I wrote this ten years ago and found it again today. At the time, I was under pressure to get all my writing into peer-reviewed journals. This was the only piece I could not get published. No one would touch it. I remain strongly attached to it and, now that I edit a popular blog, I’m going to shamelessly exploit my situation and post it here, in a place with far greater readership than most peer-reviewed journals!
The Scottish connection is that there are people teaching, in Scottish schools and in universities, often without really thinking about it, a kind of distracted moral relativism contrary to the leftist, critical theories of those such as Chomsky, whose analysis underscores most of what I write. Most important, the influence of this thinking, sometimes referred to as post-modernism and with roots in the work of the Nazi philosopher, Heidegger, has helped to produce vast quantities of media research interested in trivia, fetish, celebrities and popular culture and which does not tackle the huge structural inequalities in power and influence between the state and corporate media and those voices which would offer alternative explanations of our lives. Those of us in the Scottish independence movement know this well.
Here it is:
Since the cultural turn in media studies after the adoption of Derrida, Foucault and others in the 1970s, teaching at undergraduate level and in senior schools (16-18yr-olds) has become dominated by a postmodern or deconstructionist hegemony at the expense of political economy approaches to issues such as ownership, bias or propaganda. The exposure of the roots of deconstruction in the German existentialism and the Nazism of Heidegger and de Man, especially, by Farias and Wolin has seen a return by many intellectuals to the defence of human rights and an attack on inequality, of the kind long championed by Said and Chomsky. Undergraduate and school-level study remains however behind the curve with critical political economy neglected in favour of residual deconstructionism or even, under a Blairist ‘Third Way’, a return to the liberal pluralism of McQuail. This paper will argue for a rebalancing of the media studies curriculum using evidence of curriculum distortion in guidelines and set texts for 16-18 year-olds and undergraduates, and seek to undermine the complacent and flawed separation of Heidegger the man from Heideggerian thought in the work of prominent media educators in HE.
‘We pulled every dirty trick in the book; we made it [UK industrial action in the winter of 1978/1979] look like it was general, universal and eternal when it was in reality scattered, here and there, and no great problem’ (Channel 4, 1998).
Interviewed in a Channel 4 documentary, twenty years after the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in the United Kingdom, then editor of The Daily Express, Derek Jamieson, made the above admission and agreed that his purpose had been to assist the electoral success of the Conservative Party by undermining the Labour government. It’s an all-too-rare example of the kind of dirty tricks many on the political left suspect elite journalists make a habit of but are rarely able to prove. Nevertheless, it is the above kind of story that seems to prompt an enthusiasm for critical economy approaches to mainstream media output amongst undergraduates. Most of the evidence for a postmodern hegemony in HE media studies lies relatively hidden from wider scrutiny within the lectures and seminars of degree programme curricula suggesting broad coverage of theoretical perspective. Arriving in a school of media from a school of education, in 2004, the author was asked to get involved in honours dissertation supervision and presented with a list of topics chosen by 3rd year students a few months earlier. All thirty were about celebrity/popular culture and none adopted a political economy perspective. All were informed by broadly post-modernist thinkers.
The study of popular culture is of course potentially useful if it tackles the issues of structural power and exploitation implicit in these mass phenomena. However, most such studies tend to focus on relatively apolitical aspects such as the techniques used to develop celebrity and the audience responses apparent in consumerist behavior. Students mostly share in the fascination of those audience members they study and commonly characterize the marketplace as unproblematic. These patterns of study have their origins in the teaching students receive and in the key texts they are directed to by academic staff. While those teachers favouring a critical political economy approach can of course nudge popular culture topics toward recognition of the presence of power relations and market dominance, there is, nevertheless, an overall tendency to neglect significant issues within media studies such as, for example, the representation of war, famine, the environment and finance.
