College Quarterly
Fall 2006 - Volume 9 Number 4
Reviews Media and Cultural Theory
James Curren and David Morley, eds.
New York: Routledge, 2006.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Socrates did not like the printed word. He did not like anything that was an imitation of something else. He did not like songs or poetry. He did not like sculpture. He was not very fond of the theatre, especially when Aristophanes mocked him in The Clouds, in The Birds and finally in The Frogs.

To Socrates, books, the plastic arts and the performing arts were mere representations. Socrates sought transcendental wisdom, universal ideas, and pure metaphysical forms. As for art, the human body was bad enough, an imperfect approximation of eternal perfection. A statue was one more step away; it was an imitation of an imitation.

How do we know Socrates did not like the printed word? Plato wrote down what he said and published it in a book. Now, almost 2,500 years later, we can read what Socrates said (or is alleged to have said). If he had known that his words would thus endure, would he have been pleased?

No matter, the old gasbag is well and truly gone, and his worries about written documents corrupting the spoken word are dead as well. We have passed through that and many other “revolutions” in communication, though arguably none as profound as the transition from an oral to a written culture until, of course, today when electronic devices appear poised not just to obliterate time and space, but to transform human relations at their core.

We have, moreover, not just experienced previous revolutions, but we seem generally satisfied with the results. Few worry that no one memorizes and declaims the Odyssey or The Holy Bible any more. (In fact, people in the West are inclined to ridicule contemporary Muslims who memorize the Qur’an and call such rote learning education.) Few lament the passing of political oratory that often crossed the line into demagoguery. We seem to have negotiated the revolution of movable type which eventually transformed illuminated, hand-copied sacred texts into pulp fiction. We have endured the introduction of the telegraph and the telephone (the latter said to have ruined conversation, to say nothing of letter writing). We have adapted to film, radio and television, to audiotapes and videotapes, and we are already comfortable with e-mail, the Internet and new entertainment media such as DVDs, i-Pods and whatever gadget is apt to show up at a big box store next week. We comfortably download music which we burn into CDs and may one day even read (condensed) books online. Soon, we may implant chips in our foreheads that will let others follow us around using GPS, and embed Céline Dion into what remains of our brains.

Marshall McLuhan, borrowing key concepts from Harold Innis told us all about this over forty years ago. He message was not a massage but a warning. The media guru once expressed the wish that all televisions could be destroyed. He was one of those who saw the dark side. He was an apocalyptic. He saw the future, and it has been even more devastating than he imagined. Or has it?

In this anthology, Curran and Morley come to grips with important aspects of the cultural changes that have been prompted by the invention and dissemination of innovative and evidently revolutionary technology. They provide sober and balanced discussions of what are called “key issues within media and cultural studies.” They do a commendable job. Their collection is neither a breathless endorsation of new technology on a tear, nor is it a whining jeremiad eulogizing (one more time) the coming end of civilization as we know it thanks to the co-dependent emergence of Foucault and the five-hundred channel universe, of DVDs and Derrida.

No one, of course, doubts the impact of new devices on the way people spend their days. Upon reflection, so some innovations are deemed useful; some are not. The contributors to the book, however, generally avoid the will to over-simplicity in their analyses and evaluations, and they are to be complimented for it.

Early interpreters of the new media tended to excesses of praise or opprobrium. In the alternative, many current postmodernist culture critics seem lost in “the swirling mist of postmodernist language” and inclined either to “de-radicalised bafflement” or to eclectic microanalyses in the manner of Michel Foucault. In his principal contribution to the book, however, co-editor James Curran praises postmodernist critics for at least having “sought to relate the mass media and popular culture to the power dynamics of society” and to furthering “synoptic” analyses that linked communications to “the state, politics, economy, culture and social relations.” The he moves on to provide a lucid account of the state of cultural studies in the age of hyper-technology.

The linkages that recent research of the media describes are occasionally suspect, Curran says, because media studies can be as fickle and “fashion-driven” as their subjects. As a result, he argues that the apparent hegemony of neoliberalism resulted in a “tacitly positive view of the market as a neutral mechanism harmonising supply and demand that was simplistic and misleading … and caused the relationship between deepening class inequality and the media and popular culture to be neglected.” Conversely, the negotiated reality of postmodern interpretation opened the door to feminist, postcolonial and other approaches that have had an uneven but generally salutary effect on our understanding of media and culture by addressing concerns for the marginalized and the overtly oppressed.

Other contributions are equally worthy of comment, but only three more of the nineteen essay will be mentioned here.

Lisa Blackman presents a cogent argument concerning the promulgation of the fiction of the autonomous self by “lifestyle” magazines. She discusses the “cultural logic of neoliberalism” as an expression of “hope, longing and imagining that things could be different.” The consequent dream of better living through the chemistry of cosmetics is grounded in fantasy and is therefore not properly grounded at all. Such optimism is founded on the false premise that the fate of individuals is in their own hands and that the keys to success and ultimate happiness are inspiration, motivation, self-help, diet programs, liposuction, aerobics, the cultivation of proper habits of consumption and creative self-advertisement. The belief that we can alter real-world conditions through care and attention to personal grooming and a commitment to the “I think I can” ideology of The Little Engine that Could leads to a cruel form of psychopathology that accentuates, especially among working-class women, a sense of “inadequacy, inferiority and even biological illness.” Phony promises layer emotional distress upon already debilitating problems of social inequity to the satisfaction of none but the hucksters of feel-good illusions.

