The essays collected here recognize both the specificity of cultural studies, by locating it in a range of alternative critical perspectives and practices, and its breadth, by mapping the extent of its diversity. By discussing American scholars’ initial reception of cultural studies, its relation to communication studies, and its origins in leftist politics, Grossberg grounds the development of cultural studies in the United States in specific historical and theoretical context. His criticism of "easy" identification of cultural studies with the theories, models, and issues of communications and his challenge to some of cultural studies’ current directions and preoccupations indicates what may lie ahead for this dynamic field of study. Bringing together the Gramscian tradition of British cultural studies with the antimodernist philosophical positions of Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari, Grossberg articulates an original and important vision of the role of the political intellectual in the contemporary world and offers an essential overview of the emerging field of cultural studies by one of its leading practitioners and theorists.
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About the Author
Lawrence Grossberg is Morris Davis Professor of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including We Gotta Get Out of this Place and Cultural Studies.
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Bringing It All Back Home
Essays On Cultural Studies
By Lawrence Grossberg
Duke University PressCopyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
CULTURAL THEORY, CULTURAL STUDIES
Interpreting the "Crisis" of Culture in Communication Theory
* * *
As the number of different theories and approaches to mass communication grows, it becomes more obvious that a way is needed to talk about the relationships among them and to identify their similarities and differences. One approach that I propose to explore in this article is to compare the work of several theorists in terms of their visions of the "crisis," brought on by the processes of modernization, which faces contemporary culture.
Relating mass communication theory to the idea of a cultural crisis is not without precedent. Alan Blum (1961) suggested that there may be a strong connection between researchers' assumptions about the inherent failures of modern society and their findings about how communication functions within it. Blum, however, fails to take into account that researchers' assumptions about the nature of the failure of modern society may differ from each other, and instead assimilated all of them under "mass society theory." By examining particular theorists' underlying assumptions concerning the principal danger confronting modern society, we may be able to better understand the diversity of views offered of the nature and function of communication in society.
To begin we must identify the variety of images of the cultural crisis operative in contemporary thought. I have distinguished six views of the crisis: informational, subjective, structural, interactional, transcendental, and representational. The first, a view of the crisis as one of information, is perhaps the most prevalent in our scientifically oriented culture. In this view the crisis is not located in the social changes that have taken place, but rather in our failure to respond properly to these changes. To know what would constitute a proper response one must have accurate, descriptive information about the world. Thus the crisis is located in our inadequate knowledge and in those attitudes that interfere with the acquisition of this information. This view is closely tied to an understanding of communication as a process of transmission, the movement of "pieces" of information from one place to another; it is through such a process as well that the attitudes and behaviors of individuals can be appropriately modified. Thus we find the "informational" view often conjoined with a second view of communication, as a process of persuasion.
The "subjective" view of the cultural crisis is not very influential in mass communication theory, although its influence is strong in general discussions of modern culture. Basically, according to this position, the crisis lies in the loss of "true" subjectivity or individuality in the face of some claim of commonality and equality. The great achievements, values, virtues, and creative potential of Western civilization are losing the battle (a metaphor quite common in such writers as, e.g., Ortega y Gasset) to the masses gathered under the banner of democracy and "mass culture." It is not difficult to see why such a position would contribute little to mass communication theory; it unambiguously defines it as the enemy. Nevertheless such a view embodies a commonly held view of communication: communication is the process of transmitting or sharing essentially private and subjective thoughts or meanings.
The third or "structural" view of the crisis of culture is built upon theories of symbolic structures or systems. These systems act as filters or mediating screens located between man and the world and are the source of the meanings and interpretations we give to our experiences. Thus the crisis of modern culture is understood as the domination of some particular symbolic structure and the subsequent control that structure has over our worldview. Communication, in such a view, belongs to the symbolic structures or codes rather than to the individuals who appear to use them. It is the system rather than the speaker that is the source of meaning.
Perhaps the most common understanding of the cultural crisis is what can be described as the "interactional" view. In its simplest form, this view points to a lack of shared values, norms, and meanings underlying interpersonal relationships and is closely tied to the idea that modern society involves a loss of community. Deriving from Tonnies's distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, this idea characterizes two forms of social organization, community and society. In community, people who are essentially alike and homogeneous in beliefs, values, and experiences are united by "reciprocal binding sentiments." The means of social control are informal and the individual is subsidiary to the social totality. On the other hand, society is built upon a formal, that is, contractual system of social control and is unified not by sharedness but through a mutual dependence necessitated by an increased division of labor. Consequently relationships become increasingly competitive and impersonal; the individual is isolated, increasingly insecure, and "alienated." In this view communication is conceived as an ongoing process of situated, symbolic interactions through which shared meanings are reciprocally negotiated and created, thus maintaining the fabric of social life.
