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RECEPTION OF THEORY: FILM/TELEVISION STUDIES AND THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL

Author(s): CLAY STEINMAN


Source: Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 40, No. 2, Considering Theory (Spring 1988), pp. 4-
19
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of the University Film & Video
Association
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RECEPTION OF THEORY: FILM/TELEVISION
STUDIES AND THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL
CLAY STEINMAN

According to Tom Bottomore, the As a formula, this seems reasonable


"Frankfurt School in its original form, and enough. For Critical Theory, "mass
as a school of Marxism or sociology, is culture"2 may indeed be "highly contra
dead" (70). For people in film and televi dictory and historically variable," but
sion studies in the United States, the Crit invariably it is produced by stratified, in
ical Theory of the Frankfurt School hasn't dustrial societies, and, however contradic
had much of a chance, even though it torily, it bears their mark. For Critical
offers a valuable way of seeing normally Theory, most people most of the time
obscured relations of social power in the encounter culture industry products
details of modern capitalist culture. The within a system Marcuse called "one
school's first generation included Theodor dimensional," directing energies along
W. Adorno, (for a time) Erich Fromm, paths carved to the measure of the ruling
Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal, Her powers, trickling down benefits to others
bert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin, only under pressure. Readings must in
whose work was so different it deserved clude this context, or risk reifying their
separate treatment. Although none of their objects. Surely products don't dictate
positions were identical, as a group they their meanings or effects?how could ide
were resolutely antagonistic to the culture ology be intrinsic in that sense??but just
of domination.1 as surely they function within a social
system (which includes people's re
sponses) determined by force and interest.
Critical Theory's approach is not easily
summarized, but I might be able to clarify
Petro's formula might easily mask the
a few features by comparing it to an alter
difficulties involved in knowing meanings
native analytic method Patrice Petro re
and, even more, effects. Involved are the
cently proposed:
virtues and limitations of empirical re
search, issues with which Adorno strug
We may now want to pursue a dif gled when he reviewed his own work
ferent reading of mass culture, one among the empiricists in the United
which begins from the assumption States:
that mass culture is neither intrinsi
cally "progressive" nor "reac It is an open question, to be answered
tionary," but highly contradictory only empirically, whether and to what
and historically variable in its form, extent the social implications ob
its meanings, and its effects (5). served in the . . . analysis of music
are understood by the listeners them
Clay Steinman is an associate professor of Com selves, and how they react to them. It
munication at Florida Atlantic University. His would be naive to take for granted an
article, "M*A*S*// Mystified," co-written with identity between the social implica
Mike Budd, is forthcoming in Cultural Critique. tions to be discerned in the stimuli
Copyright ? 1988 by C. Steinman and those embodied in the "re

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sponses." It would certainly be no network television that feature what
less naive to consider the two things Frank Capra called the "reactive charac
as totally uncorrelated with each ter," designed to cue viewers' responses
other in the absence of conclusive to potentially disruptive ambiguities. Are
research on the reactions ("Scientific these shots "inherently reactionary"? No.
Experiences" 353). Response of course would depend upon
who is watching and the circumstances of
Using a Hegelian term for the movement reception, and on their relation to adjoin
of society, Adorno argued that "what is ing material. But I think it is safe to say
regarded by the psychology of perception that on network television, looked at from
as a mere 'stimulus' is in fact, qualitatively the left, the form generally articulates an
determined, a matter of Objective spirit'" historically developed, reactionary social
("Scientific Experiences" 343). He op system.
posed "stating and measuring effects"
without linking them to the social relations On Fantasy Island, for example, the reac
underlying culture industry products "to tive character?Ricardo Montalb?n as Mr.
which consumers in the culture industry Roarke?guides the r?ponses of charac
. . . react," for "it still had to be deter ters within the diegesis and is designed to
mined how far comprehensive social serve a similar function for people at
structures, and even society as a whole, home. In a patriarchal culture, in a show
came into play" ("Scientific Experi aimed at women, it is no accident that this
ences" 343-344). figure is a man, just as it is no accident that
in adjacent commercials the narrating
If theory alone cannot know effects, and voice and reactive character is a man with
empirical work is mired in problems of similar mien, promoting products aimed at
defining what it would measure, what can the same audience. The effects are likely
we read when we read "mass culture"? psychological, ideological (Budd, Craig,
According to Adorno, "hieroglyphs of so and Steinman). But they also move goods
cial significance" ("Scientific Experi and help establish our relations to them;
ences" 342). To accomplish this, Critical they help the economy reproduce. The
Theory insists both on the specificity of shot structure itself is an industrial form
each object's forms, of its existence in its that derives from the classical Hollywood
details, and on a respect for each object's cinema, where, in fits and starts, it devel
interconnections with others in the oped and became standardized as it was
world?in short, on its particularity and on found to be commercially practicable.
its generality. It insists as well on self Adorno wrote: "The phenomena with
consciousness about the analytical pro which the sociology of the mass media
cess, itself a social hieroglyph. must be concerned, particularly in Amer
ica, cannot be separated from standardi
But Critical Theory is not just another zation" ("Scientific Experiences" 346).
method one might choose to apply. It sees
its criticism is an act of resistance, prefig What David Noble says of Thomas Edi
uring work outside the market system. It son's laboratory applies to other standard
assumes the urgency, with no guarantees ized inventions of the culture industry:
of political efficacy, of envisioning social "As in all engineering work, the profit
life without domination and of criticizing motive did not lie behind the inventive
the present society for denying possibili activity but was bound up with it" (8).
ties. This is true as well of this form's historical
connection to "scientific management":
Let's look at one culture industry product the network and advertisers seek to orga
from this perspective: reaction shots on nize the audience for consumption with

