Critical Studies in
Harms, John B; Dickens, David
Harms and Dickens identify the major insights
concerning contemporary communication and
media practices associated with the postmodern
condition. By failing to situate theoretically their
descriptions of contemporary media phenomena
and practices in terms of the historical and
political-economic contexts in which they are
inscribed, media studies are a symptom of the very
postmodern culture they seek to analyze.
Copyright Speech Communication Association Sep 1996
-There is much current discussion about
"the postmodern condition"-a sea change in
the configuration of society that has brought
about a dramatic new set of cultural forms
and social experiences. At the center of the
postmodern condition are the issues of
communication and the nature of
signification and language. Here, we identify
the major insights concerning contemporary
communication and media practices
associated with the postmodern condition
and evaluate their contribution to critical
CURRENTLY there is much discussion about "the
postmodern condition"-a sea change in the
configuration of society that has brought about a
dramatic new set of cultural forms and social
experiences. In response to this new situation,
scholars from a variety of disciplines have
attempted to develop novel theoretical and
methodological strategies. Postmodernism is, of
course, a highly contested construct whose very
nature according to its proponents makes it
impossible to define in a unified, monolithic fashion.
There is, however, an identifiable set of
assumptions and orientations comprising a
"postmodern sensibility" that guide analyses of the
new sociocultural conditions. At the fulcrum of the
postmodern condition and postmodern sensibility
are the issues of communication and the nature of
language and signification.
Here we identify the major insights concerning
contemporary communication and media practices
associated with the postmodern condition and
sensibility and evaluate their contribution to media
studies. In particular, we argue that by failing to
situate theoretically their descriptions of
contemporary media phenomena and practices in
terms of the historical and politicaleconomic
contexts in which they are inscribed, post.modern
media studies are themselves a symptom of the
very postmodern culture they seek to analyze. In
their place we align ourselves with an emerging
critical media studies approach (see Goldman and
Papson, 1991, 1994;Jhally, 1991; Kellner 1992a,
1992b, 1995; McGuigan, 1992; Tetzlaff, 1991)
that attempts to provide a more balanced,
comprehensive perspective by situating
contemporary media practices both structurally and
Mass Media and the Postmodern Condition
The postmodern condition refers to dramatic
changes in both the material and the cultural
dimensions of social life. Although most attention
has been focused on new cultural forms and
experiences, these changes are linked by some to
changes in material or political economic
conditions. For Jameson (1991), postmodernity is
"the cultural logic of late capitalism," and for Lash
and Urry (1987) postmodern culture is the result of
"disorganized capitalism." Similarly, Harvey (1989)
views "the condition of postmodernity" as a result
of a "post-fordist" restructuring of the economy into
a regime of "flexible accumulation" characterized by
global markets integrated by high speed
communication, information, and transportation
technologies. Common to all these accounts is the
idea that new communications technologies are at
the heart of the postmodern condition where
information and knowledge are the new organizing
principles of society.
In this situation, the media play an enormous role in
promoting novel varieties of knowledge and
information. Indeed, postmodern culture is
characterized first and foremost by massmediated
experiences and new cultural forms of
representation. It is a "society of the spectacle"
(Debord 1970) and "pseudo-events" (Boorstin,
1962) a cultural landscape saturated with
"simulacra" and "hyperreal" images (Baudrillard,
1983a, 1988) that communicate in a non-linear,
nondiscursive, "figural" (Lash, 1988) fashion, and
that stimulate sensuality, desire, and bodily
intensities (Lyotard, 1984). In addition, the
increasingly sophisticated media appropriate images
from a diversity of social and historical contexts,
generating a "recombinant culture" (Gitlin, 1983)
characterized by pastiche, collage, juxtaposition,
and kitsch (Jameson, 1991). Here surface
appearance becomes paramount and leads to the
"aestheticization of everyday life" (Featherstone,
1991) where people play with styles,
communication forms, and "language games"
In a postmodern culture saturated with a plurality of
images plundered from diverse cultural and
historical contexts, the social foundations for the
self and subjectivity are radically altered or
"decentered" (Lash and Urry, 1987). The constant
experience of juxtaposed images from diverse
contexts weakens their symbolic meaning, leading
individuals to respond on a more sensual level.
Rational interpretive meaning is displaced by an
aesthetic of desire and sensuality rooted in bodily
intensities. As the boundary between the subjective
self and the objective world is effaced, other
boundaries in the cultural realm are similarly
"imploded" (Baudrillard, 1983b) or
"dedifferentiated" (Lash, 1988), such as those
between: high and popular culture, news and
entertainment (infotainment), advertising and
editorials (advertorials), and image and reality
At the same time, an ever expanding global media
system incorporates an unprecedented diversity of
local cultures, voices, perspectives and interests,
albeit in a highly selective fashion that greatly
restricts the quantity and quality of access to these
different ways of life. Postmodern culture is thus
characterized by a contradictory mix of similarities
The Postmodern Sensibility
The works of Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault,
Deleuze, Guattari and Lyotard, to name only the
most visible scholars, provide the theoretical
articulation for the "postmodern sensibility." Here
we want to sketch the broad outlines of this
sensibility to illustrate the ways in which it informs
postmodern analyses of contemporary media and
Based on poststructuralist and deconstructionist
critiques, the postmodern sensibility is highly critical
of "positive" (e.g., scientific) forms of knowledge
that claim to represent the world objectively.
