For the last week and a half I’ve been reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (I hope to finish it tonight!). The book was written in 1943 and those who’ve read it know how deep and philosophical it is. Much of the book’s underlying messages relate to Rand’s personally developed philosophy called Objectivism, but in reading it I’ve picked up an interesting thread on the fears of mass communication, which seems relevant to communication study of the time. After this week’s readings for my Media and Culture course, I found it particularly relevant to Theodor W. Adorno’s article titled “A Social Critique of Radio Music” (from the Kenyon Review, 1945). First, a little more context on the novel.
One form that Rand’s communication commentary takes is in the character Ellsworth M. Toohey’s actions. For a little context, Toohey is a highly (though subtly) manipulative and culturally revered icon in the book. He uses his powerful social sway to change the lives of the majority of the main characters by altering public opinion. He does this by “recommending” certain individuals to certain positions in the various fields of art (writers, drama critics, architects, playwrights, newspaper men and women, etc). What all of these people have in common is their figurative location (and blind willingness to be located) in Toohey’s back pocket. These people are also bent and molded to fit Toohey’s purposes; they are his puppets. It is eventually spelled out that Toohey is promoting these artists with little to no talent as the best society has to offer (though with much subtler methods) to ensure that the public is eventually desensitized to what truly great work is–and it’s disgustingly effective. The point is that Toohey is able to manipulate public opinion by using his designated appointees to tell the public what they think about certain plays, books and buildings–and they accept it. Here are a few quotes from the book that further Rand’s point:
“[Roark] tried to explain and to convince. He knew, while he spoke, that it was useless, because his words were hitting a vacuum. There was no such person as Mrs. Wayne Wilmot; there was only a shell containing the opinions of her friends, the picture post cards she had seen, the novels of country squires she had read; it was this that he had to address, this immateriality which could not hear him answer, deaf and impersonal like a wad of cotton.”
“People want nothing but mirrors around them. To reflect them while they’re reflecting, too. You know, like the senseless infinity you get from two mirrors facing each other across a narrow passage… Reflections of reflections and echoes of echoes. No beginning and no end. No center and no purpose.” – Dominique Francon (one of the main characters)
I think this theme relates to Adorno’s thoughts about the increasing standardization of music and, more specifically, thoughts and reactions to music. In the article mentioned, Adorno writes about a group of letters and cards sent to an educational station in the midwest about how wonderful its programming is. He summarizes their overall message as “standardized enthusiasm”, stating that “no musicaly item was mentioned, no specific reference to any particular feature was made, no criticism was offered” and postulates that “listeners were strongly under the spell of the announcer as the personified voice of radio and social institution, and they responded to his call to prove one’s cultural level and education by appreciating this good music”. He takes his point further by saying that “the consumer is unwilling to recognize that he is totally dependent, and he likes to preserve the illusion of private initiative and free choice.”
I think there continues to be merit in Rand’s and Adorno’s points on communication, possibly even stronger. With social media, blogs and sites like Pinterest, it is becoming increasingly easy and popular to regurgitate information, pictures, stories and ideas that we “agree with” or “relate to”. But is the media also increasingly stifling authentic creativity, criticism and ingenuity?