Media and Cultural Theory

Stephen Hill and Bevis Fenner (2010)

(EN: This booklet begins as an exploration of cultural ideas about media, but about halfway through, it loses focus and degenerates into a random sampling of cultural theories with scant mention of media.)


This a survey of the development of media and cultural theory from the enlightenment to the present day, examining the ideas of numerous philosophers on various media (print, film, television, newspapers, music, and the internet) as a means to providing readers with a primer on the topic.

The intention of the authors is not to provide theories in support of a specific conclusion, but merely to sample the theoretical perspectives that have been developed. They acknowledge that an overview of this nature may not do justice to the bodies of theory, and suggest that the authors' original texts provide a more detailed and developed representations. Such is the nature of providing an overview.

(EN: it's also important to note that "cultural studies" such as this one borrow from a wide range of disciplines. It's been my experience such studies provide excellent food for thought, but lack a theoretical framework, so I expect the content will involve a great deal of topic-surfing, but will present a number of interesting considerations.)

(EN: It's also worth noting that the present work lacks much in the way of foundational information - particularly, what is meant by "media." The definition may arise in the course of the study, and I expect the concept of media has evolved over time, but it does leave me with a sense that the notion may remain vague from lack of definition.)

Theories of the Enlightenment

(EN: I'm mildly disappointed that this study starts so late in history. While we consider "media" to be a post-industrial phenomenon, it's older than that, and many of the theories and principles of communication hearken back much further, even to classical Greece and Aristotle's contemplation of public speech in the Rhetoric.)

Immanuel Kant

The author describes the Enlightenment of the 17th century as a period during which Western culture embraced rational thought (as opposed to mysticism) as a method for explaining natural and cultural phenomena.

Immanuel Kant is credit with the notion that an individual could (and should) use their intellect to seek understanding rather than seeking guidance from other sources, and found in logic a constancy missing in traditional foundations of knowledge and power (religion and political clout). This concept was foundational to the Enlightenment era.

The authors also assert that the development of the printing press during this era, as well as the proliferation of theater, were the beginnings of contemporary "media culture" in which individuals who did not hold traditional power have the ability to communicate their individual ideas to the masses.

Edmund Burke

The authors explore Burke's concept of "the sublime" as not merely a synonym for beauty, but as a quality that underlies beauty (and can even underlie hideousness). The sublime is a quality that captivates and fills the mind, driving from it the thought of anything else and, by consequence, subverting reason and the logical faculty of the observer. In a word, it inspires "awe."

Of particular importance to the Enlightenment is the lack of the sublime. As we learn, we are lest subject to awe, and better able to apply our logical faculty to discover depths of meaning we were previously unable to recognize.

The authors mention art, such as films, whose entertainment value requires the willing suspension of disbelief: we do not reason about the "action" we are presented, but find pleasure in accepting it without question (EN: and the person who interrupts this state to point out factual information is generally regarded as a nuisance.)

Journalism, meanwhile, is an assault upon the sublime: the attempt to apply reason to events that may, in some instances, be overwhelming. While yellow journalism capitalizes upon shock and spectacle and thereby provides entertainment value, we grant the greatest esteem to journalists who attempt to apply reason to overcome, rather than play upon, the sublime.

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham is mentioned as the founder of utilitarian ethics - the notion that the ethical merit of any action is that it creates "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" - though, ironically, he also conceded that a nation or a society is "a fictitious body composed of individual persons" - though the first notion was ultimately of greater interest to later philosophers than the second.

(EN: this remains a topic of debate, to this day, especially in discussions of politics, in which the welfare of the many is used to justify the injustice done to certain segments of society, which I find to be a foul notion, though I will attempt to remain objective in annotating the discussion that is based on that premise.)

It's also noted that Bentham also developed a number of practical theories in the field of surveillance, beginning with his work in designing prisons that were architected to enable fewer guards to monitor prisoners (via a central column among a ruing of backlit cells), including the facility of surveillance to control behavior, even when the subject of surveillance merely thinks he is being observed.

This notion was later picked up by Foucault, whose notion of the "panopticon" included the use of surveillance as a method of power and social control, and the ability of the individual, rather than merely government, to leverage this power over others (and themselves).

In this sense, the media possess and exercise an apparatus of power, in its ability to observe and report. It is implied that "free" societies rely upon the power of the media to act as the watchdog of the government, where as in countries where state control is high, the media is the lapdog of the government, serving as a method of reinforcing its power over the people. This is illustrated in dystopian fiction, including 1984 and Brave New World.

