Marxist media and communications research

Chapter 11: Mediated Intellectuals: Negotiating Social Relations in Media[1] From Marxism, Intellectuals and Politics by Lee Salter

Marxist media and communications research tends to look at media economics more tan practices. Here we see how radical intellectuals engage mainstream media, and fall to its constraints, and also how they can produce their own media.

Social life is mediated in numerous ways. Ideas, social interaction and practical activity are all mediated in part by communication or media technologies.  Whilst it would be folly to suggest that media technologies mediate most people’s entire experience of political and intellectual life, it is the case that the presence of these technologies in people’s lives is such that they cannot be ignored. To a degree the capacity of media technologies to facilitate critical political and intellectual engagements is limited by the context of their production and use. However, in this chapter I argue that a paradigm shift, the ‘cultural’ or ‘linguistic turn’ filtered through to media and cultural studies, with the effect of sidelining the question of production. Consequently, the role of the intellectual changes from a producer of media messages to at best an interpreter, and at worse nothing at all. The ideas behind the postmodern elements of the cultural turn were in part a response to the perceived reification of ideology as a concept and to a supposed understanding of media communications as ‘hypodermic’. This is to say that postmodern media and cultural studies stylised the Marxist understanding of media as one in which capitalist transmitted their one-sided messages to a passive audience, which then accepted them. In contrast to this, the postmodernists ‘empower’ audiences by arguing that they actively produce meanings in a process of negotiation, often rejecting or transforming intended meanings. The problem, however, is that the so-called ‘active audience’ is never as important as the active producer, and both are constrained by relations of production. I then move to consider Gramsci’s understanding of the intellectual, pointing out that the critical intellectual ought to be practically active and aim to change methods of production. In the next section I investigate the degree to which different forms of broadcasting enable critical intellectuals to participate in media production. In the final part I question how new media technologies may allow an increase in critical intellectual activity in media production, whilst altering the relation of such intellectuals to their publics.

Marxist media and communication research: Consumption and Production.

Some strands of Marxist theory (and recent practice) often tend to regard the academic study of media as something of a deviation. Certainly there is some justification for such concerns over forms of media studies that abstract media from the historical context of development and use, from their overall structuring within a capitalist system of production, and its associated forms of economic and political power. Without understanding the context of media practices, institutions and technologies, we begin to understand current functioning and future potential of media technologies.

            However, in many areas of media and cultural studies, Marxism has been the dominant paradigm for half a century at least. The work of the Frankfurt School, Leicester’s Centre for Mass Communication Research, Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and of the Glasgow Media Group have all been heavily influenced by Marxist thought, in one vein or another. Before these academic schools, communist investigations of media (for example, Eisenstein on Film, Vertov on documentary, Trotsky on Radio, and Brecht on theatre and radio) saw media technologies as tools whose uses could and should be understood in relation to revolutionary activity, albeit under the restraints of the capitalist state (see for example, Trotsky, 1993; Brecht, 1979/80). The aim of these investigations was to think about how to place media production in the hands of workers. Individual scholars in the UK, such as Graham Murdoch, Colin Sparks, Peter Golding, Michael Chanan, James Curran, Mike Wayne and many others have understood media technologies, organisations and workers as integral parts of capitalist economy, and have argued that without understanding media in terms of forces and relations of production, one cannot begin to understand the role and potential of media technologies as such.

            Many such schools and scholars have argued that media production and its embeddedness in more general economic relations must be supplemented by understanding the process of symbolic production, that is to understand media in the context of production, consumption and exchange at the same time. However, in the 1980s, a number of left media and cultural studies scholars began to pull apart this holistic approach, and started to focus almost exclusively on the circulation and interpretation of symbols; the descent into discourse had begun[2]. The central concern of such post-Marxist or postmodern approaches to media studies is to analyse the ways in which different messages circulate, are accepted, challenged or rejected. However, the development of these currents in media and cultural studies, which focus on ‘consumption’, ‘pleasures’, reception/audience studies, identity politics, and ‘domestication’ of media, led to the now normal abstraction from the question of production. This cultural turn celebrates what are perceived to be instances of difference and subversion of meaning that somehow resist something/everything. The general conclusions seem to be ‘look, they didn’t take X at face value’ and ‘not everyone does/thinks/needs everything in the same way’ and so on. On this approach, domination takes place through discourse, discourse can be resisted in interpretation, and therefore domination can be resisted. That discourses can be mis- or re-interpreted (or indeed that the functioning of discourses depends upon the a form of ‘agreement’ on the part of participants) may be interesting, but is limited in its significance. There are some interesting things to be said about how signs, meanings and artefacts are appropriated and changed by recipients, but for these to be of any value they must be linked up to the question of the access to the mechanisms of production and distribution of those signs, meanings and artefacts in the first place. Without understanding the relations between production, consumption and exchange, understanding is fragmented and potential for resistance is undermined.

