Marxism and mass culture

The Media Student's Book. Second Edition - Media Communication - Studying Media - Image and Representation - More than words
May 28, 1999

Media studies has arrived at a crossroads, argues John Corner, introducing Studying Media , his collection of nine essays written over the past 20 years.

He identifies a series of dilemmas whose resolution will be crucial to the survival of the discipline. He dissects them so persuasively, and with such authority, that his observations make the ideal gauge for measuring the effectiveness of the four textbooks under review here.

Tracing the Marxist origins of British media studies, Corner regrets its pessimistic influence, causing too many modes of inquiry to be "more content to elaborate and illustrate general terms of condemnation than to develop further understanding". To break out of this paralysing tendency, media scholars must reassess the notion of ideology, says Corner.

James Watson agrees resoundingly. In his excellent introduction to Media Communication , he sees ideology as central to the study of media. "It provides the conceptual 'cement' which upholds the structures of the powerful, defends their interests and is instrumental in helping to preserve the status quo - the way things are; the way they are ordered."

Although in Image and Representation Nick Lacey, too, carefully defines ideology for his A-level readers, his own condemnatory analysis of media products betrays a prejudice that occasionally mars meaning in exactly the ways that concern Corner. When discussing film, for example, he tells us baldly: "Conventional cinema aims to entertain (and thereby generate profit for its makers). Counter cinema aims to make the audience think."

This is just the kind of generalisation that Corner deplores and that Gill Branston and Roy Stafford in The Media Student's Book meticulously avoid. Their analysis of Pulp Fiction , for example, incorporating its production history, demolishes any simplistic assumptions about the division between art and commercial movies, between big business and independent production.

More worryingly, given that Lacey's text is intended for beginners, some of his conclusions are just plain wrong. "Television companies," he assures us, "are mostly interested in numbers of viewers rather than what sorts of programme an audience would like to see."

Richard Dimbleby and Graeme Burton have a lot to say about audiences in their More Than Words , which is now, deservedly, in its third edition. Like Lacey, they are addressing the newcomer to their field. Their exposition is clear and uncluttered, but it is not unsophisticated.

Their explanation of how the media defines and addresses its audiences is knowledgeable and revealing. Like Corner, they make the distinction between mass communication and mass audiences, emphasising the active nature of audiences - how they select, respond, interpret, accept and reject.

Branston and Stafford also believe in respect for the audience. Indeed, they regard the contempt for popular culture intrinsic in certain theoretical approaches as evidence of a low esteem for audiences. Belying the neo-Marxist claims to radicalism and egalitarianism, they suggest, there is an old-fashioned snobbery at work.

Corner is equally unconvinced by the alternative model of contemporary research that, informed by a postmodern relativism, avoids questions of quality in favour of descriptive analysis.

Lacey is untroubled by such niceties. He derides to his young readers the "establishment" view that "minority, middle-class art is good and mass (popular) art is bad". There is no attempt to define "mass" art, so we are left with what Corner consistently warns us is the greatest danger: muddle, confusion and half-understood rhetoric.

Like Corner, Watson is aware of the dichotomy between puritanical disapproval of mass culture and the less judgemental, but possibly less rigorous, perspective of populism. His approach embraces both by insisting on the need to connect media research with media practice, to attempt "to understand the predicament of the journalist, photographer, film-maker and broadcaster".

It is here that Branston and Stafford make their most outstanding contribution. Their lively and comprehensive work effortlessly surfs the boundaries, setting out with cheerful erudition a formidable arsenal of theories and methodological approaches, then applying them to astutely selected case studies. I was particularly impressed by their recognition of sound as a burgeoning area for research, and by the pertinence of many of their examples.

Both More Than Words and The Media Student's Book benefit from the partnership between academic and journalist. Dimbleby and Burton offer to GCSE or A-level readers a straightforward but rigorous introduction to the study of human communication, explaining difficult concepts in an accessible style - despite the cutesy, teen-romance narrative case studies they employ. In their ambitious introductory textbook, to be recommended for any first-year undergraduate course, Branston and Stafford balance solid theoretical content with authoritative breakdowns of a wide range of media industries and career opportunities.

As a former journalist, Watson gives a sympathetic and intelligent account of the business of media production, without denigrating the task of the scholar. His, too, is a well-balanced response to Corner's call for a reconsideration of the relationship between media theory and practice, particularly given "the pull of vocationalism" within higher education.

Sally Feldman is dean, School of Media, London College of Printing, and former editor, BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour .

The Media Student's Book. Second Edition

Author - Gill Branston, Roy Stafford
ISBN - 0 415 17307 8 and 17308 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
Pages - 416

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