Mar 26, 2010

The interactions between mass media, culture and politics in the postmodern circumstance - With the example of U.S. TV series 24

Jing Ke
Nov, 2007
Course Title: Media and Culture Analysis

The interactions between mass media, culture and politics in the postmodern circumstance
- Take U.S. TV series 24 as a case

In contemporary society, mass media, culture and politics are always integrated and interacted with one another, the mass media is a reflection of the culture and politics to which it belongs and it has the reaction to both of the two domains. In this paper, I’ll analyze the process of interactions between mass media, culture and politics with a case study of the TV series 24.

First of all I’d like to analyze what 24 is as a mass media product. According to Roland Barthes, the entire signification of a culture product can be scaled into three levels: The denotative level, the connotative level and the ideological level.
[i] Connected with 24, the denotative level of it is a story about a competent agent Jack Bauer working for a fictional U.S. government Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) and fights against terrorism threat to save the nation, it is an American TV series wins many awards and is full of suspense. The connotative level is about a super-hero fight against evil and protects the country, making choices and also suffering from the conflicts between family and country, life and death, trust and betrayal, humanity and bloodiness, ration and emotion. And on the ideological level, 24 questions some major subjects in the field of culture, sociology and politics, e.g. the relationship between human power and technology, the roles of male and female plays in contemporary society, the individualism and worship of hero in the American culture, together with the ideological icon this TV series implies after the 9/11 terrorism attacks.

24 and ideology: The mass media’s function in building up an ideology

Postmodernism holds a trenchant point of view on mass media and its function in solidify a system of ideology. According to Fiske and Hartley
[ii] and other theorists, people understand the world through their own ideologies, which infiltrate into the culture via language, narrative, symbol, and mass media, etc. Since the ideologies are repeated ceaselessly in a certain culture context by the media, people (the receivers of such repetition), form a natural response and begin to certificate and accept those ideologies without any question or doubt. This process has established the “power” or “violence” of mass media, they have the power to define, to judge and to dominate everything in public life: for instance, they keep on telling people stories about crimes and immorality as well as the threats caused by them, as a result the person who receives such information will spontaneously distinguish “him/herself” from “them” in this context and thus behave him/herself as a law-abiding, cautious and conscientious citizen. Anything excluded by such narrative created by mass media is regarded as deviation and is being marginalized in society. In one word, postmodernism asserts that it is mass media create the legitimacy of ideology.

In this perspective, 24 is successfully using the power of mass media to conform the U.S. ideology and rebuild people’s confidence after 9/11. The first episode of the TV series is shown nearly two months after the 9/11 attacks, this terrorism attacks had arouse profound transformation in the U.S. politics, economics, diplomacy and social life, also, the country’s confidence of being a superpower is collapsed attended with the Twin Towers; the sense of panic, insecurity and wrath caused by the attacks flourished the country and anti-terrorism became an international subject overnight.

In such condition, 24 rigidly touches the sensitive subject of anti-terrorism and sets the whole story in a tragic and anxious atmosphere, directly facing the panic consist in American citizens and insinuates the 9/11 and Iraq War throughout its narratives. In my perspective, Jack Bauer, the leading character, is an extension of American former screen superheroes like the Superman, Batman and Terminator etc. that all cater to the country’s worship of individualistic heroism. And for Jack Bauer, his almighty competence and bravery in fight against terrorism give the audience an image of a hero who can conquer any difficulty in any condition and roughly but successfully save the country, save people’s lives, a hero like him is exactly needed for American citizens to construct a sense of security after 9/11.

Then 24, as a TV series and a form of American mass media, tries to build up the nation’s confidence by advocating heroism and creating a virtually secure environment which is similar to the realities but not at all realities. We have to admit that what we called “reality” is “an agreement we make with ourselves and between ourselves and the rest of the culture about what we will call real”
[iii]. Postmodernism develop this point of view to a higher level by pointing out the delusive aspect of the reality such as “representation” and “simulacra”. To same extent, 24 matches what Jameson called a “pastiche” in the contemporary vision-dominated postmodern world and we can define 24 as a pastiche which represents the image of U.S. according to the traditional and ideal views to comfort and lull people. It gives an image that “Even if the same thing happens in reality, some superhero like Jack Bauer will come forth and defuse the crisis.”

Another influence created by the “hegemony” of mass media is that, different ideologies will “compete” with each other and show their validity in the space exploited by their own mass media. (Like the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic, the ideological information it bears is obvious: the success of the American New World, which is portrayed as youthful, energetic, full of democracy and freedom, while oppositely the European Old World is senile and autarchic. With the film sweeping the world, the glamorous, perfect image of America spread.)