The fifth or "transcendental" view of the crisis lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of our contemporary beliefs about the nature of being human. Insofar as we have increasingly come to think of ourselves as the masters of the universe and of our own existence, we have lost a sense of our rootedness, of our grounding in or dependence upon something outside of our understanding and control. Because we conceive of knowledge and language as tools for our projects, we use them to define the real as that which is amenable to our manipulations and control. Consequently we cut ourselves off from that other domain that has traditionally served as a wellspring or foundation on which we may ground our sense of ourselves and the world. A "transcendental" view, not surprisingly, will try to reinsert the "transcendental" (grounding) nature of communication. Communication is not merely a tool to be used for some human purpose, whether that purpose is transmitting information or creating shared meanings. Instead communication is seen as the source of social life, "a living process in which a community of life is lived out" (Gadamer 1975, 404). Almost like a deity existing outside human existence as its cause, communication is posited as a given rather than a human creation. It is the source of the possibility of social life and shared meaning, for it is only within communication that intersubjectivity becomes possible. A "transcendental" view points to communication as having already opened up the space in which interaction can occur before we can attempt to manipulate it as a medium for our projects.
The final, "representational" view of the cultural crisis has not yet entered into discussions of mass communication, but deserves to be mentioned because of its increasing exposure through the work of Roland Barthes (1972) and Michel Foucault (1970). Basically, in such a view the contemporary crisis is the result of the enduring power of a number of "myths," in particular the myth of the subject and the myth of meaning. While we have increasingly lost faith in the ability of signs to carry meaning (either as a subjective reference back to a subject or an objective reference to a world), we find ourselves unable to accept the consequences of the loss of these myths. Because these theories are relatively recent, however, it is difficult to project their possible implications for communication theory.
Using these six views of the cultural crisis, I shall next identify how they operate in a number of current theories, beginning with the so-called mainstream or effects research.
The roots of communication "effects" research are in the liberal Weltanschauung. Liberalism, it has often been noted, is historically connected with the various processes of modernization: the growth of democracy, of science, and of industrialization. It is not surprising, therefore, that its staunchest supporters have arisen within the United States. Liberalism can be characterized in terms of three basic concepts: individualism, science, and progress.
The assumption of the absolute value and primacy of the individual is most obvious in the liberal theory of political freedom that granted rights to the individual based upon the laws of nature. This belief in the autonomous self was expressed in an atomistic theory of society, that is, the view that society is created through the free agreement of individuals. Faith in science is grounded in the autonomy and ability of human (i.e., individual) reason and involves a unique combination of rationalism and empiricism. It was assumed that the individual mind could discover the laws governing the machinery of the universe through scientific observation and objective reason. Consequently, ignorance replaced sin as the great evil, information was salvation, and power the reward. A belief in progress, the inherent forward motion of human history, was necessary as an argument against both pessimistic interpretations of history and views of humans that challenged their autonomy (e.g., Freud, Darwin). It is this optimistic vision of the future, built upon a metaphysical individualism and an epistemological scientism, that gave American social thought in general, and communication theory in particular, its own unique flavor.
The liberal view of the cultural crisis serves to define significant aspects of contemporary mass communication research. Although most contemporary mainstream researchers no longer recognize their debt to the liberal Weltanschauung, that does not lessen its foundational significance for this tradition.
The liberal definition of the crisis, then, would be most closely related to the "informational" view, through a belief in the efficacy of knowledge. Historically, liberals acknowledged a crisis brought on by the processes of modernization, but they tended to ascribe it to ignorance rather than social change. The crisis for them was merely a new form of a problem that has existed throughout human history: ignorance, ideology, and the tyranny of authority. It was inappropriate to locate the crisis in a new form of social organization or new modes of communication. On the contrary, for the liberal the new forms of social organization and of communications opened up, perhaps for the first time, the possibility of a society built on the free exchange of ideas and information between rational individuals. Community has not been destroyed; instead patterns of interpersonal association have become more rational and open to choice. The real crisis was located in the need for objective (i.e., nonideological) information on which to base decisions; once scientific research had gathered this information, ways of disseminating it would have to be found. The result of this would be the creation of a democracy built upon a process of rational decision making and scientific problem solving. Therefore, in the liberal view, the study of the role and effects of the new mass media was essentially to fight the crisis of ignorance and ideology under the banner of individualism and science.
The commitments to individualism and science characterize the commonality of contemporary mainstream communication research. As a result of the commitment to individualism, communication was seen in terms of its relationship to individuals rather than to social forces or institutions, and mass communication theorists turned to psychology and social psychology. Behaviorism, as the dominant psychology of that time, defined much of the early research. Newer psychological theories were gradually adopted by communication theorists, but the commitment to individualism and psychology has remained.
