Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mediated Cultural Experiences

Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats connects two important aspects of the contemporary world, the media and the politics of the body. Her novel brings together issues of race, reproduction, and the side effects of drug use in the meat industry with the way transnational media influences culture. Jane, the Japanese-American protagonist, directs tv programs about American wives cooking meat dishes to be aired in Japan with the intent to increase meat sales. The sponsor, Beef-ex, an American beef export company remains in the background as the figure of the multinational corporation that has a greater influence on the body than one might imagine. The text ties together the narrative of the production of the program with the story of a Japanese housewife who watches the program to highlight the responsibility of transnational media when challenging cultural norms.


On one hand, the program has an overt goal of producing cultural change; it aims to influence meat consumption in Japan by proffering a vision of the happy, American family eating meat. It sells meat through its association with American values, amounting to what many call cultural imperialism. Media theorist James Lull explains this viewpoint as "a process that homogenizes thought and experience, destroys local cultures, exploits their populations and makes way too much money for the anonymous, often foreign corporate producers." However, Lull argues that this argument does not hold much weight. "Even the most fundamental idea that widespread representation of cultural forms leads to undifferentiated reception of those forms - an unstated assumption that underlies the usual critical argument - simply does not hold." Contemporary media allows for interactive engagement through a variety of communication technologies making the homogenization of culture more complicated.

The novel complicates the view by showing the multiple and singular nature of the American family. Jane takes the responsibility to show the diversity of the American family while challenging the influence of the sponsor by focusing on more than just beef. Jane creates a needed tension between the goals of the sponsor and the show. Thus, she complicates the cultural influence of the program, and as a result, produces a different outcome than expected, demonstrating how the media can be a positive tool for change across borders.

Furthermore, the body remains the central focus of both the program and the text, as the issue of meat production comes to the forefront. Specifically, the effect of harmful drugs used in feed lots and slaughterhouses on human reproduction, antibiotic effectiveness, and other side effects.

The media can make people aware of the problems, but the text specifically highlights the ineffectiveness of the media to create changes in individual behavior. Jane explains the difficulty of linking media information to action. "Coming at us like this - in waves, massed and unbreachable - knowledge becomes symbolic of our disempowerment - becomes bad knowledge - so we deny it, riding its crest until it subsides from consciousness." The realization throws another wrench into the battle over the body for Jane. "Ignorance is an act of will," she explains, "a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence." Thus, she realizes her limitations and attempts to go outside of the mainstream by producing unique programing that confronts the politics of the body. Even thought she realizes the effect may be limited, she still pushes forth, and in the end, changes one Japanese woman who contacts her seeking a new life for herself and her child based upon the diverse views she saw in Jane's programs. Diversity prevailed, even in the media.

1 comment:

Danielle Moyer said...

It is interesting that even after Jane decides to undermine the beef company she still uses the media as the tool to prove diversity in American society. Although, her motivations change from start to finish she is still consumed with the influence of the media. There is a reliance on the effects and influence of the media. Ironically, Jane is consumed with media consumption along with the viewers. Although, Jane does take part in the transformation of the media into a positive tool, her attempts do not reveal problems in the media to her viewers. Ultimately, Beef-ex is economically damaged, and Jane gains awareness as a single individual. In retrospect, the diversity does not derive from the media itself. Rather it has a source of fuel, that being Jane, to veer the media in the right direction. Without Jane, the media would have continued running for profit not thinking twice about "diversity".