Crumbling Ideological Diversity: Media Role and Commonsense

Royal Rongmei*

Abstract

Differences in position, experience and interests among social groupings bring in ideological diversity resulting in multidimensional meanings of certain objects and events. When there is diversity in ideology there cannot be a unified meaning. When unification of meaning is achieved without any contest, this could only mean that one side of the ideological struggle in the meaning systems had gained undisputable dominance and become commonsense, which is the effect of power. Media, with its aim of gaining importance politically and economically, constructs fixed meanings in order to affect the ideological diversity. Ideology functions tremendously in constructing meaning systems and presenting them as commonsense, making the society uni-dimensional in sustaining unequal relations of power. The present study is about construction of this ideological commonsense by media while representing reality. It is a conceptual-theoretical paper.

Introduction

In any occurrence of events and incidents, reality exists beyond texts and independently of them but it is defined in different ways for different purposes. The meaning of media products, particularly news, is determined by the pattern of its ownership and intention of the interpreter.  Most of the media, being owned and controlled (directly and indirectly) by capitalists, construct meaning to serve their own purpose. The news that we see and read is not of the raw event but we see and read the message about the event. In the process of news production, as John Fiske (1990) said, ‘Ideology works to produce meaning through sign’. So, constructing meaning is the function of ideology that underlies in the structures of media discourse which serves as commonsense by producing consensus and consent through text (sign). But when ideology ceases its function, meaning is pushed into reality. Multidimensional meanings emerge from ideological diversity which in turn comes from differences in position, experience and interests among social groups. Media, being accountable towards society, has its normative function and social responsibility of reflecting things as they are. Knowing that this reflective responsibility cannot serve its materialistic ideology, media constructs fixed meanings in order to suppress this ideological diversity which in turn will lead the society towards one dimensional thought and man.

Ideology and ideological diversity

It is important to revisit the meaning and concept of ideology. The word ‘ideology’ of course, has several meanings. In a simple sentence, ideology is a set of beliefs or a system of beliefs that license, enable, and direct social action in a particular way for a particular goal. Social groups and their members carry out actions according to their beliefs established in their cognitive level either of their own or legitimization of certain policy imposed externally. Marxists suggest that most of the time this belief is an ‘ideological truth’ of dominant groups that emerge from the materialistic ideology which can also be called ‘false truth’. For instance, in the ideology of racism in the United States towards the discrimination against the blacks, the white press (media) provides arguments and word images claiming and justifying that blacks (immigrant blacks) are lazy freeloaders, who steal jobs from whites, lack quality, are poor and responsible for the economic instability of the country (Ryan, 2010). The ideology portrayed here by the white media is that it justifies discriminating blacks socially and physically and thus misrecognizing the reality and converting an effect into a cause.

Marx and Engels (Pines, 1993) also claimed ideology as ‘false consciousness’. They said that what people imagine to be the case is not really the case but false or illusory beliefs. As such, every action is based upon thought and Marx argued that thought of the human agents are deceived by this illusory belief which brings inverted consciousness of the world (Larrain, 1994). This illusory belief has concealed the real image and this concealment serves as a veil between the subject and the object so that the subject is not able to penetrate through the veil in order to transcend and reach the object (Hall, 1982). Supporting the argument of Marx, Althusser says that ideology is a system of ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or social group with the dominant or ruling ideology. It is a representation of the imaginary world of the individual in relationship to the real conditions of existence (Althusser, 1984). But the truth is that the real point of the imaginary world was never reached (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979). It is said that ruling ideas become ruling ideology. It doesn’t happen naturally but mediated between groups or individuals.

In sum, ideology is a system of representation by misrepresenting the real or it is a mistaken cognition that prevents us from seeing reality as it is. For Van Dijk, a) ideologies are false beliefs, b) ideologies conceal real social relations and serve to deceive others, c) ideologies are beliefs others have and d) ideologies presuppose the socially or politically self-serving nature of the definition of truth and falsity (Van Dijk, 1998).

