Monday, 15 December 2008

IDEOLOGY

Ideology is the science of ideas. However, for us it has a technical meaning and we are really concerned with ideological power when we use this term.

N/B – A Value is an opinion or attitude that an individual or group holds because of talking about or discussion of a subject. A Conviction is an opinion or attitude that an individual or group holds due to its understanding of its experiences. Convictions need not be generated by experiences that happened to an individual. They could come to the individual from the understood experiences of the group. Convictions are much firmer and less open to change than opinions.

How do ideas have power?

The main way that ideas are understood to have power is by ‘manufacturing consent’. This is an idea mainly developed by Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky out of the thinking of the early C.20th Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

Manufacturing Consent is a process that attempts to align the understood interests of the mass population with the actual interests of the elite or ruling group in society. The process is intended to replicate the values, attitudes and convictions that the elite or ruling group expresses (rather than actually holds) in the mass population at the expense of that population developing values, attitudes or convictions of its own.

This replication of values and convictions means that the elite or ruling group can then take any action or implement any policy knowing that the mass population has already consented to it. That consent having been manufactured in them by the conquest of their values and convictions by the elite.

In their book Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman summarise the process thus:

The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.

The means of Manufacturing Consent

There are four main means of manufacturing consent.

  • Generative Propaganda – that attempts to create new values and convictions in the audience. This is very difficult and is thus a weak form of manufacturing consent.
  • Re-enforcing Propaganda - that attempts to strengthen, highlight, or raise awareness of pre-existing values and convictions in the audience. This is easier and thus a stronger form of manufacturing consent.
  • Common Sense – This is not ‘good sense’ but rather the set of incompletely thought through values and convictions we all hold that come to us from the attitudes and experiences of those around us. The most powerful form of manufacturing consent because it is not normally possible to work out where an individual part of the ‘common sense’ has come from.
  • The colonisation of the imagination – wherein the understanding of that which is possible is limited to only a certain ‘acceptable’ range of discussion. This is most common in discussion of political and business life.

Theorists

There are two main theorists that we need to deal with; Antonio Gramsci & Louis Althusser.

The main line of thinking on ideological analysis of the media comes from Marxist thinkers. The first wave of theory on ideology was founded around the Base-Superstructure model. This is a deterministic model that suggests that the Base (the means and type of economic production) determines the Superstructure (all culture and society). For a capitalist society, therefore, the capitalist mode of production would determine the superstructure and all culture and society would be a means of oppression of labour (the proletariat or working classes).

This Base-Superstructure model is simple, static, and implies both direct oppression and the passivity of the oppressed. For these reasons and for its determinism it is not very useful as a means of studying ideology.

The two ideas to deal with in this are; Althusser’s ‘Interpellation’ and Gramsci’s ‘Hegemony’. In each case the analysis grows from the realisation that in every society there is a ruling group (an elite), which seeks to maintain and replicate (that is perpetuate into future generations) itself. This ruling group cannot stably sustain its dominance through force, violence, and the threat of such alone. What this ruling group requires it that the dominated (the ruled) consent to the rule of the elite. What the ruling group need is to manufacture in the dominated consent to their rule and its maintenance and replication. It is in manufacturing this consent that Ideology and Representation come into play.

If we take Althusser’s Interpellation first, we know that interpellation works on the basis of getting the dominated to ‘misrecognise’ themselves as the authors of the ideological content of a media-text rather than the targets of it (which in truth they are). This is crucial because if the elite can bring the dominated to the point where the ideology (worldview) of the elite is also the (mistaken) ideology of the dominated then the elite will have succeeded in manufacturing consent to their rule. Representation comes into play in this area because the elite (i.e. the ruling group in a society) will generate/create representations of themselves in media-texts and ‘interpellate’ the dominated to misrecognise themselves in that image – to see themselves, wrongly, as members of the elite.

We can see Interpellation in action in the USA where a majority of people believe they earn just a bit more than the mean average salary. This is, of course, mathematically impossible but it is ideologically inevitable. That a majority of Americans have come to believe this is the effect of Interpellation. Representations of the elite have been presented to the dominated and they have been ‘interpellated’ to misrecognise themselves in those images.

Louis Althusser tried to deal with the problem of the passivity of the oppressed in ideological analysis. Althusser was convinced that ideology, rather than being a veil draped over the oppressed, structured peoples lived experience; meaning that ideology played a part in every person’s life from the outset.

Interpellation – Althusser developed the idea of Interpellation, meaning ‘hailing’ or ‘calling’, as a way of explaining how ideological power works. Interpellation implies a process in which a media text ‘hails’ the reader and invites the reader to ‘misrecognise’ themselves in the text and positions the reader as a ‘sovereign autonomous individual’ who cannot be the subject of ideology but must be the author of ideology. Thus the reader actively participates in the ideology of the text.

