Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Theodor Adorno - culture industry reconsidered - summary

In "Culture Industry Reconsidered" Theodor Adorno discusses the Frankfurt School concept of the culture industry and its applications in media. The idea and concept of culture industry was formulated by Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their book "Dialectic of Enlightenment"
 under the chapter  "Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception".  According to Adorno media content is adapted to mass consumption. Content is presented in an ordered fashion and time table, in order to appeal to the largest portion of the public. In order to achieve its appeal, mass media combines high and low culture and mixes the boundaries between them. Masses according to Adorno are perceived by the culture industry as objects for calculation. The consumer is certain that media is adapted to his needs while in fact the culture industry produces this sentiment in order to strengthen its influence. "the voice of the master" – the rulers of the culture industry – transmits humiliating content to the public that all have to do with the ruling ideology, with little critical resistance by the masses.

According to Adorno in "Culture Industry Reconsidered" the culture industry's interest is to preserve its affinity to the narrowing cycle of capital as its source of living. For Adorno, media's influence, its lack of objectivity and monopoly should not be taken lightly. The culture industry gives the illusion of being informed and involved, while in reality the consumer of mass meida is being reduced to minding himself with his own petty matters.
According to Adorno the public refrains from criticizing the media because they are dependent upon it. They need the culture industry in order to achieve pleasure and satisfaction and cannot imaging their lives without it.

The culture industry preserves its power by presenting "the good life" as reality and through false conflicts that trade him for his real ones. The culture industry according to Adorno spreads false values and establish the individual's willingness to be a part of society and to coordinate his interests with it, as they are portrayed by the culture industry. The culture industry takes advantage of the weaker classes by making its content shallow and widely appealing and thus demoting the value of culture.

Adorno concludes "Culture Industry Reconsidered" with the assertion that the "happiness" produced for the masses by the culture industry is imaginary, it induced people to pursue unachievable dreams and represses all those that can oppose it (what Adorno calls "mass deception").

Worth reading:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Characteristics of ideology according to Louis Althusser

In "On Ideology" Louis Althusser describes the workings of the ideological state apparatuses which use ideology as a means of "soft power" hegemonic control.
Althusser lists a few features that make up the concept of ideology:
1.       Ideology has not history
This point was already presented by Marx but Althusser's formulation and reasoning is very different. While Marx held ideology to be without history on account of its decisive break from material reality, Althusser thought that ideology has a structure and function the apply in an unvarying manner and therefore ideology is a-historical for being "omni-historical". In other words, ideology presents itself as being constant an valid across history, and it therefore has no history.
2.      Ideology operates individuals
Althusser held that his theory of ideology is one which demonstrates how ideology functions in a concrete manner in daily life, employing a mechanism which causes individuals to act on their own free will.
3.      Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.
Althusser is critical of the approach that hold ideology to be the imagined representation of the real material conditions of human being (the "false consciousness" tradition). He does so by simply asking why do people need such a representation of their material existence? He offers to further develop the formulation of ideology such that ideology is not a distorted image of reality but rather an imaginary distortion of people's relation to reality.
4.      Ideology has a material existence
This point made by Althusser might at first seem odd, since how can something that was just defined as being "imaginary" have material existence? But Althusser's point in made clear when he argues that ideology always resides within a mechanism and its practices. For Althusser a person always acts in accordance with his world view of beliefs. This relations between action and ideology are regulated through material practices (such as going to church). For Althusser, ideology resides in a material ideological apparatus which commands ordered material practices which are regulated through ritual – practices which shape the material action of the subject which acts in conscious adherence to his beliefs.
5.      Ideology hails or interpolates concrete individuals as subjects and individuals are always already-subjects
This point is made out of two theses:
1.       There is no practice of any kind which is not done by means of ideology and in accordance with it
2.      There is no ideology but through a subject and for subjects.
For Althusser ideology exists only through its object – the subject, and in this the subject is the constitutive category of ideology. For Althusser what characterizes ideology most is that it imposes certainties as certainties, and they make denotation meaningful, allowing for words to "point at something" in the world. One of these certainties introduced by ideology is the relation between the subject and his image as projected to him by ideology (Althusser is following Lacan here). The way ideology constitutes the subject (and itself) is through what Althusser refers to as interpolation – the appeal to the individual pre-ideological self, and in this act situating him as the object, the addressed and questioned, of ideology. Ideology gains the recognition of individuals that the space that ideology points out in the world is indeed the space that they occupy.
For Althusser, individuals are always "already subjects", even before they are born since the family, or the ideology of family, has already pre-interpolated the soon-to-born child into its subject.  