JOURNAL OF FILM AND VIDEO 40.2 (Spring 1988) 5

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the efficiency of managers constructing an (Hall 83; but see also O'Kane). For Terry
assembly line (Braverman; also E wen). Lovell:
One doesn't have to see the form as "in
herently reactionary" to see how, in this The most striking characteristic of
example, it is a hieroglyph for a patriar this work is . . . its insistence on the
chal market system bent on social control; distance which separates the 'rela
without these forces, the form would not tively autonomous' practices of cul
be standard. tural production from the remaining
'practices' which together constitute
With its focus on textual immanence, Crit the social formation (Pictures 2).
ical Theory can help people in film and
television research break through disci A critic of this tendency, she nevertheless
plinary limitations that work against com rightly considers its contribution "im
bining formal and political-economic anal pressive" (Pictures 2); over the last 15
ysis. An expert in music, Adorno wrote years, work under its influence, stressing
several detailed studies that suggest how the complex "specificity" (Hall 83) of
the immanent criticism he argued for mass media practices over their general
might be extended to film and television.3 social roles, has illuminated textual struc
Such criticism reads the social within cul tures and ideological implications previ
tural artifacts and, he said, ously taken for granted. This is most no
table in feminist studies of film.
takes seriously the principle that it is
not ideology itself which is untrue but But there have been costs, and among
its pretension to correspond to real them has been a devaluation of dialectical
ity. Immanent criticism . . . names strategies such as the Frankfurt School's,
what the consistency or inconsistency which stress not autonomy but interrela
of the work itself expresses of the tion, and which might be used to under
structure of the existent. ... It pur stand how economic, political, and ideo
sues the logic of its aporias. ... In logical determinations have worked in
such antinomies criticism perceives specific socio-historical moments and how
those of society ("Cultural Criticism" they must and can be changed. In the
32). cause of this change, Adorno demanded
30 years ago the "right to go from one
In its active readings of structural gaps, genus to another, to shed light on an
immanent criticism resembles French object in itself hermetic by casting a
poststructuralism and the British cultural glance at society, to present society with
studies of Stuart Hall and others, cited the bill the object does not redeem"
more often than Critical Theory by writers ("Cultural Criticism" 33). The stress on
in our field. But there are crucial differ relative autonomy has discouraged analy
ences that make Critical Theory worth sis of this kind?moving from one social
considering. realm to another, sketching out the dialec
tical relations of their forms, illuminating
Work in cultural studies, for example, what Fredric Jameson has called "his
tends to follow Louis Althusser in its torical tropes" and "dialectical puns"
insistence upon the "relative autonomy" (Marxism 3-59; "Introduction" 142)?
of ideology's cultural forms from eco even if it does not preclude it in theory,
nomic relations. For Althusser, Hall, and and film and television studies seems the
others, this tends to involve raising the poorer for it, and less critical. What tends
mass media to a "central, relatively inde to drop from sight in analyses under the
pendent, position in any analysis of the influence of rubrics of relative autonomy
question of the 'politics of signification'" is precisely what has made Marxian

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thought radical: the economic in its most important collections of leftist media the
general sense?the social conditions of ory of the last few years, Culture, Society
life's production. As writers of film history and the Media (Curran, Gurevitch, and
and analysis trample each other to dis Woollacott; Bennett, 'Theories"; Hall);
tance themselves from a mechanistic eco and an essay on Marxist theory and criti
nomic determinism, their work becomes cism in an early issue of Critical Studies in
less useful for making connections. Mass Communication, the new Speech
Communication Association interdiscipli
In publications devoted to film and televi nary journal that is potentially an impor
sion studies, those in our field qualified to tant source for analytical bricolage
take up the Frankfurt School's radical (Grossberg). These articles exemplify ele
project could read little but denunciations ments of the prevalent response from the
of its general value until recently. This has left wing of film and television studies to
been everyone's loss, for the first genera Critical Theory?dismissing it without a
tion of the Frankfurt School lacked three fair hearing. Unfair as they can be in their
crucial qualifications for producing the cri representations of Critical Theory, these
tiques we need of culture industry prod pieces sometimes highlight what it is about
ucts and their modes of consumption: sen the Frankfurt School that has engendered
sitivity to the power and prevalence of such a benighted reception. But even their
heterosexist subjection, detailed knowl most trenchant critiques fail to support
edge of the forms of film and television their wholesale hostility.
texts, and appreciation of the pleasure
bonds of this dystopian Oz.
This response has its own political origins
and functions, and is related to the some
For more than two decades, United States
times helpful, often debilitating hegemony
specialists in Critical Theory have ana
of alternating currents of French and Brit
lyzed and extended the work of the first
ish thought over most leftist film study in
generation and have explored its impact in
the United States (See Garnham; Lo veil,
West Germany and elsewhere, in New
"Marxism"; McDonnell and Robins). Re
German Critique, Telos, and other publi
markably so, considering its proliferation,
cations. As dissatisfaction with aspects of
this hegemony has usually been caught in
French theory has grown in the eighties,
the United States like many works of the
people in film and television studies have
foreign art cinema?deferentially pro
begun looking to other disciplines and
moted yet abridged, as long sections of
theories, and work informed by Critical
contentious Anglo-European political con
Theory has appeared with increasing fre
text are deleted by United States distribu
quency at our conferences and in our tors.
journals.4 Yet this work has yet to have
the impact of the attacks on the Frankfurt
School published here and in Britain. I shall concentrate on four claims about
Critical Theory that have functioned as
It seems useful to consider these attacks, strategies of denial: that it failed to envi
and to try to account for them. The exam sion possibilities for film practice outside
ples I shall discuss are survey articles the culture industry; that its critique of
from three sources that might have at culture industry products reproduced con
tracted the attention of people in film and servative mass society theories; that it has
television studies in the United States: been too weak conceptually to survive the
articles by colleagues in the field challenge of empirical communication
(Waldman; Boddy); contributions from studies in the United States; and that its
within and around British cultural studies notorious pessimism betrays its political
by Hall and others to one of the most irrelevance.

