media studies:

Analysis or


Critical Studies in






              Harms, John B; Dickens, David


 Subject Terms:

              Mass media






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.


Full Text:

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

 media studies.





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"

(Lyotard, 1984).


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

(simulated news).


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

and differences.


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

communications practices.


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

Guattari, 1987).


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,

and religion.


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

construct communications.


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

their activities.


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

by audiences."


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

or domination.


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

(Dickens, 1996).


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

(Kellner, 1992b).


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

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 John B. Harms is professor of sociology at

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