In the Domain of Body Culture

The image of the crowd belongs to the domain of body culture. It’s unquestionable powerful lies in momentum, where the body—as mass—replaces the singular mind. Last month, as crowds proliferated across the Middle East, there was a brief interlude here in the US in form of the Super bowl and its halftime show. The extreme juxtaposition between the two events left me contemplating the meaning of crowds, democracy, and whether or not the domain of body culture here in the US will ever move beyond the singular mind of capitalism.

“The Mass Ornament” is Kracauer’s famous essay on the crowd as an emotionless replication of the capitalist system of reproduction. Kracauer’s vessel for discussion is the Tiller Girls, a troop of women most akin to the Rockettes, known for their ability to use body parts to achieve interesting visual ornamentation. Calling them “products of American distraction factories,” Kracauer states: “The mass ornament is the aesthetic reflex of the rationality to which the prevailing economic system aspires,”(79).

This seems an apt description of the spectacle, from the Black Eyed Peas conscious aesthetic of multi-cultural bling, the meddly of American classics that relied on visual prompts encouraging the crowd to Pump It Up! and the cheap imitation of Daft Punk androgyny in the form of LED-clad background dancers. With the exception of Usher (who is dismissed from this discussion) the whole thing fit Kracauer’s Mass Ornament: it was a crowd, it had momentum and it even had power but, it was ambivalent and thus an end in and of itself.

“The commodities that it spews forth are not actually produced to be possessed; rather, they are made for the sake of a profit that knows no limit…value is not produced for the sake of value,”(78).

If this wasn’t clear from the beginning, then consider the media’s post-performance debate on the monetary figure Slash got to emerge from the ground.

Kracauer is often criticized for his failure to fact check the origins of the Tiller Girls, they were British, thus making his connection between Fordism and the mechanical formations of female legs less relevant. But maybe that connection was never meant to be. Perhaps the art of scientific management died with Detroit. For all the commonalities between the half-time show and the Tiller Girls, precision is not one of them.

I was reminded of this while watching the LED dancers. One arm was up, and one row over it was to the side. There was movement, energy was expended, but the robot dance was not mechanical enough and the pump it up failed to pump. The performance reflects the prevailing American mentality that impressions are best made through size and scale. With so much to look at, no one would notice all the mistakes–like the failure for the V in LOVE to light up.

To me, that seems an accurate description of our prevailing economic system.

The show concluded with confetti of the red, white, and blue variety, suggesting the event could be connected to a broader sense of nationalism.

Fairy tales can become reality only on the ruins of natural unities,”(81) Kracauer concludes. American democracy might have once been a reality but it seems it have joined Sleeping Beauty in her 100 year slumber. Vapid spectacle is how the American crowd achieves its happily ever after, it’s time we look elsewhere for the power of the crowd and new fairy tales of democracy.

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