Talking through the Credits is a Media Literacy Initiative that emphasizes critical consumption and production of media, especially those that utilize digital media.
The mission of TttC is
- to encourage discussion in homes, classrooms, and online about media–it’s channels, technologies, themes, influence, ownership, form and content.
- to empower people with the capacity for ciritical thinking, which will prepare them to be more critical media consumers, more conscious media producers, and more informed and involved citizens.
- to utilize the digital media technologies available to us in order to participate in the important processes of individual, critical education and cultural and political engagement.
Here’s a little introduction to the context in which we’ve created Talking through the Credits.
Why (and How) We Fight (the Culture Industry)
by Benjamin Thevenin
The cultural industry exists, it’s bad, and we have to resist it. I’m aware that that is not an entirely new issue in media studies, but it is what interests me the most. Political and economic powers exercise control over society by communicating dominant ideology, in part, through the media. The public, without access to accurate information, operates in coordination with these powers, perpetuating their own oppression. However, by means of education and alternative media production, people may become aware of the culture industry’s agenda, voice dissent, and potentially enact political, economic, and cultural change. The writings of social theorists and media scholars like Adorno, Horkheimer, Gramsci, Benjamin, Mulvey, and others provide insight on the nature of the problem and the possibility of a solution.
In their Dialectic of Enlightenment (2002), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer succinctly state the problem plaguing contemporary culture:
Films, radio, and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part. Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system. (94)
Adorno and Horkheimer note that the content of contemporary media is not only homogeneous, but it is also uniformly supportive of monopoly capitalism. So, the media serve as a means of perpetuating ‘false consciousness’ among the public in which political, economic, and social inequality is accepted as the norm. Adorno, a classical music connoisseur, is particularly outraged by this cheapening of culture, and of the public’s enthusiastic acceptance of the dribble. He (1938) writes that “It corresponds to the behavior of the prisoner who loves his cell because he has been left nothing else to love.” (280) However, his concern is not simply that the media provide diversion from the horrors of industrial capitalism, but that this escapism indicates a lost battle. “It is flight;” write he and Horkheimer “not, as is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance.” (116). However, the culture industry is not the Borg and resistance is not, in fact, futile.
Adorno noted that much attention was given to superficial resistance to the cultural industry. He observed that certain individuals, for example ‘jazz enthusiasts,’ would engage in a type of active consumption, but one that ultimately reaffirmed the culture industry. “Whenever they attempt to break away from the passive status of compulsory consumers and ‘activate’ themselves, they succumb to pseudoactivity,” he wrote (292). Later, The Birmingham School would devote quite a bit of attention to these ‘active audiences,’ and although the cultural studies tradition is often recognized for celebrating audience agency, early studies reached a similar conclusion as Adorno. In 1976, John Clarke, Stuart Hall and others conducted a study that examined youth subcultures among the English working class. They noted that often these subcultures would, like Adorno’s ‘enthusiasts,’ actively engage with the dominant culture. Their intention was to subvert cultural conventions as a means of resisting the oppression they experienced as poor, uneducated youth. However, the study found that, in fact,
sub-cultural strategies cannot match, meet or answer the structuring dimensions emerging in this period for the class as a whole. So, when the post-war subcultures address the problematics of their class experience, they often do so in ways which reproduce the gaps and discrepancies between real negotiations and symbolically displaced ‘resolutions.’ They ‘solve,’ but in an imaginary way, problems which at the concrete material level remain unresolved. (36-7)
Interestingly, this conclusion—that so-called cultural resistance is unable to overcome social and economic inequality—has since been largely ignored by scholars of cultural studies. So, considering the inadequacy of sub-cultures to challenge the culture industry, let us return to Adorno for a better solution.
As pessimistic as we’d like to think Adorno was, he saw some hope for resistance to the culture industry. In “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (1938) he writes
As little as regressive listening is a symptom of progress in consciousness of freedom, it could suddenly turn around if art, in unity with the society, should ever leave the road of the always identical. (emphasis added, 298)
Rather than the type of reactionary response of Clarke and Hall’s subcultures, Adorno located potential for change in critical audiences and media reform, which I will explore in my discussions of education and alternative media production.
