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Monthly Archives: May 2006

why I started reading Marx in the first place. In the style of US education I experienced (mostly public, but with secondary education split: two years catholic-private and two years suburb-public advanced placement track), it occured to me, for a reason I am not aware, that the theories of Karl Marx were implicated in so many major events and yet so casually disregarded, or relegated to a single 45 minute class. Maybe some students read the Communist Manifesto, which even Engels says in the Introduction was a polemic, an important one no doubt, but a dated one as well. However it is perhaps impossible for most teachers let alone teenagers of the United States to read a polemic like the manifesto and understand, at the very least, what is meant by the term ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. A dictatorship is a particular arrangement of rule generating fields. It can be a dictatorship in the sense we think of today, i.e. Pakistan, Cuba, North Korea, Libya, etc., or it can be a ‘representative’ republic. In either case there are those with much power to dictate and participate in dictation and those with much less. Furthermore, as even the most basic demographic and economic statistics will make clear, there are clear trends and dominant patterns as to which groups dictate in any given system. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ makes much more sense when put next to the concept ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’.

Of course, I’ll be the first to suggest that better and more sophisticated terms exist for analyzing the manifestations of dominant groups in society. However, that is not the issue at hand. The one or two classes that, thankfully, can be afforded the theories of Marx should at least present the material in an informed manner. The vast majority of school teachers (and probably even most teaching university) are not equipped to talk about Marx. Few of them have read it, and most of what they have read about it provided the very misconceptions they go on to teach. Do not get me wrong. Mrs. Fidler and Mr. Heys were (are I hope) great and passionate teachers who instilled the same in their students. However, neither could explain accurately the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and indeed both used it as evidence of marxism’s dictatorial (popular sense) agenda. This was the same teacher who created a handout bulleting some of the main points of a school of historians studying the US and USSR as ‘enemies in the mirror’ -a progressive idea in the US classroom; a hand out for which he claims he could have received some form of disciplinary action. Teachers need people with more knowledge on a subject from time to time. In fact, Mrs. Fidler often brought guest speakers into the classroom, an Egyptologist, a Hindu physics professor, a Zen monk of ‘western’ descent. Perhaps if I ever live in Omaha before she moves or retires I can feature for a class or two… Critical theorists, do you know a teacher? Should guest speakers become a bigger part of classroom agendas in general? If the teacher was more of a mediator between specialists and students, could the teacher then focus even more on their areas of interest and be expert in those? Dissolve the role of teacher by making the task universal (which it really already is in so many ways). Erect the role of mediator and guide.

I want to talk about something completely different this week. Well, to be honest it’s not that different. In fact it definitely constitutes an element of international popular culture. Star Trek. What role can or do television serials –a timeless format, have in political discourse? My aim for the remainder of this article is to demonstrate why this is not ridiculous to ask.

First of all, I believe that it is difficult to talk about the political, or at least to talk about it in traditional terms. The classic categories of culture, economics, and politics are utterly intertwined –the evolving product of human mind, mouth, and labor. We cannot criticize news for preferential coverage of elite ‘politics’ on the one hand, but then on the other hand suggest that hard news or strict informational programs (the very programs the officials fully harness) are the only formats of/for televised legitimizing discourse. While such programs, when presented in deliberative formats, may aid the democratic discussion, to suggest they are the only programs to do so is to look at only one part of the picture. To relegate the majority of what happens on television as ‘just entertainment’ and therefore irrelevant or even damaging to political discourse and then leave it unstudied and unanalyzed is a disservice. It conceptualizes entertainment content in monolithic and ‘less than’ terms without considering the actual quality of the various contents. Furthermore, it neglects the fact that not all politics is functional and issue driven. In addition to the ‘emotional politics’ exemplified in some talk show formats and adeptly advocated by Costera (Costera-Meijer: 2001). Politics also has a theoretical-abstract element as well which I believe people can and do access and consider in some storytelling contexts.

             Serialized story-telling is ancient. Communicating abstract concepts, morals, and beliefs through story is timeless. In story, characters, (usually) of a type the audience identifies/sympathizes with, navigate obstacles and antagonists both of which combine to bring the character’s life, identity, and/or normative views into crisis. Characters make questionable decisions. Audiences reflect upon the decisions a character made and sympathize, vilify, admire, admonish, ignore (or whatever) as they reflect and judge -a statement of agree or disagree or agree but… The actions of the characters in the story reveal ‘truth’ not only about the characters and ethics involved, but quite possibly some ‘truth’ within the life-world of the reader as well. In exceptionally crude forms this plays out in sensational dichotomous struggles. However, there are more ‘sophisticated’ morality plays, and it is the potential for television’s drama/fiction serial format to engage the audience in abstract thinking on issues as complex as ontology, epistemology, competing ethical codes, international relations, gender and identity, agency/structure, acceptance or rejection of the ‘other’, etc. that interest me. There is important ‘de-intellectualized’ discourse at play in culture that may well shape the way people approach and interact with ‘the political’.