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No Alternatives Yet it was because Adorno did not have an
"ahistorical film ontology" (45)6 that he
Bitterness gives Critical Theory its was so antagonistic toward the products of
strength. Its indictment of control by the the motion picture industry: he knew they
few and ruthless impoverishment of the could be different. There may be no sepa
many, its refusal to accept the accommo rating Adorno's radical critique from his
dations our lives demand of us?these are
personal distaste for what he considered
unrelenting. Grounding itself in the eman unrefined, but neither can it be divorced
cipatory interests of Marxian theory, and from the vision that in theory motivated it.
in the Hegelian Marxian emphasis on in Adorno did detest the realist project of
terconnection and contradiction, Critical culture industry film?so much so that in
Theory can help politically motivated film the essay on which she concentrates,
and television students guard their vision Waldman aptly notes that he and Hork
while staring at the corporate screen. heimer seem to have been insensitive to
differences and changes within Hollywood
Crucial to this are possibilities of alterna
production. But this was a failure of ob
tives. If Critical Theory, for example, sees
servation, not a theory of film. In his
film as essentially realist, then for it there
response to Benjamin's "The Work of Art
can be no anti-realist film practice, and its
value diminishes. Diane Waldman has ar in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,"
for example, Adorno questioned whether
gued this point in New German Critique,
having a representational quality "really
which characteristically has been more
constitutes that a priori of the film which
generous to Critical Theory. While justly
you claim it to be," or "whether instead
attacking caricatures of Critical Theory in
this reproduction precisely belongs to that
the writings of others, including Peter
'naive realism' whose bourgeois nature we
Wollen, she joins Wollen in indicting the
so thoroughly agreed upon" ("Corre
"erroneous ontological suppositions and
spondence" 66). Nevertheless, Waldman
concomitant biases against film articulated
writes that Adorno did not "distinguish
by Adorno" (45). She criticizes these sup
between properties of the medium as they
positions no fewer than eight times with
have been exploited under capitalism and
out any clear evidence from Adorno's
these properties as they have or could be
work?with one exception, a comment
utilized under other conditions of produc
attributed to Adorno by Wollen:
tion" (49).7 As Greg Renault and Miriam
That the essence of film lies merely in Hansen have observed, a crucial missing
duplicating and reinforcing what al source here is Composing for the Films,
ready exists, that it is glaringly super
which Adorno coauthored with Hanns
fluous and senseless even in a leisure Eisler in the forties but originally did not
restricted to infantility, that its dupli sign (Renault 257; Hansen, "Intro
cative realism is incompatible with its duction" 189n). At times allying itself with
claims to be an aesthetic image?all aspects of Sergei Eisenstein's radical film
this can be seen in the film itself, theory (65-75), the book advocated forms
without recourse to dogmatically of production Adorno and Eisler believed
cited v?rit?s ?ternelles (46).5 were not then possible within the industry:
"A discussion of industrialized culture
As Wollen provided no source for the must show the interaction of these two
quotation, and Waldman could not locate factors: the aesthetic potentialities of mass
it, she says, "I use it with caution" (46n). art in the future, and its ideological char
Yet she not very cautiously uses the quo acter in the present" (xi). This would
tation to tie Adorno to Andr? Bazin, who seem to be the position Waldman wants
did believe there was something essential Adorno to take. The problem here is con
about the apparent realism of film (47-9). text. Self-consciously dialectical writings

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often do not read well as isolated texts. Picasso and Sch?nberg), seeing in them
This is even more true of their sentences. resistance to the culture industry's realm
The radical potential of Critical Theory, of necessity and praising them for the
its use value for people teaching and writ way, however roughly, they prefigured
ing critical studies of culture today, lies in aesthetic life in the realm of the free. As
the structure of its analysis?its sighting of Waldman says, "one can ... see how,"
domination in the very forms that hearken for example, "Adorno's critique of the
its overthrow?not in the comments of its culture industry was misunderstood as
writers, served up in isolation and, usu coming from the same place as that of
ally, in translation.8 critics like T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis and
Jos? Ortega y Gasset" (45).