Further, Marx asserted that any social formation without an ideology survives hardly a year. What is the meaning of surviving here? It is growing and reproduction. Life without growth is dead. So, ideology is an essential element of institutions to survive and sustain their power relations in order to produce and reproduce more production. In the process of sustaining its power relations, with the function of ideology, institutions produce and reproduce such a condition that any subject has no alternatives but to depend on it. It makes subjection of (subordinate) subjects to the (dominant) subjects. It has created a condition and situation subjecting the subject to the subject. To this, Althusser (1984) said:

The category of the subject is constitutive of the ideology, but at the same time and immediately I add that the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of constituting concrete individuals as subjects. In the interaction of this double constitution exists the functioning of all ideology, ideology being nothing but its functioning in the material forms of existence of that functioning … that ideology acts or functions in such a way that it recruits subjects among individuals or transforms the individuals into subjects. (Pp. 45-48).

Thus, ideology transforms individuals to constructed subjective positions through discourse and language (texts). But there is constant ideological struggle among social groups in this process because of ideological diversity.

Society, constituted of numbers of social formations and social classes, has many ideologies in the process of achieving the defined, called ideological diversity. These diverse ideologies do not get generated automatically by individuals; rather emerge from different positions, experience and interests. Fairclough claims “diverse ideologies rather come from differences in position, experience and interests between social groupings, which enter into relationship with each other in terms of power. These groupings may be social classes, they may be women versus men, they may be groupings based on ethnicity and so on” (Fairclough, 2001, p. 73).  In this context, ideological diversity has to be maintained as mentioned earlier, any social formation has to construct ideology to survive in the process of power struggle and sustaining power relations. Karl Marx said: ‘It is not the consciousness of man that determines their being; rather it is their being that determines their consciousness.’ As a result of ideological diversity, unification can never be attained. There is always conflict and struggle among different social groups in the social system in legitimizing their respective ideologies. Social relations and social struggle, including class relations and class struggle, determines ideological diversity (Fairclough, 2001). Politics can be regarded as a good example in explaining ideological diversity. In any political system, there exist many political parties with their own ideologies which keep on a constant struggle among them.

Ideology as commonsense

Among the different ideologies that exist in the ideological struggle, only a particular ideology can be legitimized and naturalized. Legitimization and naturalization of ideology take place when ideology is constructed by the maximum power holder in a social institution. It is the effect of power that determines the discourse. Ideological struggle not only takes place in discourse and language but also over language, i.e. having power to determine things, and language serves as a stake and a site for the social struggles (Fairclough, 2001). That is what Althusser said about the ideological interpellation of subjects through discourse.

Natural things which are shared and accepted naturally by all are the natural meaning of commonsense. In the process of producing meaning there intervene no subjective forces. In ideological commonsense, ideology is embedded and ideological subjective forces intervene and incorporate in the process of producing meaning. Supporting this argument Van Dijk (1998) has said:

As soon as groups and their members accept a dominant ideology as a reflection of their own goals, desires and interests, or as a representation of a natural or otherwise legitimate social order, their ideologies may turn into beliefs that are taken-for-granted or simply commonsense. Ideological dominance and hegemony is perfect when dominated groups are unable to distinguish between their own interests and attitudes and those of dominant groups. In that case, they may not be able to see conflicting ideologies (even when in their own best interests) as viable or acceptable alternatives. (P. 102).

In interpretation of meaning of certain phenomenon, arbitrariness occurs between the subject and object producing one point of commonness which is contributed, agreed and accepted by both. Ideological commonsense ceases to function in the presence of arbitrariness. But its function is active when arbitrariness ceases between subject and object. Arbitrariness sets limits for ideological commonsense. Thus ideological commonsense is, what Pierre Bourdieu said, ‘recognition of legitimacy through misrecognition of arbitrariness’ (Fairclough, 2001,

76). This arbitrariness is misrecognised and overseen when a discourse type dominate an institution that has dominated types suppressed and controlled the discourse as an effect of power.

Ideological commonsense works as a commonsense in the service of sustaining unequal relations of power by producing one dimensional thought leading the world into one dimensional man (Marcus, 1964). Individuals lose their individuality and accept what is offered to him as if it is of his own desire and interest without any alternative thoughts to resist it. He is not conscious about his unconsciousness towards the offered things because ideological commonsense functions as an anesthetic injected into his thought that brings unconscious of the pain he bears. This world is entirely built upon assumption and expectation. People live on imagination which leads the text producers to textualize the world in a particular way and at the same time the interpreter to interpret the text in a particular way (Fairclough, 2001).

