Critical Media and Communication Studies Today: A Conversation between Dwayne Winseck and Christian Fuchs. Part 3
Dwayne Winseck: Christian,
Fascinating response to our ongoing riposte here. Must say I enjoy it very much, and am learning a lot too.
I agree that we are on the same page on a lot of things. Thanks also for helping me recall some things about Marcuse by referring to his links to Freud’s notion of pleasure. I have not read this material for some time and you’ve inspired me to jump back into it. Same with respect to the Italian Autonomist Marxists, and I think I’m in agreement here with you about how that school turns every act of the subject into a potentially revolutionary one. Perhaps that’s pleasing to the ‘digerati’ and young guys hanging out around their Internet connections all the time, but it too easily celebrates ‘net culture’ and is not the basis for anything politically effective.
I’m fascinated too by your reference to Lenin and the idea of banks fulfilling central public functions. This is not a Leninist idea, as you well know, but rather a principle of modern banking from the creation of the Bank of England (founded in 1694 but only nationalized in 1946) and an absolute mainstay in John Maynard Keynes ideas. Of course, it is also anathema to ultra conservative economists. Do you have the Lenin source on this point ready-to-hand? Anyway, this broad ‘infrastructural background concept of public goods’ works well with understanding the idea that search engines (Google), Social Network Companies (Facebook), ISPs, etc. provide no small range of generalized public utility like functions.
Now here’s where the differences between us, I think, start to emerge. You make a long list of things that need to be combined to serve as an encompassing approach for all those on the left of communication and media studies. I’m not sure that can be accomplished, nor am I confident that striving to achieve such a thing is either viable or desirable. We must be able to talk but not necessarily expect that we’re going to agree, and not just among those who self-identify with the left but anyone who has a voice in the things that we are talking about.
In the list of substantive areas that you suggest we should study, I would put ideology either off the list or much further down the list to the point that it plays a bit role in things. Instead, I would focus on ‘users’, what they do, say, think, without recourse to ideology and it’s typical functionalist ‘glue like’ notions. Ideology is dead, like Marcuse said.
That’s maybe too strong, but just to get the point out crisply. Have you seen Nicholas Garnham’s new piece in the book by Wasko, Murdock, Sousa (eds): Handbook on the Political Economy of Communication? I’m only half way done, but he is scathing about the orthodoxy of what passes as PEC, bitingly saying that adherents have “forgotten nothing, and learnt nothing”. The way he puts his case is way too strong, but throughout the paper he goes through a list of grievances that I have some sympathy for:
(1) that Marxian analysis are disconnected from reality and empirical analysis;
(2) that a fundamental aspect of this reality is the communication, information and cultural goods are immaterial and thus not like ‘normal commodities’ and that this has enormous implications for how markets are structured and work, the hits and miss character of media economies, media labour, policy, etc.;
(3) that Marxian ideology and political projects are trumped up as political economic analysis, when they are not, and moreover likely to be all the more ineffectual because of their disconnection from an intimate understanding of the telecom-media-Internet industries that they are purportedly analyzing;
(4) that dead notions — ideology, cultural imperialism, cultural homogenization, etc. – should be given up and given a decent funeral;
(5) that Marxist political economy has to recognize that it is far from the only game in town and open itself up to more open-ended discussions with other schools of thought.
The critique of PEC that Garnham offers is no holds barred. I would part way with him in tone, and subsequently on some of the substantive claims that he makes.
Here’s an even bigger issue: Capitalism. I’m all for many of the things that you put on the research agenda, so please don’t get me wrong, but I worry that focusing on such a large whole, and to putting one’s political priorities at the front end of the process of inquiry risks obscuring too much empirical detail. I think Zygmunt Bauman and Luc Botanski represent my position well when they critique the idea that sociology today can take the ‘whole’ as its starting point. The fragmentation of societies, social institutions, individual life trajectories/biographies, etc. is key to understanding the complexity and instability that not only defines capitalism but the texture, fabric, structure and feel of our everyday lives.
This last point is way to big to pursue any further here for now. Besides, I have to go wash the car and play hockey. If you’re interested, perhaps we might think about posting these interchanges as a ‘dialogue’ on our respective blogs. What do you think?
Christian Fuchs: Dear Dwayne,
Thank you for the discussion, I enjoy it very much. I think it is a good idea to turn it into a blog exchange. We can then occasionally continue the discussion if we find time.
I’ve attached my paper here, A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Google; it should be online at Fast Capitalism’s site soon. Any comments are very welcome.
The question, which critical approaches and theories we employ or combine, is also a question about our own work because we are influenced by certain traditions, thinkers, approaches and draw on them for creating new critical knowledge. It is also mainly about the question, which topics we find worth studying and how we study them. I do think that we need to bring together the critical analysis of capital accumulation (including the role of advertising), ideology, audiences/users and alternatives/struggles when we study media
communication critically. I have no reasons to privilege one of these dimensions of study, why should one? They are all important.