            The disregard of production and the concomitant emphasis on consumption and the ‘strategies of interpretation’ of audiences limits the explanatory capacity of such analyses. Media and cultural studies that do not understand the full process of production may thus believe that strategies of interpretation provide sufficient bases for resistance to the forms of domination that accompany capitalism. However consideration of the production of ideology leads one to realise that the point is to change production not to just interpret it. In understanding general relations of production we can see how media give rise to hegemonic representations, what the implications of these are, and also what alternatives might be proposed.

            In the first instance, capitalist media organisations produce commodities. These commodities often tend to reflect the broad circumstances under which they are produced and consumed. This is to say that technologies are commodities, content is made up of commodities, workers are commodities, audiences are commodities to be sold to advertisers, but also media organisations themselves are usually tradable commodities. This commodity relation is not, however, complete. Many Marxists (for example, Wayne, 2003: 17-18) argue that intellectual workers, which include those working in ‘the media’, are relatively autonomous, or perhaps less constrained by capital than other workers. However, this relative autonomy is qualified and contextual. For example, if we interrogate the status of ‘autonomous’ (even if only relative), we have to consider what one is autonomous from. At base media workers are workers, that is, they are usually employed by a company that owns many of the tools they must use in order to carry out the work assigned to them and controls the general organisation of production, general (legally structured) parameters of consumption, and exchange of their products. This employment sets the worker in relation to other workers of differing levels of seniority and so on. Eventually we come to see the media worker as situated in an institutional complex which itself is part of an industrial complex of production, consumption, and exchange, from the manufacture and installation of light bulbs (and the electricity required to power them), cameras, ink and paper, to the presentation of newspapers or DVDs in shop displays (so, for example, Kluge and Negt [1993] argue that even public service television is embedded within a capitalist system of production). Control over production equates to control over what is excluded and included.

            The possibility of ‘resistance’ through the ‘production’ of meaning in reception (see, for instance, Fiske, 1987) is perhaps the least one can expect, and becomes a great deal more problematic when applied in more obviously oppressive political systems, such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. It is more than a little insulting to suggest that people under such systems merely needed to reinterpret the propaganda in order to change things. A good deal of the motivation of such postmodern arguments stems from deformations of Antonio Gramsci’s and Raymond Williams’ arguments about popular culture and capitalism. For example, there are a number of studies that abstract “cultural artefacts” from the conditions of their production. Such abstractions serve to extinguish the distinction between a commodity (such as a CD of a manufactured pop band) and a traditional folk song; that is, they mistake commodities for what Gramsci and Williams meant by popular culture – culture produced by and in the interests of the people. Indeed, Gramsci and Williams both understood that intellectuals must be deeply involved with class struggle in organised political movements (which few postmodernists recognise). To this end, both joined and became activists in their respective communist parties and in the labour movement. They also understood, against many postmodern uses of their work, that symbolic production is intimately tied to material production; so much so that one cannot simply change one without the other. So, Hall’s (1996: 268) argument that organic intellectuals ‘must work on two fronts at one and the same time’, that they are to ‘know more than the traditional intellectuals do’, and are to realise a ‘responsibility of transmitting those ideas’ should be supplemented with a third front – a more direct physical struggle over the organisation of material production. Indeed, Gramsci is quite explicit about this latter part of the intellectual’s role, and it is this part of the role that we should understand as the missing part of post-Marxist and postmodern media studies.

Gramsci’s Intellectual and Capitalist Media.