This also underlies much discussion about control of the media, with objections raised whether it is controlled by the state, buy a few powerful individuals, or even by the people. In the latter sense, the Internet has put power into the hands of the people, and its effect has not always been beneficial - the interaction among participants in Internet forums opften reflects an attempt, through exposure or embarrassment, to disempower and control others and, by proxy, to proactively control the behavior of the masses.

Mikhail Bakhtin

Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque (a mash=up of "carnival" and "grotesque") held that certain formations disrupt normal life, and suspend the typical norms of behavior that apply to everyday existence.

The "carnival" defines a conceptual space where the "trashy and distasteful" is permitted - be it an event, a location, or a medium. During the carnival, certain social norms are suspended - but not all - and their suspension causes consideration of the value of the norms themselves, even if the ultimate conclusion is in the reinforcement rather than abandonment of social norms.

The carnivalesque has long been used by entertainment, including entertainment media, whether the mere exploitation of the capacity of the freakish and bizarre to command interest, or in a more artful sense, in the questioning of social norms by the depiction of the abnormal.

It is also evident in the use of media by individuals, especially the Internet, in which blog postings and YouTube videos attempt to attract attention by their depiction of the carnivalesque, for much the same reasons.

(EN: The use of the carnivalesque is often ignored or misinterpreted by those who claim that the intent of media is to model behavior in a purely suggestive manner. The perennial debate over depictions of violence or immoral behavior is an example of an argument about the concept of carnivalesque.)


Marxism is based on the theory of conflict between the proletariat class (workers) and the bourgeoisie (owners/rulers). As pertains to the media, Marxism holds that the media is the capacity of "cultural production" as a means to control culture, and advocates putting control of this capacity in the hands of the proletariat.

While Marxism draws heavily on the philosophy of Hegel, a significant departure is the disagreement with Hegel's assertion that society is the product of man's ideas, but instead maintain that the existing society shapes man.

Marx and Engels

Karl Marx and Frederic Engels considered the cause of conflict within a society to be the struggle between the owners and consumers of material goods, as a basis by which some men hold power over others, and that the resolution to this conflict is to place the means of production in the hands of those who desire to consume the product. In the early Industrial Era, it became clear that the balance had shifted, which empowered a small number of individuals to have inordinate control over the masses, and to deny them the facility to satisfy their own requirements as well as they could in a "natural state."

(EN: there's an ongoing discussion about Marxism, in and of itself, but without apparent correlation to media, so I'm skipping it.)

The current age represents the rise of the "new bourgeoisie" in the West, where the ownership of the means of production is in the hands of the working class (the majority of most commercial enterprises being owned by "average" citizens through personal investments, chiefly retirement and pension plans), which is an achievement of Marxist ideals, though perhaps not in the precise way that Marx and Engels might have envisioned.

Cultural Imperialism and the Media Revolution

While the age of imperialism has passed, there remains the assertion that "cultural imperialism" by the west has persisted. Aside of the remnants of economic imperialism (in evidence of which the author mentions that there is no major city in the world in which one cannot find a MacDonald's and a Sawbucks), the Western media also dominate world culture, and the ideals of Western culture (chiefly individualism and consumerism) are pervasive.

The author mentions the current "war on terrorism" as a conflict that is grounded over control of media. Islamic fundamentalists claim to have been incited to violence in reaction to Western media's invasion into their culture, and media have been used extensively by both sides in the struggle to communicate and attract sympathy to their causes (as evidenced by the high level of interest in videos of the beheading of western journalists and soldiers as well as that of the execution of Saddam Hussein). In that light, media is become a weapon of warfare in the struggle for control of the methods of cultural production.

Semiotics and Formalism

Semiotics derived from formal logic, as an attempt to develop a universal method of comprehending the content of various media (including non-textual media) by distilling any composition to the "signs" it contained - the representation of an object and the qualities that are ascribed to that object by modifiers of various kinds.

The seemingly simple association of adjectives to nouns is core to metaphysics, the understanding of the nature of things, in that the properties or qualities of an object define the object (what it essentially is) and its relation to other objects.

In media, as in all human communication, semiotics suggests the intention of the communicator, in that the message is composed of objects and qualities that may represent the way that the communicator directly perceives them, or in a manner that is intended to influence the perception of those objects by the audience.

Ferdiand de Saussure

Saussere considered semiotics in the context of languages, in the way that a language influences perception of its speakers by the creation of a vocabulary with implied significance.

When applied to concrete objects, languages reflects the differences in the perception of the object: the qualities attributed to a word such as "tree" vary among cultures and languages . These difference become far more pronounced when dealing with abstract concepts: a word such as "friend" has a much wider array of meanings.

The variations of meaning may be the result of observation without intention to influence perception, or the result of more purposeful intent to alter the common perception of the object, or in a seemingly arbitrary manner (the example given of the names of post-punk era bands such as "delirious jellyfish" in which the immediate reaction of the receiver is to doubt or disclaim the accuracy of the symbolic association).

