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.


Blogger Jeff Pooley said...

Excellent post. Gouldner is indeed utterly neglected in media studies, and the field suffers for it. One other contribution Gouldner made in that strange but smart book, Dialectic of Ideology and Technology: He stresses, and not just in passing, the tensions, and not just the overlap, between the media barons and the wider status quo. Yes, he concedes, the big media companies have an interest in keeping things the way they are, but they are also driven by the market--by the need for the new and sensational--to publish critical material from time to time. A good point.

3:04 PM  

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