A more serious attempt to challenge hegemonic media representations would include paying attention to their production, consumption and exchange, which would involve the engagement of practically active intellectuals of the sort proposed by Gramsci. Whilst Gramsci noted that ‘all men are intellectuals’, to understand his concept of the intellectual, we must remember that he adds that ‘not all men have in society the function of intellectuals’ (Gramsci 1971: 9) and these ‘functions’ of intellectuals are numerous and contradictory. On one hand, the traditional intellectual claims to be independent of the ‘dominant social group’, yet serves to sustain the social order. On the other, the organic intellectual, who grows out of new classes[3] and from the new relations in which they are situated, challenges the existing hegemony. The distinction between traditional and organic intellectuals is not, however, a simple distinction. Gramsci makes it quite clear of the latter that

every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields (Gramsci 1971: 5)

This is to say that organic intellectuals help shape emerging classes and social groups, and develop their self-awareness. The interests of organic intellectuals correspond to those of the class or social group in which they are embedded. Thus there are organic intellectuals who are embedded in sections of the capitalist class and others embedded in the subjugated classes and groups. It is for this reason that Gramsci argues that the ‘most widespread error’ is to look to distinguish intellectuals on the basis of the ‘intrinsic nature of intellectual activities, rather than in the ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities (and therefore the intellectual groups who personify them) have their place within the general complex of social relations’ (Gramsci 1971: 8). On this account the traditional intellectual acts as a conservative, representing and perpetuating (sic) continuity. The organic intellectual of the capitalist class organises society so as to ‘create the conditions most favourable to the expansion of their own class’, working, once established, to perfect and preserve such conditions (Gramsci 1971: 5-6). On the other hand, the proletarian (or ‘critical’ if we are to understand social groups within a class) intellectual seeks to change such conditions in two respects. Firstly, and perhaps what is least often recognised, especially among cultural theorists, the critical intellectual has a (direct) material role, engaging ‘muscular-nervous effort’, in ‘active participation in practical life’ (Gramsci 1971: 9). Secondly, the critical intellectual is concerned with intellectual and physical production to establish a proletarian hegemony though organisational and directive functions. As Hoare and Smith (Gramsci 1971: 4) put it ‘The organic intellectuals of the working class are defined on the one hand by their role in production and in the organisation of work and on the other by their “directive” political role, focused on the Party’.

What is perhaps most important to remember is that Gramsci did not believe that the building of what some (for example, Showstack-Sasson 2000) have called ‘alternative hegemony’ could take place beyond the economic struggle, that is, only in the superstructure. This is to say that, Gramsci’s concept of an Historic Bloc, in which base and superstructure are dialectically unified, serves to counter what he called ‘economism’, in which base and superstructure are separated, often with the intention of reducing the superstructure to a mere shadow of a dominant and quasi-autonomous economic base. For Gramscians, then, intellectuals must be involved in a holistic struggle.

            Understanding media as embedded into a system of production helps illustrate the limits to involving critical intellectuals in mass media. Such involvement is difficult when, as Garnham notes, there is ‘a symbolic system within which both the power to create symbols and access to the channels of their circulation is hierarchically structured and intimately integrated into a system of economic production and exchange, which is itself hierarchically structured’ (Garnham 1992: 373). What Garnham points to is the central problem of media. Though it is reasonable to suggest that media workers and media intellectuals have a degree of relative autonomy, as we have seen, the industry in which they work is bound to a system of capitalist industrial production.

            Thus we are faced with the problem of how critical intellectuals can uncover or produce media space; as Kluge and Negt (1993: 143) suggest, ‘the one-sidedness of the products of the media can only be defeated by counterproducts’ within ‘counterpublic spheres’. This space, particularly in the form of counter- or critical public spheres, is necessary, not just in media but also in the workplace, communities, educational institutions and so on, in both times of stability and crisis, to give voice to the oppressed, articulate problems, circulate ideas, discuss strategy, and so on. It is this space that critical intellectuals must engage. Such spaces – mediated or otherwise – have been part of every great rebellion, created through newssheets, pirate radio, demonstrations, occupations, lockouts and the seizure of communication systems. In more stable times, such (media) spaces tend to be found in public service broadcasting, some newspapers, and alternative (or radical) media projects. In the following section, I will consider the role of critical intellectuals in public service and alternative media projects.

Intellectuals and Activism Under Two Models of Media Use.