Shifting from the exploitation of women to the dilemmas of the diaspora, Kevin Robins and Asu Aksoy explain the impact of diverse media offerings upon migrant groups in Europe and, by extension, on transnational communities world-wide. Of note is their observation that immigrant groups, isolated and disconnected from their homelands, often experience nostalgia and remember only idealized versions of their place of origin which contrasts mightily with “the banality of the ‘here and now’ … ” For Robins and Aksoy, however, the proximity of a virtual homeland no more distant than the TV remote control, helps to demythologize the lands they left and, paradoxically, helps to “modernize” people who emigrated years before but remain mired in the memory of a country that has long since moved on. Thus, in one example, they explain that seeing Turkey as it is today can be a rude shock for first-generation immigrants to Britain who retain obsolete, conservative images of the country of their birth, but can be rather liberating for their children, in whom tension between their parents’ values and those of the host society can be resolved by the knowledge that, in this case, people in twenty-first-century Turkey can be quite as up-to-date in their (ill)manners and (im)morality as people in Great Britain—an auspicious and teachable moment for all.

Co-editor David Morley also contributes a valuable chapter that deserves attention. He is one of several contributors who speak directly to the topic of globalization. That term is, of course, neoliberal code for imperialism. Now, even as Americans have come reluctantly to acknowledge their historical role as an imperial power, something seems to be coming unstuck at the centre. This is not merely a difficulty that has arisen with the dubious presidency of George W. Bush. It is a problem that arises from a pattern of imperial hegemony and dissolution that exceeds the narrow boundaries of the current US administration.

For some time thoughtful observers have commented on the homogenization of earthly cultures. US-based franchises abound with the Holiday Inn in Lesotho, McDonalds in Moscow and KFC in Tokyo. Toyoto automobiles are omnipresent. Otherwise respectable Protestants, long addicted to red meat and root vegetables are dining on curried chicken. A whirlpool of centripetal, afferent forces seems inexorably to be drawing diverse local cultures and identities into a global crock pot. In offices and airport control towers, blending black, brown and beige fingers bang furiously upon the keyboards of monotonous, international uniformity. Except when they don’t.

Occasionally, the annoying, irrational, centrifugal, efferent forces of antique tribalism and obsolete religious fundamentalism present flashy (but, it is hoped, temporary) obstacles to the Disneyfication of everything (recall 9/11, recall Bosnia, recall Rwanda). Outwitted, overstretched and conceptually clueless consuls and centurions send brave young proletarian patriots to destroy the evil doers and their bone-headed counterparts send delusional youth to act as human weapons against the infidels. On the “darkling plains … where ignorant armies clash by night,” the Samuel P. Huntington’s horrific reveries are being brought to fruition, and body bags are brought back from Dover Beach.

So which is it? Are the ubiquitous engines of international electronic communication bringing us all into an inescapable network of commerce and culture? Or, is our fate to become frenzied, fractured and fragmented, alienated and anomic, empty memories of a past humanity soon to be deprived of even regional, much less national commonalities and of any sort of universal hope for the promises of the Enlightenment—prosperity, health, democracy, human rights and an end to poverty, disease, prejudice and tyranny.

Are we to become walking signboards for corporate culture or to be reduced to primitive loyalties or to no loyalties at all, merely transhuman resources scattered across a vacant geopolitical landscape, forever emotional nomads with neither a love of the good nor a love of our own.

David Morley understands the fragility of the march of progress in its imaginary advance toward the elusive beacon on the hill. He also understands a good deal about power. He acknowledges the argument that “the United States is no longer the ‘puppeteer’ of a world system of images, but is only one node of a complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes”; but, he insists, it is also necessary to recognize that “it is still the most powerful single ‘node’ in that complex … We may live in a globalised world,” he concludes, “but in most places global time still ticks to the clock of CNN.”

Whether our thinking tends toward the dystopia of corporate totalitarianism at the one extreme, or toward the dystopia of the breakdown of any predictable global system and any hope for the rule of international law on the other, the voices in this book are realistic, measured and often wise. They draw us back from the rhetorical brinksmanship often practiced by culture clashers, futurists and overwrought speculators as they probe such topics as are contained herein: questions of modernity and its meaning; power and ideology; markets in reality and the market mentality; cultural production and cultural consumption; new technologies and emerging cultural forms.

To a field overburdened with cant and dogmatic controversy, Curran and Morley have introduced a collection of well-written, relatively concise and quite penetrating essays that merit close reading by college teachers whose specialties include international studies, social sciences, communications and considerations of possible futures, and by other interested people in varied academic domains who simply want some insight into what the heck is going on.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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