Mass Media: From Collective Experience to the Culture of Privatization

 Originally Appeared in: Social Text: 1 | Published: Winter, 1979


The project of developing a theory of mass culture and politically effective interpretations of the symbolic forms that organize social life has emerged from the transformations within capitalist society itself. Mass culture confronts us as a primary element of this society. By the same token, mass culture cannot itself be understood or analyzed except in the context of its role in producing and reproducing the social relations of capitalism. It is essential not to fall prey to the false dichotomy of labor and symbolic interaction, or to that between a libidinal politics and a politics oriented toward economic transformations. Capitalism does indeed exploit the body-the desiring body, but also the laboring body. The very possibility and effectiveness of mass culture, I will argue, lie in the way it organizes symbolic mediations and symbolic interactions in relation to the body and subjectivity as they are affected by the capitalist division of labor. 

Just as it is false to seek the distinctive reality of advanced capitalism in the autonomy of the psychological or the symbolic from the economic, it is also inadequate, I believe, to frame the distinction between 19th and 20th century capitalism only or predominantly in terms of the changing relation of society and the state. A broader and deeper mutation has occurred. The capitalist mode of production has evolved by transforming, in two phases, the relation between the economic and the symbolic dimensions of social life. In its first phase, it severed the economic from the symbolic, dissolving earlier social formations and producing the social conditions that Marx analyzed. But this process, which was always incomplete and contradictory, had consequences which have led to the second phase of capitalism. Now the economy, moving for itself, attempts to subsume the symbolic.

Industrial production forcibly removed labor from all symbolic and affective contexts by turning the activity of producing into a quantity whose value could be abstractly designated by money. Wage labor reconstitutes labor as an expenditure of energy productive of exchange value. It separates from this activity all other expenditures of the body’s energy, which, having been designated unproductive, manifest themselves in forms of erotic, aesthetic, and religious experience. These then stand in a completely eccentric relation to the dominant structuring force of society, namely, the economy.
This division passes into the subject and bifurcates the producer’s relation to the body. In its capacity to materially transform nature, the body becomes a pure instrument. The freedom of wage labor, as opposed to the labor of serf or slave, makes the body one’s own only by turning it into one’s own property. Just as capital deprived the producers of the means of production it reduced their bodies to tools whose productive capacity could be bought and sold in the marketplace. Set against this instrumentalized body is the subject’s relation to the erotogenic body with its complex network of ties to the symbolic formations and affective experiences that comprise the whole of social experience. Late capitalism overcomes the sheer separation of the symbolic from the economic, but does so by bringing the symbolic under the dominance of the economic. The processes of this subsumption are precisely designed to block the overcoming of the subjective divisions inaugurated by capital. 

The Frankfurt School, especially the work of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse, undertook an analysis of how the instrumentalization of human activity affected bourgeois culture itself, its forms of symbolic expression and its forms of thought. It was the unique historical experience of the Frankfurt School theorists to witness the emergence of the two paths that late capitalism has taken to refurbish and resecure itself: European fascism and American mass culture and the consumer society. Marcuse’s invaluable essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture” (1936) exemplifies the dialectical reflection to which this experience gave rise. Aesthetic experience has always been, Marcuse argues, an experience apart, where meaning and affectivity could unite, harmonize, and yield an object of contemplation which is independent of the world of material production. In the midst of a social reality where the marketplace and commodification remove meaning from productive activity, art and aesthetic experience come to stand as the reservoir in which all that this reality denies or represses finds sublimated expression. “Affirmative culture was the historical form in which were preserved those human wants which surpassed the material reproduction of existence.”1 