Mass Society As Waldman points out, "Unlike these


conservative critics, the Frankfurt school
Like others battered by change in the first refused to defend high culture and tradi
half of the twentieth century, the Critical tion as an end in itself (45). In the early
Theorists saw competitive capitalism fifties summary of their position, Aspects
moving toward a system of monopoly ad of Sociology, members of the Institute for
ministration. As leftists, they analyzed Social Research in Frankfurt specifically
how this movement helped cement the attacked the elitism of Ortega y Gasset
precarious hold of oppressive ruling and others (75). They were careful to
classes. What was blocking the struggle differentiate their critique of the culture
Marx had predicted against control by the industry from a conservative one rooted in
few? Marcuse condemned the adminis an idealist vision of art's unworldliness.
tered society as ''one-dimensional,'' re The defenders of what Marcuse in 1937
pressing, displacing, denying wherever it called the "affirmative character of cul
could the oppositional energies it gener ture" might put it otherwise, but for Crit
ated. What was it about this society that ical Theory the conservative insistence
made organized rebellion against it so un that art and culture provide an enclave for
usual, sometimes unthinkable? How did the spirit against the world of the mob
cultural work reproduce this rebellion? helps justify existing property relations.
and its uneven containment? Yet despite "The truth of a higher world, of a higher
these radical concerns, over the last dec good than material existence, conceals the
ade readers have often associated the truth that a better material existence can
Frankfurt School only with its critique of be created in which such happiness is
administered life, blind to its vision of realized" ("Affirmative" 121). Defense of
liberation?the motivation for Critical the autonomy of the spirit against worldly
Theory in the first place (Horkheimer; problems promotes conformism: "It is
Marcuse, "Philosophy"). precisely because the soul dwells beyond
the economy that the latter can manage it
For example, one reading of Critical The so easily" ("Affirmative" 126).
ory has linked it to mass society theory,
which in turn has been tied to affection for Yet Lawrence Grossberg, in an essay
elite culture and revulsion at advanced dominated by simplistic dismissals of most
market (and socialist) societies' brutaliza Marxian work, says of the Frankfurt
tion. As hostile as they tended to be School on this issue only that Adorno had
toward culture industry products, a "modernist vision of art as a transcen
Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse wrote dental, autonomous activity which, by
much to encourage this view. They also projecting Utopian possibilities, opens up a
argued for the critical value of a handful of space for social critique" (396). He does
examples of elite art (such as works of not say, for example, that Adorno also

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argued that "all culture shares the guilt of value in jazz ("Perennial Fashion,v). Yet
society. It ekes out its existence only by many of the works I cite in this article
virtue of injustice already perpetrated in show that the Frankfurt School has pro
the sphere of production, much as does duced some of the most brilliant close
commerce" ("Cultural Criticism" 26). analyses ever written revealing the hidden
political agenda of cultural products.9 To
Unlike others called mass society theo dismiss them because of their authors'
rists, Adorno did not find the productions lifestyles and blind spots is to let star
of the culture industry monolithic or with gossip overcome social critique.
out contradictions:
Mass society theorists have also been
Since in our society the forces of linked to the "magic bullet" or "hypo
production are highly developed, and, dermic" theory of communication, which
at the same time, the relations of ostensibly flourished in the twenties. This
production fetter those productive theory?more accurately a group of anec
forces, it is full of antagonisms. These dotes centered on the manipulations of the
antagonisms are not limited to the media by the authorities during World
economic sphere where they are uni War I?argued that the mass media could
versally recognized, but dominate inject ideas into populations lacking pre
also the cultural sphere where they industrial society's allegiances (De Fleur
are less easily recognized ("Social and Ball-Rokeach 156-65). But as Melvin
Critique" 211). L. De Fleur and Sandra Ball-Rokeach
have pointed out, the theory "is not quite
Whatever their theories, however, the as simple as it might appear" (161).
Critical Theorists have not been known as Rooted in instinct psychology, it assumed
cultural interventionists?except for Mar human beings had inherited biological
cuse, who celebrated currents within structures, predisposing them toward con
Afro-American music, literature, and po sistent r?ponses to certain sorts of stim
etry, the "liberating laughter of the uli?especially those appealing to irratio
Yippies," and the "lyrics and music of nal emotions (De Fleur and Ball-Rokeach
Bob Dylan" (Counterrevolution 172, 132, 162-164). But this was hardly the position
117-18)?and this may have contributed to of the Frankfurt School, for whom psy
their reputation as elitists. Also, as Martin chology was social, conflictive, historical
Jay reports, they "may have been relent (Adorno, "Sociology"). Accordingly, in
less in their hostility to the capitalist sys Aspects of Sociology they argued that
tem, but they never abandoned the life there was "no absolutely reliable method
style of the haute bourgeoisie"; as a for seducing the masses; these vary with
result, they have developed?among their the latter's readiness to be seduced" (81).
detractors, at least?reputations as "man
darins" (Dialectical 36). Aside from Mar Still, in Culture, Society and the Media,
cuse, whose later work shows how Criti the Frankfurt School is tied to mass soci
cal Theory might take into account ety theory in three separate essays and in
residual and emerging cultural movements the introduction (Gurevitch and others 8,
(Essay; Counterrevolution), the first gen 23, 42, 58). In One-Dimensional Man,
eration Frankfurt writers showed little in Marcuse is said to have perceived the
terest in ethnic and other expression resis "media as a stupefying, totally subduing
tant to corporate administration. Their force" (Gurevitch and others 15), even
general disdain of culture industry prod though he says in the book's introduction
ucts affected some of their applications of that there are "large areas within and
Critical Theory?most infamously in without" the most highly developed con
Adorno's inability to see much critical temporary societies "where the described

