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Media Literacy Strategies Analysis Cultural Studies Essay

“Media literacy” has its theoretical roots in left-leaning cultural studies. It is also the inheritor and, to some degree, synthesizer of media education projects, versions of which have circulated since the 1920s (Patricia Aufderheide, 2010). Patricia states that media literacy is a contentious concept from the start. If literacy is defined as being able to read, then what needs to be “read” about the mass media? What does a conventionally literate person need to know to be “media literate” about a newspaper or magazine? Toddlers can listen to the radio and watch TV and “read” them with sometimes disturbing ease. And if critical “reading”-the ability to divine construction and decipher buried codes of meaning-is at issue, then what kind of critique is the goal (Patricia Aufderheide, 2010)?

According to Kellner Douglas (1989) the ‘Frankfurt school’ refers to a group of German-American theorists who developed powerful analyses of the changes in Western capitalist societies that occurred since the classical theory of Marx. Working at the institute fur sozialforschung in Frankfurt, Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s, theorists such as Max Horkheimer, T. W Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal, and Erich Fromm produced some of the first accounts within critical social theory of the importance of mass culture and communication in social reproduction and domination. The Frankfurt School also generated one of the first models of critical cultural studies that analyze the processes of cultural production and political economy, the politics of cultural texts, and audience reception and use of cultural artifacts (Kellner 1989 & 1995). According to Steven Best(retrieved 2010), the Frankfurt School abandoned the historical, positivist, and disciplinary outlook of mainstream philosophy and social science in favor of a historical, critical, and inter-disciplinary approach that analyzed the interrelationships among culture, technology, and the capitalist economy. Frankfurt School theorists synthesized political economy, sociology, history, and philosophy, with the first modern ‘cultural studies’ that analyzed the social and ideological effects of mass culture and communications. Against staid, pseudo-objective forms of ‘traditional theory’ the Frankfurt School developed a ‘critical theory’ distinguished by its practical and radical objective, namely, to emancipate human beings from conditions of domination. Steve Best states that recognizing the limitations of ‘orthodox’ or ‘classical’ Marxism, Frankfurt theorists developed a ‘neo-Marxist’ orientation that retained basic Marxist theoretical and political premises, but supplemented the critique of capitalism with other perspectives, thereby spawning hybrid theories such as Freudo-Marxism, Marxist-feminism, and Marxist-existentialism.

According to Keller (1995), moving from Nazi Germany to the United States, the Frankfurt School experienced at first hand the rise of a media culture involving film, popular music, radio, television, and other forms of mass culture (Wiggershaus 1994). According to Steven Best, the menacing rise of Hitler and Nazism that made Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse fled Germany and settled in the United States. In the United States, where they found themselves in exile, media production was by and large a form of commercial entertainment controlled by big corporations. They analyzed how the US itself was becoming totalitarian with the rise of state-monopoly capitalism and the role played by mass culture and ideology in stabilizing crisis tendencies and shaping consent to domination. Moving from the control of production to the management of consumption, from the workplace to the home space and everyday life, capitalism had penetrated virtually all aspects of society and personal existence. Against the nightmarish backdrop of world wars, totalitarian communism, fascism, monopoly capitalism, new forms of social control, and the cooptation of the working class, Frankfurt School theorists were understandably pessimistic (Steve Best, retrieved 2010)). Two of its key theorists Max Horkheimer and T.W. Adorno developed an account of the "culture industry" to call attention to the industrialization and commercialization of culture under capitalist relations of production (1972). This situation was most marked in the United States that had little state support of film or television industries, and where a highly commercial mass culture emerged that came to be a distinctive feature of capitalist societies and a focus of critical cultural studies. Victims of European fascism, according to Steven Best, while in exile in the United States, the members of the Frankfurt School came to believe that American ‘popular culture’ was also highly ideological and worked to promote the interests of American capitalism. Controlled by giant corporations, the culture industries were organized according to the structures of mass production, churning out mass-produced products that generated a highly commercial system of culture which in turn sold the values, life-styles, and institutions of the ’ American way of life’.

