TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Culture Industry and Politics: Hollywood Stars and Palestinian Wedding Singers on Terrorism

Since Adorno and Horkheimer published their Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1944, the question of the “culture industry” has remained a key topic for Critical Theory. In its specific sense, the term refers to the production of art primarily for commercial purposes: books, movies, paintings produced above all with an eye to the market rather than to questions of artistic integrity. Artists always needed to find material support, but in the context of the culture industry, commercial considerations are understood to outweigh artistic independence. The focus for Horkheimer and Adorno was Hollywood film—they were living in Los Angeles and belonged to a German exile community that sometimes maintained a European “high cultural” distance to forms of American mass culture. On the one hand, they inherited an idealist expectation that works of art participate in a project of human emancipation; on the other, they faced the dream factories of the studio system—just before it plunged into crisis with the advent of television.

The interest in the culture industry makes questions of “culture and politics” absolutely germane. What’s at stake in the adoption of political positions by artists? How do politics pervade the works themselves or are the political contents separate from aesthetic value? Are the political postures of writers, actors, painters, etc. of any greater import than those of ordinary citizens? European publics tend to give more credence to the public pronouncements of artists than is the case in the United States, but there is also a long tradition of prominent Hollywood personalities defending political causes—a tradition that probably goes back to World War II and the support by the entertainment industry for U.S. forces fighting imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.

Two recent news items need to be considered in the context of the culture industry discussion but also in juxtaposition with each other. The first, from last week, reports on an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times and signed by some key figures in the entertainment industry, opposing terrorism and supporting democracy. It’s a brief but to-the-point statement:

“We the undersigned are pained and devastated by the civilian casualties in Israel and Lebanon caused by terrorist actions initiated by terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.”

“If we do not succeed in stopping terrorism around the world, chaos will rule and innocent people will continue to die. We need to support democratic societies and stop terrorism at all costs.”

Signators include Nicole Kidman, whose native Australia has played a stalwart role in the war on terror and which suffered many losses in the Bali bombing, as well as Bruce Willis, Dennis Hopper, Michael Douglas, Danny De Vito, Pat Sajak and others. While Hollywood in recent years has frequently had a left-liberal public image (recall Sean Penn’s high profile visit to Baghdad in 2002), this statement at least would seem to represent a centrist or center-right position—or not, since the right/left scale seems to be notably unreliable at this point. The center-right President is pursuing a war in the name of democratization—classic Wilsonianism, historically a progressive position—while the left-liberal Democratic Party is drifting toward an isolationist retreat from engagement. More on that complexity in future blogs.

Of interest here is the laconic statement. It expresses sympathy with civilian casualties on both sides: solidarity with human suffering should know no borders. But it places the blame squarely on the side of the terrorists. Moreover it sketches a stark opposition: terrorism, which will cause future civilian casualties, versus the only plausible alternative, democracy. While a statement like this might, weirdly, count as conservative in today’s political spectrum, it is a direct heir to the anti-fascism of Hollywood in the era of the Second World War. The brevity of the statement and its direct language, frankly, testify to a modesty at odds with the publicity stunts of other entertainers.

Contrast this with an AP report about a boyband on the West Bank. After struggling on the wedding circuit, the Northern Band has hit it big, using an old tune with new lyrics praising Hassan Nasrallah as “the Hawk of Lebanon.” It has become enormously popular: broadcast on Arab networks, downloaded as ring tones on cell phones, and distributed on CDs and tapes, both legal and pirated. This is not the first foray of the group into the world of culture and politics: they used the same tune (different lyrics) for the Hamas election song, but Hamas did better than the song. Now fortune smiles on the Northern Band. As AP writer Sarah el Deeb reports:

Basking in its newfound success, the band has doubled its fee per performance to $230. At a recent wedding in the town of Ramallah, the band was asked to play the Nasrallah song six times.

Lead singer and manager Alaa Abu al-Haija, 28, said he gives the audiences what they want to hear. “I see people turning toward Islam, so I have to sing to that,” said Alaa, sitting in the living room of his family’s two-story house in the northern West Bank village of Yamoun.

The lyrics consist of constant repetition of a few simple rhymes: “Hey, you, hawk of Lebanon. Hey, you, Nasrallah. Your men are from Hezbollah and victory is yours with God’s help.”

Several issues seem to intersect here. One is the overlap among art (music performance), entertainment, commercialization and politics. It appears that the band was casting around for success with an all-purpose tune, but it has finally hit a nerve on the market, by riding on the coattails of the Hezbollah popularity reported by el Deeb. Or rather, it pursues a policy of pursuing popular taste: if the people want Islam, they’ll give them Islam; if the people want Nasrallah, they’ll give them Nasrallah. What would they do, if the people wanted peace?

Another issue is precisely this alleged popularity of Nasrallah. In the wake of the Lebanon war, most western reporting insisted on an unqualified popularity enjoyed by Hezbollah among Lebanese—only recently has more nuanced reporting begun to appear: it turns out not everyone is happy with Nasrallah’s team. The issue here is different: the claim of pro-Hezbollah sympathy among the Palestinians (at least among music aficionados). Is this sentiment above all an anti-Israel sentiment? Or are the Sunni Palestinians sliding toward Hezbollah’s Shiism (in contrast to Lebanese Sunni who have articulated strong critiques of Hezbollah’s adventurism)? More likely, this is—assuming the report is accurate—a sign of another blunder in political judgment: the one nearly indisputable victim of the Hezbollah-initiated conflict was Olmert’s policy to continue the “land for peace” policy by withdrawing from the West Bank, the platform on which his Kadima Party was elected. The Katusha rockets from southern Lebanon, in other words, have postponed prospects for an independent Palestinian state that would include the West Bank for quite some time. But at least there’ll be ring tones.

Finally one has to pay attention to the lyrics: all we have are the verses cited in the AP count, which celebrate Nasrallah, anoint him the “Hawk of Lebanon,” praise his men and insist on a divine mandate for victory. In other words: cult of personality, heroic masculinity, and holy war. Musical experience is certainly capable of conveying reactionary contents. Recall Settembrini’s unforgettable judgment in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain: “music is politically suspect.” In this case, at least, a regressive cultural-political agenda is disseminated as a strategy for the Northern Band to make it to the top of the charts. I prefer Nicole Kidman.

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