Turning to Hegemony we must remember that the basis on which it works is that the ruling group (re)present themselves to all the other groups in society as the only group in that society capable of/ willing to organise and run that society so that the needs, wants, and desires of the other groups in society are meet – and that no other group is capable of such government. To this end it is crucial that a majority are of the opinion that they earn ‘slightly more than average’ as this means that they, wrongly, believe they are benefiting from the way in which society is organised rather than being exploited by the way in which society is organised - the very purpose of that social organisation. Representations, of the ruling group by the ruling group aimed at the dominated are crucial to the operation of Hegemony.

Antonio Gramsci lived and worked before Althusser and was concerned with the static nature of the base-superstructure model. His ideas on hegemony were intended to deal with this.

Hegemony – The idea behind hegemony is that not only does the elite impose its will through ideology but also through the presentation of itself as the group best placed and suited to provided for and meet the interests and aspirations of all other social groups, the purpose of this presentation being to establish consent to the rule of the elite as natural (as part of the common sense). This presentation is constantly being re-established and, apparently, re-negotiated as social development occurs. The elites hegemonic presentation will grow to include previously excluded social and status groups (or contract to exclude previously powerful groups) as and when useful to the elite.

LINKS

IDEOLOGY

http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/ideology.htm

http://www.mediaknowall.com/alevkeyconcepts/ideology.html

http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/media/ideoldet.html

http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/media/marxism.html

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/marxism/marxism01.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_model

ALTHUSSER

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/marxism/marxism09.html

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/marxism/marxism06.html

http://www.cla.purdue.edu/academic/engl/theory/marxism/modules/althusserideology.html

http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/interpellation.htm

http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Althusser

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpellation

http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/LPOE70NB.html

http://samvak.tripod.com/althusser.html

GRAMSCI

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/marxism/marxism10.html

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/marxism/marxism11.html

http://www.postcolonialweb.org/poldiscourse/hegemony.html

http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/soc/courses/soc2r3/gramsci/gramheg.htm

http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-gram.htm

http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-gram.htm

http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/contributions/gramsci.html

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

DISCOURSE OF REALISM

Realism is a key issue of all textual studies (whether of literature, film, media, the past, etc.) as the more realistic a text is accepted as being the more engagement we make with it. Indeed highly realistic texts will be accepted as 'true' and in that acceptance is the power of realism as an interpellating device; i.e as a mechanism for drawing the audience to the text and getting them to adopt the ideology of the text as their own. The discourse of realism involves the different conditions that each text must meet for its audience to accept it as realistic.

TYPES OF REALISM

There are many different types of realism because each text will need a different approach to the realistic. Plots involving things that do not exist (ghosts, faster-than-light-travel, talking chickens/rats/donkeys) can still be realistic as can texts that deal in non-realistic depictions (cartoons especially) because they utilize approaches to the realistic other than an appeal to contemporary experience and photographic depiction.

1. Surface naturalism - presenting the world of the text as though it were the real world being represented (avoiding anachronisms and ensuring authenticity though appropriate locations, props, costumes, accents, etc).

2. Ecphrasis - Ecphrasis is the luxuriously detailed description of something that evokes the real through the sheer mass of descriptive effort involved. This approach to the establishment of the realistic was proposed by Barthes in his The Effect of Reality. For Barthes ecphrasis was the key to both the realistic novels of the 19th century and the bourgeois ideologies they embodied and to the disciplined realistic history that emerged alongside them.

3. Conformity to experience - if a text limits itself to the representation of that which is within the experience of its audience it will be more easily accepted as real.

4. Photography - since the invention of photography and its incredible offspring moving pictures with sound photo-realism has been the starting point for establishing the realistic.

5. Psychological or emotional realism - in this approach the audience are asked to view the characters in a text and their actions as plausible and potentially real because they seem to us to be in-line with our own emotions and psychology. This form of realism is fundamentally about the believability of character.

6. Narrative realism - form of realism in which the realistic is evoked by the telling of believable stories. If narratives are not plausible, regardless of how outlandish their content, then the text will not be accepted as realistic.

7. Content realism - this form of realism concerns the 'real' record of events and the depiction of 'real' things (such as a London street) and it is this form of realism that is most often used by news and documentary texts.

8. Genre conventions of realism - each genre has its own codes and conventions of realism and audiences will use a modality judgment (i.e. a judgment on the appropriateness of the form of realism used for the genre involved) to decide if any given text is acceptably realistic based on their prior experience of the genre and of other approaches to the realistic (e.g. non-diegetic music is typically not considered anti-realistic).

DISCOURSE OF REALISM

Discourse means both language about and/or of 'x' and communication embodying ideology and so the discourse of realism is not just the negotiation between text and audience about whether or not the text is acceptable as realistic (i.e. the result of the audience's modality judgment regarding the approaches to the realistic used in the text) but also concerns the ideological power considerations regarding realism to be found in the wider society and what interest the elite may have in the realistic. Whether or not a text is considered realistic or not will not just be the result of the creators of the text stacking up enough approaches to establishing the real and then an individual deciding if that makes the text real enough or not but also of the play of social power around the text. Sufficient backing by enough resources of social power will make a text acceptably realistic regardless of its own qualities.

