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

Culture and communication: whatever happened to struggle?

Keyan G. Tomaselli


Review: Sixth International Conference on Culture and Communication, Philadelphia, 1986.


October 6, 1986, on probably the last direct flight from Johannesburg to New York, I boarded a largely empty jumbo jet. As we took off, one of the passengers, a progressive expatriate South African working for an American welfare agency operating in South Africa said, "I hope someone remembers to turn out the lights." South Africa was headed for a new dark age in the light of sanctions, disinvestment, the fire of revolution and a government determined to hang onto power, even to the point of exasperating Ronald Reagan.

When I arrived in Philadelphia 24 hours later, I immediately found myself on a picket line. The Temple University academic staff were on strike, for the first time in decades. What luxury, I thought, to be able to protest without arrest, intimidation and the fear of violent incarceration. Maybe there is 'struggle' in Reagan's America after all. However, I was to find out that American university power is vested almost exclusively in the 'managers', the non-academics appointed to positions of academic decision-making. America too might be 'free', but in South African English-language universities, academics remain relatively autonomous, more in control of their individual and corporate academic destinies, though increasingly we find ourselves on an embattled path towards the industrialisation of the university as has occurred in America, and state interference in the management of universities.

Over the next three days 300 participants from the United States, Canada, Israel, Netherlands, San Salvador, Hong Kong, Poland, Sweden, Nicaragua and South Africa converged at a swish hotel in Philadelphia between October 8 and 11, to study 'culture and communication'. The entrance qualifications to the conference were demanding - more than half the papers submitted having been rejected. I looked forward to something extraordinary.

The bi-annual conference offers a vehicle for interdisciplinary discussion, drawing on social anthropology, communication studies, cultural analysis and cultural studies, psychology, sociology, philosophy, town and regional planning, geography, speech, performance, fine arts, history, education, consumer studies, literature, music, folklore and language studies. Professional attendance included people from advertising, radio, film, TV, telecommunications and telematics. The papers and panels were integrated both in terms of geographical region and thematically in terms of discipline. No overall themes were suggested by the organisers, though each panel was organised around specific topics.

A staggering seventy-four sessions were squeezed into the three and a half day program. Being of a widely varying interdisciplinary nature, the conference brought together academics and professionals whose interests in concepts of culture supposedly provided common ground. Although no plenary sessions on definitions of culture or communication were held, the following assumptions about culture emerged from the various panel discussions that I attended:

1. The most consistent definitions employed were those originally developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the Birmingham Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies, particularly the ideas of Stuart Hall and his colleagues. Papers falling into this category were mainly theoretical and dealt with concepts of ideology, power relations in the production of knowledge, class struggle, research practices and the need to include a study of contexts in the scrutiny of media and texts. This approach was labelled by Americans as 'critical research' which derives from the earlier theories of the Frankfurt School which strongly influenced the work of particular communications scholars in the the USA since the 1970s. Only one paper by Larry Grossberg, "Critical Theory and the Politics of Empirical Research", questioned the prevailing conception of what consitutes 'critical research' in the American context.

This group of scholars were highly critical of both the 'adminstrative research' of maintream functionalist American communication departments and the Gerbner approach to content analysis. Other theorists discussed included Antonio Gramsci, Jurgen Habermas, Georg Lukacs, Marx and Lenin. However, with one or two exceptions, the American contemporary cultural studies scholars seemed unclear on how to connect theory with cultural/political practice through praxis by linking into and working with, through and alongside popular political movements or progressive trade unions and organisations. For someone who had left a country that was on fire and who intended returning, this apparent lack of praxis, of identification with working class struggles, of strategic action to contest hegemonic processes, was incomprehensible. Where were the sites of struggle I asked. "Keeping our jobs" was one of them, were the replies.

Within this general approach fell discussions of feminism, sex and gender, which remain vigorous sites of struggle in middle class America. Unfortunately, these debates were rarely connected to working class struggles or gender, ethnic and class oppression in terms of proletarian perspectives. The question that was ignored is to what extent were Marxist discussions on lesbianism really the concerns of women of the American working class? Another question that might have been dealt with, given the international composition of the conference, was how do struggles over the legitimation of lesbianism in the United States relate to the struggles of people in South America and Southern Africa where the battle is for survival itself?