Rejecting all essentialist and foundationalist claims
to truth, the new sensibility takes a "linguistic turn,"
developing new approaches that are grounded in
the postmodern view of language and
communication. This perspective claims that
thought and experience are determined by codes,
discourses, formats, models and so on, that are
historically and culturally specific. Knowledge,
instead of being an accurate representation of an
external and objective order, is seen as the result of
experiencing the world in terms of a particular
cultural code or model. Thus, all knowledge is the
result of a structuring discourse (Foucault's
"episteme"), itself derived from just one of many
possible perspectives. This historically relative
epistemological position makes the postmodern
sensibility critical of all totalizing theories and
metanarratives for terrorizing and suppressing the
plurality of voices, perspectives and local readings.
Since there will always be differences founded on
the variety of discourses, the postmodern sensibility
recognizes and celebrates difference, subaltern
voices, and local outlooks. Given the view that
experience and action are constituted by various
codes and discourses, the postmodern sensibility
pays close attention to the variety of subjectivities
that can be generated by playing different language
games (Lyotard, 1984). Subjectivity and selves,
according to this view, are "decentered" by the
plurality of constituting discourses (Foucault,
1972), and postmodern individuals are advised to
embrace "nomadic subjectivity" and revel in a
"schizoid" frame of experience that is sensually felt
rather than rationally interpreted (Deleuze and
As the "post" in postmodern indicates, this
sensibility is based on the claim that the Modern era
is over. The social totality and hierarchial structuring
of modernity have been fragmented as social
boundaries implode, creating a rhizome-like surface
that is without depth or roots. As society becomes
decentered and fragmented, the modern idea that
society and selves develop purposively toward
certain goals (such as freedom, equality, and
brotherhood) gives way to a postmodern view that
selves and the social are indeterminate, endless
processes of becoming with no overall unity or
coherence. Thus the postmodern sensibility focuses
on immanence rather than transcendence, and shifts
emphasis from purposeful politics to playful gaming.
Whatever it merits, one thing seems certain about
the postmodern sensibility: It today occupies a
central place in analyses of current communication
and media practices, particularly under the rubric of
"cultural studies" (see Dickens, 1996). Numerous
scholars from diverse disciplines have examined a
variety of media and communication practices via
the gaze of the postmodern sensibility. Most
famously, Baudrillard has written extensively about
the social consequences of a "hyperreal" society
saturated with mass media images. Poster (1990)
has analyzed how various electronic media or
"modes of information" alter the way humans
perceive themselves and reality. In sociology,
Altheide and Snow (1991) have examined how the
formats of contemporary communication constitute
the "media worlds" of journalism, politics, sports,
In addition to these general analyses of
communication and media practices, other scholars
have focused on specific media practices such as
MTV (Kaplan, 1987; Aufderheide, 1986;
Grossberg, 1989), advertising (Gitlin, 1986b;
Poster, 1990), television (Fiske, 1986, 1991;
Miller, 1986; Gitlin 1986a), news (Altheide and
Snow, 1991; Hallin, 1986), soap operas (Rosen,
1986), and children's television (Englehardt, 1986),
to name just a few. A major contribution of the
postmodern sensibility here is its sensitivity to the
overall configuration that shapes the tremendous
variety of contemporary media practices. In what
follows we will present the main themes and ideas
that run through postmodern communications
More than any other scholar working from a
postmodern perspective, Baudrillard has been
centrally concerned with the consequences for a
society saturated with signs and images. In fact,
Baudrillard's work is foundational for postmodern
analyses of media and communication practices,
and many of his terms and themes inform the work
of other media scholars. His work is therefore a
logical starting point for examining how the
postmodern sensibility views contemporary
Baudrillard's (1981) initial inquiry into
contemporary communication practices was guided
by a fusion of Marxian political economy with
Saussurian semiotics. According to Baudrillard,
capitalist dynamics generated a new facet of the
commodity, "sign-value," that accompanies its
use-value and exchange-value. Sign-value involves
the symbolic meaning of a commodity that is used
to locate individuals in a social hierarchy, and is
constituted by the appearance and image of the
commodity. For Baudrillard, the proliferation of
commodities leads to a proliferation of signvalues
where the cultural landscape is altered as society
becomes saturated with images and signs. The need
to create sign-value for commodities engenders a
new concern with signification techniques and an
expansion and experimentation with various media
and communication technologies. For Baudrillard,
and most other postmodern thinkers, this massive
development of technologies of representation is a
key feature distinguishing postmodernity from
According to Baudrillard (1983a), the postmodern
era is dominated by simulations and simulacra that
are such exact reproductions that it is difficult to
discern the difference between the real and its
copy. These simulations are made possible by
models or codes that facilitate the mechanical
reproduction and proliferation of simulacra.
Moreover, the ability to generate codes that permit
exact simulation leads to another postmodern
condition, "hyperreality," where simulations appear
more "real" than what they purport to represent.
The massive proliferation of hyperreal simulations
culminates in yet another postmodern phenomenon,
implosion, referring to an erosion of boundaries and
distinctions within culture that were previously
differentiated by modernity (Baudrillard, 1983b).
For example, postmodern hyperreal images and
simulations blur the distinctions between the real
and the unreal, reality and appearance, and
between signifier and signified.
