Keith Windschuttle, The Media. Melbourne: Penguin, 1984, 436 pp., index, $12.95.
There was nothing accidental about the publication of The Media last year. It is an event for which we have been prepared. One might be excused for regarding it as a considered move in a local game of discursive politics: nothing less than an attempt to take possession of 'the terms of the discourse' in Australian media studies. For this reason it is difficult to review the book with the requisite semblance of academic detachment. Its project must be taken into account and its aim weighed against its achievement.
I think it undeniable that in the most usual academic terms the book is not very good. It does not display much subtlety, or much knowledge, in its theory. Its arguments sometimes take insupportable leaps. It fails to discuss fully concepts crucial to its position like 'media', 'culture', and 'working class'. It is often simplistic, even naive.
Yet none of this addresses the point of the book. In spite of its deliberately contentious attitude, in spite of page upon page of figures, one should not take seriously either its rhetoric or its pretence to authority. They are mere decoration, ruses designed to distract (although a legal injunction prompting the temporary withdrawal of the book suggests that for some readers, at least, these ruses have succeeded beyond all hoping). To write the review that at first glance seems warranteda detailed exposition of the list of charges aboveis likewise a little too alluring. One has the uneasy sense that there must be a trap somewherethe same kind of trap that springs whenever commercial television is accused of promulgating these or those 'values'. For it may not be reasonable to expect The Media to be 'a good book', in just the way it is not reasonable to expect commercial television to provide a radical alternative to anything.
If academic quality involves a certain balance to argument, moderation in tone, rigorously deployed evidence, and reasoning clearly and cogently presented, then academic quality might well have impeded the attempt at coup that appears to be in process with 'The Media. No such takeover can occur if the new discourse does not
occupy centre stage, does not command attention. 'A good book' presenting the same positions could well be reviewed quietly and quietly dropped from sight. 'A bad book' provokes scathing attacks, passionate denunciations, legal action, titanic efforts to offset its abysms with mountainseven reviews as absurdly convoluted as this one. In short, it controls the discussion by virtue of the very badness that commonsense tells us should render it not worth discussing.
This tactic is not uncommon in what may be calledwith no little jejune witthe 'arena' of popular culture. In the middle seventies a film called SNUFF appeared in cheap theatres throughout the United States. Its advertising suggested that the last sequence of the film showed someone actually murdered. No screenings were held for the press. The reaction in newspapers, radio, and television was immediate and very strong. 'Shock horror' hardly does it justice. Many people went to see the film. Others, some of them unpaid, picketed theatres where it was shown, providing an occasion for more media coverage. Eventually some reviewers, overcoming their repulsion, paid to see the filmand reported that the notorious last sequence was an obvious sham. By all accounts, SNUFF was not a well made film, but neither the falsity of the claims of its advertising nor the quality of the film itself mattered. What mattered was the sensation it caused and the (modest) profits realised from that sensation.
Academic and intellectual circles are not immune to the forces that galvanise popular culture, and we should not pretend that they are. A sensation ('television is ruining childhood', for example) will provoke heated discussion among academics no matter how silly its claim may be. Indeed, the 'issues' in media studies often seem to consist of lists of sensational claims, which are then perused with an obsession out of all proportion to their substance. So the attention grabbing posture of The Media is not really an extraordinary circumstance even in academia. And that posture is also not unrelated to the controversial project of the book. Putting it in the crudest terms, The Media claims that certain facets of the Australian media represent authentic working class culture. If in that culture positive weighting is given to reckless challenges, to bold upstaging, to sensationthen the book itself can be said to represent certain values of the working class, adopting a pose of awkward defiance within the groves of academe.
Consider the Professor: bearded, bespectacled, his jacket wrinkled and chalky. Taken aback, he peers with alarm at the Worker, whose jaw is set and steely eyes ablaze. The Worker's fist is raised. 'Don't you know you are talking NONSENSE? ' he yells. 'You know nothing
of the workers! You know nothing but your stupid theories! It is time you listened to history! It is time you listened to us!' This is a thrilling moment. Everything one has been taught says that the Professor should listen, that the Worker is telling the truth. If instead the Professor plays the pedant, pointing out to the leader the weakness of his words, we scorn his preoccupation with manners rather than issues. An opportunity to collaborate effectively with the working class has been offered, and once again, the intellectuals have proved unwilling to relinquish the power which their way of speaking affords them. The Worker will probably empty a wastebasket over the Professor's head as he resolves that after all he will make the revolution alone.
