Redeeming Modernity: Contradictions in Media Criticism

Joli Jensen

The central argument of Jensen's book is clearly presented: media criticism and social criticism are both aspects of a "general discourse on modernity" (p. 15). Overwhelmingly the bulk of the book is one of textual analysis and discourse analysis rather than an analysis of media effects. Taking a stand in the closing chapter, Jensen declares for "an egalitarian, plural American democracy" (p. 199) and for a "respectful participation" in the media and democracy.

As a starting point Jensen presents summaries of four "critical voices": Dwight Macdonald, Daniel Boorstin, Stuart Ewen, and Neil Postman. Although each critic emphasizes different points, Jensen claims that underlying them all is a narrative structure: the media influence story. And the story is mythic, drawing on the Garden of Eden and the sirens of the Lorelei.

Following a discussion of media and modernity based on Nisbett, Jensen returns to discourse analysis and builds her commentary on three images of the media: art, information and education. For the most part the analysis remains on a literary philosophical note; there is little evidence, even anecdotal, to help root the abstract analysis. Added to this I found much of the comment highly repetitive and craved a faster pace in the exposition. Certainly the frequent repetition of the analytic categories (art, information, and education) and metaphor, "alluring sirens" and "misleading snakes" (p. 174), helps to bind the text but it slows down the thrust of the argument.

However, emerging from the dust of the demolition job of the previous four chapters, Jensen in the last chapter, without metaphor, myth or analytic dualities, breaks into an exposition of her own ideas. The ideas are stimulating and will provoke debate. Generally her position is of a radical democrat who draws on a sociological viewpoint to defend a different approach to the media. We ought to engage in "conversation about conversation" (p. 180), "the lived experience of everyday people" (p. 181), to believe that mass media offer "new forms of connection" (p. 183), to look for "how cultural forms operate among particular groups" (p. 187), and to question "the cultural web in which we are suspended" (p. 198). With such a call I rush to put my shoulder to the wheel and help push.

However, a troubling problem stayed with me after turning the last page. Jensen's strategy of handling opponents is very generous: extensive exposition and further textual analysis. Here is a self-conscious strategy tied into the slogans of the last chapter ("conversation about conversation"). More ominously in her brush with relativism, "the loss of solid ground on which to stand" (p. 179), she reverses back into "evaluation... is a cultural practice" (p. 197)--ending up "in the cultural web in which we are suspended." Since she had made a claim, for example, for notions of art as "a historically grounded, socially located, contingent practice" (p. 185) but ultimately relies on "cultural practice" for her own views, it is clear that for herself she immediately undermines her own demand for us to escape our cultural web.

In conclusion, this is a systematic exposition of some critical discourses on mass media. The author develops categories and metaphors to elaborate upon the implications of these critical discourses. Finally the author urges us to question those critical voices and presents a program of a different style of commenting on the media. One has to congratulate the author for her boldness in taking on some leading media critics. As somebody very involved in the mass media I found her defence of sympathetic media analysis very encouraging.