In particular, I believe the three Star Trek serials: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, are examples of ‘popular’ television that can engage the audience in a substantive and humanist discourse using science-fiction scenarios of the Star Trek Universe as analogs for our own. I will give only one example, as there are probably more examples than there are episodes.

In “The Most Toys”, episode 70 of The Next Generation, Data, an android (a sentient machine) is abducted by an eccentric and extremely egoistic collector of rare objects. He covets Data because Data is a one of a kind object. Data is placed in a special room, made to shed his identity (Starfleet uniform) and ultimately coerced into sitting on the podium and chair intended as his mount or display. Data, who the audience has come to identify for 70 episodes as a peculiar subject, an emotion-les (incomplete) subject, is certainly to most in the audience more a ‘human’ than a thing. The injustice of this abduction is apparent. It is the narrative hook. The villain sees Data as a thing, no different in essence than a vintage baseball card that still smells of stiff and stale gum.

From this scenario one can draw many metaphors. However, one metaphor that has ‘really’ been drawn and applied (at least as a pedagogical tool) from this particular episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation has to do with ethnographic museums and the plundered nature of many ‘exhibits’. Although the discussion of repatriation of cultural artifacts is more progressive within the United States than in Europe, discussion of the issue is gaining ground. Behind glass casing objects lose much of their significance. They are removed from the culture and uses that endowed them with meaning. Behind glass the object is dead. However, that same dead object may possess a meaning beyond what we from our very different culture can perceive. The Maori skull recently repatriated from the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, here in The Netherlands, is a good example. What to us is a curiosity, a Maori skull, is to the Maori a ‘living’ ancestor. So sincerely is this meaning ascribed by the Maori that upon receipt of the skull they sang to the ancestor an orientation of the journey to come (since the ancestor had never heard of planes they needed to be briefed so as not to be alarmed or confused along the way). On two separate occasions two separate objects conservators known to me used excerpts from the aboved discussed Star Trek episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation to communicate these rather abstract and progressive treatments of subjectivity/objectivity, meaning, identity, and significance all of which in the case of repatriation connect to and try to address a legacy of plunder and exploitation in world systems.

In short, I think attention needs to be paid to the ways in which television entertainment acts inter-textually with politics instead of ad hominem dismissals. What other meanings are people drawing out of serials? What elements must be present between the reader and text to engage in the type of meaning construction discussed here? To what extent do people passively watch or actively watch such theoretically loaded and internationally known shows as Star Trek? How do we measure this or something similar? Could a model like Costera’s be adapted to analyze the discourse of television serials? “The variety in attitudes and activity begs an open mind towards what constitutes the political. Citizenship, for that matter, is not a constant, but constantly changing in content and meaning. Life politics and the ‘language of the lifeworld’ (should) have a collective echo in political communication. (Brants: 413).

Works Cited 

Brants, K. (1999). A Rejoinder to Jay G. Blumler. European Journal of Communication, 14(3), 411-415

Costera-Meijer, I. (2001). The public quality of popular journalism: Developing a normative framework. Journalism Studies, 2(2), 189-205

At the front end of last week’s We Media Conference in London, the BBC radio show ‘World Have Your Say’ posed this question for audience response: ‘Who do you trust to provide accurate, truthful information?’

Before moving on into the meat of this post it might be prudent to offer context. The We Media Conference was, ostensibly, commited to furthering ‘the power of us’. Hosted by The Media Center, Reuters, and the BBC, the intent of the conference was to: 

‘foster collaboration through conversations, connections and shared knowledge; organize conversations with individuals and organizations who are using the Internet as a collective force of unprecedented power; create a setting to talk to them and to each other – a day for learning, sharing, ideas and opportunities. We Media is about how we create a better-informed society by collaborating with one another.’

Much of what I overheard, in bits and pieces, seemed to have championed ‘bottom-up’ approaches to structuring ‘new media’ -putting more power in the hands of us by promoting the proliferation of the tools and skills necessary for news and narrative production. This can only be accomplished by cooperatively constructing a structure of de-industrialized news and narrative production process, a de-centered and inter-subjective news, a news where sender and receiver roles are more reciprocal and the number of senders and receivers greater than now and growing. Podcasts, blogs, wikis, and mash-ups are the formats and models most referenced as exemplary potentials. However, we are off track. Suffice to say, AV will take a close look at what information The Media Center has made available (which is a lot) on the conference to see if their activities measure up to their aim (we hope so!).

