Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007)
Book Review: Ethos Of Collaboration
Andrew Calabrese and Colin Sparks (Editors). Toward a Political Economy of Culture: Capitalism and Communication in the Twenty-First Century. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
Reviewed by Mark A. McCutcheon
(Visiting Professor, North American Studies Program, Institute for English, American, and Celtic Studies, University of Bonn, Germany).
If the 1990s witnessed a growing debate – across the Humanities and social sciences (and more specifically in communication studies) – between Cultural Studies and political economy, the early “Aughts” of the new century have yielded several attempts at rapprochement, according to an emerging problematic of “cultural economy”.1 The present edited collection of essays in “critical political economy” (read: Marxist political economy) extends this conciliatory gesture, synthesizing political economic and Cultural Studies approaches to the field of communications. The result is a diverse, wide-ranging, and interconnected series of essays on public sphere theory, popular culture and broadcasting, and new media, bracketed by reflective assessments of political economy in communication and cultural studies, in disciplinary and methodological contexts.
These themes structure the sequence of the text, which opens with reflections on the aforementioned debate and “takes stock” of the communication discipline in British and American contexts. The second part, which includes some of the strongest and weakest entries here, investigates tensions and contradictions between capitalism and various public spheres. Part three brings political economy to bear on Hollywood and broadcasting, with the latter topic – specifically its regulation in Europe – given far more attention (almost ad nauseum). Part four features particularly original and exciting work on new media (see especially Vincent Mosco’s and Thomas Streeter’s quite different essays connecting the popularization of the Internet to neoliberalism and romanticism, respectively). The book closes with a section that “representatively” extends political economic concerns into matters of race and gender, matters that had figured in the debate among Nicholas Garnham, Lawrence Grossberg, and others as proper to Cultural Studies.2 The last article in the book, Ellen Riordan’s suggestive argument for feminist theory to “reconceptualize the economic”,3 picks up the editors’ introductory review of the debate between political economy and Cultural Studies, rounding out the volume with an affirming encouragement to forge research allies and alliances in the face of larger, urgent social problems.
However, despite the book’s opening and closing moves towards interdisciplinary rapprochement, some intradisciplinary protectionism on behalf of political economy does persist, in the way key references are or are not quoted and so construct this book’s main audience as communication scholars. The editors’ introduction denies that the collection is a “Festschrift” honouring Garnham,4 but most of the articles do mention Garnham and his work, and only a few do so critically. In telling contrast, Grossberg, along with several canonical theorists identified with Cultural Studies (Adorno, Bakhtin, Foucault), tend to go unnoted even where their concepts are deployed (e.g. culture industry, dialogism, discourse) – Stuart Hall is one notable and welcome exception.5 The editors’ introductory essay addresses some of the specific criticisms raised by Grossberg in 1995; specifically, the conceptualization, first formulated by Marx himself, of production and consumption as mutually constitutive, not opposed. This conceptualization has important implications for analyzing distribution, a topic the book explores well (and on which, more later). Like Streeter’s and Mosco’s entries on cyberspace, John Durham Peters’ deconstruction of the “marketplace of ideas” cliché similarly models the critical force that poststructuralist analysis can bring to the political economy of communication. But none of the aforementioned writers ground their arguments in poststructuralism explicitly; could they be channeling its sensibility, now arguably hegemonic in academia? A latent message, reflected in the book’s title, seems to be that while there is much here for Cultural Studies scholars – and there is – the target audience remains communication scholars. The collection may point “toward a political economy of culture” but that keyword gets nowhere near the quantity or quality of critical theorization devoted throughout to its counterpart, communication.