I do not see your point, why you find studying ideology least important. You were quite critical of Dallas Smythe in one of your previous contributions in our conversation, saying that he is too economic reductionistic (an argument, with which I disagree because I think this thoughts and works were much more manifold than many see/say today), but both Smythe and Garnham have argued that ideology critique (as mainly advanced by the Frankfurt School within Marxism) is unnecessary, unimportant, idealistic, etc. This is a topic that not only concerns capital as base of capitalism, because ideologies are sturdily anchored in the capitalist economy, but also because they concern the economy’s and the political system’s interaction with culture and the world of ideas. So ideology is a crucial topic of analysis for avoiding crude economic reductionism.
By saying that ideology critique has least importance, you now sound more like Dallas Smythe and the economism you say you are so weary of. Why should ideology be less important than capital accumulation when we study the media? I do not agree and am curious what arguments you have in this respect. Marcuse, by the way, did not say that ideology is dead. People like Daniel Bell were talking about the “end of ideology” and Marcuse countered that late capitalism in the 1960s and 1970s was a hyper-ideological age.
Let’s take a simple contemporary example: what is now called “social media” by some. After the dot.com crisis in 2000, there was a need for establishing new capital accumulation strategies for the capitalist Internet economy. So the discourse on “social media” became all about new capital accumulation models for the Internet economy. At the same time, investors were reluctant to invest finance capital after the crisis as venture capital into digital media companies. Nobody knew if the users were interested in microblogs, social networking sites, etc.
The rise of social media as new capital accumulation model was accompanied by a social media ideology: that social media are new (“web 2.0”), pose new opportunities for participation, will bring about an “economic democracy”, enables new forms of political struggle (“Twitter revolution”), etc. The rise of new media once more was accompanied by a techno-deterministic techno-optimistic ideology. This ideology was necessary for convincing investors and users to support the social media capital accumulation model. The political economy of surplus value generation on social media and ideology have heavily interacted here in order to enable the rise of “social media”. So why should ideology here be rather unimportant? It is just as crucial as surplus value generation. The ideology of techno-determinism and techno-optimism were in this case (as in other cases of the introduction of new technologies) mainly spread by management gurus, uncritical academics and new media company managers. Isn’t it the task of critical academics to understand and criticize this ideology just like to understand and criticize media capital accumulation models?
You say one should be critical of focusing on society as a whole. But doing so is not lacking complexity, it is based on the insight that it is possible to understand, conceptualize, analyze, criticize and transform the societal totality and to see how class interacts in this whole with other forms and lines of stratification, i.e. how exploitation interacts with domination and what role the class antagonism and non-class antagonisms play. Of course this is complex, it is necessarily complex, the problem today is that the culturalist turn has resulted in simplistic/cultural reductionistic analyses that neglect class and the economy. Why analyzing the totality is important is also the prospect of changing the whole and replacing capitalism by democracy and equality. What are the alternatives to that? Are we not again again in the situation of facing the potential futures of socialism or barbarism(s)?
I have read Nicholas Garnham’s contribution in the Handbook of Political Economy of Communication. Here are three observations from my reading:
* (1) Garnham suggests using the term “Political Economy of Information” instead of “Political Economy of Media/Communication/Culture”. I think that information-communication-culture-media are so interlinked, that it is really just a question of choice, which name we employ.
* (2) Garnham says that Political Economy is often a gestural, self-satisfied, paranoid radical Marxism and is often based on a crude and romantic Marxist rejection of the market. He also speaks about the alienated nature of all human relations and alienation as aspect of human species-being. I could not disagree more. Critical Media and Communication Studies is not strongly shaped by Marxism today because the engagement with Marx has had an institutional setback in the past three decades due to the rise of neoliberalism, postmodernism and culturalism. At the same time, socio-economic inequality and the crisis-proneness of capitalism intensified, culminating in the 2008ff crisis, which is the reason why the interest in Marx’s thought is coming back. So I would say that Critical Media and Communication Studies is not Marxist enough and should become more Marxist, the historical opportunity and analytical necessity (the objective necessity of the need of analyzing class, capitalism, exploitation and crisis now) is here now.
* (3) I found it surprising, given this context, that Garnham to a certain extent seems to be turning away from Marxist analysis. Many of his passages are quite unclear, so more clarifications were indeed needed by him on these points. When he says that alienation is part of the nature of humans and society, then he either uses a non-Marxist concept of alienation (he gives no definition) or he makes a fetishistic argument that naturalizes class relations. For Marx, alienation is at the heart of class relations, not only for the young Marx, but the very same notion can be found in the works of the older Marx (the notion of “double-free wage labour” in “Capital”). And why is it crude and romantic when Marxists reject the market? Exchange value is the heart of each market, and Marx was clear on the necessity to sublate exchange value economies in order to create a just society. Everywhere we find exchange value, we find inequality. Has Garnham given up the basic assumptions of Marxist theory? And if so, what are the alternatives for him today?
These are my thoughts for today.
Part 4 to follow shortly.