Challenging Transmission: Critical studies of media

Book Cover, Critical Theories of Mass Media by Paul Taylor and Jan Harris

Critical Theories of Mass Media: Then and Now

The terrorist attacks on Mumbai, India Nov 26 served to highlight the importance of transmission over communication. What do we mean by this? The terrorists, by engineering sustained carnage, provided a media spectacle that delivered us transmission and populism. The Indian and international media unwittingly became a tool that transmitted, for the terrorists, a romantic view of jihad, while the Indian, Pakistani, and international media indulged in political populism that veered to the dangerous. So, for the terrorists the media transmission served as a useful recruiting advert for would-be jihadists while for those on the right and the left it served to transmit their political viewpoints. For example, Barkha Dutt unwittingly stated on a live talk show, “let us all agree to give up some freedoms”. She was furthering the consensus building of an idea that required nuanced debate and discussion. Unfortunately, her objective at a debate got coopted by reactionary voices — a panel of Mumbai elites — who foregrounded her pronouncement with calls such as “let us carpet bomb Pakistan”. As Arundhati Roy argued, there is always a context. On the other hand, some on the left have invoked the rather tenous argument that ties the injustices against Muslim communities in India and elsewhere to the jihadist pathology. Some of the talk by those on the right as well as right-of-centre used the opportunity to plead for imagined and real leaders with fascist tendencies to sweep the Indian society of all its ills. It is in this context that a book by Paul Taylor and Jan Harris makes for compelling reading.

Dr Paul Taylor

Books on communications and media are generally considered to serve tangible ends; that is to say media and communications books are considered to have some “utility” in the real world of media and communications practice or policy. What then is the significance of your book?

Without wanting to sound mischievous for the sake of it, the main purpose of this book is to show how the attitude you outline is actually not about the act of communication but rather that of transmission. In other words, as you correctly point out, much contemporary writing situated in the disciplinary field of “communications studies” or “media studies” is pitched as providing some practical insights for policy makers or media workers – but from a critical perspective this is a major weakness, not a strength! The substance of communication has become eviscerated. Communication implies an exchange of meaningful knowledge and information whereas transmission is about the efficiency with which data is sent and received. Communications studies tends to overlook the various profound ways in which the contemporary mediascape is all about transmission rather than communication.

For a simple test of this, watch your daily news programme on TV and ask yourself after each story such questions as: what did I learn from that? what was the point of the pictures they used? Why did they use that personalized story of the major players in a political story rather than provide the economic and political context of the event etc. etc. It doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that a huge amount of screen and print journalism follows unacknowledged rules and regulations that privilege the trivial, the pictorial, and the celebrity-fixated over the deep and ambiguous elements of world culture and politics.

Academic discourse and university departments are disproportionately geared towards training students to work in such a transmission-orientated environment rather than educating them as to how to engage critically with such a system.

You use the term “cultural populism” in your book to critique the field. What is the significance of this term and why should it be paid heed to?

Cultural populism is a shorthand phrase I use to describe uncritical studies of mass media culture that are biased towards celebrating anything that audiences find enjoyable rather than making judgements as to what is more worthwhile than something else – a position that cultural populism tends to label “elitist”. I am often shocked at the bad faith demonstrated by academics pretending that they are not qualified or justified in making intellectual judgements on the quality of popular culture. There is a predominantly left wing tendency to avoid making such judgements in some sort of misguided “solidarity” with the “people”. I have various problems with this. I find it deeply patronising in the sense that it implies that people only deserve what they are given and find enjoyable with the least amount of effort. True intellectual solidarity requires a) a recognition that what makes you an intellectual is that you tend to know more than the average person and have more advanced critical skills – or else, what have you been doing with all your reading? and b) that knowledge should be put to work to argue that people deserve the highest quality popular culture and they are served badly by formulaic, unintelligent, cookie-cutter programming and news reporting.

What are the problems with the study of media and communications in the contemporary age? Or what should students of media and communications keep in consideration while entering the field? Most people conceive of “the banal” as a neutral category – you seem to view it as a powerful political force, can you expand upon this?

The main problem as alluded to above is the strength of the unexamined status quo in both the practical media production side of things and those academics who purport to study it. In the former context, for example, if you speak with media professionals as to why things are a certain way, they frequently argue that “that’s the way it is done”. They go on to teach students this uncritical philosophy and this leads to the situation described decades ago by Adorno when he argued that workers and consumers belong to the culture industry before they even enter it, because the general social environment is suffused by unquestioning acceptance and internalized adaptation.

So, as pointed out above, students entering the field should expect to undergo training rather than education. The fact that universities are part of this problem is shameful given that their responsibility has traditionally been education – first and foremost. Yes, certain subjects have always required elements of training – .e.g you want your doctors and dentists to have certain practical skills, but I also want any doctor I visit to have a theoretical knowledge of basic science and biology so that they can think about my medical problem in a reflective manner. This distinction is increasingly being lost.

In media and communications as well as other disciplines, the emphasis is increasingly upon “skills” to the extent that in Britain we now have a Secretary of State for “Innovation, Universities and Skills” and I can see the word “universities” being removed in the non-too-distant future!!

The banal is not neutral, it is indeed a powerful political force. I use this term to refer to excessively formulaic media content whether news reporting or entertainment – and, in fact, the increasing conflation of the two so that entertainment values have now infiltrated what used to be classed as a “discourse of sobriety” – politics and serious debate. So now we have celebrity news presenters, personalized news stories and a mestastic growth of glib images to accompany and distort TV news. Once in a while this banal frame of reference is shattered by traumatic events such as 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina, but all too quickly, the dead hand of banality soon strikers viewers back into a torpor!

