Timely attack on nonsense

Market Killing
March 16, 2001

When I first entered the lion's den of media and communications studies 15 years ago, as a professional broadcaster, I naively regarded myself as reasonably well informed about the media. I was aware of the work of Stuart Hall and his colleagues, and of others including Greg Philo and his colleagues at the University of Glasgow (this through their groundbreaking Bad News ). But I soon discovered that such accessible and relevant scholars were the exception, not the rule. I was soon grappling with the intricacies and obscurities of legions of film and cultural-studies theorists as a result of the sleepless nights they were causing my students. I tried to help but found I was encountering words that I had never seen before and that were not in dictionaries (only later did I discover that it was permissible to make up your own words if your ability in English was limited). But even when I had cracked the code, I often found myself saying, usually to myself but sometimes aloud: "Is that it?" It is little wonder that the media and cultural industries have been so disdainful of much of the output of media-studies scholars.

Philo's latest book, Market Killing (edited with Greg Miller of the University of Stirling), is an important one - but not a good one. How's that for an example of the sort of "postmodern nonsense" so effectively denounced by Philo and Miller? But, like parts of postmodern theory, there can be some sense behind what initially appears to be nonsense. A book can raise important issues and yet fail as a work of scholarship or, as in this case, a polemic.

Market Killing represents a major onslaught on the film and cultural studies tradition by two significant voices from the media-studies community. It will fuel a debate that has been rumbling on in the United Kingdom - if not sotto voce , at least for the most part politely coded - for several years. Articles and chapters addressing the media/cultural-studies divide have been appearing over the past few years, but this book represents the end of the polite conversation and the start of something altogether more vigorous - and three cheers for that.

Philo and Miller paint with a very broad brush. Put simply, their argument is that the triumph of Thatcherism, and the ascendancy of the free market, far from being resisted by academic social scientists, has been abetted by them. The "crime", they argue, was that, as cultural-studies theorists elevated the importance of the text, the audience and the "gaze", they succeeded in obscuring and undermining the central role of political and economic forces in shaping the media and its relationship with the audience. The obscurity was further deepened by the theorists' use of inaccessible and imprecise language; and also by the cultural relativism that implied that contemporary "brands" were as important as, if not superior to, enduring values.

But in taking on the postmodern belief that form should predominate over content, the editors would have been well advised to ensure that the style and form of their own contribution was not sacrificed on the altar of its content. Their book has an unusual and disconcerting structure.

The first half is a long trek across the bleak plains of Thatcherism, Majorism and Blairism, in which Philo and Miller seek to describe and analyse the ravages that, they claim, have been committed in the name of the free market, not just on the discipline of social science, but on society as a whole. This is far too big a subject for a single essay and so the writing lacks elegance and incisiveness. It is followed by a series of essays that, while purporting to be about social science, are heavily skewed in favour of media and cultural studies.

Most of the essays do, in some sense, support the broad thrust of the Philo-Miller argument, but I was much surprised to see Angela McRobbie among the contributors since her work, in fashion and feminism, places her in the mainstream of cultural studies. And, lo and behold, McRobbie's piece ends with the following: "The author would like to emphasise that her own views on media and cultural studies differ from those expressed by Greg Philo and David Miller." The editors imply that the origins of the cultural studies behemoth lie in the film-studies journals Screen and Screen Education of the 1970s. They (and I agree with them) cast grave doubts on the subsequent dependence of film studies on psychoanalytic theory as an intellectual underpinning: it led inevitably to the present intellectual cul-de-sac of film studies (though it looks as though psychoanalytic theory is now, more or less, safely out of harm's way for students).

The Miller and Philo view is a powerful critique of current orthodoxies. But in launching an attack on the obscurantism and plain irrelevance that has come to dominate media and cultural studies in many of our universities, the authors spatter some innocent victims and target some wholly worthwhile intellectual endeavours. The 1970s work of the centre for contemporary cultural studies at Birmingham University, under the leadership of Stuart Hall, is an example. While some of it lends itself to the sort of criticisms levelled by Philo and Miller, Hall's own work, and that of many of his students, in areas such as the "active audience", the relationship between journalists and their sources, and media stereotyping, do represent major breakthroughs in our understanding of the media-society interaction.

One of the contributors here, Phillip Schlesinger, makes a plea for social scientists in general, and media-studies scholars in particular, to be less dependent on the "ideologically governed state-wide system of (research) funding". It is ironic that Schlesinger should be making such a plea, for his work has always been located in the real world and written in intelligible, lucid prose - and hence highly fundable. On the other hand, a significant segment of contemporary media and cultural-studies research is of little relevance to this state-wide system. As a former university head of department, I recall with despair my attempts to persuade colleagues to consider undertaking research projects that either the Economic and Social Research Council or the media industries might want to fund. There seemed to exist an academic variant of Groucho Marx's famous comment that he would not join any club that would accept someone like him as a member - in other words: "Any research that attracts outside funding is, by definition, not worth doing."

And that is the paradox in the Philo-Miller argument. They share, one assumes, Schlesinger's wary view of the "ideological state funding system", but in practice they and their institutions are highly successful academic entrepreneurs. And the reasons are clear. They look for issues that are salient, they propose research projects that are robust and they produce findings that are comprehensible. They may not like the "free market", but they certainly know how to exploit it, which is an irony to please the postmodernists who are the targets of Market Killing .

Ivor Gaber is emeritus professor of broadcast journalism, Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is a partner in the media consultancy Clear and a freelance broadcast journalist.

Market Killing: What the Free Market Does and What Social Scientists Can Do About It

Editor - Greg Philo and David Miller
ISBN - 0 582 38236 X
Publisher - Longman
Price - £16.99
Pages - 262

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