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AEJ 98 UtterbacA CTM Mass media and social change


Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>


AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>


Fri, 1 Jan 1999 06:31:59 EST





TEXT/PLAIN (1 lines)

Mass Media and Social Change: A Theoretical and Methodological
Comparison of the Tradition and the Future
Submitted To:
Communication Theory & Methodology Division
Andrew H. Utterback, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Utah
1721 East Garfield Avenue
Salt Lake City, Utah 84108
[log in to unmask]
April 1, 1998
Mass Media 2
The purpose of this essay is to describe and differentiate research concerned
with media and social change from two theoretical and methodological camps: the
sociological tradition and a cultural studies approach. The essay shows that a
cultural studies approach serves to increase our understanding of the
relationship between media and social change through (1) an expansion of our
field of objects of study, (2) a (re)valuation of validity over reliability in
our choice of methods, and (3) a concrete and explicit concern for the success
of the goals of cultural, political, material, and social equality above the
myths of scientific objectivism.
Mass Media 3
Mass Media and Social Change: A Theoretical and Methodological
Comparison of the Tradition and the Future
        The communicative relationship between popular mass media and social movements
is not a new area of interest in humanities scholarship. Traditional,
disciplinary approaches to mass media and social change include but are not
limited to theoretical and methodological techniques and perspectives from
philosophy (Derrida, 1976; Marx, 1906; Jameson, 1991; Althusser, 1971; Gramsci,
1971; Volosinov, 1973), sociology (Zald & McCarthy, 1988; Gamson, 1975, 1990;
Frey, Dietz & Kalof, 1992; Olien, Donohue, & Tichenor, 1984), organizational
studies (Zald & Garner, 1987; Chapin & Tsouderos, 1956; Selznick, 1948),
communication, law (Derrida, 1990), international relations (Spivak, 1996; Said,
1983), minority studies (West, 1992; hooks, 1984), womens studies (Cixous, In
Richter, 1989), political science (Green, 1993; Kellner, 1990; Benhabib, 1996;
Splichal & Wasko, 1993), and film studies (Ryan & Kellner, 1988).
        Relatively new to the institutional fray of those interested in the
relationship between social change and media includes those scholars involved in
or identified with the interdisciplinary approach of cultural studies -- the
study of contemporary human culture with an emphasis on the subjectivity of
everyday life, or the study of culture and cultural phenomena through cultural
artifacts in relation to individual lives (During, 1993). As such, cultural
studies is not a label for an identifiable group of scholars applying a
preconceived set of theories and methods to social phenomena -- although
cultural studies tends to theoretically identify with Marx, Derrida, and
Foucault -- rather,
Mass Media 4
it is a critical, political, interdisciplinary approach to scholarship, engaged,
celebrating the subjective, and more concerned with the realm of "everyday life"
than "objective" description and prediction about social phenomena -- it is,
consequently, a flat rejection of social scientific positivism or objectivism
(Rosaldo, 1993; Kuhn, 1962). Hall (1980) clarifies:
The typical processes identified in positivistic research on isolated elements
-- effects, uses, 'gratifications' -- are themselves framed by structures of
understanding, as well as being produced by social and economic relations, which
shape their 'realization' at the reception end of the chain [of the
communication process] and which permit the meanings signified in the discourse
to be transposed into practice or consciousness (to acquire social use value or
political effectivity (p. 93).
The purpose of this essay is to describe and differentiate research concerned
with media and social change from two theoretical and methodological camps: the
sociological tradition and a cultural studies approach. The essay shows that a
cultural studies approach serves to increase our understanding of the
relationship between media and social change through (1) an expansion of our
field of objects of study, (2) a (re)valuation of validity over reliability in
our choice of methods, and (3) a concrete and explicit concern for the success
of the goals of social equality above the myths of scientific objectivism.
