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Marxism today.

Mike Wayne, Marxism and Media Studies: Key Concepts and Contemporary Trends, Pluto Press, 2003

Mark Twain's complaint that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated could be applied with equal measure to Marxist analysis. In Marxism and Media Studies Mike Wayne is largely successful in demonstrating not only that this mode of thinking is alive and kicking, but that it offers a coherent framework for moving beyond the postmodernist impasse. What 'it' is precisely makes an interesting question, and the parameters Wayne seeks to establish for his project appear rather fluid in some places, while in others he seeks to distance Marxism from writers relied upon earlier to support his thesis.

The difficulties of presenting a materialist analysis in the current intellectual climate, let alone one which is explicitly situated in the tradition of classical Marxism, make Wayne's foremost task one of establishing the ongoing theoretical relevance of Marxist perspectives. To this end Wayne reconnects Marxism to the rich appropriations and developments of this tradition in the work of such influential cultural theorists as Jameson, Zizek and Habermas. The book is well worth reading as an introduction to the conceptual frames of reference that gave birth to cultural studies, but which have since been largely sublimated in the dematerialising linguistic turn of this movement.

Marxism and Media Studies is a timely reminder of the exploitative social relations that underpin and necessitate the distorted subjectivities, symbolic displacements and commodity fetishism which characterise media production and consumption under capitalism. Frequently used terms like hegemony', 'alienation' and fetishism' emerged from materialist analysis, and Wayne shows how they are impoverished by appropriations which wrench social and economic relations away from critiques of ideology and culture.

More than a journey resituating Marxist ideas within current media theory, Marxism and Media Studies is an original contribution to the analysis of contemporary media trends and formations. The boom, 'Big Brother', Napster, New Labour and Hollywood are all discussed. While many examples are drawn from Britain and the US, the globalisation of capital--and hence media--form a particular focus. The book's attention to the social relations of media production, technological development and economic dynamics are a strong point, and provide space to engage with political economy approaches to the media. In this regard Wayne develops the concept of 'mode of development', situated with the mode of production, to analyse the disturbances and re-appropriations of capital online.

Later in the book, in the most challenging but rewarding section, Wayne engages with psychoanalytic approaches to theories of subject and object knowledge. Drawing on Lukacs and Adorno, he develops their dialectical understandings of the subject to look beyond the structures of meaning (the focus of most contemporary media studies) to the meaning of those structures. The engagement with high theory is heavy-going, but well worthwhile, particularly given the importance of Lacanian-inspired psychonalysis for cinema studies and Habermas for communication studies.

The cinematic examples evoked in these latter stages of the Marxism and Media Studies are often by way of analogy: Dark City is brilliantly mobilised to demonstrate the implications of the relationship between capital and labour for the reification of social relations. On the other hand, the opening sections of the book devote more space to practical instances of media formations, such as the tabloid press, which provide models for Marxist analysis.

The gradual shift in focus towards theoretical discussion makes it hard to categorise the book as merely an introductory text, which it is clearly intended to be on one level. Certainly, the book offers a systematic presentation of the potentials of Marxist thought for media students unfamiliar with Marxism, but it also refines Marxist ideas in the light of 'new times' and alternative perspectives. The introductory sections draw freely on contemporary writers who present ideas grounded in materialist and dialectical thinking, before analysing their divergences through a two-way critique of Marxism and other writing connecting with Marxism from a position firmly within the former pole.

Notably absent from this critique are sociologists of culture such as Bourdieu, whose work is not only increasingly influential but is also grounded in a class analysis of society. The phenomenological tradition, with its attention to practice and the body, is also largely ignored. Consequently, criticisms of sociological conceptions of class and conflict in chapter one are underdeveloped and lack force.

Another underdeveloped aspect is the presentation of a Marxist methodology for media studies. Interpretative tools and the locations of meaning are outlined, but the implications for research methods are not seriously debated, although it is perhaps unfair to expect too much of such a broad-ranging text. Readers may find more help in this regard from the comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography, which includes a number of contemporary Marxist writers whose work has not yet been widely used.

This book is at its best when it draws on these writers to grapple with the new social realities of an ascendant US hegemony, increasingly mobile and concentrated capital, and an academic community inadequately equipped to grasp the situation. The book presents a sustained and coherent thesis, linking each section to previous discussions. One drawback of such an integrated flow is that readers hoping to dip in and get an idea of one or two concepts may struggle without the context of previously established cases and arguments, and may find they have to read around a bit to get what they are after (dipping is made easier, however, by the inclusion of an index).

While the flow of ideas is relatively smooth, Marxism and Media Studies is stylistically uneven. 'Once upon a time scarcity aoicted human kind because nature imposed certain limitations and visited certain cruelties upon us' (2) Wayne announces in his thankfully short introduction. The tone does pick up, although traces of the overblown style of Marx himself do the book no favours. Nowhere does the book reach the wit and lightness of Terry Eagleton, perhaps the most able exponent of Marxist aesthetics writing today, and whose After Theory provides a more entertaining, albeit narrower, introduction to Marxism and the academy.


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Title Annotation:Marxism and Media Studies: Key Concepts and Contemporary Trends
Author:Windle, Joel
Publication:Traffic (Parkville)
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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