Semiotics can only be understood in the context of communication, as language is used as a method of identification, but as a means of expressing one specific meaning, to the exclusion of others.

Valentin Volosinov

Volsinov considered semiotics in the context of Marxism, identifying logical as "inherently ideological" in that it reflects a dynamic system of beliefs. The dynamic nature of language was of keen interest to him, as he believed the fluidity of language is central to social structure.

The author uses the shift in the meaning of the word "gay" in the twentieth century, from its original meaning as "jolly and upbeat" to its later interpretation as "homosexual" and, in recent years, as "insipid."

An example from journalism demonstrates the political nature of the assignment of significance to photographic images. Specifically, in the wake of a hurricane, two images are shown of individuals performing the same action (carrying supplies) - in an instance where the person was black, the action was described as "looting" or "stealing," but when the subject was white, the words used were "finding" and "salvaging."

This same concept is central to the creation of brand, in the marketing sense: the language a seller uses to describe their product depends on the differentiation from similar items. Hence the "brand" of a product connotes its unique and valuable properties and qualities, as differentiated from similar items that are portrayed as lacking those qualities.

These differentials have a significant impact on the consumer's perception of value and their willingness to contribute the product of their labor in exchange for a good or service. This may be a function of the actual qualities of a product (a hotel room in a resort destination is more highly valued than one in a suburban industrial area) or merely the depicted value of an item (a higher price can be commanded for a room if it is described as a "luxury" room).

(EN: it's not entirely accurate to suggest that value is the sole product of semiotics - supply and demand for rooms affects their price, as does their physical location, as does the quality of the amenities - though my sense is that this is a "good" example due to the atypical features of a hotel room, which is often purchased sight-unseen, with little advanced knowledge except what the buyer is told by a seller or an agent, as well as the situation of buying for the first time, rather than a repurchase decision.)

Vladimir Propp

Propp's work focused on the application of semiotics to narrative and character, primarily in the context of folktales, but his examination is pertinent to modern story-based entertainment as well as journalism.

Especially in the milieu of folk tales, one often finds that basic character types (personages) undertake identical actions, and the lesson learned from the story pertains to the moral qualities of the character (communicated to the audience by semiotics) more so than those of the actions depicted.

Of note, Propp defines eight basic character types that are common to folklore:

  1. The hero - The protagonist, who generally represents a person who is "good" or at least good in their intentions
  2. The villain - The antagonist, who generally attempts to subvert the will of the hero to serve their own needs
  3. The dispatcher - The individual who sets the hero off on his quest
  4. The donor - The individual who provides a "gift" to the hero, either in the form of an object or knowledge, that will be useful in the quest
  5. The helper - Who acts as a sidekick to the hero, assisting the hero in achieving the quest
  6. The false hero - A competitor to the protagonist, whose goal is in conflict with that of the hero
  7. The betrayer - Equivalent to the helper, but working to serve the interests of the villain rather than the hero
  8. The princess - The embodiment of the hero's goal, either directly or indirectly

(EN: It's worth noting that the roles may often be combined into characters, such as a donor/helper or a false-hero/betrayer, and the nature of the characters may shift in longer stories, such that the helper, or even the princess, may change into a betrayer.)

Propp also distills the narrative structure into thirty-one narrative states, which can be distilled to eight:

  1. Normality - Which is where most stories begin and end
  2. Extraordinary Event - That which causes a deviation from normality
  3. Need for rectification - That which drives the hero to action
  4. Acquisition - The hero contains that which he needs (items, allies, knowledge) to undertake the task of rectification
  5. Conflict - The struggle between the hero and the villain
  6. Escape - The hero may need to avoid the conflict temporarily
  7. Resolution - The hero undertakes the "final task" to effect rectification
  8. Reward - The hero reaps the benefit of rectification, before the state of normality returns

(EN: Note that these narrative states are common to story, and are a bit different than the "plot" of a story, for which see Georges Polti.)

It's noted that Propp's work is applicable to narrative in general, and has been applied to various cultures and eras, and is also applicable across the various media, both written and performed.


Neomarxism is attributed to Felix Weil, who undertook the revision of the Marxist theory in recognition that it was impractical in the form offered by the Communist party and needed significant rework in order to be successfully implemented. While Weil's school was dissolved under the Nazi era, the theory spread to Oxford and Columbia universities.

Germane to the present study Neomarxism views popular culture as an agent of class domination and media as the means by which culture is defined and communicated. In particular, Ardono and Marcuse viewed the media as a method of manipulating the working class, using materialism and consumerism to distract them from concern about their disadvantaged social position, particularly in the proffering of products that address "false needs."