The study of communication was seen from its very beginnings as a scientific endeavor. This was a natural outgrowth of the liberal's view of the crisis as involving a loss of certainty and a lack of objective knowledge, conditions that intensified the threat of irrationality. Science provided both the model of successful rational thinking and the means for assuring its attainment by the masses (Albig 1939, 431). Thus, for example, Lasswell argued that the function of science was to facilitate "efficient communication" where efficiency is understood as "the degree that rational judgments are facilitated" (1971, 93).
More importantly, however, the faith in science required that researchers be able to objectively measure the concepts they used and to manipulate them experimentally. Consequently the notion of communication itself had to be quantifiable and was defined in terms of its informational and influential value to provide the field with its necessary tools. For instance, Schramm, one of the leaders in the emergence of mass communication as an organized field of study, defines communication "simply by saying that it is the sharing of an orientation toward a set of informational signs" (1971, 13). While expressing the sentiment that information should be defined broadly, he nevertheless goes on to limit it to terms amenable to direct quantification: "It is any content that reduces uncertainty or the number of alternative possibilities in a situation" (13). This supported the liberal's view that what needed to be communicated were scientifically derived descriptions of the environment.
There is, however, another side of communication that had to be considered. Communication was and continued to be used to manipulate the opinions and actions of individuals. Therefore the persuasive possibilities of communication required scientific investigation as well. Such investigations would potentially inoculate people against manipulation, and, in the right hands, this knowledge could be used to help construct a more rational society, one in which manipulation via communication would no longer be required.
Thus mainstream mass communication theory can be directly related to the liberal interpretation of the modern crisis as essentially an informational one. The connection resulted in a series of methodological, normative, and definitional decisions that still ground the mainstream tradition of theory and research.
Cultural theories, while united in their opposition to mainstream research, differ in their understanding of communication and the cultural crisis. Harold Innis was one of the first to include the relationship of communication and culture as a key element in his worldview. Innis saw the crisis of culture, in this case for Canada, in terms of the threat of cultural domination. As has been persuasively argued by both Theall (1975) and Carey (1975b, 28-29), Innis saw Canada as poised between the then two largest empires: Britain and America. In addition to the socioeconomic ties with Britain and America, which dated back to Canadian origins, the time at which Innis wrote was marked by the increasing effectiveness and sophistication of American communication systems. Built upon an economically based technology, U.S. communications, he felt, struck "at the heart of cultural life in Canada" (1952, 19). It is not surprising, therefore, that Innis articulated an interpretation of the role of communication in cultural life built upon the central images of empire and bias.
His reading of economic history led him to focus on the role of communication (and transportation) through the lens of a technological determinism. Culture came to be seen as dependent upon, derived from, even "epiphenomenal of" (see Carey 1975b) communication technology. Concerned with understandingthe significance of the threats represented by the two empires, Innis looked to the "biases" of communication in its various technological forms. He argued that particular biases of communication were partly determinative of particular forms of social organization; the forms of social organization themselves, in turn, could be interpreted as distributions of political power based upon technologically determined "monopolies of knowledge."
Innis identifies two forms of bias: time-binding and space-binding. The British empire, with its great burden of tradition and history, was seen as embodying a time bias, and the American empire, so conscious of its spatial freedom and so committed to control and unity across that space, as embodying a space bias. As Canada was precariously located between these two empires and between these two biases, it was natural to interpret the uniqueness of the Canadian experience in the possibility of mediating between them. Innis clearly believes that the ideal culture would be one in which the two biases are balanced (see 1951,85). Innis thus provides a striking example of the way in which a theory of communication can be understood in the context of a perceived crisis at the heart of cultural life.
Excerpted from Bringing It All Back Home by Lawrence Grossberg. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsContents Acknowledgments Introduction: "Birmingham" in America? 1. Cultural Theory, Cultural Studies Interpreting the "Crisis" of Culture in Communication Theory (1979) The Ideology of Communication: Poststructuralism and the Limits of Communication (1982) Experience, Signification, and Reality: The Boundaries of Cultural Semiotics (1982) Strategies of Marxist Cultural Interpretation (1984) 2. Locating Cultural Studies Cultural Studies Revisited and Revised (1983) History, Politics, and Postmodernism: Stuart Hall and Cultural Studies (1986) The Formation(s) of Cultural Studies: An American in Birmingham (1989) The Circulation of Cultural Studies (1989) Cultural Studies: What's in a Name? (One More Time) (1995) Toward a Genealogy of the State of Cultural Studies (1996) Where Is the "America" in American Cultural Studies? 3. Subjects, Audiences, and Identities Wandering Audiences, Nomadic Critics (1988) The Context of Audiences and the Politics of Difference (1989) Cultural Studies in/and New Worlds (1993) Bringing It All Back Home: Pedagogy and Cultural Studies (1994) Notes References Index