2. Anthropological definitions informed a limited number of studies as few anthropologists presented papers during the conference. Visual anthropology was represented in the form of filmmaker-anthropologist collaborations on oral culture in both America and Lesotho. Gei Zantzinger and David Coplan's film, Songs of Adventurers, is a significant documentation of the Basotho migrant mine worker culture torn between rural tradition and the brutality of South African gold mine employment. Generally, however, discussions on the need to protect ethnic patterns and cultural perceptions in the face of the American 'melting pot' sounded ominously like apartheid discourse: that's exactly what the South African government claims it is doing. The point I am making is that scholars who value ethnicity (and I am not criticising them), need to take care that their writings are not co-optable by repressive regimes who turn these ideas on their heads but can still argue that they are doing what the world wants of them

3. The ideas of George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communication were often explicitly or implicitly present in panel discussions on media, specifically his ideas on cultural indications and cultivation analysis in the more orthodox examinations of media content. This approach has varied little in the last decade or so and the well known criticisms of this school were again aired in the discussions. It was a pity that the Gerbner orthodoxy was not challenged by the organisation of a session pitting Gerbner and his detractors against each other.

4. Numerous panelists provided determinist economistic analyses, assuming 'culture' to be consistent with 'commodity'. Their emphasis was to examine the structure of media institutions, but they de-emphasised questions of ideology, and of culture as a web of significations arising out of the political economy of media and society in general. Media texts were assumed to be 'culture', but the texts themselves were not necessarily analysed in relation to productive contexts. Conversely, scholars examining contexts, rarely related these back to the production of texts. This group of panelists set themselves apart from contemporary cultural scholars and saw little space for popular struggle in the face of the awesome power of the multinational media conglomerates. This approach tends to lapse into vulgar Marxism where the superstructure is mechanistically connected to the economic base. The determinism and pessimism that follows such analysis is thus self-reinforcing and scholars can do little but document patterns and mechanism of domination in the utter despair that ultimately their work can be of little use to the subaltern classes. The rider, of course, is that struggle is non-existent and that such studies can only benefit the hegemonic bloc which is given detailed 'analyses' of how they operate to 'manage the mind'.

Eileen Mahoney's paper, "Reconceptualising the Critical Approach: Synthesising Political Economy and Cultural Studies", questioned the "notion of a single, unified critical paradigm". She argued that "American critical researchers can benefit from British critical approaches and expand the explanatory power of the U.S. critical tradition." Not only that, the British approach, itself derived from continental European social theory, will show how the theoretical emphasis can be shifted from passive acceptance of domination to the study and catalysation of resistance, strategy and struggle. Some papers did deal with the struggle of, for example, the American Indians, dissidents in South Africa and San Salvador and Sandinista in Nicaragua. But these presentations were the exception and, in the latter two cases, poorly attended.

5. The now discredited sociological theories of 'high culture/low culture' (or elite culture/popular culture) were present in some discussions on ethnicity and media content. This general approach, often challenged by participants, was most evident in the panel on "Literacy and Culture" which privileged high (literary) culture (and old culture) over popular culture (or contemporary culture).

6. Cross-cultural analyses drawing on structural-functionalist sociology and anthropology sought to explain how ethnic identities could be retained in conjunction with the 'melting pot' idea where common elements of diverse cultures can be appropriated and drawn into the social centre of American life. To the ears of this South African the ideas and language used didn't seem to be that different to the discourse used by the National Party in justifying what it calls 'multiculturalism' (one of the many euphemisms for apartheid). Yet their respective social and ideological assumptions appear to remain very different. In South Africa, 'cross-cultural' research tends to place whites on the inside and everyone else on the outside.

7. A number of presenters made no mention of culture at all. Nor did they attempt to couch their arguments in any of the above mentioned approaches. Most of these papers provided detailed content analyses of specific films, TV and radio programmes and print media, often parroting John Hartley and John Fiske, with no extension of their syntheses or an evident awareness of the theories of political economy which underlie their approach. A number of consumer-oriented papers lacked any theoretical perspective on culture, concentrating mainly on the 'communicative' (and aberrant decoding) elements of statements (as in advertising). Such contributions were out of place in the conference and would have been more easily integrated in symposia on marketing which take capitalism and its attendant class structures for granted.

