Critical Media and Communication Studies Today: A Conversation between Dwayne Winseck and Christian Fuchs. Part 5
Allow me to note that I did not say that ideology is “behind the dot.com crisis and then the Global Financial Crisis”, but that crisis results and expresses itself in an intensified presence of certain ideologies. I think that your positive assessment of Smythe’s and Garnham’s assumption that ideology critique diverts “our attention from economic realities” risks economism, neglecting how culture and the world of ideas always interacts with the economy. But you also talk about the role of “elite knowledge” and ICT/media myths in capitalism. But that is exactly part of the domain of ideology. What we have to add is that there are also attempts to make everyday citizens follow ideologies and that ideology can be (and often is, but not automatically) a site of struggle. If dominant ideas are ideas of the dominant, then it is likely that they use media for trying to reproduce their hegemony. This does not mean that they always are successful in doing so, but that it is likely that we find hegemonic ideas in mainstream media. This is contradicted by the possibility (and reality) of alternative interpretations and alternative media, which are ways of challenging hegemonic ideas. But of course counter-hegemonic projects are facing power asymmetries. I would also add that academia is a site of ideological struggle. Isn’t it also the task of Critical Political economy to question myths about media and capitalism that are advanced in Media and Communication Studies? If we understand ourselves as critical scholars, then our critique has an object within academia and in society and we are the subjects conducting this critique. All of this is part of struggles relating to ideology.Ideology critique tries to show differences between essence and existence and between claims about reality and reality itself. Take as example for ideology critique an analysis by Dwayne Winseck (in the introduction to the book “The Political Economies of Media”, pp. 43f) that shows with statistics that the music industry is growing and not in decline, whereas the International Federation of Phonographic Industries continues to state the lack of profitability of the recording industry due to file sharing. What we have here is the empirical testing of the correspondence or difference of claim and reality that as a result shows the falseness of the claims. Add to this an analysis of the linguistic ways that the recording industry employs for making its claims about its dwindling profits and how it identifies filesharers as enemies in order to criminalize them so to make even more profits, then you have an excellent ideology critique. Dwayne, you are more into ideology critique than you think you are, so there is no need to understate the importance of this dimension of Critical Media and Communication Studies. The question to which extent the public believes the industry claims or not is another task of ideology critique.
You can of course interpose to my arguments that ideology is a philosophical idealistic phenomenon and that the field of Political Economy/Economies of Media should focus on studying materialistic phenomena. But this were a crude separation of base and superstructure, not taking into account that base and superstructure always interact, put pressures on each other, are dialectically interconnected. The German philosopher Hans Heinz Holz speaks of dialectics as Übergreifen of categories (encroaching). The economy and the world of ideas necessarily dialectically encroach each other in complex ways. You cannot split the world of ideas off from the economy (the role of ideology, cultural industry as the collapse between the boundaries of base and superstructure, knowledge work as interconnection between the two, etc).
Allow me to note that for Marx ideology certainly was a dimension of Political Economy, which is documented by the chapter “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” in Capital, Volume 1, which is probably one of the most difficult chapters in the book. Marx points out the logical mistake of taking historical circumstances as natural for all societies (naturalization), stresses that the thinkers of the Classical Political Economy frequently make this mistake, that the same mode of thinking can also be found in everyday thinking, that this fetishistic thinking stems from the very structure of capitalist production itself, i.e. has a material grounding, that ideologies are not just ideas, but at the same time social and material practices grounded in the economy, and that overcoming fetishism requires a fundamental transformation of society. I think this chapter is, where we should start the discussion when we talk about the role of ideology for Political Economy/Economies of the Media.
We will not be able to go into it in any more detail of these questions now, but we can see from our discussion that the question of ideology in capitalism is a hotly debated issue within Critical Media and Communication Studies. We should also note that when discussing ideology, we need an understanding of what ideology is. And there is no consensus on this. Terry Eagleton has notes six understandings of the concept of ideology:
a) The general material process of production of ideas, beliefs and values in social life.
b) Ideas symbolizing the conditions if life-experiences of a specific group or class.
c) The promotion and legitimatization of the interests of a group or class in the face of opposing interests.
d) The promotion and legitimization of the interests of a dominant group or class in the face of opposing interests.
e) The promotion and legitimization of the interests of a dominant group or class in the face of opposing interests with the help of distortion and dissimulation.
f) False and deceptive beliefs arising from the material structure of society as a whole.