        One should not categorize the cultural move in terms of a particular set of
research methods or over-riding theory. Typically, cultural studies is aligned
with "soft" methodologies (a qualitative approach) and existential or
phenomenological theory, yet many cultural studies scholars use statistical
measures, surveys, scales, and other traditional trappings of the "hard"
sciences as well as continue to theorize the human subject
Mass Media 5
within a Cartesian dualist structure (body/mind separation). Yet, cultural
studies work is always tentative. Cultural scholars realize that scholarship
and claim-making is historically specific, politically complicit, and above all
is a privileged, top-down discourse. As such, cultural studies is a move away
from the agenda of the Enlightenment. Knowledge of humanity does not pile up on
top of itself in the quest for transcendental truths (Sartre, 1956). Knowledge,
rather, is historically specific, as opposed to an epistemology out-of-time
(Anderson, 1996). Cultural studies is " important category because it
helps us recognize that one life-practice (like reading [or protest]) cannot be
torn out of a large network constituted by many other life-practices -- working,
sexual orientation, family life..." as well as history, politics, power
relationships, and changing institutional structures of dominance (During, 1993,
p. 1). Cultural studies is political from the start, and as such, it has social
change and social equality as an agenda, if not an explicit goal; and, cultural
studies recognizes that societies are materially and culturally inherently
unequal (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1972; During, 1993). In this regard, cultural
studies differs from traditional research approaches that attempt objective
transcendent prediction, ahistorical claim, and unpartisan politic -- human
meaning, position, and social status is not natural or objective, rather
naturalized. Here, "reality is a co-construction between self and other,"
rather than an objective, natural, given set of relationships people are forced
into (Anderson & Meyer, 1988, p. 299).
        At this point one might consider what a cultural studies
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approach to the relationship between social protest or social movements and the
media may appear like. Investigating how the media, as an institution,
constitutes itself as a progressive or as a status quo reinforcive social actor,
rather than an objective message distributor, is one approach (Mattelart,
Delcourt, & Mattelart, 1991, 1993). Analyzing specific texts in terms of a
progressive or regressive "reading" potential is another (Hall, 1980; Allen,
1987, 1992; Ang, 1985; Radway, 1984). Cultural studies assumes a political
perspective on culture, society, and its artifacts (usually textual but see
Fiske, 1989; and Willis, 1991). Examination of cultural and social artifacts,
techniques, and processes, in terms of how they hold the status quo or a
dominant logic in place through discourse, is the task of such a perspective.
The cultural approach attempts to unveil the naturalized logics of power
relations, the discourses of the powerful or privileged, the power relationships
of discursive domains, and attempts to explicate these logics of inequality.
Looking to the specific, cultural and historical conditions that make a protest
issue or social movement group viable (or not) can create a more complex
understanding of the society at hand, as well as provide for an understanding of
social protest success or failure.
        Traditional approaches to the relationships between media and social change
draw methodologically necessary, narrow definitions of the objects of study.
While this approach serves to create specific, reliable (repeatable) research,
many potentially progressive or regressive textual forms which are warranted for
study (Molotch, In Zald & McCarthy, 1988) are overlooked.
Mass Media 7
Numerous scholars from the sociological tradition, for example, define media
specifically in terms of typical television or print news (Gamson & Wolfsfeld,
1993; Kielbowicz & Scherer, 1986; Olien, Tichenor, & Donohue, In Salmon, 1989;
Donohue, Tichenor, & Olien, 1995), yet, as Molotch states, "...a more complete
treatment would include within this analysis a wide range of mass media
(including TV talk shows, comic books, phonograph records, drama, etc.)..."
(Molotch, In Zald & McCarthy, 1988). The cultural approach acknowledges a wide
range of media forms as sites of textually embedded logics -- all is textual;
and, nothing meaningful exists outside of the textual realm (Barthes, 1977;
Eagleton, In Sarup, 1988). From this approach, then, texts as defined in
relation to social movement and change may include radio, television, magazines,
books, advertising, music, scholarly publications, movies, theater, dance, court
cases, and legislative documents as well as mass produced and other cultural
artifacts like blue jeans (Fiske, 1989), Barbie dolls (Urla & Swedlund, In Terry
& Urla, 1995), shopping malls (Willis, 1991), pornography (Ross, In During,
1993), and prisons (Foucault, 1979). However, as Molotch states, "I do not
think it can be said as a generality that media (in this case news) help
movements or that media destroy them" (p. 91). Explicating how media and other
texts, in the broad sense of the term, work in complex relations to and with
social movement, protest, and change may be a warranted methodological move.
        Social movement organizations (SMOs) are sometimes narrowly defined in
traditional research. Typically, research efforts here define an SMO as member
oriented, non-profit, or bureaucratic organization (Corbett, 1997). Zald &
McCarthy (1987), citing
Mass Media 8
Gamson (1975) define SMOs as "...organizations that have several levels of
membership, lists of members (however faulty), and some kind of written document
describing the structure of the organization" (p. 162). Zald & Garner (In Zald
& McCarthy, 1987) clarify the terminology in relation to the work of Selznick
(1948) and are worth quoting at length:
A social movement is a purposive and collective attempt of a number of people
(not specified) to change individuals or societal institutions and structures.
