Conservative German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer wrote nearly 50 years ago that “When we hear modern lovers talking to each other, we often wonder if they are communicating with words or with advertising labels and technical terms of the sign language of the industrial world.”
I remember first reading Gadamer’s comment in the late 1980s, at about the same time I had started dating my (now) wife. The quote is from a book of essays titled Philosophical Hermenuetics, which my own modern lover took to calling “the pants book,” because I sometimes carried it around tucked behind my belt for a number of weeks early in our relationship. (In my defense, it was a thin volume, and carrying philosophy around in your pants didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows back in the 20th century.)
Gadamer’s musings were unsettling to me, a reader romantically engaged. I imagined young lovers caressing one another’s egos not with their own poetry, however maudlin, but with references to commercial goods – “Your skin is as if touched by a fabric softener. Do you use an exfoliant of some kind? And your eyes, they are as blue as a freezy pop.”
The philosopher wanted to distinguish genuine dialogue, a quest for mutual understanding, from speech hampered by a reduction of language to the mechanics of production and consumption, which is to say, communication as a mere means to some material end. He speculated that lovers’ dialogue, a kind of conversation where one should hear most loudly the music of reciprocal comprehension, was succumbing to market sloganeering. The communication of the “industrial world,” Gadamer wrote, results in a poverty of meaning that was “expanding within the life of the individual.”
In the middle of the 20th century interpersonal meaning making was being remade. How could it not be? Industry leads to the instruction manual, not the poem. Even the most imaginative advertising campaign is, in essence, a series of commands. And the advertising and sign language of what Gadamer called “the industrial world” is marked by deliberate confusion of the boundaries between the internal and external experience of the individual, between product and consumer.
Witness the celebration of commodities as sensual experience, the enchantment of product lines with emotional qualities, and the bestowal upon merchandise of the magical power to enhance the personalities and even the life prospects of their owners. Interpersonal meaning in the 20th century began to be dissolved in a tall glass of “the Coke side of life®.”
Gadamer’s jaundiced view of modern lovers’ talk offers a bank-shot insight into our present day cultural environment.
He was writing after decades of radio and television broadcasting had solidified a shared commercial culture, had suffused day-to-day communication with advertising jingles. “Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven,” was a corporate slogan of the period, delivered by a spiritually-possessed mass of flour, water, and yeast known as the Pillsbury Dough Boy, whose shamanic function was to bake the aura of a loving social relationship into the act of commodity acquisition.
We might think about it in this way: By the mid-1960s, a conservative philosopher was finding meaningful work arguing that mutual understanding is fundamental to communication. Evidence, let’s just say, that mutual understanding was no longer the mainstream standard.
The Death of Conservatism and the Birth of the Donald
Gadamer’s critical glance at commercialization aimed to draw distinctions, to mark off boundaries, between a for-profit communication culture and the dialogical possibilities he sought to promote and conserve. Importantly, he did not write in despair, but with the bemusement of an observer of a difference. “An odd cultural reality, that” he seemed to be saying.
Today, Gadamer’s interpersonal ideal (i.e., the desire for mutual understanding) has been effectively banished from our mainstream public culture, his philosophical principles completely abandoned by American conservatism.
Nearly half a century after he expressed doubts about modern romance, our cultural environment is even more defined by speech serving power and profit, the sign languages of the culture industries. So much so, in fact, that Gadamer’s traditionalist concerns about the impoverishment of communication make him unrecognizable as a conservative in the 21st century U.S. He just doesn’t embrace power and profit as the basis for all human conduct the way, for example, Donald Trump does in his multiple televised roles as super wealthy capitalist, conservative ideological idol, would-be political king-maker, and star of the reality television show The Apprentice.
By comparison, Gadamer now sounds a bit like a marijuana-addled hippy.
How did this happen? From the 1920s onward, radio and then analog television (now digital), and then satellite technology, and then the Internet, opened and expanded new channels of mass communication, unifying and beginning to globalize the cultural environment. Alongside these technological developments, elite interests have worked, with great success, to bend the emerging media to their own purposes, amassing private wealth, fortifying positions of power, and securing an ideological dominance useful for maintaining and strengthening elite economic advantages.
Which is to say, the desire for mutual understanding has not been the prevailing force in shaping communication policy.
Prior to passing the Federal Communications Act of 1934, for example, commercial radio interests succeeded in killing legislation that would have dedicated 25% of all broadcasting licenses to non-profit educational stations. When the 1934 Act was updated in 1996 and expanded to include the broadened media spectrum, commercial interests lobbied to remove limits on ownership of media outlets, to extend the licensing period for private control of the public airways (from 5 years to 8 years before public review), and to make it more difficult for ordinary citizens to challenge companies’ renewal of their licenses.
