Media

17
May

Stuart Hall ‘taught me how Britain was founded on race and class – and how the media were central to those structures’.

By Arun Kundnani

al-Jazeera 

March 2, 2017 – I first started reading Stuart Hall, the cultural theorist, in the early 1990s as an undergraduate student in Britain. The heyday of overt tabloid racism was over by then, but new styles of racist reporting were emerging.

On the one hand, cultural identity was an increasing focus, with much of the media echoing the idea that the presence of blacks and Asians undermined a cohesive sense of Britishness. On the other hand, the small number of refugees arriving in Britain were vilified as scroungers and cheats.

When a few hundred gypsies settled in Dover on England’s south coast, fleeing neo-Nazi gangs in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Rupert Murdoch’s best-selling Sun newspaper called them "Slovak Spongers" and "Giro Czechs" (a pun on a common term for welfare payments) and suggested "teaching the gypsies two words, the second one being off".

This kind of media coverage, of course, continues to this day. It is easy to denounce, but harder to cogently analyse it. Hall’s work helped me to get beyond simplistic explanations that put the blame on an inherent English racism or mechanical pursuit of profit.

Hall’s starting point was Marxism. But he followed another African-Caribbean scholar, Frantz Fanon, in his recommendation that Marxist analysis be "slightly stretched" in dealing with questions of race and colonialism. To understand the Jamaican society in which he had grown up, Hall combined the Marxist categories of class and capitalism with insights into the role of culture in colonialism. When Hall settled in England in 1951, he used the same approach to understand how racism functioned there.

To the columnists who supposed that Asian and black immigration to Britain was an alien cultural disruption that undermined a previously stable society, Hall’s response was that Britain had not become multicultural because of postcolonial migration.

Multiculturalism had been there much longer as an integral part of Britain’s imperial project. "It is in the sugar you stir; it is in the sinews of the famous British ‘sweet tooth’; it is in the tea-leaves at the bottom of the ‘British’ cuppa," noted Hall. There was no British identity that did not include the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the tea plantations of Asia, the slave and the coolie.

Hall’s 1978 book Policing the Crisis, co-authored with his colleagues at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, had the biggest impact on me. It presented a picture of Britain in the 1970s as caught in a crisis of authority. The state, forced to intervene more aggressively to hold together a fracturing society, became more naked in its coercion. And a media-constructed image of black crime became a signifier of this deeper crisis. The component parts of Thatcherism were being laid out.

In Hall’s account, racism was not just a matter of individual attitudes and biases. Race was a key constituent of the social and economic structure, a "principal modality" by which class society was experienced and made sense of. Race, he said, was not a marginal concern but right at the centre of British life. At the same time, its significance was never self-contained or transparent; it was a screen on to which deep anxieties were projected and worked through.

One way this happened was through the news media. The conventional approach to analysing the news is to ask whether journalists select and frame events objectively or with bias. Hall’s argument focused instead on how news can have meaning to us only if it aligns with our unconscious "cultural maps" of the social world.

The main ideological function of the news, he argued, is not its alleged liberal or conservative bias but its fidelity to the deeper consensus within which party politics takes place. This happens because the news sources its meanings from the social and political institutions that underpin that consensus, such as the police, the courts, the university, and so on.

No wonder, then, that racism was found in the news as much as on the streets – in both cases, it derived from the same deeper structure that Policing the Crisis had identified. Applied to the 1990s, this method of analysis could explain why refugees, for example, were being treated as such a threat: they too were a screen on to which anxieties deriving from the crisis of Thatcherite Britain were being projected.

It was never Hall’s style to provide final answers. In the 1980s and 1990s, his analysis shifted as he began to view the social world as pure flux: representations floated free of any referent; politics was reduced to the construction of identities.

Ironically, his writing in these later decades, which were more politically stable than the 1970s, pictured society as having no solid foundations. For me, reading Policing the Crisis out of its time in the 1990s taught me how contemporary Britain was solidly founded on race and class – and how the media were central to reproducing those structures.

Arun Kundnani is scholar-in-residence at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. He is the author of The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror and The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st-Century Britain. He writes for The Guardian, Nation, Intercept and The Washington Post, among other publications.

This article forms part of an online project by Al Jazeera English’s media analysis show The Listening Post. Follow #MediaTheorised

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.

Category : Culture | Media | Racism | Blog
22
Feb

 

 

By Robert Zaretsky

THE STONE / NYT Op-Ed

Nearly 50 years ago, Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” reached bookshelves in France. It was a thin book in a plain white cover, with an obscure publisher and an author who shunned interviews, but its impact was immediate and far-reaching, delivering a social critique that helped shape France’s student protests and disruptions of 1968.

“The Society of the Spectacle” is still relevant today. With its descriptions of human social life subsumed by technology and images, it is often cited as a prophecy of the dangers of the internet age now upon us. And perhaps more than any other 20th-century philosophical work, it captures the profoundly odd moment we are now living through, under the presidential reign of Donald Trump.

As with the first lines from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” (“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”) and Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), Debord, an intellectual descendant of both of these thinkers, opens with political praxis couched in high drama: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”

In the 220 theses that follow, Debord, a founding member of the avant-garde Situationist group, develops his indictment of “spectacular society.” With this phrase, Debord did not simply mean to damn the mass media. The spectacle was much more than what occupied the screen. Instead, Debord argued, everything that men and women once experienced directly — our ties to the natural and social worlds — was being mulched, masticated and made over into images. And the pixels had become the stuff of our very lives, in which we had relegated ourselves to the role of walk-ons.

The “image,” for Debord, carried the same economic and existential weight as the notion of “commodity” did for Marx. Like body snatchers, commodities and images have hijacked what we once naïvely called reality. The authentic nature of the products we make with our hands and the relationships we make with our words have been removed, replaced by their simulacra. Images have become so ubiquitous, Debord warned, that we no longer remember what it is we have lost. As one of his biographers, Andy Merrifield, elaborated, “Spectacular images make us want to forget — indeed, insist we should forget.”

For Marx, alienation from labor was a defining trait of modernity. We are no longer, he announced, what we make. But even as we were alienated from our working lives, Marx assumed that we could still be ourselves outside of work. For Debord, though, the relentless pounding of images had pulverized even that haven. The consequences are both disastrous and innocuous. “There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them,” Debord concluded, “because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse.” Public spaces, like the agora of Ancient Greece, no longer exist. But having grown as accustomed to the crushing presence of images as we have to the presence of earth’s gravity, we live our lives as if nothing has changed.

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Category : Marxism | Media | Trump | Blog