Although the organizations through which social movements can manifest
themselves may have bureaucratic features, analytically they two
ways. First, they have goals aimed at changing the society and its
members...Second, (and related to the goals of change), SMOs are characterized
by an incentive structure in which purposive incentives predominate" (p. 123).
Zald & Garner reveal, to some extent, the sociological focus of traditional
approaches in relation to organizations and organizational analysis -- the
methodology employed necessitates specific definition. Conversely, a cultural
studies focus on social change throws a wide rope around what constitutes an
organization or site of organized change. In addition to SMOs as defined, other
"organizational sites" may prove fruitful for analysis in explicating the
relationships between media and social change. These may include: the site of
the body (Terry & Urla, 1995; Lowe, 1995; Schatzki & Natter, 1996; Csordas, 1994
); the mind (Brooks; Freud; Lacan; Bloom; Sartre, all In Richter, 1989); the
mall (Willis, 1991); the courts (Leonard, 1995); prisons (Foucault, 1979);
churches; schools and classrooms; teen gang turf; rock and roll concerts, and,
even a hollow in West Virginia (Stewart, 1996). Virtually any social space may
be a potential site of resistance; and as such, these potential sites may become
Mass Media 9
the locus for social change. Organizations, in the formal sense of the term,
are sites of social movement; but, social sites, on the other hand, are also
valid, exciting, and potentially fruitful areas for analysis.
        The historic, economic, and cultural condition of a social moment is never
natural, rather it is arbitrary (Hall, In Morley & Chen, 1996, calls this an
articulation) in construction, and, it might be argued, have more to do with the
success or failure of a social movement than any other "favorable" combinations
of structural factors in organizations or mediated messages. Rather than
characterize success of a social movement in terms of message distribution in
media, a cultural approach would examine the cultural, or popular efficacy of
the message. Namely, the goal of an organization can never be realized or
understood predictively through a typology or grammar of message distribution,
message narrative style (sometimes called framing), audience read, or of direct
actational protest. Rather, success is characterized in terms of a fundamental
change in a way of knowing or perceiving the everyday life-world -- changes, as
such, in an everyday epistemology (Anderson, 1996). We might ask, what are the
historical, political, and cultural factors that enabled or disenfranchised a
particular group or issue? What discourses were joined, invented, circumvented,
or resisted? John Fiske (1989, p. 186) is worth quoting at length:
        Progressives and radicals often wish to intervene in the production of mass
culture to increase the variety of representations of the world that it
offers, to increase the number of voices and visions that it carries, and to
make it contest and contradict itself more explicitly. Such enlargement,
enrichment, and variation of the resources out of which popular culture can be
made are potentially a positive force for social change, but this potential
can be
Mass Media 10
        realized only if it takes proper account of the productivity and
discrimination involved in making popular culture [capitalism and everyday
life]. The mass media do not deliver ready-made popular culture as the
mailman delivers mail. Seeing the mass media as the purveyors of cultural
                commodities leads to the fallacious belief that changing the commodities
will change popular culture, which will, in turn, change the social order.
Neither culture nor politics is that simple [italics mine].
        Fiske is pointing to another important notion. Namely, popular culture
constitutes uses of cultural commodities on a localized, specific level.
Populist culture, on the other hand, is a culture of the masses. Mass media is
a popular media rather than a populist one. The distinction is important. If
the media are viewed as massifying, homogenaic -- a one message for all
phenomenon -- then social change could be easily achieved by merely getting
one's message out in favorable narrative terms (like "positive" role models for
black males or favorable coverage of an issue in the news). However "standard"
one views media messages (perhaps they are textually populist in a linguistic or
semiotic sense -- we all "see" the same episode of Cheers or of the evening
news), the uses of those messages is always popular -- the meaning of a media
message is locally constructed. I believe that much of the insights gained from
traditional approaches to the relationship between media and social change take
methodological and theoretical approaches similar to the one Fiske has under
critique. Changing messages, adding messages, and increasing the distribution
of messages or cultural commodities, cannot definitively lead to social change
(Fiske, 1989, p. 186). The interpretive, local, historical, and political
framing of a "decoder" is constitutive of the meaning of social issues. The
Mass Media 11
text is not. The text, rather, is a reflexive potential. For the progressive
to be popular, Fiske suggests, is to analyze the potentiality of social change
in the electronic or other re-presentation as it is tactically adapted,
rejected, or ideologically purchased on the level of the popular. Studying the
strategic mechanisms of power (structural approaches to media institutions and
messages as well as protest organizations) doesn't tell us much about
resistances to the dominant or dominant reinforcement of logics on a local
level. Fiske is suggesting that understanding the nature of and influences on
reading texts is, perhaps, more fruitful than analyzing the formal structures
mentioned above.
