Communication as culture essays on media and society + 1989

The works of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Benjamin suggest varying positive and negative roles for the arts and media as social forces of domination or liberation and the reproduction of ideology. Brantlinger suggests the Frankfurt School critical theorists were faced with the fact that monopoly capitalism and imperialism produced fascism and Nazism rather than a workers' revolution. Civilization had produced its opposite: barbarism. The Frankfurt thinkers argued that the dominated classes had been bought off by mass media. Their goal, Brantlinger argues, was to create radical philosophical consciousness against instrumental reasoning, reification, commercialization, and mass culture and mass media, all viewed as forms of political domination.

The negative assessment of the media does not waver in the work of Horkheimer and Adorno. Brantlinger writes that for Horkheimer, mass communication is non-communication, and the movie, book, and radio destroy personal life. Adorno accuses the culture industry of impeding the growth of independent individuals. The world is filtered through the culture industry and is deadened, as mass media produce a retreat from enlightenment into myth. Again, the media, which promise to universalize culture, lead instead to the regression of civilization into barbarism Brantlinger, Horkheimer attributed intellectual passivity to television and expressed resignation toward technology.

Adorno found that television follows totalitarian creeds, even though the surface message is anti-totalitarian. The Frankfurt School, Brantlinger contends, emphasized the problems of the nearly universal false consciousness that is seen as the main product of media. Benjamin offered a more positive role for the media, Brantlinger suggests. Benjamin thought that mechanical reproduction frees art from ritual to political expression and that liberation may come partly through media. In his dialectic, art becomes a reified commodity through media, but it also is democratized by media.

According to Brantlinger, younger Marxists have picked up on the hopeful side of Benjamin's analysis. Enzensberger, for example, faults Marxists for not being aware of the media's socialist possibilities as a challenge to bourgeois culture Brantlinger, Carey finds four similarities between McLuhan and Benjamin. First, both McLuhan and Benjamin study the human sensorium, although Benjamin has a sense of an entire mode of modern existence, not just technology, which is McLuhan's focus.

James W. Carey's cultural approach of Communication

Second, both select the transformation of sound into sight as the critical moment historically, although McLuhan focuses on the conversion of oral tradition into print culture. Benjamin, by contrast, focuses on the erosion of tradition by the reproducibility of visual images, from woodcuts to movies. Third, both associate this shift to the visual with the reduction of communication and the loss of authentic experience. Finally, both romanticize the process and include a reversal effect, a moment in history when the lost communication and authenticity will be restored, although Benjamin looks to politics and McLuhan to technologies.

McCallum finds that although it would be "intriguing" to argue that Benjamin and McLuhan's critical theories are linked, the "structural affinities" may be superficial and the two theories and methods are only "tangentially related" , p.

The Dialectical Methods of Marshall McLuhan, Marxism, and Critical Theory

Both use an "ideogrammatic method"--what McLuhan called his "mosaic approach"--and both "ransack the junkyard of mass cultural banalities" pp. Also, Benjamin's aural and post-aural cultures are "strikingly similar" to McLuhan's visual and acoustic culture p. Yet she dismisses McLuhan by saying that he "rechannel[s] Benjamin's fondness for concrete historical details in the direction of a pure technological determinism" p.

She finds that McLuhan's theory is pervaded by reification of technology, citing Fekete's critique. And she calls his mosaic approach, or his dialectic, rigid, one-dimensional, and detached from history. McCallum's analysis of McLuhan is rebutted by Stamps , who elucidates similarities between Benjamin and McLuhan, especially in The Mechanical Bride , such as their dealing with themes of fascism, narcissism, mechanism, and individualism; their interest in the banal surface of mass culture; their images of the Middle Ages and the oral reader and storyteller; and their use of mystical traditions.

Both were anti-elitists who saw the changing media's effects as a way of ending domination. Also, both saw the camera and the moving image as key historical moments. The key difference Stamps finds is the difference in schools of political economy--Benjamin following a European Marxist tradition, and McLuhan following a "self-styled, eclectic, highly improvised mode" , p. While Benjamin extended the Marxist framework, McLuhan both rejected and misunderstood Marxism's basic ideas while at the same time leaning toward dialectical formulations.

Benjamin used the standard Marxist categories of class; McLuhan did not. In general, Stamps argues that the Frankfurt School's Marxist approach provided a divergence of thinking between them and Innis and McLuhan.

Mass Media and Society

All four, in different ways, moved beyond Marxism while providing a historical and material-based analysis. A close comparison of Benjamin and McLuhan's media theories shows substantial similarities, using as a basis Hauser's socialist art history perspective. Hauser compares the German literary essayist to McLuhan, writing that McLuhan introduced and popularized Benjamin's idea of "technical reproducibility.

