Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Sometimes it is the things we find annoying that compel us to study them. This is certainly the case with me and discussions of the 'public intellectual'. As is widely known, the issue of the public intellectual was spurred largely by Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals (1987). Since then, there has been a more or less regular attention to the issue of the need for scholars to act as public figures. I will not attempt to map the entire issue here, but as I track the vagaries of the public intellectual debate, I have run across Charles F. Gattone's altogether acceptable book The Social Scientist as Public Intellectual: Critical Reflections in a Changing World, just out from Rowman & Littlefield this year.

Coming in at a slim 146 pages, Gattone's book charts a history of how social scientific thought has understood the public role of the intellectual. I admit that I initially came in wanting to hate this book. We've had plenty of books and articles that attempt to tweeze out how social scientists (and playwrights, and fiction writers, and poets, and painters...) have constructed their own public role. Is there anything new to say about this stuff? I mean, I get it. In one camp, you've got the intellectuals who chide other intellectuals for not being public enough. In the other, you've got some grumblers who problemetize this. It's like a double play: Benda to Gramsci to Said.

Thankfully, Gattone is thoughtful. Though The Social Scientist as Public Intellectual is not ground-shaking in its conclusions or its methods, it is a solid review of how major social scientists have approached what the question of public scholarship. Gattone's chapters each deal with one or two sociologists. It goes like this: St. Simon/Comte --> Weber --> Veblen --> Mannheim/Schumpeter --> Mills/Galbraith --> Bourdieu. It's always easy with a book like this to suggest other authors who could have or should have been included. Here are my suggestions, none of them surprising: Marx, Gouldner, Benda, Dewey, Lippmann, and Shils. And, of course, it would have been interesting to have seen something on more contemporary figures, like Henry Giroux, or Richard Rorty. Still, suggesting other possible chapters is the weakest kind of potshot. What matters is whether or not the author has pulled together a cohesive set of ideas. This Gattone does.

What's Gattone's point here? To a great extent, it's about how sociologists have become more skeptical of the public role of the social sciences since St. Simon and Comte. St. Simon and Comte believed that social scientists would (sooner or later) be able to set the rules by which society operated. Steady improvement would result from the implementation of the objective, positive knowledge that flowed from the social sciences. This was the beginning of one part of the modernist project in the social sciences, and many of the assumptions that St. Simon and Comte shared can be found (unacknowledged) in the public intellectual debate today.

Since St. Simon and Comte in the 19th century, sociologists have generated more complicated models for how public intellectual work can operate. Weber famously called into question the scholarly impulse to push one's moral sentiments on others. Veblen was characteristically thorny on the topic, outlining pitfalls and potentials of the public role. Mannheim and Schumpeter are portrayed as traumatized by the Great Depression and the spread of fascism/communism. Mannheim worried that if scholars failed to do something, to speak out, fascism would reign. Schumpeter worried that publicly involved scholars might be effective only at making the iron cage of modernism more constraining, more centrally planned. C. Wright Mills and John Kenneth Galbraith are twinned around hope more than fear. Mills placed great hope in the role of the public intellectual, whom he saw as able to redeem the promise of the social sciences. Galbraith hoped that intellectuals might prevent Western culture from becoming stagnant. Bourdieu outlined (but never fully implemented) a plan for intellectuals to organize themselves so as to stand up to the numerous competing interests that threaten intellectual autonomy.

So, fine. Gattone pulls together a good narrative, and revisits the issue of public intellectuals without getting stuck in one of the usual question-begging quagmires. However, allow me to raise a grander point here: there's more going on in the issue of public intellectuals than any of these (great) theorists seem to notice. What's missing? The media. Like much scholarship on public intellectuals, Gattone's book involves attention to three categories of social actor: the intellectuals themselves, the public, and political elites. Though there are occasions when intellectuals interact directly with the public or with political elite, it seems to me that these interactions are almost always carried out through the media. In other words: there is a major part of the structure of the role of the public intellectual that has been left out of this scholarship. Of the sociologists Gattone includes in this book, Bourdieu was the most concerned with the media (Mills might have been, if he had lived to write his next book). Gattone mentions Bourdieu's concerns regarding intellectuals and the media, but the underlying sense that direct contact with the public is characteristic of public intellectuals remains.