I propose that two models of media use may provide the sort of public space in which critical intellectuals may function. These two models are themselves suggested by critical intellectuals in defence of public space; both models are attempts to wrest media away from the state and the economic system.

Nicholas Garnham’s problematic is noted above – media communication is integrated into a capitalist system of production. His position must also be understood through its concern for democracy as self-determination, against the imperatives of the state and economic system. Until the economic system is changed, public service media provides a space in which critical intellectuals can address a general public. The concept of a general public is important on Garnham’s (2000) analysis because it is from the general public that a general interest can be understood. Because of the mismatch between publics and economic power, there must be constructed ‘systems of democratic accountability integrated with media systems of matching scale that occupy the same social space over that which economic and political decisions will impact’ (Garnham 2000: 91)

Garnham points out that the postmodernists in media and cultural studies are right to be wary of the role of the intellectual in perpetuating the use of elitist high culture ‘and its repressive uses in a class society’ (Garnham 2000: 97). However, whilst their ‘dethroning of the expert’ can be ‘a healthily democratizing process’ (Garnham, 2000: 106), they are led to abandon the grounds upon which critique can take place. The result is an abandonment of generality, a focus on difference for the sake of difference (or for commodification, corporate marketers and advertisers) and therefore the loss of any ground for critical judgement, policy intervention or critical pedagogy (Garnham 2000: 98).  For postmodern media and cultural theorists, the intellectual has been replaced by (at best) a ‘populist communitarianism’ in which talk shows ‘militate against rational, critical discussion’, which is condemned as ‘out of touch, ivory-tower, academic’ and so on, and in which ‘only the personal is political’ (Garnham 2000: 106). Against this, Garnham argues for a number of roles for what he calls ‘critical intellectuals’.

            In accord with Said’s (1994) conception, Garnham argues that critical intellectuals, who are active in the public sphere, should aim to dispute images, official narratives, and jusifications of power by providing unmaskings and alternative visions. The intellectual’s role is to overcome or see through ideological filters, which ‘the public’ is presumed not to (be able to) do. Thus, the critical intellectual must undertake a ‘strategy of intervention in the media’ as well as ‘critical media pedagogy’ (Garnham 2000: 102). In the former case, Garnham recommends extending what Jay Rosen (1995) has referred to as public journalism. His concern is less with the connection of the journalist-as-intellectual with the public, but her or his mediation of ‘experts’. In this sense, whilst he retains the objective of making ‘everyone an intellectual’, most people do not possess the ability to transcend dominant ideological symbolic systems and understand generalisable interests (Garnham 2000: 100-101). To this end, the intellectual must be involved in the ‘creation and circulation of public meanings to publics they in part create through their chosen modes of address’ as legitimate representatives of knowledge and the public (Garnham, 2000: 108). The other role that Garnham sees for the intellectual, against those he refers to as ‘the boulevardiers of contemporary culture’, is to lead judgement of truth, beauty and other aspects of media critique (Garnham 2000: 107). To this end, media intellectuals should educate the public and at the same time be involved in the negotiation of media policy and judging media performance at every level.

For Garnham, the expansion of the mediascape and increasingly media-savvy citizens does nothing to diminish the importance of the intellectual. On the contrary, as indicated above, the importance of the scale of intellectual activity increases as the degree and reach of mediation increases. The problem, however, is that as mediation increases in degree and reach, the concomitant increasing commodification of media representations further displaces critical intellectuals, owing to the fact that they do not contribute to the commodification process (or in the case of public service broadcasting to the legitimation of the state). A further problem for Garnham’s approach is that he underemphasises the question of the intellectual involving her or his self in ‘muscular-nervous effort’ in the organisation of production. Whilst Garnham has made calls for reform to media ownership structures, alongside more general economic structures, his lack of attention to the forms and processes of radical media means that for him specifically organic intellectuals – as opposed to those who seek to develop the consciousness of a group or class from the ‘outside’ – play a limited role in the alteration of media practice as such.

