Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1 No. 2, 1987
Film, TV and the Popular
Edited by Philip Bell & Kari Hanet

The nightmare that haunts the Frankfurt School: re-rationalisation of media use

Hart K. Cohen

It is not difficult to see how the traditional epistemology of practice holds a potential for coercion. We need not make the (possibly valid) attribution that professionals are motivated by the wish to serve class interests or protect their special status. Whenever a professional claims to 'know', in the sense of a technical expert, he imposes his categories, theories, and techniques on the situation before him. He ignores, explains away, or controls those features of the situation, including the human beings within it, which do not fit his knowledge-in-practice. When he works in an institution whose knowledge structure reinforces his image of expertise, then he tends to see himself as accountable for nothing more than the delivery of stock techniques according to the measure of performance imposed on him. He does not see himself as free, or obliged, to participate in setting objectives and framing problems. The institutional system reinforces his image of expertise in inducing a pattern of unilateral control. [1]

This paper converges on a problem that was thematised at the ASSA conference . At the post-modernist panel it was referred to as 'proliferating localisms'; at the ethnographic and indigenous cinema panel it was a conflict of definitions around the term 'Aboriginal content'; and it has had numerous referents in the papers and discussions on audiences, reception, and consumption. The paper addresses this interest by exploring aspects of the relationship between lay knowledge and popular media. Lay knowledge is knowledge of social circumstances, practices, and tasks which is not derived from specialist expertise and professional practices. By popular media, we are referring to those elaborate information and communication systems organised for purposes of consumption - a notion which demands careful scrutiny and definition.

Generally, accessible knowledge in modern society is derived from many sources including direct experience and, centrally, popular media. In working with the notion of social members as thinking agents who use available knowledge to pursue their interests, available sources of information play a significant role in the on-going rational organisation of life circumstances. A documentary film which will be referred to in the following pages (28-UP by Michael Apted) is a good example of the ways in which lay people modify attempts by popular media to construct knowledge relevant to their practical situations.

Popular media are often seen as detrimental to processes of lay competency development (e.g. erosion of literacy, critical thinking, etc.). Media have also been blamed for contributing to the prejudice regarding political and professional practices. Considering some of the types of challenges to the validity of expert knowledge (from questions surrounding nuclear energy to alternative health care) the value of the prejudice is ambiguous. Both points - lay competence and challenge to professionalism - may provide a basis for criticism of expert claims to knowledge. This may complicate the performance of tasks involving practical applications of knowledge necessary to social integration.

The first example of this is a story about an event in which the popular media played an extensive role: in a small corner store a policeman was purchasing a litre of milk late at night when he was approached by a civilian who demanded his badge number. The civilian complained that the policeman had double-parked and, as he was not on police business, he (the civilian) was making a citizen's arrest. What followed is still a source of controversy but the result was a physical confrontation in which the policeman manhandled the civilian and with the help of his partner arrested the civilian for assault. This could have been the end of it - another abuse of police privilege perhaps but difficult to prove since it is usually the police themselves that investigate these incidents. The difference in this case was the presence of a video surveillance camera in the store - common in stores that stay open twenty-four hours. The entire incident took place directly in front of the camera. An enterprising TV journalist ran the tape on the evening news. Soon major news networks in the United States and Canada ran the story re-playing the video tape for its audiences. The video recording - a guarantor of the veracity of the incident - became a celebrated text promoted by radio, print, and TV in a number of forums (talk shows, phone-ins) designed for lay analysis of the incident. The knowledge that the incident had international exposure increased the incident's notoriety. It had become a true media event. The immediate effect of the media attention was the quick dismissal of assault charges against the civilian. The video was explicit enough to show that the civilian had not physically attacked or resisted the policeman. When the civilian sued the policeman for assault and false arrest, however, the results were not nearly as conclusive. The controversy raged for a second time. Again media audiences joined the debate. This time round, however, the legal discourse dominated the interpretation of the video material. Presented as evidence for the prosecution, the defence lawyers generated a number of ambiguities in the interpretations of the images suggesting that the policeman had been set up. The more the video text was subject to legal arguments about its 'meaning', the less it could sustain its function as guarantor of truth it initially appeared to represent. As the trial progressed the prosecution tried to leave the video tape of the incident behind as it no longer functioned 'for' them. As the trial drew to a close, media photographs of the policeman as relaxed and confident anticipated the verdict of not guilty brought down soon after. With the acquittal of both accused the original proof positive offered by the video surveillance could not hold up in court.