Perhaps I'm simply committing the sin of wanting an author to write a different book. The Social Scientist as Public Intellectual raises some excellent points, and will serve as a solid background for the issue of 'public sociologies' (more on that later). But for those hoping to see the sociology of intellectuals incorporate more of a concern for the media, there's a lot more to do.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

JAMES W. CAREY (1934-2006).

As most who read this already know, James Carey died almost a month ago. I don't have much to add to the appreciations that have been published and posted so far. It is, however, worth pointing out that Carey was and remains a great inspiration to me. I have one recollection of Jim that seems worth posting, and it (oddly enough) comes from a meeting of the National Communication Association. In 2003, NCA met in Miami Beach, and I had a pre-conference set up on the day before the convention began. After the pre-con, I was pretty much alone in Miami, bumming around looking for a sandwich. I took a long walk down the boardwalk, which was all but deserted. After about fifteen minutes, I was lost in thought, and utterly alone. One person came upon me, walking the opposite way. It was Jim, and he was at least as lost in thought as myself. We exchanged a wordless glance, and he quickly got back to thinking about whatever it is that occupied him that night. Three nights later, I dined with him and some other folks, and he held court on topics as various as: Bob Newhart, beachfront property in Rhode Island, James 'Scotty' Reston, internet usage in South Korea, and the skills involved in flying small aircraft. I've been around really smart people who lacked spark. Jim was not one of them. He was a firecracker, and he will be missed.

I'll be back with more soon.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


My pal Jen Horner offered some helpful commentary regarding yesterday's post. As usual, she's got more interesting things to say than me. On the topic of 'cultural studies,' she says:
I wouldn't say that these projects are necessarily the right way to go about social change but it is striking how strongly they create a sense of identity, purpose, and community among those groups of students and researchers who do them, and basically serve as a foil (Death Star) against which cultural studies people define themselves.

Right. So, in the field of communication, this 'cultural studies' thing is functional, if only in the sense that it gives those outside the administrative/dominant/effects paradigm a sense of identity, purpose, and community. I guess one thing that makes me so frustrated is the degree to which this identity is constructed largely in the negative: those who do cultural studies use the label to mean that they do work that is NOT a bunch of "ginormous grant-funded projects" (Jen's term, and a good one). Cultural studies in communication cannot be understood without understanding its marginal place in the field. Still, simply doing work 'outside' the dominant effects paradigm Dark Star doesn't give us much to go on. Those in cultural studies are the more reflexive scholars, but this reflexivity seems only to go halfway. Cultural studies has a reflexivity foisted upon it, by virtue of its place in communication. But this reflexivity seems to flag when it comes time for self-critique (admittedly, not as much fun, and almost certainly harder to find in other parts of comm than in cultural studies).

One of the big problems facing the entire field of comm is the inescapable fact that the field lacks autonomy. Granted, professional autonomy is threatened in all academic fields. Still, in the context of the academy, comm has been particiularly likely to give itself up to pressures to raise grant money and/or respond to enrollment pressures. That's been a big part of the growth in comm in the last 50 years. As a marginal operator in this, cultural studies has been left to pick up the crumbs. This leaves many in cultural studies with an overly romantic notion of their own work. Some might say it's just romantic enough. I don't agree with them.

Next post should be on differences in US vs. UK cult studies, and images of them. I think I botched my earlier discussion of that. I'll be doing a lot of botching in all of this...

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


What IS cultural studies in the field of communication these days? The fact that this question has been asked numerous times in the past provides some hints about the status of cultural studies within the field. To be blunt, you know you're dealing with a marginal practice when the practitioners keep on being prompted to try to understand how their sub-field fits in. Cultural studies in communication suffers from a kind of marginality that is, in some ways, productive. At the same time, this marginality also creates a kind of self-glorifying narrative for cultural studies, one in which cultural studies represents the peoples' work, and the 'dominant paradigm' in media studies can be understood as a kind of Death Star, poised to destroy Alderaan.