I would say that some version of this imaginary and rigged confrontation is likely to be replayed in most academic reading or reviewing of this book. The Media will be greeted as a destructive act when it is merely an aggressive one, as antagonistic when it only wants alliance rather than subordination. But I don't want to repeat that drama. I don't want to focus on the questionable authenticity of the book's proletarian pretence or to use other Professorial strategies that come so easily to mind. Instead I should like to pretend that my Professor is in a Soviet film. He thrusts out his hand with fierce enthusiasm. 'COMRADE!' the intertitle reads. (Dissolve to cheering masses, intercut with shots of the Presidium minus Trotsky.)
The Media quite purposefully sets out to break up a monolithic notion of 'dominant' culture or ideology which has received a great deal of attention in the past decade following the discovery of Louis Althusser's work by English and American theorists. The book tends to characterise this notion naively and to discount differences between competing theorisations of cultural dominance. It pretends that there is no viable concept of significant difference within the prevailing academic discourse and thus fails to do justice to the nuances of that discourse. However, as I have said, these mistakes are themselves insignificant in the context of the book's purpose; and in that context one cannot help but admit the validity of the pointif not for theorists, at least for members of the concerned public and other people with good intentions (perhaps more certainly the readers of this Penguin paperback than you or I).
Commonplace understanding of The Media has not yet lifted itself from the fifties' quagmire of 'mass culture'. Furthermore, there is a rough, and by no means accidental, correspondence between those ideas of 'mass culture' and the writings of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and others associated with the Frankfurt School, and a further arguable line from Frankfurt to Paris, Marxian structuralism,
and the intellectual underpinnings of much of today's theorising. One would not wish to assert more (although The Media does). But one would want to point to an alternative formulation: namely that the culture purveyed in The Media should not be taken too quickly as just One Thing.
I have used an imperative to describe what ought to be done. I do not wish to assert, as The Media does, that what is represented in media products 'is' or 'is not' this or that, only that it can (and should) be understood in this or that fashion. One of the more serious flaws of the book is its tendency to make statements that suggest culture exists independently of its reading. The position is not argued; it is assumed. We are told, for example, that 'advertisers are taking genuine popular cultural expressions and exploiting them for their own ends', as though the 'genuine popular culture' were so much alluvial gold ready for the picking. Now when someone points to some genuine or authentic cultureAustralian, working class, or whateverit is almost invariably an indication that the speaker is about to indulge in terminological inexactitude. For this sort of genuine culture is always separable from any specific representation of it. In the case of popular culture, the genuine article does not depend upon the sender or producer of the message ('people in cultural industries') nor upon those who receive or interpret the message (who, as this book insists, often misunderstand its cultural value). It is an absence, a blank, that can be filled in with whatever serves the speaker's purposegenuine-ness, a quality conferred by the agreement of speaker and reader. And this genuine culture is given at the same time a truth value far higher than any message that supposedly might bear it. This is 'controlling the terms of the discourse' indeed.
Now I have no trouble with the position that some of the ideas that can be read as being represented in, say, a game show are 'culturally significant' and neither trivial nor contemptible. I have no trouble, even, in assuming that certain of those ideas may be especially meaningful to working people in a capitalist economy. But I do have trouble calling such ideas 'popular' or 'working class'as though they express something particularly anti-elite or are inextricably tied to certain socio-economic conditions or as though their claim on our attention is only justified because they are believed to emanate from or to characterise working people. Such 'working class culture' is most usefully understood as an interpretative frame, no less a (contingent) historical product than the text it purports to explain. That texta game show, for exampleis a collection of sign-functions available as expression related to content only through the mediation of
coding (and here my true colours come through, I suppose): that is, only by the invocation of interpretative games. The only things that can be said, indisputably, to 'be' this or that in a game show text are patterns of light and colour (ultimately, in this instance, expressible in binary terms), not 'culture'. This is because physical existence is pre semiotic, an aspect of organic and inorganic nature. Once 'culture' is invoked, however, those patterns of light and colour become invested with content and an inescapable semiotic condition is operable: the semantic autonomy of the text. (Put in another way, lying becomes possible.)
Here it is fair to say that The Media's arguments themselves become monolithic insofar as they privilege the reality of 'working class culture' and other such frames. The right way to interpret game shows is as working class culture, the right way to interpret game shows as a facet of bourgeois culture, and so forth. We are caught in a hermeneutics of imaginary production (not uncommon in media analysis), where an imaginary producer of a text is deemed the sole valid authority for its interpretation. What appeared to be a radical move to wrest meaning from the Professors and ground it firmly in 'history' turns out to be just another tactic of academic King of the Castle, played, as always, with mirrors.
