Critical Media and Communication Studies Today: A Conversation between Dwayne Winseck and Christian Fuchs. Part 2
Dwayne Winseck: Hi Christian (link to mirror post at Christian’s blog),
If one thinks of Google as a general public utility (or performing such public utility like functions in search, link, index, creating the navigable web), although of course as a private company, private in the sense that it is the extension of a few men (Brin, Page, Schmidt, through their controlling ownership stake) and private venture capital markets, then Google produces a vast range of “public goods” — information itself is a public good, so that it would do so is not surprising. This is what I always appreciated about heterodox and critical Marxian political economies of communication: namely, that they did not only look at commodities and exchange within markets, but those things in life – public goods, common sense, gifts, free time, the sociality of everyday life – that give value to what it means to be human.
Vaidhyanathan’s Googlization of Everything, by and large, only gives a negative critique of Google. Moreover, the argument is mostly rhetorical rather than empirically-based and well theorized, i.e. it often appears to be more like random thoughts strung together over the course of a year about Google than a systematic critique of the political economy of Google. He hardly discusses what Google generates in terms of public goods, under private control of course, although does lay out the grand ‘public goods’ proposal in the last chapter.
I heard the really smart American critical legal scholar Pamela Samuelson speak about Google Book Settlement Agreement (BSA) last year (and a podcast of her views here). She raved about the audacity of the project and what it meant in terms of getting more books in print, faster, more easily accessible and affordable than ever at a time when the public sector – universities in particular, especially as the situation in the UK shows – is in crisis, being pared back and forced to tighten the purse in light of the evaporation of public funds on account of the Global Financial Crisis, 2007/8ff. The one big problem in all this is that Google’s Book Settlement Agreement essentially let Google rewrite the terms of trade and copyright law for the US in the digital media age. Quite a coup if you could get it, eh? Funny thing is that, in this case what was good for Google was in fact good for us, if we measured things just in terms of being able to deliver the goods and pay no heed to the consequences for the rule of law. This would be technocracy, and it is this that Siva rightfully and powerful draws out for critique. Sure, it delivers the goods, but does democracy and rule of law by citizens take a beating as a result?
While these elements are core to Vaidhyanathan’s discourse on Google, I can’t help but feel that it all doesn’t stack up as well as it should. The economic and legal treatment is not up to the standards set by his earlier work.
So, back to the main point regarding critical theory, marxian political economy, and then a few more words about Smythe. I like Marcuse because I think he always demonstrated the dialectic between domination and liberation. The ultimate triumph of instrumental reason (capital, calculability, hierarchy, organization, control) in Marcuse’s work is always kept at bay by hopes for pleasure, eros, love, play, aesthetic appreciation, etc. Peter and Fredrik’s papers remind me of this sensibility (see Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization). Their use of the Italian autonomist Marxist stuff impressed me alot, although I don’t know enough about this perspective as I probably should.
I’m a big fan of Smythe, Smythe, as I said yesterday. I called him at home one day in 1988, and while he was outside washing the car he took my call and we talked about the allocation of spectrum and orbital slots for satellites as part of my master’s thesis for over an hour. He was an economist, albeit a heterodox one, maybe even a marxian one and his insistence on thinking about the communication and media as industries was an important injunction. So too was his and Schiller’s insistence that these industries are part of the C3I assemblage, or the Military Information Media Entertainment (MIME) complex as some people now refer to it (see der Derian and here).
However, I also think his ideas about dependency theory, nation, communication policy, China, consciousness and many other things are very problematic. The Smythe and Schiller view of communication and consciousness is classic, one-sided Marxism: “those who own the means of production also own the means of mental production”. Well, yes, and no. His dim view of the capacity of the audience commodity to do much meaningful with either media or their lives was miserable, and stupor inducing.
One of the real advances of the Frankfurt School three or four decades before them was to surpass this ham-fisted notion of ideology and the control of consciousness. The fact that Smythe, Schiller and many other critical marxian political economy types still make it the centrepiece of their analysis (or at least their tacit assumptions) is an embarrassment to the standards of what we need to know, and indeed what many other fields do know about learning, social life, being, and mind.
Focusing on what people do with technologies, not to celebrate, but to study the dialectic between exploitation and joy is more compelling to me than focusing on consciousness and ideology. I think it is also implicit in the dialectic that Marcuse sets up between instrumental reason and pleasure, etc.
And you, what do you think?
Thanks and cheers, Dwayne
Christian Fuchs: Hello Dwayne. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
I can subscribe to a lot of what you are saying. My personal thought is probably most influenced by Hegel, Marx and Marcuse. What I think we need, and what I have argued in detail in my recent book Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies, is a synthesis of everything that is on the “left” side of the spectrum in Media and Communication Studies. This entails a synthesis of the critique of media as:
a) capital accumulation organizations,
b) advertising institutions,
c) ideology producers and disseminators, and a connection to
d) alternative media, their potentials and limits + e) political struggles and their relations to the media + f) media and their use in the context of domination and liberation.
I think that’s a broad spectrum. I try to set this out in a more systematic scheme in chapters 3+4 of “Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies”.