But first the preface! The question of the day, ‘Who do you trust to provide accurate, truthful information?’

While it is clear people will have particular information sources they trust and others they trust less, the problem I have with this question is that it presents the concepts of ‘accuracy’ and ‘truthfulness’ in objective terms. That is, the question is framed in such a way as to make the issue of blog versus traditional ‘news’ as merely a matter of which media structure is able to adhere to present and popularly (though this may be changing) held ethics of ‘objectivity’ in news production.

The question assumes, as does the objectivist ethic, that there is THE truth out there to report on and that if the reporter distances themselves from the events in question the news will be free of subjective bias and therefore truthful. The problems with this are many, but essentially it boils down to two things: a) is it possible, in the first place, to ever entirely free one’s self of subjective bias? In an industrialized news production process this question takes on additional implications in terms of the many structural influences and directives placed upon the reporting. b) to what extent is ‘objective’ news dehumanized news, a news that silences the voices of the many people effected by the events being ‘objectively’ reported? In the case of Iraq, for example, while the ‘objective’ media focused on explosions and political power plays, it was bloggers who were able to provide subjective context by ‘broadcasting’ their own narratives to the world -or at least the world wealthy enough to purchase access equipment (which were the world members whose governments were causing all the ruckus in the first place -and I’m not just talking about the United States – Europe does imperialism too). 

This is, of course, not even addressing the extent to which social assumptions and presuppositions of news organizations as institutions of truth and its distribution inadvertantly (or perhaps even cynically in some cases, i.e. Fox) both create and mask bias in the news business.

While news institutions are blogging, blogs et al are largely de-centered and generaly cannot pretend to offer ‘objective’ views, i.e. THE truth. It is generally evident to a reader, one would suspect, that the views and information offered are the views and information of and from a partiuclar person with a particular agenda which, in many cases, is explicitly stated. I suggest that such a contextualized subject as provider of information of interest to them is more ‘truthful’ than their counterparts constrained by hierarchy, credentials, and a veil of ‘objective’ ethics.

In light of this, the whole question of ‘who do you trust?’, at least in terms of ‘popular press’, i.e. blogs, podcasts, etc., is largely irrelevant. As one of the respondents to the question said to much applause (and I praphrase heavily since the BBCs online radio player has no ‘rewind’ function) ‘There are over 50 million blogs all run by different people; all offering their own information and perspectives on different or related discussions. Some blogs I trust; others I do not trust, in much the same way there are some journalists I trust and others I do not trust. Therefore this question of whether or not I can trust blogs as a whole means nothing to me’. Can we trust a populated media? Can we not trust ourselves?

http://www.mediacenterblog.org

(See Wed, May 3rd): http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldhaveyoursay/

AV is officially back-logged. The number of pieces to post is outpacing the time to post them. In an attempt to ameliorate this some longer posts will be serialized and released in an asynchronous manner. For those who may have already read part 1, I made significant revisions so chose to replace the old ‘part 1’ post with ‘parts 1 and 2’. On that note, let me present AV’s new category, “The Vulgar Barrel”!

So much sociology is riddled with impotent functionalism, crude depictions of radical perspectives, and liberal apologist stances seemingly limitless in ubiquity, naïve in conception, and utterly unoriginal in content. The Sociology of Journalism is one such work. In chapter two Brian McNair presents two ‘traditional paradigms’ and suggests a ‘new approach’ for transcending the traditional perspectives and approaching journalism as sociological subject with fresh analytical eyes. However, McNair’s ‘traditional paradigms’ are poorly conceptualized and his ‘new paradigm’, ‘the dynamics of the production environment and the relative impact of its elements on the form and content of output’ (McNair: 33), is not new in the least, and has, in fact, been part and parcel to the theory and method of the very radical and Marxist perspectives McNair seeks to deligitimize in this ‘must read’ text for university bound communications students.[1]    

To begin, McNair establishes an inadequate frame which he uses, more or less, to discuss the objectivity norm and ideological struggle in and over journalism’s ethical standards (a socially constructed and sanctioned method for practicing professionalized journalism (Schudson: 2001)). McNair conceptualizes the competitive perspective which holds normative views and expresses ideal iterations of content and form, and the dominance paradigm with its “focus on things as they are, and the gaps between the real and the ideal”’ (McNair: 19). Now, I do appreciate dichotomous relationships, or bimodal analytical frames. They can be useful so long as one remains aware that they seldom tell the whole story, and even then the story they tell may not make sense if the dichotomy is not well constructed. McNair’s dichotomy is not.