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Louis Althusser: On ideology: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses - summary, review and notes.

In "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" Louis Althusser asks the traditional Marxist question of how are conditions and relations of production being reproduced and maintained is society. Althusser's answer is that two types of mechanisms are at play here: "repressive state apparatuses which gain abidance and cooperation from the public through physical coercion means such as the police, army, prisons, courts etc. the other type of mechanism Althusser notes are the "ideological state apparatuses". ideological state apparatuses are somewhat reminiscent of Gramsci's concept of hegemony and soft power. According to Althusser ideological state apparatuses" are sustained by cultural institutions such as the education system, the church, the family, media and culture. The ideological state apparatuses gain free willed cooperation and a sense of choice of what is in reality imposed.
Althusser holds that both repressive state apparatuses and ideological state apparatuses operate together by combining repression and ideology, with the difference between them being the different nature of their workings. From here Althusser turns to defining the concept of ideology, dominant in the ideological state apparatuses, which serves to perpetuate class subordination and exploitative relations of production over generations.  
In "On Ideology" Althusser lists five key features of ideology:
1.       ideology has no history
2.      ideology operates people
3.      ideology "represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.
4.      Ideology has a material existence.
5.      Ideology hails or interpolates concrete individuals as subjects and individuals are always already-subjects.
Althusser's ideological state apparatuses work through material practices which interpolates individuals into subjects of ideology. This action is enables by the existence of a unique and total Subject (in religion: god). This can be understood through the role Althusser grants to his concept of double specularity in ideology, double specularity being a doubled mirror effect.
The structure of ideology for Althusser is a centered one with the subject in its middle and society around him in a way the assures all concerned that indeed they are who they are and he is who he is. In other words, ideology and ideological state apparatuses work as a double mirror in that that they first establish the individual's relation to the reality of his life and then certify that this is really the way things are and could not be otherwise. In this manner ideology gets people to operate on their own free will.   

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In "Prime Time Ideology" Todd Gitlin Is attempting to demonstrate how the ruling class ideology is transmitted through various features of American television. Giltin follows Gramsci and his concept of hegemony as "soft power" that coerces the working class into obedience without any use of physical power.
At the beginning of "Prime Time Ideology" Gitlin is relating to Theodor Adorno and the thinkers of the Frankfurt school of neo-Marxist though who held popular culture to be shallow and synthetic and as working to subjugate the working class. For this reason, the working class does not revolt. Hegemonic media content dictates public life and it is a medium for transferring ideology. Mass culture does not produce ideology, it merely focuses it and reproduces it in the service of the ruling elite.

According to Gitling, hegemony analysis in media should be conducted from both top to bottom and bottom-up. The integration of the interests of the ruling political and economical systems should be examined. The opposite analysis should examine the function of the Gramscian hegemony in social life, the correspondence between the offered ideology and common sentiments and should relate to the role of media as setting forth the public order of the day.

According to Gitlin, the ruling hegemony is validated by television in various ways:
Format and formula– the broadcasting program is built to meat conventional leisure time. The program repeats itself not only out of economical considerations but also out of a reluctance the deepen popular characters on television. Prime time ideology aims at presenting, and preserving, social stability: programming patterns are contant, alternatives are always available for the disinterested audience, every show has its determined allocated screen time. All these, Gitlin says, are subjected to a rigid rule and regularity. These features of prime time television and the formulas create the illusion of not only stability and the impossibility of change, but also change in the sense that things are constantly improving, a false sense of progress with the replacement of various shows, as if we are always getting better at making television, and there is reason the stay tuned in. Gitlin also employs the concept of "the organization of leisure" – the way television organized our lives around in schedule.

Commercials – commercials according to Gitlin accustom us to behaving like a market rather than a public, and as consumers rather than citizens. Public problems (such as air pollution) are presented as if they can be solved through private consumer products. Commercials gradually invade our lives. We give up fighting them and allow them access to both the public sphere and our own domestic sphere. The problem is that by giving commercials access to our lives we are also granting their distorting and manipulative function a right of way.

Genres – prime time television selects content that appeals to the highest spending audience. Genres indicate social moods and shifts in genres indicate changing mentality. In sports broadcasters transmit ideology since they do not only show the game, but also interpret it. Statistics in sports have a special function of complementing the viewer on him "knowing something" about something.  