Theodor Ardono

Theodor Adono (and Max Horkheimer) developed the concept of a "culture industry" created by the ruling class to disinform the disadvantaged classes, in effect creating a culture of consumerism as a method of pacification. Also, culture itself is become a product that can be used to generate a profit.

As with physical products, Adorno saw cultural products as being essentially undifferentiated - a film by one studio or another was fundamentally the same "good" as a car built by one manufacturer or another. However, media is an ideological product, which is used to indoctrinate the consumer to the culture the producer wishes to offer, with an "illusion of difference" that creates consumer loyalty to a specific brand of propaganda that, essentially, contains the same ideology as any other.

One of the areas in which Adorno was most critical was the popular music of his age (1930's), in that it was standardized and formulaic. Though it was not clear at the time how music as a cultural form could "make meaning," it was evident even at that time that consumers developed a false sense of individual identity by the genre they chose to consume.

(EN: In the years since the 1960's to the present day, popular music has generally fallen into a small range of "styles," with little differentiation and, in the late 20th century, has become very much a product of an industry that has little tolerance of performers whose product falls outside the bounds of this narrow band, both in terms of musical quality and the ideas conveyed. And if anything, the tendency of a consumer to identify themselves as a culture due to the brand or genre they consume is even more pronounced.)

Herbert Marcuse

Mancuse developed the theory of the "one-dimensional man," who is unable to conceive of a culture other that the one in which he currently exists (particular to Neomarxism, the prevailing culture is said to be capitalistic), and that "commoditized cultural norms" are problematic in preventing the working class from recognizing the need for and potential of revolutionary action.

His criticism of industrial society, derived from Weil, is that culture creates consumerism, the acceptance of "false needs" that can be addressed, but never met, but the consistent consumption of consumer goods, and that this perceived need is created by the ruling class, as it facilitates the exploitation of the working class.

And like Adorno, Mancuse saw the arts as the primary battlefield on which this ideological war was being waged. In particular, the aesthetic form has been weaponized to enforce acceptance of the status quo, and even those expressions that "appears to" criticize capitalistic systems are particularly problematic, in that the artists are subverted by their contractual obligations with corporations and adopt, over time, an approach to artistic production as a method of generating profit.

(EN: This seems contrived, to suggest that those who criticize a culture are working as agents of those who create the culture of which they are critical. But at the same time, if the goal of an artist is to be commercially successful, he must cater to the demand of the audience - and the artist who goes "too far" in promulgating an unpopular sentiment is not commercially successful. Though this still strikes me as being in the nature of a tautology.)

Antonio Gramsci

Gramsci's view of the social structure was based on the notion of hegemony, the supremacy of one social group over another, and the attempt to dominate both the behavior and morality of other classes.

It's noted that Gramsci departed from traditional Neomarxist ideology in that he maintained that the working class could use the media as a method of developing and communicating their own ideology, in resistance to the culture that is promulgated by the ruling class. While he conceded that culture could be spread by unilateral force, he also maintained that, over the long run, effecting a change in cultural norms requires the consent of the subjugated class.

The notion of consent creates the opportunity for "the people" to control the media, rather than the other way around, which is evident in the competitive nature of media in a capitalist society: as competitors, those who "control" the media must yield to the desires of their audiences. As an example, consider the way in which Rupert Murdoch's newspapers regularly switch ideology, from conservative to liberal and back, as the prevailing cultural sentiment fluctuates.

Gramsci also addresses the role of the intellectual in capitalist society, as a role that is available to all, but accepted by a few: in his theory, all men have the capacity to be intellectuals, but few men adopt the function of an intellectual. Specifically, the function of a n intellectual in society is the exercise of independent thought rather than the mere acceptance of the ideology of others - particularly in his evaluation and resistance to cultural mores.

However, this is not a single conflict, but an ongoing struggle, as when the intellectual successfully resists the prevailing establishment, he in effect becomes an agent of a new establishment, against which future intellectuals will rebel. Hence the cyclical nature of politics, ideology, and culture.

A third area in which Gramesci has been influential is in his conception of the role of the state as an arbiter of ideology among the peoples, particularly in the realm of education. In most western nations, "public" education is managed by the state, according to the prevailing ideology of a culture. The subject matter being taught in schools, as well as the subtext of cultural indoctrination, is a reflection of the current prevailing ideology, and objection to it is evidence of the ongoing conflict.

The author mentions the incidence of "heritage film" as a harbinger of ideological expression. Whereas the expression of new ideas contrary to popular ideology is risky, the recycling of similar ideologies from previous eras is less actively resisted. He also mentions the genre of "reality" television as being expressive of western individualism, in its capacity to elevate the ordinary citizen to the status of celebrity.