Since the high culture of ruling classes–starting with Socratic philosophy’s separation of the soul and the body, the ideal and the material-always constituted a realm of expression that tended to separate itself from material production, reduplicating and legitimating the rulers’ separation from labor, bourgeois culture could enter this tradition and declare its universality, which it began to do with the Renaissance humanists, precisely because capitalism universalized the division between meaning and production by extending it to the producing classes themselves. Marcuse could thus show that the bourgeois cultural experience was at once the authentic expression of the desires, fantasies, and hopes that capitalism could not fulfill or accommodate and the hegemonic imposition of the very distortions by which cultural experience allowed anything to be expressed so long as nothing could be changed. Marcuse first developed this lucid and two-sided view of bourgeois culture as he witnessed its disintegration, a disintegration that was not the result of a social revolution but part of capitalism’s desperate struggle to survive. This painful sense of yet another unconscious historical transformation, another historical upheaval going behind the backs of humanity, inflected all Frankfurt School reflections on contemporary culture, on the dialectic of enlightenment, and on the future of mass society. The central historical problem can be generalized from Marcuse’s discussion of the philosophical and aesthetic forms of affirmative culture. Western capitalism, in the absence of revolution, has had to destroy bourgeois society’s own optimal cultural forms and political institutions–from the aesthetics of affirmative culture to the restricted family, from the autonomous individual to representative democracy. The entire process of social integration, from the production of ideology and culture to the forms of daily life, have been altered differently than they would have been by a revolution in the conditions Marx analyzed. 

Faced with the historical regressions that have presided over the transformation of society and culture, the Marxist tradition has seen a renewal, sometimes desperate and confused, and a proliferation of theories attempting to demarcate the continuities and discontinuities of the past two centuries. One set of strategies can properly be called post Marxist, in that they declare that Marx’s theory is now dead, inapplicable to contemporary capitalism, however completely it dealt with liberal capitalism. Perhaps the most systematic and compelling attempt to found a post-Marxism today is the research and theory of Jurgen Habermas. Habermas has rejected Marx’s distinction between “base” and “superstructure,” as it applies to the interrelation of society and the state, in an attempt to show that the fundamental categories of Marxism are irrelevant for an understanding of contemporary capitalism, its crisis tendencies, and the paths to its transformation. While Habermas takes us deep into the problems faced by radical theory and practice, inasmuch as he recognizes that the critique of political economy no longer answers to the objective and subjective conditions of capitalism, his argument also exemplifies the consequences of reading Marx in purely theoretical terms. The following represents the heart of Habermas’s basic thesis: 

[Marx] carried out the critique of bourgeois ideology in the form of political economy. His labor theory of value destroyed the semblance of freedom, by means of which the legal institution of the free labor contract had made unrecognizable the relationship of social force that underlay the wage-labor relationship…. Since the last quarter of the nineteenth century two develop mental tendencies have become noticeable in the most advanced capitalist countries: an increase in state intervention in order to secure the system’s stability, and a growing interdependence of research and technology, which has turned the sciences into the leading productive force. … If society no longer “autonomously” perpetuates itself through self-regulation as a sphere preceding and lying at the basis of the state–and the ability to do so was the really novel feature of the capitalist mode o fproduction–then society and the state are no longer in the relationship that Marxian theory had defined as that of base and superstructure. Then, however, a critical theory of society can no longer be constructed in the exclusive form of a critique of political economy. …. If… the ideology of just exchange disintegrates, then the power structure can no longer be criticized immediately at the level of the relations of production.2 

The very terms in which Habermas affirms the original validity of Marx’s theory neglects the political genesis of the theory itself. Marx did not discover, whether as an act of philosophical or scientific reflection, the illusion of just exchange. Rather, he gave theoretical expression to a collective experience that was already being expressed in the ideology of the militant sections of the working class. Marx’s theoretical discourse sprang from the conflict between the scientific discourse of the bourgeois political economists and the ideological discourse in which workers were articulating their own social experience. The texts of political economy were the object of Marx’s critique, but the subtexts of this critique lay in an actual and vital proletarian ideology. Jacques Ranciere, in a critical reassessment of his own contribution to the Althusserian Lire le “Capital,” has made the argument that Marx’s writings registered the “echo of proletarian experience” as it was voiced in the catchwords and battle cries of the 1830s and 40s. Marx’s fundamental concepts, the alienation of labor and the capitalistic extortion of surplus value, were forged as he heard in the discourses of workers what was missing in the discourse of political economy. Ranciere cites the call to insurrection of the weaver Jean-Claude Roman at Lyon: “To arms, patriots and you, brave workers, who produce with the sweat of your brow this gleaming cloth whose luster brings out more glaringly the contrast between our rags and the insolent finery of the rich.” And the words of a participant in the June Insurrection of 1848: “It is time we saw the products of our labor.”3 

