Theory That Only Dogs Can Hear

Romanticism, Media and Cultural Studies
By J. David Black
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 200 pp.

These days, academic attention to the media and popular culture runs along two parallel lines of argument, like the twin rails of a freight train whose distant destination is pre-determined, but in the meantime just keeps rolling on through the night.

The first of these tracks is the ringing assertion that everything is only as it seems.  We know the world, and ourselves, through language, but language is a prison house located in the Twilight Zone.  Signs have detached themselves from their referents.  The simulacrum supersedes – no, exterminates – the real.  The media and their adjuncts in the image industries have patently emerged as the engines of common culture in the West.  Pick your preferred way of putting it, but it all amounts to the same thing: the realm of representation is both adrift and ascendant, and all that matters now is how things appear to matter.  There is no there there anymore.

The other line of argument, contrary but complementary, insists that nothing is as it seems.  This universe of symbols and impressions we inhabit is an elaborate fiction, yes, but one forged by sinister interests in the service of a dumb mechanism, one that favours power even as it ruins the occasional cabinet minister, exalts the market even as it breathlessly details capitalism’s rollercoaster dysfunctions, and above all promotes perpetual amusement even as it fails to deliver.  The problem is not free-floating signifiers, but a torrent of media content that moves only through particular sluices.  Image may be everything, but neither in the grand scheme of things is it left to chance.  Far from ascendant, cultural content is subordinate to imperatives that would prefer to remain in the shadows, but that will nonetheless have their cover blown – god willing – by assiduous tenure-track critics in media and cultural studies.

As if.  The state of media theory circa 2002 hasn’t advanced much beyond Plato’s metaphor of the flickering images on the cave wall.  Or – to be frank – beyond the premise of the Keanu Reeves movie The Matrix, very popular among 14-year-old epistemologists.  What if everything we know, believe and experience is a seductive illusion orchestrated for interests other than our own?  What if the constant seduction isn’t just a means to an end, but the best we can muster for a point to it all?  What if the illusion is better in all respects than what actually is, so much so that we should not only count ourselves lucky to have it, but hail it as the colossal accomplishment of our age – the principal wonder of the Western world?

And what if much of the precious enterprise of media theory in the precincts of the universities is a load of polysyllabic malarkey passing itself off as deep thinking?  I don’t mean to sweepingly disparage those in the academy who have made Marxist hair-splitting or Foucauldian one-upmanship the coin of their careers.  I mean only to emulate them.  They are engaged in the brain-busting diagnosis of some deep structure that explains just about everything, if only one is bright enough to follow along.  In between lying down with a cold compress clapped to their brows, when the pointy-heads get up on their feet, their fighting stance toward one another is one of lofty, uncompromising dismissal.  In the high sierra of media theory, the spurs fairly jangle.  The shelves of the university library may groan with treatises on cultural theory, but everyone who rides into Theory Town knows the place ain’t big enough for more than one brainiac.

Every contribution to media theory is therefore pitched as a rebuke to every other contribution:  Not only is the other guy wrong, he couldn’t be more wrong or more infuriating about it.   Raymond Williams, in his definition of culture, fails to recognize  … Stuart Hall’s concept of ideology crucially overlooks  … Habermas fatally overstates … Baudrillard fundamentally misconstrues … etc.

Even from the inside, in the tenure-track corridors of the academy, there is something faintly ridiculous about the rarified debates in media theory.  All that bickering, and for what?   “Theory that only dogs can hear,” goes the behind-the-scenes quip.  (A wonderful line; I heard it first from Prof. Martin Laba of Simon Fraser and have been using it ever since.)  Lord knows what the general, untenured public – folks who just want better newspapers and more responsible government – would make of all this if they only got a whiff of it.