Structuralism is an extension of semiotics to communication, viewing communication (chiefly in written texts) as being governed by a structure that is independent of the meaning of the meaning derived from the content. When applied to sociology and politics, it seeks to define the underlying structure on which a culture is based, suggesting that while incidental details may be varied within a culture, any change within the structure is, by definition, a departure from the culture.

Claude Levi Strauss

Claude Levi-Strauss was a French anthropologist of the early twentieth century, who applied the linguistic science of semiotics to broader anthropological concerns - specifically, to the myths of tribal societies - in the belief that a universal or "deep" structures common to all humanity could be discovered by studying the most primitive of cultures.

An example of this is the commonality in familial relations that seem to be universally recognized. The ties among family are husband-wife, parent-child, and child-sibling - and while other relations exist, they are expressed in terms of the basic three (a cousin is a parent-child relation, where the parent is a sibling or the subject's parent).

Another common means of analyzing culture is in the examination of binary relationships: male/female, dominance/submission, good/evil. These binaries can be found in all cultures, and there tends to be commonality in the association between them (for example, male-dominant and female-submissions are virtually universal across all cultures).

(EN: the author draws no direct correlation to media, though the implication is that the communication by the individual members of a culture derive from the underlying structure of their culture.)

Jacques Lacan

Lacan, a French psychiatrist whose work was of much interest to the surrealist movement, focused on the mismatch between the corporeal human body and its idealized image that is mediated by the ego.

His theory of the "mirror stage" of development refers to the moment when a child first recognizes its reflection. Previously to this stage, the child's sense of self is believed to be discordant and fragmented, and this stage brings the sense of a unified self, which is accepted objectively, but later becomes subject to distortions of narcissism.

In terms of media, a person's Facebook profile is used as a kind of mirror in which users present themselves to others, though in the distorted sense that reflects the degree to which the individual narcissistically decides what aspects of the self to recognize, and to allow to be recognized by others.

This is not so much a presentation of an objective self, but of a contrivance and reformation of the self, oriented toward the perceived audience and the desire of the individual to solicit affirmative feedback.

In effect, this is the creation of an individual's "brand identity" - a declaration of the unique and valuable qualities that define a person as being a distinct individual among hundreds of thousands of others - as mediated by the ego.

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall considers the processes by which a message is encoded by its sender and decoded by its receiver, with emphasis on the mismatches that can occur during both processes. (EN: This follows the transmission theory of communication - for which, reference Shannon and Weaver, circa 1950).

Hall challenges the concept of a "passive" audience by placing emphasis on the decoding process: it is a process that involves the active analysis of the message in order to derive its meaning. In effect, the meaning of communication is determined by the decisions made by the recipient in the process of decoding the message (regardless of what the sender intended to communicate).

It is noted that this poses a problem for Marxist theories of communication, which rely upon the premise that the sender's message is passively accepted by the recipient, without question, hence those in power can use the media to control those whom they dominate. If, however, we accept Hall's notion of communication, the ideologies or "codes" of the ruling class are defused by the process of interpretation, in which messages that are contrary to the conception of the recipient are reinterpreted or dismissed.

Hence, successful communication depends on focus upon the decoding facility of the recipient rather than the encoding facility of the sender, rather than the other way around (assuming it is the responsibility of the recipient to understand the sender's encoding process to ensure that he receives the message as intended).


The author presents poststructuralist as being an antipode to structuralism: whereas structuralism seeks to discover similarities, poststructuralism seeks to identify differences - rejecting the idea of a static and consistent culture in favor of multiple cultures, each of which is evolving.

Jacques Derrida

Derrida argues that the structural components of one text cannot be defined in relation to another. An attempt to draw similarities or define commonalities is based on the distortion, rather than interpretation, of the original texts. Even on the atomic level of individual words, it is not uncommon for a word to have multiple possible meanings, hence the interpretation of a text by one person may be substantially different than that of another individual.

This difference is even more pronounced in contextual forms of communication, such as film, the understanding of which is largely derived from the personal context of the viewer: two individuals may watch the same film, but come away with significantly different interpretations of the story that the creator intended to communicate (neither of which may jibe with the creator's intention).

Derrida also considers the concept of "slippage" when a message is recast in a different medium - particularly, when the spoken word is recorded as text, or when a text is translated from one language to another, some degree of meaning is lost. The same shift occurs contemporary culture, when a book is converted into film, or when a film is "remade" (either from the same film shot in a foreign language or from an earlier version, the "remake" is done in the context of another culture).