The Postmodern Mediascape
As scholars gaze out at the current media
landscape, the postmodern sensibility brings a
number of features of contemporary communication
practices into sharp focus. One is the phenomenon
of mass media implosion and the erosion of
distinctions or boundaries among different forms of
communications. For example, Aufderheide (1986)
and Kaplan (1987) both note how it is becoming
increasingly difficult to distinguish music videos from
advertisements on MTV. Similarly, Gitlin (1986a)
notes the blurring of different television genres,
Englehardt (1986) the effacement of distinctions
between advertisements and children's
programming, and Hallin (1986) and Altheide and
Snow (1991) how the news is becoming more and
more like entertainment. New terms like
"advertorial," "magalogue," "infomercial," and
"infotainment" (Miller, 1986) identify these
emerging forms of imploded communication
The recognition of media implosion has caused
many postmodern analysts to question the practices
of mass communication, especially in terms of the
relationship between an event and its representation
in the media. These researchers note that the
proliferation of new sophisticated media
technologies makes it difficult, if not impossible, to
discern the difference between image and reality
(Grossberg, 1989, p. 263). Media events like "The
People's Court, Professional Wrestling, and
simulated news and crime shows are all evidence
that contemporary media make it increasingly
feasible to `fake it' " and "substitute signs of the real
for the real" (Sorkin, 1986, p. 164).
Moreover, postmodernists point out, many media
images are "hyperreal," that is, more real than real,
and have no referent in reality. Advertisements are
a good example of hyperreal communications. In
many ads, the images of people and products are
hyperreal, the result of carefully selecting social
contexts, settings, and models, then manipulating
lighting and camera angles, and finally retouching
the photographic representation (Ewen 1988, pp.
8590). As Poster (1990 p. 63) explains, "A
communication is enacted. . . which is not found in
any context of daily life. An unreal is made real....
The end result is a sensational image that is more
real than real and that has no referent in reality."
With the advent of hyperreal media images, the
notion of representation itself becomes problematic.
From the postmodern perspective, contemporary
media don't represent reality; they constitute it
(Angus, 1989). Altheide and Snow (1991), for
example, contend that we are entering the
"postjournalism era" where "social institutions that
are not thought of as `media arenas'-such as
religion, sports, politics, the family-adopt the logic
of media and are thereby transformed into
second-order media institutions." To illustrate this
idea, Altheide and Snow describe how sporting
events like football games are structured around
TV timeouts, and how political events like press
conferences are similarly structured by the needs of
the media. The conclusion they draw is that "the
mass media . . . are the most powerful entities in the
world today" (1991 p. 3), because their logic and
formats definitively shape major events and social
We have seen that according to the postmodern
sensibility, contemporary media communicate
through "nonreferential structures" (Poster, 1990, p.
57) and exhibit a new "nonrepresentational mode of
signification" (Poster, 1990, p. 62-3). But, if a
mediated image doesn't refer to, or represent
something, this raises the question as to what
constitutes communication. In order to answer this
question, postmodern media analysts have taken a
McLuhanist turn and focused on the nature of
media technology as well as the techniques, codes,
models, formats, logics, and discourses used to
The key to postmodern media is their ability to
mechanically (re)produce an image or
representation of an original. As we have seen, this
ability has become so sophisticated that the
distinction between the original and its copy has
imploded. The original has lost its "aura" of
authenticity and subjectivity with the development
of new mechanical techniques and technologies. As
key constitutive elements of postmodern media,
new communications technologies and techniques
take on a life of their own and function
autonomously. In semiotic terms,
Signs are unhinged from their origin in the
life-practice of social subjects. Signs 'float' through
their circulation in social life without reference to the
meaningful practices that produce them. As a
consequence of this, signs do not refer to a realm of
social practice outside of the sphere of signs, but
become a 'code'; that is to say, a sign is related to a
system of signs.... In this situation the specific
character of the sign is arbitrary or conventional,
and its meaning derives from its difference from
other signs within the code. Thus, each sign calls
forth the code as a whole" (Angus, 1989, p. 337).
In more concrete contexts, Kaplan (1987)
describes how the form of the "TV apparatus" as a
continuous 24hour series of four-minute videos
shapes the various meanings of the videos and
positions the audience. Similarly, Grossberg
(1983-4) discusses the "rock and roll apparatus" as
a form that structures the experience of rock music,
and Poster (1990, p. 8) addresses "the basic
question of the configuration of information," what
he calls "the wrapping of language," which "is an
analytically autonomous realm of experience."
Altheide and Snow (1991) follow this emphasis
and discuss "media logics" and "media formats" as
constituting media messages. As for McLuhan, the
medium is the message, and form displaces content
as the significant aspect of communication.
So, contemporary communication practices are
nonrepresentational, nonreferential, and depend on
formats and codes for their substance. And since
they no longer refer or represent a separate,
external domain, postmodernists see current media
practices as "self-reflexive" and "self-referential"that
is, as constantly recycling images that were
previously constituted and communicated by the
media. This selfreferential and self-reflexive aspect
is especially pronounced in music videos (see
Kaplan, 1987; Grossberg, 19834). For example,
Madonna's "Material Girl" video is based on a
Marilyn Monroe song and dance sequence,
"Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," in the film
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Kaplan, 1987, p. 117),
and David Lee Roth's 1985 hit video, "California
Girls," is one of many "covers" found in the rock
and roll industry, in this case a cover of a Beach
Boys song of the 1960s. This self-referentiality is
also common in advertising, e.g., Ellis McDaniels's
blues classic, "Who Do You Love" ("covered" by
Quicksilver Messenger Service in the late 1960's
and more recently by George Thorogood),
provides the energizing music background for a
Fram automotive ad. While people have
reproduced or "covered" cultural texts for
centuries, what is new and postmodern about these
contemporary media practices is that new
technologies and techniques permit cultural texts to
be reproduced and recombined in different
contexts, e.g., a classic rock song is transformed
into an ad for an automotive oil filter. Thus, the
"meaning" of the "original" has been transformed.
