Media Fetish for Top 5/Top 10 Lists
From personalities to institutions to commodities, you have the caste system ready for everything under the sun - eminent people from different walks of life, songs and movies, universities and hotels, toothpastes and gadgets the list is long.
The Pecking Order Consumerism and the Narrative of hierarchical ratings as dumbing down.
If you are already irritated with children in the house mouthing vacuities like ‘this is my best pencil, those are my second best shoes’ brace up for the worse to come. Scandalous as it may sound, at this rate they may come up with their lists of Top 5 Moms and Top 5 Dads.
You are living in times when there seems to be an insatiable demand for pecking orders and media is feeding you that. Worse, it may have got you addicted in the first place. So for you everything has to have a number. The spots to look for in an insanely hierarchical world.
It has gone beyond the stage of being a fad. The ‘top….’ charts and rating stars are now a well entrenched fetish. A fetish which has colonized your perceptions of who stands where and what is below or above what. So from the animate to the not-so-animate and inanimate. From personalities to institutions to commodities, you have the caste system ready for everything under the sun – eminent people from different walks of life, songs and movies, universities and hotels, toothpastes and gadgets the list is long.
Unlike the varna system, this caste system has traveled from the West to India, and from times that takes us back at least three centuries.
The post industrial revolution strands – the consumerist boom and capitalist consumption.
For starters, this is not an academic exercise. Though academic is not as bad a word as the academic phobic or worse, anti academic Ayattolahs have made it.
Before very briefly looking at the post industrial revolution narrative, it is relevant to remember the cultural milieu of renaissance in Western Europe which shaped the industrial revolution. Despite all its achievements, renaissance witnessed a very cosmetic progress in abandoning the narrative of hierarchy. The reverence for divinity and religious figures was replaced by adulation for superlatives. The iconic artistic work of the period was Leonardo Da Vinci’s Monalisa – celebrating ‘extraordinary’ beauty. The most important work of political philosophy of this period was Machiavelli’s Prince - prescribing expedient statecraft to make a monarch ‘extraordinarily’ powerful.
Clearly, in-spite of its spirit of liberal values, renaissance engaged with the narrative of superlatives and lacked the deeper humanist sympathy for the ordinary.
The industrial revolution, which began in the eighteenth century, inherited this as it sought to make competitive ranking a way of selling the massive scale of commodities being produced. In the twentieth century, with the expansion of mass media throughout the world, the pecking order virus had become infectious. Apart from commodities, personality cults had become a serious business in US. Time magazine institutionalized it with “man of the year” halo, as if the lesser men and women were all dead that year. While “Top…” list syndrome was becoming an epidemic in the media, some professional associations were also smitten.
The contemporary Indian media scene and hierarchical ratings as ‘dumbing down’
Indian media has adopted the ‘pecking order’ device for its own dumbing down agenda and possibly allied commercial interests. In all its forms – print, electronic and web, the media in India has its assembly line production of the top fives, tens and sometimes even imports from foreign media and syndicates. It has fetishised the hierarchy for all and sundry – commodities (commodification also includes books, art, culture), personalities and institutions. With pretensions of viewer participation as the subtext, and the stratagem of choice, a widely watched television channel, NDTV, has gone a step further and asked viewers to give their top 5 headlines for the evening time slot. The results are disastrous – the urban middle class has movies, cricket, city and bleeding heart urban activism as their choice for headlines.
Ranking of institutions, which is an unfortunate practice borrowed from the west, has grown insidiously in recent years. The unfortunate precedent for this was set in 1997 by India Today, which published a ranking of coveted colleges in the country as its cover story. It had a ripple effect. All hell broke loose and today Indian media is littered with such arbitrary exercises of imposing academic hierarchy. The question to be asked is: are they coveted institutions or you have made them coveted by ranking them?
Another set of rankings, that the youth of the country are hooked to seeks to influence the pattern of movie viewership, and it comes in forms of stars. The text of a movie review has been pushed to periphery, with the star rating hogging the prescriptive limelight. The thinking seems to be, review is prosaic judgment, the star ratings are the numerical-visual verdict. The movie reviewers do not necessarily prefer the star rating mechanism and sometimes attribute their compulsions to the brief they get from editorial-managerial quarters.
Along with the dumbing down agenda, the commercial motivations for the pecking order system in Indian media can be a subject of separate inquiry, which space constraint does not warrant here.
A more basic reason for aversion to superlatives is that nature does not deal in superlatives. At most nature guides us to recognize the good or beautiful but it does not tell us about the best or the most beautiful. You may, at times, be sure about good and your innate aesthetics may lead you to the beautiful, but never to the best and the most beautiful. Let me conclude with a request – if you have finished reading this article, praise it or trash it, but please do not put it in “Five Must Reads” or “Five Reads to Avoid” list. This article is not a number.
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