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tendencies do not prevail?I would say: Culture"; Marcuse, One-Dimensional
not yet prevail" (Marcuse, One-Dimen vii, 144-169)11, as do most leftist commu
sional xvii). nication researchers working today
(Gitlin) and even increasing numbers of
In another essay, Tony Bennett writes scholars closer to the mainstream
that Horkheimer and Adorno, especially (Blumler and Gurevitch), yet in Anglo
in Dialectic of Enlightenment, regarded North American film and television stud
the "mechanisms and effects" of the ies, the mass society bugaboo persists.
United States film and music industries as
"virtually wholly narcotic or worse, lobo
tomie" ("Theories" 44), even though in Academic Losers
that book they wrote, "Demand has not
yet been replaced by simple obedience" For better or worse, the Critical Theorists
(136). Similarly, in an often useful over were by language, politics, and tempera
view in another anthology, "Loving a ment isolated from most mass communi
Nineteen-Inch Motorola: American Writ cation studies in the United States. Con
ing on Television," William Boddy claims sidering that, they loom large, strangely,
the Frankfurt School saw the media as in several critics' thumbnail chronologies.
"all-powerful manipulators" (4). He offers Boddy, for example, folds the work of
no evidence in support of the characteri such Frankfurt School writers as Hork
zation, although evidence against it else heimer and Lowenthal into the general
where abounds, as I have shown. category of "American culture critics of
the 1930s," against which he sets the
Curiously, linking the Frankfurt School to "postwar emphasis on quantitative com
conservative culture critics parallels the munication studies" (4). He further says
strategy of centrist social scientists in the that the "new generation of communica
United States in the late fifties and early tion researchers has modified or refuted
sixties, who used Daniel Bell's "end of the earlier accounts of media influence"?
ideology" thesis to club radical intellectu apparently meaning something like the
als for their recalcitrance. In Daniel J. magic bullet theory (5). He says the
Czitrom's observant account, it was Bell "model of influence they elaborated,
himself, along with Leon Bramson, Ed where effects are simple, direct and pow
ward Shils, Raymond Bauer, Alice Bauer, erful, was subject to extensive revision at
and others, who promulgated the "arti the hands of the researchers who followed
ficial and spurious construct" of a coher them" (4). Besides caricaturing Critical
ent, monolithic mass society theory sup Theory, Boddy has bollixed up his chro
posedly shared by elitists left and right nology. No wonder he fails to offer any
(136). To those in the mainstream, anyone examples of the "earlier accounts of me
not blinded by ideology would see what dia influence" from the Frankfurt School
democratic social science made plain: de in the United States in the thirties: Critical
spite "a plethora of intriguing titles, spec Theory did not appear here in English
ulative generalizations, and an excellent until the forties, and many of its most
body of laboratory research, there is little pointed critiques of the culture industry
evidence of the effect of mass media in were not published or translated until the
American society as a whole" (Czitrom fifties and sixties.
137).10 So "mass society theory" was a
specious epithet thrown from the center at But a more serious problem is the presen
those who refused to see the media as tation of theoretical conflict as autono
benign. The Frankfurt School rejected the mous. Partially because they were ornery,
notion that the media have little or no but mostly because of the politics of the
social effect (Lowenthal, "Popular work they did, the Critical Theorists were

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unable to secure reliable funding for their Media that kTo put it bluntly, the work of
Marxian communication research, as Jay the Frankfurt School was relatively mar
documents in The Dialectical Imagina ginal in developing and generating re
tion. Lacking an institutional base, wor search in mass communications, in pro
ried about money and immigrant status in viding a theoretical paradigm within which
an anti-Communist climate less than tem media studies could proceed" (23)?as if
perate for leftist German Jews, and seeing this had been due to the theoretical weak
no United States outlet for publication of ness of Critical Theory, as if there were a
non-Communist Marxian criticism until market in ideas dividing winners and los
the sixties, they published intermittently ers according to their merits. Curran, Gu
and with considerable self-censorship in revitch, and Woollacott claim that the
English while writing radical criticism in "clash between the critical theorists' view
German.12 These are among the reasons of mass society and a pluralist-inspired
the Frankfurt School position had little tradition focusing on the effects of the
impact on what there was of United States mass media involved a major theoretical
communication research at the time. confrontation" (23). But this confronta
tion never took place, except in the minds
Paul F. Lazarsfeld, a German emigr? who of writers of idealist secondary literature.
was successful as a social scientist in the
United States, tried to promote what he
saw as the critical dimension of the Frank Academic Exchange-Value
furt School to more mainstream audi
ences. But according to Jennifer Daryl Whatever the intentions of their authors,
Slack and Martin Allor, Lazarsfeld him the articles I have examined nevertheless
self was not clear on Critical Theory's seem driven by a similar project?to
radical project (210-11; for an alternative champion newer theoretical practices at
view, see Kellner). Still, there were intel the expense of dispatching Critical Theory
lectuals in the United States who had to the dustbin without a fair hearing. They
contact with and absorbed at least ele and others like them (and, despite my
ments of the Frankfurt School critique: C. intentions, perhaps this one) provide indi
Wright Mills, who worked with Lazars ces of academic exchange-value within a
feld; David Riesman, who worked with system, as Russell Jacoby says, whose
Fromm; and George Gerbner, who "commandment of survival and success
worked with Adorno (Kellner). But few exactly parallels the capitalist" (144). Be
social scientists were receptive to Marx lying images of ourselves as independent
ism in any form until academics with ori scholars, we labor within academic insti
gins in the United States New Left began tutions, as Steven B. El worth notes,13 and
moving into the universities and promot our jobs press us to imagine, identify
ing their critique on the inside. The most ourselves with, and promote a cutting
cited example of a centrist academic's edge against what becomes designated as
evaluation of Critical Theory before the out-of-date.
late sixties neither takes their arguments
seriously nor engages them, instead revil Marxism not excepted, new schools,
ing Adorno, Fromm, Horkheimer, and innovations, advances, break
Lowenthal as foreign Marxists, and un throughs, are announced like new
American (Shils). brands. Everyone is out to corner a
piece of the market. Interlocking di
None of this seems to have mattered to rectorates, intellectual holding com
James Curran, Michael Gurevitch, and panies and trusts leave tracks in foot
Janet Woollacott, however, who disdain notes of gratuitous commendations,
fully report in Culture, Society and the dedications and recommendations.