Perhaps a more radical approach to facilitating organic intellectuals can be found in alternative or radical media projects. Though it should be noted that alternative media should be considered a compliment to rather than substitute for public service, they exemplify a significantly different way of organising production. Such radical media projects have been historically important in the workers’ and other liberation movements. James Curran and Jean Seaton (1991) illustrate how the nineteenth century radical press struggled against the establishment and capitalist press, and Chris Atton (2001) has shown how radical or alternative[4] media projects attend not only to content, but to alternative relations of production, subverting the normal organisation of production and division of labour. In the same vein, Downing’s (2001) studies of Italian radical media projects found that traditional distinctions between technicians and reporters were eliminated, editorial and policy decisions were taken by all participants in the project and contributions to discussions and decisions were equally weighted (editorial collectives replaced editorial hierarchies), and to the extent that participants in the projects were paid, wages were paid not according to seniority (for this was erased) but at a flat rate. When the radio projects faced financial problems, wages were paid according to need (depending on, for example, number of dependents etc.). Such relations of production can also be regarded in various Marxist publications, such as Socialist Worker (along with the Socialist Workers’ Party’s other publications) and the Morning Star.

            Douglas Kellner shows how the ‘three fronts’ outlined above might be put into practice. In his (1990) work on Television and the Crisis of Democracy he not only analyses the emerging ‘conservative hegemony’ in American broadcast media of the 1980s, but also suggests methods of establishing a counter hegemony with the use of public access cable television. This latter enables intellectuals to take over the production process in television, to give voice to other intellectuals, including ‘movement intellectuals’ who represent the interests of the oppressed and the forgotten, pointing to disjunctures between their experiences and hegemonic ideology, but also propose alternatives. Kellner’s experiences as a ‘media intellectual’ are not uncommon in the US, that is it is not uncommon for US intellectuals on the left (and right) to be involved in media production processes, creating television and radio channels through which they organise and mediate critical discussion and draw attention to (and facilitate production by) critical movements in the US, Latin America and across the globe, from trade unions and workers’ movements to peace and homosexual groups.

The poverty of postmodern media studies is made clear by such exercises, which struggle to control or facilitate the production of representations, led by critical intellectuals. Such exercises also signify the unrealised potential of television technologies in most of Western Europe; few European states allow public access broadcasting. Of course the US experience is not one of media companies simply ceding space to oppositional groups, but, certainly since the US State revoked the legal requirement for the former to make space available in the 1980s, involves the latter struggling for such space. This struggle can be seen not only in cable television but also in the production and distribution of critical documentary films, many of which face serious problems of distribution. The experience that Kellner describes can certainly be understood in accord with the notion of critical organic intellectuals, who undertake practical activities that do change the immediate relations of production and aim to challenge broader social relations.

Technologies, Production and the Intellectuals

The two accounts outlined above relate largely to broadcast media; that is, media technologies, such as print, television and radio, in which closed messages are monologically transmitted to receivers. Such uses are not inherent to the ‘essence’ of these technologies, but rather reflect their historical conditions of development. Any account of the historical development of media technologies must factor in the impact of political and economic regulation of those media, and how this regulation influences possible alternative uses (that is, used to produce). Some restrictions are greater than others, so that alternative uses of printed media tend to be more common than alternative uses of television. This is partly because of the way the ‘institutions and social policies which get established in a formative, innovative stage… have extraordinary persistence into later periods if only because they accumulate techniques, experience, capital or what come to seem prescriptive rights’ (Williams, 1974: 147). It is also because the channels of radio and television distribution are politically and economically (and therefore technically) regulated. These regulations not only limit distribution, but also impose conditions on production in the first place.

            If media have been shaped or formed to accommodate certain uses or forms of production, consumption and exchange, do new or emerging media, especially those, like the Internet, that that only very minimally prescribe uses[5], escape these relations and might then be used to create dialogic critical spaces?