Indeed, within the postmodern condition and
sensibility, the very categories of "meaning" and
"original" are problematized.
Similarly, the recent concern in the media with
media violence is evidence of the same
phenomenon, in this case the media reporting on
itself. Thus, in the postmodern condition,
contemporary media pull images from all kinds of
sources, cinema, popular music, advertising,
politics, etc. and endlessly recirculate and
recombine them as mechanically reproduced
Another dimension of postmodern self-referentiality
involves recording practices that foreground the
construction of signification (Fiske, 1986, p. 77).
Thus it is a common contemporary media practice
to picture the filming and production of a video, or
to "see the video we are watching being played on
a TV monitor within the frame" (Kaplan, 1987, p.
34). These practices call attention to the techniques
and technologies used to construct an image,
deconstructing the entire modernist, realist agenda
which attempted to represent phenomena
objectively and render signifying techniques as
transparent as possible.
Often accompanying this foregrounding of signifying
procedures is a playful, ironic attitude that further
emphasizes the nonrepresentational nature of the
communication. This mocking selfreferentiality is
evident in an MTV ad that satirizes critics' claims
that MTV is bad for you (Kaplan, 1987, p. 18),
and in Levi's "Knowing Wink" ad where the male
modeling the jeans winks at the camera or
audience, thereby signifying that the spot was just
an ad and not to be taken seriously (Goldman and
The ability to mechanically reproduce, store,
retrieve, and communicate information and images
from a plurality of sources and contexts contributes
to a particular style that is characteristic of
postmodern culture-pastiche (Jameson, 1991).
Postmodern media communicate a hodgepodge of
random images that are not organized so as to say
anything or take a position. There is no narrative
logic inherent in the presentation of images; they are
just randomly recombined as mechanical
permutations. For Gitlin (1983 p. 80), television is
the ultimate recombinatory form, "juxtaposing
Holocaust to a soap commercial, news of cluster
bombs in Lebanon to an appeal for hemorrhoid
medicine, converting each bit into a sequel to the
last and a prologue to the next, composing
unintended and hitherto unimagined wholes out of
parts and proposing that all images are related to all
From the postmodern vantage, contemporary
society as a whole is increasingly a spectacle
saturated with massmediated information and
images that are not organized to "mean" anything in
particular. The rapidly expanding number, diversity,
and pace of these communications overwhelms the
individual's ability to interpret their meaning
rationally, resulting, according to some, in a more
sensuous mode of reception rooted in the domain
of desire. Postmodern media use nondiscursive,
figural strategies of communication that emphasize
the visual over the verbal and the emotional over
the rational. Thus postmodern media studies
emphasize the "affectivity" of massmediated
communications and their ability to generate bodily
intensities and "organize structures of desire"
(Grossberg, 1983-4, p. 104).
Audiences and Subjectivity
We have seen that from the postmodern
perspective contemporary society is saturated with
communications, information, and mass-mediated
images. We now wish to consider how
postmodernists view the reception of these
communications by audiences, and how they
influence subjectivity. Here there is less consensus
within postmodern media studies than there is
concerning the overall nature of contemporary
communications. Nonetheless, it is still possible to
summarize how postmodernists view audiences and
According to Baudrillard, the tremendous
proliferation of information and images generates a
"shortcircuiting in advance [of] any possibility of
communication" and "implodes" the meaning of
messages (1980, p. 139). This "inflation of
information" leads to a "dwindling of meaning"
where audiences respond, not to the meaning of the
message or its connection to an external referent,
but to its fascinating immanent code and
self-referential structure. Moreover, for Baudrillard
this postmodern process of implosion extends to
the social nature of the audience and transforms it
into a "mass," a "black hole," a "spongy referent"
(1983b) that unreflectively absorbs the meaningless
messages spewn from the mass media.
Paradoxically, this "atomized, nuclearized,
molecularized mass" is also the locus of power:
"The truth is, however, that the masses do not have
a history to write, either past or future, they have no
potential energy to release or desires to fulfill: Their
power is completely present, in the here and now.
It is the power of their silence" (1983b p. 145).
John Fiske, another influential figure in postmodern
media studies, has a different, more active view of
the audience. He claims that contemporary
communications are characterized by polysemy or
multiple meanings (1987, pp. 16-17), and that
audiences actively construct meanings from media
images that empower them within their particular
social contexts. For Fiske and other postmodern
media analysts, contemporary communications and
images are "texts" that function as "do-ityourself
meaning kits" (1986, p. 74) or "resource banks
from which meanings can be made and remade"
(1991, p. 64). For postmodernists like Fiske, the
meaning of a communication is determined by the
"popular productivity" of sociohistorically
"positioned social agents" (Fiske 1991, p. 64), not
the intentions of authors or the semiological
structure of the message.
In general, Fiske and other postmodernists shift
emphasis away from the "encoding" and semiotic
construction of images towards audience reception
and "decoding" within specific social contexts.