It must never be forgotten that which is considered realistic is the effect of social power and that creators of texts, texts, and their audiences are just a part of the ebb & flow of social power. All representations are hegemonic after all and the 'real' in this case is just a system of representations in texts not something essential and concrete even though great lengths are gone to suggest that very concrete existence.

REPRESENTATION: Realism

The representation of reality is a huge area of representation study and a key aspect of media studies. When we turn to the study of documentary we shall find that realism is a key issue for that genre (it is the most important convention of documentary) and realism plays a central role in some aspects of intertextuality and post-modernism.

Just as everything in the media is a representation (we do not experience the thing itself) everything is also unreal (the process of mediation is artificial and so therefore is everything so mediated); in the media we deal with the representation of reality. Text are therefore always in the situation of

The realism of a media text is a key part of our relationship with it. Some media texts (the news, documentaries, etc) are required to have a very strong sense of realism for us to accept them whereas others (cartoons, comics, computer games, surreal comedy, etc) can be as seemingly unreal as they like and still be accepted by us (most media texts fall some where in between these two poles); it all depends on what the text is doing and claiming. This is the text’s discourse of realism; how realistic it is, why, and how.

The realism of a media text can rest on a variety of different factors and there are many ways of establishing a media text as real (see the appendix below) but what is important is that we, the audience, treat texts as real enough for us. Every text is considered by its audience in terms of should I accept this as realistic and do I accept this as realistic. This is the audience’s modality judgment about the text; is the mode of realism and the type of text appropriate to one another, does the text succeed in seeming real, and ought I accept this?

A final thing to consider is the way in which the process of mediation can lead to hyperreality. Hyperreality, an idea proposed by Jean Baudrillard, is the situation that occurs when the media image of a thing or place replaces the ‘reality’ of that thing or place. Consider the image you posses of the world’s great cities and how that image derives from the media and not from your experience of the city in question and then consider being confronted by the reality of that city. The best example of this process is Las Vegas. Las Vegas is an artificial city in that it was only brought into existence to feed the gambling industry. The media image of this city of vices then became far more powerful than the reality of the city itself and in turn the real city began to make itself into the media image through a process of creative destruction. The Las Vegas of The Rat Pack, Elvis, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, CSI, and Ocean’s Eleven (all four films) is the one that actually exists now. More fearsome still is the hyperreality of Disney (read the entry in links below).

Realism

http://www.litnotes.co.uk/realism.htm

http://www.readingonline.org/newliteracies/lit_index.asp?HREF=/newliteracies/hobbs/index.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effect_of_Reality

Modality

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem02a.html

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/realrev.html

Hyperreality

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperreality

http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/realityhyperreality.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Baudrillard

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard/

http://www.robertexto.com/archivo9/baudrillard.htm/

http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/index.html

http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-disneyworld-company.html

REPRESENTATION : Hegemony

Hegemony is a representational strategy of power; a way of using representations to control other people. In many ways hegemony is the central concept of media studies. This idea is crucial to the key concepts of representation, ideology, narrative, institutions and audience so it is essential that we develop a detailed understanding of the idea.

Let us start with a definition:

Hegemony is a representational strategy of social power that aims to ensure the continued tacit or active support of the majority of the people for the rule of the minority (even though the rule of that minority – the elite – is not in the interests of the majority). This is achieved by representing all groups bar the elite as unfit or unsuitable to hold and wield legitimate power and by representing the elite as the only group capable of ensuring social peace, prosperity, justice, etc.

For example:

The ‘fearful outsider’ is the most commonly encountered representation used by the elite to control the majority and ensure that the majority continue to tacitly support the rule of the elite. Anyone or any group who can be depicted as ‘not one of us’ or ‘outside the boundaries of normal society’ (i.e. as other) is being represented as fearful so that the majority of the population will turn to the elite (who hold and wield all the power in society) for protection. Consider; ‘hoodies’, paedophiles, criminals, ‘chavs’, foreigners, immigrants, every front page of the Daily Mail, indeed any moral panic is a hegemonic success because the elite will be turned to by the people to save them from the source of the panic (see the list above).

More technically we can say that:

Hegemony is the manufacture consent through the manipulation of the common sense.

Terminology

Other – The ‘not us’ from which we derive some sense of who ‘we’ are. This ‘we’ being a common sense notion useful to the manufacture of consent and not the reality of the social group in question; use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ always establishes a ‘them’ who are not us (i.e. it sets out what is normal – us – and what is abnormal – them).

Manufacture Consent – No elite can rule through force alone and forever. A ruling group needs the consent of the majority to maintain and replicate (i.e. hand it on to their children) their rule. The consent, however, is not sought from the majority – they could decide the wrong thing after all – nor left up to them rather it is manufactured by the elite through the processes of hegemony. It is a consent that is not freely given nor is it fully informed (quite the opposite) rather it is carefully built up for us by the elite; it is a consent we give with out knowing and without option.

