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mass media and communications

During the Enlightenment and the period of eighteenth-

century revolutions, the press was perceived

as a progressive source of information, debate, and

political transformation. The nineteenth century,

however, saw the rise of a commercial press and

sensationalistic pandering to the masses that

evoked critique of emergent mass media and communication.

With the rise of mass entertainment,

broadcasting, and a proliferation of new media in

the twentieth century, there were a series of critiques

of mass culture and communication, from

the right and left. Mass media and communications

were linked to the rise of what critics saw as

individualism and mass society, which were in turn

interpreted as threats to democracy, freedom, and

other positive values.

Critiques of mass culture and the press began

emerging during the late eighteenth century. Leo

Lowenthal in Literature, Popular Culture, and Society

(1961: 20) cites the comment of J. W. Goethe (1749–

1832) that the press constitutes a squandering of

time wherein the reader “wastes the days and lives

from hand to mouth, without creating anything.”

Anticipating Søren Kierkegaard (1815–55), he criticized

the ways that modern entertainment and

the press promoted passivity and conformity,

noting in a ditty how the press is eager to provide

its readers with almost anything except dissenting


Come let us print it all

And be busy everywhere;

But no one should stir

Who does not think like we.

Others had more optimistic appraisals of the

impact of mass media, and particularly the press.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, famously, compared

reading the daily newspaper with morning

prayer. Karl Marx in Collected Works (1975, vol. I:

165), had an especially high opinion of the press in

the promotion of democracy and civil liberties,

writing in 1842 that:

The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a

people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in

itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual

with the state and the world, the embodied culture

that transforms material struggles into intellectual

struggles and idealizes their crude material form. It

is a people’s frank confession to itself, and the

redeeming power of confession is well known. It is

the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself,

and self-examination is the first condition of

wisdom. It is the spirit of the state, which can be

delivered into every cottage, cheaper than coal gas. It

is all-sided, ubiquitous, omniscient. It is the ideal

world which always wells up out of the real world

and flows back into it with every greater spiritual

riches and renews its soul.

By the 1840s, the press was thus a contested terrain

with fervent defenders and critics. Some saw

mass media and communications mass media and communications


it as an instrument of progress and enlightenment,

while others saw it as an instrument of distraction

and banality. Different political groupings were developing

their own distinct presses and attempting

to shape public opinion in various ways. While

Goethe and others made some critical remarks

concerning the press of the day, one of the first

systematic and sustained attacks on the press is

evident in Danish philosopher/theologian Kierkegaard’s

polemic The Present Age (1846 [trans. 1982]),

with the satirical Danish review The Corsair, which

published articles making fun of him in late 1845,

inciting him into a literary duel with the journal.

Kierkegaard’s efforts constitute one of the first critiques

of print media as an instrument for the

creation of mass audience and political manipulation,

producing an early assault against the media

and foreshadowing later critical theories of mass

media and society.

Anticipating later Marxist and conservative critiques

of the media, Kierkegaard argues that when

“passion and commercial interest determine the

issue,” when “the rattle of money in the cashbox”

is at stake, the propensity for corruption increases

(1982: 172). Kierkegaard reveals insight here into the

economic roots of the features of the press that he

finds scandalous, arguing that “immoral slander” is

“of no benefit whatsoever” and “does great harm

because it seduces the unstable, the irresponsible,

the sensate, those who are lost in earthly passions,

seduces them by means of ambiguity, lack of character

and the concealment of brash contempt under

the pursuit of the comic” (1982: 179–80).

Interestingly, Kierkegaard’s privileged metaphor

for the press is that it is a vicious attack

dog. He does not theorize the press as a guardian

of the public’s interests, as it was initially conceived

to be in democratic theory, but rather as a

predator that goes after individuals in a contemptible

way. The press, he argued, is fundamentally

irresponsible because its writers were

anonymous and did not assume responsibility for

what they wrote. In addition to undertaking an

ethical critique of the press, Kierkegaard was one

of the first to see that the press is a mass medium

which addresses its audience as members of a

crowd and that itself helps to create a mass society.