Before students arrive in Higher Education, they may have followed Higher (Scotland) or A-Level (England, Wales, Northern Ireland) Media Studies programmes. Prescribed readers and support websites reveal the same neglect of political economy. In Scotland, the Secondary Media Studies Post 16 Critical Perspectives and the Post 16 News: TV & Radio, (both TES Publisher), Chomsky and Propaganda Model have no mentions. Even the generic term ‘propaganda’ does not feature. On the English Media Studies GCE A/ AS (Alevelmedia.co.uk) and A-Level Media Studies (WJEC) sites, there is no sign of Chomsky and ‘propaganda’ is located exclusively and historically in only Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
To enable young undergraduates to apply a critical economy approach, Herman and Chomsky’s ‘Propaganda Model’ (PM), (Herman & Chomsky, 2002) was adopted by the author. A major criterion in this choice is the PM’s clarity and coherence as a model. The author recognises that other models are preferred by many researchers in the broad field of political economy and makes sure students know this. Its use and justification in undergraduate writing set and assessed by this author and by at least one other academic working in UK Higher Education (Jhally, 2007: 9 & 10) lend support to the strategy. Jhally asserts: ‘I teach the PM as a scientific model, a hypothesis, a model concerned with content … The PM is easily tested.’
However, the PM has been generally less popular with media academics since it was first introduced in 1988. Mullen carried out a survey in 2008, which revealed a marked neglect of the model within North America and Europe. In a sample of 3 053 journal articles from 1988 to 2007, only 79 articles (2.6%) made any mention of the PM while in a survey of 48 media, communication and cultural studies textbooks widely used in higher education, only 11 (22.9%) considered the PM and only 4 did so in any depth (Mullen, 2008: 2). In preparing this paper in 2013, the author quickly consulted the general introductory texts used by media studies programmes in his own institution and in H and A-Level Studies for 16-18 year-olds. The popular Media Students Book (Branston & Stafford, Routledge, 2010) did have one reference to Chomsky along with four for Eastenders and five for soap operas generally. The Media: An Introduction (Albertuzzi et al, Pearson, 2010), Studying the Media (O’Sullivan et al, Hodder Arnold, 2003) and Media Studies: A Reader (Thomson et al Edinburgh U P, 2009), the latter aimed at Scottish Higher Media Studies pupils, made no mention of Chomsky at all and each offered between eight and seventeen references to Eastenders. Moving on to a Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies (Walsh & Hill, Bloomsbury, 2012), we find no mention of Chomsky and in the WHO’s WHO In the Media (Guardian Books, 2006) we find no mention of Chomsky or Philo or John Pilger or Adam Curtis but entries for Piers Morgan, Natasha Kaplinsky, Phil Jupitus and Sir Bob Geldof. The author does not dispute the value of studying mass popular media consumption like Eastenders, quite the reverse, but does question the neglect of perhaps the best known public intellectual in the world. Less prominent than Chomsky, other professors have had a greater presence in media studies. Professor Paddy Scannell, Heidegger enthusiast, has thirty authored pieces in the highly-rated journal Media, Culture and Society, alone. Critical political economist, Professor Greg Philo (Glasgow) has three. Ed Herman has one in 1982 and Chomsky has none.
‘All I knew about Heidegger was that he’d been a Nazi….’ (Sabry, 2006: 9)
‘Heidegger surfboards along the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode on the mechanical wave’. (McLuhan, 1962: 42)
Paddy Scannell, then Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster, interviewed in 2006, knew that his inspiration, the German existentialist/ phenomenologist philosopher, Martin Heidegger, had been a Nazi. He seemed to think nothing of it despite the extent and depth of Heidegger’s Nazism becoming public many years before. In the same interview Scannell said:
‘Being and Time [Heidegger’s ‘opus’] remains the single most important, life-changing thing I have ever read….. Heidegger earns his insights through the extraordinary intellectual quest that he undertakes in BT. It is a winding journey round the huge hill, cragged and steep, of Truth. That is what he is seeking, and if you, as his reader, are willing to accompany him you will get to and share something of his hard-won understanding of the truth of what it is to be human and to be confronted, as human beings uniquely are, with the question of existence, with what it is to be alive and living in the world. It was an awesome achievement and I am profoundly grateful and thankful for Heidegger’s great effort on our behalf.’
