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In this powerful cultural critique, Ariel Dorfman explores the political and social implications of the smiling faces that inhabit familiar books, comics, and magazines. He reveals the ideological messages conveyed in works of popular culture such as the Donald Duck comics, the Babar children’s books, and Reader’s Digest magazine. The Empire’s Old Clothes was widely praised when it was first published in 1983. This edition, including a new preface by the author, makes a contemporary classic newly available.
These essays were originally written for someone whose name and face I cannot remember. She was a slum dweller, a woman whom I only met twice, years ago, in Chile.
Even then, I didn't notice anything special about her. Misery has a way of leveling individual nuances. In recollection, therefore, she turns into a blurred picture. She was very poor, and lived in one of the numerous shantytowns that mushroom around all big cities in Latin America. They brim with migrant workers and their families. She, like them, had built a small shack out of any stray sort of material that life had washed within her reach. I vaguely recall that she had children, and there must have been many of them. The rest is conjecture, almost a sociological construct, valid for her as for so many other women living in those subhuman conditions. Filth, disease, hunger, and a husband who was unemployed, alcoholic, or plagued by worse demons. Or maybe no husband at all. I just don't remember.
But what she said to me on the two separate occasions when we talked still rings clear. An intellectual, I suppose, remembers words better than people.
She came up to me and asked frankly if it was true that I thought people shouldn't read photo novels. Photo novels are just like comics, but instead of using drawings, they convey their romantic love stories through photographs peopled by handsome actors. When she asked me the question, I was digging a ditch. I had come to that shanty town with my students in order to help after a severe thunderstorm had left everything a sea of mud. They had been talking to the slum dwellers and had informed this particular woman of my crusade against the industrial products of fiction. Comics, soap operas, westerns, radio and TV sitcoms, love songs, films of violence-you name it-I had it under scrutiny.
So I stopped digging and answered her. It was true. I thought that photo novels were a hazard to her health and her future.
She did not seem to feel any special need for purification. "Don't do that to us, compañerito," she said in a familiar, almost tender way. "Don't take my dreams away from me."
We were unable-and now I suspect I understand the reasons-to convince each other. She wanted, she needed, to dream. I wanted to dissect those dreams, the ones that had nourished my childhood and adolescence, that continued to infect so many of my adult habits and simply would not disappear. I wanted to discover the underlying principles of the buried behavioral models which simmered inside me. But there were other, more significant, reasons for what I was doing. I believed that these models and illusions clashed head-on with the immediate needs of their consumers. This was especially so in a land like Chile, which imported most of these forms of entertainment or simply imitated them in bastardized local versions. We imported our weapons, our machinery, our banking techniques, our freeways, our technology. We also imported much of our popular culture. But this was of little importance to the woman in front of me. She required those illusions in order to survive. She had to make up somehow for what was missing in her life, and she didn't mind-or care-if she was being manipulated. So what sort of conversation could we hold, if I couldn't offer her any concrete alternative or substitute for those myths? Between the nakedness of her urgent, practical needs and my own psychological and intellectual needs there was not much room, or chance, for a fruitful dialogue.
Some months later, as will happen from time to time, history stepped into our lives, and that dialogue became possible-indeed, imperative: In September 1970, Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile.
Her attitude, and mine, were about to be modified.
A few years went by-that would make it 1972 or the beginning of 1973-and I returned to that same part of town for some sort of inauguration. It might have been a neighborhood clinic or an alphabetization center. (There were many buildings and events in those days.) By chance, I ran into that woman again. I didn't recognize her at first, but she remembered me. She came up to me, just like that, and announced that I was right, that she didn't read "trash" anymore. Then she added a phrase which still haunts me. "Now, compañero, we are dreaming reality."
She had experienced, in those years, something truly different. She had outdistanced her old self, and was no longer entertained by those images which had been her own true love. She could now oppose her experience of liberation, and that of her community, to the fraudulent visions of the media, run and owned by the same people who ran and owned Chile's economy and political system. She no longer perceived those media experiences as real, as eternal, as natural.