Most critical media scholars focus just on one dimension. I think we need a combination of many. That being said, I think we need a focus on the radical critique of capitalism, and thereby an inspiration by Marx. And I do think that Cultural Studies after Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson (who knew Marx very well), starting with Stuart Hall, has ever more given up the critique of capitalism. Therefore I would make early Cultural Studies part of those approaches I want to bring together, but not much from contemporary Cultural Studies (which is too far away from a critique of capitalism). If one wants to focus on pleasure+media, then I think Marcuse’s interpretation of Freud’s
pleasure principle is a good place to start and one can think about how this relates to the media. This is especially important for discussions about the relation of pleasure/play and labour (digital play labour/playbour) that we find today in relation to discussions about digital labour (for an application of Marcuse’s pleasure principle for analyzing Facebook playbour, see a recent paper by me here). Marcuse’s principle of pleasure was a radical concept opposed to capitalism. In contrast, in much celebratory Cultural Studies, there is a simplistic notion of pleasure related to the concept of the active, creative audience.
So one has to be careful not to celebrate commodity culture. The Autonomist Marxist tradition is really interesting, I try also to draw on it, but one has to criticize their fetishization of the multitude. They see struggles automatically emerging everywhere. It is a kind of determinism of the subject. Nonetheless the class concept of Hardt and Negri goes in the right direction can help us to conceptualize media+class (see a book I wrote together with a colleague about Negri’s philosophy here).
It is crucial to theorize how knowledge labour relates to class. Almost all approaches are failures, most of them either conceive knowledge work as new dominant class or as new proletariat. The positive aspect about Italian Autonomist Marxist theory is that it allows to us to conceive of non-wage labour (like unemployment, house work, use of corporate Internet platforms, etc) as a form of exploitation and as part of class antagonism. But Italian Autonomist Marxist theory is like Cultural Studies to a certain extent. That is, it can be a deterministic and reductionist approach, it fetishizes the subject, sees the multitude as always and automatically revolting, it generalizes Italian experiences of struggles incorrectly to the whole world, it completely ignores ideology (there is no space of ideology critique in this theory).
The ignorance of ideology and ideology critique partly stems from the non-engagement with Hegel because there is no space for the concept of the dialectic of essence and existence in Autonomist Marxism. At the same time, to a certain extent Hardt and Negri are more Hegelian than they think they are (see chapter 8 in my book “Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies”).
I do think that ideology critique, critique of capital accumulation models, media concentration, alternative media studies, social movement media studies, critical theory/philosophy of the media, etc has to be combined and guided by Marxist theory. I feel that most single critical approaches (like Smythe, Frankfurt School, alternative media theory, Garnham, etc) are not encompassing enough and that we now need a new critical synthesis. That’s one of my basic tasks . . . .
I fully agree that Google produces a lot of things that are nearly public. It is like when Lenin spoke about the central banks that are private, but assume quasi-public status. The thing one needs to do is to expropriate Google and use it is a good foundation for a public Internet. In a paper forthcoming in Fast Capitalism (see the full paper here), I try to grasp the dialectic of Google in terms of a contradiction between networked productive forces and class relations of media production.
Many popular science accounts of Google are celebratory, whereas a lot of social science analyses point out the dangers of the company. One should go beyond one-sided assessments of Google and think dialectically: Google is at the same time the best and the worst that has ever happened on the Internet. Google is evil like the figure of Satan and good like the figure of God. It is the dialectical Good Evil.
Google is part of the best Internet practices because it services can enhance and support the everyday life of humans. It can help us to find and organize information, to access public information, to communicate and co-operate with others. Google has the potential to greatly advance the cognition, communication and co-operation capabilities of humans in society. It is a manifestation of the productive and socializing forces of the Internet.
The problem is not the technologies provided by Google, but the capitalist relations of production, in which these technologies are organized. The problem is that to provide these services Google necessarily has to exploit users and to engage in the surveillance and commodification of user-oriented data. This is the foundation – the internal core in its commodity form, if you will – upon which Google rests. Marx spoke in this context of the antagonism of the productive forces and the relations of production. Google is a prototypical example for the antagonisms between networked productive forces and capitalist relations of production of the information economy. Google has created the real conditions of its own transcendance. It is a mistake to argue that Google should be dissolved or to say that alternatives to Google are needed or to say that its services are a danger to humanity. Rather, Google would loose its antagonistic character if it were expropriated and transformed into a public, non-profit, non-commercial organization that serves the common good.
I think there is indeed a dialectic of exploitation and joy today, but an unequal one, in which joy becomes the new principle of exploitation (play labour, playbour). So joy tends to become subsumed under capital accumulation as new management strategy and it becomes more difficult to resist. Certainly not impossible, but joy and play are antagonistically entangled into capital accumulation. My personal take is that political movements are the only way for making society more democratic and that struggles for democratic media must be connected to larger struggles in society that struggle against the commodification of the commons. At the same time, right-wing extremism is on the rise as effect of the crisis (especially in Europe, see Norway etc now).
So much for today.
Best wishes, Christian
For Part 3, follow the link here.