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Monday, February 7, 2011

'Critical Utopian': Contradiction or Compromise?

Jenkins' original claim that he is representing rather than critiquing Convergence Culture loses its effect in the concluding chapter. Jenkins identifies the most controversial claim of the book as resting upon "my operating assumption that increasing participation in popular culture is a good thing" (p. 259). He further states that "having a sense of what a more ideal society looks like gives one a yardstick for determining what we must do to achieve our goals" (p. 258). It becomes clear at the end of the work that he is very explicitly making a normative claim about the nature of the way we ought to relate to the phenomena of Convergence Culture. Granted he employs a critique that toes the threshold rather than casting an all encompassing epistemological net.

As an alternative to the method of 'critical pessimists' (p.258), Jenkins seeks out the possibilities of "consumer-based politics" (p. 260). The changes in the ways people consume and produce culture call for new tools of resistance on the part of consumers; "A politics of confrontation must give way to one focused on tactical collaboration…The new model is that we are collectively changing the nature of the marketplace, and in so doing we are pressuring companies to change the products they are creating and the ways they relate to their consumers" (p. 260-1). The only discussion of the "process (expanding access to the means of media production and distribution" is posed as an offhanded question (p. 252). Jenkins ultimately isolates "cultural diversity" and "participation" as the prime social goods of a reformed convergence culture (p. 268 & 269). Should we really expect any fundamental change in the marketplace if we are only focused on the products created rather the method by which they were given life? Does Jenkins give us any normative criteria by which to establish more 'ethical' consumption habits? The Sequential Tarts are used as an exemplary practice of consumer advocacy groups, in which comic book producers were persuaded to create comic catering to women's interests. Does the liberatory potential of Convergence Culture, within the economic realm anyway, simply mean the expansion of marketing strategies to better assimilate the diversity of identities, social niches, idiosyncratic consumption behaviors etc..?

I think Jenkins makes a good point when juxtaposing his mode of engaging Convergence Culture versus the pessimists when he writes, "the way they frame the debate is self-defeating insofar as it disempowers consumers even as it seeks to mobilize them. Far too much media reform rhetoric rests on melodramatic discourse about victimization and vulnerability, seduction and manipulation, "propaganda machines" and "weapons of mass deception" (p. 258). The problem with Jenkins however is that what he sees as empowerment is an illusory fiction meant to veil an ideological background of exploitation. Jenkins' political conclusions sound like a Ralph Nader campaign ad, a defense of consumer protectionism and populist reformism. He attacks the symptom of a process that exceeds his object of concern. He indicts "the old politics of culture jamming" in which "resistance becomes an end in and of itself rather than a tool to ensure cultural diversity and corporate responsibility" (p. 259). Beyond those that argue for abandoning media altogether, there is a valid point to be made that unless you criticize the fundamental structuring principles of media culture one will only end up putting a human face upon one facet of larger systemic forces of irrational violence and destitution. Jenkins is right that convergence culture cannot be dealt with through an all or nothing approach. Yet our questions and criticisms cannot end with the stance of the true pessimist who claims that all forms of resistance which go beyond the limited realm of consumption choices are unrealistic or doomed to failure. Jenkins' scope of direct moral concern becomes extremely limited for claiming to be a utopian. While the role that certain cultural formations play within the reproduction of society should not be underestimated, can we really afford to let our discussions be limited to how to make corporations respond better to consumer preferences? Is this not ultimately an even more disempowering and cynical way of relating to one's own role as a critic and a consumer? This approach fulfills our desire to conceive of capital as a rational system, that if only we have more information about the products created we can reconcile its contradictions. It feeds the fantasy that if corporations knew what we really wanted they'd make it for us. But this evades a very stark point about the nature of the culture industry; the culture industry does not just rationally respond to people's clear-cut demands, but rather produces desires and proliferates them through a leveling process.

I'd like to compare Jenkins' book to one of the most pessimistic pieces of academic work ever written about the culture industry. In 1944 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote the essay "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" which went on to become a chapter of their larger work The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Adorno and Horkheimer proceed dialectically, harnessing the spirit of the negative with clarity and rigor. The work reminds us that, “Culture is a paradoxical commodity.” The industrialization and mechanization of the production of culture is part of a larger historical process of capitalism. The new possibilities unleashed by changes in technology and culture and their correlative transformations in consumption and production make the superstructure mushroom. The culture industry is caught between two competing forces. It has to appear as offering a huge diversity in its appeal to consumers while it simultaneously “impresses the same stamp on everything.”