Of course, what had happened to her was happening to everybody. When a people attempts to liquidate centuries' worth of economic and social injustice, when they begin to gain a sense of their dignity as a nation, what is really at stake, what really inspires them, is an alternate vision of humanity, a different way of feeling and thinking and projecting and loving and keeping faith. And a different future. Allende's government nationalized our natural resources and minerals, reallocated the land to those who tilled it, allowed workers to participate in the management of their own factories, and democratized most of society's institutions. But that was not enough. Simultaneously we had to democratize and control a territory more difficult to split up and expropriate, a territory called communication.
That woman from the slums was being shoved, poked, awakened. And while she was in that turbulent, searching stage, what she needed was a parallel interpretation at all levels of what her situation, of what the world, was. Not just a political explanation of why things were one way and how they might be transformed, but channels for expressing the joys, the doubts, the anxieties that come when people who were previously powerless begin to have some say in their existence. What she needed was a new language.
The Chilean people and its intellectuals tried to produce that new language, or at least fragments, intimations of it. We had always proclaimed that here was one task the dispossessed could not postpone. They had to take control of the production of their own ideas and gain access to the means and methods which would help them communicate with one another. The task could not be postponed, and yet it was, time and again. Without effective outlets, resources, industries, what else could be done but patiently fabricate with the scantest of means an extended, almost subterranean network of cultural visions?
Allende's victory gave this enterprise a real grounding, and a vaster dimension. At least, what had previously been declared by generations of politicians and intellectuals to be urgent and unavoidable could now be put into practice. The economic transformations had placed in the hands of the government and the workers the industrial tools and human resources necessary to attempt a profound alteration of mass culture's fictional outgrowths. There were printing presses, record companies, television and radio programs available. For the first time, it was within our means to conceive and explore far-reaching creative alternatives to existing mass-market fictions. I was personally involved in producing new comic books, in inexpensive paperback literature sold on newsstands, a series of TV programs, a magazine for adolescents.
The problems the people involved in this undertaking had to solve were gigantic. How to subtly use and change publications, programs, and formats which already had a following; how to create new messages without making them into propaganda; how to find new ways of distribution and getting feedback; how to stimulate contributions from a generally passive audience. And how to do all this without losing money.
Among all these pressing matters, one in particular attracted me. In order to change a structure, it became necessary to understand it, to examine the manner in which these prevailing fantasies functioned. Why did these widespread myths enjoy such an immense success among the very people whose daily practices should have called them into question?
These essays were conceived as one of many responses to that need. So, during their first incarnation, they were born for eminently practical reasons. The purpose of investigations such as these, and books like How to Read Donald Duck (which I co-authored with the Belgian sociologist Mattelart), was to expose the mechanisms behind those industrialized works of fiction, strip them of their mystery, or lay bare their secret structures. To do so, we felt, would assist in the elaboration of another sort of communications system which would reject authoritarian and competitive models and provoke doubts, questions, dialogue, real participation, and, eventually, a breakthrough in popular art.
But the essays transcended their utilitarian ends. If this were not so, it wouldn't make much sense to present them ten years later to foreign readers. I believe that those irreverent views still retain their relevance. Once you have penetrated the invisible network of everyday domination which lurks behind the genres and characters analyzed here (children's mass literature of assorted varieties, superheroes, the infantilization of knowledge in magazines such as Reader's Digest), you are left with something far more valuable than a mere guidebook on how to read popular culture. What unfolds before us is a veritable black-and-blueprint of the ways in which men and women repress themselves in contemporary society, the way they transform reality's unsettling questions into docile, comforting, bland answers.
It is this inadvertent process of self-censorship that is meant to be revealed by a book like this one. And such a process does not happen only in Chile. On the contrary, if people in the so-called Third World are expected to swallow these deformed versions of reality (along with heavier goods and foreign technology), it is because those messages have been produced by the "developed" countries in the first place and injected into their populace in hardly more sophisticated forms. The same methods which the cultural industry uses to narrate, observe, transmit problems in Europe and especially in the U.S. are those which, with minor modifications and at times adaptations, are imported into our miserable and twisted zones.
