaking hypocrisy does, however, inadvertently raise an an important question, posited by David Campbell, Susan Sontag and others, regarding the complex politics of seeing and exposure afforded to images of atrocity. Self-censorship by the media, as Campbell has argued in the past, grounded in established economies of “decency” have often served to render atrocity “invisible”, or at the very least, mediated to the point where it can be ignored by media consumers. Channel 4’s bravery (a phrase used too often in media discourses to describe utter banalities) in showing (contextualised) footage of shocking crimes, resisting the temptation to “cutaway”, demonstrates an admirable commitment to one of the founding principles of journalism: to tell truth, both to power and to the public.

“Balance”, so often the favoured jargon of (often the most partisan) media commentators is not appropriate here, and nor, crucially, is censorship on spurious grounds of “taste” “decency” or otherwise. The deafening silence of the international community, during the final days of the Sri Lankan conflict and subsequently is as incomprehensible as it is shaming, particularly given the recent high-minded rhetoric invoking the protection of civilians from internal state repression. Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields gives a powerful, disturbing re-iteration of the abject failure of the world to effect even the most basic norms of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka whilst simultaneously exposing the evidence which damns both the perpetrators and demands the world act to seek justice. The question remains, will they look away again?

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