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volume 4
september 2001

Consumption, reception and power


  Reply to critics of "Cultural Compliance"
by David Miller and Greg Philo
  Whatever happened to the concepts of ideology and power in media and cultural studies? Last year that question was raised by Greg Philo and David Miller in an essay, published in Media, Culture and Society and online in Soundscapes. Their questioning of the dominant theories in the field evoked a variety of criticisms and comments. Here both authors reply to their critics.
1 This article is a reply to some of the criticism we have received to our earlier article in Soundscapes, Cultural compliance and critical media studies, also printed in Media, Culture and Society. We distributed our essay via a number of email lists — these included Media Squatters, Media Culture, IAMCR and MECCSA — and received a variety of criticisms and comments, amongst others from Trevor Batten, Raya Darcy, Shaun Moores, John Storey and Travis Wall. Those responses can be found in full on the web in this journal. In our reply we refer to these criticisms by naming the author between brackets.
2 We attracted some criticism for saying that there is a longer version of the Soundscapes / Media Culture and Society article in our book, Market Killing. Are we acting as vulgar product sellers in telling people this? Anyone who writes academic volumes as we do, will know that this is not the way to amass personal riches. We wrote the book as we said, because we thought that much of social science and media and cultural studies had lost the ability to comment critically about its own society. This seemed to us to be an intellectual betrayal and a betrayal of the expectations of our students. We do believe that academics have a responsibility to the needs and problems of the communities of which they are a part. This is why we advocated what we called public issue research. We are not sure why this is hyper-masculine, as Storey argues.
3 This does not mean that we subscribe to any sectarian political groups [Storey] or that we have a "linear" and "progressivist" view of history [Darcy]. We do, however, advocate critical thought. By this we do not mean simply an "open and enquiring mind" and neither is it a fixed set of values [Batten]. "Critical" to us means thought that reveals and critiques the structures of power and interest that determine and limit mass populations. It seems to us that there is no neutral position in this. To deny the existence of such power or the possibility of analysing it, increases its strength by spreading ignorance and reducing the potential for opposition. This is why we criticised post-modern and textualist approaches. As Hilary Wainwright (2001) writes in our volume, they deny the critical intelligence which is necessary for engaged activity. This is particularly so in the denial of the use of evidence and the move away from empirical work which has accompanied the rise of post-modernism. We spent some time in the book arguing that to make any statement about language or any other aspect of the "real" requires observation. So for textualists to make their case, they would have to engage in the same mundane claims about what is "really" happening, as everyone else does — and to make claims that some statements are true. This is not the same as saying that if you can't prove that you live in a textually constructed world, then you don't [Wall, Darcy]. It would be closer to say that the process of trying to show you do, shows you don't.
4 John Storey, author of the book Cultural consumption and everyday life (1999), raised some further issues about our work. These included our apparent ignorance of Marxist cultural theory. For us the question is not what have the great theorists said, but what theories most adequately account for the reality of contemporary society. We do not believe in simplistic reflection theses such as those advanced by some members of the Birmingham School, such as Ian Connell (1980) and for a time Stuart Hall (1977), but we do think that changes in the "social relations of production" do result in changes in culture (see Miller, 2001). That is we believe that there is a relationship between material and ideal interests and how people think about the world. We do not suggest that Indecent Proposal must produce anything in its audiences as John Storey alleges. What we said was that it embodies assumptions and ideologies about commodification. The responses of audiences are an empirical question; sadly a question ducked by much cultural studies (as we show in a piece which is added separately). In our view we do not "live nature in culture." This is one of the key problems of contemporary cultural studies — that it expands the cultural to include almost everything. And whatever is left over is described as being appropriated through culture or language. We think this position is mistaken, since it relegates nature and the material to effects of language or at least underplays the role of nature and material circumstances in providing the necessary foundation for culture.
5 Storey seems to see political economy as an examination of "production" and cultural studies as bringing in "consumption". Production is equated with structure and consumption with agency. Storey goes so far as to claim that "cultural consumption is governed by agency" (Storey, 1999:159). Of course, in reality both production and consumption are the result of action by humans, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Consumption is not the voluntaristic act of agency alone, but part of a process in which both structure and agency feature. For example the consumption of any product does not just depend on choice. It also requires that the "consumer" can afford the product. This is determined by structures which control the allocation of resources. If the mass of the population earn less than £20,000 per year and have no pension other than the small amount provided by the state, then this will affect consumption patterns very radically. Also to make "choices" we need to have adequate information — which may of course be compromised by the capitalist "structures" of the advertising, marketing and PR industries and their "agency" in producing promotional materials. Similarly the process of production is not simply carried out by structures; it also requires agency, in the sense both that people make goods and that (some) people decide that particular goods will be made.
6 The problem with cultural studies of the sort practised by Storey is that it is fixated on consumption. In this view production has very little to do with consumption. In addition this type of cultural studies really has very little to say about the processes and ideologies involved in consumption, since it finds it hard to theorise or research the concept of influence, or any other concept which would link ideological accounts of the world to the processes by which we understand and respond to the world. But most crucially for us it has very little to do with what happens as a result of consumption. This is the much broader question of outcomes. In media and cultural studies — and especially in the work of the high-priests of cultural studies such as Stuart Hall (1980) — this used to be called "reproduction", but Storey's brand of cultural studies has nothing whatever to say about this.