        One task, then, of a cultural studies approach to media and social change is to
elicit the progressive or reinforcive potentials of texts (Hall, 1980). The
locus of this potential resides in a critical methodological reading of texts --
texts in and of themselves are neither progressive nor reinforcive. Rather, the
examination of a text or group of texts, in relation to reading potentiality for
social change seems to be a rich and warranted move for the study of media and
social change. The purpose of the remainder of this paper is to illustrate how
texts can be found as socially regressive, reinforcive, or progressive -- in
terms of social change. Texts, as one group of cultural artifacts, serve as
narrative and discursive potentialities for social movement, protest, and
change, as well as carry a potential for the reinforcement of the status quo.
As such, this argument rejects the idea that a social movement's success or
failure is singularly tied to mass distributions of messages; any "favored,"
Mass Media 12
formal construction of social organizations or their respective message
constructions and media access techniques; rather, this paper approaches
textuality in terms of a deep structuralism -- the interrelated, inextricable
phenomenon that constitutes meaning and epistemology (Fiske, 1989; Hall, In
Morley & Chen, 1996). The locus of the potentiality for change is locally
constructed in the popular and tactical reading of texts. Massifying (populist)
notions of media, in fact, serve to reinforce the status quo. Messages do not
compete for audiences -- audiences compete in meaning constructions.
        Fiske (1989) and Hall (In Morley & Chen, 1996) point out that it is incomplete
to think of the route to social change as a campaign aimed at the mass
distribution of messages. Rather, it is more useful to think of the
relationship of social change and media in terms of local signifying practices,
historically specific and local framing strategies (rather than grand narratives
or themes of frames), localized politic, and ideology. To distribute messages,
to enable someone to read these messages, even to have ones' message "favorably"
framed in narrative is too mechanical an approach to the relationship between
media and social change (Hall, 1980, p. 93). To understand the potentiality of
messages, at the textual, local, and social levels may provide for a more
complex understanding of social change. In the last, the potential for social
change lies in ideological positions of epistemology -- how a person views "the
way things are" and the potential way "things should be." For "the way things
are," is never natural, rather naturalized, never objective, but socially
constructed. This is why the meaning of a media narrative about
Mass Media 13
an event or issue can change over the terrain of the political.
        To illustrate these ideas in terms of "reading" media messages, consider the
approach of cultural theorist Stuart Hall. In the influential essay
Encoding/Decoding (1980), Hall identifies the problematics involved when
conceptualizing the communication process in a linear fashion
(sender/message/receiver), and conversely, empowers a view of "connected
practices," that would appear as a process of "production, circulation,
distribution/consumption, (and) reproduction" (p. 91). Hall points out that it
is important to think of this process as an articulation (an arbitrary coming
together) of these connected practices, "...each of which, however, retains its
distinctiveness and has its own specific modality, its own forms and conditions
of existence" (p. 91). Hall argues for an understanding of discourse as
connected moments rather than a temporal sequence in which what comes before
determines what comes next in the signifying chain. Each point along the
process he outlines is a distinct, discursive moment, "relatively autonomous,"
in relation to the others. Hall wants to put forth a method of critical
reading, sometimes called "close reading," in terms of texts and the social
potentials of those texts. Three general approaches are elicited: reading from
the dominant-hegemonic position, reading from a negotiated position, and reading
from an oppositional position. It is important to note that the task here is
not merely to "read" a text from one or each of the different perspectives and
then to definitively make claims about how a text will be read by different
audience groups, or in terms of effect. Reading, in the sense Hall wants to
frame it in, is a method of social critique.
Mass Media 14
The process of reading leads to an understanding, not of the text per se, but of
the social, cultural, and political relations and logics a text "assumes."
