The new Avengers’ movie just hit the big screens. It didn’t take time for my news feed to be full of people take selfies and pictures in the cinema bragging and letting others know that they are about to watch it. It was the same with the new Star Wars movie. Why people bother to share those two movies, but not sharing any other? Well simply put it, because it might get them points.
Points? Yes, in the form of “social capital.” To look cool might make you “earn points” in society. How come this movie became such a cultural phenomenon, that it actually can be considered to be social capital? Well, I guess one explanation might be that the hype feeds itself. If people think that “everybody” is hyped about it, they might get hyped about it, or at least show that they are, as everyone does. So, it might lead to certain hypocrisy, meaning they are not as excited as they show.
When I was little, I used to watch a lot of cartoons, even in the age that it was considered not cool anymore. I just liked it. At least I watched those who were broadcasted in Israel. I watched Superman, Spiderman, and many more Heroes cartoons. I knew those characters well (as much as you could from those series). When these movies began, I know that most of my friends, that didn’t watch those cartoons, nor read the comics (which I didn’t also). But somewhat, they are now going and sharing “I watch the Avengers.” When I was a kid, from a certain age, this wasn’t considered to be cool at all. So, I get the feeling that just needed the idea that “if most people like it, I guess it’s cool.”
Well, I guess one way to look at this phenomenon is through memes. I’m not talking about cats in a piece of bread or something like that; I talk about the scientific term of Memes. The term Meme was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his book “the selfish gene.” He said that as genes are passed down through heredity, Ideas and cultural customs pass through imitation. He claimed that cultural habits, have sort of life on their own, and are passed through us, as we are the tool for spreading them. So, the most
“viral” ideas, and maybe only a tiny fracture of them, get to the point that they are established within our civilization, like let say, hand shake. Like genes, Memes are exactly like Genes, they are being replicated, they compete and some of them, survive. Memes are competing over the attention of the host (us), but only memes suited to their sociocultural environment spread successfully. Other become extinct. It is interesting to think about those things as “memes”.
So if every cultural habit, can be understood as a meme that we learn by copying. People copy the idea that the “masked heroes” movies are cool and a cultural “treasure”, thus it will be better for them also to go and see it. Some people might argue that they like it, and it is an action movie that is a “no-brainer”, you don’t have to think while watching it, and it is entertaining. Well, I understand that claim, but I still think that the idea that these kinds of movies are good for us, is a meme.
Why I won’t bother to see that? Because it is precisely this, a “no-brainer.” Adorno and Horkheimer in their work “Dialectic of Enlightenment” talk about the role of mass media in our social world. They said that the belief was that everything that was out of the reach of science was the realm of art. Science doesn’t claim if something is better or worse if extinction of animals is good or bad, they just claim that this is how things are. In economy, economist won’t tell you what a good or bad decision is, they usually refrain from deciding. They only show the options, because the science of economy doesn’t take the role of claiming morals, like science, it should be unbiased and distanced.
But some people argue that science should follow art, and penetrate its realm. By using big data and mathematics, people can understand what the masses like, how they react and what should be expected. So, art, as Adorno and Horkheimer claim, has become (or becoming) a commodity just like shoes. It is designed to be consumed, and produce merchandise. Adorno and Horkheimer will say that art, has a critical role in society. Art is the only place we can play with moral ideas, think about what is right and wrong, and challenge the system we live in. By taking the path of becoming a commodity, Adorno and Horkheimer claim that art had become just a tool, like opium, to make us go on a “trip” to escape our reality, which mostly revolves around work. After people work for hours, when they finally come home, they don’t have the capabilities to deal with heavy, complex ideas. Art is just a tool, a commodity, to ease the “free time” of people, to be able to rest just enough, to continue working hard. If this system of “working hard” is good or not? It depends on the goals of it. Adorno, Horkheimer Marcuse and the rest of the “Frankfurt School” will say that the goals became irrational, but that is for another post.
The main argument is that art had lost its edge and ability to criticize our most hegemonic ideas. After watching the Avengers, did you change as a person? Did you start to see the world in a different light? What did you learn from it? What did “thoughts” it evoked in you? My guess is nothing. Just a never-ending story, about the struggle between good and evil in the most superficial way, which will never see any conclusion, will never have any “say” about anything in particular. The problem is, that deep art, which forces people to think fails. From the simple reason, because “hi, it’s my leisure time, don’t let me think about heavy stuff now.” I guess this is part of the reason that the “DC” movies are failing, they try to say something more complex.