PhD Seminar Comprehensive

Joseph M. Reagle Jr. <>

Political Economy and the Cultural Gap

I propose that the gap between “political economy” and “cultural” approaches can be bridged by using (1) specificity in order to understand the particulars, (2) borrowing between the domains so as to share strengths and identify differences and similarities, and (3) employing abstraction and reflexivity in order to step beyond one’s own view. However, as in any work, each of these approaches contains within them the potential for rigidity and extremism that renders them problematic.

The Origins of the Gap

The historical origin of the differences between the "political economy" and "cultural" approaches to media studies can, in part, be attributed to the original distinction Marx drew between the economic base and superstructure of society. Marx’s historical materialism focused on the economic and predicted the rise of communism following the self-destruction of capitalism. However, as the Frankfurt School authors identified, the internal impulses of capitalism led, instead, to a mutation: “state supported monopolistic capitalism” avoided dissolution, and its logic now leaked into and appropriated the super-structure of culture.

However, the development of the Frankfurt School critique was not accompanied by an exuberant sense of accomplishment, an eminent sense of utopia, nor even uniform agreement. Consequently, this predominately negative point of view can lead one to a sense of impotence with respect to understanding culture. The political-economic tools and inspiration of Marxism can be used to critique the cultural realm, but what of culture’s unique character? There is much that can not be reduced.

The Irreducibility of Culture

Geertz (1973:5), following Weber, wrote “that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” For example, in studying gift exchange Mauss noted that the goal among its participants was not material accumulation, but the accumulation of social bonds, “mana,” “the talisman and source of wealth that is authority itself” (2003:8). Gifts are threads in the fabric of social relations; they are the mechanism that drives the obligation to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. And gift exchange is totalizing across all planes of society: mythological, religious, moral, juridical, and economical. Stoller (1989) argued for a "radical empiricism" whereby the anthropologist is freed from the rigid strictures of orthodoxy and personally situates and invests himself in his study for extended periods. Stoller opened himself to the cultural depth of his study and a widening of the senses. To understand any of these phenomena solely in political-economic terms would be to misunderstand them.

Bridging the Gap

Fortunately, scholars have provided theoretical constructs which demonstrate how one might bridge this gap.

While the Frankfurt School turned a critique of capitalism towards the super-structure, Bourdieu borrowed the generative concept of capital itself to help understand the workings of the social. According to Bourdieu (1992:118), capital is accumulated labor in its material or “embodied” form in relation to a field. In addition to the economic form, the three predominant forms are:

  1. cultural/informational, such as education, family background, and social class,
  2. symbolic, that which is “grasped through categories of perception that recognize its specific logic" (Bourdieu 1992:119), and
  3. social, the sum of resources accrued through relationships.

In addition, Bourdieu had briefly written of possible additional forms that can mediate between fields such as statist and meta capital. The latter inspired Couldry (2003) to posit a form of media capital that operates, "over the rules of play, and the definition of capital (especially symbolic capital) that operates within a wide range of contemporary fields of production."

As Bilge Yesil noted in class, Foucault (1972, Deleuze 1998) did not deny the importance of the economy, but he did deny its centrality. Foucault focused upon discontinuities of particular situated events and practices. He offered the constructs of power and discourse as tools of analysis. Foucault broke the concept of power from a Marxist political/economic framework of class struggle and argued it should be understood as something which circulates in a complex circuit of decentralized relationships, including the wedded relationship of the coercive and resistive. Differential power relationships are embedded in every aspect of our social, cultural and political lives. For example, power is inherent in the very struggle to establish meaning and construct knowledge by which we know and discuss the world. Rajagopal (2001:10) wrote that "Without inquiring into the specific meanings of an event for the different actors in a circuit of communication, in the accounts of the message in circulation would be incomplete."

Consequently, three possible approaches one might use to bridge this gap is to approach phenomena with specificity (e.g. in-depth engagement of meaning), to borrow concepts from one and apply them to the other (e.g., the logic and operation of capital in fields other than the economic), and to break away from “prejudicial” conceptualization (e.g., to rescue the concept of power from the exclusive domain of class struggle).

However, in each of these examples my focus has been on the cultural side of the gap. What steps can the political economic domain make towards, or benefit from, cultural approaches?

Often, policy is determined by the questions we choose to ask. A result of the post-structuralism focus on paradox, subjectivity and interpretation, and the post-modernist reflex challenges the privilege of the individual subject and the grand meta-narratives of “history,” is to re-ask questions. I think one can see influence from cultural criticism and feminist scholars in political-economy work. For example, Baker (2001) is an excellent example of a political-economic approach concerned with civic culture, and he challenges laissez-faire rhetoric via an immanent critique by demonstrating that the issues of public goods, consumer choice, and externalities do not yield optimum outcomes by that domain's own logic.

