"Media" and Millennial Runoff

C. Philip Mills

August 18, 2022

The most stunning realizations are of something one thought one already knew. These bring into question whether one really knew what they thought they knew to begin with.

My girlfriend works for one of the three big talent agencies in Hollywood. Most don’t understand what such agencies actually do aside from represent celebrities. In truth, they can often appear as the directors of the culture industry itself. As of 2018, about 90% of television shows were “packaged,” the practice of an agency’s putting various talent it represents into a project it represents and then selling the project to a content outlet. This amounts to agencies standing above the entire culture industry to determine what does and does not get made.

Packaging is often motivated by virtue of a potential work’s stupidity. Work that elicits a response of “I-can’t-believe-they-made-this” sells. Given the cynicism that infects this impetus for creation, one might imagine that the general planners of the culture industry do not themselves partake of it. That conclusion would be a mistake.

In virtual meetings with agency employees that I’ve had the privilege to eavesdrop on, I’ve often heard a manager begin with, “What did everyone watch this week?” To this, assistants will list two or three series they’ve recently binge-watched — tasks that consume hours upon hours of time. These employees often work up to 13-hour days; their time to themselves is limited. Yet they do not view themselves as above it all — snide puppeteers of culture. Rather, they themselves are avid consumers of the culture industry’s products. Knowing how the sausage is made only makes it more savory. I thought I already understood this. I work in film, so I was already familiar with the subjectivity of the culture industry. Yet the shock I felt in getting a glimpse at the world of agencies surprised me.

Packaging is not limited to media content. Agencies act as cultural impresarios, coordinating various marketing firms and industries to act in a way that would be traditionally associated with monopoly. Kombucha became popular in the West because one of the three big agencies decided it would direct its clients to push it, presumably with itself and its clients as the beneficiaries of future investments in the products and production chains that facilitate kombucha production. But this happened on a whim, not due to the careful calculation of industrial magnates.

The conspiratorial thinking that the average person engages in regarding how media manipulates them presumes that there is a subject standing above the social apparatus, actually in control. But in fact, the passivity of the audience presumed by mass media, which inspires this conspiratorial thinking, is most prominent at the top. The planned society finds its parody in the massive apparatus overseen by Hollywood agencies that direct culture on a whim, but, as it can only direct culture, it can only affect the world quantitatively. In truth, it’s more productive to ask what agencies, what media, cannot do. In this question, one finds what was historically the task of the Left — overcoming culture, overcoming society, overcoming capitalism. Today, however, it is precisely what agencies do — quantitative changes in the cultural sphere ordained by whim — that the Left upholds as politics.

Media as Failure

In the decade since #Occupy, the American sectarian Left has largely collapsed. At first glance, this organizational implosion seems to pose the possibility of overcoming the thought barriers built in and through the fai