Common Sense – The realm of uncritical assumptions and acceptance of what is normal and abnormal as defined by the elite or as Gramsci put it:

“Common sense is not something rigid and stationary, but is in continuous transformation, becoming enriched with scientific notions and philosophical opinions that have entered into common circulation. 'Common sense' is the folklore of philosophy and always stands midway between folklore proper (folklore as it is normally understood) and the philosophy, science, and economics of the scientists. Common sense creates the folklore of the future, a relatively rigidified phase of popular knowledge in a given time and place.”

Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from cultural writings. London (Lawrence & Wishart) 1985, 421

Moral Panic – A moral panic is a collective outburst against a perceived threat to the ethical underpinning of the community. Often this threat has been outsiders to the community – Jews and Roma have suffered terribly at the hands of moral panics – but anyone or group who can be seen as outsiders (on grounds of their identity or actions) can also be constructed as a threat and thus cause a moral panic.

Links

Hegemony

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/marxism/marxism10.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_hegemony

http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-gram.htm

http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/contributions/gramsci.html

http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-gram.htm

http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/soc/courses/soc2r3/gramsci/gramheg.htm

http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-rol6.htm

http://rykalskireadsthemedia.blogspot.com/search/label/Hegemony

http://www.bisa.ac.uk/bisanews/0205/bisa0205_2.htm

Common Sense

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/csme/meas/papers/coben.html

http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=308

Moral Panic

http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/media/fdevdet.html

http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/media/mugging.html

http://www.mediaknowall.com/violence/moralpanicnotes.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_panic

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/thinkingallowed_20030430.shtml

REPRESENTATION: Stereotypes

All media texts are full of representations of the exterior (you could call it 'the real') world and as whole things are themselves representations. Media texts will represent types and groups of people, places, times, opinions, ideas, concepts, events and actions to us and we have to try and work out where the representations come from and what they are doing. All such representations are mediated and are not the things themselves but media constructions made out of the idea (that is someone's or some group's idea) of the thing.

Type/Stereotype

One of the first issues to get to grips with is that of typing and stereotyping by the media. Typing is the ascription of assumed group characteristics to an individual that is assumed to be a member of the group in question. It is a very common human behaviour and we all of us do it all the time to make sense of people and groups we know little of. Stereotyping is the same activity, lumping someone into a group without knowing if they really are a member of that group, carried out with negative intent or effect. So to make assumptions about a person or group you do not know is typing but to make those assumptions with the intent or effect of denigrating, dismissing, disempowering or harming someone is stereotyping.

Stereotypes can be very hard to erase or change once someone has adopted a particular attitude. The point is that a stereotype is a habit of mind (an idea which is habitually used without critical awareness by a person) and so is a part of the person who uses the stereotype. It is common for strongly established stereotypes to become deeply rooted in the common sense of a culture and these widely held and un-critically accepted habits of mind are the most dangerous stereotypes. They are the ones most likely to be acted on and they are the ones most likely to lead to a moral panic (consider these instances – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2005_Birmingham_riots http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till).

Links

Stereotypes

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotype

http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/issues/stereotyping/

http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/special_initiatives/toolkit/stereotypes/what_are_stereotypes.cfm

http://www.revision-notes.co.uk/revision/875.html

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Modules/TF33120/gendertv.html

http://www.understandingprejudice.org/apa/english/page11.htm

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/media/library/stereotypethreat

http://www.psichi.org/pubs/articles/article_112.asp

http://www.tolerance.org/teach/web/index.jsp

Friday, 17 October 2008

Ten Great Films and Some Reasons to Watch Them

This is by definition a highly subjective list and it would be well worth you thinking hard about what you consider your 10 greatest films are and why they may be different to this list. You might also want to look through this list-of-lists from Sight&Sound.

I do not want to offer you a list of the ‘greatest’ as that would be structured towards old hollywood greats so let me suggest the following for you to watch to consider the breadth of great films available. This list comes from my own media experience and is therefore coloured by my own preferences and tastes. It is worth noting that the lack of female directors amongst the film makers listed below isn't really my fault; the world of film making is very strongly dominated by men.

1 - The classic classic
Citizen Kane - dir. Orson Wells 1941
One of the most influential film drama’s of all time. Well’s critique of power in US society is scathing and the techniques he developed for this film influenced all subsequent films. There is so much to consider in this film that viewing it is the only way to begin to understand it.

2 - A English Thriller Classic
The Lady Vanishes - dir. Alfred Hitchcock 1938
Hitchcock was one of the all time great film makers and so many of his works could be considered here (Vertigo, Rear Window, North-by-North-West, Psycho, The Birds, etc, etc...) but for me The Lady Vanishes is a wonderful example of the master’s work.

3 - A mad satirical classic
Dr Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - dir. Stanley Kubrick 1964.
Kubrick is another of the all time great directors and 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Paths of Glory or A Clock-Work Orange could all appear in this list. I have selected Dr Strangelove, however, because of the three perfect comic performances by Peter Sellers. Sellers, one of the greatest comic actors of all time, appeared in several films where either his presence alone elevated them to greatness or his performance pushed the works into the stratosphere (as was the case with I’m All Right Jack). The combination of Kubrick and Sellers means that Dr Strangelove is not to be missed.

