Arjun Appadurai: A Nation of Business Junkies (Anthropology News)

Guest Columnist
Arjun Appadurai

By Anthropology News on November 3, 2011

I first came to this country in 1967. I have been either a crypto-anthropologist or professional anthropologist for most of that time. Still, because I came here with an interest in India and took the path of least resistance in choosing to maintain India as my principal ethnographic referent, I have always been reluctant to offer opinions about life in these United States. I have begun to do so recently, but mainly in occasional blogs, twitter posts and the like. Now seems to be a good time to ponder whether I have anything to offer to public debate about the media in this country. Since I have been teaching for a few years in a distinguished department of media studies, I feel emboldened to offer my thoughts in this new AN Forum.

My examination of changes in the media over the last few decades is not based on a scientific study. I read the New York Times every day, the Wall Street Journal occasionally, and I subscribe to The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, the Economist, and a variety of academic journals in anthropology and area studies. I get a smattering of other useful media pieces from friends on Facebook and other social media sites. I also use the Internet to keep up with as much as I can from the press in and about India. At various times in the past, I have subscribed to The Nation, Money Magazine, Foreign Policy, the Times Literary supplement and a few other periodicals.

I have long been interested in how culture and economy interact. Today, I want to make an observation about the single biggest change I have seen over my four decades in the United States, which is a growing and now hegemonic domination of the news and of a great deal of opinion, both in print and on television, by business news. Business news was a specialized affair in the late 1960’s, confined to a few magazines such as Money and Fortune, and to newspapers and TV reporters (not channels). Now, it is hard to find anything but business as the topic of news in all media. Consider television: if you spend even three hours surfing between CNN and BBC on any given day ( surfing for news about Libya or about soccer, for example) you will find yourself regularly assaulted by business news, not just from London, New York and Washington, but from Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai and many other places. Look at the serious talk shows and chances are that you will find a talking CEO, describing what’s good about his company, what’s bad about the government and how to read his company’s stock prices. Channels like MSNBC are a form of endless, mind-numbing Jerry Lewis telethon about the economy, with more than a hint of the desperation of the Depression era movie “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?”, as they bid the viewer to make insane bets and to mourn the fallen heroes of failed companies and fired CEO’s.

Turn to the newspapers and things get worse. Any reader of the New York Times will find it hard to get away from the business machine. Start with the lead section, and stories about Obama’s economic plans, mad Republican proposals about taxes, the Euro-crisis and the latest bank scandal will assault you. Some relief is provided by more corporate news: the exit of Steve Jobs, the Op-Ed piece about the responsibilities of the super-rich by Warren Buffet, Donald Trump advertising his new line of housewares to go along with his ugly homes and buildings. Turn to the sports section: it is littered with talk of franchises, salaries, trades, owner antics, stadium projects and more. I need hardly say anything about the section on “Business” itself, which has now virtually become redundant. And if you are still thirsty for more business news, check out the “Home”, “Lifestyle” and Real Estate sections for news on houses you can’t afford and mortgage financing gimmicks you have never heard off. Some measure of relief is to be in the occasional “Science Times” and in the NYT Book Review, which do have some pieces which are not primarily about profit, corporate politics or the recession.

The New York Times is not to blame for this. They are the newspaper of “record’ and that means that they reflect broader trends and cannot be blamed for their compliance with bigger trends. Go through the magazines when you take a flight to Detroit or Mumbai and there is again a feast of news geared to the “business traveler”. This is when I catch up on how to negotiate the best deal, why this is the time to buy gold and what software and hardware to use when I make my next presentation to General Electric. These examples could be multiplied in any number of bookstores, newspaper kiosks, airport lounges, park benches and dentist’s offices.

What does all this reflect? Well, we were always told that the business of America is business. But now we are gradually moving into a society in which the business of American life is also business. Who are we now? We have become (in our fantasies) entrepreneurs, start-up heroes, small investors, consumers, home-owners, day-traders, and a gallery of supporting business types, and no longer fathers, mothers, friends or neighbors. Our very citizenship is now defined by business, whether we are winners or losers. Everyone is an expert on pensions, stocks, retirement packages, vacation deals, credit- card scams and more. Meanwhile, as Paul Krugman has argued in a brilliant recent speech to some of his fellow economists, this discipline, especially macro-economics, has lost all its capacities to analyze, define or repair the huge mess we are in.

The gradual transformation of the imagined reader or viewer into a business junkie is a relatively new disease of advanced capitalism in the United States. The avalanche of business knowledge and information dropping on the American middle-classes ought to have helped us predict – or avoid – the recent economic meltdown, based on crazy credit devices, vulgar scams and lousy regulation. Instead it has made us business junkies, ready to be led like sheep to our own slaughter by Wall Street, the big banks and corrupt politicians. The growing hegemony of business news and knowledge in the popular media over the last few decades has produced a collective silence of the lambs. It is time for a bleat or two.

Dr. Arjun Appadurai is a prominent contemporary social-cultural anthropologist, having formerly served as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at The New School in NYC. He has held various professorial chairs and visiting appointments at some of top institutions in the United States and Europe. In addition, he has served on several scholarly and advisory bodies in the United States, Latin America, Europe and India. Dr. Appadurai is a prolific writer having authored numerous books and scholarly articles. The nature and significance of his contributions throughout his academic career have earned him the reputation as a leading figure in his field. He is the author of The Future as a Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition (Verso: forthcoming 2012).

Ken Routon is the contributing editor of Media Notes. He is a visiting professor of cultural anthropology at the University of New Orleans and the author of Hidden Powers of the State in the Cuban Imagination (University Press of Florida, 2010).

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