Roland Barthes

Barthes is credited with the concept of the "death of the author," in the sense that the reader actively interprets a text, deriving from it a meaning that is essentially different than that which the author intended to communicate.

He suggests that the concept of "authorship" is relatively modern. Prior to contemporary media forms, a story written by one individual was performed by another (either a reader or an actor), who applied to it his own sensibilities, which created yet another level of abstraction prior to the interpretation of the work by the audience.

This is similar to Stuart Hall's theory of decoding, which maintained that the audience "negotiates" the meaning of the message in the way they choose to understand it. And while both focused primarily upon textual media, it again is applicable to film or even animation.

The author also mentions the ready availability of computer software for the creation of video and animation, placing the ability of computer-generated video into the hands not only of professionals, but of amateurs, which has given rise to some interesting reinterpretations of original works, such as animutation. (EN: an interesting point, but I don't see how this is germane.)

Barthes was also somewhat prophetic in is anticipation of on-demand delivery of media content, which would lead to a shift of communication by the few to the many to the ability of the audience to exercise greater control over their media consumption, choosing from a broader array of programs, independent of time constraints, which was four decades in advance of cable television, DVR technology, and internet video. (EN: again, interesting but somewhat unrelated.)

Michel Foucault

Foucault maintained that any "cultural product" is shaped by the culture in which it is produced. His focus is not on the interpretation of the reader, but on the understanding of the structures of knowledge in the culture that produced a given artifact as essential to understanding the "true meaning" of the artifact itself.

As such, Foucault was regarded as a "cultural archaeologist" whose studies focused on examining artifacts to determine the structure of the culture at the time they were produced. In effect, the meaning of a text is not to be derived from the content of the text, but in relation to the cultural environment of its creation.

Concepts such as knowledge and truth, to Foucault, reflect the state of a culture at a specific time, which can be noticed in the differences between scientific thought in the Classical and Renaissance eras. The differences between the two are not so much disagreements of objective fact, but in the way facts were interpreted in the context of their separate cultures.

This applies as well to the subject of the media in the present day: there are stark differences in the way that current events are represented in the American and British press, which again is a difference not of fact but of the differences in the cultural interpretation of fact, as evident in media artifacts. If we accept, then, that media presents information and knowledge, this presentation is heavily distorted by cultural relativity.


Postmodernism is a counter to Modernism, which sought to dismiss subjectivity to arrive at objective truth that was untainted by the perceptions and prejudices of the individual. Postmodernism instead sought to examine the relationship between the observer and the observed, to accept the uncertainty and ambiguity of experience as an essential part of the experience itself.

Jean Baudrillard

In "The Consumer Society," Baudrillard suggests that technology alienates man from reality by creating a "hyper-reality," which results in the degradation of the distinction between the real and the simulated, with the simulated taking predominance.

In one sense, hyper-reality is created in any reproduction of reality: recorded music is not usually recorded "live" but is constructed in a studio, with each instrument being recorded separately (multiple times) and the tracks re-composed. Film is likewise highly unrealistic, and a great deal of effort is placed into creating a simulation of reality (lighting, make-up, camera effects, etc., on top of the fakery that is applied when actors in make-up and costume are filmed on a constructed set).

Technology, especially in for form of computer-generated imagery (CGI), adds another layer of abstraction, by portraying a simulacrum - a "copy" without an original - similar to the way that an artist may create a painting of a scene from his imagination rather than making any attempt to depict an actual location.

This hyper-reality spills over into reality: increasingly, public spaces such as airports or shopping malls are man-made environments where technology goes beyond the bounds of what is structurally or functionally necessary to create a hyper-real environment: it is engineered, from the decor to the climate control, to create an experience that is in no way imitative of "reality."

And hyper-reality is used heavily in advertising. Consider the task of the "food photographer" in composing a shot for advertising, often carefully composing a subject made out of entirely inedible materials, then retouching the image in post-production, to present the consumer an image that has no direct correspondence to the "real" - and consider the way this influences consumer perception of what is, in effect, reality.

This relates to consumerism in the influence of hype-reality upon human desire: it delivers an simulated object of aspiration that cannot be accurately attained in the obtainment of the real object. Hence, the consumer is ultimately unfulfilled by consumption - the "things" he acquires do not deliver on the promise of the simularacrum.

The author also considers the myth of individuality through consumerism: the use of branding implies not only that the product is distinct from its competitor, but that by obtaining the product, the individual is also distinct from others. This is most evident in premium branding, where owning a specific brand of watch or tennis shoe is implied to make a person different, better, than others who do not own the same product. But in the end, the products are mass-produced, available to anyone - such that the customers who are attracted by the potential of a product to differentiate them from others find that they are the same as the many others who have obtained the same product.