‘The competitive (or normative) paradigm views advanced, liberal capitalist [‘western’] societies…as arenas of essentially equal competition between diverse groups of social actors, for whom media function as resource and representative…” (McNair: 19). The media is a “’fourth estate’: an independent institutional source of political and cultural power which monitors and scrutinizes the actions of the powerful in other spheres” (McNair: 19-20). ‘Capitalism is the best of worlds we can reasonably expect, journalists ideally serve the public interest, media provides competition of thought, opinion and ideology; audience with freedom of choice’ (McNair: 21).

 This is not a surprising construction. However, it must be pointed out that the assignation of the ‘normative’ function to this particular paradigm makes about zero sense. Everybody holds normative views, whether they ‘buy in’ to the hegemonic Weltanschauung or not. A normative view is nothing more than a person’s perspective on how something ought to be and need not be mystified as a certain paradigm’s function. I would be willing to agree with McNair’s linking of normative generation with this paradigm only inasmuch that journalism can, as one effect of its product, reinforce mores and norms as they change and shift within the broadening or narrowing restraints of larger, slower moving material and ideological constructs. In that sense, journalism as we know it is complicit in the shaping of normative views whether intentional or not. However, this is not what McNair means, and this is, in fact, the core critique of McNair’s other ‘traditional paradigm’.     

The ‘dominance paradigm’ is, essentially, McNair’s concept of radical (mainly Marxist) critique. Naturally the ‘dominance paradigm’ sees ‘capitalism…as characterized by exploitation, injustice and inequality”. This paradigm draws attention to how, ‘…inequalities of life chance…generate social tensions and pressures which must be managed through relations of domination and subordination which structure the socially stratified system. The liberal pluralist ideal has little to say about the role of the media in managing these tensions’ (McNair: 22). McNair characterizes the dominance perspective with a structuralist-functionalist interpretation of media as performing simple (and intentional) conflict management on behalf of a particular ruling class. The essential problem with this is that it presents Marxism and radical theory as only concerned with economic conditions such as patterns of income distribution. This is a reductionist approach to Marxism that should have died long ago, and one which helps lead McNair to some fairly outrageous conclusions, which I discuss further below.

With respect to media, McNair presents the entire Marxist camp’s perspective as one of media engaged in the business of perpetuating particular ideologies to maintain social stability in the face of otherwise hostile and stratified groups. ‘The media function as an outlet for communicating the already existing ideological or value system: the cultural consensus prevailing in a given society at a given time’ (McNair: 23). Similar to what Gramsci more succinctly conceptualized as the hegemonic Weltanschauung. From this is produced a ‘dominant discourse’ so that the effect of journalism is to “reproduce legitimizing and rationalizing discourse across social boundaries and over time” (McNair: 23). The media are able to produce this discourse because, thanks to the ‘competitive paradigm’ they are perceived “as purveyors of truth…a persuasive power which can influence the structure of ideas circulating in a given society” (McNair: 24).

McNair’s presentation of the ‘dominance paradigm’ is almost adequate in parts, and as I agreed above, media can aid in de/legitimization. However, McNair’s ‘dominance paradigm’ really only betrays a superficial acquaintance with Marxism and related radical perspectives. Underneath his construction brews a tension as he tries to present Marxist critique in a monolithic and anti-subjective manner. Of course, this may well be the only way McNair knows how to approach radical theory. Indeed, I would expect little more from one who can write “market forces…create incentives to invest in quality journalism” and still take themselves seriously (McNair in Hackett: 90). One incapable of imagining a journalism beyond investment structures has no business in summarizing radical approaches in the study of journalism -period.

Nevertheless, he tries, and in doing so definitely and with prejudice follows the narrow confines of Marxism’s ‘orthodox’ (Leninist) and structuralist (Althusser) interpretations, in addition to the somewhat broader views of the Frankfurt School (which he does not reference) and their adoption of the ‘hypodermic needle’ model of cultural inculcation of the masses by the dominant strata via monopolized media channels. “Ideology…is present in journalism as part of the environment within which it is made. Journalism itself contributes substantially to the maintenance and reproduction of that environment and the social system which has generated it” (McNair: 25). Okay. Then how do ideologies change according to the ‘dominance paradigm’? Changes in dominant ideologies, according to McNair, occur when present ideologies fail to legitimize inequality at which point political revolution ensues and replaces the old ideology. In other words, McNair presents ideological change in the ‘dominance’ paradigm as the product of an exceptionally crude and two-dimensional economic and political determinism. He uses, predictably, the Bolshevik example, and in doing so completely guts Marxism (and even its Bolsheivk iteration, to be fair) from its essence as a paradigm of praxis. Any Marxist worth their weight knows they cannot afford to sit around and wait for economic and political conditions to ‘ripen’ to such an extent that neither the state nor ‘its’ media can hide the alienation of the human from the systems they’ve made.