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The transition from competitive to were an autonomous intellectual history
monopoly capital has brought in its susceptible to radical distillation. He re
wake intellectual kick-backs, as well duces Critical Theory to the glibly summa
as volume sales and cut-rate goods rized?and, in this form, easily consumed
(Jacoby 144). and rejected?work of Adorno. In his con
cluding summary, he lists Critical Theory
In this context, it seems useful to empha under the category "classical approach"
size the words in, for example, Waldman's in which "culture reflects society; decod
and Boddy's accounts that articulate a ing is unproblematic" (417). According to
discourse of progress. In the academic Critical Theory, says Grossberg, "the text
market, this discourse increases the value imposes forms of consumption which re
of summaries that seem to make it clear, flect their industrialized modes of produc
with the sweep and authority of an omni tion" (417). I cannot imagine anyone
scient narrator, what we need and need wanting to read Critical Theory (or much
not know. Waldman's greatest praise for other socially critical work aside from
Adorno is that his writing was the "first poststructuralism and Foucault) after
critique of mass culture from a radical reading Grossberg. Given the substantial
rather than a conservative position," that mainstream audience for Critical Studies
it, "anticipates by 25 years the analysis of in Mass Communication, the essay can
such journals as Cahiers du Cin?ma and look forward to a long life in courses with
Cin?thique in France or Screen in Britain instructors eager to dismiss Marxian work
in the early 1970s" (52). She further rec on the basis of Grossberg's "Cliffs
ommends "recent film criticism and the Notes." Despite several caveats, the es
ory" from Cahiers du Cin?ma and Ste say never lets on that such a judgment
phen Heath's writing in Screen. would be irrational considering the com
plexity of the originals.
Similarly, near the end of his article, Boddy
argues, "If recent theorists reject the model Pessimism
of 'administrative research,' there is never
theless little sense of a return to the earlier What seems to bother these writers as
Frankfurt School theories of subjectivity much as anything, and seems to push them
and culture" (10). Boddy doesn't identify toward what they see as the new, is what
the work he advocates with any names or Boddy (4), Curran, Gurevitch, and Wool
institutions, but he appears to be promoting lacott (23), Grossberg (401), Hall (58), and
a combination of critical communications the editors of Culture, Society and the
research represented within the Journal of Media (8) all identically decry as the "pes
Communication issue, "Ferment in the simism" of the Critical Theorists. No
Field," and Anglo-North American-French doubt they were pessimistic. They saw the
poststructuralist, feminist film and televi likelihood recede that classical Marxism's
sion analysis, in the mid-eighties, again as proletariat would liberate humankind.
sociated with Screen. They had experienced Nazism. And aside
from Marcuse's optimistic r?ponses of the
Grossberg, too, writes as if knowledge late sixties, the first generation Critical
were progressively obtained, although for Theorists from the late twenties could find
him progress is not quite so chronologi no movements capable of taking the pro
cally bound. He travels through 10 circles letariat's place. Yet rejection of theory
of theory, stopping only when he arrives because of its pessimism, because of the
at the one containing the thought of Mi unattractive images it constructs of every
chel Foucault, who I think would have day life under late capitalism, smacks pre
been astonished to see his work function cisely of the power of positive thinking
ing as a telos. Grossberg writes as if there Critical Theory eviscerated. In that sense,