Deconstructing a text (Derrida, 1976) in this fashion opens up the text, reveals
the bias of the text, and ultimately reveals the nature of the social. It is
not an attempt to predict meanings of texts. Otherwise, the creation of a
grammar of narratives, or of signs, or of framing would lead back to a
positivistic predictive position. At this point, it may be useful to elicit, in
detail, each of the three reading positions Hall identifies.
        A dominant-hegemonic reading, Hall points out, is when a viewer of a media
message is operating within, or inside "a dominant code" of thought which,
"...reproduces the dominant definitions..." (p. 101). Dominant definitions, to
illustrate, are primarily generated from entrenched social institutions like the
military or those in political power. For all intents and purposes, the viewer
or "reader" of a message is "decoding" the message as it was intended, in terms
of and on the terms of a dominant common sense. This common sense, however, is
not natural, rather constructed, its hidden-ness, the unmentioned, underlying
logics are where the message becomes "hegemonic." For example, the meaning of
the Gulf War was primarily encoded through military institutions, the Pentagon,
etc. Those viewers who believe the war was necessary, clean, convenient,
surgical, to secure the democracy of the Kuwaiti people, are reading the war on
the terms of the dominant. Hall clarifies the dominant and the hegemonic,
Dominant definitions connect events, implicitly or explicitly, to
Mass Media 15
grand totalizations, to the great syntagmatic views-of-the-world: they take
'large views' of issues: they relate events to the 'national interest' or to
the level of geo-politics, even if they make these connections in truncated,
inverted, or mystified ways
(Hall, 1980, p. 102).
The definition of a hegemonic viewpoint is (a) that it defines within its terms
the mental horizon, the universe, of possible meanings, of a whole sector of
relations in a society or culture; and (b) that it carries with it the stamp of
legitimacy -- it appears coterminous with what is 'natural', 'inevitable',
'taken for granted' about the social order (Hall, 1980, p. 102).
        The final two typologies of reading that Hall identifies are the negotiated and
the oppositional coding positions. Negotiated readings center on a partial
acceptance of the dominant position though within a local construction. The
negotiated reading accepts the hegemonic view -- it does not question the
legitimacy of the social institutions doing the "encoding." However, this
position "makes its own ground rules," the message is accommodated (Anderson &
Meyer, 1988) on the terms of the local. For example, a reader from this
perspective doesn't question the right of the Pentagon to articulate the
messages or meanings of War events; however, the reader negotiates the meaning
of the War in terms of their "everyday life," situation, or local conditions. A
negotiating reader may agree that we needed to carpet-bomb Iraq, but is
unwilling to make any sort of local sacrifice (like actually going to war) to
accomplish the goal of the dominant. Hall states, "We suspect that the great
majority of so-called 'misunderstandings' arise from the contradictions and
disjunctures between hegemonic-dominant encodings and negotiated-corporate
decodings" (Hall, 1980, p. 102-103).
        Finally, Hall hypothesizes that the oppositional position of reading is one in
which the reader decodes a message in a contrary
Mass Media 16
way. The meaning of the words, the denotative and connotative meanings are not
missed, however, the message is within some other framework of reference. For
example, the meaning of the Gulf War for a citizen of Baghdad is contrary to the
dominant position that the war was "just" or "necessary." For Hall, the
oppositional reading is the reading position that begets a social potential for
change. "One of the most significant political moments (they also coincide with
crisis points within the broadcasting organizations themselves, for obvious
reasons) is the point when events which are normally signified and decoded in a
negotiated way begin to be given an oppositional reading. Oppositional readings
are created from local differential reading positions in terms of a reader's
social placement, political power, and everyday epistemologic position. Here
the 'politics of signification' -- the struggle in discourse -- is joined"
(Hall, 1980, p. 103). The goal of critical reading as a method, then, is to
discover what the text signifies beyond itself. Discovering how a cultural
artifact, text or group of texts reveal the social, political, or cultural
logics of a given moment in time, then, is the methodological approach argued
for here.
        The politics of signification that Hall refers to stems partially from the work
of the French theorist Jacques Derrida. It is useful to review Derrida's major
position -- that sign use is political. Derrida's position stems from a reaction
to structuralism, the "science" of linguistics, therefore, we will review the
major points of structuralism before proceeding to Derrida's position. The
structural approach to language use assumes that nearly all human "doings" are
completed in language.