One session, "Journalism and Worldview", even tried to resurrect gatekeeping theory by resuscitating David Manning White from retirement, giving him the task of speaking about "The Intellectual History of an Idea: Gatekeeping", when its time had long passed. White was awed by the longevity of the concept, but clearly unaware of subsequent criticisms made against gatekeeping theory by critical research. It was perhaps unfair of the session organiser to place him in such a vulnerable position.

8. None of the presenters took their theoretical or methodological cues from the British culturalists such as E.P. Thompson or C. Hill, though one or two people did mention Richard Hoggart, who was the first director of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

From a southern hemispherical perspective, "Communication, Language and the Crisis of Hegemony in South Africa" was the title of a paper presented by this author, co-written with P. Eric Louw and Ruth Tomaselli, all of the Contemporary Cultural Studies Unit at the University of Natal. The paper examined the new political discourse that has emerged in response to the reformist initiatives of the P.W. Botha administration. The crisis, argues the State, has resulted from the failure to successfully communicate the 'benefits' of apartheid to its subjects and the external world. We argued:

(a) that the National Party was responding to the crisis by appropriating the liberal discourse of Western democratic governments in an attempt to legitimise the continuation of racial capitalist relations of production, but in a manner which makes these relations appear as a multi-racial structure; and

(b) because these attempts at semantic engineering have failed, the government had to take control of the media through the establishment of the Bureau of Information. Controlling the media is thus seen to be the solution to the 'problem'. No blame is laid on the apartheid social structure.

The economistic approach seems hegemonic in the more progressive American communication/journalism/broadcasting departments at the moment, but the recently introduced concepts of the Birmingham School are beginning to influence the ways the relationships between media and society are being studied both in America and South Africa. Two writers in particular seem to have had a seminal effect on American cultural studies: Stuart Hall, formerly Director of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and Tod Gitlin of Berkeley University, though he was not present at the conference.

It was reassuring to find out that in many respects - and despite South Africa's geographical isolation from the centres of intellectual ferment in Europe and America - that our courses and research are in some respects more advanced than is the case in the United States and Canada. This is partly because of the current conjuncture where popular social movements and conditions have and are providing the terrain for concept development and political action through praxis (putting theory into practice by working with, alongside and through popular and revolutionary social movements and organisations). This kind of revolutionary social turmoil is lacking in the United States and is reflected in the minimal popular political involvement by US cultural studies academics, one of whose major sites of struggle seems to be within universities themselves.

Conversely, because of the late introduction of communication studies to South Africa, we remain at a disadvantage with regard to our critique of 'administrative research' which is taught and applied without question in so many of our higher learning and research institutions. The Culture and Communication Conference is an important attempt to clash these sometimes mutually exclusive paradigms against each other through debate and discussion and to provide an environment whereby intellectual cross-pollination can take place.

Three weeks later I was on the last SA Airways flight out of Kennedy. Back into the land of authoritarianism. But not quite. It was a relative voyage. The Temple Conference was itself an authoritarian microcosm: one has nagging doubts about the selection mechanism used to choose the 50% of successful submissions - particularly those papers which were unaware of social theory, let alone concepts of culture; consultative debate during the conference was absent - like the surrounding society, everything was fragmented and atomised. The Conference didn't seem to be going anywhere or address common problems; there was no evaluation of the Conference, no discussion of future directions; no strategizing (a favourite new South African word) in terms of incursions into academic freedom by the State ...

America seemed to me to be a country without struggle. The Temple pickets won a salary increase, but its academics had already lost the battle ... Culture and Communication? Whose culture? Communication for what?

I hope someone remembered to turn out the lights of New York as we took off for South Africa.


Keyan Tomaselli is a film/video maker and Director of the Contemporary Cultural Studies Unit, University of Natal, Durban, South Africa. Tomaselli's attendance of the conference was made possible by a grant from the Human Sciences Research Council. The views expressed, however, are his and not necessarily those of the Council.


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