The press plays a fundamental role, Kierkegaard

suggests, in producing a public, a crowd

devoid of individuality and independent judgment,

their thought determined by the authority

of printed words and editorial fiat. The average

man in the street, Kierkegaard suggests, “believes

that what appears in the newspapers is public

opinion, the voice of the people and of truth”

(1982: 186).

Kierkegaard thus points to the ways that the

press simulates authority and objectivity and can

thus make a lie appear as truth, or an opinion as

fact. Inverting the liberal theory of public opinion

(which is supposed to protect the interests of

the public against corrupt authority), Kierkegaard

claims that the press creates a phantom public

devoid of character and individuality. Consequently,

Kierkegaard, like later postmodern

theory, ascribes to communications media a tremendous

role in producing a mass society without

distinction, individuality, or conviction. Devoid of

individuality, the masses themselves are an abstraction

and the main effect of modern society

is a leveling of the population into a mass.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) believed that

modern society had become so chaotic, fragmented,

and devoid of “creative force” that it

had lost the resources to create a vital culture,

and that ultimately it greatly advanced the decline

of the human species that had already begun

early in western history. In Nietzsche’s view, two

complementary trends were evident that were

producing contradictory processes of “massification”

and fragmentation -- the extreme consequences

of which would be a central theme of

some postmodern theory. On one hand, for

Nietzsche, modern society was fragmenting into

warring groups, factions, and individuals, without

any overriding purpose or shared goals. On

the other hand, it was leveling individuals into a

herd, bereft of individuality, spontaneity, passion,

and creativity. Both trends were harmful to the

development of the sort of free, creative, and

strong individuality championed by Nietzsche,

and thus he was sharply critical of each.

In their groundbreaking work Dialectic of Enlightenment

(1948 [trans. 1972]), Max Horkheimer and

Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno coined the term culture

industry to signify the process of the industrialization

(see industrial society) of mass-produced

culture and the commercial imperatives that constructed

it. The critical theorists analyzed all massmediated

cultural artifacts within the context of

industrial production, in which the commodities

of the culture industries exhibited the same features

as other products of mass production: commodification,

standardization, and massification.

The culture industries had the specific function,

however, of providing ideological legitimation of

the existing capitalist society and of integrating

individuals into its way of life.

mass media and communications mass media and communications


For the Frankfurt School, mass culture and communications

therefore stand in the center of leisure

activity, are important agents of socialization,

mediators of political reality, and should thus be

seen as major institutions of contemporary societies

with a variety of economic, political, cultural,

and social effects. Furthermore, the critical theorists

investigated the cultural industries politically

as a form of the integration of the working class

into capitalist societies. The Frankfurt School theorists

were among the first neo-Marxian groups to

examine the effects of mass culture and the rise of

the consumer society on the working classes that

were to be the instrument of revolution in the

classical Marxian scenario. They also analyzed the

ways that the culture industries and consumer

society were stabilizing contemporary capitalism

and accordingly sought new strategies for political

change, agencies of political transformation, and

models for political emancipation that could serve

as norms of social critique and goals for political


The positions of Adorno, Horkheimer, Lowenthal,

and other members of the inner circle of the Institute

for Social Research were contested by Walter

Benjamin, an idiosyncratic theorist loosely affiliated

with the Institute. Benjamin, writing in Paris

during the 1930s, discerned progressive aspects in

new technologies of cultural production such as

photography, film, and radio. In “The Work of Art

in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1934

[trans. 1968]), Benjamin noted how new mass

media were supplanting older forms of culture. In

this context, the mass reproduction of photography,

film, recordings, and publications replaced

the emphasis on the originality and “aura” of the

work of art in an earlier era. Freed from the mystification

of high culture, Benjamin believed that

mass culture could cultivate more critical individuals

able to judge and analyze their culture, just as

sports fans could dissect and evaluate athletic activities.

In addition, Benjamin asserted that processing

the rush of images of cinema helped to

create subjectivities better able to parry the flux

and turbulence of experience in industrialized,

urbanized societies.

