ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)


Book Review: Commodity Pessimism

Review of Paul A. Taylor and Jan LI. Harris. Critical Theories of Mass Media: Then and Now, Maidenhead, Berkshire and New York: McGraw-Hill and Open University Press, 2008.

Reviewed by Dr. Gary Genosko
(Canada Research Chair in Technoculture, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Canada)

Taking a position against cultural populism in the hour of the consolidation of its academic hegemony under the guise of cultural studies seems risky. Pessimism about audience empowerment in relation to heavily pre-packaged content calls into question the pleasures and alternatives of reading otherwise and re-signification in order to regain the critical theory tradition. Despite attempts by cultural studies to multiply itself by means of ampersands, sometimes even conjoining with critical theory, Taylor and Harris insist that critical theory needs to be sympathetically reassessed and not unfairly dismissed as elitist, as they claim it has been. Critical theory apparently has the edge that cultural populism lacks.

Yet this casting of two combatants is itself a spectacle of criticism: “Those seeking to emphasize audience empowerment concentrate upon the ways in which a cultural commodity is consumed with various degrees of gusto, whereas culture industry theorists question that very gusto” (9). Having not gone for the gusto, Taylor and Harris plot a “middle ground” between excess and its correction. Do not rock the boat: pessimists cannot even enjoy their triumphs by wholeheartedly embracing no gusto. Pessimism congeals like cold tallow in the critical set-up of cultural populism versus critical theory, as the book runs a middle, straightforward, course. No gusto, just the production of commodity pessimism for a readership in need of a new reading, maybe better than the competing versions, but at least different or simply (an)other. The very success and cogency of the book is cause for concern.

Who needs another telling of the disappearance of Benjaminian aura? Benjamin’s “best hopes” for the “radical possibilities” of techno-reproduction were betrayed, we are told, yet the challenge of repetition is never squarely faced. We get Adorno when we need Deleuze. In the middle of the road there is no way to prime critical desire for repetition because it must fall to pessimism. Prime and defuse. Indeed, Taylor and Harris over-code the link between pleasure and repetition as psychosis or infantilism (32), and variations are not entertained; no ego defensive repetitions of the unpleasurable. There isn’t a genuine sense that repetition or reproduction in mass mediatic culture could possibly express a singularity and uniqueness – that something new might be extracted from repetition.

Kracauer is revisited in order to ensure that no positive taste develops for “the flood of photos,” the “strike against reality” of the illustrated magazines, the parts of “disarticulated” and “de-individuated” women’s bodies in touring dance troupes, and how the pieces are reassembled into geometrical patterns (“mass ornament”) hovering like a spaceship above the masses who applaud them from their own organized array.  Kracauer finishes Benjamin’s thought with a definitive no, underlining the “negative implications” of mechanical reproduction in early twentieth century mass culture. Whether or not media theory’s fate is to appear above our heads like a well-rehearsed routine that draws us all into its disempowering field is not faced.