Moreover, their perspective views audiences as
capable of bypassing or resisting the encoded,
intended meanings of communications. In
opposition to more conventional critical media
studies, postmodernists claim that audiences cannot
be manipulated or duped by the media. There are
no ideological effects because audiences respond,
actively, to sensual signifiers, not reasonable
signifieds. In this way, audiences make their own
meanings and use the media to construct "a cultural
politics of resistance" (Chen, 1986).
The active audience thesis fits quite well with
postmodern theory's emphasis on plurality,
difference, and the power of the subaltern. The
fragmentation of postmodern society creates
numerous groups and "social positions" that
determine meaning. Media power rests with diverse
audiences, not media barons who own, control and
construct mediated messages.
However, while active audiences may produce
local meanings from polysemic communications,
individual selves of postmodernity are becoming
"decentered" by the proliferation of mass-mediated
experiences: "The technological achievements of the
past century have produced a radical shift in our
exposure to each other. As a result of the advances
in radio, telephone, transportation, television,
satellite transmission, computers, and more, we are
exposed to an enormous barrage of social
stimulation" (Gergen, 1991, p. xi). Because selves
are viewed as "terminals of multiple networks"
(Baudrillard, 1983a), "always located at `nodal
points' of specific communication circuits" (Lyotard,
1984, p. 15), postmodernists view the expansion of
communication technologies as decentering the self
and eroding autonomous subjectivity.Just as the
media do not represent reality but constitute it, so
"subjects are constituted in acts and structures of
communication" (Poster, 1990, p. 11).
For postmodernists like Deleuze and Guattari
(1983, 1987), the media play a central role in
changing humans from "arboreal" beings rooted in
time and space to "rhizomic" nomads wandering
through global communication networks. From their
perspective the postmodern condition is
characterized by a decentered subjectivity that is
dispersed in time and space and responds to the
"sensuality of surfaces" (Fiske, 1991, p. 59). In
postmodern semiotical terms, decentering media
practices "free" signifiers from the totalizing violence
generated by logocentric narratives that constrain
and limit meaning: "The decentering of the
spectator/ reader then has a radical effect in
releasing him/her from predictable, confining
signifieds" (Kaplan, 1987, p. 147). Here we see
that active audiences and polysemic
communications combine to subvert reason and
representational narratives, and thus open the way
for decentered subjects to play with signifiers and
for "disparate discourses to co-mingle" (Gergen,
1991, p. 257).
The postmodern view of decentered selves
saturated by mass-media communications is
radically opposed to modern expressivist and
humanist views of subjectivity, stressing that selves
are constituted by various "language games" instead
of using language to express and communicate as
autonomous subjects. Poster (1990), for example,
points out that in "the mode of information," texts
like credit card databases have no authorial center,
and that computer writing decenters the author.
Thus, the locus of liberating potential lay not with
human subjects, but with the structure and form of
media and communication practices. Autonomous
selves give way to "relational selves" (Gergen,
1991). A glaring paradox exists here, however,
between subjectless liberation and the notion of
active audiences with little direction or control over
The decentering of selves and the plurality of
perspectives opened up by postmodern
communications generates what Gergen (1991, p.
228) calls "postmodern consciousness:" "With the
spread of postmodern consciousness, we see the
demise of personal definition, reason, authority,
commitment, trust, the sense of authenticity,
sincerity, belief in leaders, depth of feeling, and faith
in progress. In their stead, an open slate emerges
on which persons may inscribe, erase, and rewrite
their identities as the ever-shifting, ever-expanding,
and incoherent network of relationships invites or
permits." Grossberg (1989 p. 264) calls this a
"cultural logic of `authentic inauthenticity" involving
a "hip attitude" and "ironic nihilism" that is "the only
reasonable relation to a reality which is no longer
reasonable." As Grossberg explains,
Within the logic of authentic inauthenticity, one
celebrates a difference knowing that its status
depends on nothing but its being celebrated. In the
end, only one's affective commitment, however
temporary or superficial, matters. Authentic
inauthenticity refuses to locate identity and
difference outside the fact of temporary affective
commitments. If every identity is equally fake, a
pose that one takes on, then authentic inauthenticity
celebrates the possibilities of poses without denying
that that is all they are. It is a logic which allows one
to seek satisfactions knowing that one can never be
satisfied, and that any particular pleasure is likely, in
the end, to be disappointing (1989 p. 265).
This attitude corresponds quite nicely with the
self-mocking, self-referential content of postmodern
We have seen how postmodernists view
contemporary media and communication practices
and how they understand these practices as altering
subjectivity. Throughout the postmodern
perspective is the idea that these new media
practices and their accompanying effects on
subjectivity liberate contemporary individuals from
totalizing metanarratives and their authority, and
thus open the way for a plurality of perspectives
and beings. In short, the postmodern perspective
celebrates and valorizes the subjectivity and media
practices that it analyzes because they subvert
modern forms of domination. We question this
celebratory stance, and see many postmodern
media studies as exhibiting an unfounded optimism
concerning contemporary communication and
media practices. While postmodern media studies
offer important descriptive insights into the nature of
contemporary communications, these insights have
not been adequately integrated theoretically. Thus,
while Baudrillard's "fatal strategy" of passive
resistance in one sense contrasts sharply with
Fiske's neo-populist (McGuigan, 1992 ac) active
audience thesis, both exhibit a common problem in
postmodern media studies that Jameson (1991)
calls a "lack of historicity": they fail to situate their
analyses dialectically within their larger historical
and structural contexts (see Goldman and Papson,
1994). In both cases, important aspects of
contemporary mass media practices are ignored
that obscure how these practices can be, and are,
used to reproduce a repressive social system. In
what follows we will specify in greater detail the
limitations of the postmodern approach to
contemporary media and communication practices
and outline a more critical alternative.
