A bracing walk round the agora

Emancipation, the media and modernity
November 3, 2000

Leszek Kolakowski once entitled an essay in response to his critics, "My correct views about everything". Nicholas Garnham is not answering criticism but he is addressing a wide constituency of fellow academics, in media studies particularly, and more generally across the many muddy fields of the human sciences, and he is doing so with a just-controlled exasperation at their effortful dimness, their use of argument to protect and advance their own sanctimony, their wanton adoption of moral positions they can only sustain by way of their privileges, even in these days of lousy pay and too much teaching.

This is a very important book. It marks one of those very few occasions when a British academic publishes a book stepping straight through the boundaries of subject areas that mark off your little garden from mine in order to walk with a proper freedom and insouciance across the spaces of the great agora and the public forum.

Indeed, the continued existence of that forum is Garnham's large topic. This is the first book to start from a recognition of the new kind of polity that has developed out of the past 40 years or so in which politics and the public media are mutually embedded and government impossible without the complementarity of both. Such a state of affairs makes media study, however badly it may sometimes be taught, an essential part of the education of the free citizen.

Garnham addresses this truth and not only admonishes with his inimitable hauteur the assorted fatheadedness and sanctimony of those many academics who ethnographise media and culture as the means of self-congratulation. He also goes on to document the impressive seriousness with which his own subject of communication and information studies, given so distinctive a lead by the nursery he devised for it at Westminster, has lent substance, dignity and essence to the academic study of politics elsewhere reduced to an arid defence of rights.

This documentation has, at times, its longueurs and its bottlenecks. There are sentences in this book which, along with the author's correct views, throw in everybody else's incorrect ones and do so with such clunkingness as to crush one's dutiful will to read. There is simply no need for the thickness of academic referencing that clogs up a third of this organised but unedited writing.

Happily, Garnham gets clear of the ponderous mud of his own reading. He dismisses, with Raymond Williams's help, the old, unkillable chestnut of technological determinism, or the view that Microsoft defines the future. He speaks the heresy that even Manuel Castells's mighty Weberian three-decker may be sailing off towards the icebergs and he turns to Jurgen Habermas's resurrection of that necessary ghost "public opinion" in order to see whether there is any chance that the twin engines of politics-in-media, which he takes to be capital and the consumers, may yet give rise to a rational and moral way of deciding how we ought to live.

His ancestors in this great venture are Kant and Hegel, the elders whom he seeks to superannuate Ernest Gellner, Pierre Bourdieu and Habermas. But Garnham is unusual in his field in being at home with economic theory, and this allows him to find resources for hopefulness (monopolies are not monoliths), and opportunity for creative production and critical thought where more ignorant theorists can only call down curses on the corporate caliphs or cheer themselves up by magicking Dallas into a fantasy of liberation.

He returns us to canonical themes: the necessity of art, the groundedness of judgement, the continued majesty as well as the feasibility of universal emancipation - what has come to be called "the Enlightenment project". In a long and stirring meditation on the crucial role of the intellectual, whether in or out of media employment, he puts the spine back in that creature. He rediscovers solidarity in the atomic mass of television audiences. He reaffirms the likelihood of a general human nature, loving, hating, fearful, whose rhythms are truly as well as beautifully caught in the mimesis of art. And, in a brave act of reconciliation, he joins hands with Kant on the side of moral autonomy and Hegel on the side of sociability in order to find in the private spaces of public communication a home for citizens where beauty, truth and freedom may still be able to fill their lungs and ours.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Sheffield.

Emancipation, the media and modernity

Author - Nicholas Garnham
ISBN - 0 19 874225 8/874224 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00 and £13.99
Pages - 206

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