The Marxist approaches missing from McNair’s paradigmatic summary will be discussed in part 3. 

Works Cited

Hackett, R. (2005). ‘Is There a Democratic Deficit in US and UK journalism?’ In S. Allan (Ed.), Journalism: Critical issues (85-97). Maidenhead, Open University Press.

McNair, B. (1998). The Sociology of Journalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schudson, M. (2001). ‘The Objectivity Norm in American Journalism’. Journalism, 2(2), 149-170.


[1] This book (as well as McNair’s immanent one) were promoted as such on Amazon.com, accessed 05.07.2006

This is the third of what will be four papers written for the course I am in: 'foundations of social theory'. I post it here because the green letters look nice.

I’d like to begin this text with a comment. Received from my ‘post-modern friend’, the comment came by way of Auntie Vulgar, and is a comment, says my friend, about ‘the reification of the logos’, and is in response to my polemic, ‘Death and Praxis:

“Here is Lyotard commenting on ‘the abyss between the denotative and the prescriptive’ from _Just Gaming_(Minnesota, 1985). ‘[In] not only Plato but Marx as well, there is the deep conviction that there is a true being of society, and that society will be just if it is brought into conformity with this true being, and therefore one can draw prescriptions from a description that is true, in the sense of “correct”…. But this passage from the true to the just raises a problem, because if one were to ground it, it would mean that a prescriptive statement would constitute an obligation only if…the addressee of the statement is able to put himself in the position of the sender of the statement…in order to work out all over again the theoretical discourse that legitimates, in the eyes of this sender, the command that he is issuing.’” 

I would like to begin with this ‘legitimization of commands’ and the agency of the receiver in meaning construction. To legitimize a particular structure is a choice, though often a passive or structurally coerced one. It is not only a ‘true being of society’ whose prescriptions must ‘bridge the abyss’ to legitimacy and receiver response, but the inherited society as well. People constantly legitimize certain prescriptions of action in favor of others, for the most part (and perhaps necessarily) unaware of the reasons save the most apparent. Society is a complex of de/legitimizing discourse. Something as simple as watching a particular commercial broadcast or purchasing a new pair of shoes is legitimizing discourse –in the former instance because you and I have our meaning making capacities and projected purchasing power sold to advertising agents, and in playing that role become complicit in current uses of monologic media channels; and in the latter case the purchase of shoes realizes the goal of a particular production process so that at the moment of exchange an entire complex of social structures are legitimized: the global division of labor, particular concepts of ownership and exchange, branding and a culture of self bound intimately with the commodity fetish –image as commodity, and of course the functionaly creative and mechanical activity to which so much of our labor is devoted when sold. One could also suggest that a simple conversation with another person is a legitimizing discourse in that it will more or less adhere to certain learned, accepted, and anticipated patterns and norms of dialogic activity. All Lyotard observes here, it seems to me, is the jurisdiction the receiver of a message can claim in terms of meaning construction, and the extent to which they choose to permit the ‘abyss’ between the meaning constructed and the level of receptivity to the prescription for action if any there be. Inherited structures, inherited prescriptions, however, come with a bridge largely and already intact. Such prescriptions, which obviously vary in type and degree from person to person based on demographic and personal experience, can be and often are followed either automatically or out of compulsion.

Some automobile owners in the United States, for example, might opt not to own or regularly drive such a vehicle (for any number of reasons) were it but for their country’s largely auto-centric urban and interstate planning. The rationalization of automobile ownership in this case may be that I must work and enjoy particular forms of recreation and consumption, and that there is only one means of transport through which these are accessible. Or, I may truly believe, as the advertisements suggest, that automobile ownership endows me with greater freedom or prestige, or maybe I just really actually like driving a car. Or, and most likely, it is an over-determination, with any number of subjective, cultural, and political-economic factors ‘determined and determining ‘in one and the same movement’ (Swingewood: 189) a mass of individual legitimizations, i.e. the prescription of car ownership bridging the abyss.

This is dangerous ground, and if not careful I may not be as lucky as the car. Although both I and my example have talked along the lines of Althusser’s relatively autonomous levels of society combining to form the ‘structural complexity’ of a social formation; thereby achieving an over-determined structural causality (Swingewood: 190), the remainder of my response to Lyotard’s statement runs less with Althusser and more along the lines of critical-theory, Gramsci, and Marxism as rooted in subjective and inter-subjective praxis. The essential difference is that while Althusser suggests there is no prescription other than the eventual unfolding of structurally over-determined events, Gramsci and school suggests humanity writes its own history both backward and forward in time.

