Culture, Media and the Imaginary.
As humans, we live in a context of intelligibility where we become acquainted with our culture and manage the meanings of everything that surrounds us. This knowledge has some universalities, but is mainly specific in regard to the culture we grow up immersed in.
According to Gruning et al, the study of societal culture exists since the 17th century. They quote Hofstede (1980) by saying culture is a system of values and “the collective programming of the mind, which distinguishes the members of one human group from another”. (Sriramesh, Grunig and Dozier, 232). This approach to culture is very interesting because it introduces the idea of collective programming of the mind, implying that culture is shared and it needs the internalization of those rules and values we share with other like us.
The way our brain works is by making mind structures, framings, that guide the way in which we process information and how we face daily events. Culture agents engage with the current technologies, resulting in transformations in their experience. McLuhan’s aphorism, “the medium is the message”, suggests that “technologies depose the authority of consciousness over social order, particularly because they reshape consciousness” (Kenny, 208).
McLuhan saw how this could potentially inhibit us from any form of creative expression, contributing once more to conforming and accepting the patterns being imposed to us. He says: “A commercial society whose members are essentially ascetic and indifferent in social ritual has to be provided with blueprints and specifications for evoking the right tone for every occasion” (The Mechanical Bride, 52).
On a TED conference, Colin Stokes talks about the messages in movies, such as gender stereotypes. He insists in the importance of this topic because these audiovisual productions imprint messages in our heads; anything from role stereotypes, themes or archetypes. In this case he talks about children and whether or not they understand the information they are consuming; but do we? I can’t say even adults are exempt of this alienation.
The way the content is presented constitutes the most important part on how it is perceived. Eco’s conception of narrative illustrates this: “it has been said that narrative worlds are always “little worlds”, because they do not constitute a maximal and complete state of things… In this sense narrative works are parasitical, because, if the alternative properties are not specified, we take for granted the properties that hold good in the real world. In Moby Dick it is not expressly stated that all the sailors aboard the Pequod had two legs, but the reader ought to take it as implicit, given that the sailors are human beings. On the other hand the account takes care to inform us that Ahab had only one leg, but, as far as I remember, it does not say which, leaving us free to use our imagination, because such a specification has no bearing on the story” (Blackburn, 200).
Eco’s statement opens a very interesting point to consider: we, as the entities constructing (according to other already existing parameters: human beings ordinarily have two legs) take for granted the information which is not supplied to us by the stimuli so we can complete the mental picture need to be incorporated in our imaginary.
This happens constantly, if we stop to think about it, in literary resources like the ellipsis, when the narrative time lapses because there’s nothing in between that the reader needs to know for the purposes of the author. In this same way, when a love story ends we will fill out “…and they lived happily ever after” in our minds, therefore adding the newly acquired story to our mental category of “love stories with happy endings”. So in a way, the construction of the imaginary is linked to the cultivation of the imagination.
From the French existentialism of Sartre we recognize the mind as a container to represent the external world, on what he called “the illusion of immanence”. A constant interchange of imagination and perception takes place regarding how we interact with the objects that surround us. For him, the image is a function, a way of experiencing the object: the image is not a replica of the object; it’s the object apprehended in a certain way (Sartre, 2004). Choosing a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. What are we missing out from the way we currently see the world?
Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of single stories. In her brilliant TED Conference, she explains how she perceived the world when she was little, after reading exclusively American and British books, despite being in Nigeria. And not only her representation of the world became the images on those books, but also, as she read it she wanted to experience it.
Conceiving reality based on a single story, or different versions of a single story, blinds us from contemplating anything else. We develop default positions about subjects and people just from a single story from popular images, a lot of them from the media. She says: “You show people as only one thing over and over again and that is what they become… Power is the ability to not only to tell a story about a person, but to make it the only story”.
An interesting example can be found on an online article in The Atlantic, titled “Americans Have No Idea How Few Gay People There Are”. In this case, the salience of the Gay Movement clearly is reflected on the perception in the audience’s mind: “Surveys show a shockingly high fraction think a quarter of the country is gay or lesbian, when the reality is that it’s probably less than 2 percent.” This, of course, is not an isolated case. There’s been studies on population per race, or language spoken yielding similarly alarming results. And as Adichie says: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are wrong, but that they are incomplete” and consuming information this way has evident consequences regarding how we see the world.
Strokes advocates for movies aimed at children with better messages; messages that instil values like cooperation and respect. Stories like The Wizard of Oz, he says, as opposed to warlike heroes that break rules and go solo. I think this would definitely bring substantial changes in our society.
Note: Please do watch the TED talks, they are amazing! -Fab.
Adichie, C. (2009, October) The danger of a single story. Retrieved from
Blackburn, S. (2000). PROFESSOR WHATEVER – Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition by Umberto Eco, translated by Alastair McEwan.The New Republic, 34.
Garance Franke-Ruta. (2012, May 31). Americans Have No Idea How Few Gay People There Are. The atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/05/americans-have-no-idea-how-few-gay-people-there-are/257753/
Kenny, R. (2008) A language no one speaks. Marshall McLuhan in the digital age. Explorations in Media Ecology. 161-188.
Sartre, J.-P., Elkaïm-Sartre, A., & Webber, J. (2004). The imaginary: A phenomenological psychology of the imagination. London: Routledge.
SRIRAMESH, K., GRUNIG, J. & DOZIER, D. (1997) Observation and Measurement of Two Dimensions of Organizational Culture and Their Relationship to Public Relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 8 (4), 229-261. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.www.msvu.ca:2048/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=d019055f-4f76-4c30-af37-e70914f0b210%40sessionmgr104&vid=2&hid=122
Stokes, C. (2012, November) How movies teach manhood. Retrieved from