Collaborating with the prolific German artist

Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), Benjamin worked on

films, created radio plays, and attempted to utilize

the media as organs of social progress. In the

lecture in 1934 on “The Author as Producer”

(1966 [trans. 1978]), Benjamin argued that radical

cultural creators should “refunction” the apparatus

of cultural production, turning theatre

and film, for instance, into a forum of political

enlightenment and discussion rather than a medium

of “culinary” audience pleasure. Both Brecht

and Benjamin wrote radio plays and were interested

in film as an instrument of progressive

social change. In an essay on radio theory, Brecht

anticipated the internet in his call for reconstructing

the apparatus of broadcasting from one-way

transmission to a more interactive form of twoway,

or multiple, communication -- a form first

realized in CB radio and then electronically

mediated computer communication.

Moreover, Benjamin wished to promote a radical

cultural and media politics concerned with the creation

of alternative oppositional cultures. Yet he

recognized that media such as film could have conservative

effects. While he thought it was progressive

that mass-produced works were losing their

“aura,” their magical force, and were opening cultural

artifacts to more critical and political discussion,

Benjamin recognized that film could create a

new kind of ideological magic through the cult of

celebrity and techniques like the close-up that fetishized

certain film stars or images via the technology

of the cinema. Benjamin was thus one of the

first radical cultural critics to look carefully at the

form and technology of media culture in appraising

its complex nature and effects.

Horkheimer and Adorno answered Benjamin’s

optimism concerning the mass media in Dialectic

of Enlightenment. They argued that the system of

cultural production dominated by film, radio

broadcasting, newspapers, and magazines was

controlled by advertising and commercial imperatives,

and served to create subservience to the

system of consumer capitalism. While later critics

pronounced their approach too manipulative, reductive,

and elitist, it provides an important corrective

to more populist approaches to media culture

that downplay the way the media industries exert

power over audiences and help produce thought

and behavior that conforms to the existing society.

Ju¨rgen Habermas, a student of Adorno and Horkheimer,

provided useful historical perspectives on

the transition from traditional culture and the

democratic public sphere to a mass-produced

media and consumer society. In The Structural

Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962 [trans.

1989]), Habermas historicized Adorno and Horkheimer’s

analysis of the culture industry. Providing

historical background to the triumph of the

culture industry, Habermas discussed how bourgeois

society in the late eighteenth and nineteenth

centuries was distinguished by the rise of

a public sphere that stood between civil society

and the state and which mediated between public

mass media and communications mass media and communications


and private interests. For the first time in history,

individuals and groups could shape public opinion,

giving direct expression to their needs and

interests while influencing political practice. The

bourgeois public sphere made it possible to form a

realm of public opinion that opposed state power

and the powerful interests that were coming to

shape bourgeois society.

Habermas analyzed a transition from the liberal

public sphere that originated in the Enlightenment

and the American and French Revolutions

to a media-dominated public sphere in the current

stage of what he calls “welfare state capitalism and

mass democracy.” This historical transformation is

grounded in Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory of

the culture industry, in which giant corporations

have taken over the public sphere and transformed

it from a site of rational debate into one of manipulative

consumption and passivity. In this transformation,

“public opinion” shifts from rational

consensus emerging from debate, discussion, and

reflection, to the manufactured opinion of polls

or media experts. For Habermas, the interconnection

between the sphere of public debate and individual

participation has thus been fractured and

transmuted into that of a realm of political

manipulation and spectacle, in which citizen-consumers

ingest and passively absorb entertainment

and information. “Citizens” thus become spectators

of media presentations and discourse which

arbitrate public discussion and reduce its audiences

to objects of news, information, and public


As communication studies began emerging in

the 1930s and 1940s, and as theorists noted the

power of propaganda in World War II, a wide

range of texts began appearing on the social

effects of the media, promoting debate over the

media and social problems, and the media as a

social problem. Some of the first empirical studies

of the effects of film, for instance, criticized the

cinema for promoting immorality, juvenile delinquency,

and violence. The Motion Picture Research

Council funded the Payne Foundation to undertake

detailed empirical studies of the impact of

films on everyday life and social behavior. Ten

volumes were eventually published and a book,

Our Movie-Made Children (1933), sensationalized

the Payne findings, triggering debates about the

media and how they inflamed social problems like

crime, youth problems, sexual promiscuity, and

what was perceived as undesirable social behavior.

