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Cultural Studies - Hegemony and Ideology

media hegemonic culture gitlin

Cultural studies has become an increasingly difficult field of communication scholarship and political activism to define, mostly owing to the attempts of its adherents to transcend the confines of academic boundaries. As a result of this disciplinary and institutional resistance, cultural studies often is described in terms of the intellectual biographies of some of its leading scholarly figures (e.g., Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall in the United Kingdom, James Carey, Hanno Hardt, and Lawrence Grossberg in the United States, and Australians John Fiske, who now teaches in the United States, and John Hartley), as well as in terms of the geographical locations of cultural studies (e.g., the Birmingham School and the Glasgow School, both of British cultural studies; U.S. cultural studies at the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa; and cultural studies in Canada, including the work of Donald Theall and John Fekete). Dozens of spin-offs, reamalgamations, and reconfigurations of many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, from postcolonial theory to queer theory, have become part of the landscape of cultural studies.

One mass communication theory text brackets cultural studies within a cultural turn as part of the last of five broad theoretical bases discussed, thus pointing out by its relation to other media theories the marginality of cultural studies (Baran and Davis, 1999). In a chapter on “critical cultural studies,” British cultural studies is identified as one of the “contemporary schools of neo-Marxist theory.” Cultural studies becomes a subtheory of “critical cultural studies,” along with Marxist theory, textual analysis and literary criticism, the Frankfurt School, political economy theory, the media theories of Canadians Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis, popular culture research, media as culture industries, and advertising as a cultural commodity, among others.

In resisting categories, cultural studies attempts to remain an open field, defying method and tradition. For example, Cary Nelson, Paula Treichler, and Lawrence Grossberg (1992) discuss cultural studies as defying research domains, methodologies, and an intellectual legacy of a tradition and language. They suggest that cultural studies averts being a traditional discipline and is even antidisciplinary. Cultural studies crosses domains, or disciplines, from Marxism and feminism to psychoanalysis and postmodernism. Cultural studies also has no identifiable methodology, best described as a “bricolage” of textual analysis, semiotics, deconstruction, ethnography, content analysis, survey research, and other methods. But while approaches may be methodologically diverse, it must be recognized that every method is applied self-reflexively and in context.

Despite the difficulties, Nelson, Treichler, and Grossberg attempt a general definition of cultural studies to include these elements of domain and methodology. Cultural studies is inter-, trans-, and counter-disciplinary, maintaining a tension between broad, anthropological concepts and narrow, humanistic concepts of culture. It studies primarily modern industrial societies, insists on treating high and popular culture as equals of cultural production, and compares these cultural products to other social and historical forms. It is “committed to the study of the entire range of a society’s beliefs, institutions, and communicative practices.” Culture itself is both conceptualized as a way of life and a set of cultural practices, the former including “ideas, attitudes, languages, practices, institutions and structures of power,” and the latter including “artistic forms, texts, canons, architecture, mass-produced commodities” and so forth. In terms of its traditions, cultural studies has political aims, studying cultural change with the intent of intervening in it, although these aims differ in the British and U.S. versions. A frequent frame of analysis for cultural studies is race, gender, and class as culture and power are studied in tandem.

Searching for a definition of cultural studies, Hartley (1992) identifies the institutional and the genealogical levels of its identity. First, he finds cultural studies to be an “intellectual enterprise of the left” of the 1960s that was transformed, for the worse, into an “academic subject increasingly of the center” in the 1980s and 1990s. Second, cultural studies becomes a list of names of “prodigal parents” who begat a field that detests orthodoxy, avoids authority, and is committed to interdisciplinary work, but “it has no unified theory, textual canon, disciplinary truths, agreed methodology, common syllabus, examinable content or professional body.”

Scholars Steven Best and Douglas Kellner (1991) situate cultural studies within their call for a multiperspective and multidimensional critical theory of the media and society, one that relates all dimensions of society, from the cultural to the social, political, and economic, to each other and to the dominant mode of social organization. Advertising, for example, not only would be studied under capitalism and its economic effects, but also as it adapts cultural forms and affects cultural life and as it has changed politics. Stressing multiple perspectives, Best and Kellner advocate using many approaches, theories, and disciplines, such as Marxism and feminism, critical theory and postmodernism, or economics, sociology, and philosophy. By multiple dimensions, Best and Kellner mean that each dimension of society is treated as relatively autonomous, thus inviting analysis from many disciplines or perspectives.

Given this whirlpool of contemporary versions of cultural studies and their instability, cultural studies might best be approached historically as part of a much wider cultural and critical turn in communication research after World War II. Reflecting on the divergent history of administrative and critical research in North America, the University of Iowa’s Hanno Hardt (1992) groups U.S. cultural studies and critical theory together. Approaching communication as environments is one of the ideas of communication systems that is included in the cultural studies approach, where culture is the social context for creating meaning. In the longer history of U.S. mass communication research, critical theory and cultural studies are considered a radical branch.