Are you reading certain writers “against the grain” – how do you justify this?

Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan are not normally considered to be “critical” writers, but I argue in the book that in the writings of both you can find key critical concepts that tend to be passed over by the dominance of the “happy clappy” perspective in media and cultural theory. Reading them against the grain thus serves two main purposes: i) it draws out the critical potential that resides in these works, despite their author’s avowed intentions ii) it corrects the further tendency of cultural populists to dampen down those critical aspects that were intended by the original authors. For example, in various parts of his work, McLuhan is deeply critical of media culture (and examples are given in the book) but you would struggle to realize this if you relied upon the co-optation of McLuhan by various uncritical writers.

What is the significance of the “then” critical theories to the contemporary age. Do you think students/academics struggle to see the relevance of past thinkers? Could you illustrate with examples?

Capitalism has a tendency to constantly re-invent the wheel, how else do you keep selling essentially the same things time after time? Likewise, there is a risk that we overlook the insights of past thinkers in our search for constant theoretical novelty. If it isn’t broken why try to fix it? So I suggest that past critical thinkers have often outlined the basic problems we face with great insight and often with far more interesting modes of expression than current writers (there was a European humanist tradition of great writing that has diminished in less purely literary eras dominated by more diverse forms of media. The example I would give of this would be the work of people like Adorno, who, when you read his work provides numerous prescient critiques of such phenomena as Pop Idol. Similarly, Guy Debord’s scathing account of the society of the spectacle could hardly be more relevant to today’s political events.

Think of the conflict in Iraq and the key moments defined misleadingly by images – the pulling down of Saddam’s statue etc., when in fact the invasion was only the beginning of a whole new series of military problems. Adorno, Debord et al, serve to remind us that the basic problems we face in our sophisticated media age may have evolved from the days in which they wrote, but their essence is the same and they still provide an immensely important and valuable critique.

How would you answer the charge that this book is a deeply pessimistic one?

Maybe it’s because I’m a naturally miserable person, but I don’t have a problem with pessimistic theory. Much more important is whether the theory is accurate, insightful and well-written. The “happy clappy” writing I refer to earlier is overly concerned with being optimistic at the expense of these other qualities. An additional factor is the misguided notion common amongst many academics that a theorist has to offer solutions for the problems they are outlining. This is not the primary responsibility of a theorist. A theorist, media philosopher, whatever term you want to use has a responsibility to describe and analyse the situation to the best of his/her ability – the question of possible solutions arises after this. When students say things like “But Dr. Taylor how can you deal with all this pessimism?” rather than giving them a trendy, postmodern sort of answer, I like to reply by quoting the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes 1:18 : “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. “

Do you think critical theory has a healthy future?

Despite (or maybe because of) the incredibly downbeat tone of the previous answer, I think critical theory has an extremely healthy if somewhat dyspeptic future. Forgive the narcissism, but members of the Subaltern collective the University of Leeds recently organized a public talk by the cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek. It was out of the University term time when many people had already left, yet we managed to fill the largest hall the University has and just under 600 people queued up to hear Zizek give a hugely entertaining but ultimately critical theoretical account of the state of the contemporary world. Ironically, the more banality dominates our cultural life the more people have a thirst for critical insights that demonstrate the submerged, root causes of our current problems. To illustrate this point, I think it’s worth repeating the final point in my book.

When the United Nations was debating whether to grant a resolution to justify the second Gulf conflict’s invasion of Iraq a press conference was held in the hall of the United Nations building in New York where a huge reproduction of Picasso’s famous painting Guernica hangs as an arras. Interestingly, for the purposes of the press conference a large blue curtain was put in front of the arras. Two explanations were offered for this:

1. The anti-war message of the painting made the people organizing the press conference about a possible military invasion uncomfortable, so they censored the image.

2. For the purposes of the press conference, a neutral blue background was better for the TV cameras.

Adorno claimed that the culture industry is “pornographic and prudish” meaning that it deals with surface level obscenities (pornography etc.) but is unable to confront the deeper human issues it shies away from. The second of the above reasons implies the media censors politics automatically and unthinkingly, the first is perhaps more optimistic from the perspective of critical theory – it implies that politicians and power-brokers can still be made to feel shame.

4 thoughts on “Challenging Transmission: Critical studies of media

  1. Thank you for bringing Dr. Paul Taylor’s wisdom to my attention. What he terms “transmission” relates to what Claude Levi-Strauss characterized as “over-communication.” In 1977, speaking of the baleful effects of “over-communication”, Levi-Strauss said that “we are now threatened with the prospect of our being only consumers, able to consume anything from any point in the world and from every culture, but of losing all originality.” [Myth and Meaning (NY,Schoken Books, 1978), p.20].

  2. @Dr Mira Desai – It would be interesting to hear from you with regard to Paul’s critique of media and communications studies in general. It is interesting that academics in developing countries — who would be critical of media and communication flows in contemporary contexts — are anti-criticism. It is much fashionable to find worth and value in pop-culture, what the “common man” says. No harm in itself. After all, these are meaningful. But when we fail to ask the right questions — we end up with false ideas.

    These have been demonstrated on this web site that on a daily basis. Some examples here:

    English in Hindi newspapers: Market kaa effect?
    Two bad neighbours and the US headache

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