This was only one 'turn' in what became a series of remarkable reversals. As the case unfolded in almost classic detective genre fashion everything became subject to doubt and reversal. The civilian, initially seen as an innocent victim of police brutality, became a kind of agent provocateur - someone who had a yen for setting up police. At his worst, the policeman was portrayed as brutal but by the end of the case a happy-go-lucky, handsome womaniser. As the failure of the video material to document an event became apparent, the news media reverted to the territory of personality and character. Lay knowledge was brought into play by the media (it has the capacity to do this), but the shifting ensemble of discourses - factual, fictional, and legal caught the media itself in a conflict about its role and capabilities as a professional interpretor of fact and arbiter of truth. It too was subject to the legal interpretations concerning the meaning and status of the video material in which a crucial distinction was being made between evidence of the real and evidence for the real.

The point here, then, is that there exists breakdowns and gaps within instrumental knowledges and techniques like video surveillance. Neither instrumental knowledges nor the older Frankfurt School notion of 'repressive social integration' can rationalise this event. Though Ken Wark suggests that "...all types of instrumental knowledges become imbricated into techniques of surveillance ...", here is a case where surveillance performs an unintended critical role: first, by surveying those in authority (the police) and second by intervening in the stream of media images as the 'real' - a provocation to the media aligned to lay use under the sign of the public.

The second example of how media attempts to rationalise social practices may be modified is drawn from the film 28-UP, [2] a documentary project spanning 28 years in which the filmmakers consciously set out to find in the social practices of individuals the determinants to social life itself.

28-UP examines 14 individual lives at their crucial junctures of ages 7, 14, 21, and 28 respectively. Variably interviewed as couples, threesomes, or as individuals, all the subjects are shown images of themselves shot at 7, 14, and 21 and used as a basis for the latest installment at age 28. There is a venerable tradition of the documentary represented by antagonists John Grierson and Robert Flaherty to which 28-UP is faithful. It was Flaherty's film Moana to which Grierson first referred in using the term 'documentary'. It was also Flaherty who inscribed most heavily in the documentary format his desire to 'salvage' the past through a romantic portrayal of heroic individuals. It was Grierson, however, who was to "put the working class on film" and to thereby expose the "hidden injuries of class". 28-UP insists on exposing the class based system for its subjects - a system that guarantees privilege for some and a working class life for others. With surprising consistency most of the film's subjects refute the intended labels of deprived, dissatisfied, and worried existences assigned to them while accepting their 'lot' with little envy or regret. (Regret, as one individual suggests, is the sentiment of an unhappy person and he was happy.) "Why are you always asking me if I'm worried?", the last subject responds with a slow smile, "I'm not worried!" ..."The only time we think about privilege is when you come around to ask the same question every seven years...", states a woman clearly exasperated with the interviewer's assumptions and explicitly critical of the agenda-setting of this documentary's reportage. These responses seem to trouble the filmmakers whose subjects are actually happy, but in the film's terms only because they have been prevented from forming desires which wouldn't have been satisfied in any case.

In the first three segments, the interviewer solicits answers to questions about major life decisions and goals. Work, education, and family are dominant concerns. The strategy for the last segment is to press home the differences in the testimony - to compare the stated commitments and plans to the 'realities' of the present. Sometimes these differences are accentuated by a sharp cut trapping the subject in the contrast of life changes. Other differences are drawn out through reflection and probing about how and why these changes have occurred. As the film progresses, however, the dominant pattern that emerges is conformity. With a relentless determinism the film repeatedly states the thesis that by age 7, the essence of a personality, a life pattern is set. The interviewer manages to solicit affirmations of this view from upper, middle, and working class individuals with two exceptions: an upper class twit who insists that this belittles the process of becoming an upper-class twit, and more significantly, Neil, whose life, as presented in the film (by the filmmakers) has gone terribly wrong. The interview with Neil unbalances the film. The other interviews sustain the individual narratives: stories of change, desire, lack, of choice, etc. Neil's story re-frames the agenda set by the interviewer:

Question: Do you worry about your sanity?

