Communication, Culture and Hegemony: From the Media to the Mediations

Jesus Martin-Barbero

Elizabeth Fox

Robert A. White

If you are looking for a text that clarifies and explains the connections between various theories of popular culture, hegemony, resistance, and audience appropriation, then look no further. Jesus Martin-Barbero weaves together the ideas of theorists such as de Certeau, Bourdieu, Gramsci, Williams, Benjamin, Hoggart, Thompson, Bakhtin, Eco, Baudrillard, Foucault, and Habermas. The common thread that he draws from these theorists is a rediscovery of people's roles in producing meaning and creating their own identities through localized cultural processes that operate in spite of, or in resistance to, attempts at cultural domination through communication media. At the heart of this text is the author's passionate belief in people as active, intelligent, and tactical beings who are fully capable of disrupting, subverting, resisting, and appropriating media processes and messages.

Martin-Barbero sees communication as a process of mediations and he examines the " `other' side, namely reception ... the resistances and varied ways people appropriate media content according to manner and use" (p. 2). This approach is not new to North American communication scholars, but what is new here is a thoroughly Latin American perspective that unveils a refreshing and stimulating panorama of vibrant mediation processes. The media in Latin America are exceptionally dynamic and complex. Television and radio have saturated daily life. Even in remote rural areas people erect makeshift television antennas on thatched rooftops, and power television sets from car batteries and solar panels.

Some theorists will look at such examples with shock and denounce the imperialism of the mass media and its indoctrination of the masses with the ideologies of dominant classes and capitalism. Martin-Barbero counters this elitist viewpoint by asking us to join him as he explores the immense variety of modes of media use in the daily lives of the people who make up the cultural mosaic of Latin America. There are, of course, no simple patterns of unmediated reception. The author stresses that people are not simple vessels to be filled with dominant ideologies. He maintains that the people of Latin America are susceptible to domination by communication technologies, but are also able to exploit contradictions that enable them to resist, recycle, and redesign those technologies. He also shows that people are capable of decoding and appropriating received messages and are not necessarily duped by them. Both technologies and messages are mediated through culture and through the processes, struggles, and pleasures of everyday life during which people constitute and reconstitute their identities.

Martin-Barbero illustrates his thesis by examining two uniquely Latin American phenomena: the telenovela and the proliferation of local radio throughout rural areas and urban barrios. In the telenovela, he sees stories that are tied to strong oral narrative traditions that enable characters, authors, and readers to exchange places constantly. "It is an exchange, a confusion between story and real life, between what the actor does and what happens to the spectator. It is a literary experience open to the reactions, desires and motivations of the public" (p. 228). While he recognizes the commercial essence of the telenovela, he shows that it can never be reduced simply to a function of capitalism. The telenovela enables people to recover and reconfigure popular culture and to assert identities that conflict with capitalist agendas. It is "much of what we are--fatalists, inclined to machismo, superstitious--and what we dream of becoming--stealing the identities of others, nostalgia, righteous anger ... [it] taps into a deep vein of collective cultural imagination" (p. 225).

While television antennas sprout across the Latin American horizon, it is perhaps local radio that most clearly illustrates the importance of understanding people's uses of media. Local radio in Latin America is radically different from local radio in Canada. In Canada a person can travel from coast to coast and hear virtually the same combinations of radio formats and music programming. In Brazil, and increasingly in other Latin American countries, there are hundreds of micro-transmitters, some with a power of only five watts, which are operated by local entrepreneurs to serve remote rural areas, and distinct ethnic and linguistic populations that have migrated to urban barrios from the rural countryside. Radio is a technology that has been appropriated to serve neighbourhoods and family systems. It is highly commercial, yet it involves people in collective participation and gives voice to neighbourhood-level discourse, interests, and demands. Martin-Barbero describes local radio in Peru: "Although those broadcasts have no professional announcers, use music recorded by amateur groups from the local immigrant communities from different Andean regions and speak with an often hard-to-understand colloquial language, thousands of immigrants in the city of Lima listen to these stations to provide themselves with an interval of identification which is not just the recall of common memories but a profound experience of solidarity.... These stations transform radio into a meeting place and promote solidarity by a little parallel `culture industry' that stamps records of regional music and organizes fiestas or championship football contests among people of the region" (p. 236). Such examples of media use challenge the reader to reconsider traditional analyses of communication with their dichotomies of dominating sources and dominated recipients and conceptions of passive consumption and alienation.

Jesus Martin-Barbero manages to combine a practical overview of contemporary theories of communication, culture, and hegemony with a compelling Latin American application of those theories. This book is essential reading for scholars and students of international communication, cultural studies, and development communication.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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