the “’aesthetic’ priorities” of contemporary corporate lit

From: MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media

MEDIA ALERT: THE COCKROACH TEST

Alain de Botton, “Branded Conversations”, and Runaway Climate Change

News that philosopher Alain de Botton had been hired as Heathrow’s “writer in residence” generated minor ripples across the media pond, including occasional murmurs of disapproval. Journalists momentarily failed to repress their awareness that truth into corporate profit-maximising does not go, although without perceiving the implications for themselves. 

Thus Dan Milmo, writer in residence at the Guardian, noted that de Botton was “the latest artistic figure to tread the precarious line between creative independence and commerce after signing a publishing deal with the financial support of Heathrow’s owner, BAA.” (Milmo, ‘High minded: Heathrow hires De Botton: Philosophical author begins work as airport’s writer-in-residence,’ The Guardian, August 19, 2009)

Milmo recalled how novelist Fay Weldon had been found to be responsible for “one of the most notorious sell-outs of recent times” when it emerged that her latest novel had been sponsored by the Italian jewellery firm Bulgari. Weldon explained last month:

“I was accused of defiling the novel. The deal was that I must mention Bulgari 12 times in a novel I wrote for them as a giveaway. My agent was terribly good and knocked them down to nine and a half mentions. In the end I mentioned them 46 times.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/aug/30/fay-weldon)

If some small part of Milmo’s brain recognised that he also treads a “precarious line” between creative independence and commerce, it didn’t show – journalists typically play intellectual possum when the issue is raised. In a recent discussion on the ethics of advertising in an age of climate crisis, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said it was fine for newspapers to be funded by Wal-Mart, “as long as Wal-Mart demands nothing in return” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainability/video/sustainability-advertising-alan-rusbridger). 

This kind of assurance is a complete red herring. The point is that when corporate advertisers keep media corporations in business, the corporate nature of both parties all but guarantees a corporate-friendly media performance. Nobody has to tell a media business to favour business, to tread carefully around issues that harm business control of society. Especially when politics, which is also in thrall to corporate power, has the power to reward and publish, praise and lambast, ‘respectable’ and ‘irresponsible’ journalism. 

Similarly, the problem is not that writers sell-out, but that, as Noam Chomsky told the BBC’s Andrew Marr, “if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting”. (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996) Chomsky once related a story he had heard from a civil rights activist at Harvard Law School:

“He once gave a talk and said that kids were coming in to Harvard Law School with long hair and backpacks and social ideals and they were all going to go into public service, law and change the world. That’s the first year. He said around April the recruiters come for the summer jobs, the Wall Street firms. Get a cushy summer job and make a ton of money. 

“So the students figure, What the heck? I can put on a tie and jacket and shave for one day, because I need that money and why shouldn’t I have it? So they put on a tie and a jacket for that one day and they get the job for the summer. Then they go off for the summer and when they come back in the fall, it’s ties and jackets and obedience and a shift of ideology.” (http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Chomsky/Chomsky_Tapes_MAlbert.html

De Botton was educated at the elite Dragon School, and at Harrow and Cambridge. His father was head of Rothschild Bank, then founded Global Asset Management in 1983 with £1m capital and sold it to UBS in 1999 for £420m. (Sunday Times profile, ‘A kicking from the boohoo boy of books,’ July 12, 2009)

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