Definition & Language: Making Sense of Ideology, Cultural Studies & Marxism

Media is a powerful force in the world we live in. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who disagrees with that statement in our class. The question on everyone’s minds though is, what does media tell us? How does it shape us, in both conscious decisions and in our subconscious? It’s only fitting that this topic of discussion winds up being an endless source of fascination for media-saturated students such as ourselves, but after reading these several texts, I kept finding myself searching for examples and only ending up with more questions, but without the vocabulary or the experience to articulate my concerns and questions.
In this sense, Douglas Kellner’s “Toward a Critical Media/Cultural Studies” is a beautiful place to start. Kellner talks about our society as a dominant force in which individuals’ meanings are fixed. There are a certain sets of norms and values that are constantly perpetuated by the endless cycle of media, but he goes on to ask, how do we make sense of this relationship? Kellner calls for an investigation of media where readers negotiate the meanings of texts. Kellner before he begins to dissect specific aspects of these studies, such as contextualizing media products, looking what goes into production and how it is distributed, as well as how these texts are received. While reading this portion, I couldn’t help but think of Batman Beyond which was a re-hash of the popular Batman:Animated Series from the early 90s. Since the demise of Batman Beyond, executives have been quite frank about the reasoning behind bringing Batman back for a younger generation and with a flashier look. They wanted to sell toys. This type of capitalistic logic seems to be exactly what Kellner is talking about with this section. However, Kellner seems wary of reducing these media phenomenon to strictly dollars and cents. He suggests that there are cultural factors at work as well, such as race or gender, which are constantly competing with the economic factors. At this point, the article turns to more image-based interpretations of film, such as semiotics, genre analysis and textual analysis, particular areas of interest for me in the realm of horror. While Kellner does an adequate job of exploring how images put forth certain meanings, particularly his brief discussion of There Will Be Blood, Carol Clover does such a beautiful and thorough job of it in her iconic text, Men, Women, and Chainsaws that I found myself relying more on that text when Kellner’s examples fell short. The rest of the text dealt with audience reception and the increasing focus on that particular field. It dealt with the emergence of fan studies in passing, but focused more on the influence that media texts have on their audiences. However, the most interesting part of this section for me was the discussion of oppositional readings, how “outsiders” may resist the dominant reading of a certain text to appropriate its own meaning, such as in the homeless shelter and how Die Hard was interpreted by that specific audience as a celebration of the destruction of authority. Kellner ends with this idea that none of these critical approaches he’s discussed are perfect, but the goal of the critical media and cultural studies student is constantly evolving and that it exists outside the realm of study, and should be practiced in real life as well.
Hall finds himself struggling with the same ideas that Kellner discusses. Even as a “founder” of cultural studies, he doesn’t seem to have a vocabulary for it. He bounces between what it is and what it isn’t, without giving it one “true” meaning. Hall puts forth this idea that cultural studies was born out of struggle and continues to exist as a struggle, particularly in relation to Marxist theory. Another interesting comparison he makes is cultural studies as an “interruption” in the mainstream, particularly citing feminism as a complex force in its history. As Hall continues on, he explores the concept of textuality as it relates to theory and this idea behind language and its meaning in a world that doesn’t really have any idea of how to present itself yet and struggles to reconcile itself. This returns Hall to his point that cultural studies is nearly impossible to define, because by its very nature, it resists definition and it remains impossible to ever truly “answer” any of its questions. In his closing notes, Hall addresses the future of cultural studies, its legitimization, and specifically its industrialization as a serious threat to the study. What follows is a discussion with Hall and several interested parties in which they question the validity of his work, his intentions as a whole, and his methods. For me, Hall’s answers were largely unsatisfactory and returned to my original problems with the article. The work he produces seems to be work for other intellectuals. It does little to educate and even seems condescending in some proportions, but it’s impossible to entirely dismiss. After all, the man is responsible for the creation of an entire language. My issue is the language he uses to discuss this new language of cultural studies, which is chaotic and difficult to follow. Alexandra Chasin’s comments about her concerns about the future of cultural studies and the state of them even now closely mirrored my own, so I was thankful those were included.
Mimi White’s “Ideological Analysis and Television” was easily the most user-friendly piece of the readings, at least for me. White starts off by providing concrete examples that demonstrate the relationship between television and the assumed viewer. She explains the various layers that go into creating an ad and selling a product, using different layers of viewer understanding. This proved to be incredibly useful before she dove into Marxism and further exploring the definitions and relationships that define our media culture. The majority of the article begins with an understanding of Marxism, the ruling class, and the oppressed and how the ruling class defines the material that the oppressed ingest, so as to keep the ruling class in power. It’s not a terribly difficult concept in the way that she explains it, but she also goes so far as to problematize it. She asks the question, “where does Marxism fit into our modern lifestyle?” The rest of the article accounts for differing views of ideology before returning to its economic origins and the idea that consumers are pre-packaged, passive, and essentially viewed as living, breathing dollar signs. What was interesting was White’s point that, as audiences, no one forces us to watch these things so we commit to this commodification without ever really thinking about it. What follows is the breakdown of how ideology functions within the narrative and how it perpetuates a dominant thought process, however White also accounts for the problems. The focus of this section shifts to ideology criticism and its value as exposing the questions or problems that dominant readings may not account for upon first viewing. White seems to suggest that this may be just as telling as what is included, which is a valid point that deserves recognition in this text. Finally, the article returns to the pure pleasure of watching TV and its various meanings. She makes it a point to state that there a number of different meanings one can ascribe to these texts, and that seems intentional. For instance, the TV show Will & Grace brought gay culture into the mainstream. It did so in a way that was accessible and even humorous to straight audiences, while including storylines to attract gay audiences.
Kellner’s final piece, once again struggles to define ideology, but views it in several different lights. Much like all the other articles, this question of ideology is fluid and resists a concrete definition. Kellner uses the history of the term itself, both as a mask for social ideas and as a hotly contested even negative term before examining its political implications. Gouldner’s theory of ideology is changing and resistant, much like Hall discussed in his piece, but Gouldner emphasizes the role that technology plays. It’s an interesting discussion of the impact of print, but I’d be intrigued to see how it plays into the contemporary digital age and if that would affect Gouldner’s reading of ideology. The article then takes a turn, discussing how ideology’s shifts can be accounted for as the “oppressed” become the ruling class and ideology becomes an undisputable force. Korsch’s understanding of ideology, as both an idea and an action, is most in line with my understanding of ideology, so that provided an interesting balance to some of the conflicting ideas espoused in this piece. As ideology and hegemony are discussed in greater length, the article traverses well-covered territory about how ideology can become hegemony and an institution all its own. The Frankfurt School further problematizes ideology as they explain how it devolves into a limited and defined system of beliefs. This section is devoted to seemingly opponents of ideology as a set, defined movement that can ever be truly understood. Still, Kellner attempts to reconcile this by discussing ideological regions. This was the most accessible understanding of ideology for me, considering it found ways (or at least tried) to compensate for the contradictions and disparities between all these theories outlined in these four articles. In simplest terms, all of these articles struggle with defining their subject, whether it be capitalism, Marxism, ideology, or cultural studies themselves. What results is a series of alternate focuses that stress the intertextuality of many of these methods. Each text has its own strengths and weaknesses, but when paired together, it creates a dimensional piece about the fluidity and evolution of the language of ideology and the practices of ideology as well.

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