Mass Media 17
Language codes, like words, a music score, or signs, operate in convention --
normative, dominant rules for use. Close examination of these normative or
conventional rules, it was thought, would result in a science of words whereby
the scientist could predict, control, explain, and understand the processes of
language use. Meaning, then, could be predicted to some extent. The goal of
the structuralists, "discovering the rules by which signifiers encode the
signified reality," hinges on the idea that everything, in some sense, is a text
(Richter, 1989, p. 942). Reality, and what we think of as true, it was
generally postulated, is structured in systems of signs and symbols. Charles
Peirce, an American philosopher, theorized that sign systems had two specific
sign parts -- sign or signifier (text, image, etc.), and the signified (meaning,
idea, object, action); and Peirce named and identified three general kinds of
signs -- iconic signs, indexical signs, and true symbols (Hartshorne & Weiss,
XXXX). Iconic signs resembled the thing signified -- like stick figures on the
door of a washroom are used to refer to men and women. Indexical signs are a
reliable indicator of the presence of the signified -- like your doorbell
signifying that someone is on your porch. Finally, true symbols signify
arbitrarily, yet conventionally. For example, words are signs for other things
though the connection is arbitrary.
        At about the same time Peirce's semiotics was generating scholarly ground
(early 1900's), Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, came up with idea that
language systems are based in differences (de Saussure, 1959). Language is
structured, he thought, within the following distinctions: Langue and parole;
Mass Media 18
synchronic and diachronic; paradigmata and syntagmata; and emes -- phonemes and
morphemes. A language system, the langue, is enacted through speaker utterances
-- instances of speech -- or parole. The linguist, then, is to infer the
langue, the rules as it were, from the instances of speech use, the parole.
Synchronic and diachronic refer to how a sign system is to be studied. If one
is interested in how the langue is at a given point in time, one is attempting a
synchronic study; if interest lies in the changes of the langue over time, one
is attempting a diachronic study. Paradigmata and syntagmata refer to how
symbols relate to one another. Parataxis relates items in a category -- like
the numerous choices within the category "movie" at the rental shop. The items
differ in content, but relate in category. Syntaxis refers to how differing
categories relate meaningfully. The typical example here is how choices are
made in a restaurant to go together. We order an appetizer, a salad, a main
course, a dessert, and, we try to pick items that go together. Like words types
in a sentence, verb, noun, adjective, etc., the syntagmatic relationship focuses
on a meaningful syntax.
        Beyond this, de Saussure broke language into essential parts, or emes. The
phoneme is the basic unit of sound -- like the sound "p" as "puh". The morpheme
is the basic unit of grammar -- like how one pluralizes a word using "s" or "z,"
or changing the word altogether, like man to men. As all good scientists do,
however, de Saussure's ideas were taken to reductionist extremes (Richter,
1989). If one could only get detailed enough, the general goal of semiotic
structuralism could be reached -- to create the science of language, the rules
of reality. Myths were encoded into
Mass Media 19
mythemes. The communication process was broken into parts -- sender, receiver,
encoding, decoding, message, channel, environment, noise, etc. This view of
language, however noble the goal, didn't work very well -- it was scientologic
-- attempting to explain something as unwieldy as language with a linguistic
microscope. While the science of semiotics failed to find much, the
contribution of semiotics, however, reveals itself in de Saussure's idea that
meaning was a function of difference. A French student of semiotics, Jacques
Derrida, focused on this idea of difference, and revolutionized not only
linguistic theory, but all of the human sciences. Derrida presented a paper at
a structuralism conference at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland in
1966. Entitled Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human
Sciences, the essay destroyed all of structuralism except for the idea of
difference (Richter, 1989). The paper Derrida presented marks the beginning of
Post-Structuralist thought in America.
        Jacques Derrida argues in the essay that all knowledge claims from the Western
tradition are based in the centering process of the structure of knowledge. The
knowledge claims of Western thought, he points out, turn around the locus of
origin of the structure. Reductionist moves are made, until finally, knowledge
can be based in the absolute "constant of a presence," or transcendental
signified -- being as presence. For example, Being, Man, consciousness, logos,
and God are pointed to as exemplary final signifieds. i.e. "I think therefore I
am," for example, justifies knowledge, and Being, in consciousness. But,
Derrida was also concerned with uncovering the process of
Mass Media 20
structural centers. How is the center the center? He notes:
        ...the structurality of structure -- although it has never been involved, has
always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a
center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin. The function
of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure
-- one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure -- but above all to
make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we
might call the freeplay of the structure. ...the center of a structure
                permits the freeplay of its elements inside the total form. is the
point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer
possible (Derrida, In Richter, 1989, p. 960).