The work of the Frankfurt School provided what Paul Lazarfeld (1942), according to Steven Best, one of the originators of modern communications studies, called a critical approach, which he distinguished from the "administrative research." The positions of Adorno, Lowenthal, and other members of the inner circle of the Institute for Social Research were contested by Walter Benjamin, an idiosyncratic theorist loosely affiliated with the Institute. Benjamin, writing in Paris during the 1930s, discerned progressive aspects in new technologies of cultural production such as photography, film, and radio. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1969), Benjamin noted how new mass media were supplanting older forms of culture whereby the mass reproduction of photography, film, recordings, and publications replaced the emphasis on the originality and "aura" of the work of art in an earlier era. Freed from the mystification of high culture, Benjamin believed that media culture could cultivate more critical individuals able to judge and analyze their culture, just as sports fans could dissect and evaluate athletic activities. In addition, processing the rush of images of cinema created, Benjamin believed, subjectivities better able to parry and comprehend the flux and turbulence of experience in industrialized, urbanized societies (Steven Best)

During the 1930s, according to Kellner, the Frankfurt School developed a critical and trans-disciplinary approach to cultural and communications studies, combining political economy, textual analysis, and analysis of social and ideological effects of. They coined the term ‘culture industry’ to signify the process of the industrialization of mass-produced culture and the commercial imperatives that drove the system. The critical theorists analyze all mass-mediated cultural artifacts within the context of industrial production, in which the commodities of the culture industries exhibited the same features as other products of mass-production: co modification, standardization, and massification. The culture industries had the specific function, however, of providing ideological legitimating of the existing capitalist societies and of integrating individuals into its way of life.

According to Kellner (1995) cultural studies has often underplayed the importance of developing pedagogies for promoting critical media literacy. While the Frankfurt School believed that the culture industries were overwhelmingly manipulative and overwhelmingly ideological, some versions of cultural studies argue that the media merely provide resources for audience use and pleasure. Avoidance of its images and messages seems to be the upshot of the Frankfurt School critique, while some cultural studies simply celebrate sports, Elvis, fandom, and other media phenomena.

According to Jennifer & Alisa (2009) Frankfurt School theorists argued that the media were controlled by groups who employed them to further their own interests and power. They were the first social theorists to see the importance of what they called the “culture industry” in the reproduction of contemporary societies, in which so called mass culture and communication stand in the center of leisure activity, are important agents of specialization and mediators of political reality, and should be seen as primary institutions of contemporary societies with a variety of economic, political, cultural, and social effects. They coined the term “cultural industry” to signify the process of the industrialization of mass-produced culture and the commercial imperatives that drove the system. The critical theories analyzed all mass-mediated cultural artifacts within the context of industrial production, in which the commodities of the culture industry exhibited the same features as other products of mass-production. Furthermore the critical theorists investigated the culture industry in a political context as a form of the integration of the working class into capitalist societies. The Frankfurt School were one of the first neo-Marxian groups to examine the effects of mass culture and the rise of the consumer society on the working classes, which were to be vehicles of revolution in the classical Marxian scenario. They analyzed the ways that the culture industries were stabilizing contemporary capitalism, and accordingly they sought new strategies for political change, agencies for social transformation, and models of human emancipation that could serve as norms of social critique and goals for political struggle. Jennifer & Alisa state that their approach suggests that to properly understand any specific form of media culture, one must understand how it is produced and distributed in a given society and how it is situated in relation to dominant social structure. The Frankfurt School thought, according to Jennifer & Alisa, for the most part, that media culture simply reproduced the existing society and manipulated mass audiences into obedience.

The Frankfurt School’s total rejection of mass culture seems inappropriate, as media culture is here to stay and, if anything, its products are becoming increasingly popular and powerful. Yet mindless celebration of media culture, without cultivation of methods to promote critical media literacy, is equally pernicious. Thus, it is important to pursue a project of developing critical media pedagogy and to teach ourselves and others how to critically decode media messages and to trace their complex range of effects. It is important to be able to perceive the various ideological voices and codes in the artifacts of our common culture and to distinguish between hegemonic ideologies and those images, discourses, and texts that subvert the dominant ideologies (Kellner, 1995).

It is also important, according to Kellner, to learn to discriminate between the best and worst of media culture and to cultivate oppositional subcultures and alternatives to media culture. You are what you see and hear every bit as much as what you eat, and it is therefore important to impress upon individuals the need to avoid media culture junk food and to choose healthier and more nourishing products. This requires learning discrimination and cultivating tastes for the better products of media culture, as well as alternative forms of culture ranging from poetry, literature, painting, to alternative music, film, and television.

