After determining Foucault’s definition of discourse to be the fundament of the concerning research regarding climate change controversy, and exploring some existing Foucault inspired researches into the same subject, a paradox attracts the attention. Almost all of the previous researches into the different discourses on climate change distinguish between two different domains in which these different discourses occur (as Boykoff indeed already revealed): the media and the public. But although Foucault forms an obvious source of inspiration to these researches into media discourse and public discourse on climate change, concurrently, according to Foucault’s definition of discourse, one could wonder whether there is a difference between public discourse and media discourse at all. One could contemplate that every expression of discourse
in the end is part of one big, universal discourse and therefore no difference should be made. One could also argue that even if there is a difference, public discourse and media discourse are continuously influenced by one another and entirely intertwined with one another, so once again, no difference should be made. According to Foucault’s definition of discourse, that is discourse as constitutive and a constitution of contexts such as the media or the public, studying media discourse and public discourse separately seems unjust. However, in order to be able to take Foucault’s general definition of discourse further, studying the specific different domains in which discourse occurs separately, can be quite convenient after all.
For only the complete comprehension of media discourse, as well as public discourse, can lead to an overview on how
these different domains are constitutive and a constitution of one another. And so, to revise the limitations of the previous researches, I will first follow the limitations and discern between media discourse and public discourse as well, after which
I will connect these different domains, to ultimately offer a complete conception of climate change controversy.
2.2.1 Public Discourse
If Foucault would have distinguished such thing as public discourse, he would have defined it in lines with his general definition of discourse, and called it the complex collection of all statements produced by the public. Statements which influence and are influenced by the public opinion (Foucault, 2002), that is, the aggregate of individual attitudes and beliefs held by the people (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989). However, the concept public opinion, as the concept public discourse, can only come by credence when there is a public to begin with. Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and American pragmatism, developed an entirely original theory on this issue. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, the topic and title of his first book, which was published in 1962, Habermas reconstructs the rise and fall of the so called public sphere, by relating social, cultural and philosophical developments to one another.
Going all the way back to the late 17th century he historically analyses the transformation of a monarchical feudal status society, which makes no distinction between state and society, public and private, and which organizes politics around symbolic representation and status, into a bourgeois liberal constitutional order that does distinguish between the public state, the private realm and then, within that private realm, a bourgeois public sphere for rational critical political discourse for the formation of public opinion.
People become increasingly critical towards the notion of absolute power and divine rights and start regarding the state as having to perform for them, instead of before them. And with the rise of the bourgeois coffee house-culture, a symbolic accommodation for the public sphere, the subjects of conversation switch from art, literature, birds and bees to what the state should behave like. And so the public, public opinion and equally public discourse come to existence. People start developing a sense of being more than an individual, a sense of being part of a collective, in which public discourse has the ability to be critical and actually do something. And even though at this time the public sphere was overly exclusive, for the simple reason that not everyone could be a member of the white wealthy men’s upper class club, it was symbolically inclusive as well, for it did represent the public opinion, that is, the complex collection of all opinions, influencing and influenced by public discourse and the other way around. (Habermas, 1989)
However, due to the major socio-economic transformations of industrialization and the rise of mature and advanced mass society consumer capitalism by the early twentieth century, Habermas sees the fall of the public sphere. Money and power undermine the possibility of rational forms of understanding, and so the room for a critical, pubic sphere. The revamped importance of the spectacle society, in which politicians perform before the people again, bring on a process of refeudalisation, re-integration and entwining of state and society, seen, above all, in the development of the social welfare state. The public sphere is the “realm in which something approaching public opinion can be formed, and where access is guaranteed to all citizens” (Habermas, 1989: 102). However, Habermas believed that the features for how public opinion should be formed, that is, universal access, rational debate and disregard for rank, are not in place in western democracy and that these days the public opinion is highly susceptible to elite manipulation. (Habermas, 1989)
Walter Lippmann, an American award-winning writer, journalist and political commentator, also commented on the way public opinion is being controlled. And even though his book Public Opinion was published way back in 1922, it analyzes the nature of public opinion with many valuable insights that still hold true today. Lippmann’s main idea is that “the manufacture of consent amounts to a revolution in the practice of democracy” (Lippmann, 1997: 248), for this allows the control of the public opinion on the world and the public’s interests in that world, and therefore the control of public behavior. (Lippmann, 1997) To a certain extent the manufacture of consent may be useful, maybe even necessary within modern society, for our common interests are often unclear and therefore most of us must have the world summarized by those who do indeed get it. However, “that the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. The creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technic, because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.” (Lippmann, 1997: 135)
Lippmann further feigns that the increase of propaganda’s power, along with the necessity of specialized knowledge in political decision-making, have made the traditional notion of democracy impossible. “Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart.
Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.” (Lippmann, 1997: 136) In the very beginning of the book, Lippmann actually literally lays out this thought. In “the world outside and the pictures in our heads” he states that people are unable to avoid fiction, for they simply cannot always experience reality. Therefore public discourse would be based upon fiction. In “the self-centered man” Lippmann subsequently postulates that people are more likely to have opinions about things that actually mean something to them. If these opinions conform with those of the elite, then they are accepted. If not, the consent has to be ‘manufactured’, which happens through the mainstream media. Yes, you read it right. Lippmann concludes by stating that it is in fact the dominating media that increasingly disturb democracy’s working, because by means of selecting and judging on discourse, the media are able to create and so sow the seeds of the public opinion. (Lippmann, 1997)
Recapitulating, public discourse is the complex collection of statements produced by the public, influencing and influenced by the public opinion, that is, the opinions of the people and the sum of all their views. (Petrieff, 2008) The principle approaches to the study of public opinion are the quantitative measurement of opinion distributions, the investigation of the internal relationships among the individual opinions that make up public opinion on an issue, the description or analysis of the public role of public opinion or, and this approach is based upon the previously worked out theories, as well as it represents the transition to the next chapter, which will attend to media discourse, the study of both the communication media that disseminate the ideas on which opinions are based and the uses that propagandists and other manipulators make of these media. (Petrieff, 2008) In short, to poll the public discourse on climate change, one should study its media discourse as well.
2.2.2 Media Discourse
“Very few of us, if any, are unaffected by media discourse.” (Talbot, 2007: 3) These days the media are immensely influential, therefore undeniably important and in the end inevitable. People no longer turn to pre-modernist churches, post-monarchical, bourgeois, liberal coffee-houses or other old institutions, in order to understand the world. They now turn to the media. “Since discourse plays a vital role in constituting people’s realities, the implications for the power and influence of media discourse are clear. Moreover, in modern democracies the media serve a vital function as a public forum.” (Talbot, 2007: 3) Therefore everyday engagement with the media is a big deal, and understanding this engagement is an even bigger deal. Then what is media discourse? “An initial understanding might be in terms of what it is not: direct, face-to-face communication”. (Talbot, 2007: 4) Or in the case of this thesis, the opposite of public discourse. Media discourse as the complex collection of all statements produced by the media, that is, newspapers and magazines, radio, television, films and the internet. Although this definition of media discourse serves as a satisfactory starting point, the term will turn out to be much more complicated indeed. “Media discourse circulates in and across institutions and it is deeply embedded in the daily life and interaction of almost everyone.” (Talbot, 2007: 5) Theorizing the circuit of culture will completely clarify this comment.
Stuart Hall, a Jamaican cultural theorist and sociologist, states that culture roughly refers to ‘shared meanings’ and that the media are of major importance in the circulation of these ‘meanings’. In Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, published in 1997, Hall presents the circuit of culture model in order to make this process explicit. In the concerning model, which is based on Hall’s original encoding and decoding model, published in 1973, meaning is produced at different sites and circulated in a continuous process of production, consumption, regulation, representation and identity.
The circuit of culture (Hall, 1997)
The circuit of culture takes issue with the simplistic transmission model of communication, in which Claude Elwood Shannon and Warren Weaver reduce communication to a process of ‘transmitting information’. (Shannon & Weaver, 1999)
Since Shannon and Weaver worked as engineers for Bell Telephone Labs in the US, their goal was to ensure the maximum efficiency of telephone cables and radio waves. They therefore developed a model of communication, which was initially intended to assist in developing a mathematical theory of communication and, by making information measurable, it indeed gave birth to the information theory. However, at the same time it turned out to have a much wider application to human communication than a purely technical one. (Blahut & Hajek, 1999) In fact, the transmission model of communication is “widely accepted as one of the main seeds out of which Communication Studies has grown”. (Fiske, 1982: 6)
Transmission model of communication (Shannon & Weaver, 1948)
Shannon and Weaver’s transmission model consists of an information source, which produces a message, a transmitter, which encodes the message into signals, a channel, to which signals are adapted for transmission, a receiver, which decodes the message from the signal, and a destination, where the message arrives. (Shannon & Weaver, 1999: 36)
And then there is noise, a dysfunctional factor which refers to any interference with the message travelling along the channel which may lead to the signal received being different from that sent. In case of a telephone for instance, the channel is a wire, the signal is an electrical current in it, the transmitter and receiver are the telephone handsets and noise would be the crackling from the wire.