4 - A modern romantic classic (with a bitter edge of protest and satire)
Strictly Ballroom - dir Baz Lurhman 1992
No-one ever believes me when I tell them that this seemingly innocuous Romantic-Comedy is one of the most political films ever made. Watch it, think about it, study the context of creation of the text, and try and consider the revolutionary call that is its subtext. Its true genius is only revealed when you think about it really hard.

5 - A master-piece of story telling
Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne) - dir. Guilliam Canet 2006
French cinema has contributed so much to world film culture that it seems odd to pick out this recent Thriller-Romance as one of the top ten films. The works of Jean Renoir, La Nouvelle Vauge (especially Truffaut & Godard) and a host of contemporary film makers place french film culture at the forefront of world cinema. The French, however, have always made great, great crime fiction (Rififi, Sur Mes Lèvres, Le Samouraï, Les Diaboliques, etc, etc, etc...) and so a nod to that great history seems appropriate here and Tell No One is such a well made and well told story that it deserves your consideration.

6 - A beautiful classic
Chungking Express - dir Wong Kar-Wei 1994
Watch it, watch it, watch it! Its just amazing!

7 - A documentary classic
Biggie and Tupac - dir Nick Broomfield 2002
Broomfield’s touching, effective, and engaged treatment of the deaths of Biggie Smalls & Tupac Shakur is a great example of the art of documentary.

8 - The genre classic
Shane - dir George Stevens 1953
Shane’s great strengths are its crystalline morality, beautiful locations, and sense of tragedy. The Western has thrown up so many amazing films (The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Little Big Man, High Noon, The Good the Bad & the Ugly, Rio Bravo, Rio Grande, etc....) and any or all of them could be on this list but the place of honour goes to Shane for the tragic beauty of its ending.

9 - The bitterest pill
Chinatown - dir Roman Polanski 1974
Polanksi is another great film maker and this 1974 response to the classic film noirs of the 30s & 40s shows this greatness to full effect.
It is not the great directing, dialogue, lighting, sets & locations, acting, and plotting that makes this film worthy of your consideration but its end and the awful inability of anyone to do anything other than accept that conclusion.

10 - The eighties movie
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - dir. John Huges 1986
Nothing exemplifies the silliness of cinema in the 80’s better than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The 80’s saw so many great comedies come out of Hollywood that it now look something of a golden-age; Ghostbusters, Trading Places (Dan Akroyd’s Loius Winthorpe III is a fantastic comic creation), the action-comedy Beverly Hill’s Cop, Heathers, etc. Ferris Bueller combines a post-modern sensibility with an old fashioned anarchic humour and a teenage high school setting to very great comedic effect.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Right-Blog; idiocy writ large

The right often shouts out that it dominates the blogosphere and has won all the arguements. This, however, is just shouting as the right has achieved no such thing. Indeed the reverse is the case as the right has simply and utterly retreated from argument and has become discursivly sterile.
The right seems to have decided that as long as it shouts loudly enough no one will notice that it's only talking to itself. The result is that the right-blogosphere has become a space almost seperate from the rest of the Internet/www (almost in the fashion of the successionists found in Gibson's Bridge cycle) giving the impression to the members of this social space that there are no competing voices and that indeed they have swept the field. The victory is, however, an illusion.