It is not unusual for neo-Marxists to claim that the Internet is a new force of production (see for example, Castells 1996, 2000, 2003; Hardt and Negri 2000) that gives birth to new contradictions between labour and capital (Hardt and Negri 2000). However, whilst there is a lot to be said for this set of technologies, many of the estimations as to what they can do, or more accurately, what can be done with them are based on two misunderstandings. In the first instance, the structure of the technology is misunderstood. For example, Hardt and Negri argue, the Internet is a ‘prime example’ of a ‘democratic network’. However, it is not the case that there is ‘no central point of control’, that it is ‘hard to control’, that it has a ‘nonhierarchical and noncentred network structure’, nor for that matter that it is ‘democratic’ (Hardt and Negri 2000: 299). To be sure, against the dominant understanding, the Internet is not an inherently horizontal, non-hierarchical (Jordan 1999), neither decentralised (Holmes 1997) network, nor is it owned by no one and nor is it beyond the control of the state and the economy (Jones 1997).[6] It is often forgotten that the Internet exists within already existing socio-economic formations, ordered by the state that brought it into being and that continues to exert a dominant influence on its continued development. Notwithstanding this cautionary note, the Internet and World Wide Web are relatively distributed (as opposed to decentralised), interactive, cheap, flexible and multi-directional. These characteristics, whilst not constituting an essential mode of functioning, do afford users with communicative capacities that surpass previous media. Crucially, they lead us to question the function of intellectuals where the medium is not structured in such a way as to privilege certain actors, where access to production is relatively open, flows of communication are multi-directional, where critical public spheres can be produced relatively easily from ‘below’ and where audiences are not necessarily geographically concentrated.

            There are two aspects to the Internet and Web that I would like to investigate in relation to the role of intellectual activity; the openness of the system as a whole, and the openness of particular sites.

Specific technical[7] decisions in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in an Internet which was to be open to a massive number of (scalable) connections. This is to say that there is no formal technical limit to the number or the type of networks that could adopt the Internet’s TCP/IP[8] protocol and therefore become part of the Internet as a whole. This contrasts with the controlled environment of broadcast media and, to a lesser extent, print. This openness initially enabled critical networks, such as LaborNet (sic), GreenNet and PeaceNet, to interconnect and be available to anyone connected to the Internet so that workers’ and peace movements could thus be connected and accessible across national boarders. One of the most notable early consequences of this was the use of the networks by the Zapatistas, in particular Subcomandante Marcos, made possible by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) network. The significance of this network for the Zapatistas was made apparent in a report by the US military think tank, the RAND Corporation (see Rondfelt et. al. 1998). They note that the APC was the most important support organisation for the Zapatistas in the 1990s insofar as it, organised in a ‘networked’ fashion, was able to help affiliates support the Zapatista informational (or propaganda) struggle. The utilisation of computer networks enabled members of the Zapatista support network to consult each other and to co-ordinate campaigns inside and outside Mexico, especially by putting pressure on governments and other institutions such as banks by mounting fax-writing and e-mail campaigns and disseminating news and other information (especially the writings of Marcos and other ‘movement intellectuals’). If we compare the Internet to Kellner’s description of cable television we find that there is increased openness of production and distribution on the former. With the Web, networks connected to the Internet became more easily navigable, resulting in greater interactivity, and, potentially, in a greater exposure for content to a greater ‘public’. Thus, Web sites such as ZNet ( have become central nodes for the writings of critical intellectuals, by hosting and linking a vast network of Web sites, and coordinating actions and training in alternative media use. Further to this conglomeration of critical intellectuals, individual intellectuals have taken the initiative in creating their own Web sites and WebLogs (blogs) that aim to make their work available to a far greater audience than had previously been the case.

The general openness of the Internet, however, may also weaken the dominance of particular intellectuals and particular movements as the range of representations disaggregates, fragments and weakens the sense of collectivity, solidarity, compromise and tolerance, that enable collective action. Such openness may result in a pick-and-mix mentality amongst people deciding which particular topics and struggles they are concerned with without being able to grasp the whole. The importance of this is noted in relation to Gramsci’s intellectuals, who were organised around a solidaristic party, collectively organising for a specific agenda. The openness of the Internet may act to reduce monopolies of direct communicative and informational power (and propaganda), though this should not be considered a simple and straightforward good.