The very notion of the “culture industry” proves that reproduction slips away from emancipation and is “the ingression of capitalism into the very fabric of culture and life itself” (63): the unity of culture and public relations is the “environmental dimension” that cultural studies uncritically celebrates (70).  Faith in reason must reckon with barbarism (dominations of self, labour, and nature) and in its instrumental form this entails the repression of particularity for the sake of the generic (falsely abstract) under which it is subsumed, and thus decontextualized, and rendered exchangeable. The exhaustion of the particular in a self-signaling system of signals, following Adorno, points critical media theory down a path of non-return: spectacle, hyperreality, celebrity, reality television. Still, the authors check their lively steps when it comes to their own deployment of repetitive phrases like culture industry: “Repetition of this phrase risks numbing the reader to its oxymoronic status” (68). Evidently, the risk was worth it for the authors at least. Culture is produced in standard formats with homogeneous contents in complete unity with the industrial system in which it is embedded; in the process, ameliorating its own violence. There is little chance that any repetition might yield something more than a sideways glance, an ironic wink that eludes the structural stranglehold of the culture industry. Is pessimism, then, caught in this trap? Is it really tensile, autonomous, and challenging? Does it “refuse to cater to received notions of closure, harmony and form” (71)? Must it come off as a kind of fodder for undergraduates and the academic book market that has its authors freely inflict on themselves what the trade inflicts on it? In what sense, if any, is a book – ‘a key text for students of cultural studies’ – like this aligned with “non-commodified outcomes” (73)? These questions are vital because they reveal the entire point of the authors’ return to critical theoretical problems: in revisiting and recasting them against the glare of cultural studies, the “glorious failure” of the effort is a kind of critical success in its own right. Yet the milieu insists on smoothing out tensions and delivering the goods, which forces compromises (i.e., around theorizing repetition), which at the best of moments stubbornly objects to the formula (standardization).
In order to realize McLuhan’s “critical potential,” Taylor and Harris point out that he needs fellow travelers to reinforce his own resistance to media criticism that he abandoned in the 1950s. Reviewing McLuhan’s large-scale media history, the authors advance troubling claims about “oral society” or “non-technological society” throughout the book, and McLuhan magnifies these misdirectives by pointing to the immanence of oral society which “dwells in an eternal repetition of a static body of knowledge; if evolution occurs at all, it is at the pace of genetic drift” (89). This backwardness is valorized as a kind of proto-resistance possessed by oral societies to the mediascape through anti-development: “bound by their groundedness to their richly symbolic environments” (52). The failure to ascribe positive mechanisms to primitive societies has been debunked by many anthropologists and philosophers.  Here, the problem is connected to the under-theorization of repetition.
Lucid discussions follow of the extent to which, for McLuhan, “the message of the medium is the fact of mediatization itself” (94), and expose the “ambivalence” of the media as sensory extension thesis (96-7); a few opportunities are missed to regain Kracauer (not only in terms of his use of mythic figures, but in terms of his interest in electricity and light as pure flows, not to mention the machinic libidinality that fascinated both thinkers). The means of consolidating McLuhan and critical theory is primarily photography (101-3); yet, Taylor and Harris admit this is no easy task as McLuhan’s approach sits “in a curious relation” to critical theory (106), a point which they emphasize by turning to Raymond Williams’ observation about the lack of intention and content, in addition to an appreciation of economic and social mediations, in McLuhan’s vision of the media sensorium where electric technology fuses with the central nervous system. Thankfully, for Taylor and Harris, Williams was wrong to predict the short-lived impact of McLuhan’s insights. This renders absurd the notion of a ‘Williams renaissance’.

The turn to the ultimate ‘outsider’ Debord enhances the book’s critical position that media promote capitalist values by demoting social empowerment in giving an explicit character to the mass perfusion of everyday life in the spectacle. Accessing the “non-alienated life” through dÈrive, dÈtournement, singular psycho-geographic ramblings, and the construction of situations, Debord denounces the spectacle as the commodity form’s fulfillment supported by mass media.  This is a “non-life” of images or “a radical disembedding of exchange from physicality” (115). Part scopophilia and virulent intensification of the ocularity of Western philosophical thought (up cast eyes), Debord’s comments on the spectacle lend themselves to Boorstin’s pseudo-events, despite Debord’s disinclination to accept the preservation of some space, a traditional community, untouched by spectacularization. Taylor and Harris fastidiously delineate the Benjaminian, Adornian and Kracauerian threads in Debord’s thought, finding for themselves a sterling pessimism in Debord’s later abandonment of any hope for cultural revolution: “The spectacle like a spectre cannot be killed but rises with redoubled vigour from each fresh challenge to its hegemony” (122). What is pessimism but obedience to the illusions of the spectacle?

‘Then’ there were names; ‘now’ there are themes, at least that is how Taylor and Harris divide their text into two, turning to celebrity, Banality TV, and ob-scenity. The connecting tissue in the first instance is the mechanical reproduction and circulation of images, referenced through Lowenthal’s early twentieth century work on the emergence of  mass magazine idols; they are distracting, diverting, and stupefying for mass consumers with no hope of raising their political consciousness. Condemned to actively consume in bad faith (143), and consume metacommunication about the bad faith of and in commercial messages (148), even joy ride to nowhere on the distinction between the real and imaginary (150-1), mass consumption is for the absent-minded hooked on contingency and the parade of trivia.  