There are differences in the ideology concepts of say e.g. Georg Lukács (and based on him the Frankfurt School), Karl Mannheim, Antonio Gramsci or Louis Althusser and these differences are based on specific interpretations of Marx.
We will, however, not solve the question of ideology here. We can for now only acknowledge the complexity of this problem and that its status in Critical Media and Communication Studies is contested.
However, we can think about Eagleton’s six concepts of ideology as variously interlinked levels of ideology. The differentiation between levels allows us also to see that false consciousness is not a necessary element of ideology; it may be just one outcome of ideological strategies, but can also be resisted (although there is no automatism of resistance and the means for producing hegemonic ideology and counter-hegemony are unequally distributed). Ideology is not necessarily a state of consciousness of dominated groups. It can be, but it is more a process, in which dominant groups communicate dominant ideas, to which others react in certain ways or do not react. Dominant ideas impact the culture of the dominant itself (e.g. neoliberal work norms – the new spirit of networked capitalism – that impact not only what is expected of the behaviour of workers, but also managers).
(2) 7 Sets of Hypotheses about Critical Media and Communication Studies Today
(H1) The Task of Critical Media and Communication Studies
The task for Critical Media and Communication Studies is to focus on the critique and analysis of the role of communication, culture, information and the media in society in the context of
a) processes of capital accumulation (including the analysis of capital, markets, commodity logic, competition, exchange value, the antagonisms of the mode of production, productive forces, crises, advertising, etc),
b) class relations (with a focus on work, labour, the mode of the exploitation of surplus value, etc),
d) domination in general,
e) ideology (both in academia and everyday life) as well as the analysis of and engagement in
f) struggles against the dominant order, which includes the analysis and advancement of
g) social movement struggles and
h) social movement media that
i) establishing a democratic socialist society that is based on communication commons as part of structures of commonly-owned means of production. The approach thereby realizes that in capitalism all forms of domination are connected to forms of exploitation.
Critical Media and Communication Studies has the potential for combining all or at least several of these dimensions of analysis and in doing so to bring together Critical Theory, Critical Political Economy, Critical Cultural Studies, Alternative Media Studies, etc. This is again mainly a resource questions and as a result we find a division of labour in Critical Media and Communication Studies. We should draw on the vast history of critical traditions in Critical Media and Communication Studies and bring them together in interdisciplinary research programmes. So there should not be one project of Critical Media and Communication Studies, but a diversity of projects. But they should be networked and their diversity be united (unity in diversity) by the critical outlook and a theoretical and philosophical connection. Critical philosophy and social theory have a particular role in such research programmes and in establishing unity in diversity because due to their operation on a meta-level of analysis and as meta-theory they can help researchers to communicate with each other and they allow contextualizing research in a broader context.
(H2) The Form of Critical Media and Communication Studies
Critical Media and Communication Studies best operate as combination of critical social theory, critical empirical social research and critical ethics. Resource limitations make it frequently not possible to combine theory, empirical research and critical ethics in single projects/papers/research. The result is a division of labour (critical media theorists, critical empirical media researchers, critical information/media ethics). The goal should be to build interdisciplinary teams, research programmes and projects that pool resources and bring together theory, empirical research and ethics in conducting Critical Media and Communication research and that draws on knowledge from various disciplines. Such research structures reflect Max Horkheimer’s vision of a critical interdisciplinary research programme formulated in 1930.
(H3) Critical Media and Communication Studies and Philosophy
There is a lack of social philosophical and social theoretical grounding of Critical Media and Communication Studies. One of the reasons is that the division of labour results due to institutional limits and a neglect of philosophy. Critical philosophy and social theory can provide systematic guidance for engaging with questions relating to which society we live in and what role media and communication play in contemporary societies.
