Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(6) (1995) 145-149
Mass communication, in a word, is neither good nor bad; it is simply a force and, like any other force, it can be used either well or ill.
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World RevistitedThis essay will not and cannot conform to a typical book review. To do so would be a grave injustice to Douglas Kellner's groundbreaking book. As you shall soon see, truncation is the enemy of understanding. Kellner grasps this philosophic aphorism and we should follow. I will instead comment on the themes I believe most interesting. The dynamics of this book produce a wonderful dialogue with various concepts and people, real and imaginative, poor and rich. I hope all will undertake this communication with the zest it deserves.
Television and the Crisis of Democracy a series of books entitled Interventions: Theory and Contemporary Politics, under the general editorship of Stephen E. Bronner, is an excellently written and argued treatise concerning the interplay of television and democracy. Kellner appears to be one of the first scholars examining this complex field to understand and take to heart Huxely's apothegm. It's common for discourses concerning television and its various relations to democracy to become bogged down under the weight of the authorial subject's political idiosyncrasies. Conservatives see the corruption of traditional values; liberals see an inherent exemplar of democracy. Television is neither; it is both. Fortunately, Kellner avoids this simple minded abbreviation of political realities. While others cavil or offer bland palliatives, Kellner rigorously explores the myriad of worlds beneath rhetoric and the superficiality of the image.
To come to grips with television and its interplay with democracy, Kellner assumes that we must first articulate a theory of society. A theory that properly situates television amongst all the important social institutions. Television does not exist in a vacuum, it mixes and mingles with a multitude of forces. Dismissing the more popular theories of instrumentality (including structural Marxism) and post-modern imagery as inadequate, Kellner adopts a Hegemonic or Gramscian perspective. The main advantage of viewing social institutions and interactions within this world view comes from the possibility of realizing that conflict and contestation are natural modes of interacting. The world is filled with ambiguous and contradictory messages teasing our senses. It is not black and white, unless we picture it in such shades of color. Women and men have agency; they are not Skinnerian laboratory rats. The black box is filled with wondrous, magical powers--an intransigent burden for the pedants. We decode the various sensory images bombarding our existence in manners advantageous to ourselves. This is not to say that we remain free from the dominant modes of thought engrained in our society, far from it; for example, we are all paralyzed by the inexplicable pull to frame life in dichotomies, this is just one of the multitude of other peculiar world views particular to Western society. [End page 145]
Television, or any other form of communication, Kellner asserts, disseminates information suggesting what we should see, think, and do; it is impossible for it to determine how we will appropriate and use that information (p. 55). The Hegemonic perspective simply allows a degree of freedom not possible in the other theories' articulations of society. They are too rigid, too abbreviated to allow us to unmask reality. Like Dr. Pangloss, the Hegemonic perspective sees our world as the best of all possible worlds. It is the best possible world, mutating and modifying at each historical juncture. The world is not static, it is dynamic, ever evolving perfection. Change is inherent and conflict inevitable. Television is both a potential force of good and bad, it only behaves as we want it to.
Kellner meticulously takes us through the history of television, from its conception as a public utility, to its current manifestation as an imperialistic trans- global tool. Each historical stage is marked by an increasing commercialization and a decreasing commitment to democratic ideals. When ex-president George Bush declared a new world order was immanent, he was arguing for a world of American ideals capable of efficiently preying upon the vast, untapped consumers lurking beyond our coercive grasp in every non-western culture: Huxley's Brave New World realized. A world capable of infinite distractions, inducing consent subtly. A world free from the overt pain of physical coercion, but one mired in the covert, titillation of pleasure. A more dangerous, less democratic world. An ersatz world, subduing struggle and conflict, reconfiguring change into a commodity, a fetish we will chase to our graves. While others worry about nuclear annihilation, Kellner is concerned, ultimately, about the inculcation of people into a fear of using the wrong, or least effective, deodorant!
The special blend of capitalism and the democratic necessities of open and free communication in American life are astutely and accurately examined. Television, like any other social institution, is not a hermetically sealed phenomena. To understand television, we must make intelligible the particular government, economic system, and all the other important forces shaping the culture of television. Only by searching and striving for more complete, deeper, broader explanations can complex contexts be understood. Kellner zealously thrusts himself inside the facade of our reality, peering into each minute detail. The result, similar to our brethren in chemistry--synergism. Each component, part, subset fusing into a greater cohesive whole. While the book remains free from the abstruse nomenclature of the post- modernists, for example, the heart of the story, and each artery, vein, and capillary contribute to a system much deeper than Kellner or I can survey. The functional pragmatics of news production, Federal regulatory practices, our culture bred for consumption, America's natural tendency towards monopoly capitalism, wars and cold wars, and so on, each play a role pivotal to the production of our television world. An almost infinite, definitely arduous task remains, flushing out the other components of our social system. Where does education fit in the small minded world of advertising? Are we inculcating our children to buy into a simple conflict/resolution model? Perhaps that can explain the persistence of such vacuous metaphysics. Innumerable questions arise, but very few answers. That is the task that Kellner sets for us to tackle. Certainly it is a difficult task, one requiring extreme vigilance, to remain informed! Yet, for democracy to succeed it is one we all must willingly agree to. If not, we deserve the form of tyranny that is being [End page 146] carefully laid out for us to blindly, obediently abide by.