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the rejection of pessimism by so many minds and directing the activities of
leftist colleagues only makes me more the proletariat through the mediation
pessimistic. At stake is not which theory is of an organized political party?the
more correct. As Ana Lopez has argued: Frankfurt theorists, particularly
Adorno, argued that theory must give
We must accept the fact that there is up the endeavor to change the world
no theoretical endeavor which does by transforming itself into
not also involve politics and inter practice. . . . Although they con
ested readings of history, and that it is demned reality in round terms, they
ultimately not a question of choosing had no positive suggestions to make
the better theory, but a question of as to how it might be changed (46,47).
choosing among different political al
ternatives (59). Beginning in at least the early forties, the
Critical Theorists opposed Soviet Marx
ism as a philosophy and practice of dom
Politics and Interests
ination, although they declined toj?in the
period's anti-Communist celebration. As
There is a pattern here. But what accounts
early as the thirties, they rejected the
for it? What are the politics? What are the
possibility of using Marxism to develop
interests? How can so many otherwise
the revolutionary knowledge Leninists say
thorough academics write so carelessly
justifies their leadership. Unlike many of
about one body of theory?and so consis
the British Marxists prominent in film and
tently so?
cultural studies, the Critical Theorists sev
ered themselves not only from Stalinism
The two explanations I have already sug but also from Leninism.
gested?the advantages of promoting the
new and the desire to look on the bright A good place to start for a review of these
side?are inadequate in themselves since issues and a sense of their obscure but
they do not account for the particular complex relation to film studies in Britain
drubbing the Frankfurt School receives. and North America is Perry Anderson's
Closer analysis of the arguments may; Arguments Within English Marxism.
crucial here is pessimism as a matter of What becomes apparent, and a rereading
politics rather than of temperament. of Althusser's writings supports this, is
that much of the work of the British Le
Clearest on the issues is Bennett, who ninist Left, which reproduces many of
since at least the late seventies (see his Althusser's formulations, is rooted in a
Formalism and Marxism) has been a crit struggle of discourses, of systems of the
ical enthusiast of the work of Althusser, oretical representation, generated over the
here the most well-known of the fractious
last 30 years in the crucible of disputes
European Communist theorists. In his within the world Communist movement.
main contribution to Culture, Society and Writes Anderson:
the Media, Bennett makes it plain: the
problem of the Frankfurt writers was not The Sino-Soviet dispute ... is the
so much their theories, which might be real political background for the writ
used to study the world, as their politics, ing of For Marx and Reading Cap
which seem irrelevant to changing it. They ital. . . . Althusser's intervention in
were not Leninists. 1961-1962 was aimed at the Russian
line internationally, and nationally at
In opposition to the Leninist con much of the official culture of the
struction of the relationship between [French Communist Party], from a
theory and practice?that the theory position sympathetic to the Chinese
must become practical by gripping the (106, 107).

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This was the political context within ative Operations of hegemony?and to be
which Althusser framed the ideas that ready to exert leadership when it comes.
have had such power in Anglo-North Since the Critical Theorists, like non
American film and television studies?the Leninist leftists generally, did not believe
attack on socialist humanism and on He the economic crisis necessarily imminent,
gelian dialectics, the insistence on the or consider it either useful or emancipa
autonomy of theoretical work and on the tory to develop a party on the Leninist
possibility of its break with ideology model, their work to Leninists seems pes
toward the status of a science, the en simistic and non-activist, passive indeed.
dorsement of the psychoanalysis of As Bennett puts it: "Theory thus became
Jacques Lacan. Reading Althusser's for passive, negative in its function" and in so
mulations in the terms Anderson sets out, becoming theory was "deprived of any
then reading their reproduction in Screen, means whereby it might connect with re
and then following their course within ality"?a working class in need of a van
North America (especially the United guard party?"in order to change it" (46).
States), where Althusser's polemics have
been articulated, decontextualized, by It is different for non-Leninist leftists in
people whose circumstances and political North America, particularly for those in
views are rarely anything like Althusser's, the largest cities and in university towns.
or Bennett's, breathes life into L?vi Working within or around collectives and
Strauss's argument that people do not women's and other groups over the last 15
think in myths, myths think in people, or 20 years, they have seen the viability,
unaware. difficult and temporary as it might be, of
alternative institutions of everyday life.
Of course, neither Althusser himself nor For that reason, they might well find much
his political constellation could determine of Critical Theory, except the later work
what people in Anglo-North American of Marcuse, out of touch with what they
film and television studies think and writesee as possibilities for continued organiz
about. And this is not to say that structur ing. This may help account for some of the
alist and poststructuralist approaches, feelings of the United States writers. From
with their considerable value, would nota very different starting point than the
be abroad in Great Britain or North AmerLeninists, they might similarly find the
ica if it were not for Althusser. But it is to
Frankfurt School too pessimistic. For
say that much of their cachet of politicalboth, however, the centrist construction
radicalism, their polemical thrust, theirand critique of mass society theory makes
authoritarian invective is connected to the possible a convenient reading of Critical
packaging they received from sections ofTheory that seems to situate it historically
the French Left and their allies elsewhere.while belittling its contemporary rele
vance in an apparently detached way.
So it is because the British Marxist
Leninists could not accept Critical TheoryGrossberg is right when he says the "point
politically in any case that they have beenis not so much to choose" between theo
quick to write against it without carefullyries (418). It seems irrational to embrace
gathering and weighing its arguments. the work of theorists as one might a friend,
This goes back to Wollen's work of 1968. or a faith, or a political movement, al
What are the specifics of this hostility?though in a culture lacking in attractive
Leninists tend to believe in the coming political movements, the appeal of theo
crisis of world capitalism and the urgencyretical movements, like that of faith, is
and usefulness of developing theoreticalsure to grow. This seems particularly true
and organizational forms to precipitateamong intellectuals who, as Adorno
that crisis?fighting the brutal and exploitwrote, "might well be deformed" by the

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division of labor that isolates them ("Res in the humanities and the arts diminishes
ignation" 165). As the Critical Theorists as the language of back to basics fuses
themselves would argue, the theory given with what Marcuse called, after its aspira
their names cannot be settled. Marked as tions, the language of total administration.
it is by conservative and radical elements Marxism?feminist and not?thrives in
of its historical juncture, it changes, un the universities only to the extent that it
evenly, in response to social struggles. becomes disciplined, hermetic, and polite,
Critical Theory is, as Lowenthal insists, a and keeps its distance from direct confron
"perspective" (Dubiel 145); it cannot tation with the ruling powers. Under these
guide political practice, although bound up conditions, the theory of one-dimension
with practice it can contribute to political ality, its cultural critique, seems more
understanding. relevant than ever.