Answer: Some people do.

Question: Are you seeking medical help for treatment?

Answer: I've seen doctors but I don't get treatment.

The changed dynamic which this interview takes on serves to reveal the prior interviews as heavily contained by the power accorded to the interviewer in that situation. But even Neil succumbs to the power of the image to recover a semblance of the past - as a memory sufficient to counter the strength of his own meta-narrative. Neil's bitterness towards his parents is reawakened at the insistence of the interviewer though the issue had long been resolved by Neil in a fitting manner ("We knew when to say nothing and that is a great achievement .."). The interview with Neil casts doubt on the interviewer's presumptions about 'normal' individuals in 'normal' society. The coercion exercised by the filmmaker in this sequence unmasks the implicit coercion of the other interviews - that the terms and practices of the documentary discourse serve a given community at a given time. Its universal claims, then, are impossible to legitimate.

28-UP is an attractive film because it appeals to both the nostalgia and universality of movement through social life - a kind of ultimate coming-of-age film. Like the success of pop psychologies (e.g. Passages) that deal with similar processes, the film's appeal has its basis in a powerful claim for bio-social determinism that is seen to operate in an inequitable world. The critical potential of the film lies in its incapacity to empirically close the issues raised around one central cause-effect relation. Rather, it includes, through its own format, accounts that variably treat the film's project and its interests with cynicism, disinterest, disdain, and finally with a view that disputes the film's fundamental bias: that social and individual goals do eventually intersect despite the divergences and obstacles thrown in the way by adolescent and post-adolescent crisis.

Both of the examples outlined above illustrate the stated interest of this paper in the relationship between lay knowledge and the process characterised by the term 'consumption'. The rest of this paper will examine this relationship by placing these ideas in differing and sometimes competing theoretical discourses.

Handling consumption has been a dominant concern for cultural and communications theory. A now familiar model has the critic demonstrate how audiences appropriate certain coding strategies. The knowledge about these audiences may then be fed back into programming and so textual production may exhibit an awareness of coding strategies and incorporate them both implicitly and explicitly. (For example, TV shows like Moonlighting may be cast as Brechtian as might a film like Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron with familiar British actors playing the parts of 'good Nazis'). The structures through which these codes get unravelled depends on an account of the subject - the place of subjects in a complicated hierarchy of discourses. Competing with but complementary to this model are the terms of the Frankfurt School's account of the subject.

With the Frankfurt School, the term 'subject' changes. Critical theory adopts the term 'agent'. This change is not simply terminological. With agency there is already an implication of advocacy - a quality of action that the term 'subject' lacks but to which it is often linked. The agents of this social theory:

have ways of criticising and evaluating their own beliefs - a set of second-order beliefs about what kinds of beliefs are acceptable or unacceptable ... 3

As suggested by the filmmakers of 28--UP, agents can attain elementary satisfaction of needs - literally a preservation of physical survival. But this is not sufficient for integration - agents must also engage in the promise of progressive improvement in life's conditions. This was essentially the concern of The Dialectic of Enlightenment4 written by Horkheimer and Adorno while in America - a country already down the road of advanced consumption and modernity. It is no accident then that the Culture Industry essay is a part of this work that advanced the critique of enlightenment in the following way:

Reason once instrumentalised becomes assimilated to power and has thereby given up its critical power - the final unmasking of a critique of ideology applied to itself. 5

Some postmodernists have located themselves in the space of this performative contradiction - that the critique of ideology describes the self-destruction of the critical faculty in a paradoxical manner; that in performing the analysis, it must make use of the same critique, which it has just declared false.

