Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Entertainment and Art: Mimetic or Productive?

Several of my classes are currently exploring how entertainment and art serve a mimetic and productive function. On the one hand, entertainment can reflect the world around us (mimetic). On the other hand, entertainment can "produce" or influence our society. 

For instance, Suzanne Collin's novel The Hunger Games reflects certain cultural realities: our preoccupation with violence, the reality television phenomenon, and class warfare. This imitation is what "mimetic effect" means.  The novel "tells us about ourselves." 

The novel also has a productive effect; the book promotes a particular awareness that has the potential, by changing our perception of our society world, to actually change our world. This influence is the "productive" effect of Collin's novel. 


These dual functions also hold true for music. We are all familiar with criticisms about certain types of rap and heavy metal which some hold responsible for certain social phenomenon: misogyny, homophobia, violence, materialism, and nihilism. For example, Rapper Ice Cube's' "Black Korea" can be read as a mirror of the growing Black and Korean tensions extant in the eighties and nineties, one of the factors that lead to the LA Riots of '92. Cube's song records the reality of the streets. Cube sings about shopping at the local Korean-American run convenience store: "  . . . the two oriental one-penny countin' motherfuckers that make a nigga mad enough to cause a little ruckus, thinkin' every brother in the world's out to take, so they watch every damn move that I make." 

These lyrics represent the rising frustration a Black consumer faces when he is assumed to be a criminal, and the song validates certain audiences' social realities. The song reproduces a situation where many Black people in Central and South Central Los Angeles experienced prejudice and discrimination. That inter-racial tension is further fueled by resentment over the proliferation of Asian-owned businesses in primarily African American and Latino neighborhoods. So the song serves as a social document, sort of like the "CNN of the streets" (a phrase coined by Chuck D. of Public Enemy), telling truths that are often ignored or silenced in mainstream media. 


Yet "Black Korea" may also be read as provocative, with the potential to incite action, in this case violence. The narrator's anger boils over into threats: "Yo, yo, check it out. So don't follow me, up and down your market, or your little chop suey ass'll be a target of the nation wide boycott. . . . so pay respect to the black fist, or we'll burn your store, right down to a crisp." 

These incendiary lyrics may do more than simply echoing pent-up frustrations. The words appear to stoke rage, the possibly provoke listeners to take violent actions. This second reading of Ice-Cube's music and its productive potential exemplifies certain listeners' criticism of rap music: rap inspires violence and criminality, and in certain ways, caused the riots that shut down Los Angeles. 

Of course, entertainment can be both mimetic and productive, at once mirroring and shaping reality.  Some might think that art merely seeks to capture a reality. Others, like playwright Bertolt Brecht assert the productive aspects of art. But more nuanced readings of art and entertainment can acknowledge the mimetic and productive aspects of poetry, songs, novels and plays. 

Below are two lists of synonymous terms for each of these purposes: 
  • Mimetic: Record, copy, duplicate, mirror, document, capture, record, reproduce, recirculate, echo, mime, reflect, illustrate, exemplify, imitate
  • Productive: Produce, promote, incite, glamorize, encourage, influence, revise, fashion, construct, motivate, provoke, activate, exhort, galvanize, transform, change
Here are few sample statements that speak to the complexity and relationship between these two functions of entertainment: 

  • Whereas Jessica Hagedorn's novel Dogeaters captures the political issues and chaos faced by the Philippines after the assassination of Benigno Aquino, the novel also promotes a gendered approach to analyzing national affairs. 
  • Much of Kanye West's music reflects some peoples' preoccupation with wealth and luxury. At the same time, West's exaggerated celebration of materialism encourages a selfish sort of narcissism. 
  • The lyrics of Public Enemy's song "911 is a Joke" illustrates the frustration of those who live in neighborhoods where emergency ambulances and other social services are substandard. As well, the song risks inciting listeners to justifiable anger over what appears to be unfair treatment.