One question worth asking (if only because it seems ready-made for glib replies) is this: do practictioners in other parts of the field of communication ask themselves the same worrisome questions as those in cultural studies? Do interpersonal communication researchers ever feel that their approach to the field is threatened, or at risk? Do those in organizational communication lose any sleep about their 'project'? Do rhetoricians ever entertain the idea that they may be drummed out of the field of communication? I think the answer to all of these questions is a (measured, boring) 'yes'. So, let's make the first casualty of this debate the notion that cultural studies is the only part of comm that concerns itself with its own place in the field. Still, I think that cultural studies is in a dominated position in the field of communication, and its position within the field gives those in cultural studies a certain tendency to (quite rightly) wonder if they're about to be kicked to the curb.

A few months ago, I was part of an e-mail interchange with my pals Emily West, Jen Horner, and Louise Woodstock. Emily began the discussion, asking us what kind of distinctions between "American" (read: work along the Durkheim/Dewey/Geertz/Carey axis) and "British" (read: work along the Williams/Hall/Birmingham axis) still exist. It's a great question, and it's difficult to answer. Certainly, the traditions have been conflated in graduate education in communication, which tends to lump the two approaches together in coursework in cultural studies. It's not uncommon for graduate courses to involve a (perhaps productive) broadly 'cultural' approach, with no particular American or British emphasis. Published work, however, seems more likely to adhere to these traditional variations on the cultural studies approach.

Still, I think this concern for British vs. American cultural studies makes it seem a bit too much as if 'cultural studies' is something that is practiced solely within the terms of discretely-divided intellectual camps (quick: when was the last time you heard anyone say they did "American Cultural Studies" when asked their specialty?). To praise and criticize cultural studies in communication at the same time, one thing that always struck me was how meaningless the term 'cultural studies' becomes in comm. The appellation of 'cultural studies' is attached to a laughably broad amount of work, from journalism history, to ethnographic approaches to television viewing, to grand theory. This turns cultural studies into something that is interdisciplinary at best, and at worst, something more like a catch-all for ALL work in media studies that doesn't concern itself with short-term media effects.

I fully realize that I'm far from the first person to raise these issues, and I also realize I'm nowhere near settling them. However, I will conclude with something resembling a conclusion. As someone whose work has been classified as 'cultural studies,' I sicken of the term. 'Cultural studies' is a label that, at this point, is so weighted down with connotations (many of them mutually contradictory) that it does little good to describe anything as cultural studies in communication. This is too bad, I suppose. Perhaps someday I'll have a solution for this. But not today.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Few will be shocked if I suggest that the field of communication has neglected some important ideas from other social sciences (and, indeed, from 'inside' the field as well). In some ways, the pursuit of a distinct canon in communication has stemmed from an impulse to keep communication separate from other fields, to prevent the field from becoming a handmaiden to other fields/disciplines. This is, of course, a fine motivation. But whom are we kidding? We in communication can use all the ideas we can find. In a perhaps laughable attempt to broaden the spectrum of ideas we can poach for our own work, allow me please to point your attention in the direction of Alvin Gouldner, whose writings on intellectuals, Marxism, and social theory frequently touch on themes germane to the study of the media.

Gouldner is rarely considered a communication theorist of any kind. Sociologists work with his ideas a great deal, of course. His "Coming Crisis of Western Sociology" remains an important moment in sociology, and my experience with sociology and sociologists leads me to believe that he remains a source of important debates within that field. (Perhaps he's still given short shrift. Charles Lemert has written persuasively that Gouldner is often ignored even by sociologists, who are more likely to look to C. Wright Mills if they're doing the critical theory thing). Of course, this means that the ideas of Gouldner's that get preserved are those that have struck sociologists as useful. We wind up with little sense of Gouldner's frequent attention to media processes, in part because sociologists are not as interested in the media as one might wish them to be. Sociology more or less forgot about the media by mid-twentieth century (this is, I admit, a debatable point, to be pursued later on).