Interviewer: ‘Did Heidegger’s book help with your thinking about the media?’ Scannell: ‘It helped my thinking about everything. And it certainly helped my thinking about radio and television.’ (Sabre, 2007: 7)
Scannell’s hero-worship of Heidegger is perhaps the most enthusiastic example of Heidegger’s presence amongst professors of media, culture or communications. Professor Tony Wilson (University of Tasmania) makes extensive use of Heidegger’s phenomenology and that of his Nazi colleague, Hans-Georg Gadamer (Wilson, 1995; 2008). Associate Professor David Berry (University of Swansea) asserts ‘strong research interests in the philosophical and theoretical implications of the work of Heidegger ’ (Berry, 2013) while Dr Paul Taylor (University of Leeds) reminds us that: ‘Love him or loathe him, Heidegger is widely regarded as the 20th Century’s most significant philosopher of being’ but that he gets too little attention from media scholars (Taylor, 2012).
Marshall McLuhan further embedded Heidegger’s ideas in 1960’s media research but it was the ‘deconstructionism’, developed by Jacques Derrida out of Heidegger’s phenomenology that was to become almost hegemonic. Going beyond, as he saw it, Heidegger’s incomplete critique to undermine all of metaphysics from Plato onward but with particular determination, that of Hegel and Marx, Derrida’s deconstructionism was to dominate discourse in European and, especially, North American, universities.
This paper goes on to challenge the popular notion (amongst some academics) that Heidegger’s insights remain invaluable, crucially uninfected by Nazism and thus usable today. In tackling these issues, the admittedly problematic and over-generalizing term ‘postmodernism’ (PM) is used throughout, recognizing that alternative terms such as ‘deconstruction’, ‘post-structuralism’, ‘post-colonialism’ or ‘phenomenology’ may be more accurate in certain contexts but noting that ‘PM’ is the best know umbrella term for a range of theoretical positions sharing a denial of any commonly experienced material reality and rejecting all of the modernist meta-narratives such as those originating in Marx, Darwin and Freud.
Heidegger: In Need of Curriculum Exorcism?
The quotations from the interview with Scannell represent the clearest, most open expression and, as Heidegger himself would have it, ‘authentic’, alignment with PM, its counter-enlightenment mission, complete rejection of Marxian, indeed any materialist, perspectives and its debt to the German philosopher, phenomenologist/ existentialist and committed, long-term, Nazi Party member and activist, Martin Heidegger. Interviewed by his student, Tarik Sabry, as Scannell was departing Westminster University in London for Michigan University in the USA, the resulting transcript is a fascinating insight into the thinking of a prominent and much published (six books and more than forty peer-reviewed journal articles) media theorist. Scannell does not see his work as modernist or post-modernist, structuralist or post-structuralist and, indeed, explicitly reject both as inadequate for understanding media audiences. As will be revealed in more detail later, his embrace of Heidegger’s phenomenology seems unconscious of the place of the latter at the heart of PM. PM media studies is a highly differentiated and heavily populated domain. For the purposes of this critique a single but widely published UK media theorist (Scannell) and his roots in Heidegger represent a case study sufficient to highlight the key issues.
Two central tenets of Scannell’s thought, derived from Heidegger, are the focus here. They are:
The denial of value in ideological critique or in critique based on evidence obtained by scientific method.
The preference for romanticism, myth and religion over scientific reason and empirical study.
Scannell asserts that: ‘Ideology critique doesn’t actually tell you anything particular about the media. In fact it deflects attention from what is specific to the media’ (Sabry, 2006: 13). What Scannell hopes to achieve by a deliberately ideology-free (intuitive?) analysis is to get close to the meanings individual readers or viewers give to their experience. Scannell refers to this as phenomenological rather than post-structural and, remarkably, claims a kind of affinity or empathy which succeeds where science fails: ‘It does indeed usually turn out to be the case that the opinions that I have about what I see or read or hear about what’s going on in the world happen to be pretty much like what anybody else thinks’ (Scannell, 2000: 15). This sense of intuitive belonging is close to Heidegger’s notion of the authentic life which is returned to below. Indeed, Scannell’s rejection of value in ideology and preference for intuition has even earlier echoes:
‘Everything I have said and done is these last years is relativism, by intuition. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value …If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and those who claim to be the bearers of objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity. From the fact that all ideologies are of
equal value, we Fascists conclude that we have the right to create our own ideology and to enforce it with all the energy of which we are capable.’ (Mussolini, B., 1921 in Kreeft, 1999: 18)
Heidegger’s Nazism and Heidegger’s Philosophy: In Harmony?