(H4) Critical Media and Communication Studies and Dialectical Philosophy
Dialectical philosophy can provide a strong philosophical and theoretical grounding of Critical Media and Communication Studies (see chapters 2+3 in my book “Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies”). This type of philosophy can provide us with tools of thought that allow us to systematically conceive, analyze and criticize the contradictions, relations, dynamics, positive and negative potentials, as well as struggles relating to media, communication, culture, information and technology. Dialectical philosophy can be an extremely helpful guide for theoretical, methodological and practical-political aspects of Critical Media and Communication Research.
Frankfurt School Critical Theory is the tradition of Critical Cultural Analysis that has most thoroughly and systematically engaged with dialectical philosophical and theoretical foundations. Such foundations have for example been elaborated in Herbert Marcuse’s “Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory“ and Theodor W. Adorno’s “Hegel: Three Studies”. The dedication of the Frankfurt School to profound philosophical questions (although not necessarily the content of its theories) can inspire us today to create a dialectical-philosophical foundation of Critical Media and Communication Studies.
Social theory of the media and communication in society needs to start with providing an understanding of questions like: What is society? How is a society made up? How does social transformation work in society? What is the role of structures and agency in society? What is the relationship of the human individual and society? Dialectical philosophy is well suited for helping to bridge gaps in the field of Critical Media and Communication Studies (between the focus on structure and agency, subject and object, reason and experience, technology and society, economy and culture, pessimism and optimism, risks and opportunities, work and pleasure/joy, alienation and self-actualization, etc) and for avoiding one-sided approaches.
(H5) The analysis of capitalism
Capitalism is a system characterized by the dialectical unity of diversity of its political economy. It has at the same time a unified political economy and diverse political economies; it is at the same time capitalism and many capitalisms. Capitalism is today at the same time to various degrees finance capitalism, hyperindustrial capitalism, crisis capitalism, new imperialistic capitalism, media/informational/communicative capitalism, capitalist patriarchy, a racist mode of production, etc. The danger for analyses of media, information, culture and communication in capitalism today is to overstate the relevance of specific phenomena of informational capitalism and to neglect the other capitalisms as contexts of informational capitalism and the interaction of these dimensions.
Informational/Media/Communicative capitalism is a tendency, and a relative one, in the development of contemporary capitalism. This does not mean that it is the only or the dominant tendency. Capitalism is many things at the same time, it is to a certain degree informational, but at the same time to a certain degree finance all the other kinds of capitalisms that I just listed. Capitalism is contradictory, it contains in itself to certain degrees different modes of production, such as pre-modern production forms and voluntary, self-managed, non-commercial, or non-profit projects and organizations, and an articulation of different modes of production. It is the task of research to find out which capitalism is present to which extent in which context.
The unity of all capitalisms is that they are all oriented to capital accumulation by exploiting surplus value in class relations. The diversity of capitalisms is united, capitalism needs to be dynamic, complex, multidimensional and diverse in order to maintain the continuity of capital accumulation and to create ever newer spheres and spaces of commodification, production, circulation, consumption and accumulation. Debates about media in the information society are often stuck in either stressing pure continuity or pure discontinuity of capitalism. We need to grasp and analyze the dialectics of capitalism.
(H6) The analysis of media communication in capitalism
Informational/media/communicative capitalism as one of the dimensions of contemporary capitalism is itself internally shaped by the dialectical unity of diversity. It is many-sided, contradictory, multifaceted, multidimensional. Capitalist media are, in complex and contradictory ways, but to varying historical and changing degrees, connected to non-capitalist media. Analyzing media communication in contemporary society requires us to see the dialectics of structure and agency, object and subject, opportunities and risks, work and play/pleasure, continuity and discontinuity, commodity and gift, and other dialectics. At the same time, we should be under no illusion that the dialectic is symmetrical. Instead, we must look for the asymmetries in power relations and strategies in order to politically empower alternative and critical forms of communication where need it most.