Except, of course, they’ve had more than a whiff of it.  Take a look around.  Breathe in.  A sullen, knowing scepticism is everywhere in the air.  Bowdlerized and bastardized perhaps, but the essential tenets of media theory have permeated the contemporary culture the very theory purports to explain.  Is there a couch potato alive who isn’t attuned by now to the ulterior motives in media content or the sheer pointlessness of all that yammering?  When your six-year-old picks up from the Zeitgeist that there is something troublesome about her beloved Barbie – when something akin to shame starts to nuzzle up to desire that early in life – the cultural theorists have done their work.

And the places where they make their home, the multiplying university departments of communications and media studies, are growth industries devoted to the denunciation of the “mainstream,” the celebration of the “transgressive,” the promulgation of perceived contemporary “crises” of epochal proportions, and the willy-nilly salting of “meaningful” quotation marks in term papers and journal articles.  The result is legions of undergraduates versed – often badly – in the modish vocabulary of the decentred self and the death of the author. They have no trouble justifying at length and in arch theoretical terms why being addled on Ecstasy with Vick’s VapoRub smeared on your chest in the company of 1,000 other people in the middle of the night in an abandoned warehouse in a bad part of town is a “dissident” act – rather than merely the sort of juiced-up mayhem young people have enjoyed since the invention of mead.  But if you put a gun to their heads, most of them wouldn’t be able to tell you how a broadcast licence gets awarded, describe the economics of an advertising agency, or explain why there’s still a Canadian magazine industry.  These more prosaic aspects of communication practice are worth knowing about in their concrete detail, but it’s difficult to appreciate that – or even to notice it – if you have your head stuck up Jacques Derrida’s derrière.

As you can imagine, then, I am not the type to think kindly of a book like J. David Black’s The Politics of Enchantment, yet another treatise on the arcana of media theory by a recent Ph.D. (York) teaching at a start-up program in communication studies (Wilfrid Laurier), trying to make a name for himself.  Lord preserve us from the premature hardcover publication of precocious theoretical musings.  Personally, I do not care, for example, whether in her seminal essay on how cyborgs walk amongst us, collapsing human/machine dualities, Donna Haraway’s “post-structuralism tends to overwhelm her good materialist intentions, leaving that materialism largely gestural” – and neither should you.  Life is too short to learn German, and it’s too precious to waste slogging through an entire book of that sort of claptrap.

That said, it is my grave duty to announce to anyone who will listen that The Politics of Enchantment is a very good book, a very good book indeed.  With nothing more than wit, clarity, economy and perspicacity, it gives the claptrap a good name.   In the end, one may still suspect that what is at stake in the grand debate is merely the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, but in Black’s handling one cannot help but admire the choreography.

At its core, the book is an audit of critical theory, charting the various strains of cultural studies and communication deep-think in relation to one another, from the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and its antecedents in E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, through the Frankfurt School and its progeny in political economy, the investigations of subcultural practice, the turn to post-structuralism and post-modernism, and the latest attempts to make theoretical purchase on the rise of entirely new concourses of computer-mediated communication.  In itself, this is nothing new.  The various skirmishes in the theory wars have been well documented elsewhere, but it is the verve Black brings to the telling that elevates his work above competing accounts.  Most treatments of communication theory are stone-faced, grinding, portentous affairs that sag under the weight of their own self-aware seriousness of purpose.  Without in any way sacrificing gravity, Black’s work is playful in the way that puzzling over an intellectual problem should be.  He makes this stuff interesting.  He makes it, if he won’t mind my saying so, fun.

That alone goes some way toward rescuing communication theory from itself, and Black pulls it off in large measure purely by virtue of the fact that the book is extremely well written.  This is not simply a cosmetic attribute and it cannot be over-emphasized.  The clarity of Black’s own arguments and his accounts of others’ is a consequence of the clarity and the charm of his writing.  Too much of cultural theory is rendered with either a willful or inept obscurantism, as though if it doesn’t induce a migraine the author will count the work a failure.  This is simply unwarranted, since the ideas the high theorists are trading in aren’t really that difficult.  It’s not brain surgery, after all.  It just feels like it much of the time.