Martin Heidegger, student of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, is credited by Scannell as the source of his greatest insights into the nature of communication. Derrida built his theory of deconstructionism explicitly on Heidegger’s attempted deconstruction of metaphysics. Heidegger was a deeply embedded Nazi. In his inaugural address of 1933 as director, to the students and staff of Freiburg University, in a hall decked with Nazi banners, he said:
‘German Students! The National Socialist revolution brings complete upheaval to our German life…Do not let dogmas and ideas be the rules of your being. The Führer himself and alone is the German reality, present and future and its law. Learn always to know more deeply from now on every matter requires decision and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!’ (Heidegger, 1933 in Dutton, 1988: 336)
Many German academics had joined the Nazi party by 1939 but few had joined as willingly as Heidegger and after quite early expressions of support
for the party. The appeal of Nazism or, elsewhere in Europe and the Americas, of Fascism, for intellectuals, is well known (Wolin, 2006: xi). Perhaps the most stunning and revealing piece of evidence of that seduction is the fact that most of the killers of the four Einsatzkommando (Nazi killing squads in Poland and the Baltic states) had college degrees. Among them, were doctors and even one PhD in Divinity. As members of the German middle or upper classes, intellectuals had much to lose if no popular alternative to Marxism were found. But, Heidegger was no sheep. Rather, he embraced Nazism early and with much enthusiasm, witness his rectoral address above. Joining the party in 1933 and remaining a member to the end in 1945, he campaigned to become Nazism’s own philosopher. Elected Rector of Freiburg University in 1933, he went on to attempt the Nazification of Freiburg. In the process, he betrayed his ‘beloved teacher’, Edmund Husserl, who was formerly a Jew but by then a Christian, removing acknowledgement to Husserl in the later prints of Sein und Zeit and even denying him access to the University library (Wolin, 2006).
Steiner (2000) summarises the events of 1933 as Heidegger began his (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign to become Hitler’s favourite philosopher. These included:
The rectoral address with its call for subservience to the will of the Führer and the central themes of Nazism – race (Volk), blood and soil.
His establishment of the Führer principle at Freiburg whereby rectors would no longer be elected but appointed by the Nazi Minister of Education.
In his role as Führer-rector, applying the Nazi laws on racial cleansing to deny support to Jewish or Marxist students but to give it to members of the SS or SA.
Trying to gather support for an edited book on Hitler and indicating that non-Aryans need not expect to appear on the signature page.
Personally sabotaging the academic careers of Jews, pacifists and suspected socialists, referring on one occasion to a colleague as: ‘the Jew Frankel’.
Maintaining a life-long friendship (until at least 1960 when he sent a Christmas gift) with Eugen Fischer, Head of the Institution of Racial Hygiene, early proponent of genocide and line-manager of Dr. Joseph Mengele.
Some of the above had been hidden in the immediate aftermath of the War and Heidegger managed to maintain his reputation in the academic world until the mid 1980s but, with the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, East German Stasi files were released and the content, made well-known by Victor Farias’ Heidegger and Nazism (1989). Before Farias, Heidegger and acolytes such as his Jewish-born student and lover, Hannah Arendt, made some attempts to excuse his Nazi membership, to downplay his actions and, in her case, to blame the victims for complicity. These actions and excuses, reported by Farias, include:
Restoring Husserl to the foreword of Sein und Zeit in 1950.
Claiming no personal role (though Rector) in denying Husserl and others, library access.
Resigning his post in 1934 and claiming retrospectively to have distanced himself from the Party yet, one year later, praising: ‘the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism’.
Claiming falsely to have been pressed into accepting the Rectorship.
However, other evidence, also revealed by Farias, questions the sincerity and plausibility of the above. After the war, Heidegger:
Maintained, as mentioned above, his friendship with Fischer.
Made no public or private statement of regret for his party membership.
Made no private or public expression of regret for the Final Solution.
Remarkably compared the Final Solution with the modern automated food industry.
Retained and expressed a belief that Nazism was betrayed by the lack of radical thought (not Nazi enough) by the movement’s leaders and might have, otherwise, been a great success.
Wrote, immodestly, of himself in 1971: ‘He who thinks greatly must err greatly’.