The book’s fulcrum is Banality TV.1 The authors get a purchase on “superficial participation” and “non-communication” through its dumbness, numbness, and triviality. Banality TV entails “the pacification of ‘urgent human needs’ within the media’s domineering tele-frame of formulaic predictability” (158). This analysis justifies critical theory’s pessimism and exposes cultural populism’s various substitutions for criticism. Occasionally, a “reality” breaks through the frame and reveals a “non-commodified, unresolved nature” (160), but rarely. Taylor and Harris acknowledge that repetition can’t be all doom and gloom as sometimes, in the cases of images of Rodney King and Abu Ghraib, “metonymic excess” (1963) spills over, even if “the ability to exceed the normal powerful media frame is the exception not the norm” (163). At least there are exceptions.

The diagnosis of the media’s power to neutralize events is also evident in “social porn” (169), especially gastroporn. “Industrialized repetition” is a key feature of the greedy camerawork in television cooking shows, as is close visual detail, and an explicitness that overexposures the real. An overlooked precursor is Barthes’ mythology of ornamental cookery. What is also repeated is the reality format itself (172). These repetitions actively suppress critical awareness and homogenize all products. Ultimately, Reality TV extirpates society, flipping symbolic depth into semiological surface play, rendering moot any meaningful sense of audience activity.  The idea of learning how to make a few dishes, maybe a few new techniques, or learning the names of novel ingredients, is never really broached.

Of course, for Taylor and Harris there is no end to appeals to audiences to get involved. This is only a disguise, a simulation. The larger consequence is a “fatal” and final dashing of hope for any critical perspective for there is a continuity of pessimism from then to now. “Explicitness without understanding” (179) is the authors’ choice phrase for capturing a range of effects: diminishment of reason in tautological justification, hyperbole, superficiality, platitudes, complacency, pornographicity: “Any potential for the creation of a system more open to radical and less predictably structured meaning is undermined by the way in which the existing dominant and subordinate meaning systems are reinforced by the seeming naturalness of the tele-frame and its circumscribing effect.” (180) Non-stop tautology. Image-dependency is, especially in times of war, for Taylor and Harris evidence of how “the obsessively repetitive attention paid by the media to pseudo-events obscures the deeper social issues of which they are only reflections” (196). In the case of the attacks on the twin towers, “unaccompanied by significant efforts to understand, mere repetition of the images reflected the fundamentally distorted perspective of a society increasingly incapable of thinking outside the self-referential media realm alluded to throughout this book” (197). They are of course right at one level, but I am suggesting that repetition is never ‘mere’ in its structure and effects.

Filled with pessimism about the potential of distraction, Taylor and Harris find the company of Baudrillard, repackaged as critical theorist. Kracauer becomes “pre-Baudrillardian” (210), and Adorno and Baudrillard are rhetorically linked (“Baudrillard, like Adorno before him,” 211) as an effect of pitting all critical thinkers against cultural populism and its “misguided optimism” (212). Cultural studies never liked gloomy Baudrillard. In the final recourse to Adorno’s belief in “true art,” the authors trumpet their “unashamedly pessimistic” view that mimics the “ascetic and unashamed” qualities that Adorno set against the culture industry’s porno-puritanism. It comes as a relief, it seems, for Taylor and Harris to discover that on rare occasions politicians still feel shame. A quiet hope is released like a balloon from a child’s hand. Once the tears subside, the sight is remarkable.

For all its strengths in explication and critique of the worst parts of cultural populism, Critical Theories of Mass Media: Then and Now lacks a critical theory of repetition. It begs the question of the adequacy of its account of repetition by repeatedly affirming its pessimism and presenting a circumscribed account of this feature of commodity culture. Repetition may be in the service of the obsessive-compulsive culture industry, but it is also the site of its own overcoming, the vitality if which is revealed only through difference; pessimism veils the difference in repetition. Pessimism can and must align itself with a variable repetition in order to escape absorption by the banal spectacle of mass (academic) media as another commodity.



1 Editor’s note for Taylor’s writing on Reality Television see “Baudrillard's Resistance To the Ob-scene As the Mis-en-scene (Or, Refusing to Think Like a Lap-Dancer’s Client)” in the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 5, Number 2 (July 2008): URL

© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2008)

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