Quarter: Fall 2015
BISMCS 333: Media and Communication Studies
Professor: Susan Harewood
Lawrence Grossberg’s text on Ideology uses several theories, drawing upon the work of Karl Marx, John Berger, and Plato as evidence to prove that there is no ‘right’ way to explain how humans interpret reality. Grossberg begins with this definition of reality, “a particular way of thinking and seeing the world that makes the existing organization of social relations appear natural and inevitable, (p.193)”. The construction of one’s ideology is entirely societal, this is why ideological concepts differ from region to region, and even from group to group, because there is nothing natural about the way we see the world, it is only a social construct. Once we realize this, we can see that in order to study ideology it is imperative that we separate ourselves from our own ways of thinking in order to properly analyze and question that which seems natural.
Grossberg continues by discussing how ideology relates to reality and representation. Media plays a large role in not only representing the reality we live in, but also constructing our ideologies through representation, “The media make meanings and organize them into various codes and systems, (p. 194)”. Although film, television, and other channels of media do not claim to represent reality, in their existence they must do so in order for viewers to decode whatever message the channel is attempting to send. This is due to the fact that, “People experience the world only through the cultural codes of meaning that enable them to interpret or make sense of the world, (p. 194)”. Media channels use these codes in representation, which Grossberg defines simply as re-presentation, “To take the original, mediate it, and ‘play it back’(p.195)”. He argues that the process of representation alters reality in itself and because it can only make a claim on reality it is not reality itself.
With these connections, or rather disconnections, between ideology, reality, and representation a problem is introduced, Can people only experience reality, but never authentically share it through any channel of communication? Grossberg uses several theories to answer this question which include constructionist, humanistic and realistic theories of ideology. The realistic theory, in which Grossberg cites Karl Marx, he argues that there is a higher class which holds the power and the ability to impose its reality on the rest of society. Within the realistic theory, Marx who focuses on the question, “How do societies maintain and reproduce structures of social difference and power?” The realistic theory links the development of an ideology of a society to social position.
On the other hand, the humanistic theory identifies a distinct difference between one’s experiences and reality. In this theory ideology is not imposed on the masses by a higher class but developed by an individual through their own understanding of what is real. Realistic theory draws upon the work of Plato, “suggesting that people confuse appearances for reality itself (p.201)”. In Plato’s example of prisoners who, having never left a cave, decide that the shadows they see are real and that nothing more exists when in fact there are figures who dance outside of the cave that create these shadows. The prisoner’s limited understanding of the world, limits their ability to recognize reality but there is a reality that exists independent of their individual experiences.
The last of the theories, social constructionism, “asserts that reality is not real in any obvious or direct sense. It is rather the product of human invention, (p.201)”. In social constructionism there is no reality outside of people’s understanding, reality is dependent on human experience. This theory claims that because reality is socially constructed then all modes of communication are doubly articulated, “The first is the production of meaning or significance; the second, the representation or construction of reality, (p.201)”. Reality is a product of ideology because culture and language are used in the process of its construction and only people of power have the ability to develop these constructs.
In conclusion, Grossberg does a fantastic job at illustrating the struggle in representing reality. One cannot fully capture with authenticity the truth in what they are feeling, tasting, or experiencing with words, and that is the struggle of communication. The text explains that in each of these theories of ideology there is a certain truth. In the same way that there is no single meaning to any book, painting, or song because it is intertextual and polysemic, there is also no ‘right’ theory of ideology because each functions differently in different circumstances (p.211). Reality is simply what exists, it’s what we can see, hear, and feel but there are multiple ways that human beings, being extremely complex, can come to know and talk about it.
Grossberg, et al (2006). Ideology. In Media making mass media in a popular culture. Preview the documentView in a new windowSage Publications: Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi. 193-216.