Their point of view is supposed to be accepted as the universally valid means of human measurement, definition, and perspective, the only one by which we can see ourselves in the global mirror. I'll go deeper into this subject as the book progresses, but it is worth noting here that this imposition is possible, among other reasons, because within their own borders the industrial nations have already colonized their own conflicting social strata-their minorities, their women, their working classes, their immigrants, their unruly and rebellious elements. The Third World of humanity is just a filthy, undesirable, oversized, underdeveloped brother to the fourth, fifth, sixth, and infinite contradictory worlds which teem within the frontiers of the "advanced" nations.
Among all these subordinate worlds there is one, however, which might be more important than all the rest, which might be the only universal world, and which constitutes the axis of all processes of domination: namely, the world of children. No matter whether a country is oozing with opulence or on the path to pauperdom, the new generation is always required to accept the status quo of their parents, comfortably, devoutly, and without interruption, at the same time learning to judge and pre-interpret every rupture and rift in reality with the same indisputable assumptions used by their forefathers.
Since those communities, classes, races, continents, and individuals who don't fit the official mold tend to be viewed as "children," as incomplete beings who haven't yet reached the age of maturity, it is children's literature, or the infantilization of mass market adult literature, which forms the basis for the entire process of cultural domination. Henry Kissinger, the whiz kid of international politics, put it in those terms when he justified the intervention of the CIA in the overthrow of my country's legitimate president by saying, "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people."
Obviously, irresponsible people and "children"-begging Kissinger's pardon-have at times been known to contribute something besides their raw materials or overworked muscles to our heritage. Sometimes we manage to come up with original ways of viewing a world hardened, stratified, overweened by its own power, a world which believes itself as omnipotent as its technological achievements might seem to imply. It is possible that a society undergoing rebirth, that is painfully casting off the habits of domination and tradition which before went unquestioned, could be able, with more rigor, more rage, more insight, to criticize the patterns and structures which, as their own champions victoriously proclaim, have been standardized and uniformly spread throughout the planet. It is possible that the way to look at these patterns is to try to remove them like a layer of clothing which you had all along thought to be your own skin. Indeed, there may be no better way for a country to know itself than to examine the myths and popular symbols that it exports to its economic and military dominions.
This is an insolent point of view, an underdog, ironic, proud point of view. It drifts through the essays. It can be attributed to many causes. I felt absolutely certain, when I first wrote these essays, that our victory was just around the corner, and that our language should anticipate the glorious command we expected to have over our own existence. Or maybe that insolence derives from the sheer, almost animal pleasure of defiantly reinterpreting reality, after centuries-or at least decades, as far as I was concerned-of submission. An outsider who suddenly ceases to be a passive producer and consumer and finds himself thrust into active participation in history tends to feel as if he could battle and deride the gods themselves.
When I began to rewrite these essays, therefore, along with preserving the essence of their revelations about the mass media, I was even more interested in keeping, and in fact prolonging, the stubborn, blasphemous tone with which these ideas first glowed.
Indeed, I believed that they might be published for the foreign-language reader with only some minor retouching. After all, working on something you wrote years ago can be a harrowing experience. It can become a double assassination: First you kill the father you once were, that work which is older and more venerable than we are, which paved the way for your contemporary outlook; and then you kill your own son, the ideas you had when you were younger, a part of yourself which you should not be tampering with. In short-since this is a book which abounds in family metaphors-an act of both patricide and fratricide.
So if I have decided to revise these essays thoroughly, it was because it could not be avoided. In some cases it was merely a matter of updating the material or taking into consideration the latest bibliography. Instead of examining the 1971 Reader's Digest, for example, I reviewed the twelve issues that came out in 1981, ten years later, plus an extra one from 1980.
But more than an update was necessary.
Originally, the essays were written under stress, amidst the pressures of everyday life in Chile. We wrote, when we did write, at a furious, infuriating pace, at life's intersections and in its crannies, amidst emergencies, diapers, and routine work. We wrote when we returned at two or three in the morning from a rayado mural (painting the town's walls with artistic and political slogans). We wrote in the early morning hours before giving a class or planning a program for television. We wrote during those few moments when we felt we could-sweating with guilt -steal some time from other activities.
Excerpted from The Empire's Old Clothes by Ariel Dorfman Copyright © 2010 by Ariel Dorfman . Excerpted by permission.
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