Project Base and superstructure

This project involved reading a paper by David Chandler of Aberystwyth University on Marxist Media Theory. The aim is to review the paper and then to answer several questions. The questions and my answers are listed below:

What did Marx mean by base and superstructure?

Marx believed that the economic base of society is seen as determining everything else in society which he calls the superstructure, which includes social, cultural, political and intellectual systems. The base is a combination of the forces of production—raw materials, industrial processes, factories, etc.—and the relations of production, or more simply the wage-based relationship between the working class and their employers.

In the case of a media organisation for example this would mean that the content it publishes and the messages it conveys would be primarily determined by its economic base, or more specifically who owns and controls the capital of the organisation. A commercially owned organisation will be driven by the need to keep advertisers happy through increasing circulation – inevitably this would mean that such organisations would tend to publish attentions grabbing content – sleaze, violence, and these days celebrity gossip. Media institutions which are owned and controlled by the state, e.g. the BBC, would publish material which would present views which support those of the prevailing consensus.

Which of the approaches outlined by Chandler makes the most sense to me?

The fundamental idea (Economism) expressed by the base and superstructure, which Althusser calls a metaphor, makes the most sense when looking at commercial organisations. The financial interests of capitalist organisations do drive their actions. This classical approach is however very rigid and simplistic.

Althusser rejected Economism in favour of an analysis which sees ideology as the key factor in shaping people’s consciousness. Althusser’s proposed the concept of idealogical state apparatuses (ISA’s), which appellate individuals to become ‘subjects’ who subscribe to the inherent structures of the ISA’s. I believe that structures with the characteristics of ISA’s exist in society. The Church, family relations, the political system all seem to conform to this idea. What I do not agree with is Althusser’s notion that individuals cannot resist the process of interpellation. If this were the case how then would it have been possible for example for Marx to challenge the prevailing ideologies? More recent thinkers  have allowed  for a contradictory, de-centred ‘subject’. This seems more plausible to me. The idea that messages can be moulded and adapted by audiences also makes sense to me. As does their idea that ‘The power of the media is thus portrayed as that of renewing, amplifying and extending the existing predispositions that constitute the dominant culture’.

Gramsci’s ideas that the ruling class are able to project their own way of seeing the world so that people see it as common sense and natural also seems on face value to make sense. However, this model assumes that the ruling classes are able to control the media. This is something which may well have been true in the past but perhaps is no longer the case.

The so-called Marxist cultural approach presented in the work of Stuart Hall, seeks to overcome the rigidity of Economism, and lack of recognition of opposing views in Althusser’s analysis. He also addresses theoretically how people decode texts. His analysis facilitates oppositional views and appears less rigid and intractable. It comments little however on the importance of ownership and control.

What this analysis has shown me is that there are many different Marxist Media theories, none of which fully makes sense to me.

Does my understanding of base and superstructure vary for society in general and the media/arts?

Economism proposes that the economic base determines all other aspects of society.

For commercial organisations it is relatively easy to accept this on face value. My comments in the introduction present the media as an example of how the ‘relations of productions’ or the ownership is likely to direct the actions of the organisation.

With regards to the art however it might be argued that it is not driven by the economic base of society and that it may even stand in opposition to it. A simplistic interpretation of Marx’s base and superstructure would argue that art merely reflects the messages of the dominant classes. There are however many instances in the history of art where artists have stood out in opposition to the dominant prevailing view within society. Of course there are also examples of where artists have produced work for commercial gain, clearly responding to the desires of the dominant classes, reflecting their views and promoting their interests.

Later interpretations of Marx’s base and superstructure acknowledge the need for a more flexible interpretation which accepts that the superstructure also influences the base. This would accommodate the role of art as a challenge to the prevailing culture within society.