That a ‘deep conviction of a true being of society’ is in Marxism is very much the case. Marxism implies a cache of normative views on power relations in society. In essence, Marxism advocates that the present mode of social reproduction is unjust and exploitative, and suggests that human kind can and must struggle to achieve alternative social norms of the ‘just’.  In some instances these views do take on an almost messianic character, at which point the Marxist ‘logos’, if you will, is reified; moves from critical-theory to a ‘quasi-religious system’ (Swingewood: 113). Such occurrences are unfortunate since the essential concern of Marxism as a critical theory is the extent to which particular structures and Weltanschauungs, specifically those of capitalism, ossify, reign hegemonic and assume an existence seemingly outside the realm of human influence or choice. What Kirkpatrick and crew call ‘an alienated society’ (Kirkpatrick et al: 2). It practically goes without saying that Marxism as a closed discourse, as a set of particular theories to be accepted or rejected ad hominem, assumes the status of an ideology, very much in the Althusserian sense of the term, and in so doing negates itself as a theory of the practice of emancipation. This is the problem of orthodoxy and dogma.

However, this relationship between orthodoxy and Marxism should not be over-stated, nor made into a behavior singular to the Marxist approach. The purpose of the above discussion on legitimacy and structure was to demonstrate that a given mode of reproduction can only survive so long as the correct demographics continue to act in a legitimizing manner –in accord with a particular rubric of ideologies and norms relatively non-threatening to the status quo, or as Gramsci would say, in ‘active acquiescence’ in the persistence of bourgeois society (Swingewood: 118).  In our particular situation capitalism continues to persist in part because the bourgeois Weltanschauung’, its particular iteration of truth and its particular movement from the true to the just, (“the rule of law”, “liberal representative democracy”, “an honest day’s work”, “the free market”), successfully bridged, and unless actively challenged, will continue to monopolize the bridge between the denotative and prescriptive. So, while Marxism runs risk of orthodoxy, the bourgeois Weltanschauung is for us and many other people orthodoxy a priori.  

While I agree with Lyotard, on a purely functional level, that there is an endemic problem, for whatever reasons, of Marxism’s ability to actually cross the abyss, to actually move more active agents into a different theoretical and practical frame that challenges capitalism’s ‘truths’; question notions of social reality limited in scope to the realm of the ‘objective’ and empirical. However, I would strongly disagree with any implication that the problem is Marxism’s attempt as such. The greatest strength of the Marxist discourse has been promoting an understanding that ‘truth lies not in the facts of the given reality, but in the negation or transcendence of those facts…in our attempt to change the world, in our critique of the established reality’ (Kirkpatrick et al: 2). Marxism, at its best, is not merely an attempt to change the ‘facts’ of world capitalism, but a perspective which asks always “what is a fact?” (Kirkpatrick et al: 2). Truth is inter-subjectively constructed, and as such Gramsci’s immediate ancestors, Labriola and Sorel, are right to suggest “there is no truth waiting to be discovered only a truth which must be made.” (Swingewood: 115). The use of the indefinite article, ‘a truth’, very much implies the subjective, mutable, and fluid conceptualization of ‘truth’ in the tradition of critical theory. The ‘true being of society’ is not, in this iteration of Marx, one particular structruration of society, but rather it is any number of possibilities, imminent realities, for which humanity must actively struggle to make real. “Reality is not a given datum but created through human activity; the goal of socialism is not lying in wait in some distant future but results from praxis.” What is the goal of socialism? An inalienable society, a society actively determined by its agents in a democratic and non-exploitative manner. How do we arrive at this? By “making the critique of alienation speak for popular needs and lead to concrete actions against the capitalist commodity relationships—within historical possibilities” (Kirkpatrick et al: 3 my emphasis).

While it is clear that Marxists cannot afford the naïve assumption that their messages are constructed by those who receive them in such a manner as to engender and encourage a new Weltanschauung –and the elitism in Bolshevism or otherwise will certainly not do. However, it is also naïve to suggest that society is either so utterly fragmented and subjective or structurally determined (objectified) that any attempt at change via ‘human will organized into collective forms’ is doomed forever to lurk in the abyss. In the first instance, the relativist thread in post-modern thinking can be seen very much as a positive development, as it does encourage a mode of thought conducive to identifying and questioning reified forms, even if that questioning is not, strictly speaking, Marxist. In the second instance, structures evolve as agents work through them. The observation of the Frankfurt School, that ‘capitalist societies are closed systems with monologic modes of social communication as a simple one-way process of cultural indoctrination” (Swingewood: 132-3), could start to ring less true. The monologic structure of the culture industry has the potential for further significant change; the diffuse nature, interactive and productive potential of the new tools of cultural production make praxis in general, and Gramsci in particular, more relevant than ever before:

“All revolutions are preceded ‘by an intense work of cultural penetration’ as the rising class aims to subjugate allied and subordinate strata to its ideas. A dominant class is…defined as one which saturates civil society with the spirit of its morality, customs, religious and political practices: ‘The foundation of a ruling class is equivalent to the creation of a Weltanschauung.’ If the working class is to constitute a dominant class it must establish a culture that commands the support of other strata; its world view, Marxism, is thus not a class ideology as such, but the expression of the immanent structural trends of history. Cultural hegemony prior to the act of revolution is created through collective action” (Swingewood: 118). 

