You are on page 1of 7



Douglas Kellner
Media Culture

Cultural studies, identity and politics

between the modern and the

Douglas Kellner is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin

and author (with Michael Ryan) of Camera Politica: The politics and ideology of Hollywood
films and (with Steven Best) of Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. Kellner has also
published Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism; Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity;
Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond; Television and the Crisis of
Democracy; The Persian Gulf TV War. He has edited Jameson/Marxism/Critique and
Baudrillard: A Critical Reader and co-edited (with Stephen Bronner) Critical Theory and
Society: A Reader.
Media Culture
Media Culture develops methods and analyses of contemporary film, television,
music, and other artifacts to discern their nature and effects. The book argues that media
culture is now the dominant form of culture which socializes us and provides materials for
identity in terms of both social reproduction and change. Through studies of Reagan
andRambo, horror films and youth films, rap music and African- American culture, Madonna,
fashion, television news and entertainment, MTV, Beavis and Butt-Head, the Gulf War as
cultural text, cyberpunk fiction and postmodern theory, Kellner provides a series of lively
studies that both illuminate
contemporary culture and provide methods of analysis and critique.
Many people today talk about cultural studies, but Kellner actually does it, carrying
through a unique mixture of theoretical analysis and concrete discussions of some of the most
popular and influential forms of contemporary media culture. Criticizing social context,
political struggle, and the system of cultural production, Kellner develops a multidimensional
approach to cultural studies that broadens the field and opens it to a variety of disciplines. He
also provides new approaches to the vexed question of the effects of culture and offers new
perspectives for cultural studies.
Anyone interested in the nature and effects of contemporary society and culture should
read this book. Kellner argues that we are in a state of transition between the modern era and a
new postmodern era and that media culture offers a privileged field of study and one that is
vital if we are to grasp the full import of the changes currently shaking us.
The book has three parts and a brief introduction, where he talks about:
Media culture and society, Cultural studies and social theory, Acknowledgements
Part I is intituled Theory/context/methods and it contains the following chapters: Theory
Wars and cultural studies ( he talks about the Frankfurt School, British cultural studies and its
legacy), Media culture, politics and ideology: from Reagan to Rambo (he talks about ideology
and media culture, Rambo and Reagan, Top Gun, The Gulf War), For a cultural studies that is
critical, multicultural and multiperspectival.
In part two: Diagnostic critique and cultural studies we have the following chapters: Social
anxiety, class and disaffected youth (Poltergeists gender and class in the age of Reagan and
Bush, Diagnostic critique: from Poltergeist to Slackers and Beavis and Butt-head), Black
Voices from Spike Lee to rap (the films of Spike Lee, Rap and black radical discourse.
Resistance, counterhegemony and everyday life), Reading the gulf war: production, text,
reception (disinformation and the production of news, the media propaganda war, warrior
Part three: Media culture, identities, politics includes: Television, advertising and the
construction of postmodern identities (Identity in postmodern theory, Advertising images, the
postmodern), Madonna, fashion and image (Fashion and identity, The Madonna
phenomenon, Madonna between the modern and post modern), Mapping the present from the
future: from Baudrillard to Cyberpunk.
Also we have conclusion: From the future back to the present: Critical media pedagogy,
Media and cultural activism, Media and cultural politics.
In this book, Kellner talks about a media culture has emerged in which images, sounds, and
spectacles help produce the fabric of everyday life, dominating leisure time, shaping political
views and social behavior, and providing the materials out of which people forge their very
identities. Radio, television, film, and the other products of the culture industries provide the
models of what it means to be male or female, successful or a failure, powerful or powerless.
Media culture also provides the materials out of which many people construct their sense of
class, of ethnicity and race, of nationality, of sexuality, of “us” and “them.” Media culture helps
shape the prevalent view of the world and deepest values: it defines what is considered good or
bad, positive or negative, moral or evil. Media stories and images provide the symbols, myths,
and resources which help constitute a common culture for the majority of individuals in many
parts of the world today. Media culture provides the materials to create identities whereby
individuals insert themselves into contemporary techno-capitalist socieities and which is
producing a new form of global culture. . Media culture is a culture of the image and often
deploys sight and sound. The various media—radio, film, television, music, and print media
such as magazines, newspapers, and comic books—privilege either sight or sound, or mix the
two senses, playing as well on a broad range of emotions, feelings, and ideas. Media culture is
industrial culture, organized on the model of mass production and is produced for a mass
audience according to types (genres), following conventional formulas, codes, and rules. It is
thus a form of commercial culture and its products are commodities that attempt to attract
private profit produced by giant corporations interested in the accumulation of capital. Media
culture aims at a large audience, thus it must resonate to current themes and concerns, and is
highly topical, providing hieroglyphics of contemporary social life. But media culture is also a