Background and character types – have you ever wondered why television tends to favor depictions of glamour and success? According to Giltin the answer is that this way commercials, promising glamour and success, work better. Media intentionally avoids depictions of les-missrables with which the public does not wish to identify. Show that do grant thw working class some screen time are aimed at establishing the sense of superiority of the middle and ruling class. Television will fool most of the people most of the time by giving them what they want in exchange for their passiveness and for allowing commercials into their living room and family.

Perspective – according to Gitlin political and social conflicts shape television content by using stereotypical and divergent characters. Television can either legitimize diversions (ethnical or sexual but rarely political) or it can de-legitimize either the mainstream or the alternative. Changes in perspectives are changes in social values.

Media hegemony is not all encompassing and unavoidable. There are a number of ways viewers can employ resistance tactics while watching television (see Stuart Hall's "Encoding, Decoding").

According to Gitlin, cultural hegemony pertains to offer answers to difficult questions by offering a false "happy end" world. Rebellious and subversive films (for example "fight club") allow an outlet for social discontent but they offer unreasonable instant bombastic solutions that have nothing to do with gradual change in actual reality.

Towards the end of "Prime Time Ideology" Gitlin describes the hegemonic process in liberal capitalism. By appealing to popular taste media industries are able to reproduce existing social realtions. Hegemony, as described by Gramsci, has the capacity for assimilating any form of resistance and therefore the prime time ideology has an interest in amplifying alternatives to it in order to dull their edge. It employs closed texts that are not open for interpretation and so on. But the hegemonic system is never final nor stable. It is a constant field of negotiation and struggle between mainstream hegemonic forms and their alternatives. Social conflicts are translated into the cultural system and disarmed there. According to Gitlin consumer capitalism hegemonic ideology holds that happiness, freedom or brotherhood can be sustained through material private possessions. This is the one uneatable starting point of prime time ideology.   

recommended reading: 
Inside Prime Time: With a New IntroductionHegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Roland Barthes / Rhetoric of the Image – summary, notes and review

Roland Barthes / Rhetoric of the Image – summary, notes and review

What Barthes is essentially trying to do in "Rhetoric of the Image" is to examine and understand the messages that images contain, and the extent to which they take part in creating an ideological worldview. That is to say, Barthes is asking how ideologically charged are images and transmit an educational message to society. "Rhetoric of the Image" focuses on commercials since they contain a highly condensed image that aims for maximum efficiency in transferring its message. Commercials have to get their message across in 30 seconds and they therefore employ highly charged and intensive images in order to convince us to buy this or that product. Therefore, for Barthes, commercials are a very convenient medium in which to explore the way ideologies are reflected in visual images. Commercials have to be able to speak in a conventional language, use conventional terminology and transmit its message very fast, and therefore they provide access to conventional ideologies of their time.    
In "Rhetoric of the Image" Barthes works along the lines of two theoretical distinctions: connotation and denotation, and the internal relations of the sign between the signifier and the signified.
The signified, according to Barthes, has two level of meaning: the denotational and the connotational.  The denotation is the dictionary meaning of the sign/word and it detonates something in the real world. The connotation is the interpretative association that comes with the sign and is something which is culturally and context dependant. For Barthes connotation is a higher level of interpretation, and he assumes that being a part of the same culture involves having similar connotations to certain signs.

Additional concepts use by Barthes in "Rhetoric of the Image" are the visual and the audio levels. The visual level of the commercial is everything that we see and the audio level is everything that we hear while watching the commercial. The audio and visual level interact to create the effect of the commercial. The audio level anchors the visual level, it tells where to look and on what we should focus our attention.

In "Rhetoric of the Image" Barthes gives the example of a pasta brand imported from Italy to France. The commercial is in Italian despite the fact that it is aimed at the French customer. Barthes holds that the fact that the viewer cannot understand the things spoken does not stand in the way of associating Italian with quality pasta.
The rhetoric, the repetition of images in commercials, is determined according to Barthes by the sum of meanings yielded by the signs which compose the code and are in the image with ideology tying them together into a coherent utterance. That is, Barthes holds that the repeating images in the 30 second commercial represent messages that are already a code for ideologically determined meanings.
In conclusion, in "Rhetoric of the Image" Roland Barthes is arguing that "natural" reality is not essentially encrypted or encoded but rather that it is its reproduction is a visual image that codes it and enforces cultural meaning upon it. Visual mediums are perceived as portraying reality while in fact they are constructing it. 