Although these days no serious communication theorist would still accept this oversimplified model, in which communication consists of a sender transmitting a message to a receiver, it has also been the most influential model of communication which has yet been developed, for indeed it is simple, generalizable and quantifiable and it reflects a common sense understanding of what communication is. Common sense, but misleading. Because, whilst such simple usage may be adequate for many everyday purposes, for this thesis the concept needs some critical consideration.
According to Hall, transmitted messages do not have a transparently recognizable content at all. “Reality exists outside language, and what we can know or say has to be produced in and through discourse. Discursive ‘knowledge’ is the product not of the transparent representation of the ‘real’ in language, but of the articulation of language on real relations and conditions.” (Hall, 1997: 7) Specific cultural conditions apply at every stage of any communication process, and so we cannot assume that the encoded meaning of a media message is the same as the decoded meaning of a media message.
This focus on representation and the relation between production and consumption, which has definitely derived from Foucault’s theory, is key when wanting to define media discourse. (Hall, 1997)
In short, one could literately follow Foucault and postulate that public discourse is the complex collection of all statements produced by the public, just like media discourse is the complex collection of all statements produced by the media. However, one could also find his or her inner Foucault and dig a little deeper. According to the circuit of culture, one could combine these different definitions and argue that in fact, public discourse continuously influences media discourse and media discourse continuously influences public discourse.
2.2.3 Media Discourse & Public Discourse as Influenced Influences
When entering the world in which communication consists of more than the simple sender, receiver, message-model, a wise entrance point would be John Dewey, an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer, whose thoughts on communication have been highly influential around the whole wide world and whose complex, sometimes even paradoxal lines remain regularly quoted in the literature of communications. Or in this thesis. One of his most well-knows claims is that “of all affairs communication is the most wonderful” (Dewey, 1958: 166), as well as that “society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication”. (Dewey, 2004: 4)
One may wonder why Dewey considered communication to be wonderful, for today’s communication commonly consists of slander and shallowness. Nevertheless, Dewey’s intelligent ideas on communication sure are wonderful.
According to Carey, a communications theorist, media critic and teacher of journalism, the concerning underlying complexity comes from Dewey’s use of communication in two different ways, the starting point of his own theory. And so Carey’s communication theory distinguishes two different concepts, that is the transmission view of communication and the ritual view of communication (Carey, 1989: 14). And again, although “our basic orientation to communication remains grounded,
at the deepest roots of our thinking, in the idea of transmission, that is, communication as a process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people” (Carey, 1989: 15), the ritual view of communication is by far the oldest one. “A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space, but toward the maintenance of society in time, not the act of imparting information, but the representation of shared beliefs.” (Carey, 1989: 18) It is not just about Shannon and Weaver’s transmission of information, but about “the construction and maintenance of an ordered, meaningful cultural world that can serve as a control and container for human action”. (Carey, 1989: 19). It is about communication as confirmation.
When we apply this theory to this thesis, which wonders how media discourse and public discourse on climate change influence one another, indeed, it turns out that the media make use of many mechanisms to construct our conception of climate change. First of all, Major mentions that media messages on climate change generally focus on dramatic and unexpected events. This episodic reporting results to incidents not being framed in a wider climate context. (Major, 2004) Smith’s study shows that “in most areas of reporting journalists refuse to tell stories in the abstract, and the climate change dimensions of a story can be cut out, having been considered too complicated, or too uncertain. Alternatively, the scope of climate-change-related issues may be narrowed by journalistic practices.” (Smith, 2005: 1477) “Commonly, the force of the specific story might be very visual, including perhaps a flood, storm, landslide, or drought, or politically immediate, such as a fuel tax protest or new jobs/job loss story, and the cross-cutting and long-term nature of the wider issues will be obscured.” (Smith, 2005: 1477) Furthermore, thematic reporting puts concrete events in a more abstract context, by providing professional comments and possible causes and effects, which leads to priming, that is the pointing to the responsible.