        Derrida identifies the power of the center within binaries. The meaning of a
sign is a structure of difference between what it is and what it is not. Words
are always under erasure in a sense -- what it stands for and what it does not
stand for are both necessary to convey meaning within the tradition of Western
metaphysics. For example, the binary pair, passivity/activity can only be
understood in difference. To ultimately mean one of the pair, say passivity, is
to supplement it with the other -- an understanding of passivity is simply not
possible without an understanding of activity. The sign is inadequate to
ultimately signify, to join with the object, or meaning, at an ultimate point,
but is also necessary in reference. Signs refer to presence -- of a center, and
absences -- of the object, and of the supplement. Derrida described this binary
functioning as difference.
        However, Derrida believed, unlike strict adherents to the semiotic tradition,
that the connection between word (signifier) and thing (signified, also
presence) is never completed. Therefore, the thing, presence if you will,
cannot stand for, or
Mass Media 21
is not the locus of meaning. Meaning in language is caught in the chain of
signifiers, never finally resting on the thing -- for all meaning in relation to
the thing is thought, is in process in language; and, the final resting place,
the center or origin of the structure is always another signifier, never a final
signified. Simply, like looking for meaning in a dictionary, one looks up a
word (signifier) only to find more words (signifiers). Consequently, meaning,
for Derrida, is in a constant state of deferral, never arriving at a final locus
of the signified. By combining the notions of difference and deferral, Derrida
creates the idea of differa'nce, a play on the two words; meaning is always in
difference between the binaries, and in deferral between the sign and signified.
        Derrida advocates a program of close reading based on the idea of structural
centers. Deconstruction, as this close reading is called, is the process of
digging into texts to find the center they operate from. In other words,
finding the place where the foundation of meaning of the text is centered will
reveal the bias of the text -- what is empowered by the text as the
transcendental signified. What is more interesting in the deconstructive move,
perhaps, is not in the revealing of the center, but in Derrida's notion of
binaries. For Derrida, the centered locus, the final signified if you will, of
traditional Western thought operates against a marginalized, present but absent,
binary partner. For example, the center of "object" can only be understood, or
be conceived of, in relation to the idea of "subject." Other binaries,
black/white, individual/social, speech/writing, for example, define each other.
These binary oppositions, form the
Mass Media 22
basis for Western metaphysics and Western epistemologies. As one part of the
binary moves to create or form the center, the basis of meaning from a
traditional view, the other is marginalized. However, the significance of the
locus is only in relation to the missing binary. The first principles, the
loci, are defined by what they exclude. Meaning, for Derrida, is then within
the tension of the binary pair -- not centered on one or the other, always
deferred. For one part of the binary always exists outside of a centered or
empowered, visible signified. Derrida wants to say that knowledge claims,
meaning, etc., depends and is determined by binary tensions. What is logical,
makes sense, grounds meaning is a function of the structural center, as
culturally or politically empowered, not transcendental, natural, or objective
Truth. What is true, what words mean, is a political function of what holds the
center. The task, then, of close reading or deconstruction of a text is a
critical move to tease out or elicit the political "logics" of a text.
        Critical reading, "deconstruction," attempts to demonstrate how social change
is enabled or restricted by unveiling the underlying, principle logics of, in
our case, media content. Often, these critiques takes economic form, such as in
traditional Marxist approaches which tend to find media logics in line with
"dominant," "hegemonic," or elitist positions. Media content from this
approach, then, is literally determined from the top classes downward --
sometimes designed to perpetuate the conditions of capitalism to ensure the
place of the elite. However, Stuart Hall shows that traditional Marxist
critique does not always fall in line with the logics of everyday life. In the
essay, The problem
Mass Media 23
of ideology: Marxism without guarantees, Stuart Hall (XXXX) outlines the
difficulty of reconciling traditional, structural Marxism in an age or time of
postmodern and poststructural critique and theorizing. Hall argues against a
deterministic or structural Marxism as too rigidly structured to accommodate
issues of power and practice, that, while ideologically constrained, are not
economically determined. Yet Hall wants to re-politicize and re-historize
critique within a frame of Gramscian Marxism, over and against the notions of an
ahistorical post-modernism, or infinitely deferring post-structuralism. Hall
finds, I believe, that the power or usefulness of postmodern critique is
ineffectual in actively moving toward a more equitable system of material and
power. He wants to kick-start an organic intellectualism, politically motivated
rank of criticism. The material world, as opposed to the social or cultural
world, is economically overridden according to Hall, yet, even with this sort of
constraint, people and societies change by making their own adaptive meanings,
histories, and lives, out of that materialist given that precedes them --
conditions they themselves have not created. Hall is concerned, to some extent,
with the adaptive strategies of the people within market structures, yet finds
that ideological structures serve to enforce or re-enforce an economic logic
apart from an economic base. Practices are ideologically constrained and not
economically determined, Hall argues, yet the ideological has an economic logic
or base from which ideological structures arise. Perhaps one can draw from this
that power resides, then, in an economic logic which is enforced through a fluid
conception of ideology.