More than merely clear, however, Black’s writing is marked by a felicitous turn of phrase and a dab hand at metaphor.  In contrast to the tank-tread prose that is all too characteristic of the discipline, there is more than a touch of the romantic in Black, and that is precisely the point, because The Politics of Enchantment is not simply a lively survey of the theoretical terrain but an argument in its own right; a novel take on what’s missing in the dense thickets of the literature.

Between the twin tracks of cultural theory – the stop-making-sense nihilism of the post-structuralists on the one hand, and the righteous paranoia of the political economists on the other – Black claims to have detected a heretofore buried third rail.  Though submerged, he argues that this strand of thinking has already influenced communication theory in a variety of subtle ways, and that brought out into the open and polished up for a new generation it holds the promise of revitalizing an otherwise stalled theoretical project.  What he points to with such enthusiasm is Romanticism, the mad aunt in the attic of Western thought.

Romanticism, he points out in his introduction,

originating in Germany during the late eighteenth century, and then passing like a fever to England and beyond in the early nineteenth century, was the first Western philosophical tradition to engage capitalism, to take up culture as a problem for analysis, and to question rationality and how it is implicated in our major political, economic and social phenomena.  These features would be enough to recommend romanticism to our contemporary era, a time when capitalism is remarkable in its unchallenged scope, when culture has emerged as one of the most embattled concepts in both the academy and the crowded world alike, and when postmodernism has again pressed the familiar charges against reason.  Reading poetry written by its German forebears, such as Friedrich Schlegel and Friedrich von Hardenberg (known by his pen name, Novalis), or in the Anglo-American intellectual world, more familiar figures like William Blake and John Keats, we forget that romanticism was a philosophy, although one expressed in florid language and pithy epigrams that bear little resemblance to conventional scholarly prose.

What Black proposes is nothing less than the resuscitation of this forgotten intellectual tradition as a cure for what ails not only the contemporary condition but current media theory.  As Black sees it, the triumph of Enlightenment reason over the Romantic sensibility was the wrong turn the West took way back when, with the result that there is no longer any room for the fiery aesthetic temperament to breathe, while social order and social relations are subjugated to an unfeeling instrumentalism that chokes the life out of what makes life worth living.  In a nutshell, Black argues that the rise of reason as the exclusively privileged mode of addressing the world has led to a numbing and constricting cultural straitjacket that denies true freedom of thought and action.  More than that, the inadequacies of communication theory stem from the fact that theory itself is steeped in the rational tradition.  This is a fascinating position.  In effect, Black is arguing that contemporary theory falls short because it literally cannot understand the carnivalesque goings-on it seeks to explain.  “[R]elying on reason alone to correct a problem it inadvertently caused in the first place is a kind of intellectual homeopathy that invites more trouble,” he says.  “That is, simply making rational sense of irrational phenomena like cyberspace or rave culture constantly misses the point.”  This much, at least, Black shares in common with every other inhabitant of Theory Town: the insistence that everyone else is wrong.

Myself, I confess he loses me in the end.  While well aware of the problems that come with a techno-purposive rationality wedded to stultifying bureaucratic apparatuses and the machine ordinances of turbo-capitalism, I can’t quite see how junking rationalism in favour of some hot-blooded Romantic mysticism is any great improvement.  Maybe it’s just a failure of my imagination, but it strikes me that what Black advocates is giving licence to the loonies.  Or, rather, greater licence.  Shelley was a hell of a poet, but you wouldn’t want him running the department of highways and motor vehicles.  If a society freed from the shackles of reason means more of The Celestine Prophecy, then count me out.

But I’m probably not doing justice to Black’s arguments.  You should read The Politics of Enchantment for yourself.  It’s original, engaging and it makes you think – as I say, a mighty fine book.  I hope it makes a name for the

  • Literary Review of Canada November 2002