Longer running processes, such as climate change, have less news value than a current, concrete event, such as a flood or hurricane. And so the slow development of some environmental issues, such as global warming or deforestation, forms an obstacle for the reporting on them. Weingart figures communicating such scientific stories through the mass media requires a format of reporting tailored to the receiving habits of the audience. “One way to do this is to translate abstract scientific findings into a sequence of events. In the case of climate change, this means the transformation of the climate discourses in science and politics into past, current, and future events. The media facilitate the representation of the highly complex and abstract interrelationships of the anthropogenic influence on climate by differentiating distinct points in time and reducing them to spontaneous events. The recipients are thus permitted to perceive a coherent development. (Weingart, 2000: 277) And so, by connecting climate change to the everyday experiences and perceptions of the public, the media construct climate change as something tangible and thereby as something solvable.
It seems as though the media have great difficulty placing climate change. And not only within time, but quite literally as well. It is an issue that not only spans these scales and categories, but that is also constituted by the interactions between them. Hence, Smith shows that references to climate change have most commonly been placed at a global scale. “For example, with Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair represented as international leaders on an international threat or via UN conferences and political wrangling, such as US stances on the Kyoto Protocol. They might also arise through an ideally visual localized threat. Environment correspondents have acknowledged that they regularly work to get climate change stories on air or into articles via the narrative device of located flood damage, coastal erosion, or the arrival of ‘exotic’diseases/species. These devices allow journalists to give editors a place on a map with a name, a dramatic image - almost a personality - and a clearly figured denouement such as “when will it fall into the sea?” In this way they are turned into situation morality plays whose plot and denouement depend to a considerable degree on the nature of the community in which the drama unfolds.” (Smith, 2005: 1477) So storms in the Netherlands over the past few years, that before would have been presented as unpredictable forces of natural hazards, have increasingly become associated in the opening or concluding sentences of stories on human induced global climate change. “Dramatization of climate change through narratives of danger has allowed the issue to be represented in the context of disasters. Nevertheless, it has often been presented in terms that specialists would not have chosen, and that publics may not be able to work with. When trying to summarize in news stories the meaning of climate change for human societies the threat is expressed in dramatic terms that can be difficult for people to connect with the decisions about lifestyle and resource use that they make every day.” (Smith, 2005: 1477) And so, by dramatizing climate change, the media construct climate change to be powerful, and the public to be powerless.
Besides, as Smith analyzed before, the possibility to visualise plays an enormous part in the selection of news subjects. Climate change can hardly be visualised, simply because the slow warming of the earth is not perceptible. So where some environmental issues are very ‘mediagenic’, some are very complex and hard to report on. The fact that most journalists have no scientific background amplifies this even more. (Nas, 2000) Zehr’s analysis indicates that this lack of scientific background is exactly the reason why scientific uncertainty is such a salient theme in climate change articles, for “scientific uncertainty is constructed through various, sometimes unintentional, processes, including represent-ations of controversy, new research topics, and an expanding problem domain.” (Zehr, 2000: 98) However, according to Antilla, scientific uncertainty is not an accidental at all. “Sceptics refer to mainstream scientists as alarmists and to mainstream science as junk science (or similar terms), which is a fundamental tool in their construction of climate change as a controversial issue.” (Antilla, 2005: 350) Antilla’s study shows that by enlisting the media, climate sceptics continue their very cynical and deeply interested campaign to discredit the science of climate change and that these efforts are facilitated by professional journalism practices within both newspapers and wire services. (Antilla, 2005) McComas’ content analysis further reveals that “implied danger and consequences of global warming gain more prominence on the upswing of newspaper attention, whereas controversy among scientists receives greater attention in the maintenance phase.” Which is now. (McComas, 1999) Yet, the easiest way to think of the process of increasing media interest in climate change, is Henderson-Seller’s resemblance to the children’s party game of Chinese whispers, “in which a simple statement is modified, sometimes beyond recognition, by repetition without understanding or correction”. (Henderson-Sellers, 1998: 421)
By showing certain images of certain places, certain people and certain points of view, the media construct and confirm our image of reality and thereby maintain a meaningful world. In the case of climate change the media sometimes construct climate change as something concrete, with concrete causes and solutions, and sometimes as something so powerful,
which nothing need to be done about. This ritual notion of communication may be the oldest one, but perhaps it is too old.
