Mainstream

December 5, 2011 at 10:18 am

| Gabriel |

I recently read Frédéric Martel’s book Mainstream and my initial reaction was shock to discover that I can still read French this many years out from lycée. After I got over that I was able to have a more substantive reaction which was that I really liked it. First there is the sheer scale of the book. He did hundreds of interviews, many of them with extremely high-placed people who I can’t even imagine trying to get access to. He covers pretty much every media industry you can think of and gives a good overview of each. (I know most of the industries he describes pretty well and concur with his descriptions). The first half of the book is primarily concerned with the US media industry and the second half with globalization. In addition to the sheer wealth of detail there is a consistent thesis which is that there is such a thing as a global mass culture centered in America, but there is also a multi-polar nature to this with things like telenovelas, Bollywood, and K-pop circulating within their  respective regional spheres.

My copy of the book visiting Disneyland

On the subject of theme, it’s worth noting that different editions of the book have different subtitles. The original subtitle translates to “inquiry into the culture that pleases everyone” (actually, it’s a pun that can also be translated as “inquiry into the culture that pleases the whole world”). The paperback’s subtitle is “inquiry into the global war over culture and media.” The subtitles of various translated editions follow one or the other. I find the original subtitle to be a better description of the book, especially the first half. However throughout the book there is an appreciation for the politics of media globalization. For instance, there is lengthy discussion of US trade policy and piracy, censorship in various countries, Chinese film import quotas (which can be effective leverage for censorship), etc. This interest in both the comparative and IR politics of cultural production is not only important but Frédéric is in a good position to understand and explain it, having been a cultural attache posted to Boston and remaining a cultural policy intellectual associated with the socialist party.

Even in my semi-literacy with the French language I was able to pick up on how good the writing style is. In a lot of ways Frédéric reminds me of Tom Wolfe. That is, they are both PhD sociologists by background but this perspective is implicit rather than explicit and their writing style is exuberant, with the narrative jumping from location to location every two pages and with an occasional pause to savor absurdity. Likewise, in both cases the thesis gradually swirls into view out of a vortex of detail.

The book has been translated into several languages already and I hope it gets an English translation, but if you can read French and are interested in the culture industries and/or globalization you might want to check out the original rather than waiting. (I found it well worth it to read the original even though I read about half as fast in French as I do in English).

FWIW, Frédéric is a friend of mine and gave me the book when I visited him in June. I’ve been looking forward to this book since I saw him in LA a few years ago when he was doing the field work for the book and in particular I remember the “WRITER” t-shirt he mentions in the book.

Finally, there seems to be something of an arbitrage opportunity for selling foreign books in the US. The paperback goes for 9 euros in France, but the remailers who list on Amazon.com offer it for $30. I would be surprised if the marginal cost of forwarding a book from France to the US is actually $18. I doubt that it’s inventory costs either as they make you wait 10 days which implies that it’s an on-demand service.

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