In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse builds the analysis on the hysteria and insecurity of the time with the agent developing the means of repressive de-sublimation. Both Marcuse and Adorno/Horkheimer wrote as if their particular social context would remain unchanged. They presume that the state has the capacity to rationalise life contingencies and administer needs. The critique of this position reaches its full force in the work of Habermas as the problem of legitimation.6

Legitimation is a problem at the level of the state in the organisation of integration of agents. The mass media is given a prominent role to play as part of the public sphere - a domain where legitimation problems are often contested but with ambiguous results. This may underscore the contradictory character of the media's own legitimation problem, because, as Hallin suggests:

The ability of the media to support the structure of social power is limited by the need to maintain the integrity of the process of communications on which their own legitimacy depends. 7

Legitimation problems are exacerbated by the existence of deviant practices by a number of groups who contest conventionally sanctioned social practices. Deviant practices are connected to the erosion of the welfare state and the resistance of groups to its effects. The simultaneous rise of neo-conservative and fundamentalist groups though ideologically complicit can pose a complicated challenge to the legitimacy of a liberal or conservative regime. Both these groups can resist to different degrees but the problem for the state remains one of integration - and the problem is fundamentally a material crisis and not a crisis in ideological manipulation alone. If ideological manipulation were able to produce successful integration, it would to have to be of a 'promissory note' nature.

There is, however, little empirical research on how ideology actually works. Critical theory, pre-occupied for the most part with a philosophical critique of positivism and a non-positivist conception of social inquiry, has so far produced little in the way of extended analysis of social institutions, including the media.

In the area of ideology-critique, textual theory has put forward models in which the obvious (capitalist) and hidden (psychoanalytic) dimensions of a text are connected to its formal strategies. These connections form the basis for a text's ideological operation supported by theories of practice and subjectivity (discourse theory, interpellation, voyeurism, etc.) The limits to textual theoretical analysis have been described as a plateau in which the subject and object and their functions have been essentialised. Stephen Heath, one of the best exponents of this approach, calls for a 're-distribution of operations' and 're-deployment of limits' as an attack on the ahistoricism of textual theory's explanatory formulations.8 From a separate tradition - that of cognitive and social psychology, ethnographic data suggests substantial social representation, influence, and change exerted by minorities.9

The thesis that minorities (on the basis of empirical analysis) constrain the production of culture counters and complements the political economy of media as it understands the structure of media institutions and the impact of these structures on the cultural product. Minority influence, understood as negotiation towards consensus (c.f Habermas) challenges the model of commercial/professional media serving entirely as an ideological support for advanced capitalism. The work seeks its own idea of agency: individuals and groups are not simply caught up in a nice sounding idea (dominant ideology), but make rational decisions based on certain kinds of empirical evidence in terms of particular interests. 'Interest' is a key term in Frankfurt School thought, but like the antinomies of ideology - true and the false consciousness - interests may also be real or false. Typically critical theory should afford the agent insight to develop real interests that coincide with the real interests of critical theory itself: knowledge, uncoerced human action. Commentary on this aspect of critical theory [10] points out the double binding paradox of its position:

... the interests the agents would form given perfect knowledge coincide with those they would form in optimal social conditions, because agents couldn't acquire 'perfect knowledge' unless they were in optimal conditions. 11

Despite the circular logic, Guess suggests that the critical theory of society can bring agents closer to the terms of freedom and knowledge which together are the conditions for emancipation - uncoerced human action.

If this is cold comfort, consider that the media has provided agents with material even the evidence for constructing certain kinds of social criticism. This may constitute a new form of lay knowledge that could challenge, on occasion, professional commentary on the media. The path to emancipation, however, may not be what critical theorists envision. Agents do not live like the people on Dynasty and no one need tell them this; but they might believe that someone should live like a Dynasty character - an interest to be pursued within agents' capacities and as their own project ... by any viable means. Hence contemporary young capitalist idealists. Left criticism seems not to have foreseen this inversion of technical rationality having invested instead in notions of instrumental rationality as dominant ideology.