Things are similar in 24, the ideological conflict between the east and the west is reflected in the TV series. For instance, in 24, the source of terrorism attacks is directly alluding some Mid-East and Asian countries and the images of the nation’s hostile countries including China are aggrandized again on screen. The ideological and political inclinations, similar to many other American mass media and popular culture products did, cultivate the validity and superiority of American Ideology in order to consolidate its meta-narratives.

I’d like to discuss more on that, in fact, ideology, culture, politics, and civilization are all intertwined, and mass media plays a dedicate role in this net. For instance, 24 is about anti-terrorism, and the origin of terrorism is actually rooted in the conflict between the East and West Civilizations, between Christianity and Islam (the religion is a representation of civilization). However, without a thorough analysis and objective understanding of the origin for which the West World should take much of the responsibility, anti-terrorism won’t be effective, at least, the way like expressing ideological opposition in 24 won’t be effective.

To sum up, from the TV series 24 we can educe that the ideological function of mass media is never out of date, the news, the films or other forms of mass media all have a huge influence on building up an ideology and meta-narrative, on propagandize political and cultural inclination, from this perspective, 24 has more meaning on ideological function besides entertainment.

24 and gender: The transformations in the gender role in postmodern time

Postmodernism emphasize the change in the power relationship between male and female in contemporary society. According to Richard Dyer
[iv] and Foucault[v], the stereotypes of masculinity are shifting all the time in different situation, which indicate a change in the social status played by male and female roles. Power is dynamic; the nature of power relationship may shift all the time.

Although I mentioned in my previous discourse that Jack Bauer, the leading character, is an extension of American former screen superheroes like the Superman, Batman and Terminator etc. The differences between those heroes are also obvious: Firstly, unlike the 1970s muscle stars such as Schwarzeneger and Stallone, the actor, Kiefer Sutherland, who enacts the hero Jack Bauer, is a haggard-looking man with wrinkles and tiredness on his face. Besides his bravery, wisdom and almighty competence, 24 also shows the audience other aspects in his personality, something more like a human, a father, a husband, and a friend, rather than simply a hero. Like many other contemporary TV series and films (e.g. the Spider-Man), 24 breaks the traditional image, or stereotype, of a strong, callous white male and conveys the idea that a hero has his own emotions and sensibilities, happiness and sufferings, just like any man on the street. The ideal image of a hero has changed.

Secondly, the individualistic heroism in 24 is no longer real “individual” - Superman can save the world all by himself but Jack Bauer cannot, he has to depend on his supporting team including his fellows (many of them are females), the whole CTU and other government agencies, his leaders and, most importantly, machinery and technology (which will be discussed later). Here I’d like to concentrate on the roles male and female each played in 24, which can be a reflection of the gender issues in postmodern society.

In postmodern context, the traditional domination of patriarchy in the family or society is weakening and the male-centered meta-narrative is collapsed. Such is also happened on Jack, his family is broken, his daughter is rebellious, and his venture life is totally a mess. Although he is a superhero who can invincibly save the nation, he also, to some extent, reflects the living status of contemporary urban male citizens: living under huge pressure, being both physically and mentally debilitated, enmeshed in family and working crisis, lacking a real trustworthy friend in his life, etc. (And in 24, Jack cried many times when he faces the death of his wife and workmates or confront some rather difficult choices.) His loneliness and helplessness correspond to the declination of masculinity in postmodern society as man are no longer the center or most powerful group in society since knowledge have been greatly transferred to females. On the other hand, the imperfections of Jack Bauer as a superhero make the image of him “perfect” on the contrary, which is more real and amiable than the earlier screen heroes.

If we see Jack Bauer as a representative of contemporary masculinity, the female characters in 24 can then be figured as a representative of contemporary feminism. Around four hundred years ago Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet “Fragility, thy name is woman!” However, things have changed today, women are no longer, at least not only, an existence of fragility; the female characters in 24 have comprised almost every typical stereotype of contemporary women, which indicate the sense of independency of women in postmodern society.

Jack’s daughter, Kim, a typical contemporary American teenager, also a young woman, rebellious and capricious, she tends to see her family problem in her own point of view and stands for self-directed ideas in her life. She is a trouble-maker and is not a liked character in 24; this is probably because she reflects some of the eccentricity of teenagers in today’s society. However, when she tells her mom “I love you” for the first time as she is in real danger and struggles to escape with her friend after being hijacked, we can feel that under her rebellious fa├žade, her inner world is rather frail and eager for love. Kim is the representative of contemporary young woman seeking for independence and love in their lives but always have no ideas when they are in real crisis situation. (And Jack’s wife, Teri, a mid-aged woman who worries about her family problem and relies on her husband when accident happens – by calling him ceaselessly, is more traditional and domestic. She represent the ideal image of women in patriarchy families.)