(H7) The analysis of exploitation and domination in Critical Media and Communication Studies
The rise of neoliberalism in society and of Postmodernism, Cultural Studies, Post-Marxism and Constructivism in academia have worked on decentering theory from class analysis and focusing on non-class based domination and discrimination. Identity politics tended to be substituted for class politics. The neoliberal phase of capitalism was/has been/is an intensification of class struggle-from-above, at the top of the power hierarchy, by capital. This has resulted in a strong increase of socio-economic inequality and an extension and intensification of precarious living and working conditions. At the same time that academia was saying goodbye to class, material reality brought class back in. 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 separate around topics like gender, racism, peace, nature, etc – the rise of neoliberalism resulted since the late 1990s in a movement of movements. The global capitalist crisis has finally brought a return to the economy and class, not only in society, but also in academia.
Class needs to be conceived today in a form that takes non-wage labour (like unemployment, house work, use of corporate Internet platforms, etc) as forms of exploitation and as part of the class antagonism into account. Theorizing class as a foundation for understanding knowledge work and “digital labour” on the Internet needs to be attuned to the idea of multiple class positions: the flexibilization, dynamization and pluralization of class positions, and the antagonistic class character of knowledge production/producers themselves.
These diversities find their unity in the production and exploitation of value. There is a dialectical unity of diversity in class analysis. If we think dialectically about class, then necessarily the class antagonism is maintained by an internal dynamic change of class positions. Attention needs to be given also to the circumstance that an individual can occupy multiple class positions at the same time and that these positions shift. Knowledge work is today often overstated and it is often conceptualized as being too homogenous, although from a class perspective it is quite heterogeneous, fragmented, and ruptured by internal class antagonisms.
Various forms of domination in capitalism are always articulated with class. Capitalism can in principle be ecologically sustainable, respectful of gender differences, minorities, immigrants, etc as long as capital accumulation is guaranteed, but it can never be socio-economically just. Class is the key to understanding and criticizing domination and exploitation in capitalism. Domination cannot be reduced to class, but exploitation always prefigures, exerts pressure, conditions and sets the context and limits for various forms of domination.
(3) The Field of (Critical) Political Economy/Economies of the Media
You on the one hand use the term political economies for saying that we have multiple economies, i.e. you want to stress the complex and contradictory character of capitalism. To a certain extent I agree (see H5+H6). I would only add that there is a unity in this diversity and a predominance of the capitalist mode of production. On the other hand you use the term Political Economies of the Media (see Dwayne’s introduction in the important collected volume “The Political Economies of Media”). You want to stress the importance of the plurality of schools of Political Economy of the Media and to also express that one to a certain extent should leave aside “one’s own politics and agendas” in academia and engage in broad academic collaborations. Implicitly you also thereby say or want to warn that being too critical can be a barrier to communication and can advance separation.
I really recommend everyone interested in contemporary Media and Communication Studies to read this introduction and the book. Your introduction is excellent. It is a convincing empirical analysis, deeply informed by knowledge of different theoretical traditions.
You provide a mapping of the landscape of Political Economy research in Media and Communication Studies by identifying four approaches and speaking of Political Economies of Media:
(a) Neoclassical Political Economy of the Media
(b) Radical Political Economy of the Media
(c) Schumpeterian Institutional Political Economy of the Media
(d) The Cultural Industries School.
You stress the diversity of the field that conducts inquiries of the social, political and economic contexts of media communication. Your classification is very helpful for distinguishing Critical Political Economy from other approaches (a distinction that is frequently missing in other accounts and creates a lot of confusion). It is perfectly feasible and welcome that scholars from all four approaches work together on interesting topics and that we should definitely look for and be open to such co-operation.
The methodological differences are probably also not larger between the four approaches than within the approaches. The big difference is that the second approach is the one most likely to ask and engage with philosophical, ethical, political and theoretical questions about power structures, a just society and a just media system, whereas the three others are more likely (of course to varying degrees and depending on contexts) to find such questions and engagements inappropriate, unnecessary, and to argue for value free research — that such questions, essentially, lie outside of academia. The question, however, is what do we want: Good analyses only? Or good analyses that help advance a more just society as context for media communication?