Posted with LifeCast

Friday, 1 August 2008

Troubled Traveller

Greg Hands, the Conservative MP for Hammersmith and Fulham, has initiated a classic silly season storm in a tea cup by attacking the historical information sections of guide books for their left-wing bias in a post on a tory blog. The post is classic right-blog nonsense whose principle purpose is to attack the BBC (a key target of Tory hate from the Thatcher years because its a state rather than private institution and therefore ideologically unspeakable and because it occasionally reported news) as a supporter of Islamism. The route to this remarkable accusation is nonsensical and so we wont let it detain us (the guide book says something, Greg disagrees and therefore, even though the two propositions are not mutually exclusive, the BBC is a supporter of islamism...); there is after all something altogether more interesting in the text.
History, the study of the human past, is a hugely contested field of human action because the past is so crucial to us. Our identity is forged in and connected to our understanding of the past and so control over the past - over how history is carried out - is control over people. This has been a truism since at least 1948 but historical and historiographical work since then has clearly shown this. Hobsbawn and Ranger's The Invention of Tradition is a key text in this historiographical tradition and works such as Anderson's Imagined Communities, Mann's The Dark Side of Democracy, the fascinating pairing of Said's Orientalism and Cannadine's Ornamentalism (which really must be read together in order to see how Cannadine has used Said's ideas and responded to and reworked them), and Lowenthal's The Past is a Foreign Country, Ferro's The Use and Abuse of History, amongst others, have tried to get to grips with the past's power over the people of the present, to understand it and to show people how that power works.
However, all of this is inimical to the right's programme for the past. Following the lead of Leo Strauss and Maurice Cowling the political right turned its back on history and sought an alternative use of the past; for them the past was a propaganda tool and nothing else. Strauss articulated this propaganda use of history most clearly through his emphasis on the 'noble lie' that his studies of Plato had led him to (Cowlings acolytes tend to express their support for this programme through the, more coded, privileging of the works of von Treitschke). The key to the project is that people not understand the role of the past in the present and the role of social power in the construction of the history that communicates that past to the people of the present.
This rejection of history as attempt to understand the past finds its ultimate expression in the right's retreat into speculative fiction (they describe it as 'counter-factual history' but it is alternative past fiction in the mode of Philip K Dick, Robert Harris, and Ward Moore) which even though it suffers from a series of logical failures, is restrictive in what it can represent and fails to develop or expand understanding of the past in any way has come to be championed by the 'historians' engaged in this propaganda project. Although given the purposes of their project this is to be expected.
There is another reason for the right's rejection of history and lies in modern history's heretical embrace of social studies of various kinds. Sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, literary theory, feminist & queer theory, social and discursive psychology, post-colonialism and (gasp!) post-modernism have all been embraced by history to assist it in the study of the past over the past five decades. This is heretical because all of these discipline (and now of course history) believe that their is such a thing as society and that social action by humans ought to be the focus of study. This is the ultimate heretical act for the contemporary right and by taking this terrible course history has condemned itself and is deserving of contemptuous dismissal.This is why modern right 'history' is so naive, anti-intellectual and ineffective. The proof of which can be seen Mr Hands' own post. There is nothing in the post that is anything other than rhetoric, discourse and representation; he provides a (necessarily) subjective interpretation of some historical interpretations and then condemns interpretation. Hands isolates (but gives no page reference for) the following,
The brand new Lonely Planet guide to the USA (5th ed, 2008) tells us that "Roosevelt did much to ameliorate the pain of the Great Depression"
aside from a reflexive hatred of Democrat presidents on the part of Tories it is very hard to see why the quoted statement is indicative of left-wing bias; its just an interpretation of the past and a very uncontroversial one at that.
The very use of the terms 'facts', 'bias'' and objective' by Greg Hands suggests a deliberately old fashioned uber-conservative and extremely infantile approach to history on the part of the honourable member. A-level syllabuses have rejected such terms and the approach they indicate since the mid-1980's and university level historical education had been moving away from this nonsense since the early 1970's at the latest. Hands rejects history and historical understanding in the very act of shouting his seeming defence of them.
Finally, Hands finishes with an attempt at sarcasm that falls flat because he fails to recognise that Fox News already publishes books because it is a part of News Corp and thus a sibling to Zondervan the US christian publishers and, of course, HarperCollins. So if NewsCorp wanted a print outlet for for the Fox News form of 'truth' it could easily have it. Of course it might be easier to use one of the newspapers they own - I think The Times has a travel section on both days of the weekend.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Fallon; Flogging Fun

Fallon have made a name for themselves beyond the microcosm of the Advertising Industry with the success in the wider society of their less directly selling and more open in meaning adverts for Cadburys.
Fallon are of course a long established advertising company, having been in operation for twenty-five years, with offices across the globe but the effect they have achieved with their most recent advertising is to make themselves a talking point in addition to the adverts being note worthy.
The two central adverts in the Cadburys campaign - Gorilla and Trucks - have stirred up a great deal of general cultural interest because of the entertainment value of the texts. This, of course, is the intention. Fallon long ago noted the need for adverts to step out of the context of advertising and become entertainment so that its marketing effect would last beyond the act of broadcasting; through the adverts becoming a topic of discourse or phatic interaction.
The effect of the first advert - Gorilla - was especially powerful in this regard. The combination of anthropomorphism and narrative enigma and action in the text powerfully interpellates the readers of the advert. The anthropomorphism is the trick of it; the our sensation of affinity with the great apes is well established and the fascination evoked by their behaviour is a constant part of human life. Apes - real or mocked up have played key roles in several texts (the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan sequence, Clint Eastwoods Every Which Way movies, The Mighty Boosh, Trading Places, the now infamous PG Tips adverts, etc.) because they are so wonderfully 'other'. It is this otherness and our sense that perhaps the gorilla really could play the drums - and enjoy the experience - that gets us talking about the advert long after the text has left our screens.
The second advert, Trucks, is not so powerfully effecting. The sense of play and enjoyment is still present but the anthropomorphism is not. The audience do not read the Trucks as enjoying the fun but their drivers; who we do not see. This anonymity prohibits a strong identification with the world of the text and limits the interpellating force of the advert.
These two adverts display a key aspect of Fallon's approach to advertising; a structure for adverts that can only be called the Fallon Fun Format. The trick of the structure is to hold the selling or branding message back until the very end of the text. This is most obvious in Fallon's excellent spots for Sony Bravia where the branding message arrives only briefly at the very end of the text after the intriguing fun has played out. In the first of the Bravia TV spots, Balls, the combination of the rubber balls pinging down the steep streets of San Francisco and the laid back soundtrack is great fun to watch and the product/brand being pushed is only revealed at the last when our appetite for information has been whetted. The same structure is at work in the Gorilla, Trucks and other Bravia spots and this is no coincidence. The selling function of this structure lies in the breaking down of our defences to the branding through the entertainment provided. We are captured by the high entertainment value of the adverts and thus do not begrudge the advertisers their crack at the whip when it comes; it seems fair recompense for the show they have put on rather than a hectoring annoyance. This last achievement is the greatest because most audiences dislike advertising breaks and the commercials that fill them; turning that response around is very clever indeed.