At least Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse were aware that there had to be some hard work put into maintaining integration. The control imposed via the consciousness industry was debilitating to society as a whole, not merely aimed at a specific reproduction of particular relations. It was an abolition of the project of modernity, of moral autonomy, of emancipation; not merely the reproduction of dominant class/gender relations favouring specific groups. It is precisely the Frankfurt School's misrecognition of the emancipating potential of the cultural sphere that made them oblivious to the ferment about them - oblivious to the fact that some agents could not/would not accept administered definitions of themselves and their circumstances. The critique of late capitalist society advanced by Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse is based largely on the 'closing of the universe of discourse' which they believed society had produced. Habermas' critique of late capitalism rests on the impossibility of this very ideological closure; the impossibility, in his terms, of an 'administered production of meaning'. The nightmare that haunts the Frankfurt school, then, is when:

agents are actually content, but only because they have been prevented from developing certain desires which in the 'normal' course of things they would have developed, and which cannot be satisfied within the framework of the present social order. 12

The nightmare is one in which control is so total and effective that agents may be prevented from forming desires - a society of happy slaves. But it is questionable as to whether this characterisation survives the paradox of the happy slave. Rather than being about total ideological closure, the nightmare may be about rationalisation; people's needs are administered, taken care of; for Horkheimer and Adorno needs are fulfilled but not in ways that were substantial. This was the case for both a socialist and capitalist context. They were concerned with America as plenitude without happiness. Society as a whole meant collective avoidance. This is a different concept to that of a dominating ideology providing the motor for the reproduction of relations of domination serving special interests.

Rather than a determinate conspiracy, there exists instead aggregates of minorities of different levels of activity and power, interacting, struggling, rising and falling on a number of social circumstances. This is not a Lyotardian vision. Competing with incomensurable concepts of rationality and value demands that any general definition of need be made in conjunction with localised conditions. It is an appeal for some form of unlimited communicative action predicated less on the search for normative universals but on a recognition of the limited rationality of any perspective.

In summary: two examples drawn from media practice suggest difficulties inherent in any project of integration: administratively determined meaning fails in its attempt to influence. This may be due to entropy, resistance by groups, or by one party or the other simply not getting it right. The explication of theoretical models becomes inevitably the explanation for their operations. Basic features of these models require definitional justification (e.g., the notion of media text, consumption, etc.). The same applies to the context of inquiry. Existing empirical strategies in social psychology provide a competing analytical approach to these theories (of the subject, of the social, of ideology) which have rejected empirical grounding of the research. Ideological operations serve as secondary justifications for some social theories, but it is not clear how ideology operates within the general frame of the reproduction of capitalist relations. Rather than a totalising ideology, the rationalisation and re-rationalisation of social and media relations may mean a negotiated and uneasy passage between power and legitimacy.

In conclusion, it is appropriate to underline the differences between this reading of the Frankfurt School and postmodernist positions. Habermas claims that postmodernists enlist the powers of emancipation in the service of counter-enlightenment. Adorno and Horkheimer took a different route: they intensified the contradiction of rational critique and left it unresolved practising instead ad hoc determinate negation thereby opposing the fusion of reason and power.13 Neither postmodernists nor critical theorists appear to escape imposing a vision of the social world that suits simply the exigencies of their own epistemologies just as the social engineering empiricists of the right and the vulgar determinists of the left ultimately share the same penchant for disregarding the aspirations, formulations, and cognitions of the people they claim to be able to explain and understand.

As I can neither free myself from the objectivity that is crushing me or from the subjectivity which is driving me into exile ... As it is impossible for me either to raise myself up to life or fall back into nothingness ... I must listen. I must look around me more attentively than ever ... look at the world. 14


1 D.A. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

2 M. Aptead, 28-UP (Granada, 1986).

3 R. Guess, The Idea of a Critical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981).

4 T. Adorno & M. Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1969).

5 Ibid.

6 H. Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1975).

7 J. Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon, 1975).

8 S. Heath, p.81.

9 Moscovici & Farr, Perspectives on Minority Influence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) p.80; Social Representatives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

10 C.F. Guess p.81

11 D. Hallin, "The American News Media: A Critical Theory perspective" in J. Forester, Critical Theory and Public Life (Boston: MIT Press, 1985).

12 Guess, p. 81.

13 Habermas, p.82

14 J.-L Godard, Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1968).

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