Once Habermas has neutralized the political origins of Marx’s theory, this dynamic of proletarian ideology and social theory, he is free to develop a theoretical model of advanced capitalism which expels the question of political organization from the outset and eventually locates political resistance and opposition in the abstract ethical principle of undominated communication. This principle, he argues, should, but does not, govern the communications between science and politics in state-regulated capitalism, that is, between technically exploitable knowledge and its implementation in society. The principle’s realization is retarded by the effectiveness of the system of rewards and security which Habermas sees as the replacement of classical bourgeois ideology: “the ideology of just exchange is replaced by a substitute program,” which “combines the element of the bourgeois ideology of achievement (which, however, displaces the assignment of status according to the standard of individual achievement from the market to the school system) with a guaranteed level of welfare, which offers secure employment and a stable income.”4 As in the description of Marx’s theory, Habermas here obscures the fact that the free market produced two opposing life situations, that of the wage laborer and that of the entrepreneur, and thus generated the opposing ideologies of capitalists and workers. Certainly the practical possibility of free enterprise, and with it the model of the individual entrepre neur’s existence, have collapsed in contemporary society. The promise of social security and reward for performance best describes the life conditions of the middle strata, for whom the transmutation of bourgeois ideology, as it is transmitted through the education system and its organization of the learning process, holds sway precisely insofar as it dresses up laboring for a wage in the guise of nonproletarian images and values. Since the opposition between this transmuted form of bourgeois ideology and the principle of undominated communication lacks the real force of a contradiction, Habermas cannot point to the conditions for social transformation except in an externally produced crisis, which itself can take but one form: “The amount of social wealth produced by industrially advanced capitalism and the technical and organizational conditions under which this wealth is produced make it ever more difficult to link status assignment in an even subjectively convincing manner to the mechanism for the evaluation of individual achievement.”5 To get beyond this vision of a politics constructed on the static opposition of an ideology and a principle which awaits a crisis of legitimation, it is necessary to understand the actual dynamics of late capitalism’s achievement ideology. The reward that the middle strata integrates a new symbolic dimension into the wage system. The wage (called a salary) is connected to the symbolic elements of status and hierarchical power, to the extent that the individual’s rise to a position of supervision or management has but one unique feature: the freedom to administer power-which is not even one’s own–over others. This new configuration is, then, a fundamental example of capital’s subsumption of the symbolic. It is essential to recognize that this process is possible because the truly novel feature of the capitalist mode of production, the freedom or autonomy of capital, has survived the free market.

Marx did not reflect explicitly on theory’s link to proletarian experience and ideology, but he clearly did formulate the relevant terms. Capital, he argued, had two polar effects on the new class of producers: it alienated them from the products of their labor, and it brought them into association with one another. For Marx, it was from this association that a communist consciousness could develop, because association ties the worker’s individual fate to a collective condition. It also, therefore, provided the conditions for an oppositional discourse, a counterideology, expressing a social experience and the desire to transform it. 

If critical theory is to reconceptualize the dynamics of contemporary society, it has to rediscover its relation to the counterideologies that can only arise from the fabric of society itself. Here, however, we encounter the unique power of late capitalism. Through its dominant cultural forms and practices, late capitalism strives to sever social experience from the formation of counterideologies, to break collective experience into the monadic isolation of the private experience of individuals, and to pre-empt the effects of association by subsuming the discourses and images that regulate social life. Our work in theory, teaching, and propaganda must recognize that these very processes develop from what Marx showed to be the fundamental category of the capitalist mode of production: wage labor, and its total set of effects….

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