By focusing on the diversity of approaches, your classification risks to neglect the political economy of the Political Economies of Media, i.e. the power structures and power distribution that characterize this field and limit its diversity. Radical and Marxist scholarship is bound up with the second approach. What does it mean to be a Marxist/critical scholar today (especially for younger scholars; I do think we have to stress and take into account that career opportunities and academic work conditions are in many countries today much more precarious than twenty or thirty years ago; and let’s assume that by critical we here do not mean Popper’s understanding of the term, but the more political notion of the critique of society)?
It means that you are less likely to get your papers accepted in established mainstream journals, that you will have a more difficult time getting funding for your research, for attaining tenure or finding a permanent position; that you are more likely of having to face prejudices, negative prejudgements and demonizations of your work, that you are more likely to loose your job and to be a precarious academic worker; that you are likely to have to engage in permanent discussions about what Marx actually wrote and what others claim he wrote and stands for, etc.
Being a Marxist scholar is the best guarantee for a difficult academic life. Marxists likely have to work more and harder, to be more witty and creative than representatives of the other three approaches and of having to exploit themselves more intensively in order to be recognized, to establish themselves and to be successful academics. The notion of a diverse field obscures the internal power structures of Media and Communication Studies and Political Economy and of what it means to be a critical scholar today. It is luring and structurally feasible to stop (or never start) being critical and to follow mainstream administrative research in order to avoid the stony academic way that critical scholars frequently have to go. Another strategy is to think that one conducts administrative research first and critical research later once one is established and tenured. The problem of this strategy is that the more one becomes part of institutionalized administrative research, the more difficult it becomes to do something different.
Media and Communication Studies and Political Economies of Media are NOT diverse fields, they are fields shaped by power structures – liberal diversity turns in reality out to be not so liberal at all. And yet going the stony way and conducting critical research as part of the second paradigm is the only way for intellectuals to work towards a truly participatory, democratic, commons-based and public media system and for a just society. Therefore it is politically necessary and academically perfectly feasible to go the stony way and to be critical. One may have to go more difficult ways, but these ways and their outcomes are more meaningful. Networks of critical scholars that can give mutual support are quite important and a power in itself on this way.
What distinguishes the second approach from the other three is the connection of theory and empirical research to normative judgements that are critiques of asymmetric power structures and to the struggle for a just society and a just media system. Under neoliberal capitalism, we are not only facing the privatization and commodification of large parts of the media and rising inequality, it is for various reasons also difficult and a challenge to be critical. The intensification of different inequalities and neoliberal hegemony require a specific focus on the Critical Political Economy/Critique of the Political Economy of Media. The second approach you identify has special relevance today. It needs to be especially nourished and supported, more than all other approaches in your typology.
Neoliberalism has brought about a deep-seated institutional and structural discrimination of scholars, who find Marx’s analyses inspiring and use them for formulating contemporary critiques. The 1960s and 1970s were decades that resulted in a relative institutionalization of scholars who were critical of capitalism. The rise of neoliberalism brought a reversal. Not only was it no longer en-vogue to talk about class and capitalism, doing so has — in the era of neoliberalism — not been conducive for an academic career, to say the least. Academics out of fear to loose their jobs or not being promoted adapted to the new neoliberal mainstream and this also impacted the topics and methods of research, the way universities and departments are organized and that especially brought heavy pressures for younger scholars, who have to a large degree been facing precarious employment relations.
Being critical in a neoliberal environment is structurally difficult. Neoliberalism limits the degree and possibilities of being critical by university reforms, cutting of budgets, centralization of bureaucracy, coupling of university to industry, downsizing or elimination of departments and fields that are not considered as being in line with economic interests, etc. So how to be critical in 21st century academia? My take is that critical thinking has been marginalized and discriminated for too long and that we have to demand our rights to be heard, to be present, to have resources. And for doing so, we have to challenge the neoliberal mainstream. The project of Political Economies that you suggest must take power relations of the field into account, not bracket out the questions of power and neoliberalism for the sake of being on good terms with scholars from other traditions, and must especially work for strengthening resource allocation (as a form of affirmative action) for critical scholarship and overcome structural discrimination. It needs a true diversity, not a pseudo-diversity. And this question of diversity of a field is crucial and complicated in a largely neoliberal context that shapes academia. To talk about Political Economies of Media must mean to talk at the same time about the political economy of the Political Economies of Media.