According to Toby Miller, a critical study would pursue certain aesthetic, ethical, and political ends. Yet understanding the origins, locations, and effects of cultural studies also involves a concern with pedagogy. Toby states that questions of pedagogy inevitably involves question of value, thus the political, ethical, and aesthetic concerns would be a key aspect of pedagogy of cultural studies. He states that just as politics is a form of pedagogy, a critical pedagogy is a form of politics, teaching individuals how to situate their forms of culture and their everyday lives in the context of their social and political system in which they live. Toby states that developing critical media literacy requires development of a post modern pedagogy that takes seriously image, spectacle, and narrative, and thus promotes visual and media literacy, the ability to read and critically analyze images, stories, and spectacles of media culture (Toby Miller, 2001). According to Adomo (1969) the Frankfurt School drew upon a wide array of imaginative concepts that attempted to reveal the negative effects of modern culture’s ideological blinders, while offering socioeconomic explanations and the hope for solutions through the production of a rigorous epistemological stance that sought to tether the act of research to the emancipator critique of social foundation. In this way, according to Adomo (1969) Frankfurt School critical theory attempted to gain research perspectives outside of what it took to be the mainly unconscious, systematic complicity of researchers with the domination built into the social order.

The Frankfurt School inaugurated critical communications studies and combined political economy of the media, cultural analysis of texts, and audience reception studies of the social and ideological effects of mass culture and communication (Jennifer Holt & Alisa Perren, 2009).

According to Best, the Frankfurt School had shaped a broad and fertile field of Marxist-oriented cultural studies, or simply “Cultural Marxism.” One important offshoot of this development was British Cultural Studies. Beginning in the 1950’s, theorists such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and E.P. Thompson analyzed the significance of working-class cultures in Britain and the negative effects of mass culture. In 1964, Hoggart and Stuart Hall founded the “Birmingham School” of cultural studies. Like the Frankfurt School, Birmingham theorists employed an interdisciplinary approach to study the ideological effects of mass culture and communications. Unlike the Frankfurt School, however, the Birmingham Centre emphasized not only capitalist domination, but also widespread resistance to oppression. Hebdidge (1979), for instance, explored how subcultures subverted social codes to generate their own meaning and symbols, as Hall (1980) – a pioneer of “reception theory” – analyzed how people actively “decoded” signs and messages “encoded” in cultural “texts” (e.g., films, fashion, paintings, television programs).

According to Steven Best, Whereas Frankfurt theorists dichotomized high and low culture, largely ignored popular culture except to treat it as capitalist ideology and Adorno focused on the critical potential of the avant-garde, British theorists studied popular culture and emphasized the dialectic of domination and resistance. The Frankfurt School abandoned hope for the working class as a source of emancipator change, as British cultural studies valorized youth and workers for their ability to resist ideological power and to create their own style and identities. But if the Frankfurt School focused on political economy and “hegemony” at the expense of lived experience, active subversion of the dominant culture, and “counter-hegemony,” British cultural studies went too far in abstracting culture from political economy and exaggerated the significance of “resistance” – a marked feature of contemporary culture studies (Kellner 1997). If the Frankfurt School focused on the avant-garde at the expense of popular culture, British cultural studies concentrated on popular culture without engaging the political possibilities of avant-garde art (Adamson 2007).

As culture becomes more pervasive throughout everyday life, according to Steven Best, the task of developing a critical analysis of its influence is increasingly urgent. The richest approaches to cultural studies will absorb the best elements of prior traditions and avoid their flaws and limitations. Such a perspective would, for instance, retain the Frankfurt School’s contextualization of culture within capitalist social relations, and eschew the tendency of many Birmingham and postmodern theorists to sever culture and economy. Conversely, it would reject the Frankfurt School’s outmoded dichotomy between high and low culture and recognize their implosion in a unified field dominated by capitalist imperatives. Also, it would break with the deterministic tendencies of Frankfurt School and postmodern theorists in favor of complex descriptions of how individuals are both shaped by and in turn shape culture, signs, and ideology. It would analyze the subtleties of resistance without exaggerating their significance and occluding the need for large scale social transformation. It would be multi-perspective in its facility to use different theoretical orientations (e.g., Marxism, feminism, race theory, queer studies, and animal rights), to draw on a wide range of texts (be they architecture, books, film, television, or the Internet), to analyze a broad array of identity positions (including not only class but also sexuality, race, gender, nationality, and species), and illuminate the various ways in which cultural texts are encoded and decoded, produced and consumed (Kellner 2007).

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