From Cicero to Jerry Springer

Why Study the Media?
April 7, 2000

For media researchers, it is disconcerting that outsiders seem only to see two possibilities for media analysis: either the exaggerated claims of marginal thinkers (Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio) or the exhaustive study of a few popular media productions. That "common sense" view ignores what, in a sense, we all know: that the media are not marginal, but central, to our ordinary, everyday experience. If a book were needed to make that argument to a non-specialist readership (and surely it is), then Roger Silverstone, professor of media and communications at the London School of Economics, has succeeded in writing it.

He aims to show that the media are part (in Isaiah Berlin's phrase) of "the general texture of experience", and therefore that media sociology is "a humane as well as a human undertaking". From his wide range of references (not just to Berlin, but to Aristotle, Cicero, Kenneth Burke, Gaston Bachelard, George Steiner and many others) it is clear Silverstone is addressing the unconverted, not only existing media researchers. His key concept is "mediation": the media are not merely some texts of varying quality, but "a process of mediation" involving us all, which transforms private and public experience and the boundaries between them.

For two decades, Silverstone's writings (including The Message of Television and Television and Everyday Life ) have drawn on anthropology, poetics and other sources in a wide-ranging argument about the media's complex social impacts. There are chapters here on themes familiar from this earlier work: home, technology (a well-balanced discussion of the contradictory forces shaping electronic media) and community (an excellent section on The Jerry Springer Show as symbolic reversal).

With Silverstone's aim for a wider audience comes a stylistic ambition working at two levels. First, he writes short, jargon-free sentences that try to suggest complexity through slowly unfolding argument, not crabbed syntax. That will be welcome to many readers, although his rhetorical addresses to what "we" know about the media inevitably work better in some places than in others: as Raymond Williams found, the search for a common language carries risks.

At another level, the book's ambition lies in its over-arching argument, which moves from the relatively familiar (media as text or technology) to the boldly controversial. Indeed it is in the book's final chapters (particularly those on trust, memory and the "other") that its rhetorical risks reap the greatest rewards.

Lucidly and economically, Silverstone argues not only that memory is central to experience, but that the media are central to contemporary productions of memory: we cannot avoid, therefore, the challenge of studying what he calls "the media's public rhetoric of memory", a challenge he takes up himself in a moving discussion of how the Holocaust has recently been "remembered" in film and television. Then in a chapter on "the other", Silverstone draws on the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to raise a further uncomfortable question: do the media risk bringing us too close to what we do not understand, creating an illusory familiarity that undermines our respect for what is truly "other" and with it the roots of moral obligation?

If so, should we not also question the way the media continually address "us", as if that "us" represented some simple, unified community? This question can perhaps be turned back onto some of Silverstone's own positive claims about the media and community. But it is precisely a measure of the power of this compelling and haunting book that it opens the space for such debates on the implications of mediation.

Nick Couldry is lecturer in communications, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Why Study the Media?

Author - Roger Silverstone
ISBN - 0 7619 6453 3 and 6454 1
Publisher - Sage
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 176

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