For Hauser, McLuhan popularized Benjamin's idea that film and photography introduced the age of technical reproducibility of works of art. Benjamin held that mechanical reproduction through film released "concrete visual sensuality from the dominance of abstraction and poetic expression from that of literature" Hauser, , p.

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Hauser disagrees with McLuhan's identification of the book, rather than film, as the first mechanically reproduced medium. Hauser argues that despite similar technical processes, a gulf separates reproduction of a printed text, which is not identical with the literary work, and reproduction of graphic art, which is the same work. In Benjamin's essay, his goal is to determine what form capitalist modes of production had taken in the half century between Marx's time and his own, during which capitalist production had become fully manifested in the superstructure.

He is interested in the dialectics of the development of art under capitalism. Unique to this project is the mechanical reproduction of art, which has been increasing in intensity since the ancient Greeks practised stamping coins. He discusses the woodcut, printing, engraving, etching, and lithography, although he oversteps printing as "merely a special, though particularly important case" despite printing's enormous influence on literature, to focus on the "new stage" in reproduction techniques introduced by lithography, photography, and sound recording, all culminating in film Benjamin, , p.

Around technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among artistic processes. For the study of this standard nothing is more revealing than the nature of the repercussions that these two different manifestations--the reproduction of works of art and the art of film--have had on art in its traditional form.

Benjamin, , pp. Benjamin argues that the age of mechanical reproduction has "eliminated" art's "aura" of "authenticity" because a reproduction lacks "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be" , pp. Benjamin further suggests that this "shattering of tradition" achieved by removing the work of art from its existence--he includes landscapes reproduced in photography and movies as examples--destroys "the historical testimony" and "authority of the object" p.

Dialectically to this negative, the reproduction "reactivates the object reproduced" as it brings the object into the observer's own situation p. This resonates with two ideas in McLuhan's Understanding Media : first, that media extend sensory functions, widening their scope, and, second, that the electronic media abolish time and space McLuhan, But, as Carey has noted, Benjamin appears even more McLuhanesque as he discusses sensory perception:.

During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity's entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well. Benjamin, , p. McLuhan also argues that sense ratios change as media change and as the entire society changes. These desires are manifest in the increasing social perception of "the universal equality of things" and in the increasing importance of statistics in the "theoretical sphere.

McLuhan equates the ideas of individual equality and statistical reasoning with the typographic media--the alphabet and printing. Yet he would agree with the idea that electronic media increase the desire for closeness and intimacy in the "global village. For Benjamin, the central insight of the age of mechanical reproduction is that it liberates the work of art from dependence on ritual and its cult value, as in cave paintings and the cult of beauty developed in the Renaissance. With mechanical reproduction, art becomes designed for reproducibility and is based on the practice of politics and its exhibition value.

He cites photography and film as the best examples of the latter.

He pinpoints the change as occurring around , as photography's exhibition value waxed and its cult value waned. The change, he argues, went unnoticed even by those who in the nineteenth century debated the value of painting versus photography:.

The dispute was in fact the symptom of a historical transformation the universal impact of which was not realized by either of its rivals. When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever. The resulting change in the function of art transcended the perspective of the century; for a long time it even escaped that of the twentieth century The notion that media effects are met with lack of awareness, shock, and numbness is, as discussed earlier, central to McLuhan's thesis.

Because the camera mediates in film, the audience "takes the position of the camera" and its identification is with the camera. For its part, the camera continuously changes its position, so the movie becomes multiperspectival. By contrast, the stage performance is presented in person, the actor can adjust to the audience, and the audience must "respect the performance as an integral whole" , p.

McLuhan, who also argues that in film the audience takes the position of the camera and that movies are multiperspectival, is interested as well in the same dialectical interplay of media pairs such as television and movies. For example, McLuhan compares the movie, which heralded a world of "growth" and "organic interrelation," of "configurations" and "the inclusive form of the icon," to cubism, which destroys the point of view with "all facets of an object simultaneously" , pp. Suggesting dialectical interplay, McLuhan argues that all media come in pairs, such as television restructured the movies and "the newspaper killed the theater" , p.

Benjamin presages another idea of McLuhan's as he notes that the new print media of the daily press are changing the book era's writer-reader, or producer-consumer, relationship. Benjamin considers this process in literature as analogous to Soviet cinema's use of people who portray themselves instead of actors. Benjamin writes:. For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century.

With the increasing extension of the press And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its character At any moment, the reader is ready to turn into a writer. Mechanical reproduction also causes other relational changes, according to Benjamin. It changes the role of the artist, he argues, drawing an analogous ratio, or metaphor, that the painter is to a magician as the cameraman is to a surgeon.

The painter-magician keeps his or her distance from the reality-patient, while the cameraman-surgeon penetrates deeply with mechanical equipment. Mechanical reproduction changes the reaction of the masses toward art, too, Benjamin argues.