The ‘historical possibilities’ have seldom been potentially more conducive to the cultural penetration by ‘ordinary people’ into the culture industry; a growing awareness of these possibilities is reflected in the growing activity and discourse surrounding ‘new media’: ‘There is a battle for the soul of the internet, and if a greater democracy is to claim this soul it will only do so through the work of ‘ordinary people’, entering, shaping, and governing these new means of production, these new communication means (Coleman 2005a: 280). Given the quite real and very vulnerable nature of these new opportunities for cultural penetration, to reject collective action a priori is a futile and worthless act. Relativism is preparing collective actions of its own. Making symmetrical the power relationships in narrative production is critical praxis; a grand narrative of subjective experiences, a great many voices communicating the local as globally shared –a de-localization and democratizing of cultural production, of message and construction –potentially. Already the bourgeois Weltanschauung takes root. “Technologies are never neutral: they are designed, shaped and socially modified in accordance with discourses that are often profoundly political and hegemonic” (Lessig in Coleman 2005b: 185).  Already some give up: ‘the internet will be ‘free’ only where this serves the purposes of commercial development’ (McQuail: 140). Unless we can claim it.

Works Cited

Coleman, S. (2005a). ‘Blogs and the new Politics of Listening’. The Political Quarterly, 76(2), 273-279.

Coleman, S. (2005b). ‘New Mediation and Direct Representation: Reconceptualizing representation in the digital age’. New Media & Society, (7)2, 177-198. 

Kirkpatrick, R. G., Katsiaficas, G. N., & Lou Emery, M. (1978). ‘Critical Theory and the Limits of Sociological Positivism, Red Feather Institute.

McQuail, D. (2000). McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 4th ed.
London: Sage Publications.
 

Swingewood, A. (2000). A Short History of Sociological Thought, 3rd Ed., Palgrave Macmillan.

 

I prefer to avoid the habit of starting off papers with paraphrase or quote, but sometimes someone says something so right and with such polemic that I can’t help but repeat. There is a battle for the soul of the internet, and if a greater democracy is to claim this soul it will only do so through the work of ‘ordinary people’, us, entering, shaping, and governing these new means of production, these new communication means (Coleman 2005b: 280) –and governing them at our, that is ‘ordinary people’s’ behest. There is virtually unanimous recognition that the new media have capabilities ‘suited to occupy the space of civil society’ (McQuail: 135). However, despite potentiality, concerned researchers are faced with the question of why this new and improved civil society does not appear to be taking shape.           

This is the point where empiricists and critical-theorists part ways, which for us means saying good-bye to McQuail’s textbook. Without a doubt he hits the most obvious impediments to an internet enhanced democracy: ‘developed in the interests of state and capital; stratified access so that the costs of technology and its use continue to favour the same already privileged beneficiaries as does the investment in infrastructure and management systems (McQuail: 136); differential empowerment (McQuail: 139); and increasing possibilities for management and control (McQuail: 139). However, he goes on to close the question with nothing but presupposition: ‘the situation is too early and too unsettled to make an assessment, but it is not too early to say that even the most free means of communication cannot escape the operation of various ‘laws’ of social life…and especially those of economics and social pressure” (McQuail: 138). Not even a hundred ‘smarty quotes’ could wash the impotent functionalism from these words—not to mention his proverbial nail in the coffin, ‘the internet will be ‘free’ only where this serves the purposes of commercial development’ (McQuail: 140). Of course, why should one expect a textbook to take the next logical step?

What disturbs me most about McQuail’s treatment of the problem is the probability he is right in the sense that the capitalist mode of production will continue to impose itself upon the new media so as to retard or prevent the emergence of a robust civil society. Fortunately I am not alone. Contra to McQuail’s capitulation to fetishism, Blumler & Gurevitch characterize the internet as containing “a vulnerable potential to enhance public communications” (Blumler & Gurevitch: 2). To nurture this potential they prescribe ‘deliberate institution building’ (Blumler & Gurevitch: 1) as a “safeguard against the exploitation of interactive civic facilities for ulterior purposes—commercial gain, plebiscitary support, populist agitation, administrative convenience or just to seem accessible in public relations terms” (Blumler & Gurevitch: 10). While this is indeed a step in the right direction, it raises theoretical and practical problems. Mainly, how are we to mark where ‘civic facilities’, where ‘political deliberation’ begins or ends?

