The film What the Bleep Do We Know? presents diverse and often contentious processes of meaning generation. The ‘fixing’ and ‘crystallization’ of meaning and its modes of conveyance are inextricably enmeshed with the reception of meaning – the process of consumption. Meanings, no matter how esoteric and isolated, are ultimately shared, and its consumption must be examined within the context of sharing. Theodore Schwartz offers a conceptual tool that places Appadurai’s global flows and landscapes within the real of the individual, through his concept of the “idioverse.” From his main objective of locating where “culture rests,” he defines the idioverse as follows: “… this view of process and performance, of which units are total human beings in full psychological concreteness, not abstract, general sociocultural entities, but each … an ‘idioverse’ with his/her individual cognitive, evaluative, and effective mappings of structure of events and classes of events in his/her sociocultural field.” (Schwartz, 1978: 410) Furthermore, he presents that “… the notion of idioverse is a valuable one, for it postulates that ‘a culture has its distributive existence as the set of personalities of the members of a population, thus allowing for negotiation and dispute over what should be authoritative or legitimate in that culture, in other words, for social dramatic action.” (Schwartz, 1978: 423-424) The concept of culture as distributive and ultimately negotiated, and its capacity to effect manifest action, echoes what Carolan presents above as the endowment of greater agency on individuals in formulating the components of their lived and imagined lives, and in ascribing positions of authority to determine quality and authenticity. (Carolan, 2003) But in looking at meaning as a social phenomenon, as ultimately shared, it is necessary to examine the organization of the “idioverse,” which elements constitute conventions that are inherently normative. Idioverses make use of ideological frames of reference that are determined by a given individual’s maneuvering strategies through global flows and landscapes. But these individual maneuverings, given that they are motivated by the establishment of frames, are automatically influenced by the prospect of sharing at the end of the journey. This idea can best be illustrated through the examination of film as an artistic cultural product.
Any cultural product such as a film, artistic or otherwise, must be conceptualized in relation to a perceiver. The mind is never at rest, always seeking order and significance, always combing the world for anomalous instances. For better or for worse, cultural products “rely on this dynamic, unifying quality of the human mind. They provide organized occations in which we exercise and develop our ability to pay attention, to anticipate upcoming events, to draw conclusions, and to construct a whole out of parts.” (Bordwell, et. al., 1997: 23) But cultural products are human artifacts, and because a given producer lives within a particular history and society, s/he cannot avoid to relate her/his product to other products and to aspects of the world in general. Conventions consist of tradition, prevalent syles, popular forms, etc. that can situate a given product within an overall scheme. Even cutting-edge or revolutionary works are situated within the context of convention. In this light, a film’s explicit or implicit meanings are contextualized within a particular set of socio-cultural, political, and economic values. This sort of meaning that Bordwell terms as symptomatic, contains values that get revealed, and ultimately determines the ideology of the film. (Bordwell, et. al., 1997: 33)
Shea looks at film as an agent of political socialization, and proposes that cumulative indoctrination through this medium is profound because the message is often veiled. In any given film, political messages are often incidental, but their value cannot be downplayed. Audiences view films to be entertained. “It is when people think they are just being entertained that political messages have their greatest impact – beliefs are less likely to be preached than assumed.” (Shea 2002) But the ideology of film is not a static construct that is inert within the duration of conveyance and consumption. It is a seed that presents itself to scrutiny and transformation. It makes demands from its consumers, but its transformation is not subject to any notion of accountability. Audiences are not “passive cultural dopes,” but neither are they responsible ones. The consumption of film, and its ideology rests heavily on individual agency in the generation of meanings.
The role of individual agency in film consumption offers the possibility of skillful actors with a “toolkit” containing a wide array of images that they can use to do different things in different situations – “the pieces necessary for constructing different strategies for action.” Given that all cultures consist of diverse, often conflicting elements that can serve as agents of political socialization and effective mobilization, individual consumers are modeled as active and skilled users of culture. (Swidler, 1998) Furthermore, global flows and landscapes are effectively made a part of this “toolkit,” allowing an individual a degree of agency to change the composition of their lives as shared, as lived, and as imagined. The exercise of agency in an individual’s political socialization through film consumption brings forth the importance of the processes of negotiation and integration. An overwhelming amount of images assaults any individual at a given time and situation. The generation of meaning is not confined within specific “packets” of messages; it is fluid, conflict-ridden, but integrative in the end. The liminal stage, as a state on a threshold (limen) “betwixt and between” more established elements of the social process, (Turner, 1988: 75) provides an effective space wherein individuals can negotiate and integrate the components of their identity amidst nascent and constantly reformulated rules – a formative space of liminality.
Appadurai, Arjun, 1991. “Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology” in Richard Fox, ed., Recapturing Anthropology. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, pp. 196-224.
Appadurai, Arjun, 1992. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” in Mike Featherstone, ed., Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity. London: Sage Publications, pp. 295-310.
Bordwell, David & Thompson, Kristin, 1997. Film Art: An Introduction/Fifth Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
Carolan, Brian, 2003. “Technology, Schools and the Decentralization of Culture”. First Monday, Volume 8, Number 6, October 2003, at
Schwartz, Theodore, 1978. “Where is the Culture?” in George Spindler, ed., The Making of Psychological Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 419-441.
Shea, Daniel, 2002. “Why PopPolitics? A political science professor examines the influence popular culture has on politics, politics has on popular culture, and why it all matters”. PopPolitics.com, at
Swidler, A., 1998. “Culture and social action,” in P. Smith, ed., The New American Cultural Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 171-187.
Turner, Victor, 1988. The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.