Mass Media 24
        Hall's notion of ideology, or problem of ideology needs clarification at this
point. He does not seem to argue, along the lines of Althusser, for a rigid
level of structure made up of static power-enforcers (ideological determinism),
rather, ideological enforcement seems, for Hall, to be more fluid. Hall notes,
"The problem of ideology is to give an account, within a materialist theory, of
how social ideas arise" (p. 26). Additionally Hall defines ideology as, "...the
mental frameworks - the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought,
and the system of representation - which different classes and social groups
deploy in order to make sense of, define, figure out and render intelligible the
way society works" (p. 26). Against or additive to Althusser, then, Hall not
only views ideology as enforced or top down, but bottom up as well, "deployed,"
as it were by the people. By no means are the mental frameworks of which he
writes merely imposed, rather, enacted, invented, tactical, strategic, yet still
seemingly naturalized and always materially constrained though not determined
economically. "It (the problem of ideology) has especially to do with the
concepts and the languages of practical thought which stabilize a particular
form of power and domination; or which reconcile and accommodate the mass of the
people to their subordinate place in the social formation" (p. 27, my emphasis).
Later in the article, Hall brings Volosinov to bear on the problem of ideology.
Namely, Hall wants to argue that the mental frameworks of ideology are realized
in language.
        Language in its widest sense is the vehicle of practical reasoning,
calculation and consciousness, because of the ways by which certain meanings
and references have been historically secured. But its cogency depends on
Mass Media 25
        'logics' which connect one proposition to another in a chain of connected
meanings; where the social connotations and historical meaning are condensed
and reverberate off one another (p. 40, my emphasis).
        Hall continues in this vein. Namely he notes Volosinov's idea that language is
multi-accented; and, in the realm of the sign these accents meet in struggle
(articulate) over the meanings, ideas, imaginations, etc., that the sign will
connote (he notes this as class struggle though it is perhaps more useful to
think of it as a struggle for ideological dominance, status quo, or power
between participants and groups in the articulation of accents). Finally, Hall
concludes that the economic can never "effect a final closure on the domain
ideology," this is his Marxism without guarantees, and, "we have to acknowledge
the real indeterminacy of the political - the level which condenses all the
other levels of practice and secures their functioning in a particular system of
power" (p. 45, emphasis mine).
        The value of traditional approaches to media and social change is limited to
the extent that the theories which drive the research and the methodologies
employed create hard and fast boundaries for the phenomena under study. The
creation and process of social change is not as simple as, and not limited to
organizing a non-profit group around a cause or issue and generating favorable
press. Traditional studies, which excise singular variables from the processual
relationships between media and social change (i.e. the number of press releases
generated; "favorable" coverage; the existence of coverage; number of
organization members; the number of news stories; etc.) are similar to the
scientific observation of a severed head in the
Mass Media 26
effort to deduce how human beings think. The social science pitfalls of
reductionism and operationalism have effectively cut the head from the
phenomenon. A cultural studies approach to media and social change can only
increase our understanding through (1) an expansion of our field of objects of
study to include popular and populist culture as well as nontraditional (even
unorganized) sites of resistance, (2) a (re)valuation of validity over
reliability in our choice of methods which recognizes the importance of
historical specificity in our claim-making, and (3) a concrete and explicit
understanding of and concern for the success of the goals of social, cultural,
and material equality above the myths of scientific objectivism. The
relationships between media, media messages, social "protest" groups, and real
social change cannot be understood through a scientific reductionism of
"important" elements. Cultural, political, and localized social action serve to
generate social change from the definitive grass-root -- the tactical, local,
and sometimes contrary media consumptive practices of the People.
Mass Media 27
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