Is Media Studies producing ‘compliant labour’?
I’ve been ploughing the through some old journals and come across Lee Salter’s review of Mike Wayne’s Marxism and Media Studies: Key Concepts and Contemporary Trends (2003) for Historical Materialism (14:2). Salters welcomes Wayne’s contribution but it’s the reviewer’s comments about Media Studies that the preface his review of the book that really caught my attention.
He begins by pointing out that media studies is a subject area that has ‘struggled to deﬁne and defend itself’, with its roots in forms of media analysis that pre-date the formation of a Media Studies discipline and are hard to reconcile – the liberal Pluralist/Uses and gratifications approaches and critical/Marxist perspectives.
In the UK, Media Studies is heavily indebted to Marxism, although as Salter points out, Marxists are often dismissive of Media Studies. He writes:
Certainly, the development of the ﬁeld of media and cultural studies was inﬂuenced by the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy and the related ‘cultural turn’ that did so much damage to Marxism. Further, as cultural studies developed as a discipline, it moved further away from the materialist underpinnings that Williams and others had retained, and towards an idealist grounding. For example, Stuart Hall, one of the key ﬁgures in the CCCS, tended to treat media as primarily an ideological tool rather than a commodity. Such are the shortcomings of idealist critiques that they have the potential to seek redress for ills in discourse itself almost as though they were the logical consequence of the method. As Peter Jones points out, even left-wing media analysts such as Norman Fairclough are capable of fetishising the media to such a degree that he calls for a bourgeois government to communicate more effectively. This is to say nothing about the far deeper material structures of language that Fairclough’s discourse analysis is supposed to expose.
He goes on:
Alongside idealism in media studies is fragmentation. This not only exasperates the existing ‘mono-medium and media-centric narrowness’ of media studies,but also threatens to limit the practical role of the latter. Though Stuart Hall argues that a great deal of early reception research was ‘funded for the purpose of identifying how to deliver speciﬁc audiences to advertisers’ and was guided by what he referred to an as ‘unholy patronage’ of research institutes, media companies, public relations and advertising agencies, it is notable that academia as a whole is becoming increasingly difﬁcult to separate from the direct demands of the economy. The fragmentation of the subjects makes it easier to instrumentalise knowledge.
Now this is the world of Media Studies that I recognise, having arrived relatively recently: it’s one were the intellectual content of the discipline is being eviscerated and replaced with something nebulously referred to as ‘skills’. As Salter argues:
Trends in education policy, more generally, illustrate an increasing tendency to allow industry to dictate the content of education. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, What the system requires of teachers is the production of the kind of compliant manpower that the current economy needs, with the different levels of skill and kinds of skills that are required in a hierarchically ordered economy. Though MacIntyre is here referring to schools, the argument holds because the English university system is ‘diversifying’, ‘vocationalising’ and absorbing further education. Thus, whereas ﬁlm, television and writing have critical potential, as mass media in the form of cinema, broadcast, print and, now, computer-related media are becoming increasingly important (and proﬁtable) sectors of the economy, critical interrogation becomes increasingly antagonistic to the demands on media education. Instead, there is an increased need for a cognitively and practically specialised workforce engaged in the mass production and communication of ‘culture’ as a set of commodities. Thus, the knowledge and practical skills required by, say, a ﬁlm production company are speciﬁc to that company’s need to create proﬁt in that industry. In this sense, the industry creates the demand and the education system supplies the human commodities to meet that demand. So, on the one hand, media studies programmes need to be formed in such a way as to appeal to the industry and, on the other hand, students take an instrumental stance towards studying media – it is understood to be a means of getting a job. For example, the growth in the number of media practice degree courses may well be mistaken for a return to the productivist paradigm and opposed to the consumerist paradigms dominant in media studies. However, studying media production in abstraction from broader questions of productive relations leaves media production ﬁrmly in the hands of capital and portrays relations of production as natural. The knowledge acquired by students is just enough to become a cog in a speciﬁc part of the machine, whereas the creativity acquired is sufﬁciently detached to facilitate its exploitation. Accordingly, these demands on media studies and the pressures on universities to meet them, threaten to empty media studies of its critical potential. Media studies departments become worker-training centres. Therefore, we cannot detach the fortunes of media studies from those of education and knowledge in general and we cannot detach the fortunes of education and knowledge from broader socio-economic changes. But the increasingly narrow focus of media studies prevents students from recognising this context.
That’s pretty much where we are, I think.