The interest in Marx is returning today due to the explosion of inequality and the capitalist crisis. It is a historical moment that needs to be seized and embraced as opportunity. There is a new legitimacy crisis of capitalism, there is tendency that the tide is turning – the tendency is that increasingly you no longer have to explain why you are critical of capitalism and why you talk about class, the need of justification and explanation tends to lie today rather on the side of those who are not critical of capitalism and who refuse to talk about class. It is of crucial importance today to conduct research that is connected to the struggle for a just society.
There is much confusion about how to name the second approach in your typology. Terms that have been used by scholars who share the critical approach for naming their field have for example been Political Economy of Communication, Political Economy of Communications, Political Economy of Culture, Political Economy of Information, Political Economy of Mass Communication, or Political Economy of the Media. “Political Economy” is not necessarily critical. This is also an implication of your mapping of Political Economies of Media. Marx’s book was not called “Capital. A Political Economy”, but “Capital. A Critique of Political Economy” because he was critical of the classical political economy of Malthus, Mill, Petty, Ricardo, Say, Smith, Ure, etc.
Just like Marx, I think we should engage with the contemporary mainstream of political economy (of the media) – neoliberal political economy – in order to criticize and establish a critique of this political economy and an alternative/critical political economy. I am worried about the circumstance that scholars tend to speak of “Political Economy of X” and not of “Critique of the Political Economy of X/Critical Political Economy of X” when the actually mean the latter. There is also a Neoliberal Political Economy of X. The imprecise usage of terms can easily result in a lack of differentiation and a confusion of Critical Political Economy with Neoliberal Political Economy. In order to avoid confusion and be more precise, I suggest to either use the term Critical Political Economy of Communication/Culture/Information/Internet/Media or the term Critique of the Political Economy of Communication/Culture/Information/Internet/Media. I think that your differentiation of four approaches helps making such distinctions clearer as they sometimes appear. At the same time, I disagree with your stress on a diverse field because what we have is a stratified field characterized by power asymmetries.
One thing we can learn from Marx for Critical Media is his mode of dialectical thinking, which allows looking for the contradictions of media communication in capitalism. I think dialectical philosophy is very worthwhile for our field because it allows us to think beyond gaps, beyond techno-optimism and techno-pessimism, beyond structure and agency, etc and to analyze media communication in contemporary society as complex, dynamic and contradictory (I stress this especially in my book “Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies”). But one can apply dialectical thinking also for understanding what (critical) political economy of the media is all about. Dialectics is not only thinking in terms of negations and contradictions, but it is also a mode of thinking and practice oriented on Aufhebung (the bad English translation of this Hegelian concept is “sublation”), a German word that has a simultaneous threefold meaning and therefore signifies the threefold process of preservation (1), elimination (2) and uplifting (3).
Marx deeply engaged with Classical Political Economy. As a result, he preserved (1) the best elements of it in his approach, so his approach was also (classical) political economy. The thorough engagement with Classical Political Economy allowed Marx to formulate a Critique of Political Economy, he showed the mistakes and ideological naturalizations of the political economists. This critique was the attempt to eliminate (2) the dominance of classical political economy and to replace its dominance by a new quality of political economy (3) in society and thought. It is this third level of Aufhebung, where Marx not only engaged with political economy and established a critique of it, but worked out an alternative/critical political economy that was based on the concepts of surplus value and class.
So Marxian political economy is a) engagement with traditional political economy, b) critique of traditional political economy, c) alternative/critical political economy. What is true for a Marxist political economy in general is just as true for a Marxian political economy of the media specifically. This is a thoroughly dialectical process. I think we need to be primarily dialectical and critical today when conducting Political Economy of the Media.