Hegemony and Ideology

False consciousness is the desired end product of the process of hegemony, which U.S. cultural historian Todd Gitlin (1980) and Williams (1977) both applied in relation to the mass media, as does the tradition of British cultural studies extended by Stuart Hall. According to Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, hegemony is the ruling class’s domination through ideology and the shaping of popular consent. Hegemony unites persuasion from above with consent from below. The concept helps Gitlin’s work and other cultural studies scholars explain the strength and endurance of advanced capitalism. In his study of the news media, Gitlin suggests that hegemony is secured when those who control the dominant institutions impress their definitions upon the ruled. The dominant class controls ideological space and limits what is thinkable in society. Dominated classes participate in their domination, as hegemony enters into everything people do and think of as natural, or the product of common sense—including what is news, as well as playing, working, believing, and knowing, Gitlin argues. Hegemonic ideology permeates the common sense that people use to understand the world and tries to become that common sense.

In capitalist society, the media and other institutions formulate the dominant ideology, Gitlin believes. The media also incorporate popular opposing messages into the dominant ideology, redistributing them through journalistic practices. Gitlin focuses on the struggle between the media, which uphold the dominant ideology, and groups out of power, which contest the ideology. The hegemonic ideology is reproduced in the media through media practices that stem from the ways journalists are socialized from childhood and then trained, edited, and promoted by media. Although journalists do not consciously consider ideology when they make news decisions, they tend to serve the political and economic elite’s ideology by doing their jobs. Gitlin suggests the media remain free as long as they do not violate the essential hegemonic values or become too sympathetic to radical critiques. Opposition groups can exploit the contradictions in hegemonic ideology when elites conflict, but opposition groups and autonomous media will be muffled if the challenge to the hegemonic ideology is critical.

Gitlin contends that the media are controlled by corporate and political elites who bring media professionals into their social spheres. The ruling elites depend on the culture industry to advance their unity and limit competing ideologies. The media frame the ideological field within which the dominated classes live and understand their domination in order to perpetuate the hegemony of the elites. The elite economic class, however, does not produce and distribute ideology directly. Media workers do this within the culture industry, but only the media owners are directly linked to corporate and political leaders.

Gitlin suggests indirect control of the hegemonic ideology is difficult because liberal capitalism contains contradictions. The economic system generates ideologies that challenge and alter its own rationale. The hegemonic framework narrows the range of worldviews, preferring its version. To do this, the internal structures of the framework have to be continually re-created and defended, as well as challenged and adjusted superficially. The dominant ideology seems natural to media workers, who reproduce and defend it unconsciously. Gitlin says the media owners and managers reflect the ruling class’s interest in private property, capital, the national security state, and individual success within the bureaucratic system.

The media also reproduce the discontinuity and detachment that characterize capitalism, Gitlin adds. Natural life rhythms are replaced by the artificial time of the workplace. Reading the newspaper or watching television reproduces the rhythms of capitalist production. The media reflect the production system’s interchangeable time segments, such as the thirty-minute television show and the three-minute rock record. The fleeting images and abrupt changes of television socialize viewers into the discontinuity of the system. “Revolution” is co-opted in the changing of commodities, fashions, and lifestyles in a cycle that reflects the economic system. Individually, perpetual adaptation becomes the goal of comfort and status. The fast pace of consumer goods and advertising fuels the growth of new technologies and capital. This process culminates in a “tradition of the new.”

The cultural-commodity process allows minor changes in the hegemonic ideology and may even require it, Gitlin argues. Contradictions within the ideology make it flexible enough to bend with the times and make opposition profitable. Opposition movements may be directed into other channels, from politics into culture and lifestyles, for example. The media balance, absorb, marginalize, and exclude to manage opposition or turn it into a commodity. The media may intensify change, but as long as the political economy provides goods that most people define as essential, the hegemonic system will prevail.

In Gitlin’s analysis, ruling elites control media to spread a blanket of false consciousness over dominated classes, who are left with no room systemically for change. By contrast, Williams builds a hegemonic model that leaves more room for the emergence of a counterhegemony. Gitlin draws his concept of hegemony from Williams, who allows for the seeds of liberation and oppositional hegemony to grow. He identifies hegemony as a process rather than a system or structure. This approach to hegemony lets the process shape individual perceptions as a lived system of meanings and values that permeates all aspects of life. Hegemony defines reality for most people in the culture and sets the limit of reality beyond which it is difficult to think or move. However, as a complex process, hegemony does not passively exist as a form of dominance. It continually has to be renewed, defended, and adjusted. Because it is not absolute, hegemony is always resisted, challenged, and changed by counterhegemonies and alternative hegemonies that are produced by emergent social classes. A new class is always a source of emergent cultural practice, but as a subordinate class its practice is sporadic and partial. If the new class opposes the dominant social order, the new practice must survive attempts to co-opt it into the hegemonic ideology. As an example, Williams gives the emergence and successful incorporation, or co-optation, of the radical popular press in nineteenth-century England.

For Williams, the chink in the armor of the dominant ideology is that no hegemonic order includes or exhausts all human practice. Hegemonic ideology is selected from the full range of human practice, leaving the rest as the personal or private, natural or metaphysical. The danger of advanced capitalism is the media’s seizure of these reserved areas of human practice. The dominant culture now reaches much further with mass media. Williams calls for resistance to the seizure of these private, personal human practices. He provides no program for resistance other than the study of the ownership and control of the capitalist media tied with wider analyses of capitalist structures. Williams helped create the strong commitment of cultural studies to a Marxist position as the only position that offers the potential of creating a new society. He also advocated the cultural studies assumption that culture is ideological.

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Cultural Studies - Hegemony and Ideology