Getting to know your artifact

Epistemology (I love that word.)

  • We learn how to “be” in our culture through interpersonal communication
  • We “see” our experiences interpreted in the mass media
  • We then “redefine” our experience based on the media we take into our lives = the maintenance of culture.
  • Communication is the process of creating shared meaning – when we agree on the meaning of things we become a culture. (Think about what your artifact is conveying?)

Every one of your artifacts is a response to something. You need to use critical culture theory to help you figure it out.

What is critical culture theory? 

Cultural studies and critical theory combine sociology, literary theory, film/video studies, and cultural anthropology to study cultural phenomena in industrial societies. Cultural studies researchers often concentrate on how a particular phenomenon relates to matters of ideology, race, social class, and/or gender.

Cultural studies concerns itself with the meaning and practices of everyday life. Cultural practices comprise the ways people do particular things (such as watching television, or eating out) in a given culture. Particular meanings attach to the ways people in particular cultures do things.

Critical Theory

  • Traditional theory is oriented only to understanding or explaining society
  • Critical theory, in contrast, is social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole.
  • A critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms

Asa Berger


Looking at a text through a Critical Theory Lens

Here are three of many . . .

  • Semiotics
  • Marxism
  • Psychoanalysis
  • All media have these three interpretations present in them.

Semiotic analysis – the science of “signs” is concerned with how meaning is generated in media. We learn to read the signs to determine the meaning of the “text.” All media can be called a text.

  • Sign and Signifier (Know this!)
  • The sign stand for something more than what it is
  • Why is she wearing red?
  • Why is it raining out?
  • What is she drinking?
  • Why does he have a moustache?
  • What is the music in the background (or foreground)?

Marx1 marx_prophet1 Marx - rebel with cause el-hipster-marxOne can be a Marxist without being a communist. What Marx is saying is that everything is shaped, ultimately, by the economic system of the society.

  • Marxist Analysis – looks at issues of power, alienation, class conflict, materialism and money, money, money.
  • Who has the power and how are they portrayed in this text?
  • What idea is being left out of this text?
  • Who gains from the proposing of this idea in this text?
  • The ideas of a given age are promulgated and popularized by the ruling class for its own interests. The masses are being manipulated by the ruling class. The Bourgeoisie (ruling class) and the Proletariat (working class). When you live in a bourgeois society, you are constantly under “attack” (growing old in a youth-obsessed culture, being fat in a thin-obsessed culture, being a person of color in a white-dominated culture, being a woman in a male dominated culture – always being told that we are suffering from depravations of some kind.
  • There is also the notion of alienation. When you are at the opposite end of the obsessions listed above, you can feel alienated from society.   Media can distract the alienated (remember opiate of the masses . . .)
  • So Marx says work in a capitalist society alienates people, the more people work, the more they become alienated. In order to escape being alienated (which they do not recognize) they engage in various forms of consumption, all of which costs money, so that they are forced to work more in order to escape the effects of work … whew.

Semiotics of Football

  • Football stadium (becomes a mecca)
  • We do it on Sundays (Saturday is Sunday school)
  • The uniforms (officials, fans, players) all symbolize different activities on the field and of different organizations.
  • The game is based on deception of the signs showing


  • Where you sit reflects your status
  • Works of the Roman principle of bread and circuses
  • Professional football treats players as commodities
  • Million Dollar Slaves
  • Make more money to see another game and go to work to do it all again.
  • Fight Club


  • We love violence
  • The team sport teaches us how to work together
  • We love violence
  • Violence has a sexual dimension (metaphorically)
  • We love sex
  • We love violence
  • What’s mine is mine – what’s yours is mine. If you want this you are going to have to come and take it.

Let’s look at some ads. 

The Neo-Marxist Approach: Frankfurt School

  • The Marxist approach to the media studies developed in parallel with the functionalist approach. It is best characterized by the work of the Frankfurt School founded in 1923.
  • The school was concerned with developing a revolutionary, philosophical variant of Western Marxism, opposed to capitalism in the west and Stalinism in the East, which came to be called critical theory.
  • In 1930s when Hitler came to power, the Institute was forced to leave Germany for New York.
  • In 1953 it was re-established in Frankfurt.
  • Adorno and Horkheimer developed a Marxist sociological approach to media studies. They saw the media as a cultural industry that maintained power relations and served to lessen the ‘resistance standards’ of cultural aesthetics by popularizing certain types of culture.


  • They produced some of the first accounts within critical social theory of the importance of mass culture and communication in social reproduction and domination.
  • They generated one of the first ,modes of a critical cultural studies that analyzes the processes of cultural production and political economy, the politics of cultural texts, and audience reception and use of cultural artifacts (Kellner 1989 and 1995)
  • Frankfurt school developed a critical and transdisciplinary approach to cultural and communications studies, combining political economy, textual analysis, and analysis of social and ideological effects

The contribution of the Frankfurt School

  • Frankfurt school made historical materialism a centerpiece in social theory
  • It forced Marxist ideology to broaden its scope
  • While Marx said, “This is historical materialism, and this is what it does”
  • The Frankfurt School said, “This is historical materialism; this is what’s right with it, this is what’s wrong with it, and this is how it works”
  • The Frankfurt school also had it’s own effects on philosophy as a whole
  • It affected philosophy by preserving the notion of meta-analysis of society through its economic, political, and social systems
  • It introduced the notion of social philosophy and made theory part of everyday practice by “mixing” philosophical problems, and empirical problem

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