Friday, November 18, 2005

Radical or Critical Theory Traditions

The radical or critical approaches to mass culture derive from substantially differing sources than do the traditional approaches, yet they share similar concerns. Contributors and influences upon this tradition include Marx, Weber, the Frankfurt School scholars, (especially Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Benjamin), Gramsci, Mills, and Althusser. While each of their influences have been inflected in mass theory debates in somewhat differing ways, the common denominator among them is an interest in ideology.

Karl Marx viewed modern, industrialized, capitalist society as inherently oppressive and inhumane; it separated people from nature, alienating them and isolating them not only from their society but also from themselves. According to Marx, ownership of the means of economic production necessarily facilitates a division of labor wherein owners exploit workers. As capitalism and private ownership progresses, society is stratified according to labor (into the bourgeoise, the proletariate, and the lumpenproletariate). This division among society, while stemming from economic realities, also corresponds to a division of ideology. Marx's theory of historical materialism argues that economics determines the social relations of productions, and that the social relations of production determines class consciousness. Thus, the consciousness of the bourgeoisie tends to be oriented toward maintenance of their material conditions. The bourgeoisie also own the means of mental production (such as newspapers), and are adept at the creation of ideologies that perpetuate the acceptance of the social order.

Therefore, according to Marxian perspectives, mass culture produced within the capitalist system tends (at least) to reproduce the patterns of domination and oppression at the level of ideology (within the superstructure). The actual nature of this tendency -- whether ideology (and, more largely, culture) is, "in the last analysis," a matter of economic determinism, is a topic open to debate and revision. Raymond Williams writes, "The basic question, as it has normally been put, is whether the economic element is in fact determining. I have followed the controversies on this, but it seems to me that it is, ultimately an unanswerable question ... [T]he difficulty lies in estimating the final importance of a factor which never, in practice, appears in isolation" (Williams 1958, 280). While Williams is willing to grant economics determining force, if they are determining, they necessarily impact a "whole way of life;" since economics can never be isolated from the whole way of life, Williams prefers to try to understand culture from a more holistic perspective (that is, from the Weberian position of verstehen). He is therefore skeptical of the tendencies of some Marxists to dismiss any cultural form produced within "decadent" society as decadent by definition. "To describe English life, thought and imagination in the last three hundred years simply as 'bourgeois', to describe English culture now as 'dying', is to surrender reality to a formula" (Williams 1958, 281-282). Because Williams attempts a more integrative approach in his own work, and because he requires from Marxism a better definition of culture, he more resembles Weber than Marx.

Max Weber's social order resembles Marx's in that he does give acknowledgment to the economic base resulting in classes. However, Weber disagreed that history could be so neatly packaged according to ownership and the divisions and struggles resulting from ownership. History, and society, for Weber (as for Williams) were far more complex; the mechanisms of change and evolution were subtle, interwoven and resistant to precise causalities. Also, Weber embraces both aspects of idealism and materialism, but resists being confined to either. For example, Weber would agree that members of the upper economic classes tend to have higher "status" than do members of lower classes; however, unlike Marx, Weber acknowledges that status cannot be based upon class, alone. A starving artist would be accorded higher status than the starving thief, even though both occupy similar economic positions; the difference is therefore cultural rather than material. Central to unraveling (or at least describing) such complexities is Weber's concept of verstehen.

Derived from hermeneutics -- the interpretation of both structural features of and authorial intentions for texts (published writings, in particular) - - Weber's method of verstehen sought to apply the tools of hermeneutics to social actors (thus, extending the definition of a "text" to include events or actions of human agency, typically on the macro (rather than micro or individual) scale -- an extension that will reappear in the symbolic traditions of mass culture theory). For example, Weber's analysis of rational bureacracy in the West led him to explore the possibilities that particular religious practices encouraged or discouraged such structures of social organization. Weber's studies of Hinduism and Confucianism point out that the ideology of those religions impeded the growth of rational-legal bureacracies to the extent that they entrenched rigid and impermeable class distinctions, beyond which no one had the possibility of moving. The caste system, in particular, is tolerated, according to Weber, because of the Hindu promise of reincarnation and the belief that one's caste placement is the result of karma -- an irrefutable judgment based on behavior in a previous life. Contrasted with the Protestant work ethic, in which monetary or material gain was evidence of exemplary conduct and glory to God, the West was peculiarly suited to the development of the rational-legal bureacracy. Further, commandments and strict rules of conduct advocated by the harshest of the Protestants, the Calvinists, were amenable to rationalization and eventual codification within a legal system. In this case, Weber attempted to understand a particular feature of society within a holistic context that considered the social relations, the histories, and the belief systems of the people involved.
Returning then, to Williams, the cultural forms of a given society in a given moment in history must be understood within their particular contexts; one should not superimpose a particular definition of the situation upon the context. With that said, however, Williams also acknowledges that it is quite difficult to get away from "formulas" that impose definitions on existing situations. When he says, "There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses," he is arguing that "real business" of culture theory is to critically examine itself (p. 300). In particular, Williams objects, extensively, to the whole notion of a "mass" anything:
The idea of the masses, and the technique of observing certain aspects of mass behavior -- selected aspects of a 'public' rather than the balance of an actual community -- formed the natural ideology of those who sought to control the new system and to profit by it (Williams 1958, 312).

Inherent in the concept of the "masses" are assumptions about social control, about the nature of communication (for example, as "transmission"), and about the nature of social relations. The concept of the "masses," Williams argues, is an interested concept -- not neutral, nor even accurately descriptive of social reality. Yet the concept has so blinded theorists of communication that it becomes difficult to imagine mass communication in terms outside of the definition; it is tautological.
As Todd Gitlin (1982, 426) says, "So much is tautology."
Or is it?
Is there no such thing as mass behavior, as mass messages, as mass culture? Doesn't the very point of social science disappear if, in fact, social science is only tautology, only ... phenomenology?
From the point of view of symbolic or cultural theorists, the answers to those questions might be: "Yes. And no." or "Well, what was the point?"


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