The first models of mass communication built

on studies of propaganda, film influence, advertising,

and other media studies, assumed a direct

and powerful influence of media on the audience.

This model became known as the “bullet,” or

“hypodermic,” theory, asserting that the media

directly shape thought and behavior and thus

induce social problems like crime and violence,

rebellious social behavior, mindless consumption,

or mass political behavior. Based on research by

Harold Lasswell, in Propaganda Technique in the

Modern World (1927), there were a number of

studies in the 1930s and 1940s of the propaganda

role of the media in World Wars I and II, reflecting

concern about the roles of film, advertising,

and other media in intensifying a number of

social problems ranging from crime to growing

numbers of teenage pregnancies.

This model of powerful and direct media effects

was questioned in The People’s Choice (1944) by Paul

Lazarsfeld and his colleagues Bernard Berelson

and Hazel Gaulet who, in a study of the influence

of the media on voters, determined that it was

“opinion leaders” who were the primary influence

in voting behavior, while the media exerted a

“secondary” influence. Lazersfeld and Elihu Katz

expanded this model in Personal Influence: The Part

Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communication

(1955). Their “two-step flow” model claimed that

opinion leaders are the primary influence in determining

consumer and political choice, as well

as attitudes and values. This model holds that the

media do not have direct influence on behavior,

but are mediated by primary groups and personal

influence, thus in effect denying that the media

themselves are a social problem because they

merely report on issues and reinforce behavior

already dominant in a society.

Yet both conservatives and left-liberal media

critics argued that the media had harmful social

effects and promoted social problems. Growing

juvenile delinquency in the 1950s was blamed on

comic books, such as Fredric Wertham’s Seduction

of the Innocent (1954), and rock and roll was broadly

attacked for having a wide range of subversive

effects. In the 1960s, many different studies of

the media and violence appeared throughout the

world in response to growing violence in society

and more permissive public media that increased

representations of implicit sex and violence in

film, television, and other media.

In addition to seeing the media as a social problem

because of growing media and societal violence,

from the 1960s to the present, left-liberal

and conservative media critics coalesced in arguing

that mainstream media promote excessive

consumerism and commodification. This view is

argued in sociological terms in the work of Daniel

mass media and communications mass media and communications


Bell, who asserted in The Cultural Contradictions of

Capitalism (1978) that a sensate–hedonistic culture

exhibited in popular media and promoted by

capitalist corporations was undermining core

traditional values and producing an increasingly

amoral society. Bell called for a return to tradition

and religion to counter this social trend and saw

media culture as undermining morality, the work

ethic, and traditional values.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Neil Postman

argued that popular media culture has become a

major force of socialization and was subverting

traditional literacy skills, thus undermining education.

Postman criticized the negative social effects

of the media and called for educators and citizens

to intensify their criticisms of it. Extolling the

virtues of book culture and literacy, Postman called

for educational reform to counter the nefarious

effects of media and consumer culture.

Mass culture and communication was of great

interest in the United Kingdom and Europe, as

well as the United States. While the Frankfurt

School arguably articulates cultural conditions in

the stage of state monopoly capitalism or Fordism

that produced a regime of mass production and

consumption, British cultural studies emerged in

the 1960s when, first, there was widespread global

resistance to consumer capitalism and an upsurge

of revolutionary movements, and then emergence

of a new stage of capital, described as post-

Fordism, postmodernity, or other terminology

that attempted to describe a more variegated and

contested social and cultural formation. Moreover,

the forms of society and culture described by the

earliest phase of British cultural studies in the

1950s and early 1960s articulated conditions in an

era in which there were still significant tensions in

Britain and much of Europe between an older

working-class-based culture and the newer massproduced

culture whose models and exemplars

came from American culture industries.

The initial project of cultural studies developed

by Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and E. P.

Thompson attempted to preserve working-class

culture against onslaughts of mass culture and

communication from the culture industries.

Thompson’s inquiries into the history of British

working-class institutions and struggles, the defenses

of working-class culture by Hoggart and

Williams, and their attacks on mass culture were

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