Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern
By Douglas Kellner
New York: Routledge P, 1995. 357 pages
Douglas Kellner is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and author (with Michael Ryan) of Camera Politica: The politics and ideology of Hollywood films and (with Steven Best) of Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. Kellner has also published Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism; Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity; Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond; Television and the Crisis of Democracy; The Persian Gulf TV War. He has edited Jameson/Marxism/Critique and Baudrillard: A Critical Reader and co-edited (with Stephen Bronner) Critical Theory and Society: A Reader.
We live in an age where the moving image, including film, performance art and installation art have come to symbolize numerous variations of our culture and are so integral now to the creative process that it is difficult to imagine culture without it as a representative form. The entwining of digital media and culture is a feature of our age; we need only consider the close linkages between the coverage of sports events and television, the collective memories of various wars and cinema, or the appreciation of popular music and music channels. We experience our cultural life through the media in various ways.
In his book, by criticizing social context, political struggle, and the system of cultural production, Kellner develops a multidimensional approach to cultural studies that broadens the field and opens it to a variety of disciplines. He also provides new approaches to the vexed question of the effects of culture, and argues that on a global perspective, we are in a state of transition between the modern era and a new postmodern era and that media culture offers a privileged field of study and one that is vital if we are to grasp the full import of the changes currently shaking us and shaping us, to define who we are and where we stand today as a civilization in whole.
Kellner address mechanisms of political activism and culture and focus on the function of narrative and narrative practices in breaking down distinctions across of mediated content. In the process, identity and culture are maintained biotic linkage. Identity is not just incidental but key, offering the index culture make sense. As Kellner notes, “identity is a construct and a creation from available social roles and material (233).
Here, we are made to understand that radio, television, film, and the other products of media culture provide materials out of which we forge our very identities; our sense of selfhood; our notion of what it means to be male or female; our sense of class, of ethnicity and race, of nationality, of sexuality; and of “us” and “them.” Digital media images help shape our view of the world and our deepest values: what we consider good or bad, positive or negative, moral or evil. Media stories provide the symbols, myths, and resources through which we constitute a common culture and through the appropriation of which we insert ourselves into this culture. Media spectacles demonstrate who has power and who is powerless, who is allowed to exercise force and violence, and who is not. They dramatize and legitimate the power of the forces that be and show the powerless that they must stay in their places or be oppressed.
The book argues that media culture is now the dominant form of culture which socializes us and provides materials for identity in terms of both social reproduction and change. For this argument to hold merit, may look so far as to see the types of works that are being produced each year in the degree shows across the world. Students works which rely heavily on film, display screens and projection to create a critical discourse on their observations of the conundrums of human existence, show the importance of the medium itself as a mode of conversation and critical discourse. Yet how effective are they in being expressive forms of communication?
While Kellner’s multi-perspective approach, adopted from principles laid down by Nietzsche and Foucault, may contain the capacity to better explain the cultural and political conditions of media the question still remains whether appropriating so much machinery proves its worth in explanatory power. Another perspective by a critic of Kellener’s Steve Hoenish, says that, “Ultimately, a theory of the media must move beyond the media, for the media are merely a reflection, an embodiment, of the dominant nature and conditions of a cultural epoch. Thus, a theory of the media must not only describe and explain the working of the media, but also make the leap into explaining the substance of the culture itself. In the end, an analysis of a culture’s media must be an analysis of that culture itself.”
Barbie Zelizer in her review, Blurring Distinctions: Media, Culture, and Identity has this to say about Kellner’s book: “His nuanced readings of mediated texts make his book a broad-ranging journey across the vast terrain of arbitrated cultural productions. From horror films to Marlboro ads to the Persian Gulf War, vides provocative and insightful readings of diverse cultural productions display in bold strokes how mediated icons turn expected boundaries cultural terrain. The book suggests, most importantly, that in examining the intersection between media and culture, we need to spend more of our efforts figuring out the ways in which such distinctions may be made less distinct, rather than supporting the distinctions themselves.”
And so one must see that while Kellner’s writings, though aiming to draw connections between the manipulative mechanizations of the media and in turn the medium of film and imaging as a means of discussion, also fail to reflect that ultimately, a theory of the media must move beyond the media, for the media (and in turn the medium) are merely a reflection, an embodiment, of the dominant nature and conditions of a cultural age. Thus, a theory of the media must not only describe and explain the working of the media, but also make the leap into explaining the substance of the culture itself. In the end, an analysis of a culture’s media must be, in turn, an analysis of that culture itself.