Another foundation of the book's arguments is empirical and instrumental. This is not wholly a bad thing. In a roundabout way The Media makes the same nice distinction between capitalist aims and bourgeois constraints that Raymond Williams made in Culture (1981), emphasising the potential for conflict between profit and probity. But The Media takes matters a step further by identifying specific mass media as those institutions most likely to promote that sort of conflict because they are tools of advertising. The book does not explicitly argue that advertising is the most disruptive force at work in contemporary society, but the position is implicit in the reliance it places on the notion of 'target audiences' to provide an empirically-based final cause of communication-for advertising-profit. The target audience is treated as a concrete, pre-semiotic Thing, not as an advertiser's interpretative frame. If the target audience is, or includes, working people, the book considers this evidence enough for the concrete, pre-semiotic existence of a working class audience. Shoring up this position are pages upon pages of tables and uncounted number of numbers, which cannot prove a case that is inherently not provable on the empirical level, but do add to the book's value as a source of information. Moreover, the target audience notion is a valuable asset in attempting to persuade people that The Media need not be just One Thing. Target
audiences are an outgrowth of the uses and gratifications approach to communication theory. This approach is currently passe enough not to warrant a mention in The Media's index, but its reliance on a model of interaction between sender and receiver to explain communication can act as a useful corrective to the tendency, deplored earlier, to attribute all valid meaning to a sender's intention. As we have seen, The Media does not use it this way.
It is a pity that a book calling itself The Media should concern itself only with those media that devote time or space to advertisement, as though there were not films and books and recordseach with their own interesting involvements with advertising. Empirically, the weakest section of The Media for this reviewer is the one on popular music ('Radio, Popular Music and Talk'). Musical recordings act as their own commercials, a circumstance that one would have thought would provoke The Media into iconoclastic and outrageous posturesparticularly since the forms of music imprinted on recordings have been 'targeted' at particular audiences (including the working class) since the inception of the industry. There is a delicate relation between the recording-as-advertisement-for-itself and the recording-as-advertisement-for-a-radio-station which has resulted in at least one rather bitter Australian dispute recently. This is not mentionedand the book seems similarly unaware that current New Wave dance music represents the success of the industry's attempt to co-opt the late seventies' disco threat to accepted promotional and production practices or that one reason for the boom in music videos is that, prior to the advent of MTV in the United States, most American commercial television refused to show videos without the usual payment for commercial promotion (although non-commercial stations elsewhere did not baulk at this form of advertising). What the book does say about recorded popular music has all been said before, and the banality of the remarks is, in this instance, symptomatic of a crucial challenge that is ignored: the challenge to extend the thesis beyond the 'advertising media' of newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. Sound recording, the cinema, and book publication have never been 'mass media' in the vaguely instrumental way in which that term is usually employed. Even Star Wars had a target audience ('else what's a genre for?'). The distinction between downmarket and upmarket media products (which was related to differences of class and taste in the fifties by writers whom The Media does not cite) has been at work and culturally significant for as long as those products have been made, but it still awaits a treatment proportionate to its importance.
And it is here I would say that the book has suffered most obviously from what was presumably a polemically-dictated simplicity. It is because these other media are not obvious venues for advertising that the opportunity to claim them for the book's thesis is not taken, and what might have been a dazzling coup will, I think, most likely wind up as a peaceful demonstration of the sort that is banned only in Queensland. The Media believes finally that messages are what senders intend them to be. That is, without advertisers having targeted a mass or 'national' audience there would be no working class culture on television. The lines and purposes of communication evoked in The Media are basically straightforward and unproblematic. But the theoretical position implied by the acceptance of the notion of target audiences is in conflict with the idea of straightline, sender-orientated communication. Such a position suggests that communication is a system within which final causes (goals) cannot be foundand thus that to locate the cause of this or that text on the instrumental level of its 'producer' (advertiser, author, culture) is like attempting to prove the truth of a mathematical system from propositions provided within that system.
Inasmuch as The Media directs our attention to the operation of communication systems through such concepts as the target audience, it is a valuable book polemically, if not academically. But inasmuch as it fails to take into account the reciprocal interactions that make communication a system rather than a linear process, it gives up any ground it might otherwise have held. For the hostile response to The Media's contention that working class values are to be found in television will be that such values are themselves only constructed by and within a dominant bourgeois culture, which changes the level of the argumentand the book contains no response to that strategy. The point is that, culturally considered, the question of 'who speaks?' is impossible to answer definitely (and certainly cannot be answered by the empirical facts and figures this book provides). The question itself is miscast. Only when we ask 'what communicates?' may we begin to formulate other questions that may eventually justify hoisting our wastebaskets and assaulting the citadels of discourse.
William Routt teaches at La Trobe University.
Williams, Raymond (1981) Culture. London: Fontana.
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