MANUFACTURING CONSENT – NOAM CHOMSKY AND THE MEDIA, Mark Archbar and Peter Wintonick, 1992

It’s not the case as the naïve might think that democracy is inconsistent with indoctrination. In a state in which you can control the population by force – a feudal state, a military run state, or what we nowadays call a totalitarian state – it really doesn’t matter very much what people believe or what they think because you’ve got a bludgeon over their head and you can control what they do. They obey. But when the state loses the bludgeon and when you lose the capacity (in a democracy) to coerce people by force and when the voice of the people can be heard, you’ve got to make sure it says the right thing. Therefore, you need techniques of manufacture of consent, and propaganda, and thought-control, and indoctrination. (Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky)

Peter Wintonick and Mark Archbar’s Manufacturing Consent is a 1992 documentary film about the life and thought of Noam Chomsky, and specifically his thoughts on the political economy of the media. The film avoids conventional documentary features – voiceover narration, chronological exposition – favouring instead a dialectical approach both in terms of form and content. This means that Chomsky is presented largely in debate and interviews, and the juxtaposition of those against whom he is pitted is judicious, telling, and often entertaining. In an interview with William Buckley Jnr, for example, he admits that he is wont to lose his temper on such occasions. The sleek Buckley imperiously warns him not to adding, “If you did, I’d smash you in the Goddamn face” – Ivy League arrogance mobilised to put the upstart Jewish subversive in his place.

Philosophically, Chomsky’s thesis about the encroachment of media propaganda into every avenue of political, social, and cultural life with their creation of what he calls “necessary illusions” that maintain the dominance of particular elite groups, carries echoes from Adorno and Horkheimer’s account in The Dialectic of Enlightenment concerning the mass media empires of the culture industry and their tendencies toward rationalization, standardization, and conformity which they interpreted as a consequence of the triumph of the instrumental rationality that was coming to pervade and structure ever more aspects of life. Thus, they argued, while culture once cultivated individuality, it was now promoting submission, and was a crucial part of “the totally administered society” that was producing “the end of the individual.” For Chomsky, as he meticulously details through a fusillade of facts, media corporations are concerned less with producing “the end of the individual” than they are with producing the end of any feeling of solidarity or community or organized resistance against the agenda that they set.

One could argue that the genealogy of Chomsky’s notions can be traced further back to Marx’s analyses about the relations of production. Society for Marx is the sum total of social relations connecting its members. Market forces appear to regulate everything, but what is really behind those market forces has become obscured because the social relationship between people or their relation with nature is expressed as a commercial relationship between things (money, commodities, and capital). Commerce not only introduces a proliferation of relationships between tradeable ‘things,’ but commercial relations also begin to govern and regulate the pattern and techniques of human contact. Media corporations, as they increasingly narrow into global conglomerates, distil these patterns and techniques to such an extent that human contact appears locked into a capitalist doctrine. Media exchange, much like commodity exchange, objectifies social relations to the point where they escape from conscious human control, and exist such that they can be recognized only by abstract thought. Again, the clear result is that any notion of solidarity or community suffers.

Chomsky’s ideas also have parallels with Foucault’s notion of knowledge/power discourses and the manner in which social structures and the dominant tendencies within them come to formulate the prevailing ideological standards of any given period. In effect, what one deems to be truth or valid knowledge is based upon the discourse of that time; epistemology is reduced to power relations. Thus, discourses within the established media will always lead the way to instantiating a particular worldview, a particular knowledge geared towards their particular (elite) interests; towards ‘manufacturing consent’ about the validity of their truth claims. Indeed, Manufacturing Consent contains a brief scene in which Chomsky participates in a debate with Foucault entitled “Justice versus Power,” which highlights not just the parallels between them but also their differences.

It is interesting that when faced with the kind of precise, surgical evidence that Chomsky provides against the media organisations that he critiques, spokespersons for the latter often fall back on weak institutional arguments, or the well-worn tactic of dismissing any dissenting voice as merely a lunatic ‘conspiracy theorist.’ This tactic is particularly favoured by the New York Times journalists in their response to Chomsky’s overwhelming data about their and the rest of the mainstream American media’s silence over the genocidal invasion of East Timor by Indonesia (aided and abetted by the U.S government), as opposed to the clamorous outcry and the many column inches afforded to the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia.

If Part One of Manufacturing Consent illustrates selected Chomskyan ideas on American media, Part Two looks for alternative media networks and finds a host of print media, local radio, and TV stations in the States that are resisting the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN media hegemony. It also features a telling sequence filmed at George Bush Senior’s Presidential inauguration ceremony. To the accompaniment of Bush’s metallic drone in his Presidential address the camera threads through the crowds and away across the rooftops until it rests on the backstreet clusters of satellite media vans, as if to show whether the real power lies.

Bash Khan

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