The Farias exposure and the other evidence mentioned above, destroyed all the attempts to excuse Heidegger’s Nazism as a brief and naïve period in his life and supporters were then left with only two responses: to attempt to remove guilt through deconstruction of the language used to describe history and/or to prove that Heidegger’s philosophy remained valuable and, importantly, free of contamination from Nazi ideology. With regard to the former, David Hirsch in his Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism After Auschwitz (1991), considered postmodernist theory, in France and in the USA and saw that it could be applied to Heidegger’s actions as: ‘a useful device for creating an intricate and elaborate set of evasions that would help him nullify his own guilt-ridden past’. If there are no facts only interpretation; if values are bourgeois constructs used to oppress the lower classes; if a word can be deconstructed to mean its opposite, then, for Heidegger, it becomes possible to think that he is not guilty. Perhaps the most effective demolition of Heidegger or Derrida by implication, though it was written before the rise of the latter, can be found in the words of a little known Belgian Holocaust survivor, Jean Amery, who wrote of the insufferable reality of camp life and that: ‘We didn’t require any semantic analysis or logical syntax to recognize this. A glance at the watchtowers, a sniff of burnt fat from the crematories sufficed’ (Amery, 1980: 19). As for the notion that Heidegger’s philosophy is untouched by Nazism, see this:
‘On the way back [in Paris], I wanted to spur him [Heidegger] to an unguarded opinion about the situation in Germany. I turned the conversation to the controversy in the Neue Ziiricher Zeitung and explained that I agreed neither with Barthes’ political attack [on Heidegger] nor with Staiger’s defense, in so far as I was of the opinion that his partisanship for National Socialism lay in the essence of his philosophy. Heidegger agreed with me without reservation, and added that his concept of “historicity” was the basis of his political engagement.’
Karl Löwith, one of Heidegger’s first dissertation students, wrote the above in My Last Meeting with Heidegger in Rome in New German Critique (1936). Heidegger wore the swastika all of the time in Rome where there was no need to do so. Taken at face value, the debate seems over. Heidegger thought and desired that his philosophy and his politics were in harmony.
‘It is this sense that, indeed, Being and Time lead directly into Nazism’, (Fritsche, 1999: 218)
Fritsche (above) suggests a strong affinity between the language used on the Conservative right from the 1920s and that of the Nazis (including Hitler’s Mein Kampf) and Heidegger’s own deliberate vocabulary choices in Being and Time (first published in 1927). Fritsche insists that these terms were understood by the general population to be part of an assault on liberalism and socialism. Volk as a term embracing not just ‘people’ but the soul of the nation and Gemeinschaft referring to the community and not just the ‘place’ were used by Heidegger to link his writing to the ongoing Volkish romantic movement in Germany. Later and more closely linked to the Nazis, especially Hitler’s own use of terms, such as Kampf (struggle) and Führerschaft (leadership) and Fremdkörper (foreign body), Heidegger used these terms to openly indicate and to draw attention to his loyalty. The latter term was used directly by Heidegger to refer to the Jewish philosopher, Spinoza, as a foreign body in philosophy and was a term not used in classic or everyday German. As early as 1916, Heidegger had talked of the Verjudung (Judaization) of German universities. Also, contextualizing Heidegger’s language in the period of Weimar and then Nazi Germany, Petersen (2005), sums up the problems with its use in contemporary rational debate: ‘Heidegger’s rhetoric is exclusionary; its politics and its philosophy are interpenetrating. His lecture courses grew increasingly poeticized, and thus mired in ambiguity, evasion, elision, avoidance, grandiloquence.’ (599). When critics complain of this language, they are told that their criticism reveals only their own lack of understanding. A similar strategy was later used by defenders of Heidegger’s most successful acolyte, Jacques Derrida. Even Foucault, who was formerly Derrida’s teacher and who is strongly associated with French PM accused him of ‘terrorist
obscurantism’ meaning that when you can’t tell what he’s saying and criticize him, he then feels in a position to accuse you of not understanding and, by implication, of being too stupid to do so.