Bottomore's rejection of the Frankfurt


School writers stems in part from their Acknowledgements
lack of attention to socialist working class
*My work on this article has been helped by
movements in Britain and elsewhere (65), the generous advice and detailed suggestions of
which have no recent counterparts in the Lynn Appleton, Tom Banks, Chris Berry, Lynn
United States. Again, in words that apply Garrett, Douglas Kellner, Carlos Nelson, An
to nearly the entire Frankfurt School, drea Press, Michael Selig, Janet Staiger, Diane
Marcuse made it clear in One-Dimen Waldman, and especially Mike Budd and Cathy
Schwichtenberg. A different version of this
sional Man that his "analysis is focused article was presented in New York on June 14,
on tendencies in the most highly devel 1985, to members of the Society for Cinema
oped contemporary societies" (xvii). For Studies, whose ideas have led to substantial
revisions.
most of the world, for whom advanced
domination uses the stick more than the
carrot, different sorts of theories may be Notes
more immediately relevant.
1 For historical and theoretical introductions,
In the United States, alternative voices see Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, and
Buck-Morss.
are harder to find every year, even as 2 For Critical Theory in its later formulations,
stratification and public immiserization in such terms as "mass culture" and "popular
tensify. This is particularly true for issues culture" mystify the culture industry and its
of gender, sexual orientation, race and social connections. They risk unreasonably
connoting broad participation in the develop
class?and of pleasure, a crucial matter
ment of the industry's goods, as "folk culture"
for film and television studies. Pleasure
reasonably does in its realm (Adorno, "Culture
outside the purview of the state and the Industry Reconsidered" 12).
largest corporations becomes increasingly 3 Besides those mentioned elsewhere in the
taboo. Nancy Reagan tells viewers of The text: "On Popular Music" (written with George
Simpson), "On the Fetish-Character in Music
Today Show that the "sixties were an and the Regression of Listening," "On the
awful time,"14 and no one contradicts her Social Situation of Music," and "The Stars
on the air. Off the air, people are threat Down to Earth: The Los Angeles Times Astrol
ened with urine and blood tests?How ogy Column: A Study in Secondary Supersti
tion." For an assessment of Adorno's contem
much more deeply could the social order
porary relevance as a critic of culture industry
intrude??and are asked "Are you now or music, see Gendron.
have you ever been?" as if the eighties are 4 See, e.g., Allen, Budd, Hansen
to be to the sixties what the fifties were to ("Pleasure"), Levin, Rosen, and New German
the thirties, with alternative pleasures and Critique 40 (Winter 1987), a Special Issue on
Weimar Film Theory.
modes of consciousness replacing Com 5 Waldman here cites Lee Russell (pseud.
munism as the mark of Cain. Government Peter Wollen), "Cinema?Code and Image,"
support for education and for critical work New Left Review 49 (May/June 1968): 75.

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6 Indeed, Adorno's radically anti-ontological ? "How to Look at Television." Quar
position has drawn serious criticism (Jay, terly of Film, Radio, and Television 3
"Adorno1').
7 Crediting Waldman, Thomas Andrae ech
(1954): 213-35.
oed this claim in a 1979 article in Jump Cut? ? "On the Fetish Character in Music and
evidence of the diffusion of Waldman's posi the Regression of Listening." The Es
tion, and of Wollen's. sential Frankfurt School Reader. Eds.
8 The English translations of the Frankfurt Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New
School's predominantly German writings have
a reputation for unreliability among scholars York: Urizen, 1978. 270-99.
fluent in both German and English. Although _"On the Social Situation of Music."
most of Marcuse's major writings were first pub Trans. Wes Blomster. Telos 35 (Spring
lished in English, translation problems may well 1978): 128-64.
have affected reception of the Frankfurt School's _"Perennial Fashion: Jazz." Prisms.
German-language texts in English-speaking coun
tries. For an illuminating exchange on the prob
121-32.
lems involved in translating and publishing one of _"Resignation." Trans. Wes Blomster.
Adorno's major works {Aesthetic Theory), see Telos 35 (Spring 1978): 165-8.
Hullot-Kentor and Lenhardt.
9 See, e.g., those mentioned in note 3, Hork
? "Scientific Experiences of a European
heimer and Adorno, and Lowenthal, "The Tri
Scholar in America." Trans. Donald
umph of Mass Idols." Fleming. The Intellectual Migration:
10 Czitrom here is quoting Raymond and Europe and America, 1930-1960. Eds.
Alice Bauer, "America, Mass Society, and Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn.
Mass Media," Journal of Social Issues 16.3
(1960): 22. Cambridge, MA: Belknap-Harvard UP,
11 Marcuse did use the term "mass societies" 1969. 338-70.
in Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis (New _"A Social Critique of Radio Music."
York: Vintage-Random, 1961): 72, 78. But his Kenyon Review 7.2 (1945): 208-17.
conception was more dialectical than the "mass
_"Sociology and Psychology." New
society theory" label connotes.
12 Compare, for example, Adorno's English Left Review 46/47 (1967-68): 67-80,
language "How to Look at Television" with his 79-90.
"Cultural Criticism and Society," written for _"The Stars Down to Earth: The Los
German publication at about the same time. Angeles Times Astrology Column: A
13 Elworth was citing Staiger.
14 Broadcast on September 19, 1986, on Gen
Study in Secondary Superstition."
eral Electric's National Broadcasting Company. Telos 19 (1974): 13-90.
Adorno, Theodor W., with George Simp
son. "On Popular Music." Studies in
Philosophy and Social Science 9 (1941):
17-48.
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