OPINION

Academics and The Economist

Capitalist, sexist pigs

Dec 16th 2004

 

 

 


The heirs of Derrida and Foucault interpret The Economist

WHEN time hangs heavy in the groves of academe, or when students have run out of obscure topics on which to write a dissertation, thoughts sometimes turn to The Economist. According to a search in the archives of the Modern Language Association, a society of literary academics, The Economist has been the main subject of half a dozen works published recently in the books and journals it tracks, not counting plenty that remain unpublished.

In 1998, for example, Terry Royce wrote a chapter entitled “Intersemiosis on the Page: A Metafunctional Interpretation of Composition in The Economist Magazine”. Intersemiosis, it seems, has something to do with meaning and interpretation. That same year saw “The Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship” publish a work by Yisa Kehinde Yusuf entitled “The Economist, Proverbs and Ms Kim Campbell's Speech”.

Back in the 1980s, post-modern academics were basking in the youthful confidence of a new field. These were the people who, especially on American campuses, devoted themselves to disciplines (the word is used loosely) with the word “studies” attached: media studies, film studies, cultural studies and ethnic, racial, gender and sexual studies.

Soon came another word, “critical”, as in “critical legal studies”. How is “critical legal studies” different from, say, “law”? The defining feature of the critical-studies course is that it takes almost nothing at face value. The goal is to deconstruct, to uncover the hidden, multi-faceted meanings and thereby to reveal the codes of power. This ambition owes much to two French thinkers. One, Jacques Derrida, who died in October, is credited with inventing “deconstruction”—the attempt to interpret texts, while keeping in mind the notion that meaning itself was elusive. The other, Michel Foucault (1926-84), saw language as a product of power. For him, truth was not fixed and immutable. It was relative and flexible, defined by whoever is in charge.

So even newspapers have hidden meanings, all waiting to be revealed. That may help to explain the title of Christine Harris's 1986 paper, “Decoding The Economist”. Another scholar, apparently more taken with turns of phrase, wrote “Article Headlines in The Economist: an Analysis of Puns, Allusions and Metaphors”. And in 2001 Charlotte Hooper, of Bristol University, wrote “Manly States: Masculinities, International Relations, and Gender Politics”, which seems to argue, among other things, that masculinity is shaped in part by international relations. One of her chapters is entitled, “The Economist's Masculine Credentials”, another “The Economist, Globalisation, and Masculinities”.

 

All a bit of a puzzle, really

At least three authors have recently probed even deeper into the meaning and techniques of The Economist. In “Reading The Economist on Globalisation: Knowledge, Identity and Power”, Martha Starr, a professor at American University, looks at The Economist's take on globalisation. It is a puzzle, she writes, that The Economist covers globalisation so favourably. Our readers are, she believes, already likely to share “the dominant code” supporting globalisation that is common among business elites. They are unlikely to need persuasion. So why does The Economist try to provide it?

To solve this riddle, she conducts a textual analysis, “excavat[ing] from the text some tactics used to define, codify, and limit discourse to certain realms of economic knowledge, while excluding, belittling or ignoring knowledge from other domains.” The Economist, apparently, insists on seeing the world through a neo-liberal “metanarrative”.

Would our readers agree? Much academic research is now devoted to finding out how people read the popular press. One view, that of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt school, is that the popular media exist to dull people's minds and get them to accept the work and consumption patterns that are needed to sustain capitalism. Yet people are not as stupid as the journalists believe, argue the Frankfurters: although newspapers may encode messages designed to serve the interests of the powerful, readers are able to “decode” these messages and even subvert them. Readers take their own meanings and pleasures from the popular press.

Ms Starr concedes that The Economist's defence of globalisation may be hedged with all sorts of nuance, details and opposing points of view. But don't be fooled. The main, received tenets of the benefits of globalisation are at the core of the newspaper's mission, she claims. We advance an “active programme to constitute knowledge of globalisation” as well as “a programme of knowledge construction” in a bid to struggle for power—exactly what Foucault was talking about.

First in this programme is the contrast between the knowledge of mainstream economists and the knowledge of “others”, people excluded from the dominant power. Second, The Economist employs a “don't panic” strategy. Both of these strategies are used for a common end. Our idea that globalisation is the only way to cure global poverty is a “fantasy bribe”, fooling the reader into thinking he is helping to change the world order, while actually reinforcing existing systems of power. Her conclusion:

Thus, as much as one can see The Economist’s message on globalisation as ideological drivel advancing the interests of elites, it resonates for readers—not by tricking them into seeing globalisation through a distorted lens, nor just by giving them a way to intellectually justify their deeds—but by repeatedly invoking this hope and promise of realising Utopian ideals through the globalisation process.

