Marx's Media Corps
Issue #45, October 1999
From both left and right we hear daily of the novelty of today's media environment. We are told that new and purportedly global communication technologies, most notably the personal computer (which is not new) and the internet (which is not global) demand that we rethink our fundamental conceptions of what the media are and how they work. While the specifics differ, these writers more often than not agree on the basic terms: capitalism has won, or at least is almost invincible in our age. Nicholas Negroponte, corporate consultant, and Manuel Castells, critical information theorist, have no significant difference of opinion on this matter. As the globe is traversed by microwave relays, satellite link-ups and fiber-optic cable, finance capital and the power of capital itself will become more and more mobile, more and more powerful. The media enhance capitalism, capitalism feeds the media. This is what we are told.
What can a writer from the middle of the 19th century tell us about the end of the 20th century? Though he wrote for newspapers and the popularity of his ideas was helped greatly by their publication and print dissemination, Marx had relatively little to say about the media and communication in general. This has led to casual dismissals by many media analysts: because he doesn't give the media a lot of attention, they argue, why should someone concerned with the media give him attention? Since his analysis neither anticipates nor takes into account the massive transformations in communication that happened during and just after his lifetime — so the argument goes — he's useless for understanding media.
For all its classic red-baiting style, this argument has a rigidly literalist approach to reading Marx's texts. By this standard, only living thinkers who are able to account for the very latest in social transformations are worth reading.
Marxists are in fact blessed with a rich tradition of media criticism, ranging from the Frankfurt School to the Birmingham School, from the political economists to the postmodernists (though they love to hate each other) and well beyond. Media criticism retains an essential pedagogical importance: people live as if their media environment is a natural environment. By showing that meaning is itself constructed and implicated in power relations, media criticism — if nothing else — provides a basic consciousness-raising function. If we show that the world is made, we show that it can be changed. Both the left press and the business press know all too well that the symbolic, institutional and economic organization and function of the media affects the fundamental possibilities for everything from personal experience to large-scale political action. That is why both The Nation and the Wall Street Journal provide extensive coverage of media industries and technologies.
Even if the new media are massive, they are still human institutions, and if people made them, people can and should change them. Call it a simple, dramatic and ethical insight — and one that is often left by the roadside even by the most "orthodox" of Marxist media theorists. "The point is to change it": Marx's oeuvre remains the most effective statement of the meaning and promise of total social transformation: a society based on need and ability rather than the ability to make money and exploit others.
This simple insight — that people make history but not in conditions of their own making — is especially relevant for thinking about the transformations in our contemporary media environment. While we find almost unanimous assent that the media are changing, few critics are willing to look at this as a purely social phenomenon. Hip cyberpropheteers declare that the technology is changing us and that machines will make our world quicker, cleaner, easier. Yet they remain silent about how that technology came to exist in the first place and the social forces behind it — or for that matter, inside of it.
It is not simply enough to say that the media are capitalist projects and leave it at that. As Robert McChesney and others continue to argue, it is impossible to have a truly democratic society when access to all the major modes of information and communication is controlled by a tiny elite. Even in the age of the free [sic] computer, the internet remains a denizen of relative elites. The vast majority of people live in a world where the only media they even barely control are their own telephones (notwithstanding the phone company owning all the lines and the relentless press of telemarketers) and their outgoing mail (though this too should be qualified by the fact that a lot of outgoing domestic mail consists of bill payments and other nonvoluntary communications).
As cultural Marxists have long argued, ownership and access alone do not guarantee the meaning and power of media. Their dynamic shapes, as "cultural technologies" to borrow a term from Jody Berland, have tremendous effects on how we experience them and with them our relationships to other parts of our social world. The workings of the mass media at a purely functional level make a difference in their social significance. To take an obvious example, the context of an experience of synchronized light and sound makes enough difference that the English language has clear semantic distinctions between television, film, and video — though of course those categories are often crossed. This too is an area where leftists need to think carefully in terms of social transformation. It was not enough for the communists in the then-new U.S.S.R. to take over the assembly lines in order to effect a truly egalitarian working environment — they were still assembly lines, and the people who worked them were still exploited. The same holds true for media today: for a truly just and egalitarian media system, we need to transform the character of media as cultural technologies — as ways of communicating. Again, Marx offers the kernel of this insight: "the forming of the five senses is the labor of the entire history of the world down to the present." Media are not simply institutions and conduits for messages, but rather they are a product of immense collective labor by people to shape their own sensory relationship with the world.
Marx's writings offer an essentially hopeful model of history, and this is perhaps the point at which even the most post-structuralist reading of Marx has to concede to humanism: people can and should change the world to make it all the more humane (rather than, shall we say, "all too human"), and in thinking about the media, it is this basic ethical principal that should guide all Marxist analysis of the media. We may understand media as massive institutions that are out of the control of the average man or woman, but we must keep alive the hope that motivated and active groups of people can still transform them. We should make our analyses count toward this end. We should work together to transform our five senses.
Jonathan Sterne is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team. He has written on popular and programmed music, television distribution, the internet, academic politics, and is currently completing a book on the history of sound reproduction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.