What did Gouldner have to say about the media?, you ask. Well, thanks for asking. In The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class, Gouldner off-handedly remarked that "One is not supposed to ask the television audience, 'Where does the cameraman fit in?'" He was addressing the awkwardness that arises when Marxists are asked to address the position of intellectuals in their whole scheme. I suggest that we bring a different frame to interpret this remark. Specifically, I think the question of "where does the cameraman fit in?" can be posed to those who study intellectuals in general. Those who study intellectuals, in a sense, suffer from a problem that is very much the opposite of the problem with Marxists. Instead of a lack of wilingness to be reflexive--to study their own social category--those who study intellectuals tend to focus too much on intellectuals themselves, to the neglect of the systems (media systems) that have made the emergence of the intellectual role possible and sustainable. I take the question 'Where does the cameraman fit in?' more literally, and I ask, where do the media fit into these themes that are often left on the doorstep of sociologists?

Thankfully, Gouldner was up to the task of accounting for the media much more than other sociologists who addressed intellectuals. Even better for someone in the field of communication, he points to the centrality of communication, then stops, as if waiting for someone in media studies to pick up the slack. With few exceptions, media studies scholars have not been up to this difficult task.

So where do we see communication in Gouldner? I'm finding it all over the place in the first two volumes of his Dark Side of the Dialectic trilogy: The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology and the afore-mentioned Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. Gouldner traces the development of what he calls the Age of Ideology to the 'communications revolution,' and in particular to the advent and spread of printing technology. He's no soft-boiled McLuhanite, mind you, he's just lining up much of what Habermas had already said with a differently-inflected vision of ideology. [his blunt--even brutal--smack-down of Habermasian approaches to ideology is worth the price of admission alone]

For Gouldner, as I understand him, it is the development of two institutions that creates the Age of Ideology: the modern education system and the means of mass communication. For a sociologist who never did media research per se, he was remarkably frank about the centrality of the media to this. Of particular note is how, with the coming of the Age of Ideology, what begins to matter are not 'commands', but 'reports'. Feudal styles of authority no longer stand up to scrutiny, and to make things even more complicated, we now have a ruling class that has out-sourced its own ideological work. So, bang! We're in a very Gramscian situation where authority is not so much something possessed (or a fait accompli, as Parsons might have presumed), but is instead something that involves interaction between social agents, and therefore, all kinds of structural and cultural contradictions. This makes culture a very complicated thing indeed, and something well-worth studying in media studies. Too bad we didn't listen to him very much when he lived. It would be fitting for us to pay more attention to what he had to say. It's not like communication studies is drowning in good ideas as it is.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Greetings, all, to the inaugural entry in the Pravdakid blog. After months of pondering the idea of starting my own blog, I have decided to take the leap. I have avoided blogging for some time, largely because I regard blogs as something akin to tattoos: I'd be perfectly interested in getting a tattoo, but not until I find something worth inking on my body. And, you know, I just don't have the certainty about indelible marks on my body that this involves. Blogs are like tattoos because they are closely linked to self-revelation, and because they last a long time. Sure, they can be edited much more easily than the fairy/devil/mother's name/girlfriend's name we see on so many young people's bodies today. Embarrassing comments can be wiped out very quickly. Still, I think I can learn much more if I decide to leave in all the idiotic crap I come up with, and learn from my mistakes.

So, fine. But what will I address in this blog? For the most part, I will address the issues that consume me: research and theory in media studies. I make no claims (yet) about the quality of any of my future posts, but I can promise that I will try to keep things thought-provoking.

My friend and colleague at Lake Forest College, Bob Archambeau, inspired/irritated me until I started this. I can only assume that more inspiration and irritation will continue. That's what it's all about. His blog--samizdat--is in many ways the model for what I'm going to try to do here.

My first 'real' post should come soon. Hope you're along for the ride.