high-tech culture, deploying the most advanced technologies. It is a vibrant sector of the
economy, one of the most profitable.
Media culture spectacles demonstrate who has power and who is powerless, who is allowed
to exercise force and violence, and who is not. They dramatize and legitimate the power of the
forces that be and demonstrate to the powerless that if they fail to conform, they risk
incarceration or death.
The following studies help provide an understanding of media culture and suggest ways that
it can be understood, used, and appreciated. He provides each reader with resources to learn to
study, analyze, interpret, and criticize the texts of media culture and to appraise their effects. I
examine some of the ways that media culture intersects with political and social struggles and
helps shape everyday life, influencing how people think and behave, how they see themselves
and other people, and how they construct their identities.
He argues that media culture is a contested terrain across which key social groups and
competing political ideologies struggle for dominance and that individuals live these struggles
through the images, discourses, myths, and spectacles of media culture.
Culture in the broadest sense is a form of highly participatory activity, in which people
create their societies and identities. Culture shapes individuals, drawing out and cultivating
their potentialities and capacities for speech, action, and creativity. Media culture is also
involved in these processes, yet it is something new in the human adventure. Individuals
spend tremendous amounts of time listening to the radio, watching television, going to see
films, experiencing music, going shopping, reading magazines and newspapers, and
participating in these and other forms of media culture. Thus, media culture has come to
dominate everyday life, serving as the ubiquitous background and often the highly seductive
foreground of our attention and activity, which many argue is undermining human potentiality
and creativity.
This book will explore some of the consequences for a society and culture colonized
by media culture. It will probe the nature and effects of the way in which this form of culture
is deeply influencing many aspects of our everyday life. A major theme of this book concerns
how the forms of media culture induce individuals to identify with dominant social and
political ideologies, positions, and representations. Media and consumer culture work hand in
hand to generate thought and behavior that conform to existing values, institutions, beliefs,
and practices.
Yet, audiences may resist the dominant meanings and messages, create their own
readings and appropriations of mass-produced culture, and use their culture as resources to
empower themselves and to invent their own meanings, identities, and forms of life.
Moreover, media culture itself provides resources which individuals can appropriate, or reject,
in forming their own identities against dominant models. Media culture thus induces
individuals to conform to the established organization of society, but it also provides
resources that can empower individuals against that society. Theories of the media and culture
are, I believe, best developed through specific studies of concrete phenomena contextualized
within the vicissitudes of contemporary society and history. Thus, to interrogate contemporary
media culture critically involves carrying out studies of how the culture industries produce
specific artifacts that reproduce the social discourses which are embedded in the key conflicts
and struggles of the day. This involves seeing how popular texts like the Rocky or Rambo
films, rap music or Madonna, TV cop shows, or advertising and media news and discussion,
all articulate specific ideological positions and help reproduce dominant forms of social power,
serving the interests of societal domination, or of resistance to the dominant forms of culture
and society—or have contradictory effects.
In the studies he attempts to to demonstrate how some of the most popular cultural texts
of the day are involved in current political and cultural struggles. The study of popular and
mass-mediated culture has widely been labelled “cultural studies” and in this book he provides
some models of a media cultural studies that is critical, multicultural, and multiperspectival.
His studies were conceived and begun during a specific historical moment, that of the
triumph of conservatism in the United States and most Western capitalist democracies.
Accordingly, after setting out his concept of the sort of cultural studies and social theory
needed to understand our contemporary media culture in an opening chapter on the theory and
culture wars of recent years, he examines in Chapter 2 the politics and ideology of Hollywood
film in the Age of Reagan and demonstrate how popular film reproduced the hegemonic
conservative discourses of the era carries out some concrete studies of contemporary
Hollywood films, while delineating a model of a critical and multicultural media cultural
studies. He argues that one needs a cultural studies that criticizes the intersection of class,
gender, sex, race, and other key determinants of culture and identity in order to more fully
conceptualize the ideological dimensions of cultural texts and to appraise the full range of
their effects.
Next, in Chapter 3, he indicates the need to read media culture against its ideological
grain, to ferret out critical and subversive moments, and to analyze how the ideological
projects of media texts often fail. He also explicates a concept of diagnostic critique that
uses media culture to diagnose social trends and tendencies, reading through the texts to the
fantasies, fears, hopes, and desires that they articulate. A diagnostic critique also analyzes
how media culture provides the resources for producing identities and advances either
reactionary or progressive politics—or provides ambiguous texts and effects that can be
appropriated in various ways.
In Part II, he carries through some concrete studies of diagnostic critiques that