Yet, each of these approaches has numerous caveats in application.

Caveats in Application

Balancing the biases inherent to each of these approaches is not easy: Geertz (1973) wrote of his attempts to "… try to resist a subjectivism and on the one hand and cabbalism on the other, to try to keep the analysis of symbolic forms as closely tied … to concrete social events and locations…” Foucault (1972) wrote, "My aim is most decidedly not to use categories of cultural totalities (whether world-views, ideal types, the particular spirit of an age) in order to impose on history, despite itself, the forms of structural analysis." And Sartre (1968:45) warned "If one totalizes too quickly ... then the real is lost"; that what one should strive for is “horizontal synthesis and totalization in depth” (1968:82).

One's attitude is of importance as well. As Marx, Sartre, Castoriadis, and Merleau-Ponty (1990) argued, dogmatic rigidity can be a significant hindrance to the power and applicability of theory. Piaget expressed this humbleness well: “The most important conclusion to be distilled from our series of investigations is that the study of structure cannot be exclusive and that it does not suppress … other dimensions of investigation.” (Piaget 137) As Melissa Aronczyk was fond of quoting in class, Bordieu argued (1992:70) "an adequate science of society must construct theories which contain within themselves a theory of the gap between theory and practice." Whichever approaches I employ, I must remain cognizant of and even permit such gaps: “it is not necessary to know everything in order to understand something” (Geertz 1973:20).


Agency and Structure

The issue of agency is a difficult one because there a number of implicit connotations associated with its usage. The three that I wish to discuss are agency as (1) a source of unpredictability, (2) a sense of self determination, and (3) a subjective theoretical or descriptive stance.

Determinism and Agency

Human agency is often a part of, implicit or otherwise, debates about technological and media determinism. Those that wish to attack overly deterministic conceptualization seek sources of unpredictability, and an obvious source is the free-will of human agency.

Two of the most deterministic authors in our readings are Luhmann (2000) and McLuhan (1995e). Luhmann presented a systems theory of the mass media which operated as a function system of recursively stabilized autopoesis. His project was to describe a system of media production fueled by the inexhaustible need of differentiating the old from the new, information from non-information, and the system from the environment that lies outside its boundaries. While this is useful in understanding an engine of recursive structuring it ignores questions of variability, determination, and even historical origin – simply associating it with modernity is unsatisfactory. (As Jameson (1998:43) wrote, “When everything is systematic, we lose the notion of a system.”)

McLuhan's phrase "The medium is the message" is perhaps his most popular phrase and the most representative of his media determinism: the medium itself, regardless of who created it, who is using it, and the content itself, is privileged above all else. Yet, in his explanation one can perceive a hint of agency: "This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium -- that is, any extension of ourselves -- results from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (1995e:151). His use of the words "personal" and "ourselves" suggests the stance of an individual, but even so they are only the object being affected by the domination of the "new scale" of the "extension." Levinson, an advocate of McLuhan, wrote, "Human beings selected for survival the media most appropriate to our needs" (199:183). Proponents of agency might applaud the sense of self-determination, but decry the presumed planned and rational connotation of such a statement.

Yet, Levinson is not alone in identifying “humans” as the object of analysis. Marx, sounding very much like Piaget, wrote that, "Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelationships, the relations within which these individuals stand" (1978d:265). Even if humans as a group have a sense of self-determination and can be a source of unpredictability, we are still missing subjectivity.

Castoriadis (1998:44) presented an elegant formulation that might satisfy proponents of each of the three meanings of agency. He cited both Engels ("History is the domain of unconscious an unintended ends") and Marx ("If there was no chance, there would be no history") to argue that determinism in history is impossible because while some elements are causal, others are not. Two such elements are the “deviations presented by the real behavior of individuals in relation to ‘typical behavior’” and that which is not “merely unpredictable but creative (on all levels of individuals, groups, classes, or entire societies.)" The individual’s creative determination is an essential source of variability!

The two views with which I am most sympathetic, Garnham and Bourdieu , achieve a balance between agency and structure.

Garnham claimed, "... we can make a valid distinction between structure and agency and that there is no contradiction between the believing in the intelligence of human actors on the one hand and structured determination on the other" (2000:22). Garnham notes that the problem, borrowing a sentiment from Engels, was how "human agents make their history but not in the conditions of their making, and with results that they do not intend, but what then become the conditions for future making.” (2000:22). Garnham's model was derived from biological science: an evolutionary theory of random variation that under specific condition produces non-random sustaining patterns. This transmutation of randomness into coherence occurs through the evolutionary axioms of variation, selection, and reproduction; it is further augmented by path-dependency, a form of momentum arising from interdependent relationships which are costly to change once an initial orientation has emerged. Such a theory permits one to include agency but appreciate that structural determination arises "because it produces systematic results which no single actor planned or desired" (2000:42).