Pierre Bordieu

Bordieu suggests that cultural consumption is derived from social class: the individuals within a society who are educated and/or wealthy constitute the "cultural nobility" whose taste and patterns of consumption set a standard toward which the lesser classes aspire by means of the "objectification" of the objects of consumption. In that way, the upper classes have "legitimate" culture - consumption according to their own tastes and preferences - whereas the lesser classes, to some degree, imitate the culture of the nobility.

Advertising, particularly in the form of the fashion magazine, is the method by which these tastes are communicated to the lower classes. There are a wide variety of magazines that teach desire - educating the lower classes on what they should wear, how they should decorate their homes, what foods they should eat, what entertainment products they should consume, and it's of particular importance that these notions are not forced upon the lower classes, but the members of the lower class actively seek them out, though it's noted that culture is segmented, just as each magazine seeks to appeal to a specific class, gender, age, race, and national identity.

Frederic Jameson

Jameson likewise expresses "anxiety" about high and low culture, and suggests that the emergence of mass-media has amplified the effect of imitation among classes and cultures. Traditional "folk" culture is the result of isolation - cultures developing among small groups of people with little contact with the outside world - which has been overrun by "mass" culture, in which there is constant exposure to common influences in the media, which overcomes the previously existent divisions.

Granted, culture was always influenced by foreign elements, but it previously occurred more slowly. The elements of "outside" culture seeped into a community, in small amounts and through a few individuals, such that the native culture could consider whether the ideas should be adopted or dismissed. But with the advent of mass media, there is a constant bombardment of outside culture into every community.

This also contributes to the acceptance of hyper-reality. A fictional location, created on a studio lot, may seem as real to a person as an actual location to which they have never been. And given that the subject often has more exposure to the fictional location (via repeated exposure, such as a setting in a television series), it may even seem more real.

Jameson considers the difference between parody and pastiche - whereas the first is done intentionally, often with a spirit of playfulness and mockery in knowing that one is participating in an imitative act, the latter is done without consideration, awareness, or any ulterior motives. The author relates this back to the theory of the carnivalesque - where the participants in carnival know themselves to be engaging in unusual behavior, but those who witness and imitate this behavior have no sense of its deviation from social norms. To them, the carnival is become the norm.

The author comments on the differences between the music videos of two different artists: the first (produced earlier) is a contrived parody of a previous historical period, whereas the second (produced later) is clearly an imitation of the parody (Art imitating art) without the consideration of the original's artifice, and as such is characterized as a "weak pastiche" by an artist who is "hopefully our of his depth" in his lack of understanding of the intention of the original work he is imitating.

The contrast between parody and pastiche is more blatant in the comedic. The individual who consciously mocks, by imitation, the characteristics of a clownish individual is making fun of that individual - whereas the individual who simply adopts these characteristics without consideration is "funny" to a lesser degree, as he is unconsciously making a mockery of himself.

Consumerism as Culture

Consumerism describes the belief that obtaining material goods will result in psychological happiness, personal fulfillment, and social esteem. It has generally been categorized by Marxists as a psychological disorder, a compulsive need to consume that enslaves the individual to the capitalist society that instills in him a desire to consume, and exploits this desire to exercise control over the individual.

And while criticism of consumerism is common, there are arguments to the contrary, which dismiss the notion of that consumption is a passive and mindless act. In a competitive market, the consumer is presented many options and, given limited resources (which is a natural condition rather than a conspiracy to deprive), must evaluate and decide what to consume. This requires a degree of consideration and discernment that is not required in a situation where goods are commoditized and substitutes are unavailable.

Dick Hebdige

Hedbige considers the consumption of goods as an active process, in which the consumer independently decides upon the value of the object of consumption.

In particular, Hebdige focuses on the punk movement, and the way that which the culture would borrow and re-work the symbols of the mainstream culture. This was a disruption, and in some instances a complete inversion, of the customary social interpretation of objects, generally with a sense of irony - the use of a "safety" pin for ornamental self-mutilation - and in doing so, the movement questioned the dominant ideological structure of mainstream culture.

Stuart Ewen

Ewen considers "style" as a visual signifier of an underlying system of beliefs, noting the pattern by which the ideology of a subculture at first clashes with the mainstream, then is adopted by it, and is then abandoned, as "cultural waste matter." In this sense, consumerism can be seen as a driver of cultural evolution: some measure of the subculture, even after it has been discarded, effect a lasting change on the mainstream.

However, there are instances in which the exploitation of counterculture by the mainstream is, in effect, the eradication of the ideology of the counterculture. The author's example is the adoption and distortion of counterculture in advertising messages, which overshadows their original context. When a notion becomes a marketing novelty, its original meaning is lost, and it becomes "cultural waste."

