Critical Media and Communication Studies Today: A Conversation between Dwayne Winseck and Christian Fuchs. Part 1
We met for the first time at the International Association of Media and Communication Researchers (IAMCR) in Istanbul, Turkey in July. We already knew each other through some collaboration in one another’s projects and our knowledge of one another’s work.
Following the conference, we exchanged some emails and Christian put Dwayne in contact with two authors of an excellent paper at the conference, Peter Jakobsson and Fredrik Stiernstedt, two doctoral candidates at Södertörns University in Sweden. Having recently moved to Uppsala University in Sweden, Christian has organized a speakers’ symposium where Peter and Frederik recently gave a talk.
Our discussion turned into a bigger conversation about different political economies of communication, media and the Internet. Christian, as many readers may know, is one of the foremost Marxist critical communication and media scholars today. If ever there was a case to demonstrate the decisive importance of Marxist analysis today, he provides it – in spades. Marx, as he says, is back, and not a moment too soon.
Dwayne, on the other, is no stranger to marxian political economy, but argues that we must draw from a wider range of sources than the Marxian pantheon. Other notions held dearly must be handled with greater precision – i.e. consolidation within the telecom-media-internet (TMI) industries – and more attention given to the specificity of market processes and forces, evidence and the strategies of particular firms. Other notions need to be refined drastically or abandoned, i.e. ideology. The fact that media, information and cultural goods are fundamentally different – i.e. they are immaterial commodities – than other goods should also be kept front and centre.
After stitching the conversation together and adding a few links here and there to some of the people and sources we refer to, we thought it might be a good idea to post the conversation on each of our blogs (Christian’s blog, Dwayne’s blog). As the wreckage of the global financial crisis (2007/8ff) continues to unfold and the information sectors – as industries, sets of technological capabilities, and vehicles of pleasure and for increasing the range of market forces – continue to be in a heightened state of flux, the ideas raised in debates over what constitutes a critical political economy approach to the field are arguably more important than ever. The main lines of our conversation follow:
Dwayne Winseck: Christian, as always I hope that you’re well.
I was impressed by the work of Peter Jakobsson and Fredrik Stiernstedt on data centres. It is a nice crystallization of geography, materiality, data and and ‘cyberspace’. The recent acknowledgement by Microsoft that neither it nor any other major US-based ICT/ Internet company – think Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, to name just a few – are beyond the reach of the US Patriot Act shows the global reach of US national security power, but also the importance of place. Jakobsson and Stiernstaedt illustrated the ties between security, the physicality and locations of ‘cyberspace’, even the geological underpinning of data centres, by examining, among other things, how Google is building a new data centre in Finland, with local government support through tax abatements and other enticements, out of the hulk of a retrofitted Cold War bunker buried deep in the ground. Proximity to Russia, where Internet markets are currently dominated by two Russian behemoths – Yandex and VKontakte – also means that the bunker-cum-secure-data centre could serve as a launchpad for Google’s future forays into Russia as well.
Christian Fuchs: Hi Dwayne.
Fredrik and Peter’s paper is very good. Indeed, all of their papers that I have read are.
The circumstance that the IAMCR has a Dallas Smythe and a Herbert Schiller award brings up the question of what Critical Media and Communication Studies are all about today, how important it is to be critical, what it means to be critical and what the role of Marx’s works is for Critical Media and Communication Studies, i.e. what the role class and the critique of capitalism should play in this field.
Let’s exchange some thoughts on these questions.
Best wishes, Christian
Dwayne Winseck: Thanks a bunch for Peter and Fredrik’s email addresses.
I also just read their abstract for the talk they gave at media@UU. That paper also looks impressive. I like the way they capture the materiality and sociality of media, and how they see certain elements of media — technology, commodities, juridical forms — being periodically unstable, then forming recurring institutional patterns. They seem to have a deft touch.
Smythe’s concept of the audience commodity (here’s one example of its recent use, Christian’s own use of this concept and the introduction of the notion of the Internet prosumer commodity is documented here), and more importantly, his injunction that communication and media studies were not materialist enough – i.e. they didn’t study the communication and media as industries, markets, and linchpins in the capitalist economy overall — are maybe even more valuable now then when Smythe began to unfold them 40-50 years ago.
Other ideas of his, however, can be obstacles, and a commodity analysis, while essential, only goes so far. It is precisely the tension between the real fact that communication and media are essential to capitalist economies – and to all command, control and decision-making structures – versus the fact that they don’t conform to the standards of normal economics at all that makes them so interesting. I mean, they produce immaterial things, from immaterial labour, for uncertain markets, fickle tastes, people just being people.