Civil society, at least Gramsci’s version, does not draw hard or fast lines between the over-determined and inter-tangled spheres of politics, economics, culture, and whatever it is that happens in-between the subject and the state. I understand that Habermas’ ‘public sphere’ is supposed to define roughly where ‘the political’ angle lay in civil society, but I’m not convinced that such a definition is the most useful at this point. It might be that ‘deliberative democracy’ is making itself felt first in other spheres of civil-society, and that researchers need to broaden the scope of what constitutes ‘the political’.

Peer to peer file transfer may or may not involve dialogue in the traditional sense, but when it comes to the sharing of copyright material (often and erroneously termed ‘piracy’) there is an implicit dialogue between sender/receiver, a dialogue which actively disregards the sanctity of capitalist market and property relations. While such activity is not traditionally defined as deliberative dialogue, it is indisputably the power of people engaged in a dialogue with the capitalist mode of production, which is in many respects at the heart of or pillar to the complaints of not only our dear McQuail, but Blumler & Gurevitch, and Polat as well (Polat: 454). It is clear, of course, that file sharing itself will not do the democratic trick. There is still the need to construct deliberative, dialogic forums if ‘ordinary people’ are to have any hope of democratic participation in the policy of state. What I suggest is that a proliferation of dialogic forums engaged in policy deliberation is far more likely to emerge from the community ethics surrounding ‘digital piracy’, free-ware and similar or related activity than through a simple secular increase in online participation, or one-off ‘success’ stories such as Minnesota’s fledgling e-democracy.   

With respect to problems of participation, Polat cites research pointing to a public apparently disinterested in seeking out policy information, and the ubiquitous lack of internet access and technical skill (Polat: 453). Polat is quite right to observe “the use of the Internet is shaped within the parameters of current trends in political participation” (Polat: 452). To expect decades of disillusion with prevailing political norms to simply wash away in but a few years of the internet tool is unrealistic. It may well be that significant structural or cultural changes need to take place before there can be a ‘return to politics’. It will also take struggle and popular skill acquisition to make the internet a forum of universal access. It would, at the very least, require a seizure and reorganization by ‘ordinary people’ of the fixed capital which makes the internet possible: the servers, networks, wireless transmitters, and whatever else, as well as the knowledge needed to run them. Given the unlikelihood of such an event in the short-term, the immediate challenge in preserving the internet’s democratic potential is to see that those who have access now do not irreparably corrupt the machine; to see that the democratic ethic now taking root in cyber-space is able to withstand the breadth and bully of both capital and state so as to emerge with a cache of mediation channels quintessentially democratic and utterly self-governed. This could mean encouraging measures similar to Minnesota’s e-democracy as stop-gap measures in the short term. Ultimately, however, solidarity, coordination, and radical action will be required among those already and soon to be engaged in this struggle.

A growing number of people are gaining skill and expertise in various computing technologies. To return to Gramsci, it is precisely these people who must be encouraged to adopt the role of ‘organic intellectuals’, that is people who will use their training and skill less in service to the system as it stands, and more in alliance with the normative ideals of a strong civil society where the capitalist hegemony does not rule. Moreover, given that the ‘new media’ represents the first defendable trench against production organized around the commodity, it may be that those who would defend this trench ought to make the acquisition and sharing of computer skills part of their life activity. The more authors contesting the internet, the harder it will be to take popular authority away. “Technologies are never neutral: they are designed, shaped and socially modified in accordance with discourses that are often profoundly political and hegemonic” (Lessig in Coleman 2005a: 185). In short, the question of democracy and the internet is undetermined. What is already determined, however, is potential. The real question is then which hegemony will rule?   

Blumler, J. & Gurevitch, M. (2001). ‘The New Media and our Political Communication Discontents: Democratizing cyberspace. Information, Communication & Society, 4(1), 1-13. 

Coleman, S. (2005a). ‘New Mediation and Direct Representation: Reconceptualizing representation in the digital age’. New Media & Society, (7)2, 177-198. 

Coleman, S. (2005b). ‘Blogs and the new Politics of Listening’. The Political Quarterly, 76(2), 273-279 

McQuail, D. (2000). McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 4th ed.
London: Sage Publications.

Polat, R. (2005). ‘The Internet and Political Participation: Exploring the explanatory links. European Journal of Communication, 20(4), 435-459.