Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 1, 1990
The Media of Publishing
Edited by Albert Moran

Carnivalesque or Left Pessimism?

John Hinkson

In developing his contrast between carnivalesque and Left pessimism, John Docker ('In Defence of Popular TV', Continuum, v. 1, n. 2, 1988) refers to an article of mine 'Post Lyotard: A Critique of the Information Revolution' in Arena 80 ,1987 and also draws conclusions from this about Arena . I wish to point out that he has seriously misinterpreted the argument of that article.

The source of the misinterpretation seems to me to lie in John Docker's schematic concepts: those able to be categorised 'Left Pessimist', which it seems includes anyone who criticises the media from the standpoint of media as form, wish to see the media abolished. Yet there are long traditions of thought and practice which deny such a conclusion. For example, a critique of money as form may carry a fundamentalist implication of a return to direct social relations, but it may also seek to understand the structured effects of money exchange in order to seek a practice which can subordinate money to relations and values constituted differently. Thus it is possible to hold together a critique of a social form or medium, an exploration of its distinctive social logic, with a belief that as a form it is not only here to stay but in certain circumstances can play an essential role. For example, drawing on my article, a critique of high technology which emphasises its structural tendency to diminish relations of "human presence", docs not lead to the conclusion that there is no place for high technology in social life. But it does lead to an emphasis on facing the question of how to strengthen social relations which are able to subordinate this tendency. The materials in my article which support this approach are extensive and explicit but they manage to slip through the categories of Docker's critique.

Docker is struck by the dullness of Left pessimists so possessed by desensitised categories that they cannot see the carnivalesque, the festive and egalitarian spirit of the people, in popular culture. For him this blindness is paradoxical for popular culture actually embodies a radical ethos, like popular theatre in pre-modern Europe, one which is determinedly anti-authority. Cut off from this lively impulse, from those they supposedly support, Left pessimists weave conceptual frameworks of despair.

Docker's alternative of Left Pessimism and the carnivalesque begs many questions. I do not dispute that the carnivalesque impulse can be found in any society including the contemporary media. But what John Docker implicitly holds is that the carnivalesque spirit has the same meaning whatever its social setting. The subject of my article, that social meanings can be transformed by social forms, is not even discussed, simply distorted. Just as a surface reading of Crocodile Dundee may demonstrate lines of continuity with pre-modern European popular culture, one could also show emancipation to be a cultural orientation of both modernity and post-modernity: but one would be rash to equate 19th century political emancipation with the biological emancipation implicit in biotechnology. Nor is there any dispute about whether Monte Python or Hey! Hey! It's Saturday are anti-authority. But they are both anti-authority and pro-authority; to ignore the second aspect is to fall into the same trap as does Lyotard, the focus of critique in my article. For these shows deride the mores of a society which is passing in any case and they do so from a standpoint set within an emergent social form. That is, they support an orientation with simultaneously can be a defence of a new form of authority, one which, because it works on unfamiliar principles of social integration, is not as yet readily experienced as authority. On the contrary, it is typically experienced as liberation.

The 'liberation' and putting aside of serious conventions he finds in Perfect Match are, as he claims, in conflict with high culture, but they are much more than that. Here, Docker shares more with post-modernism than it might first appear. For this 'liberation' is one expression of the commodification of lifestyles, a stabilisation of diverse lived cultural strategies which Lyotard refers to as the "temporary contract in social relations". This is no temporary setting aside of convention as in pre-modern societies; it is an upheaval which reflects the constitution of relations of media and information. When their logic makes its mark social interchange is increasingly characterised by image and fleeting presence.

It is this argument, suggesting that a decent life cannot be made of such social relations alone, which draws the fury of Docker: "bizarrely fundamentalist". But the choice he has in mind is entirely in the eye of the beholder for it is his belief that a choice is being made between abstract relations of extension and the pure unmediated relations of human presence:

We have to get away from all media and instead somehow re-establish the "dominance of relations of human presence". (p.94)

To paraphrase my argument in this way, to suggest that I argue in favour of getting 'away from all media', is without support. It is contradicted many times in the article which is why Docker can find no quote in support of what he presumably 'feels' is the argument. Instead one might reasonably wonder who is being fundamentalist in the way he reduces "the dominance of relations of human presence" to getting "away from all media".

To form a choice between optimistic carnivalesque and Left pessimism is not helpful in the interpretation of the meanings of so significant an institutional practice as the mass media. Nor will the squeezing of an argument into such simple categories help to illuminate the relation of the media to a reconstructed Left practice.

New: 27 March, 1996 | Now: 15 March, 2015