Too limited. Just like Marxist media theories, which, obviously, apply an approach to media studies derived from the work of Karl Marx, meaning a political philosophy and practice with at its core a critical analysis of capitalism and a theory of class struggle being the central element of all social change. Marxism thinks of the media as a carrier of dominant ideologies, which can be reduced to pure economic interests. Marx theorizes the media industries, or everything for that matter, as having an economic basis. Everyone thinks and acts, everything exists due to this dominant economic superstructure. Nothing more, nothing less, in the end it simply is the economy that drives us. (Marx, 1990)
When we apply this theory to this thesis, which wonders how media discourse and public discourse on climate change influence one another, Carvalho, who has done lots of research on this issue concerning climate change, found evidence that the discursive (re)construction of scientific claims in the media is indeed strongly entangled with ideological standpoints. “Understood here as a set of ideas and values that legitimate a program of action vis-à-vis a given social and political order, ideology works as a powerful selection device in deciding what is scientific news, i.e. what the relevant “facts” are, and who are the authorized “agents of definition” of science matters. The representation of scientific knowledge has important implications for evaluating political programs and assessing the responsibility of both governments and the public in addressing climate change.” (Carvalho, 2007: 223) Marx would say that the media are a propaganda-machine for a small group of owners. Antilla tells us this is true. “Although the science of climate change does not appear to be a prime news topic for most of the newspapers, there were numerous examples of frames constructed as valid science.
Nonetheless, articles that framed climate change in terms of debate, controversy, or uncertainty were plentiful. Not only were there many examples of journalistic balance that led to bias, but some of the news outlets repeatedly used climate sceptics, with known fossil fuel industry ties, as primary definers. Worse yet, in some instances, such articles originated from wire or news service providers, which caused the exponential spread of misinformation.” (Antilla, 2007: 350) This also explains why “in response to President Bush’s withdrawal of the Kyoto Protocol in 1991, the US public appeared to be far more supportive of the action than the citizens of a number of European countries where there was considerable outrage about the decision.” (Brechin, 2003: 106) And so this Marxist approach is actually pretty critical as well. It includes instrumentalism, for the media are an instrument to get across a certain message. And it also includes structuralism, because this propaganda mechanism called media, is unable to be challenged. (Hay, 1999) So where Liberalists have no concerns at all, since that would just undermine the social structure, and have great confidence in active audiences and the ultimate outcome of market forces, is where Marxists worry that economic structures are fixed in such a way, that nothing can be changed within the existing system. Nothing but a revolution could bring about a completely different production process. (Marx, 2002)
Critical political economists, on the other hand, argue that the media are not just part of an economic production process. The produced content plays a significant role in how we experience and make sense of our everyday lives as well. Media are being constructed, but they also construct on itself. Whereas the classical Marxist approach only focuses on the economic organization of media industries, the critical political economy perspective takes up interplaying symbolic dimensions as well, such as social construction. (Murdock & Golding, 2005) When we applied Carey’s communication theory to some existing relevant researches, it turned out media discourse on climate change indeed constructs public discourse on climate change. But then how come climate change controversy rules over society? Does the media construct this controversy and does this controversy construct the public? Or for that matter, does the public indeed interpret the media as intended? Who knows. Who knows how the public produces meanings and what their significance might be. Over the years many have theorized the social applications of the interaction between the media and its audience. Revising classical Marxism, as explained afore, their prominent shared concern is Stuart Hall’s encoding and decoding model, which states that the media are always commodities within a dominant system, encoded with dominant meanings, according to which the decoding subordinate creates a sense of self, the world around it and its relationship to others. (Hall, 2001) Some agree. Some definitely do not agree. But this model, in which meaning is the product of interaction between the media and its audience, sure has been the starting point for many media theorists and their ultimate objective of finally placing the public in the picture.