So there it is: a publication to make you feel good about tomorrow, by advancing capitalism today.

The hidden truth in death

Another academic, Stephen Moore of Macquarie University in Australia, examines what, at first glance, may seem to be the least ideological of this newspaper's regular features: the obituary. His aim is to show that, even on this page, you can still uncover the “view/construction of reality” on which a newspaper operates. The post-modern tools he uses for this exercise? Not just “critical discourse analysis”, but also “systemic functional grammar”.

Mr Moore looks at the first 100 obituaries published after the feature was introduced in 1995. Of these, it seems, 38 were about Americans, which greatly over-represented the United States' share of world population. In the first year of the obituary page, only five of the departed were women, and only one came from the third world; 79 of the 100 were Caucasian. The typical subject, Mr Moore concludes, was “a white English-speaking male, over 70 years old, hailing from an industrialised country...who was most likely to have been a politician or a member of the intellectual community”. Although he concedes that this profile fits only five of the 100 souls perfectly, the evidence is already pointing towards white-male hegemony.

If numbers fail to convince you of any ideological preferences, take a couple of examples: those of Jack Mann, a former British fighter pilot who had also been held hostage by Hizbullah, and General Aideed, a Somali warlord. Mr Moore compares these two obituaries in four stages, “each at an increasingly delicate level of analysis”.

Mann's obituary was given the title “Jackie Mann”, using the familiar form of Jack which, Mr Moore argues, helped to give the reader a sense of familiarity with the subject of the article. Masculinity was emphasised “(ie, read ‘man’ for Mann)”. The photograph was not merely that of Mann grinning with his hand in a “thumbs up” sign. In addition, the “sharp diagonals in this image can be read as vectors indicative of a narrative genre which is in fact borne out in the actual text.” In contrast, General Aideed received nowhere near the respect in death accorded to Mann. The general's first name was not used at all, an example perhaps of “distancing” to foster an alienating effect. Mr Moore also notes our inclusion of Aideed's cause of death, something mentioned only twice in the 100 obituaries, both times in the context of a black man who had been shot dead. Aideed, it seems, was being packaged as a “sinister man of dubious character”.



The Economist had more frontal nudity in its photographs than all the other magazines combined. When it came to “partial breast exposure”, it was at the top of the league

In a newly fashionable effort to quantify claims about how power is transmitted through words and images, Yana van der Meulen Rodgers and JingYing Zhang, of the College of William & Mary in Virginia, have analysed The Economist's photographs. Their paper, “A Content Analysis of Sex Bias in International News Magazines”, asks, first, how often are women portrayed compared with men? Second, how often are men and women depicted in a sexual way? For answers, they looked at all the issues of five news magazines, including The Economist, in 2000, and the photographs in The Economist in even-numbered years from 1982 to 2000.

All the magazines studied contained an over-representation of women depicted in sexual ways. But The Economist, apparently, had more frontal nudity in its photographs than all the other magazines combined. When it came to “partial breast exposure”, it was at the top of the league. Particularly curious to the authors was our use of sexual content to illustrate stories on topics such as finance and technology. A photograph of three bikini-clad beauty contestants, used to illustrate a story on financial regulation, with the caption “Pick your regulator”, was both emblematic and problematic.

Part of the explanation for our practices, the authors surmise, is an attempt to mimic Britain's tabloids, in which nude photographs of women on the third page are not unheard of. This, they argue, “aligns The Economist more closely with the tabloid press than the world's influential news magazines.” They also note, incidentally, in a footnote:

Back issues of differ noticeably from the other news magazines in the use of pictures of males in drag clothing. Because these pictures were not revealing male sexuality or male body parts, we excluded them from the category of male with sexual content. The number of pictures of males in drag clothing averages about 3 per year. Among other magazines in the sample for the year 2000, only contained one image of a male in drag clothing.

Sadly, the insights of media and other cultural studies are nowadays in danger of marginalisation. Stanley Fish, an American professor widely associated with the deconstructivist school, pronounced the death of such criticism last year. That is a pity, for surely the dominant paradigm, that concept so beloved of post-modern radicals, is in need of continual subversion. This newspaper is all for it.