The Technology and the Society

Reaching for Control: Raymond Williams on
Mass Communications and Popular Culture

Democracy and the Media

Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media

By: Cameron A. Straughan

Student # 205337985

October 16, 2002

I greatly admired Williams’ The Technology and the Society for several reasons. Firstly, unlike McLuhan, I felt that Williams took a much more holistic and logical approach to communication studies. That is, he looked at the technology itself, it’s history, and the social context of the technology. In fact, the history that Williams provided is very detailed and makes chronological sense. Thus, I found his text easier to read than McLuhan’s textual and historical gymnastics!

I thought it was interesting how Williams took a “Darwinian” look at TV, in which he outlined its early forms and how each evolved with time, to meet specific social pressures, until TV was born (i.e., telegraphy, photography, motion pictures, radio, then TV). This is similar to how an organism adapts to a changing environment, over time, in order to survive (it’s also similar to the Functionalist model). Speaking as a biologist, I liked this approach very much. My interest was further heightened when Williams mentioned that we have adapted to viewing this “inferior visual medium”. Thus, within Williams’ holistic approach, we are evolving right along with TV!

I’d agree that William’s notion of symptomatic technology is relevant, vs. technological determinism, and I think it could explain the development and expansion of TV. For example, following WW II, nuclear families occurred. People tended to stay in more, perhaps for shelter against economic uncertainty. At any rate, this new, burgeoning captive audience was perfect for the introduction of TV on a mass scale. As a result of the rise in TV viewing, the interest in documentaries fell off during that period, as did their production.

I can’t help but think that Williams would have fun tracing the development of IT, since “e-mail” was first invented for the US Military back in the 60’s. Now it’s use is widespread and commonplace. Clearly, something in our development as a society forced this once restricted invention into world wide use.

I also admired how Williams criticized the use of the terms “mass communications” and “broadcasting”, and the structure of some communications, as being hegemonic. This relates to my current course Popular Education for Social Change, in which I’ve read Gramsci’s thoughts on hegemony.

Williams also demonstrated his links to other communication theories. For example, he acknowledged the Two-Step Flow Theory and some of his ideas were very similar to Innis’ work (i.e., regarding the effects of centralization of political power). Oddly, I think Williams might be in agreement with McLuhan when he says that:

“It is not only that the supply of broadcasting facilities preceded the demand; it is that the means of communication preceded their content.” (p. 25)

If means preceded content, is that the same as “the media is the message”? I think so. I also like this quote because I think it sums up nicely Williams’ Marxist critical lens. Accordingly, supply once equaled demand, but an increase in supply (i.e., TV) overcame the demand. This created surplus, resulting in property, which meant that broadcasters could control the surplus, thus controlling the demand. In effect, a “class struggle” begins between those who have the broadcasting ability and those who demand it. To this day, independent broadcasting and “pirate stations” argue that the Canadian licensing scheme is unfair and undemocratic – no doubt an unfortunate byproduct of capital-driven centralization of transmission services.

Williams’ “unified social intake” also seems similar to McLuhan’s tribalism – or was McLuhan similar to Williams? I wonder who influenced who, and how much!

Jim McGuigan’s article on Williams did an excellent job of illuminating Williams’ life and his work. It points out that Williams did perform concrete analysis, which McLuhan did not. Nor was William’s as enthusiastic about TV. However, McLuhan and Williams were similar in that they both had strong literary interests, and this coloured both of their writings. Williams even felt that it was possible to watch TV actively, yet differently from reading a book – similar to McLuhan’s hot and cold media.

William’s ideas of the connections between art and advertising were also interesting. I wonder if Andy Warhol was aware of them. I also admired Williams’ practical, easy to understand analysis of hegemony and its cultural forms – dominate, residual, and emergent – and his faith in the individual to overcome hegemony.

Reading Chomsky’s Democracy and the Media, I was struck by some of the similarities between the media and science. For example, citizen participation would be considered an infringement on the freedom of the press, yet I have heard the same arguments from scientists when I’ve mentioned that the public should become more involved in wolf research (to some degree). Their concern is that the wolf population will be disrupted, yet all scientific research – even by experts – disrupts the population to some degree. At any rate, as Chomsky points out, the media are not nearly as democratic as I thought. At one time, I thought that science was the undemocratic one (i.e., exclusive, secretive, elitist) and the media would be much more open. Now I’m reanalyzing my position!

However, I think that Chomsky gives the media way too much credit; his has made them seem more powerful and influential than they really are. My knowledge is that mass media has never been shown to impact on the audience’s opinions, unless something brand new was introduced. Otherwise, media merely reinforce what the audience originally thought.

Chomsky’s idea of manufacturing consent seems highly likely. Here he is in agreement with Williams’ (and Gramsci’s) idea of the hegemony inherent in communications and Herbert Marcuse’s book One-dimensional Man, which detailed how society is numbed and rendered complacent – a false happiness – via carefully manufactured products that reinforce the status quo.

While I found Chomsky’s article to be too political, at the expense of the media analysis, it does raise the question – does democracy currently exist anywhere? Can it exist? I don’t think that it can; a true democracy is tantamount to utopia. Maybe democracy is in the eyes of the beholder!

I also felt that Chomsky spent too much time examining the US situation. His arguments would have been stronger if he had more examples from different cultures. However, I do agree with him that the USA seems to elect symbolic figures. George W. Bush is a perfect example of this. He is obviously incompetent, but I wonder who is pulling his strings? Who – or what – is really running the USA? In this regard, I agree that hidden power is much more insidious and threatening.

Relating to my documentary project, I was glad that Chomsky touched on the ethics of promotion. There is, unfortunately, a long history of promoters interfering with documentary productions because they do not tow the company line 100%. If a documentary can not move towards the “truth”, then what can?

Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media irked me in that it contained many examples that assumed I have a vast knowledge of US history, politics, and foreign affairs. Here, Herman and Chomsky seem to be writing for American intellectuals, which does not explain why Chomsky is so popular in Canada. Is it just because we like to see people criticize the USA? Similarly, this might explain our national love affair with Michael Moore.

I also felt that this article, while reinforcing much of what I read in the first Chomsky article, contained many redundancies. Again, I think that the role of the media is over exaggerated. In addition, I think that the authors assumed too much about journalists.

In conclusion, if I had to tie these seemingly different articles together with a common thread, I’d say that they are all effective postmodern critiques of communication structures and their relationships to democracy and society as a whole. They have torn into the very fabric of those structures to expose the inherent problems. I would even use the term “postmodern” with Williams, since I believe his ideas were ahead of his time. Yet, he may not agree with that tag since – unlike most postmodernism, which I find pretty bleak or far too ironic – he had great optimism for what humankind was capable of.


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