Monday, March 7, 2011

Is the media all powerful?

Media studies

Left wing commentators have always tended to equate media monopolies with unlimited social control. When the mass media first became a subject of study in the 1930s, academics were in awe of the media's power because of its novelty, and because some believed mass media had played a key role in the rise of fascism. On the reformist left Adorno and Horkheimer in Germany concluded that what they called the 'culture industry' was moulding the masses' subjectivity with mechanical standardisation, in the process creating a population ripe for fascist ideas. Mainstream academic studies developed what has come to be called the 'hypodermic' theory of media effects, not much more sophisticated than a theory of brainwashing.

After the war the academic consensus shifted. A whole range of studies in the 1940s and 1950s stressed differences in the way that media 'messages' were received and understood. Sociologists pointed to studies showing that the average member of the media audience 'reacts not merely as an isolated personality but also as a member of the various groups to which he belongs and with which he communicates'.25 These conclusions were based on the first systematic attempts at audience research and clearly constituted a step forward from the crude brainwashing or 'hypodermic' model. Social class, gender, political affiliation and 'sub-cultural formations' were all found to influence the way individuals received information from the media.26 However, in the hands of sociologists like Shils and Bell these conclusions were used to build a rosy Liberal pluralist view of American democracy that contributed to the Cold War offensive against the left. In this increasingly influential model American democracy functioned, in an albeit imperfect and pragmatic way, as an 'open society'. Questions of media ownership were sidestepped by concentration on the mediating influence of a host of primary groups--the family, the church, trade union branches or a local business community--and by a model of 'competition for opinion: that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for people's votes'.27

This pluralistic view of opinion formation prevailed in academia until sometime in the 1960s. In the words of Stuart-Hall, 'It was not, however, destined to survive the testing times of the ghetto rebellions, campus revolts, counter-cultural upheavals and anti-war movements of the late 60s'.28 In the late 1960s and early 1970s the notion of 'ideology' returned to the debate. 'Critical' social theorists began to argue that, rather than simply 'reflecting' a pre-existing social consensus, the media was part of 'producing' it. The return of ideology to the debate was welcome, and amongst the flood of 'radical' or 'critical' media studies that came out of the 1970s and 1980s there is a good deal that is useful. But media studies was based in the universities and colleges and its key exponents, such as Stuart Hall, James Cullan and Tony Bennet, were, like most academics, inclined to exaggerate the role of ideology in society. Many of these writers were influenced by Marx, but rather than using Marx's sophisticated grasp of the interplay between social structure and human activity and consciousness in society to develop an understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of ruling class ideology, they argued that Marx had simply underestimated the importance of 'the non-coercive aspects of power'.29

For support they looked particularly to the work of French structuralist Louis Althusser, and a distorted reading of the work of Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci. Althusser completely broke the link, essential to Marxism, between economic development and ideas in society, arguing that ruling class ideology operated 'autonomously' of other social factors. What was needed therefore, was patient exposure of ruling class ideas from within the 'ideological state apparatus'. This was a consoling notion for academics who could now claim that their academic research was their 'revolutionary practice' (or praxis, as they pretentiously called it).

The work of Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci was more selectively plundered. Gramsci had pointed out (as had both Lenin and Trotsky) that workers need to create an independent pole of attraction in society to gain enough social leverage--hegemony as he called it--to take power. In developing this analysis, Gramsci stressed the complexity of 'civil society' and the need of workers to gain influence and hegemony through a range of institutions. Media studies academics took up Gramsci's stress on 'the central role which the superstructures, the state and civil associations, politics and ideology, play'30 to justify their inflated view of the importance of the media.

Both these strands of thinking removed class struggle from the picture. Ideology for the post-Althusserians was coded into language itself, and therefore undetectable to the masses. Only a handful of enlightened academics could penetrate the seamless world of ideological illusion. Gramsci's writings were used, or abused, to justify arguments for taking up influential positions within the media, and making 'tactical' alliances with just about anyone. Work that had started out as a critique of the capitalist media had become an attack on Marxism, a rejection of the possibility of change.

For all the obscurity of much of their reasoning, many of their political conclusions were straightforward. They recognised the stubbornness of bourgeois ideology and the necessity to fight for 'hegemony positions' within civil society. But many media academics either succumbed to postmodernist apathy or joined the Labour Party. There many of their ideas were used to bolster the new realists against anyone who still talked about 'class struggle'.

Unfortunately, most of the academics who have tried to challenge the pervasive pessimism within media studies have fallen back on pure subjectivity. Writers like Morley and Fiske have once again stressed the fact that different groups or individuals produce their own meanings from the same text. These diverse responses are presented as a form of resistance to dominant ideology. Morley and Fiske want to centre the production of meaning back on the individual as a means to reassert the possibility of human resistance to what Fiske calls 'the power bloc'. But because there is no notion of class in their analysis and no attempt to explain the relationship between 'ideology' and 'reality', they allow no possibility for the emergence of a coherent or united movement that could challenge 'the power bloc in reality'. Resistance could only be local: 'It is in micro-politics that popular control is most effectively exercised'.31 The danger is that by simply stressing people's ability to interpret the media for themselves, we end up with a postmodern view of communication in which meaning depends entirely on the receiver, the complete opposite of the Althusserian notion of an all powerful ideology--but equally unhelpful.

'Interactive' cable technologies have raised new questions. Fringe sections of the American right were the first to claim that they can help to take power away from a remote political elite, and win it back for the people. 'Today's spectacular advances in communications technology open, for the first time, a mind boggling array of direct citizens' participation in political decision making'.32

In Britain Labour media experts have taken up these wild claims: 'The electronic revolution could significantly alter the effectiveness of UK democracy by ensuring that ordinary people could constantly access information and input their views using new technology'.33

The new communications technology is theoretically exciting. But it is not in itself going to democratise anything. Would it give us access to information currently withheld? Will it give us more power over decision making? Will it put us in direct contact with anyone we can't already get on the phone? The information superhighway would no doubt be put to good use in a socialist society. But the problem with our present 'democracy' is not that we don't have adequate communications technology. Our parliamentary representatives already know from the polls that the majority oppose privatisation, health cuts and the recent huge pay rises for the rich. The problem is they are socially and politically tied to the establishment and we have no control over them.

The 'left' media analysts approach the media in isolation from wider society. The fact that they overestimate the media's power leads them either to pessimism or a naive confidence in the 'revolutionary' potential of new communications technology. Either way they do not get to grips with the complete relationship between the media and public opinion and the changing, contradictory nature of media 'effects': the fact that long accepted attitudes propagated in the media can suddenly be questioned on a mass scale, or that different sections of society are more critical of the media than others, or even that the same individual will happily go along with certain media prejudices, but reject others.

Media academics overstate the media's influence because they are remote from the majority of the population. And because of the increasing rightward shift in intellectual attitudes in the last 15 years they have little theoretical understanding of how real challenges to ruling class ideology can arise.

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