7 Indeed Storey is so concerned with demonstrating the "active" way in which consumers "appropriate" products, that he rejects accounts which include any element of determination. On the department store he writes: "using cultural consumption to articulate multiple and mobile identities has a history ... but this is not the same as saying that it is something that capitalist entrepreneurs have imposed on an easily manipulated body of consumers" (Storey, 1999: 147-8)
8 He gives no evidence for this proposition, but appears to believe that he has done so by quoting a statement on the importance of the symbolic for identity formation by the media theorist John B. Thompson (1995). Certainly consumers are not manipulated, in the sense of being completely at the mercy of evil geniuses in top hats. But the desire to consume beyond your means also involves interests — all those offers of credit through the door. We also need to analyse the social production of the desire for power, control and status. Why would we want to leave out of such an account the role of persuasion and promotion in making products available to be desired and in triggering desire for them, and most importantly the association of status with the ability to consume? Obviously, the idea that such desires might be politically or ethically objectionable, or part of a system which results in massive class and other inequalities at home, and the poverty and injustice in the developing world, doesn't cut much ice with Storey. Instead cultural consumption is OK because it is something we are not manipulated into. It's just a shame for Storey and his ilk in cultural studies that not everyone agrees with their analysis that consumer culture isn't very harmful. Is it their view, that the protests against Transnational Corporations at the WTO embody elitist assumptions about consumers and consumption and should be undermined wherever possible?
9 We insist on the need for evidence. Throughout Storey's book, there is very little use made of empirical research. The closest he gets is in an anecdote about a child's favourite doll. The doll was "once a commodity" but now "by the work of cultural consumption ... [it] has been thoroughly recontextualised and translated" (Storey, 1999: 162). And we might ask what is the significance of this story? How does the investment of psychic energy in products illuminate consumption? What does it tell us about the wider impact of consumption? Well, not very much. But we might ask questions about such incidents, such as what happens as a result of this process? Let us take a hypothetical example of a person who buys a Porsche motor car. Let us assume that they "thoroughly recontextualise and translate it" and it becomes very important to them. Perhaps they invest it with some mythical properties related to sexual attractiveness, power and status. Perhaps they would be sad if the car was stolen.
10 In this example we would want to point to the power of the sexual and status culture exploited by the makers of the motor car, but for Storey this would be wrong. It would instead indicate the "continual struggle to appropriate goods and services made in alienating circumstances and transform them into inalienable culture" (Storey, 1999: 162). The problem is that this seems to be the only sort of struggle left in the world according to cultural studies. We can note that not everyone who regularly buys the sugared fizzy water marketed by soft drinks companies do so because they have bought into the myths of freedom promoted by the same companies. But it would surely be preposterous to claim that there is no relationship between the multi-million advertising, marketing and PR campaigns and the decision to buy. Our point is that consumer capitalism depends on selling products and it will sell to anyone who can afford to buy. It is not enough to point to the supposed subversion of meanings promoted by PR and advertising, without understanding how some of us are influenced to buy and what effects that has on the distribution of harms and benefits
11 According to Storey (1999: 163), "seeing cultural consumption as the practice of making culture is a useful addition to cultural studies thinking." We cannot see how viewing culture as synonymous with the consumption of commodities is useful. Indeed it strikes us that to see culture in such a limited fashion is in itself evidence of the success of capitalism in mystifying its own processes and rationale. One problem with work on cultural consumption is that it has no conceptual or empirical means of connecting its "findings" with processes of production — the political economy objection. But we are also saying that it does not adequately handle — either methodologically or theoretically — the process of consuming texts or products. Nor, finally can it link such processes with outcomes and with the reproduction or transformation of power relations. All of these need to be accomplished to start to understand the circuits of culture and communication in our society. In our view turning away from such questions is an intellectual abdication, especially for academics funded by public spending.
12 Some of our critics [Moores; Storey] took us to task for caricaturing work on media consumption. In our piece we briefly discussed some work on audiences and on cultural consumption which we think is poor in methods and conceptualisation. There is a much longer discussion of exactly what is wrong with this work in our book Market Killing and we include the relevant extract separately. Once again we invite responses to this and the foregoing paragraphs.
  • Connell, Ian (1980), "Television news and the social contract." In: S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe and P. Willis (eds.), Culture, media, language. London: Hutchinson, 1980.
  • Hall, Stuart (1977), "Culture, the media and the ideological effect." In: J. Curran, M. Gurevitch and J. Woollacott (eds.) Mass communication and society. London: Edward Arnold, 1977.
  • Hall, Stuart (1980), "Encoding/decoding." In: S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe and P. Willis (eds.), Culture, media, language. London: Hutchinson, 1980.
  • Miller, David (2001), "Media power and class power. Overplaying ideology." In: C. Leys and L. Panitch (eds.), Socialist Register, 2002, London: Merlin.
  • Philo, Greg, and David Miller (2001), Market killing. What the free market does and what social scientists can do about it. London: Longman, 2001.
  • Storey, John (1999), Cultural consumption and everyday life. London: Edward Arnold, 1999.
  • Thompson, John B. (1995), The media and modernity. A social theory of the media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.
  • Wainwright, Hilary (2001), "Political frustrations in the postmodern fog." In: G. Philo and D. Miller (eds.), Market killing. What the free market does and what social scientists can do about it. London: Longman, 2001.
  At the time of writing David Miller was a member of the Stirling Media Research Institute, University of Stirling; he now is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Geography and Sociology of Strathclyde University; email: davidmiller@strath.ac.uk. Greg Philo is research director of the Glasgow University Media Unit; email: g.philo@socsci.gla.ac.uk.
  2001 © Soundscapes