Especially Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian educator, philosopher and communication theorist, is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory, and has made some pretty useful comments on how the media would work as a constructing mechanism. At first, McLuhan as well was quite concerned. He noted that not only the media construct our sense of self and the world around us, but that they have a manipulative potential as well. And so, in the time and line of the critical Frankfurt School he first rejected their disillusion of activity. However, he then made a gradual shift and started realising that the media do not alienate or create a passive public at all, but are actually extensions of our human nervous system. Think about it, books are an extension of our eyes, the radio is an extension of our ears, and so television is both. McLuhan started thinking about the radical impact of new forms of communication, such as the latter, upon the dimensions of time, space and human perception. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964, he introduces his famous phrase ‘the medium is the message’, meaning that “the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived’. (McLuhan, 2001: 7)
Simply spoken, we should focus on the characteristics of the medium itself, instead of the more obvious content it carries, for that is what affects the society in which it plays a role. Take McLuhan’s demonstration of electric light, which is a typical example of a medium without contents. It is simple, but can create spaces during nighttime, and so it completely changes the way we organize our lives. “A light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.” (McLuhan, 2001: 8) So not only does McLuhan think of cultural contents as a peripheral issue, his pun ‘the medium is the massage’ implies that the media mould and shape the way humans think, act, and ultimately perceive the world around them. (McLuhan, 1996)
Opposed to the Marxists I attended to earlier, McLuhan doesn’t theorize television in terms of power, ideology or economic determinism. Instead he turns to technological determinism and postulates that television invites participation, because it is “low definition”, that is low on informational content. (McLuhan, 2001: 24) By reflecting upon the biases of time and space, and how these determine the way society is organized, he makes a distinction between oral societies, which are preliterate, have no means to document and so keep narratives alive through rituals en repetition, and literate societies, which focus on space and can spread printed stories beyond borders. McLuhan says there is a relationship between these modes of cultural transmission, social organization and the way we experience modern media. He argues that a book is as hot as is gets, for reading is a private experience, one that requires being literate, so with limited accessibility and because books are high on informational content and low on public participation. Television, on the other hand, is a cool medium, for it invites audience participation and two-way communication. (McLuhan, 2001: 25-26)
Consequences of the rise of electronic media, such as television, are the gradual displacement of hot media with these cool, low content media, and the annihilation of time and space, for in a mediated society we can always, watch everything, from across the entire globe. The world is at our doorstep. Therefore we can understand and embrace others, create networks without a connecting core and so a global village is being born. A global village in which we increasingly return to local village, preliterate ways of living and where people unite through common rituals again. In brief, on the one side globalization leads to a smaller world, but on the other side cool media leads to the implosion of culture. More importantly, the expansion of the media make the public sphere redundant. That is, in terms of the distinction between more and less literate societies. Hierarchies disappear and, according to McLuhan, now everyone can be an expert within these decreased linear patterns and increased blurred boundaries between public, private, politics, education and entertainment. The public sphere is everywhere, within everyone. The media have massaged the people into an interactive mass. (McLuhan, 2001: 35)
Just like McLuhan, the French philosopher, sociologist and cultural theorist Baudrillard radically reconsiders Marx’ theory on political economy and ideology as false consciousness. He, on the other hand, defines a shift from misrepresentation to misrecognition. The thesis that the consumer society constitutes to an ideological state apparatus, positioning us as subjects, constructing our needs which can be met by what society has to offer, and that if we do not maintain our appetite for social distinction the system collapses, is complete nonsense. Baudrillard focuses on consumption instead of production, and argues that needs are actually constructed and that we are not being addressed as individuals, but as a mass. He therefore observes a state of misrecognition, in which we don’t accept a certain ideology, but in which we actually acknowledge being addressed, recognize identities that are being offered and actively accept our passive role within that process. So yes, mister Marx, the consumer society, with the media as its most devoted product or at least its best example, constructs certain ideologies, but by interpreting them we allow them. So let’s move away from the so called consumer society’s agenda, and let’s look at the consumers themselves. For the ideas that the media try to put forward depend on whether we take it up. (Baudrillard, 1998)