Ideological commonsense is the heart of an ideology. Every individual has the authority and right to negate the things that are offered to him. He is the owner of his own. But with the invasion of this autonomous private space by ideological commonsense, his vision becomes blurred and he follows unconsciously the one who leads him. Baudrillard has claimed that with ideological commonsense, models, codes and images of unreal appear to be real, pretending to be real. He called this pretending act as ‘simulation’. In support of this argument he said:

The philosophical of reality separates thought from action as it idealizes and hypostatizes the world. It converts direct experience into a specular and speculative universe of images and signs, where subjects do not constitute their own lives and society but contemplate the glossy surfaces of the commodity world. The concrete life of everyone has degraded into a speculative universe. Mesmerized by the spectacles, subjects move further from the immediate emotional reality and desires and closer to the domination of bureaucratically controlled consumption: the more contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and hid own desires … his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represent them to him. (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 47).

Media as an ideological institution functions as an important medium in mediating this ideological commonsense. Its role in construction of fixed meanings (commonsense) is considered important.

Role of media in creating commonsense

It is in this light that it is quite interesting to assess the role of media in creating commonsense. While covering anti-dam movement in Assam in 2011 against the construction of Lower Subansiri Dam, different ideologies have emerged among pressure groups, indigenous affected people, activists, government and private companies over the construction of this dam. The government goes ahead with its decision of constructing the dam, claiming that it is a national development project and will also solve the problem of electric scarcity in the state. But many studies have revealed that the dam upon completion with its height of 116 meters for producing 2000 MW of electric power will have tremendous social and ecological impact in its upstream as well as downstream areas. In the upstream region it will submerge 47 kilometer of the Subansiri River and several thousand of families will be deprived of their livelihood and also affect the community in the downstream region. As this anxiety and uncertainties about the social and ecological impact grew, campaigning against the construction of this mega dam has started.

Referring to Habermas'(1991) public sphere, media is regarded as a perfect platform of public sphere where consensus is produced through rational debate and it has two most important functional privileges: firstly, it fosters a critical rationality and secondly, it is relatively powerful by creating pressure and force for social change (Robert & Crossley, 2004). Looking media in this light, during the coverage of this movement by The Telegraph and the Times of India in 2011, it is found that the media being a platform of public sphere did not provide a space for a rational public debate. It provides attention to limited voices only, for instance Akhil Gogoi and ministers of the state. The focus of the coverage was not on the issues rather on the ministers at the same time the violent action of the activists. They are regarded as reliable sources for the news. There was no room for voice of indigenous affected people and their problems were marginalized. The phenomenologist approach also suggests that subjective experience and consciousness about an object can be obtained by positioning the subject within the periphery of the object, at the same time outside the periphery of the object. There is great possibility of bias when the subject is confined within the periphery of the object. But true consciousness is found only by bracketing subject from the object and seeing things from the vantage point. Showing things as they are, is the utmost professional responsibility of media towards society. In order to inform and educate the society while reflecting the meaning of certain incident, there should be no manipulation, distortion, construction of meaning, bias rather reflecting meaning as a mirror with free, independent, authority, rationality, impartiality, truth and consensus. Subjective interference has been reflected in the coverage under the headline: “Give A Dam” (The Times of India, Sept. 18, 2011). The implicit meaning of proposition sequence constructed in the story reveals that the reasons behind the movement by Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) and All Assam Students Union (AASU) along with other NGOs are being acknowledged and responded by the state and all necessary measures are being taken as per experts’ advice. The ideological commonsense the story trying to construct is that the dam is ‘safe’.

As Marx said that it is not the consciousness of man that determines their being, rather it is their being that determines consciousness, media has become a means of ideological production (Van Dijk, 1998), ideological agency (Larrain, 1994) and signifying the agent of dominant ideology (Hall, 1982) resulting not from honest intents rather from material intent seeking maximum profit in favour of the dominant ideology and its interest. In the context of this dam issue, media legitimized and naturalized the ideology and interest of the state and some section of groups as commonsense (ruling ideology). To this, Althusser (1984) also said that media as an ideological state apparatus functions as an important medium in mediating ideological commonsense by interpellating the individual as subjects to the constructed subjective positions. The ruler has made such a condition that “the whole world is made to pass through the filters of the culture industry … The culture industry has provided something for all that none may escape” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979, pp. 123- 126).

