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Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay OPEN ACCESS

Patrick Brantlinger
Copyright Date: 1983
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 312
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    Bread and Circuses
    Book Description:

    Lively and well written, Bread and Circuses analyzes theories that have treated mass culture as either a symptom or a cause of social decadence. Discussing many of the most influential and representative theories of mass culture, it ranges widely from Greek and Roman origins, through Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Ortega y Gasset, T. S. Eliot, and the theorists of the Frankfurt Institute, down to Marshall McLuhan and Daniel Bell. Brantlinger considers the many versions of negative classicism and shows how the belief in the historical inevitability of social decay-a belief today perpetuated by the mass media themselves-has become the dominant view of mass culture in our time. While not defending mass culture in its present form, Brantlinger argues that the view of culture implicit in negative classicism obscures the question of how the media can best be used to help achieve freedom and enlightenment on a truly democratic basis.

    eISBN: 978-1-5017-0764-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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  1. THIS is an examination of reactions to mass culture that interpret it as either a symptom or a cause of social decay. Television, for example, is sometimes treated as an instrument with great educational potential which ought to help—if it is not already helping—in the creation of a genuinely democratic and universal culture. But it just as often evokes dismay, as in Jerzy Kosinski’s novel and movieBeing There;its most severe critics treat it as an instrument of totalitarian manipulation and social disintegration. All critical theories of mass culture suggest that there is a superior type of...

  2. PATTERNS of both “high” and “mass” culture can be drawn from ancient history. The Athenians provide the core of what modern classicists wish to preserve: not just Greek literature and works of art, but above all the Greek example of intellectual transcendence and objectivity. The Romans of the Empire provide, along with much else, the pattern of negative classicism, bread and circuses, decadence and barbarism.

    Present in Greek and Roman political theories, moreover, are most of the elements in modern critiques of mass culture and mass society. Discussions of the types of government, as in Plato’sRepublic, foreshadow modern discussions...

  3. THEORIES of mass culture usually lead to the problem of religion. The social and industrial processes that have created the modern mass media seem intrinsically bound up with secularization. But mass culture also can be viewed as a substitute for mythology or even as an ersatz religion. Nineteenth and twentieth-century ideas about the relations between religion and culture range from the view that religion is the foundation of culture to the view that they are antithetical. An offshoot of the latter idea is the thesis that religion is essentially proletarian, of or for the masses; though for entirely opposite reasons,...

  4. NOT just Marxists and existentialists, secularists and theologians, but artists and writers of every persuasion have been profoundly affected by the development of industrialized mass culture. Over the last two centuries, painters, poets, sculptors, novelists, and playwrights have all been either the beneficiaries or the victims of the forces of massification: democratization, commercialization, the techniques of mass production. Nietzsche sums up one aspect of the complicated, often tortured relationship between the artist and modern society when he writes: “That is an artist as I love artists, modest in his needs; he really wants only two things, his bread and his...

  5. BECAUSE Nietzsche interprets history from the origins of Christianity down to the present in terms of decadence, he has frequently been seen in relation to the decadent movement in literature and the arts. The other existentialists from Kierkegaard down to Jean-Paul Sartre have sometimes also been treated as theorists of decline and fall, while existentialism as a whole has been viewed, particularly by Marxists, as symptomatic of decay. Thus, Norberto Bobbio’s term for existentialism in all its varieties is “decadentism,” defined as “the philosophy of a worn-out generation,” trapped in an age “of great and ill-comprehended upheavals.” He proceeds to...

  6. INSOFAR as analyses of mass culture have gone beyond mere repetitions of the neoclassical contest between the ancients and the moderns, they have usually involved questions about the impact of egalitarian leveling on the creative elites or minorities thought to be necessary to the development of art and ideas. Many of the optimistic analyses have come from American liberals such as John Dewey, who believe that genuine culture can and does flourish in democratic conditions.¹ The pessimistic analyses have come from both the right and the left, and frequently also from liberals who might be characterized as cautious or disillusioned....

  7. “IF the fall of antiquity were dictated by the autonomous necessity of life and by the expression of its ‘soul,’” writes Theodor Adorno in a 1941 essay on Spengler’sThe Decline of the West, “then indeed it takes on the aspect of fatality and by … analogy … carries over to the present situation.”¹ As a Marxist, Adorno rejects Spengler’s historical fatalism and the Roman analogizing on which it is largely based. He does so, however, not because he believes that the dialectical processes of history are progressive, leading ultimately and inevitably to liberation. If Adorno cannot subscribe to the...

  8. THE Frankfurt Institute’s; analysis of the totalitarian tendencies of the “culture industry” seems especially relevant to television, partly because it is the mass medium that takes the abolition of the “aura” of older cultural forms to its farthest limits. Television like radio has also invaded that sanctuary of the potentially free individual, the home, monopolizing the communication channels even of privacy. And television has flooded its own channels with propaganda for consumerism, imperializing new psychic markets for the products of “late capitalism.” Summarizing these concerns, Oskar Negt writes that the “bourgeois public sphere,” which is “in an irretrievable process of...

  9. TOO often responses to cultural innovations are similar to William Wordsworth’s reaction toThe Illustrated London News. Upon seeing one of the first issues of the new journal in 1846, Wordsworth was appalled by what he took to be its wholesale substitution of pictures for words. On the verge of the age of mass literacy, he re seemed to be an obvious symptom of cultural decline. He saw in its pages not just a barbarization of culture but a return to caveman days, at least if we are to take literally his sonnet “Illustrated Books and Newspapers,” which is a...

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This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.
Funding is provided by National Endowment for the Humanities