Bourdieu's theories of field and habitus provide a wonderful integration with respect to this question. Boudieu appreciates "the consciousness and interpretations of agency" (1992:9). The "play" of such agents in “staking” out positions relative to each other is the very force that drives the structuring of the field! This sense of balance and pragmaticism is further reflected in the notion of habitus: a “socialized subjectivity” (1992:126) that accounts for “that, without being rational social agents are reasonable.”


Are these theories subject to an “indeterminacy and relativism valorized by some theoretical responses to the seeming chaos of the contemporary world”? I do not believe so; I believe that these approaches achieve a robust balance. Yet, this does not mean these, rather modernist, approaches are immune to criticisms that might otherwise prompt such a question.

First, there is the question of whose history, whose narrative, and whose media? For example, in our feminist readings Joyrich (1996) reviewed the ways in which critical discourse, social science, and historical approaches have treated the question of television and gender. Mulvey (1988) used psychoanalytical theory as a political weapon to demonstrate the way the unconscious of patriarchal society had structured the film form by examining the erotic pleasure in film, its meaning, and the central place of images of women. In our readings on culture we encountered numerous alternative narratives and problematics. For example, Geertz (1983) argued that common sense itself is culturally relative by showing three different cultural responses to inter-sexuality, which yields five quasi-qualities of common sense.

Yet, I find Garnham’s approach even “in the face of current post-modern skepticism regarding the 'truth of history'” compelling. He wrote that, “precisely because history is the only material we have with which to explain to ourselves who we are, where we are, and where we are going or wish to go, historical evidence, whether fictional or not, is constantly mobilized to explain our social world and to justify social and political projects and policies” (2000:18). To completely discard history, would be to throw the baby out with the bath water. Or as Bourdieu noted, science is a useful tool for critiquing domination, and reflexive science permits a more responsible politics (1992:194).

Second, there is the ontological question of whether we can move beyond the particular to any theory. Adorno (461:1982) wrote that there is often a confusion between causation and levels of abstraction -- only particulars are caused; that “no event is caused by general forces, much less by laws; causality is not the 'cause' of the events but rather the highest conceptual generality under which concrete causal factors can be subsumed.” Yet, this does not dissuade me from, "the importance of the Marxist project [which] is to grasp causality and meaning" (Castoriadis 1998:53).

Clearly, I am not yet prepared to abandon “the project”!

Scholarly Implications

From our readings, one can see the three “senses” of agency that I have identified employed by three groups of scholars.

First, media historians use the role of historical figures, the effects of seemingly arbitrary choices, or the differences between cultures to demonstrate the importance of agency, or at least the “unpredictable” character of movement. Williams (1999) and Fischer (1992) attacked pure technological determinism, and even weaker, or inverted (social), forms of determinism, in favor of a social construction of technology. Williams used this theory, as augmented with his concern for “intention”, to describe the development of the television. Fischer, with an additional concern of “end user heuristics,” used it to portray the history of the telephone. Furthermore, Williams was able to compare the development of the television in the American and British contexts to demonstrate the ways in which the development of television technology, and its institution, had affected programming with respect to “sequence and flow”: including funding, arrangement, the style of editing and presentation, etc.

Second, agency in the sense of self-determination is critical to those concerned with media as a venue for civil deliberation. One can see this most directly in Habermas' definition of the public sphere (1991:398):

By ‘public sphere’ we mean first a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Access to the public sphere is open in principle to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere is constituted in every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public… Citizens act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely.

This concern is of course present in Baker (2001), Garnham (2000), and most of the authors commenting on Habermas and Bourdieu.

Third, Lembo’s (2000) analysis of television news is demonstrative of a subjective stance of individual agency. Lembo found fault with the approaches of three disciplines because they were too abstract and failed to account for the behavior of individuals within the context of their daily lives. First, “Sociological theorists failed to formulate clear conceptions of ‘viewing ,’ choosing instead to link constructs of ‘television’ and ‘culture’ in fashioning their critiques of the medium” (2000:20). Second, social-science is empirically ungrounded, and preoccupied with measurement and epistemology. Third, Cultural Studies analysts refuse to conceptualize subjectivity, social life, or cultural practice as distinct from power; while they might describe discursive facts about television culture, this is not the same as discovering facts about viewing culture. Lembo (2000:96) offered his own notion: “Sociality, then, designates both an awareness, and inner reflexivity, regarding one's constitution by objective social realities, and social action itself.... The individual is mindful of the others, of one's self, of how others see him or her, and aware also of the normative constraints imposed by social relations.”


Without agency, all structures might be alike, norms regarding discourse and deliberation would be nonsensical, and the richness of life would be intolerably anemic. Fortunately, agency does not negate the notion of structure; as I've argued, it can complement and even be a generative force while mitigating overly-deterministic conceptualizations of the world.



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