One major limitation of the postmodern approach
involves its linguistic idealism and excessive
culturalism. By focusing on communications apart
from the social context of their production,
postmodernists ignore the powerful material forces
that shape the communication process. In rejecting
critical perspectives that have informed media
analyses since the Frankfurt School,
postmodernists have lost sight of the political
economic dimensions of communications. Poster
(1990 p. 30) for example, argues "that the
action-based theories of Marx and Weber have
only limited ability to grasp the linguistic
mechanisms that are at the heart of the mode of
information." Fair enough to a degree, but he then
goes on to suggest that the most important media
effects are to be found outside the logic of capital
and that "the principle of private property is
threatened in the domain of information" (1990 p.
Postmodernists are correct to point out that
Marxian media analyses (Horkheimer and Adorno,
1972; Smythe, 1977; Garnham, 1979) have
focused too narrowly on production practices and
other political-economic aspects, neglecting how
audiences actually receive and use communications.
But, they have gone too far in suggesting this
dimension is now irrelevant. In short, their
"mediacentric" (Altheide and Snow, 1991, p. 11)
perspective is no less one-sided than the Marxist
one they reject. The new information technologies
that are at the heart of the postmodern condition
cost money, have developed within the logic of
capital, and are produced by corporations
interested primarily in accumulating capital.
Another problem with postmodern media studies
concerns their focus on the form and structure of
communications at the expense of media content.
Taken to an extreme, this is recycled McLuhanism:
the medium is the message. For example, Altheide
and Snow (1991, p. 245) announce, "We treat the
medium or media as a pervasive and encompassing
social form that must be analyzed in terms of its
properties of form more so than its content." This
almost exclusive focus on form reinforces the
postmodernists's politicaleconomic blindspot. It is
little concerned with the origins and intentions of
contemporary media practices, and more interested
in the abstract nature of communication and its
reception by active audiences. For Altheide and
Snow (1991 p. 8), "what the controlling agents of
media intend to accomplish is not the critical factor
in understanding media. Rather, we see mass
communication as an interactive process between
media communication as interpreted and acted on
Again, postmodernists have provided important
insights into the formats, codes, and structures of
contemporary mass-media and communications.
But communication involves much more than just
form. The content, and the intentions and interests
behind it, are no less important elements of the
communication process. The bracketing out of
these elements fits nicely with postmodernism's
notorious antihumanism that emphasizes how
"subjects" are constituted by the media and its
forms and formats. Unfortunately, this amounts to
yet another version of technological determinism.
It's the media technology which is responsible for
communications. But, again, where did the
technology come from? Who developed these
crucial formats and codes? Whose interests are
served by them? These are important issues that lie
outside the postmodern gaze.
The spurious combination of linguistic idealism and
technological determinism leaves postmodern
media studies with no basis for critically evaluating
contemporary media and communication practices.
Altheide and Snow (1991, pp. 251-2) are
symptoms of this crucial weakness:
"We were wrong in 1979 about the possibility of
altering media culture. It is us, and this is how we
live.... We do not advocate changing the
'medianess' of our social order, and we could not
possibly hope to do so even if we dishonestly
claimed to have a better alternative . . we urge our
readers to reject all claims by others-and us-that
focus only on the inappropriateness of media
culture for our lives. It just is, that's all."
Their statement implies that all media discourses,
formats, codes, and practices are to be accepted,
and none is any better than any others. For Poster
(1990, p. 87), "The emergent forms of domination
in the mode of information are not acts at all but
language formations, complex manipulations of
symbols." Here at least there is some recognition
that postmodern media may be "forms of
domination," but because they "are not acts at all" it
is difficult, if not impossible, to connect them to any
constellation of power and interests. The media,
like the weather, must be accepted and adapted to,
not criticized or evaluated for their role in liberation
In fact, when the issue of liberation is addressed
within the postmodern perspective, it is most often
only at an extremely rarefied level, as an abstract
metatheoretical critique of totalizing narratives (see
Foucault, 1977; Lyotard, 1984). This exceedingly
formalistic feature of the postmodern critique is
noticeably at odds with its often grandiose political
claims (Best and Kellner, 1991; McGowan, 1991).
There is also precious little in the way of concrete
discussion in the postmodern critique of the
relationship between contemporary media practices
and poverty, crime, unemployment, disease or
other urgent social problems. As we shall argue
below, to address issues such as these requires a
more comprehensive approach that situates
contemporary media practices within the broader
historical and political economic contexts after the
fashion of the Birmingham School's early
subcultural studies (see Hall and Jefferson, 1976).
We have seen that for postmodernists
contemporary media and communication practices
decenter subjectivity and authority to clear the way
for new opportunities to experience multiple
discourses and identities and play with language
games. Indeed, most postmodernists celebrate the
fragmentation and polysemy of communications and
the ability of audiences to actively create and play
with meanings. What is grossly undertheorized in
this perspective are the social conditions and
foundations for creating meaning and
communication. As Mead (1934) explained, social
action and communication involve the exchange of
symbols with shared meanings. Moreover, the
meaning of a symbol is not fixed, but tied to a
community and its shared experiences, as is the
ability of selves to actively interpret it. The key
issue here is that by decentering selves and
fragmenting communities, postmodern media
practices erode the foundations that support active
selves and render audiences capable of generating
their own meanings. Insufficient attention to the
social context of communication here results in a
curious paradox for the postmodern perspective.