However, more important than these descriptive terms is Heidegger’s central concept of ‘authenticity’. For Heidegger, the authentic life was one which submitted to the pull of the inherited past or Volksgemeinschaft and which confronts (lives daily in the presence of) death directly and openly (as does the heroic warrior). The promise of immortality after death promised by the Abrahamic religions weakened, for Heidegger, the spirit. For most, lack of vision and of courage prevented the leap into the past and the acceptance of death and so leaders and elites were essential for the well-being of the Volk. Sartre was later to use these ideas in developing the concept of the life lived in ‘bad faith’ but did not long stay in Heidegger’s shadow and went on to assert a degree of freewill exemplified by his own rational decision to join the Marxist resistance in World War II France on the basis of the latter’s discipline and effectiveness. Most critical of Heidegger’s ‘authenticity’ was Theodor Adorno who’s The Jargon of Authenticity was dedicated to attacking Heidegger’s ideas. Recognising the tendency for jargon to acquire an aura of the sublime if used repeatedly by members of elites, Adorno writes: ‘It is nothing new to find that the sublime becomes the cover for something low. That is how potential victims are kept in line’ (xix).
Postmodernism’s Nazi Strand: Choking Critical Media Theory?
‘Ultimately the climate they [deconstructionists] create is of no less importance than the specific truth [eg the existence of gas chambers] they attack…It is a kind of climate that fosters deconstructionist history at its worst. No fact, no event, and no aspect of history has any fixed meaning or content. Any truth can be retold. Any fact can be recast. There is no ultimate historical reality.’ (Lipstadt, 1994: 19)
Deborah Lipstadt, above, successful libel defendant in the David Irving / Holocaust denial court case of 2000, points to the damaging intellectual consequences of hegemonic deconstructionism. That it makes skepticism regarding the gas chambers of equal worth to the self-reporting of victims, camp workers and liberating soldiers is stunning in its arrogance but, also, it frees, perhaps, lesser acts against human rights from the kind of scrutiny needed to trigger legal retribution. The media characterization of UK PM Tony Blair as a moderating influence on US President Bush, in the build-up to the Iraq War in 2003, becomes equal in status to accusations of war criminal status based on Nuremberg and UN statutes.
So, we see the xenophobic terminology of Nazism in the fibres of Heidegger’s philosophy and in that form of PM/deconstructionism which pays tribute to him. More, we see his central explanatory and life-guiding concept, authenticity, at the heart of the
counter-enlightenment and political mysticism. This leads then to the opening of the weakened gates of reason, to fascism. It is not the critique of reason that matters most here but, rather, it is the unsupportable leap into relativism which has opened the door to mysticism, to religion and to atavism. For media and communications theory in the 21st Century, Heidegger and his offspring seem to offer little that can be used to critique capitalism in its current, rapacious, form.
Focusing the attack on the place of PM in media research at the end of the 20th Century, Philo and Miller, offer a direct assault on the underlying philosophical assumptions of PM. First, Philo and Miller (2000) subject PM to an analysis of its: ‘philosophical roots in arguments about reality and language’. First, there is a fundamental rejection of the overarching or meta concepts ‘truth’ and ‘reality’, leaving us awash in: ‘a sea of images from which we construct our own reality’ (836) and unable to distinguish between useful and useless narratives. Central to PM, is the notion that language is pre-eminent in helping us to negotiate a reality rather than reflecting any kind of prior (to language) reality. Philo and Miller point to a damaging contradiction at the heart of this notion of language games preceding perceptions of reality: ‘The problem with all such assertions is that they imply a reality of social relationships…….To argue this is in effect to say that all truth (reality) is constituted in discourse, except what we just said which really is true’ (836). An interesting piece of evidence to support Philo and Miller’s critique comes from the study of the human brain. Of greatest importance here is the emerging conclusion that the human brain did not adapt its structure to facilitate language but, rather, it had
long before adapted to a structure conducive to other symbolic exchange – dancing, singing, music, and painting – which language later exploited (Mithen, 2005). The obvious, in some ways, conclusion we can draw is that human beings were thinking about the world and expressing themselves about it long before the emergence of language.
The Return to Religion
Rushing through the now weakened defences of rational intellectual thought, on a path already taken by the ageing Heidegger, Scannell goes on to announce that religious thought has a powerful place in his thinking about media. For example, he writes:
‘I’ve always believed that religious thought and experience are fundamental to any proper understanding of human life.’