The latter point brings me to the idea that the belief that media and communication can be reduced to instruments of domination – a stance all-too-evident in the work of Smythe, Schiller and too many to name other political economists who have carried the ‘critical Marxist’ banner — has far too often obliterated the intimate links of communication and media to pleasure and joy. One-sided portraits of domination, in my view, also obscure gradations in the severity of pain, suffering and lack of recognition suffered by marginal and otherwise disenfranchised groups (Honneth) – a set of classes of people that is, as you well know, becoming larger and larger.
Smythe and this kind of political economy, I believe, offers much, and I won’t part way for a moment with what I understand critical political economy to be. However, I do not believe that critical political economy is synonymous with Marxist political economy. To think otherwise, I believe, constrains our vision too much and leaves a shallow well from which to drink.
A good concrete example is the question of how to study Google. Jarvis (in What Would Google Do?) reveres Google, while Vaidhyanathan (in Googlization of Everything) reviles it, but in so doing misses the positive generativity that Google creates: e.g. efficient searching, linking, indexing, navigability, storage, a digital Alexandria, etc. These are without a doubt immensely valuable resources conjured up out of our resources and need to make sense of them. In simple terms, Google provides without a doubt a significant spur to research, development, innovation and, undoubtedly, military security. Fredrik and Peter grasp this kind of subtler, textured interplay between power and pleasure in interesting ways.
Long weekend here, and friends from out of town, so should be enjoyable. Time to go. Hope you enjoy yours.
Christian Fuchs: Hello Dwayne,
No doubt, Fredrik and Peter are very talented writers. You will like their papers.
The good thing about the awards at IAMCR is that they remind us of the need for Critical Media and Communication Studies and the relevance of Smythe’s, Schiller’s (and other scholars’) works today.
The great thing about Smythe is that for him the Political Economy of the Media was Marxist Political Economy, so he was clear on the need to abolish capitalism and class and to analyze media communication in the context of class. I think we need much of this insight today. On the one hand Smythe was opposed to ideology critique, which is problematic. At the same time he spoke of the consciousness industry, so there was some ideology critique in his own work. He did not focus extensively on alternative media, but there are such elements in his works, like the alternative broadcasting system he suggested to the Chinese (pretty much the same idea like Brecht and Enzensberger), documented in the paper “After Bicycles, What?”. So I do think that there is a lot in Smythe’s works to engage with today. Dallas Smythe reminds us of the need of being critical and thinking about class when studying the media.
Today we need to go somewhat beyond Smythe and see more of the positive potentials of media. However, if we stress the positive potentials too much, then we end up with the Cultural Studies celebration of commodity culture, so we have to be careful and also take a look at the political economy of positive and negative potentials, the distribution of resources between them etc. Alternative forms of communication that transcend market, capitalism and ideology are not impossible, more unlikely, precarious, tend to have less visibility, resources, people etc. Political action is needed in order to channel resources towards alternative media so that that they become more likely, powerful, less precarious, etc.
Smythe reminds us of the need to engage with Marx and the critique of capitalism when we analyze the media today. After the rise of neoliberalism, postmodernism and the cultural turn, it has since the 1980s become ever more uncommon to engage with Marx. The engagement with Marx and Marxism has increasingly been replaced in universities. And by saying Marx, I do not mean the fetishization of Marx as a person or politician, but I do mean the importance of engaging with the concepts of class and capitalism. Ironically, while culturalists claimed that class and Marx are dead and that we need to focus on identity politics, local reforms, etc, the antagonisms between capital and the proletariat was becoming ever more intense (the rise of precarious labour, the increase of unemployment, the explosion of socio-economic inequality, the differences between profits and wages, etc). The rise of the movement for democratic globalization showed that it is a movement galvanizing around the topic of class. In the 1980s and 1990s new social movements were quite separated around topics like gender, racism, peace, nature, etc – the rise of neoliberalism resulted since the late 1990s in a movement of movements (the anti-corporate movement/movement for democratic globalization), class issues have been binding all the other issues together in this movement. The result of the cumulating antagonisms of capitalism was the new global economic crisis, which has shown the importance of the economy, class and capitalism and has brought back an interest in Marx. Marx (i.e. the analysis of class and capitalism) was always important, but now we are in a time in which his work has regained much of its salience.
Enjoy the weekend. Best wishes, Christian
For Part 2, follow the link here.