02 Apr

Screen Culture: A Global History

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By Richard Butsch

Screen Culture: A Global History is a story written on a broad canvas, stretching across three screen media (film, tv, digital), from the last glory days of European colonialism, to post-colonialism nation-building, to an era of neo-liberal, hyper-global consumption, and including numerous nations on five continents around the globe. The broad view, drawing on hundreds of new media histories and other histories in the past two decades, allows the book to present cultural comparisons that reveal striking similarities and differences, and to capture the sweep of historical processes and cultural changes concerning screen media. Chapters alternate between media industries and audiences in American and Western nations and their relation to other nations and their media history, moving from film in the first half of the twentieth century to television through the second half, and concluding with the digital era and heightened globalization in the new millennium.

The physical objects, that is, the screens themselves, and their contents are set in particular places, used as part of particular situations and most recently, acquired ubiquity and mobility disrupting both places and situations. For example, in the US, Europe, West, Central and South Africa, India, China and other places, film exhibition followed similar paths from a variety act or in temporary, makeshift spaces, then theaters and movie “palaces,” then in homes, and most recently just about anywhere on mobile media. At the same time and again in such diverse places, movie-theaters were differentiated by class, sex, and other social hierarchies.

Lived screen culture, what audiences do and what meanings they give it, is shaped not only by the physical place and media content, but also by audiences constructing their own situation in that place and with that content, suited to their own purposes. In the same cities, working class and middle class viewers, whether in New York, London, Paris, Mumbai, Shanghai, attend different cinemas, prefer different film genres, and use the theater as a place reflecting their different class norms. Working-class or peasant audiences made theaters their own, whether in modest venues in American or European working-class neighborhoods, tent shows in Indian villages or Rhodesian mining-camp exhibitions. Similarly, reactions to the films or tv shows varied by demographic group. From the US to Brazilian Amazon towns to Egyptian and West African Muslim villages to Indian and Chinese urban apartments, men v women, young v old, urban v rural, higher or lower class, colonizer or colonized, disagreed on what to watch and whether it was a good or bad thing.

How audiences use communication media in public or private places also has significant impacts both on users and on the meanings of places. In many societies mobile and smart phones reshape both public and private interactions. People in the US, India and Indonesia define these phones and internet use variously as personal, familial or public matters. Differences of sex, age and class are reflected in different reactions and relations to media and media content. In “traditional” cultures of Muslim West Africa and Hindi India, male village elders disapprove of women’s and teens’ watching television.

There also are surprising similarities in behavior among audiences that emerge in the book. For example, when moving pictures were still a novelty, across the US, Europe, Rhodesia, and elsewhere, stories (whether factual or apocryphal) arose about audiences mistaking the image as reality. Again, women in strikingly diverse cultures, from the US in the 1940s to Latin America, China and India in the 1980s and 1990s, to Egypt and West Africa at the turn of the millennium, all shared an interest in soap operas and telenovelas, and express in very similar ways their usefulness applied to their familial relationships. These similarities push us to seek explanations beyond simple cultural relativity or ‘human nature’ to commonalities of structure across diverse societies. I think of these similarities arising from a common ground of everyday life practicality. Across a wide range of cultures people must navigate similar face to face situations and relationships, such as between spouses, parent and child, neighbor or friend. Such seems to be the case in the responses by these diverse telenovela audiences.

The book sets all this within the context of larger structures and forces that shaped the significance of place and situation. Screen media arose and spread globally primarily through a system of capitalism that commodified media and promoted their consumption, even while countered, contained and coopted by governments for their goals. Thus media developments were channeled through political forces of colonialism and post-colonial nation-building, and intertwined with international hegemony. Nations from imperial Britain and France to small European countries and recently independent former colonies attempted to limit Hollywood’s influence on their cultures and peoples. Television reached far larger audiences than film in the privacy and convenience of their homes, making it an ideal tool to promote nationalism and cultural uplift. For example, some telenovelas were produced as “edutainment” in India and several countries of Africa and Latin American to promote modernization and nation-building. Governments and tv networks, from BBC to India’s Doordarshan to China Central TV, also attempted to counter Americanization. Cultural hegemony had been a critical concern for colonialism and post-colonial governments. Britain, France and other colonial rulers imposed censorship on film in their colonies and instituted their own film-making and radio to bolster their imperial power, even while bemoaning Hollywood’s influence in their home countries. Upon independence, post-colonial governments, such as Egypt, India and China attempted to reverse this process by restricting and censoring imported films and owning and operating national film, radio and television production facilities.

American media were not always dominant and may now be facing serious challenges, as the book demonstrates. Early development of moving image technologies proceeded simultaneously in the US and several European nations. Differences in national circumstances first favored French company leadership in building an international film distribution, including in the US. But soon US film companies displaced the French and held sway internationally for several decades. In the new millennium, the digital age, combined with rapid emergence of new industrialization in post-colonial societies, that hegemony has been challenged, so that there have arisen multiple film centers, using multi-national investments, and reaching consumers in many countries. In the US, Latin television networks are even challenging English-based American networks. Similarly, some Bollywood and Chinese films have gained popularity beyond diaspora and successfully crossed over to mainstream audiences. Also, American dominance in digital media is now be restricted by government regulations, e.g. in the EU and India, and is facing competition from other producers and internet services, most notably at present in China. Cultural distribution is shifting from vertical, unidirectional hegemony to a horizontal, multi-directional exchange. This may eventually resolve into a new era of hegemony, but currently is in flux.

Richard Butsch is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, American Studies, and Film and Media Studies at Rider University. His new book Screen Culture: A Global History is now available from Polity.