Close Up Of Terror

Michael Powell's Peeping Tom contains an even more trenchant critique of the close up. In this text the close up is an act of murder and the 'director' is a psychopath. Not even Sunset Boulevard is as scathing.

Posted with LifeCast

Thursday, 29 May 2008

The Grammar of Media?

The media are languages just as more normal forms of language - writing and speech - are and just as those more easily recognisable modes of language are governed by rules about use - i.e. grammar - so are the media. The problem tends to be that because the media use spoken and written language as part of their communicative acts the other layers of language can be obscured by our focus on dialogue or print.
Certain parts of the grammars of media are quiet obvious - headlines prioritise, 'talking-heads' such as news presenters are (claim to be) objective narration, bold OR CAPITALISED TEXT is shouting, a film or TV close-up is 'Emphasis!', blue underlining means hypertext link - whereas other parts of these grammars are harder to grasp.
Close-ups are a good example of this as they are the indexical signs of the ideology of individualism; which Althusser showed to be such a key interpellating device. The close-up isolates the important individuals from the mass of characters in a hierarchical representational structure similar to the use of foreground versus background in perspective imagery (photography and so forth) or on the stage.
The final scene of Norma Desmond in Wilder's Sunset Boulevard is a biting commentary on this part of the grammar of cinema. Highlighting the close-up's role in the establishment of leading individuals and the way in which it is a shot reserved for the leading individuals; i.e. for leaders. Sergio Leone also criticised the ideological function of the close-up in his great cycle of westerns by ridiculing it with super tight extra close close-ups (often eyes only) and by utilising it as a tool for creating equality. In Leone's work anybody could get a close-up and this most emphatic of camera shots was not reserved for the leading individuals in the text. Indeed some of the most important sequences in Leone's work are inter-cut tight close ups. In many ways Wilder's criticism of the close up in Sunset Boulevard is far stronger than Leone's because where Leone dismissed the hierarchical function of the close-up Wilder associated it and thus the whole ideology of individualism with a deranged selfish murderous narcissism.
That which is in the seeming proximity of the foreground is granted a greater hierarchical status than those things, persons, characters in the background. That the foreground is an apparent proximity is a key point to remember. Texts are artificial deliberate constructs. Nothing occurs in them by chance (this is why we are told that Hedda Gabler inherited some pistols) and nothing is real. Leading characters and background figures are both 'paper beings' as Barthes describes them in 'Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative' (in Image-Music-Text at p111) so placing them in a hierarchy is a deliberate act based on the deliberate creation of a set of paper beings, paper places, and paper objects to place in this 'paper hierarchy'.
The lesson of the ideological function of the close-up is that just as more normal language is permeated with power so the languages of the media are flooded with power. It is not enough to concern ourselves with the language and grammar of media we must consider the ways in which these languages are used in relations of power and what role these grammars play in the exercise of social power. We must consider the discourse of media; the ways in which the media as language (rather than their content) enact and implement power in society.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Right, Right, Right

Andrew Gilligan is something of a case study in how journalism works.
Gilligan's reporting on the Blair government's manipulation of UK public opinion in the run up to the current Iraq war initiated the events that lead to the tragic death of Dr David Kelly and the Hutton report - a moment of humiliation for the BBC. The furore resulted in Gilligan's resignation from the BBC and the first media institution to offer him a job after that was The Spectator, then edited by Boris Johnson.
Gilligan then went to work for the Evening Standard were he has lead the right wing media charge against Ken Livingstone and the Labour Government more generally. The Standard is a part of the Mail & General Trust Group along with the Mail titles, Metro and The London Paper and the whole group has a ferocious right wing reputation - especially the Daily Mail.
Gilligan who was forced out of the BBC by a Labour Government found a saviour in Boris Johnson and then went to work for the most right wing media group in the UK. This conjunction of events certainly stood Boris Johnson in good stead during the recent mayoral elections. Not least because the more racist side of Boris' public persona was somewhat swept under the carpet even though even Johnson himself finally twigged his comments were a bit dodgy.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Leading the Team