Baudrillard contradicts McLuhan when saying that the media are the absolute key in enabling the consumer society to maintain its relations of dominance. First of all, the media offer the illusion of an unmediated appropriation of the social world. Television, taken as an example, makes us misrecognize the representation of reality, for in fact it just allows ludic curiosity, which means we’re not really being informed, just in this distant way. You see, the overload or even overkill of over the top images doesn’t affect us. Television is univocal and unilateral, in a word one-sided, for it shouts for attention, but we cannot really talk back. It creates indifference, rather than participation. We do not engage with what we see and, as apposed to what McLuhan says, we do not feel invited to involve at all. It actually kills the art of symbolic exchange. It may seem as though people have a say, by for instance voting for our favorite idol, but the fact we can only vote yes or no indicates the limitations of television. Really, it obstructs response and democratization. Baudrillard is hopeful however, for the public could and should resist this misrecognition of the media. We should find an outlet, an alternative mode with no resemblance to the media, to express our resistance to the consumer society. (Baudrillard, 1998)
John Fiske couldn’t agree more. Understanding Popular Culture, published in 1989, as well attends to the public of popular culture and the way it could and should resist the encoded meanings of the media. Fiske distinguishes the commercial, in which users passively accept and consume commodities, from the popular, in which users actively rework cultural resources. Our capitalist society not only exists of, but also because of commodities. These may be basic necessities or unnecessary luxuries, and even non-material objects, such as a television program. Commodities contribute to the generation and circulation of wealth, but satisfy personal needs such as warmth, comfort and simple survival as well. And in addition to these obvious material functions, commodities have a cultural function, for they can be used by the consumer to construct meanings of self, social identity and social relations. However, this approach, differentiating between money and meanings, puts the power with the producers of the commodity. They are the ones making a profit and promoting certain ideologies and we are the ones being exploited, the ones adopting ideologies and thereby living, validating and invigorating capitalism. (Fiske, 1989)
But what about consumers? What about their resistance to these dominant ideologies? By discussing the example of a torn jeans, Fiske states that “the raggedness is the production and choice of the user, it is an excorporation of the commodity into a subordinate subculture and a transfer of at least some of the power inherent in the commodification process. It is a refusal of commodification and an assertion of one’s right to make one’s own culture out of the resources provided by the commodity system.” (Fiske, 1989: 113) In short, excorporation is the individual subject making its own culture out of the resources provided by the dominant system. In popular culture there’s an active audience which decodes what senders encode, making do what is available and making it their own. (Hall, 2001) Some exclusively focus on the forces of domination and state that producers subsequently adopt these signs of resistance by incorporating them in the dominant system, hence robbing subordinate groups of their oppositional meanings. Fiske, on the other hand, feels this explanation fails to recognize the complex and creative forms of resistance to this incorporation, thereby “devaluing the struggle entailed in constructing popular culture within a capitalist society” (Fiske, 1989: 114) According to clever guerrilla tactics, the weak will always be able to resist the powerful and their dominant ideology and maintain the sense of social difference. However big or small, in whatever domain, people will always struggle between domination and subordination, find popular tactics to cope with, evade and resist dominant forces and so bring about social change. Fiske is pretty optimistic and concludes to see popular culture, such as the media, as potentially and often actually, progressive. (Fiske, 1989)
Habermas turns out to be quite optimistic as well. At first, as became apparent before, Habermas argues that the rise of capitalism undermines the possibility of rational forms of understanding, and so the room for a critical, public sphere, (Habermas, 1989). However, in 1981 Habermas publishes his Theory of Communicative Action, in which he continues on the rehabilitation of critical argument. With its normative foundations of discussion in the public sphere, this book is based on communicative reason, which Habermas distinguishes from the rationalist tradition. That is, it considers rationality to be the structure of interpersonal linguistic communication, rather than the structure of either the cosmos or the knowing subject. According to the principle of intersubjectivity, rationality and coming to agreement about general interests is not located in but between subjects. We learn who we are, make sense of the world around us, from our basic relations with others. (McCarthy, 1984) And so Habermas’ theory also challenges Marx’ focus on economics, or alienation, as the main or mere determining factor of oppression. (Ollman, 1976) Instead, Habermas argues that the key to liberation is rather to be found in language and communication between people. According to the classical public sphere theory we should pursue undistorted communication or, in terms of the more relevant communicative action theory, we should aspire to the ideal speech situation. A situation in which all voices are entitled to be heard and the best available arguments are brought to bear. A situation in which an uncoercive force of the best argument determines collective decisions as the expression of the general will, without internal or external constraints. The general interest should rather be a collective achievement, than an assumption or expert prescription. And so the truth should be a product of undistorted communication. (McCarthy, 1984) Now the question raises whether the media suffice with this condition, and indeed function as a platform of undistorted communication.
