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Role of commodities in contemporary culture

| March 24, 2015

The word culture is commonly held to concern questions of shared social meaning, that is, the various ways in which we tend to perceive or make sense of the world (Arnold, 2005). In the past decade, commodity has become the main historical subject in contemporary culture (Arnold, 2005). The wealth of societies with a capitalist mode of production, present themselves with immense accumulation of commodities. A commodity refers to something that satisfies human wants by its properties. According to Karl Marx, it appears first a very trivial thing, but its analysis show that is a very queer thing, abounding in theological niceties and metaphysical subtleties (Arnold, 2005).
The development of cultural studies has long been intertwined with that of media studies (Barker, 2008). Since its inception, cultural studies have been primarily concerned with mass media and their position at the Centre of public sphere and culture. The television, especially, has been of primary concern in cultural studies because of its proliferation across the globe and its central place in the communicative practices of the contemporary society (Barker, 2008). This essay therefore explores on the role those commodities such as television play in the contemporary society

The study of culture has long involved a strand of critical thinking on commodification of culture (Barker, 2008). A process associated with capitalism by which people and meanings are turned into commodities. Thus, in a process called commodity fetishism developed by Karl Marx, a well renowned theorist, the surface appearance of goods sold is said to obscure the origins of these commodities in an exploitative relationship (Morley and Chen, 1996). According to Marxist theory, commodities have both the use and exchange value (Morley and Chen, 1996). While an axe may be exchanged for money, it can be used for splitting wood

In a critique of the commodification theory, Habermas argues that the increased commodification of life by multinationals and giant corporations transforms people from rational beings to non-rational consumers (Barker, 2008). For instance, the promotion of the ‘slender body’ as a disciplinary cultural norm particularly in women centers on diet as a commodity as well as self-monitoring
Baudrillard, a postmodern theorist, distinguished himself from Marx’s theory of value by arguing further that both the use value and exchange value of commodities in contemporary culture had been replaced by the sign value (Gilbert, 2008). Baudrillard argues that commodities are bought as much for their sign value as their use value, and that the sign value phenomenon has become an essential constituent of consumption in the consumer society (Gilbert, 2008).
Baudrillard who analyzes the commodity from a radical perspective considers commodity not merely as a material object but also as a sign or vehicle of communication. He posits that value is determined through the exchange of symbolic meanings rather than through usefulness. Situating his analysis on signs, Baudrillard concludes that commodities are not merely to be characterized by the exchange and use value but by sign value. The expression and mark of style, luxury, prestige and power has thus become of significance to commodity and consumption (Gilbert, 2008).

Commodity plays a critical role in contemporary culture. For example, watching TV screens is constitutive of cultural identity (Barker, 2008). Television has taken on a particular significance in the constitution of ethnic and national identities as a result of globalization (Barker, 2008). This is evident in a large scale study by Katz and Liebes (1991) on how individuals from a range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds generate meaning from what they view on television. The study involving 65 focus groups from diverse backgrounds explored on the cross cultural dimensions of viewing US soap opera Dallas. The study found evidence of divergent readings of television narratives from the various ethnic groups.
According to the active audience paradigm, the construction of meaning is in the actual usage rather than the meaning being inherent in the commodity (Barker, 2008). That is, viewers are actively involved in the interpretation of meaning that they generate from the television. In a study of Dallas and its audience, carried out by Ang (1985), the Dallas viewers were found to be actively engaged in the production of meaning and pleasure. Ang argues that by actively engaging, the audience generates a range of responses not reducible to the structure of the text. This perhaps explains the divergent readings of television narratives from the diverse ethnic groups.
Secondly, commodity plays a major role as form of communication in the contemporary society. In particular, television – a resource open to virtually everybody – has become a communication medium in the contemporary society. No other commodity can match television for its sheer size of audience and volume of popular cultural texts that it produces (Storey, 1994). It has become a popular source of knowledge about the global world and is increasingly bringing us into contact. It has however been implicated for selective construction of social knowledge and social imagery (Hall, 1980). Despite the increasing growth of digital media, it remains the most widely accessible mass media (Storey, 1994).