On the one hand it is vehement in its antihumanist
assertion that autonomous subjectivity has given
way to decentered selves. On the other, it posits an
autonomous, active audience.
In this account of audience reception, the
postmodern perspective sidesteps the social and
makes appeals to the sensuous realm of desire.
That is, it views audiences as responding to
mediated messages not in terms of socially acquired
cognitive abilities, but on the non-rational basis of
affective desire. Media images and other
communications are not rationally interpreted for
their meaning, but received somatically as bodily
intensities. In this view, the totalizing terror of
modern, rationalist narratives and interpretive
schemes is rebuffed so that repressed and
dominated desire can be liberated, allowing
individuals to experience new emotional intensities.
Deleuze and Guattari (1983), for example, speak
of a schizoid framework that permits a-signification,
and Fiske (1986) asserts that MTV viewers
actively resist ideology by privileging sensation over
sense, and the signifier over the signified. This
strategy is fundamentally flawed, however, as
sensuality and desire are themselves shaped by
social experiences, not by any sort of "natural,"
uncorrupted or benign base. Also, the idea that
unsublimated desire can provide a foundation for
the coexistence of a plurality of groups and
perspectives is highly suspect. Within most
postmodern analyses there is surprisingly little
attention focused on what will provide coherence
among these various groups. Moreover, the notion
that desire and sensuality provide an organizing
structure for actively creating meanings seems to
contradict postmodernism's epistemological stance
that rejects any sort of foundationalism or
essentialism. In the final analysis, the postmodern
appeal to desire is a poorly developed substitute
for the difficult task of identifying those social forces
that might sustain communities and active audiences
within the fragmenting conditions of postmodernity.
In postmodern media studies the claim that
contemporary media practices undermine modern
forces of domination and empower individuals to
resist ideological manipulation from above occupies
a central place. In his analysis of MTV (the
postmodern media form par excellence), Grossberg
( 1989 p. 264) claims that it empowers youth to
control their moods and affective states, while
Fiske (1986 p. 75) asserts that MTV's sensational
excitement provides resistance to ideology. More
boldly, Chen (1986) argues that its "postmodern
semiosis" provides a "cultural politics of resistance."
The common idea here is that the affective
reception of MTV is a "strategic intervention of the
masses" that "is the only possibility to destroy the
capitalist simulation machine" (Chen, 1986, p. 68).
It is undoubtedly true that viewers derive affective
pleasure from watching MTV, and there is nothing
necessarily wrong with this, but simply to equate
MTV viewing with political resistance is a mistake.
By itself, this type of "resistance" is extremely
fragmented and is unlikely to produce changes in
the current constellation of power. This crucial
point has been forcefully argued by David Tetzlaff
(1991) in a masterful critique of the neopopulist
strain in postmodern media studies. He points out
that their "unity-ascontrol" theory of ideology is
based on an erroneous vision of the history of
capitalism, whose development has always been
characterized "by a continuing centralization of
power accompanied by a dispersal of power
effects, diversification in enterprise and an elevation
of form over content" (Tetzlaff, 1991, p. 16). If,
however, we replace this mistaken notion with a
model of fragmented and multifaceted power,
"struggle becomes problematic, and its liberatory
value cannot be automatically assumed" (Tetzlaff,
1991, p. 24). The suggestion, therefore, that
experiencing the sensational excitement of MTV
and other postmodern media is a political act of
resistance is highly misleading. Political resistance
requires active work and organization, not just
"killing time" (Altheide and Snow, 1991, p. 250).
Reforming the current forces of domination will
require more than decentered, schizoid nomads
wandering through the networks of cyberspace. In
fact, the postmodern consciousness and its
"authentic inauthenticity" where "principled solutions
are futile and misleading" (Gergen, 1991, p. 257)
often play right into the hands of the powers that
be. To the extent that postmodern media practices
promote this orientation they can hardly be viewed
as sources of progressive liberation. Instead, they
are more accurately seen as forces employed to
"divide and conquer" (Tetzlaff, 1991) communities
and subcultures that might otherwise offer active
Conclusion: Toward a Critical Media Studies
Postmodern media studies have identified important
features of contemporary communication practices.
Their emphasis on how media codes and formats
influence the construction of meaning has
contributed significantly to the important task of
identifying taken for granted and not readily
apparent facets of communication. Similarly, the
focus on how audiences use media, and respond to
not only content but formats as well, is a necessary
corrective to previous studies that inferred media
effects directly from the semiotic structure of
communications. Postmodernists are also correct in
identifying a trend toward nonrepresentational and
self-referential communication forms, and the
emergence of pastiche as a style and technique. In
addition, the idea that contemporary media
practices decenter selves and disperse authority is
pivotal to understanding the social implications of
communication. Finally, the notion that the
proliferation of mass-mediated images and
experiences generates an ironic attitude of authentic
inauthenticity has important implications for politics.