It seems difficult to separate the entity of media from politics and economy. Their dialectics reveal that they are interdependent on each other. As Habermas (1995) said, the dominant media is owned and controlled by capitalists and bureaucrats and they have their objective of maximizing profit by controlling according to their business values and norms. Opinion leaders, who are also called spin doctors, are the primary definers whom media turns as a reliable source of information. In the story media gave importance to the information provided by minister of power and spokesperson of NHPC. These spin doctors (Street, 2001), for instance Assam power minister Prodyut Bordoloi and NHPC spokesperson, control the media products by manipulation and distortion of information and creating meaning of events for them. Many experts have spoken of the danger and threat the project will bring to the people but it is reflected in very limited in the coverage. According to a technical expert committee of the Planning Commission which was set up in January 2011, the project is not scientifically and technologically viable, and it calls for a major overhaul in the design. There is also geological concern as the dam rest on a weak sediment foundation. But still the spin doctors asserted that the project will bring no harm to the people whereas the downstream riparian people are facing the consequence already. Adorno and Horkheimer (1979) argued that the world is made to pass through the filters of media that no-one could escape from it. Thus paying attention to spin doctors, media persuades its audience, making them believe in the information provided to them.

It is commonsense to all that media disseminates information about the unusual events and incidents of the world. But it is not known to most that this is a commonsense constructed to appear real. When it comes to the violent action of the activists, media is active in its presentation but acts in a passive way to the negative action of the state. It conceals the bad action of the state and the dam constructor whereas portrays the activists as protesters, who are aggressive and anti-government or anti-development. It overlooked the physical as well as social danger and thread of the affected people while legitimizing and naturalizing state ideology. The news that reaches our drawing room is the interpretation of the event by journalists. As Althusser (1984) said, the media is an ideological state apparatus that functions by ideology. Laying aside its social responsibility of watchdog, here media acted as a lapdog of the state and constructed the ideology of the state as true.

This ideology interpellates an individual as subject, subjecting to the dominant subject through discourse. In this process of media constructing commonsense, journalist believes that active reporting is required. He thought that it is “the active journalist who enters the playing field instead of standing at the sideline observing the game. The journalists acknowledge that he or she is a news constructor who takes an active approach to the news production process by his or her active intervention. This means that he or she is shaping reality in the journalistic account rather than just reflecting it and thus interferes in public affairs” (Skovsgaard et al, 2013, p. 27). An active journalist has the opinion that news doesn’t emerge but is constructed with the intervention of the subject to the object looking for consciousness and thus producing subjective consciousness.

Ideological commonsense in media is produced by: historicizing the structures of a particular discourse (raw elements are selected; arranged and structured well); framing; intertextuallity of texts and contexts; coherence of texts; definition of situation (politics of signification).

Conclusion

Media plays an important role in legitimizing and naturalizing state ideology by its subjective intervention which tries to bring the meaning system of dam safety into a fixed position according to the producers’ intent which could be called ‘effect of power’ (Fairclough, 2001). Meaning is not given but constructed/produced by the effect of power. The power involved here is an ideological power (or symbolic power), i.e. the privilege to access and the power to signify events in a particular way by counting them as reliable sources. In this process meaning is produced with the help of ideological power, the producer takes partials explanation of an event, as if it were a comprehensive and adequate (holistic and in totality) meaning of an event which is presented in favour of dominant ideology and interest and thus sustaining power relations. But in order to get knowledge and consciousness, Foucault (1989) said, it is mandatory to look into all series of history attentively. Partial explanation gives meaning of an event partially and in the intention of the producer and interpreter. Here media did not give attention to the intertextual context of indigenous affected people, who are in threat of losing their social, cultural and community life. Message of an event is classified and framed in such a way that all the characters and elements included in the frame of the text has undistorted meaning in the integrated context of politics, economy and media. It is seen that ideology functions actively in the process of media constructing meaning and commonsense by crumbling ideology diversity. We should know that this ideological commonsense constructs our cultures, affects our thoughts, attitudes and actions and persuades us. In response to this context, media as a public sphere should be a platform for expressing pluralism and diversity for both privileged and under privileged and function as democratic medium for a democratic country like India. Marginalizing, down-grading or de-legitimizing alternative constructions should be stopped.  A debate on media education (a critical perspective) and cultural analysis (analysis of media texts and institutions within relations of power) will help to redefine the relationship between media and society.

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