One of the principal texts of televisions is news. It is the subject of globally distributed networks such as the CNN (Cable News Network). The media has often been criticized for their selectivity of items included as news and the manner in which the story is constructed, which is never neutral or objective (Gray and McGuigan, 2002). That is, news is always constructed as a particular version of events. For example, in Anglo American news, Hartley (1982) identifies politics, foreign affairs, sports, domestic affairs, and the economy as the main topics that define the news paradigm. From this, we can note a significant omission, the personal/sexual domain. Hence, news defines itself as primarily concerned with public events.
According to Galtung and Ruge’s (1965) pioneering work on the values that guide news selection criteria, four prime news values were identified in the western world. These are: reference to elite nations, elite persons, negativity and personalization. The unexpected is a significant news value (During, 1999). More so, it is more significant if it has negative consequences on elite nations or elite persons. For instance, a scandal on British prime minister’s private life is more newsworthy than successful crop figures in Malawi.
An explanation as to why the media coverage is always inclined to some world views and not others is covered in the manipulative model. According to this model, the media is seen as a reflection of a class dominated society (Barker, 2008). This is as a result of direct government manipulation or concentration of ownership in the hands of those with hidden interest.
Commodity also plays a major role of combating alienation in the contemporary society. In their discussion of the culture industry, Adorno and Horkheimer (1972) point out to the late modern and postmodern life as characterized by a distinct mode of production. In this regard, commodities are referred to as strangely the materials that the contemporary society produces to combat alienation. Adorno and Horkheimer (1972) rescue the consumers from the unsophisticated charge that they are merely passive pawns in a capitalist conspiracy. Rather, consumers are viewed as colluding with the forces of material and social production by purchasing pleasure and fulfillment in an alienating and highly constrained mode of social existence. In other words, commodities play a vital role of combating alienation in the society.
Lastly, the commodity serves as the basis of analyzing the political economy. The very concept of sign proposed by Baudrillard initiates a semiotic process that affects the whole structure of the society (Bennett, 2005). Given the proliferation of sign in the society, the political economy now revolves around signs and images. The political economy therefore stands at a point where the commodity’s sign value serves as the basis for analyzing it. The consumer commodity relationship is now mediated with the image or spectacle (Bennett, 2005).

Clearly, we have identified that commodities play a vital role in contemporary culture. That is, it forms a basis of multiple identity construction, plays a major role as a form of communication, serves as a basis for analyzing the political economy and finally plays a major role of combating alienation in contemporary culture.
With reference to the media, Contemporary culture involves the active creation of meaning by all individuals as cultural producers. In this regard, contemporary television world is viewed as a democratic and creative culture. That is, the production of films, popular music, fashion and television may be in the hands of capitalist media corporations, but texts are managed and altered at the consumption level.

Adorno and Horkheimer (1972), the dialectic of the enlightment. New York.
Ang, Ien (1985) Watching Dallas. New York: Metheun.
Arnold. McRobbie, A., 2005, The Uses of Cultural Studies, Sage publications
Barker, C., 2008, Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice, 3rd edition, Sage.
Bennett, T., et al. eds., 2005, New Keywords, Blackwell.
During, S., ed., 1999, The Cultural Studies Reader, 2nd edition, Routledge. ,
Galtung, Johan and Ruge, Mari (1965) “The structure of foreign news: the presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus crises in four Norwegian newspapers”, Journal of International Peace Research 1, pp. 64–91.
Gilbert, J., 2008, Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics, Berg.
Gray, A. and J., McGuigan, eds., 2002, Studying Culture: An Introductory Reader, 2nd edition,
Hall, (1980). “Encoding/Decoding” culture, media, language. Ed. Stuart Hall.
Hartley (1982) Understanding News. New York, Methuen
Katz and Liebes (1990), The export of meaning: cross-cultural readings of Dallas. New York. Oxford university press.
Morley, D. and K-H Chen, eds., 1996, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, Routledge.
Storey, J., 1994, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, Harvester Wheatsheaf.

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