‘Now why do I like media events? Or politics as theatre? Because I still love the Mass as an event. I love the miraculous human experience of the live and living event. In the live and living event I encounter something essential about what it is to be alive, to be me, living in the world with others.’
These quotes are, in some ways, quite shocking to secular rationalists. On the one hand, Scannell has asserted the value of an ideology-free, intuitive, phenomenology of ‘what anybody else thinks’ while on the other, he sees the ‘fundamental’, ‘the proper’ and the ‘essential’. And, critically, the ‘everyday pieties of my childhood which were rich and wonderful’ which some readers might recognize as an all-too-obvious form of ideological training are not so recognized by Scannell. This return to Catholic religious belief was part of Heidegger’s ‘journey’ too and though Scannell does not say so directly, the believer’s acceptance that only ‘God can forgive’ may have proved useful in reconciling or perhaps evading, the problem of Heidegger’s Nazism. Scannell was not the only senior media theorist to return to or switch to, religious certainties. The conservative Catholicism of later Marshall McLuhan, his deeply puritanical core masked by a superficial liberality and, like Heidegger, his adoption of an anti-capitalist critique from the direction of the political right is another example. No universal drift to conservatism in the elderly is suggested here. Indeed, the much-published and contemporary researcher, Professor Simon Cottle, in his Mediatized Rituals: Beyond Manufacturing Consent, suggests that ‘public ceremonies’ (including and especially major media events) ‘serve to revitalize collective sentiments and a sense of higher (sacred) purpose which, in turn, can generate powerful feelings of collective effervescence or transcendence through identification with a collective being beyond the everyday world of individual and egotistic interests’ (Cottle, 2006: 414). Though attributing his inspiration to Durkheim, there is much in this which references Scannell and which echoes the mystical and irrational bases for the ‘authentic life’ as characterized by Heidegger.
This combination of a counter-enlightenment rejection of science and of metaphysics with consequent vulnerability to the irrational seduction of fascism or religious ritual as meaning is much more than academic in its consequences.
Philo and Miller’s paper ‘Cultural Compliance and Critical Media Studies’ in Media, Culture and Society (2000), is a determined and thorough demolition of PM in the academic discourse on UK news media and a pointer to the social effects of some academic struggles. First, they point to the damaging failure of academics to pursue the clearly ideological underpinning of media coverage in a time of dramatic power shifts, from the 1980s, away from the electorate, from workers, from families, from trades unions and from other democratic movements, and toward the interests of corporations and the state. Rather than exposing these changes, UK media academics were, they argue: ‘drawn up a series of theoretical dead ends’ (831). A typical example of a dead-end for academics was their acceptance of and curiosity in the ‘laddish culture’, gross materialism and commodification of human beings in BBC’s Top Gear or in the film Indecent Proposal where a rich man buys another’s wife for the night, just as he buys other commodities. Further, there was the failure of media
academics, with some exceptions, to investigate and report the undemocratic partnerships between UK political parties and media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch. Given the potentially high-interest in tales of tax evasion and political interference by a non-citizen, the media neglect of such themes suggests that the seduction of popular culture was even greater than supposed or that these issues have been suppressed, perhaps ‘filtered’, as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky would assert. Philo returns to some of these themes in an attack on the pervasive and damaging consequences of the popularity of Stuart Hall’s ‘encoding/decoding model’ for media and cultural studies which has been used to: ‘emphasise the active nature of audiences and their capacity to resist messages’ (Philo, 2000: 1). This, for Philo, led eventually to a serious neglect of issues of media power.
So, to conclude, the negative assessments of the role played by PM, with its roots in Heidegger, in the last 50 or so years, suggest important damage where it has become embedded and almost hegemonic. Reflecting on PM in 1995, Noam Chomsky applied this negative diagnosis to intellectuals generally, writing: ‘The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities,
and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns’ (1). This sense of ultimate loss of meaning in life as a consequence of embracing PM has material consequences as the pursuit of social justice is abandoned, as the fight for human rights is undermined and capitalist exploitation flows through the fallen walls of defence once offered by a critical political economy critique and activism. Post-modernism/ deconstruction is, in the end, particularly conducive to both the most rapacious form of laissez-faire capitalism and to fascism.
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