As with any sociology course, the first section of the class focuses on laying down a solid foundation of understanding. As it should be, every student comes in with a different level of knowledge about a subject and varying experience of the topic firsthand.
In the introduction to the first section of our course reader, Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, the editors give brief synopses of the works they included to lay the groundwork for understanding how the self is shaped within society and all the influences enacted upon it. Among the authors and sociologists included in the selection are Marx and Engels, Gramsci, Horkheimer and Adorno, and Althusser, among others.
A major theme that they introduce right off the bat is that ruling ideology, or systems of beliefs that dictate human practices to create social formation, maintains the dominant order of ideas. After a period of time, it might be easy to disassociate oneself from the formation of society by thinking of it as “the way it is.” This, however, only gives more power to those with authority to enforce the dominant ideology in place and keep it in action.
This is similar to Peter Berger and Stanley Pullberg’s theory of objectivation, which sees the idea that realities appear to us as a series of objects distinct from the subjective consciousness of individuals. When this happens, the work we do in society doesn’t seem to be greatly influenced by us as individuals, but some general void “out there.” The world looks natural and can’t be changed from the way it is, when in fact the root of the way things are is how the dominant group influences the ideology in practice among the majority.
One way that those in power keep this ideology in place is through mass communication. The use of different forms of print media, and later broadcast and digital, as a platform for political discourse meant manipulating an accessible outlet to disseminate a particular message. An idea for change is only as strong as the people behind it and their power to enact such change. Without the tools of the media and communication, spreading the message of an ideology is futile.
There will always be dissenters, however, although there’s usually a reason they’re not in the majority. If you go too far out of the dominant influence’s comfort range without the resources to make what you’re doing the norm, society will try to reel you back in. The only way to really get out of the influence of the dominant ideology is to go completely off the grid.
This, however, rarely works, even if you’re as dedicated as Christopher Johnson McCandless. McCandless was the subject of the book and movie Into the Wild. Although he tried to live on his own terms without the ideological dictation of what kind of life a person should lead, he eventually found that his resources outside of the dominant influence wasn’t enough to keep him from living out his ambitions.
On a less extreme level, plenty of people and groups try to rebel against the accepted lifestyle of the time. Such alternative, counter or subcultures still tend to contradict the idea of a rebellious group when it inevitably gains traction and more people decide to adopt that kind of ideology. Take the hipster (or hippie or beatnik or rebel without a cause), or any musician who started off modest and later “sold out.” During our first class, we listened to Lord’s “Royals,” in which she talks about not subscribing to the traditional norm of young adulthood and celebrity escapism. However, now that she has become a celebrity in her own right, the message of her rebellion is less rebellious. That her subject matter tends to revolve around this theme doesn’t help.
With the influences that individuals face from ideological state apparatuses and the different institutions that instill values that will shape their lives and decisions, there’s really no way to define your own happiness. The idea of agency is flawed when you consider that everyone is born into specific circumstances with social expectations of what will become of them. This can be a downer of a topic, but with a knowledge of how these ideas come to be, you can better understand how your own influence can shape others.