Adorno and Horkheimer make a similar claim as Jenkins about the way cultural commodities are valued. Jenkins writes that “Fans…embrace an understanding of intellectual property as “shareware,” something that accrues value as it moves across different contexts, gets retold in various ways, attracts multiple audiences, and opens itself up to a proliferation of different meanings” (p. 267). A specific good does not have a static or limited value but rather accumulates value based on the way it circulates and the connections it creates. Adorno and Horkheimer write, “So completely is it subject to the law of exchange that it is no longer exchanged; it is so blindly consumed in use that it can no longer be used. Therefore it amalgamates with advertising. The more meaningless the latter seems to be under a monopoly, the more omnipotent it becomes. The motives are markedly economic.” Today, the forces of monopolization have been eroded in certain respects, but advertising functions differently. Now that consumers can actively interact with commodities, the content they produce does the work of advertising for the corporation.

Yet Jenkins is not over idealistic, he writes of the limits as well as the possibilities of Convergence Culture;
Despite the rhetoric about “democratizing television,” this shift is being driven by economic calculations and not by some broad mission to empower the public. Media industries are embracing convergence for a number of reasons: because convergence-based strategies exploit the advantages of media conglomeration; because convergence creates multiple ways of selling content to consumers; because convergence cements consumer loyalty at a time when the fragmentation of the marketplace and the rise of file sharing threaten old ways of doing business. (p. 254).
Jenkins sees the threat however solely within the terms of economics and marketing. The missing link is two fold; first an analysis of what most of the cultural products of capitalism are for, are they merely for whimsical enjoyment or an ideological strategy and secondly, an analysis of the ways changes in convergence culture materially affect those that sustain the system as a whole. Neither of these turning points of analysis should necessitate dogmatic responses; one can see the benefits of becoming conscious of activity outside of the confined notion of the economic sphere or the ways that increased information sharing has made people more globally aware of international living standards etc.

Adorno and Horkheimer were limited in their critique by the horizon of the present. They are not to blame for not envisioning the ways new relationships to media technology would emerge. Take this passage for example;
This is the result not of a law of movement in technology as such but of its function in today’s economy. The need which might resist central control has already been suppressed by the control of the individual consciousness. The step from the telephone to the radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former still allowed the subscriber to play the role of subject, and was liberal. The latter is democratic: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same. No machinery of rejoinder has been devised, and private broadcasters are denied any freedom. They are confined to the apocryphal field of the “amateur,” and also have to accept organisation from above.
While the new advances in technology were limited to the more passive type and subject to political and ideological forces, the emergence of autonomous knowledge cultures and zones of collaboration challenge the original hierarchies that emerged. Youtube and Vimeo, Internet Radio and Wikipedia are potentially the “machinery of rejoinder.” These advances change the rules of the game because the divide between amateurs and professionals etc is no longer such an obsession. Rather the rise in organic forms of organizing and communicate seem to hold revolutionary potential. Jenkins reading of Benjamin makes this point as well. Yet the question of how relate to the culture industry cannot be limited to just forming rules ethical consumption or social contracts. Convergence Culture often acts as an opiate or mask. The question is not one of being resistant to pragmatic reforms and compromises, but ensuring that the frame by which we approach the problem as a whole does not drop out. Adorno and Horkheimer write;
All are free to dance and enjoy themselves, just as they have been free, since the historical neutralisation of religion, to join any of the innumerable sects. But freedom to choose an ideology – since ideology always reflects economic coercion – everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same. The way in which a girl accepts and keeps the obligatory date, the inflection on the telephone or in the most intimate situation, the choice of words in conversation, and the whole inner life as classified by the now somewhat devalued depth psychology, bear witness to man’s attempt to make himself a proficient apparatus, similar (even in emotions) to the model served up by the culture industry.
While we should not let the process of demystification blind us from the potentials in the present, it remains necessary to expose the ways that the culture industry exists is the medium through which the masses “insist on the very ideology which enslaves them.” The divide between life experienced for work and for pleasurable/cultural activities is a falsity that is sustained by commodified forms of pleasure. Convergence Culture however increasingly blurs the lines, as well as the distinction between the personal and the political. Jenkins occupies a delicate position between Adorno and Levy, yet in a brilliantly reflexive fashion. The question is for all the abstract theorizing about the nature of Convergence Culture the real question becomes how to deploy that knowledge from within to alter the structures above and about.

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At February 10, 2011 at 7:38 AM , Blogger ddd said...

Excellent reading of Jenkins across Adorno and Horkheimer. Question, though: is there a way for anyone to live without being enslaved to ideology of one form or another? IOW: is there an alternative to so-called "false consciousness"? Or are the forces and relations that colonize (including language, or the so-called "mother tongue") also the very forces that give "you" to *be* in the first place, without which there would be no "you"? I'm leaning more toward Foucault/Butler/Derrida than Adorno, but because they all took him seriously, worked with him. This is not a pop quiz, nor do you need to respond here. Just wondering where you are on the theoretical map.


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