In addition to this openness of the Internet, the interactivity made possible by the Web may be utilised to set up a rather different communicative relation between intellectuals and their publics. Configured accordingly, Web sites may be formed to facilitate a ‘horizontal’ communicative space that again weakens the sometimes-domineering role of the critical intellectual. Independent Media Centres (IMC –, are a paradigm example of this sort of configuration, refusing to accept a hierarchical relation within or between audiences, contributors of content, editors and technicians. IMCs are very much egalitarian communicative spaces or public spheres in which anyone can participate or develop the technologies and policies to which use is subject without any form of registration, membership or identification. Perhaps Garnham’s invocation of Gramsci’s ‘everyone is an intellectual’ is approximated on the IMC. Certainly there are no privileged actors, every utterance can be contested, and importantly, ‘muscular-nervous effort’ and active participation in practical life is encouraged within and without the IMC. Again, though, perhaps this form pales in comparison to the organised party with its focussed critical intellectuals, coherence, foresight and a sense of purpose, which are lacking in fragmented movements that have no centre and little cohesive sense of direction, no matter how much they resist what is. However, the Marxist left (particularly outside the US) has been painfully slow in taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by Internet and Web technologies, especially in terms of how critical intellectuals can reach and engage new publics and propagate international class-consciousness.


Postmodern media studies are limited in terms of what they can tell us about its object of study. Its bracketing out of the problems of production and the relations that constrain it leave the intellectual (if the intellectual is accepted) in subservient relation to the system of production. It is only when we consider the arrangement of media production, consumption and exchange that we can understand how media can be configured so as to allow people to produce messages and communications in public space. Whilst public service broadcasting can arrange people into a public, its current closeness to the state limits its capacity to allow critical intellectuals to engage in anything other than a marginal manner. Alternative media projects, on the other hand, provide truly critical spaces, with little interference from state or economic interests, but pay for that with their marginalisation within the mediascape.

            The Internet has made access to the means of media production in this area much easier. Though the scope of the Internet means that the effectiveness of the filters and gatekeepers that plague older media is reduced, at the same time, some forms of mediation that have been conducive to the participation of critical intellectuals have been altered. This should, however, be regarded as an opportunity for the left, and for Marxists in particular. Unfortunately, the suspicion with which new media had been treated by the left, and the Marxist left in particular, outside the US, has meant that they missed an opportunity to use these media for their interests. The unexplored potential of media must be considered more carefully so that movements and their critical intellectuals take advantage of the ambiguous potential of developing media technologies. Further, the role of the intellectual must be examined in relation to changes in the media environment lest Marxists lose out in an important aspect of their politics.

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Wayne, M. (2003) Marxism and Media Studies. London: Pluto Press.

[1] I would like to thank David Bates for his patience, humility, and careful editing!

[2] One of the key texts in this move was Hall’s (1980) ‘Encoding/Decoding’. This was an excellent attempt to consider the full cycle of a media product through production (encoding), exchange and consumption (decoding). The purpose was to point to the decoding of texts as part of the process of the production of meaning. Thereafter, scholars argued that since decoding depended on the cultural situation of the subject, media messages were not such firm and influential  things, for their meaning was established not just by the encoder, but also by the decoder.

[3] Translations of Gramsci refer to ‘social groups’ rather than classes, though it is clear that the latter are regarded as the fundamental group. Nevertheless, the sophistication of Gramsci’s model leads him to discuss other social groups, such as black people in the US, and their struggles.

[4] The appropriate name for such media projects is a point of contention, with ‘radical’ and ‘alternative’ being the most common adjectives. I will use ‘radical’.

[5]  The TCP/IP protocol – which is the defining feature of the Internet – acts as a thin meta language that enables networks of any sort to communicate, without prescribing the form that communication takes.

[6] The reasons for this have to do with the historical (and contemporary) control over the development of the Internet by the (mainly US) state but also the way that the physical and what I refer to as ‘constitutive’ structures of the Internet (and the Web) are organised. In the case of the Internet, ‘gateways’ were set up to run part of the Internet protocol and mediate between networks. This meant not only that there is a structural hierarchy, but that the Internet is centred around multiple nodes. In terms of the Web, there is a clear hierarchical relation between servers and clients.

[7] To reiterate, it is not the intention here to separate ‘technical’ from other domains. The use of the word ‘technical’ embodies political, economic and social interests.

[8] Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol.

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By Lee Salter

Dr Lee Salter is a researcher and award-winning film maker. His research focuses on politics, media and communication and activism. He has published more than 15 peer reviewed papers. He has written and directed hour feature documentaries including Secret City, a film about the City of London and the Corporation that runs it, The Fourth Estate, a documentary about the UK media, Money Puzzles, a documentary about the economic crisis, and Injustice, a documentary about prison.