Despite these important contributions, however,
postmodern media studies as represented in the
work of such influential figures as Baudrillard and
Fiske are seriously deficient. Their fundamental flaw
lies in their unwillingness or inability to look beyond
the glittering surface of mass media images and
commodities that they so meticulously describe. By
failing to theoretically situate their accounts of
contemporary media phenomena and practices in
terms of the historical and politicaleconomic
contexts in which they are inscribed, postmodern
media studies are themselves a symptom of the
very postmodern culture they seek to analyze.
Their lack of consideration of these larger structural
contexts also greatly inhibits the postmodernists'
otherwise genuine efforts to address contemporary
struggles for greater freedom and equality.
Important areas of concern such as the
development of global media conglomerates that
increasingly shape the nature and content of
contemporary mass media and the effects of
government agencies such as the Federal
Communications Commission on present and
emerging technologies are overlooked. Neglect of
these and other important issues, especially those
concerning the production practices of mass media
organizations (see Goldman and Papson, 1994),
has the unfortunate consequence of unwittingly
celebrating the increasing commercialization of
communication and information along the lines of
other commoditiesunevenly and unequally.
In calling for a more critical approach, we agree
that critical media studies of the past often suffered
from an overly deterministic political-economic
emphasis that equated economic and political
control of communications with the seamless
manipulation of individuals and groups. Certainly, in
those studies insufficient attention was paid to how
people actually relate to media. But to reproduce
the same error from the other direction, as
postmodern media studies seem to do, hardly
constitutes an improvement. Simply put, what we
are advocating is a more balanced, comprehensive
approach that seeks to situate contemporary media
practices both interpretively and structurally.
The necessity of a more balanced approach in
critical media studies was, of course, the defining
element of the pathbreaking work conducted by
Stuart Hall and his associates in the 1970s at the
Birmingham (UK) Center for Contemporary
Cultural Studies. Since that time the Birmingham
School's approach to culture and mass media has
been enriched considerably by the selective
appropriation of insights from poststructuralism and
feminist theory (Dickens, 1994). At the hands of
some, however, the dialectical tension between the
material and the symbolic that was the defining
feature of early cultural studies has been replaced
by the more one-sided postmodern emphasis on
the proliferation of mass media images and
polysemic interpretations (see McGuigan 1992).
This unfortunate turn has its origins in the
(totalizing?) postmodern critique that equates all
comprehensive theorizing with the allegedly
terroristic tendencies of totalizing approaches.
Others (see Hall, 1986; Hebdige, 1986; Chen,
1991; Grossberg, 1992), however, share with us
the view that if the goal is to analyze and question,
not merely reflect, the postmodern condition of
contemporary mass media practices, then the
development of a comprehensive critical approach
is an urgent necessity.
As a recent exchange in the pages of this journal
make clear (see Garnham, 1995; Grossberg, 1995;
Carey, 1995; Murdock, 1995), articulating the
relationship between political economy and media
culture remains a daunting, and hotly contested,
task. Yet articulate we must, as postmodern
cultural populism (McGuigan, 1992) is no less
unsatisfactory an alternative than economic
determinism. A more promising approach, we
would suggest, may be found in what Kellner
(1992b) calls a multiperspectival cultural studies
(see also Denzin, 1992; Dickens, 1996). A major
attraction of this version of cultural studies for
media analysis is that it proposes a concrete
research program focusing on three interrelated sets
of issues: the production of cultural texts; textual
analysis of cultural objects and their meanings; and
the study of lived cultures and experiences
Research focusing on the production of cultural
texts emphasizes the political economic dimension
of culture and how this shapes the ideological
content of its products. As Kellner points out, the
system of production shapes what sorts of cultural
texts will be produced, what structural limits there
will be as to what can and cannot be said, and what
sorts of ideological codes and effects these texts
will generate (Kellner, 1992b, p. 19). He cites as
examples here the predominance of certain genres
and subgenres in television and film, sequelmania in
the film industry, and the excessive reliance on
formulaic conventions in popular television and film.
Textual analysis of cultural objects and their
meanings involves the implementation of a variety of
reading strategies advocated by postmodernists,
including semiotics, deconstruction, psychoanalysis,
and feminist theory (see Denzin, 1992). The focus
of this dimension of a multiperspectival cultural
studies is on the ideological content of individual
cultural texts. Following Hall's (1980) classic
distinction among dominant, negotiated, and
oppositional ways of reading cultural texts, the
critical approach emphasizes oppositional readings
that aim to "expose the ideological or political
meanings that circulate within a text, particularly
those which hide or displace racial, class, ethnic
and gender biases" (Denzin, 1992, p. 151).
The final aspect of the multiperspectival approach,
studying lived cultures and experiences, examines
how individuals and groups connect their lives to
the cultural representations of experiences in the
mass media. The processes of forming and
reproducing subjects and identities are increasingly
shaped by the myriad of myths, images, and
consumer life-styles proffered by the mass media
(Lash and Urry, 1987). The study of lived cultures
and experiences thus focuses on how people
actually read and relate to cultural texts and what
sorts of effects these have on their everyday lives
Like the classic Birmingham studies of
working-class youth subcultures, a
multiperspectival cultural studies approach attempts
to trace the linkages among the various levels, from
the structural political economic through the textual
to the interpersonal, that together constitute the
complicated terrain of contemporary media studies
(See Kellner, 1995). It also tries to do so in a way
that is neither reductionistic nor dualistic, and that
preserves the dialectical tension essential for
recognizing our postmodern condition without
succumbing to it.
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John B. Harms is professor of sociology at
Southwest Missouri State University, and David
R. Dickens is associate professor of sociology at
the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.