Kellner also traces the commodification of political candidates, coterminous with the rise of corporate interest in television. FDR's fireside chats, Kennedy's Camelot White House, all receive attention, but are relatively insignificant in comparison to the simulated presidency of Ronald Reagan. Reagan's presidency transcended all other mergers of business and government in the realm of communication. The forces that constructed Reagan understood television, its role now and in the future. The machine that was Reagan built an icon on 'pseudo events', allowing them to exercise extreme control over every image Reagan put forth. Every spontaneous action was rehearsed, every dramatic image geared to produce a certain effect. Fervent nationalism and isolationism replaced informed consent. Reagan carefully induced collusion with the media, they needed him for the news and he needed them for continued dominance. The Reagan team included what was helpful and excluded all else in its public discourses. Disinformation and misinformation are the leitmotif of this conservative hegemony. Marginalize the people not directly helpful in achieving their goals, leave the rest in the dark.
While this is an interesting section, it is incapable of truncation without losing meaning, so I implore all to read this book and explore the data that we all lived, felt, and experienced. Is the analysis and data concordant with your experience? Or, like me, were you surprised, shocked, and a bit disgusted at the antics of those power-elites in the playground of our lives? Some atrocities you will be familiar with, others you won't. We all know the ignoble behavior of Nixon and the fiasco of Watergate, and some of Reagans', but what don't we know?
Perhaps the most theoretically and pragmatically interesting observation Kellner makes of television and its interplay with the other various social institutions is that television and democracy may not be capable of co-existing in harmony. One must suffer depredatory acts by the other, and democracy is usually the willing victim. As Huxley asserted forty years ago, "What is demonstrably good in the sphere of economics may be far from good for men and women as voters or even as human beings." (p. 56) Television, its contents specifically, revolves around a political mimesis. Commerce overtakes communication, private interests outweigh public interests. Television resolves problems by a conflict/resolution model. Smelly armpits, buy some deodorant; crime is rampant, kill the criminal. Television is not a democratic art. It is an 'art of persuasion.' It is the art of compelling others to listen to a singular strategy in combating the woes of our world.
If the overall message, or underlying ideology, of television is that of a simple conflict/resolution model, of which it undoubtedly is in my mind, democracy fails. Life is not simple, its problems are not resolved easily. There are give and takes, uneasy alliances, excited cooperation, and sometimes no solutions arise and we have to be happy with lesser goals. If we hinge our political system on the few that control the mediums of communication, we have subjugated ourselves to others and may have laid the course for tyranny. As Aristotle stated in his highly influential Politics, "The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; [End page 147] but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, or the few, or of the many, are perversions." (p. 298)
Democracy, surely a loaded and complex concept if there ever was one, at its broadest connotation must, at a bare minimum, stand for the many looking out for the many. Capitalism is not compatible with this ideal. I believe even economic socialism fails this ideal, but this is a contentious assertion. Capitalism is driven by selfish accumulation, democracy by altruistic cooperation. Capitalism operates on a principle of exclusion, democracy inclusion. Capitalism rests upon the supposition of easy, identifiable solutions; democracy by complex mediation of incompatible interests, not necessarily resolved satisfactorily. This 'Will to Order' imperative in capitalism, the craving for simplification and tidying up of messy problems obfuscates reality. Reality, political or otherwise, is messy. It is ugly, disgusting, and very depressing; yet, that is its beauty. A masterpiece in any art form is loaded with nasty imperfections. Therein lies the beauty. Our ideals, masterpieces, and heroes are human, thus imperfect.
Douglas Kellner weaves a careful, cautionary tale of deceit and despair. Yet, in the midst of this quagmire, he asserts a thoughtful course out of this mess. His alternative is to build a network of disconnected people, laying a foundation for an upward movement of emancipation in the realms of the exploited, neglected, and marginalized people. The network is built by giving to all people the means to produce and create their own stories of life. These stories of life would be then shared around the country on the public access stations mandated to be available by congress. The idea is for us to start working towards being a more informed populace, therefore, a better democracy. Sure it is somewhat naive and overwhelmingly ideal, but it is a proposition that should be explored to its fullest extent. The problem with this solution, in my eyes, is that it works with the system. It does not transcend capitalism. It is an error of the first order. To succeed when the game is geared for you to lose (happily I might add) you must change the rules. The internal structure lays the foundation for all solutions. Change the structure, you've changed the game.
Kellner is one of the rising stars in the insulated world of academia. His observations are perspicuous, his data extant. I recommend this book for any course, in any discipline. It is an exemplar of talented craftsmanship and of a man that cares and thinks about every vestige, spoken or silent, of our society. Amazingly, it remains free from nihilistic meandering and actually suggests an alternative model flush with optimism. Even if one disagrees with Kellner's anarchistic bent, one will appreciate the thought, time, and love put into this definitive study of television and democracy. The moral of the story is simple. Television is neither the panacea nor the destroyer of democracy by itself. It becomes so only if we let it!
University at Albany
Huxley, A. (1958). Brave New World Revisted. New York: Harper and Row. [End page 149]