gianluigi-buffon-body-image-1433505470

Buffon: A Legend, Who Is Not Afraid to Talk About Depression Or Anything Else. Image Courtesy of: https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/qkqy7m/gianluigi-buffon-from-darkness-into-light

 

Author’s Note: This Post Was Originally Written as an Assignment for a Qualitative Methods Seminar. Please Excuse the Excessive Use of Academic Citations.

 

Paul Atkinson’s Thinking Ethnographically explains one facet of the modern world well: Citing Harold Garfinkel, Atkinson explains that “degradation requires a ‘perpetrator’ to be denounced before some witness or audience, and for there to be agreement that there has been a serious infraction of collective values, in such a way that displays the true character of the perpetrator, and is not a minor blemish. Nowadays such degradations and character threats are likely to be seen in mass media and social media” (Atkinson 2017: 89). Atkinson ties these “degradation ceremonies”, as he calls them, to labelling. For Atkinson “labeling implies attribution. In the course of labeling our fellow actors, we attribute to them particular kinds of motives, characters, and other attributes” (Ibid.: 90). Here we see that the label is tied to the individual’s character, which carries with it a strong moral connotation.

 

Ostertag and Ortiz’s 2017 article regarding bloggers writing about hurricane Katrina touches on the same moral point, as they note that bloggers “communicate personalized stories packaged with emotional and moral messages (Ostertag and Ortiz 2017: 63). In fact, the authors quantitatively point out just how often “moralities” are mentioned in the blog content they analyze, showing that “blogging served [for Katrina bloggers] as an outlet to direct their emotional energies and voice their senses of moral indignation” (Ibid.: 70). Unfortunately, I believe the authors miss the mark on their analysis when they claim that this stress on “morality” facilitates “the development of social ties rooted in trust, compassion and companionship” (Ibid.: 76). Quite the contrary, I believe that the stress on morals—which carries with it an implicit character degradation (in the manner that Atkinson discussed it) of all who might disagree—means that the bloggers are only erecting boundaries between their own (moral) selves and the amoral “others” who may not agree with their writing. It is in this sense that we can clearly see that social media can, sometimes, merely serve as an echo chamber.

 

Wendy Griswold’s (2013) chapter does a good job of showing that the culture industry plays a major role in defining—and even encouraging—the division of society along (perceived) “moral” lines. Griswold, citing Hirsch, explains that “the culture industry system works to regulate and package innovation and thus to transform creativity into predictable, marketable packages” (Griswold 2013: 74). Indeed, “morality”—or at least the perception of it, given its short supply in the hyper-consumerist society of postmodern Western civilization—is a “marketable” commodity. As Griswold notes, “once an idea has been put into words or symbols (a manifesto, a peace symbol), it is a cultural object” (Ibid.: 82). In this sense, morality is just another “cultural object” in the post modern world. The Katrina bloggers Ostertag and Ortiz write about—knowing full well that moral indignation gains more followers—play a role in turning “morality” itself into a “cultural object”. This is how the culture industry gradually homogenizes culture itself (Ibid.: 75); by adhering to what sells—what brings home emotional or financial capital—would-be opponents of the culture industry end up succumbing to its effects. Put another way, Griswold explains this process by pointing out that “if cultural creators can frame their product or message so it resonates with a frame that the audience already possesses, they are more likely to persuade that audience to “buy” (an idea, a product, or a taste)” (Ibid.: 88). For many cultural creators—like the bloggers studied by Ostertag and Ortiz—it is “morality” that is the frame.

 

Griswold shows us that there are two competing schools of thought regarding the interpretation of culture: The first is mass culture, which posits that culture overwhelms recipients. The second is popular culture, which sees individuals as “active makers and manipulators of meaning” (Ibid.: 90).  I would say that the truth lies somewhere in between; it is a mix of both mass culture and popular culture theory which explains the emphasis on “morality” in modern culture. Although, as popular culture theory posits, we might make our own cultures (and meanings), it is only a matter of time until the mass culture appropriates those meanings and sells them back to us, leaving us bereft of any other interpretation. Whatever meaning we, as individuals, might make, it will always be subject to the logic of producers and consumers and thus subject to homogenization.

 

I will provide an example of this process by discussing the case of Italian footballer Gianluigi Buffon. Although Buffon is a legend in Italian—and world—football, his career has not been one without controversy. At the beginning of his career, Buffon was criticized for choosing the number 88 (because some deemed it an anti-semitic number) and for wearing a t-shirt with a slogan which had been used by Italy’s fascist leaders (Brodkin 2000). Of course, due to this perceived amorality, Buffon was vilified. And the culture industry of the media ran along with it. Fast forward almost two decades later, and it is a very different story. Indeed, Buffon was praised by the culture industry for his enthusiastic rendition of the Italian national anthem before a football game (Lloyd, n.d.) as well as for is “class” in applauding the Swedish national anthem when some Italian fans booed it (Polden 2017). What, then, is the true story of Gianluigi Buffon? Is he a fascist, or a neo-Nazi as some tried to brand him for donning the “88” shirt? Or is he just an Italian patriot, who supports the patriotism—and national anthems—of other nations as well? I would interpret him as the latter since there is absolutely no proof whatsoever that Buffon is a bigot. Unfortunately, however, the soil of his previous experience with what Atkinson called “degradation ceremony” remains. The controversy—immortalized as it is by the internet—cannot be escaped.

 

Here we see the hypocrisy of the culture industry. The culture industry, in praying on the general search for “morality” in the wider public (which itself lives in a postmodern world devoid of morals), will vilify—or sanctify—in accordance to popular demand; if what is being sold resonates with the frames possessed by the masses it will sell. While it was easy to degrade Buffon as a “fascist” or “anti-Semite” when he was an up and coming player, it became harder to do so after he established himself as one of the best players of his generation. This is why the media narrative did a proverbial 180; it was not selling anymore because Buffon had become a national hero. Unfortunately, what Atkinson does not recognize, is that “degradation ceremonies” are part of the tool kit of postmodern fascism; they can be used at any moment to attack the “morality” of an individual and sully a reputation in an instant. It is just one danger that the independent thinking individual faces in the hyper-commodified hyper-consumerist society we now find ourselves in.

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