There are some stronger female characters in 24, like the dirty agent Nina Myers, one of Jack's closest and most trusted allies in CTU - Michelle, and the wife of the President, Sherry Palmer, etc. They have some common features: well-educated, very competent in the field they engaged in, sedate and intelligent – in one word, they play the roles that are supposed to be acted by men before. In contemporary society, the group of such “forceful women” in the field of politics, business, high-tech, academe etc. is increasing rapidly, the power has been largely transferred from man to women. This corresponds to Foucault’s discourse on power-knowledge relation, which asserts that knowledge is the determinant of power rather than gender in postmodern time and the one who owns knowledge owns power.

Here is another question on the postmodern gender issues: with the fluid of power between genders in today’s society, the boundaries of different social roles male and female played are blurred, this has caused the traditional gender characteristics disappearing. For instance we can see that neutralized dress and style has become a fashion internationally and many people are tending to be transgender. Is it a natural step in the development of human beings or a kind of alienation of human society? Personally I cannot prefigure the future of this power transference between men and women and curious about what men and women will be like decades later.

24 and technology: cyborg citizens and biopower in postmodern city

One research subject of post-humanism is how to face the influence of technology on human beings and how to use technology properly in postmodern time. We cannot deny that human beings have already been alienated by technology – non-personalized, abstracted, symbolic and becoming instrument. According to Chris Gray
[vi], advances in technology have changed our definitions of what it is to be a human and what it is to be a citizen, we can move beyond the fixed states of the human body and nation, we can communicate beyond the limit of geographical position, by cyber-modification and cybernetic systems such as the Internet.

Further, Gray argues that since technology enables human to get beyond the natural bounds of the body and promote the artificial intelligence, the distinction between human and machine are fading away, the human brain can be biologically altered or technologically enhanced to its perceived potential. Thus, Gray proposes to rethink the definition of citizenship since citizens have largely become cyborgs and the influences of cyborgs on ethics and politics in today’s society.

Take 24 as an example, it is obvious that Jack Bauer is a cyborg citizen living in the 21st century and utilizing every latest achievement of technology. More accurately, his power is largely relying on technology and we can say without technology Jack Bauer can do nothing but sitting in his office or staying at home. Technology and his body have been merged into a unity which is defined as a “cyborg”. McLuhan said media is the extension of man, for Jack Bauer, technology (to which media belongs) is the extension of himself. Gray advocates the political equality and the right to express opinions democratically for cyborg citizens which is rather hard to achieve in real life. For Jack, since his power and knowledge are granted by the country government, he has to act accord with his social status rather than act as he really wants to. In 24, we can see that Jack lost his wife and workmates in order to fulfill his responsibility to the nation and for many times he wants to quit but he couldn’t. The rights for cyborg citizens are restricted.

On the other hand, due to the infiltration of technology into every aspect of social life, the status of women has been greatly improved and a new social relation between man and woman is building up. This is what Haraway called “a boundary-less form”, which is a new phase in the development of feminism.

I’d like to analyze more on the restricted rights of today’s cyborg citizens. It is not only a deprivation of utterance but also an outcome of the mechanism of surveillance in postmodern society. According to Foucault
[vii], surveillance (the act of keeping watch over a person or place) is one of the primary means through which a society enacts control over its subjects. Modern social subjects regulate their own behavior in a panopticon way: presume they are being watched by the power system (e.g. social institutions) and then they control and regulate their behavior to fulfill the system. As a result, a certain type of citizen is “produced” by the mechanism of surveillance and the relations of dominance and subordination are maintained in the process. The combination of modern power and human body generates the “biopower”, which refers to the power exercised over human body in order to train or force individual to act by the dominance’s intention: willing to work, fight wars, produce babies, etc. It is like creating a meta-narrative and only when the individuals obey such orders can they obtain their own power.

Let’s go back to 24, Jack Bauer is a typical existence under this biopower, his identities regulate his behaviors. He is an agent of CTU, so he has to bet his life to fight against terrorism; he is a father as well as a husband, so he is responsible to protect and rescue his family; he is a superhero in others’ eyes so he is deemed to perform missions that are impossible to achieve. All of these identities are conveying surveillance from the “gaze” of the social institutions as well as from the whole community, once Jack Bauer trespass against such regulations, he will be marginalized and lose his power – he is no longer “Jack Bauer” and become nobody in his society. On the other hand, the terrorists in this TV series are also operated by the biopower of their society and politics; they behave like “jihad” in order to match their system of surveillance and ideology. In one word, biopower produces a certain kind of citizen that serves to the establishment of an ideology.