Policy determined by elite power and profit does not result in communication based on much else. One of the consequences of the 1996 Federal Communications Act has been the dramatic consolidation of control over media by an ever-shrinking number of media conglomerates. A mere six corporations (Comcast, News Corporation, The Walt Disney Company, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS Corporation) control 90% of U.S. programming in television, film, radio, and print. That’s a shocking reduction from the 50 companies that controlled most U.S. cultural programming in 1983.
There have been consequences for program content as well. Conglomerates operating in multiple media and on multiple channels and in multiple local and regional (and global) markets seek to diminish the costs of delivering content to specific markets. They thereby homogenize overall content and expand and intensify the advertising component of their programming.
And thus a star is born… Reality television’s low-cost, “unscripted” and sensationalist fare – a model of cultural programming that enlists consumers as low-cost actors and then deliberately turns them against one another to create a pitiful public spectacle of competition and manipulation, more lucrative for not paying trained and unionized actors and writers, and for the integration of marketing campaigns directly into the content of the programs.
Real people, and real relationships, but not much mutual understanding. Reality television, in effect, is unrehearsed human drama festooned with product placements. Or maybe it’s commercial product dramatization, with human props. Either way you parse it, the boundaries between lived, interpersonal reality and the content of the entertainment and profit-oriented cultural media have blurred beyond recognition.
All of the immense communicative potential of modern technology bent to “the sign language of the industrial world.”
In this context, Donald Trump (of The Apprentice, brought to you by NBC, which is owned by Comcast) is simply the language of power and profit made flesh. The Donald’s highly visible embodiment of conservatism arises not solely from his obvious economic minority interests and odd personal mannerisms. His sensationalist public image – his violent attention-grabbing and egomaniacal political pronouncements – arises not from his true relevance to American society but from his stature in the media kingdom. The Donald stands astride this reality as a transcendent sign of power and self-interest, of monied dominance and cut-throat competition, and, of course, anti-union sentiment.
“You’re fired!” barks the Donald at Gadamer’s philosophical conservatism.
Love, American Style
What about those modern lovers? What are they talking about these days?
ABC (owned by Walt Disney) launched in 2010 Bachelor Pad, a reality television dating show in which contestants compete for each other’s affections… for a $250,000 prize, that is. A case study in low cost, high profit programming, Bachelor Pad is a re-use and recycle program for former contestants of ABC’s other reality hook-up programs The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
The 2011 season of the series featured modern lovers Jake Pavelka and Vienna Girardi, who are famous for no other reason than that they attempt to be lovers on television (Pavelka proposed marriage to Girardi on The Bachelor in 2010). Here’s some modern lovers’ talk, according to a fluff piece in Newsday (owned by Cablevision, which carries ABC’s signal): “‘She’s trying to hurt me so she can get the money,’ an angry Pavelka said, referring to the show’s $250,000 prize. ‘It will not happen!’ Girardi was just as wrathful. ‘I hate him!’ she proclaimed.” Selfishness and wealth, leavened with sexual gossip.
That’s money in the bank for Walt Disney and Cablevision. For the rest of us, a degrading farce of gendered stereotypes (the gold-digging woman, in this case), projected into the lives of viewers and their relationships, with the special authority of the real.
The 2012 season finale added the participation of what the show termed “superfans,” and resulted in Nick Peterson – formerly of The Bachelorette – tricking his ironically named would-be paramour Rachel Truehart – formerly of The Bachelor – out of the prize money. According to ZAP2it.com, a television and movies promotional website (owned by the Tribune Company, which also owns a couple dozen television stations throughout the U.S., including an ABC affiliate), Nick summed up the reality of his relationship with Rachel thusly: “Was it tough sitting next to her crying? Yes. But after the way she made me look and what she did to me, no, I didn’t really feel that bad.” Ain’t love grand?
Don’t watch it you say? I don’t. But this is now the language of “love” consumed and reproduced by millions of my fellow citizens. The shows are like a spectacularly dysfunctional mass wedding, but presided over by Donald Trump instead of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. A kind cultural contagion, it affects through social contact even those who don’t watch the pathetic displays of people pitted against one another by the shows’ producers.
Being understood and understanding others, listening to and learning from each other – there’s not a lot of money in it. We need it to be at the core of any loving relationship, and not only in romance, but in family life and friendships, and in local community life. But not so for the commercial cultural machinery that operates loudly on and around us. An odd reality, that.