interrogate dominant representations of class, race, gender, sexuality, youth, and
contemporary politics. In Chapter 4, he illustrates the concept of diagnostic critique through a
reading of the Po l t e rgeist films which he argues articulate middle-class fears of downward
mobility, homelessness, dissolution of the family, and threats from other classes and races in
cinematic form. He then develops readings of the film Slacker and the MTV series Beavis and
Butt-Head to provide a diagnosis of the plight of disaffected youth in the current moment.
Thus, whereas Chapter 2 showed how Hollywood films transcoded the dominant
political discourses during the era of conservative hegemony from 1980 into the 1990s, Chapter
4 shows how the desires, anxieties, and insecurities of ordinary people also find expression in
media culture, allowing the depiction of crisis tendencies beneath the ideological facade of a
happy, secure consumer society.
In Chapter 5, he delineates a model of a multiperspectival cultural studies and illustrate
this concept with a detailed study of the films of Spike Lee, which provide an exemplary
instance of the cinematic exploration of key issues of race, gender, and class in the
contemporary moment. Drawing on black feminist and political criticism of his films, he
examines Lee’s work and the contributions and limitations of his style, texts, and politics.
Contrasting Lee’s films with the contemporary rap music of Public Enemy, Ice-T, Ice Cube,
Sister Souljah, and others suggests some of the range of socially critical cultural texts being
produced today and the ways that radical blacks are pushing beyond the previously established
limits of mainstream culture to articulate their experiences of oppression, rage, and rebellion.
During the Reagan-Bush era, television grew in cultural and political importance,
through the political spectacles and daily photo opportunities produced by the Reagan
Administration and the spectacle of the “Gulf War” which he analyzes in Chapter 6. After
Reagan, there followed the Bush regime and his effort during the “Gulf War” to establish a
“New World Order.” In Chapter 2, he indicates how certain Hollywood films produced images
that could be mobilized to produce consent to the U.S. war against Iraq in the early 1990s. In
Chapter 6, he shows how the tools of cultural studies can be utilized to critique the production
of “Gulf War,” to provide a critical reading of the text, and to help explain its effect on the
audience and why the public so massively supported the war.
Over the past decade, media culture has thus been playing an increasingly important role in
political elections, in the daily political battles, and in legitimating the political system. Global
media events like the Gulf War demonstrated the efficacy of U.S. weapons systems and the
hegemony of U.S. military power, while events like the spectacular 1994 TV funeral of Richard
Nixon demonstrated the power of the presidency. Moreover, new forms of television
entertainment appeared during the era and in Chapter 7, he analyzes some key moments of
television culture in the 1980s, including Miami Vice and other “new look” TV, often labelled
“postmodern.” The rise of Music Television (MTV) revolutionized the music industry, giving
rise to new multimedia stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson. He also explores some ways
that advertising provides models of gender and identification, as well as inducements to buy
specific products.
Just as image came to play a key role in the politics of the era, so too did it come to play
a central role in the media culture of the period and in everyday life, in which one’s image,
look, and style, became increasingly important in the constitution of individual identity.
Within this context, he provides readings in Part III of Miami Vice, MTV, advertising, and
Madonna in relationship to the claim that they were exemplary in producing shifts to what
has been identified as a new postmodern culture and new postmodern identities.
He argues in Chapter 8 that Madonna’s shifts in image and identity articulate
transformations in values and politics of the epoch. He claims that her contradictions
capture conflicting aspects of her cultural moment and that the “Madonna phenomenon”
is symptomatic of key trends of the era, so that interpreting her texts, and Madonna as a
text herself, can illuminate features of the present moment. Yet he argues that Madonna
is a phenomenon of her own production, promotion, and marketing strategies, and that
one needs therefore to focus on the political economy of culture to properly interpret “the
Madonna phenomenon.”
In “Mapping the present from the future: from Baudrillard to cyberpunk” (Chapter 9), he
explores cyberpunk fiction and postmodern theory as artifacts of media culture which in turn
provide fictional-theoretical visions of a society increasingly dominated by media and
information. Focusing on the similarities between the social analysis of Baudrillard and the
novels of William Gibson, he interprets both as attempts to map our present moment which is
constantly slipping into the future. Through a close reading of Neuromancer, he argues that
both Baudrillard and Gibson are providing visions of the future which serve to illuminate the
present. This analysis suggests that Baudrillard is best read as dystopic science fiction, although
cyberpunk can also be read as a new form of social theory that maps the consequences of a
rapidly developing information and media society in the era of techno-capitalism.
In a conclusion, he indicates some remaining tasks for cultural studies and some of the
issues that cultural studies should address in the future. His studies ultimately propose
developing syntheses of social theory, cultural criticism, and media pedagogy to illuminate
our contemporary society, culture, and politics. Combining philosophy, social theory, cultural
critique, and political analysis, he presents some perspectives on society and culture, methods
of cultural criticism, and make some proposals for the reconstruction of cultural studies and
critical social theory.