Conclusion: 24 and the eternal pursuit of human nature

What strikes me most in 24 is the discussion and investigation of human nature. From my perspective the pursuit of human nature and humanity is the only eternal subject glowing throughout the history and development of human society. It surpasses the struggles on politics or conflicts between different countries and different interest groups; it characterized the universal strengths, weaknesses, anguish, happiness and needs, etc. of human beings exceeding the boundaries of races and ideologies. In postmodern circumstance, the investigation of human nature and the returning of humanism are rather important for people since human and human societies are being enormously alienated by technology.

From my perspective, the theme of 24 is not only about political struggles, diplomatic mediations and anti-terrorism - it also represents the test and challenge on human nature. The first thing I want to mention is conflicts. The whole TV series is abounding with conflicts: the conflicts between countries, values, religions, ideologies and political interests in the exterior and the conflicts in families, friends, personal mentality and beliefs in the interior. These conflicts and struggles exist in our everyday life and 24 represent the complexity of such conflicts to incite the audience (at least I have) ponder on some rather serious questions: Why there are so many struggles in the world? Are political interests really more important than human’s life? Why people living in the 21st century have to be cyborgs and dominated by biopower? How can we make ourselves live in a safer and more peaceful environment? More importantly, is the alienation (such as the religions which were created to comfort human beings but now brings in more suffering to some extent is a typical sort of alienation) a degeneracy of human society or a natural stage? And are the criteria of “justice” and “evil” we believe in trustworthy? Since the conflicts and struggles are becoming the themes of human life, the real human nature and humanism are dying away - it may be too pessimistic to say so but we cannot deny that human beings are becoming more pugnacious, brutal, callous and selfish. (I remember that it is written in Holy Bible, “We are all sons of God”, and after watching 24 I have a better understanding on why Nietzsche said “God is dead”!)

Another essence in 24 is choices. The characters in 24 are facing choices related with life and death almost every minute, and every choice brings in sufferings. Take Jack Bauer for instance, as I have mentioned ahead, he is a cyborg citizen with many different identities he has to fulfill. It is this diversity of identity that brings him conflicts and choices: choices between individual and country, career and family, life and death, trust and distrust, etc. All these choices make Jack a superhero but ruined his life and smashed his spirit at the same time; he lost almost everything in his life including his wife and friends, becoming lonely and unhappy. Although there is not a real Jack Bauer in the reality, there are many modern citizens like him and we can find some similarities between Jack and ourselves: for instance, we both live with multi-identities, under pressures from different sources and are weighed down with playing our roles. However, it is simply a truth that no one can have an eye on everything simultaneously and as a result, although modern citizens are playing many roles, they do not play any of them well. As a matter of fact, after seeing the whole TV series, we can go to the conclusion that what is presented in 24 is exactly what we are doing all the time: making stiff choices between different interests and striving to play our roles well.

What’s more, in the process of facing conflicts and making choices, and the sacrifice of families, affections and workmates, the characters in 24 are all struggling with their own destiny and fighting against their inner weaknesses. Accordingly another message 24 conveys is the toughness of human beings and tells people the real enemy you confront is yourself.

In conclusion, as a media product made in the U.S. after 9/11 attacks, 24 reflect the complicated relationship between mass media, politics and cultural background of human society. It suggests the tendentiousness on U.S. ideology and diplomacy and can be viewed as a product of the traditional adoration of heroism. Also, the story told in 24 is a representation of the new model of relationship between genders and human – technology in postmodern society. Besides discussing the alienation of human in modern time, 24 puts up a paradigm of goodness, faithfulness and mutual-affections, it calls for the return of human nature. - This is my personal interpretation of 24 in the cultural-analysis context.

[i] Roland Barthes. Rhetoric of the Image. Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 32-51.
[ii] Fiske, J. and J. Hartley (1988). The Signs of Television; The Codes of Television. In Reading Television. (pp.37-67). London, Routledge.
[iii] Kolker, R. (2002). Preface. Film, Form and Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill
[iv] Dyer, R. (1997). The white man’s muscles. White (pp.145-183). London: Routledge.
[v] Foucault, M. (1979). Excerpts from The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An introduction. In Natoli, J. & Hutcheon, L. (EDs). 1993. A Postmodern Reader (pp.333-341). NY: State U of NY
[vi] Gray, C. H. (2002). Citizenship in the age of electronic reproduction. Cyborg citizen (pp.21-54). New York: Routledge.
[vii] Foucault, M. (1984). Panopticism. In P. Rainbow, (Ed.), The Foucault reader: an introduction to Foucault’s thought (pp.206-213).

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