Beyond Baywatch

Media, Culture and Morality
March 31, 1995

Older readers may remember a time - which lasted, say, from Colin Wilson's The Outsider to John Fowles's The Aristos - when it was quite the thing for up-and-coming young literary men to publish their moral credo. There was nothing quite like the chutzpah of the young English existentialist who cared little for the niceties of philosophical discrimination, favouring instead the machismo of the intellectual equivalent of the rugby tackle. In all this boyish scrimmaging much heat was generated, and a deal of short-lived publicity, but western philosophy trucked on much as it had done before.

Like so much else in English intellectual life these dramas are now as likely to take place within the shadow of the academy: the prose is perhaps a bit less exuberant, the tone a tad more mannered, but similar reflexes seem to be at work.

I am reminded of these earlier scraps when I read Keith Tester's book on the media. It appears that he is what I would call a second-generation student of cultural studies. By this I mean that he was formed in an intellectual world in which the critical aspirations of cultural studies were already coming to be institutionalised: that which claimed to be radical could all too easily appear to be the rather dull norm. Quite properly, in such a situation, those who pride themselves on an independent spirit turn against the status quo - in this instance, against cultural studies.

I now have a corner of my bookshelf which is devoted to authors who muster a bloke-ish, rough-and-tumble denunciation of cultural studies. Some of this comes from the old hands, who have never really felt happy since the milk-bar craze reached Goole; and some of it from more sprightly figures - who can talk about the Clash and Warhol - who hate the orthodoxy which confronts them. Keith Tester is one of these more sprightly characters.

Anyone who works in cultural studies will recognise quickly enough the downside of its wider acceptance. But in order to say anything useful about this predicament a modicum of care is required. It is too easy to knock cultural studies, and it has all been done before. One might think, from reading this book, that cultural studies across the land resembles nothing more than Dr Quintock's renowned Baywatch seminar at the University of Poppleton.

The denunciation which Tester provides is fierce. Cultural studies is "morally cretinous"; "it devastates any ability to talk in a meaningful way about the values of cultural goods or activities"; it produces a "roaring silence that surrounds such things as the racism and of course the sexism of some working-class cultures"; and so on. I somehow think that even in Poppleton a "roaring silence" is about the last thing to attend a Baywatch seminar: where has Keith Tester been? But it is also careless. Cultural studies - "it" - is abstracted into a single, impossible entity: no history, no dissent, no depth. No adequate critique can follow such abstraction.

But even in terms of its own argumentation there are some curiosities. Adorno is recruited in order to show the capacity of the media to manipulate people's lives. In Tester's view of things cultural studies is impatient with such theorisations, preferring to emphasise the pleasures brought about by the modern media: ergo, "it" - cultural studies - does not like Adorno. Via a reading of Voloshinov, Adorno is then subjected to a critique for not taking into account the ways in which viewers or listeners make sense of the broadcast messages in their own terms. Thus, he says, there is "a very fundamental logical flaw" in Adorno's theories. And yet by the end of the book Tester merrily introduces his own blindingly monologic interpretation of the media as a means of "anaesthetising" the people.

If the world really does work like this then the only hope lies in those who can break free. The tired reflexes of an English existentialism are retrieved - "cultural and moral values can only survive if they remain more or less entirely personal affairs". An extraordinary symmetry is in place here. For Tester turns the debate back precisely to the moment of that impasse which forced cultural studies - in all its tricky variants - into being in the first place.

Bill Schwarz is principal lecturer in cultural studies, University of East London.

Media, Culture and Morality

Author - Keith Tester
ISBN - 0 415 09835 1 and 09836 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £37.50 and £10.99
Pages - 138pp

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