Roland Barthes / Rhetoric of the Image – summary, notes and review

Suggested reading:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Constacne Penley – "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture" – summary – part 2

part 1 - 2
In "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture" feminist thinker Constance Penley analyses "Star Trek" fanzines written by women and depicting written and visual accounts of romantic and sexual relations between Captain Kirk and Spock, written by mostly heterosexual women.
What Penley is trying to figure out in "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture" is why do these "Star Trek" fans write their sexual fantasies through the bodies of two men, and why specifically Kirk and Spock.

Penley notes that although the stories depict Kirk and Spock as having sexual relations they are not portrayed as gay. Still there is the occasional tendency to "allow" the Star Trek characters to be homosexuals. For Penley this phenomenon enables the women a wider range of identification and desire – the fantasy offers them the opportunity to be either Kirk or Spock along with the possibility of having them both as the objects of their sexual desire, since heterosexual men are not unavailable to women. The binary distinction between desire and the object of desire is not organized according to Penley along gender relations.

Penley holds that the transition from psychoanalytic interpretation models based on voyeurism and fetishism in feminist cinema theory to a model based on fantasy enables an account of a wide range of identifications that transcend gender boundaries.

The fact that women can identify with men is not new. But the question that concerns Penley's "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture" is why specifically these men, why Star Trek Kirk and Spock?
Penley answers this question my first noting that female characters in Star Trek were always disappointing to fans.  This disappointment is what initially led the women who write the Star Trek fanzines to "take over" the world of Star Trek and to propel it in their own desired directions: a better formula of romance and a pornography that is attractive to women. However they were able to do so only through the characters they admired, desired and could identify with. For Penley identification in fantasy is not only with the character, but can also be directed at the situation or narrative. One of the most important aspects of the fan's identification with Kirk and Spock is according to Penley the social and political values that the world of Star Trek represents.
Penley concurs with Lamb and Veith who argued that the Star trek characters of Kirk and Spock allow women to imagine a transcendental unity which is not based on gender power relations, but rather on radical equality. But this for her still does not answer the question of why Star Trek and why Kirk and Spock?
Penly notes the women's Star Trek fanzines often contain S&M scenes between Kirk and Spock. Using the ruse of science fiction the women are able integrate S&M scenes while preserving the distinction between the real and fantasy worlds. If S&M is taking place I these stories, it is taking place in some other universe that has its own rules, among mirror doubles of the heroes, with the occasional flashback that still connects the two worlds.   
Constacne Penley's "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture" and her research on Star Trek women's fanzines illustrates the complexity of relations between women and popular culture. The Star Trek fans in "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture" are not passive consumers of popular culture and they sustain a complex and creative relationship with it. They use popular culture as the basis for creative action.   
suggested reading:
Sexual Generations: Star Trek: The Next Generation and Gender

Constacne Penley – "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture" – summary and review

Constacne Penley's "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture" deals with the relations between feminism, psychoanalysis and popular culture by focusing on questions regarding the production of subjectivity and identity. Penley examines these questions by observing a group of female "Star Trek" fans who produce a type of literature that builds on "Star Trek" characters in a genre that combines fiction, pornography and utopian science fiction.
At the opening of "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture" Penley criticizes the feminist tendency to almost exclusively adopt Nancy Chodorow's model of feminine subjectivity in order to describe the manner in which women consume popular culture products. This model emphasizes a regression to pre-oedipal fantasies as a specific form of feminine identification. Penley argues that this model is too narrow and offers instead a psychoanalytic model of fantasy which enables an account of how the subject shapes a "script" through which he can manage critical questions regarding desire, knowledge and identity, and in which the subject can simultaneously sustain several positions of identification.    
Penley follows French psychoanalysis Laplanche and Pontalis who explain that fantasy for the subject is a story that attempts to answer basic questions regarding the origin of the individual, sexuality, gender differences etc. fantasy for them is not the object of desire, but rather the environment which sustains them. Though the subject is always present in the fantasy, he or she can assume several positions which are not necessarily subjective. Laplanche and Pontalis add a Lacanian flavor by pointing to the lack of mutuality between subject and object or the manner in which the subjects is constructed by what is absent in him.
Penley hold that the model of fantasy presented by Freud and Lacan allows the explanation of a number of, even contradicting, subject positions as well as the relation between desire and law – the subject of the symbolic order as well as of the imaginary order. Penley holds that only a detailed account of identification and gender differences can assist in describing what happens in the writing and reading of fanzines, given the multiple options of identification a pleasure presented by them and that do not seem to originate in the pre-oedipal stage.
suggested reading:
The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (Popular Fictions Series)Psychoanalysis and Culture: Contemporary States of Mind