Education of Critical Audiences
Rather than solely emphasize the ‘active consumption’ of media as a means of resistance to the cultural industry, Antonio Gramsci stressed the potential of individuals to be critical, creative ‘organic intellectuals.’ In The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci (1975) states that
Each man…is a ‘philosopher,’ an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.” (“The Intellectuals,” 9)
Gramsci is essentially asserting the role of individual agency in social transformation, and this is something significant considering that it was Gramsci that introduced the concept of ‘hegemony.’ However, rather than emphasizing style as a means of culturally coping with social or economic inequality, Gramsci envisions this powerful human capacity as one only enabled by education. So, he conceptualizes a ‘creative school’ in which
learning takes place especially through a spontaneous and autonomous effort of the pupil, with the teacher only exercising a function of friendly guide…To discover a truth oneself, without external suggestions or assistance, is to create—even if the truth is an old one.” (“On Education,” 33)
I find Gramsci’s emphasis of individual critical thinking, independent of authoritative influence, to be incredibly significant in that it sees the democratization of education as a step towards the preparation of intellectuals and resistance to hegemonic power. Also, I find the fact that Gramsci emphasizes learning as a ‘creative act’ to be significant—it seems to respond to Adorno’s concern about the passivity of modern man, and it implies that the creative act (whether in the exercise of critical thinking or in cultural production) is revolutionary.
Independent/Alternative Media as Reform
In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) Walter Benjamin noted that one of the potentially positive aspects of modern society is that “…the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character…At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer” (232). Alternative media production has been posited by individuals from a range of different disciplines as a means by which citizens may challenge institutional authority and enact cultural, political and economic change. In her examination of the psychological positioning of the viewer in Hollywood cinema (1975), Laura Mulvey observes that the audience inhabits, almost without exception, the ‘male gaze.’ This subject-position encourages the viewer to identify with the active male characters and objectify the passive female characters. So, in response to this misogynist mode of representation, Mulvey advocates for an alternative cinema that “free[s] the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialects, passionate detachment” (844). Much like the theater of Bertolt Brecht, Mulvey’s feminist cinema reveals the artifice created by the film apparatus in an effort to challenge the political complacence of the audience and the sexist practices of the industry.
And Mulvey is not alone—a number of artists, authors and filmmakers (especially of the post-colonial tradition) advocate for independent cultural production that gives a voice to the voiceless. Manthia Diawara’s cinema, Chinua Achebe’s literature, and Franz Fanon’s art all attempt to document and distribute the experience of their previously-marginalized people. Quoting African revolutionary Sekou Toure (1959), Fanon emphasizes the necessity for cultural producers “to fashion the revolution with the people. And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves, and of themselves” (206). Here Toure and Fanon emphasize that this type of alternative media can only come as a natural result of political engagement. And while, in the United States, we may not be in need of a violent political revolution, alternative media can still be a means of democratic dissent. In his assessment of American cultural studies, Alan O’Connor (1989) noted that
it is usually possible in American universities for students to learn about cultural forms first hand. Instead of theorizing about encoding and decoding, students can learn by trying to create and find an audience for an alternative television program. (408-9)
This emphasis of practice along with theory is significant, because while education may prepare individuals to critical thinkers, creation requires action.
The ‘praxis’ advocated by Gramsci, Mulvey, Fanon and others is something that I find to be particularly interesting and potentially effective in resisting the culture industry. While Adorno violently castigated popular culture, he did so not because he devalued art, but because he reverenced it so much. He mourned the loss of authentic cultural expression in modern mass communications. And sharing Adorno’s love of the humanities, I think that efforts to educate the public and promote independent media production are means by we can apply these theories and potentially reclaim culture for the people. (Idealistic, I know, but I’m sincere.)