These examples aside, perhaps an entrenched tendency to identify Cultural Studies with all things postmodern (which this book often uses as shorthand for irony, relativism, and ahistoricism) – and thereby dismiss it – may explain why a related constellation of critical keywords go largely unproblematized. James Curran’s account of the Westminster school of political economy mentions Garnham’s critique of the “information society” concept, yet that concept persists intact in several essays here where one might expect it to lead instead to a more detailed critical definition of information as such. In one great exception, Mosco paraphrases Raymond Williams’ definition of technology – as “a congealed social relationship”6 – in a way that reminds us of the dialectical concision of Adorno’s definition of culture (sorely lacking here) as the “perennial claim of the particular on the general”.7 Tatsuro Hanada’s reconstruction of a medieval Japanese public sphere provides another, incidental exception with reference to “communication,” locating that term in Western capitalist epistemology as a binary opposite of property, according to a metaphysical split between matter and mind that nevertheless requires attention to communication as property. In other respects, particularly its too-neat homologies between Habermas’ model and medieval Japanese history, Hanada’s essay replicates this recurring problem of less-than-thoroughly theorized critical terms, which also surfaces in several European entries by policy analysts that consequently seem more like mainstream economics than political economy.
Like specifically British work, European problems and problematics are well represented in this volume, particularly in policy analysis; Robert Horwitz on South Africa’s truth commission joins Hanada on Japan to substantiate the volume’s generalized attention to problems of globalization in historical perspective. Those entries speaking to North American issues and contexts may be fewer, but they are more critically self-reflexive and seemingly open to disciplinary rapprochement (a tactic occasioned, perhaps, by what Robert McCesney’s essay in the first section declares “the sad state of political economy in U.S. media studies”). Janet Wasko’s skeptical demystification of Hollywood economics self-consciously works against the “audience and response” oriented tendencies in film studies to map the deliberately labyrinthine financing and legal practices of Hollywood film production; for this work the essay deserves to be read by anyone studying film in its social contexts.
Wasko’s essay typifies what Cultural Studies scholars may find most useful in the present volume: its engaged and enlightening explorations of the infrastructures, institutions, and ideologies behind the intensifying mediascapes, technospaces, and ideoscapes of global capital.8 Wasko’s contextualization of the role of distributors in the film industry makes explicit a theme here that Steve Jones, among others, have begun calling for: a greater research focus on distribution, the mediating term largely overlooked in Marxist and post-Marxist analyses of cultural production (oversimplified as the province of political economy) and reception and representation (oversimplified as that of Cultural Studies). New media and information-communication technologies have brought problems of distribution under critical scrutiny, and into the public sphere, for instance in the continuing controversy of file-sharing that occasions Jones’ call. But the aggressive strategies of sleight-of-hand, surveillance, dislocation, and exploitation that have come to characterize (in one now-famous argument, as psychopathic) the competitive transnational media corporation demand a vigilant and principled attention to the routes and traces of distribution, in the service of scholarship as praxis.
The varied international perspectives arrayed here delineate a critical and global field of debate and inquiry whose balance of social critique and disciplinary self-examination do much to advance the volume’s project of interdisciplinary rapprochement between political economy and Cultural Studies, and also suggest lines of force for reimagining these disciplines’ boundaries and common grounds. In this, editors Calabrese and Sparks offer the timely yet perennial reminder that critical scholarship should retain a macroscopic ethos of articulation and collaboration to mount effective – and effectively interdisciplinary – social critique.
1 See Paul Du Gay and Michael Pryke (Editors). Cultural Economy: Cultural Analysis and Commercial Life. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2002.
2 Grossberg, Lawrence. “Cultural Studies vs. Political Economy: Is Anybody Else Bored with this Debate?” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12.1 (1995):77.
3 Andrew Calabrese and Colin Sparks (Editors). Toward a Political Economy of Culture: Capitalism and Communication in the Twenty-First Century. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004:351.
7 Len Findlay. “‘Speaking Truth to Power?’: American Usage, Canadian Literary Studies, and Policies for the Public Good in Canada” English Studies in Canada. Volume 26, Number 3:279-307.
8 Arjun Appadurai’s influential vocabulary for globalization also seems a strange absence here, although perhaps alluded to in Bernard Miège’s nod to extant analyses of globalization (90); Miège argues that new media and information technologies need to be situated in continuity with extant structures and processes of capital, rather than in revolutionary break from them (as much cyber-hype would have it). See also: Appadurai, Arjun. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." Theory, Culture and Society. Volume 7, Number 2-3 (1990): 295-310.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)