When it comes to climate change Hall, McLuhan, Baudrillard, Fiske and Habermas would argue that the public is a critical, (inter)active mass, which doesn’t just take the media discourse for granted. On the one hand this conception seems to be correct, for a series of different researches demonstrate that “although global warming generates concern around the globe, it is not a ‘front-burner’ issue.” (Bord, 1998: 75) And even though climate change has become a prominent topic within the media, Lorenzoni’s examination on how climate change is conceptualised by publics in Europe and in the US tells us “it still is of secondary importance in comparison to other issues in people’s daily lives.” (Lorenzi, 2006: 73) Besides, “although the scientific community today speaks out on global climatic change in essentially a unified voice concerning its anthropogenic causes and potential devastating impacts at the global level, it remains the case that many citizens of a number of nations still seem to harbour considerable uncertainties about the problem itself.” (Brechin, 2003: 106)
These errors in assessing the causes of global warming, which are global in nature (Bord, 1998), lead to the public not becoming genuinely concerned about climate change and not willing to undertake real action to address climate change. O’Connor’s survey of 1218 Americans illustrated that “the key determinant of behavioural intentions to address global warming is a correct understanding of the causes of global warming. Knowing what causes climate change, and what does not, is the most powerful predictor of both stated intentions to take voluntary actions and to vote on hypothetical referenda to enact new government policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” (O’Connor, 2000: 205) However, Dessai’s study shows us that, besides having ‘external’ perspectives on climate change, which are usually based on scientific risk analysis, performed by experts, which usually talk through the media, the public also makes up an ‘internal’ definition of dangerous climate change, which recognises that “to be real, danger has to be either experienced or perceived, it is the individual or collective experience or perception of insecurity or lack of safety that constitutes the danger.” (Dessai, 2004: 11)
Leiserowitz indeed found out that “American risk perceptions and policy support are strongly influenced by experiential factors, including affect, imagery, and values, and that public responses to climate change are influenced by both psychological and socio-cultural factors” (Leiserowitz, 2006: 45) and Lorenzoni indeed found out that in Europe “most individuals relate to climate change through personal experience”. (Lorenzoni, 2006: 73 ) However, Rebetez argues that human expectations regarding weather and climate, such as “the two very characteristic complaints about current climate in Switzerland, that is, the lack of snow in winter and the lack of sunshine in summer”, sometimes lead to perceptions of climate change which are not supported by actual evidence.” (Rebetez, 1996: 495) Besides, Weber says it should come as no surprise that the public does not seem to understand and concern about climate change and its consequences. “Behavioural decision research over the last 30 years provides a series of lessons about the importance of affect in perceptions of risk and in decisions to take actions that reduce or manage perceived risks. Evidence from a range of domains suggests that worry drives risk management decisions. When people fail to be alarmed about a risk or hazard, they do not take precautions. Recent personal experience strongly influences the evaluation of a risky option. Low-probability events generate less concern than their probability warrants on average, but more concern than they deserve in those rare instances when they do occur. Personal experience with noticeable and serious consequences of global warming is still rare in many regions of the world. When people base their decisions on statistical descriptions about a hazard provided by others, characteristics of the hazard identified as psychological risk dimensions predict differences in alarm or worry across different classes of risk. The time-delayed, abstract, and often statistical nature of the risks of global warming does not evoke strong visceral reactions.” (Weber, 2006: 103)
Moreover, translating public concern for climate change into effective action requires real knowledge. Because, up till now “general environmental concern or concern for the negative effects of air pollution appear not to motivate people to support programs designed to control global warming. (O’Connor, 2000: 205) The public simply does not understand climate change, due to the controversy within the media, which “acting as one driving force, is providing citizens with piecemeal information that is necessary to assess the social, environmental and political conditions of the country and world.” (Dispensa, 2003: 74) And so the media do not function as a platform of undistorted communication and cannot provide us with the truth, and nothing but the truth, on climate change. However, they do provide us with a certain discourse on climate change and so,
in the lines of Hall, McLuhan, Baudrillard, Fiske and Habermas, it indeed is very interesting to study how this media discourse comes about through the social interaction with the public discourse, and the other way around.