Like Hebdige, Ewen considers the punk movement in its reversal of that relationship. The punks often reworked the meaning of items from the mainstream culture, modifying them to instill meaning, assuming the tactic of the mainstream to redefine culture. A punk would purchase a fashion clothing item and modify it (e.g., rip it apart and reassemble it with safety pins). Ironically, the mainstream counterstrike was to sell "punk style" clothing in high-end department stores that was manufactured to look like an item that had been modified in this fashion.

(EN: I think this may suggest too much of an "agenda" on the part of mainstream culture. My sense is that clothing manufacturers produced pre-modified clothing with the goal of satisfying consumer demand, not with the motive of combating the counterculture - and the consumers who demanded these items were simply "buying in" to the superficial qualities of the punk movement: and eye-catching style of dress that enabled them to suggest that they were members of a movement, and who had an equally superficial understanding of the movement itself.)

For the past two decades, Western culture has been recycling the cultural waste matter of previous movements, and provides multiple examples of the re-emergence of previous styles in music, fashion, film, and design. This is evidence of a lack of cultural progress.

If no counterculture exists to introduce new ideas, a culture engages in the "recycling" of the cultural waste matter of previous countercultures - which is to say, it imitates the superficial trappings of previous counterculture, in the absence of their ideological underpinnings.

It is predicted that, when culture does move-forward, the countercultural cycle will move at a far more rapid pace than in the past. The reach of the media, and the Internet in particular, will bring the trappings of counterculture to the masses much faster than the core ideology can develop into a coherent message. And in a very short amount of time, it will be co-opted by the media, goods will be mass-produced and brought to market, and the counterculture reduced to waste matter, possibly before the ideology has been adequately communicated to the mainstream to have a significant and lasting impact.

Chris Anderson

Anderson views the Internet as an inversion of mass-production: rather than creating consumer demand for mass-produced goods, there is a trend toward serving consumer demand by creating customized goods to suit niche markets.

This is now feasible because of the ability of the medium to aggregate a number of customers whose needs could not be feasibly (i.e., profitably) addressed in their local markets into a channel where their total number is sufficiently high, and the cost of serving them sufficiently low, to enable producers to cater to their needs and desires.

(EN: An example of this was the early commercial success of a site that sold replacement bags for vacuum cleaners. There is not sufficient demand in any market to open a chain of brick-and-mortar stores, but when the needs of every community can be served through a single Web site, the potential for profit was great.)

Early advertising (the author suggests the turning point was the 1970's) was very straightforward - the producer was attempting to instruct and educate the consumer, and marketing lines were very straightforward - this is what the product does, so buy it. But since then, advertising has become more cryptic and oblique, drawing attention to a brand (rather than the benefits of product) because it was expected that the audience already knew the product and how to use it, and needed to be given a positive impression about a specific supplier.

(EN: I'd argue that this is more in the nature of product lifecycle than culture. Even today, an entirely new product must be launched with an educational campaign to inform the market of the core benefits and provide instructions for use of an unknown item)

Options for advertising have increased. For example, the television medium has gone from three major networks to a plethora of channels, and advertisers must consider their choice - and generally, the advertiser considers the degree to which the channel's audience matches their intended target market (which in turn, are those whose demographic characteristics make them most likely to want or need the product).

As a result, advertisers have less interest, and less ability, to control the content of a channel and are more in the nature of making a "take it or leave it" decision about advertising on a given channel. This is all the more true for Web sites. Rather than trying to influence publishers to refrain from program content that will alienate the audience the advertiser wants to reach, they simply choose the site whose content and audience are acceptable.

The author also obliquely discusses the potential of the Internet to make communication between consumers and producers more bilateral. Through sites such as MySpace and Facebook, producers can engage in a two-way dialog with consumers - so rather than merely pushing out product and teaching the market to want it, the producer can directly receive information from the consumer to build a product that will be in greater demand due to its acceptability to the market.


(EN: The section on feminism was a wash. The authors provided a quick overview of gender politics and contemporary ideas of female identity, but fail to tie it into the main topic of media, except to provide examples to illustrate that media has been used as a tool to perpetuate negative stereotypes, as well as to combat them. There is nothing presented about the feminist approach to media, in and of itself, only as a means to an end.)

Post Colonialism

(EN: The section on post-colonialism is equally bad. As with Feminism, the authors summarize the movement, which this time focuses on the oppression and suppression of non-Western culture, and demonstrate that the media serves both the purpose of enabling mainstream culture to perpetuate stereotypes and providing the counterculture some opportunity to communicate its objection. But again, there's nothing particular about the perspective of media in non-Western cultures.)