Hegemony is a representational strategy of power; it involves the uses of representations to control people (to manufacture the consent of the ruled to the rule of the rulers) and a fine set of examples of such controlling representations can be found in four current crime fiction TV shows.
The basic model of representational hegemony is that all social groups bar the elite are presented as unfit to lead or rule in one way or another. This is based on the elites power over the mechanisms of representation and of their prevention of of self representation by all other social groups. The elite are the only group with the social power necessary to make representations of and for society - the quotidian representations that normal people construct during interpersonal interaction are of insufficient durability and lack mechanisms for dissemination into the wider society.
In the past these extensive and widely distributed social representations have been far more direct and obvious. The stereotype of women as hysterical and therefore emotionally unfit to participate in rule was one such hegemonic representation. It was one part of a wider network of representations of women as subordinate (indeed as property) that denied women participation in the governance of their society and control of themselves. Racist representations that aimed to divide and terrorise were extremely common in all europeanised societies and are still a part of contemporary media discourse. This fostering of fear was and is intended to cut both ways. The racist representation terrorises the 'other' group by inflicting symbolic violence on them and by showing how close to physical violence they are. It also creates an ogre - the monstrous 'other' - with which the 'norm' group can be frightened.
Contemporary social representations are much less direct and overt and it is to one set of these hegemonic representations in crime fiction TV that we now turn. In Waking the Dead, CSI and its siblings CSI:Miami and CSI:NY, Without a Trace, Criminal Minds, and NCIS (a study in hegemony and interpellation in it own right & a borderline case as its teams is not as identity diverse as the other example texts) we find the same pattern of representation regarding leadership.
Although the team who constitute the central character group in the show are identity diverse - mixtures of genders and ethnicities on the whole as sexuality is carefully ignored - in each case the leader is the early or actually middle age white male; Boyd in Waking the Dead, Grissom in CSI, H & Mac in the other CSIs, Jack Malone in Without a Trace, and Gibbs in NCIS. In each case the legitimate authority of the white middle aged leader is repeatedly stressed and the subaltern status of all the other personnel on the team is reinforced. The hegemonic utility of this representational system (that is how this set of representations bolster the rule of the elite) lies in the clear delineation of leaders and led and the legitimacy of this division and the insistence that certain groups will all ways be found amongst the led.
In Missing Persons the first story of the current series of Waking the Dead - first broadcast in two parts 14th & 15th April 08 - the principle criminal protagonists were two tough, violent and very resourceful women one of whom was set upon a course of extreme violence until such point as she was faced down by the ever authoritative Boyd. The confrontation between Boyd and the former active service INLA member was a straightforward depiction of the triumph of his legitimate and rational authority over her rage and violence. That is to say it was a straightforward demonstration of who ought to be allowed to lead society and who ought to be controlled by society.
It is worth noting that this leadership representation is not limited to crime fiction the bricolage (see also here) of Sherlock Holmes that is House works on exactly the same basis and reinforces exactly the same representation of society. Finally part of the joy of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes is in the fashion in which they subvert this representational system. Gene Hunt may well be the leader of the team but his leadership is not unquestionably legitimate and his authority is always suspect. Not least because he may well be a figment of the imagination.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Right Randy Little Devils

Paul Krugman highlights a remarkable ideological intervention in US higher education by the disciples of hard right 'philosopher' and 'novelist' Ayn Rand. In her works Rand provided a pseudo-philosophical rationalisation and justification for the greedy selfishness of the very rich and as such she has always attracted a substantial following among the very rich and those who desire to be very rich. Now the adherents of her cult are paying for the inclusion of her work in the syllabuses of US higher education.
This is of course nothing new; ever since noted C.19th monopolist Joseph Wharton threw a gigantic sum of money at the University of Pennsylvania in 1881 to teach his ideology of monopoly and protectionism the 'western world' has been filling up with capitalist ideological apparatus called Business Schools (in the US idiom of higher education of course) each named for the relevant Patrick Bateman analogue that granted them financial life. The point is that 'the right' have to pay to get their ideological tracts into education because no one interested in education would use them willingly because such screeds are pedagogical rubbish. Consider the point that one short article by Althusser - on Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses - perfectly explains the need of the right to construct such ideological institutions and how they function in and on society whilst nothing on the right explains anything at all.
It has long been the case that 'the left' has held dominion over large parts of education and the reasons for this are many and varied but the bankruptcy, either moral or intellectual or both, of the so-called intellectuals of 'the right' must be something to do with it.

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Thursday, 10 April 2008

Media Aristocracy

One of the fascinating things about Bourdieu's Distinction (or here) is the variety of approaches to the study of the media it provides us with and the range of connexions it allows us to form. Bourdieu's concept of an aristocracy of culture marked by its distance from necessity is what concerns us in this post.
How one consumes and receives culture is one of the most important marks of distinction and therefore a key means for the accumulation of cultural capital. Anything which is not necessary (and we are ignoring the psychiatric self-actuation as a need - necessity here means shelter, heat, clean water, and sufficient nutrition) is distinguishing as it displays use of spare time and resources. So there is a very raw and powerful difference between being able to consume media culture and not having the time or resources to waste on such consumption.
The tale is not told with this bare fact however. Every segment of society has its own authorised culture and the unnecessary participation in that authorised culture is a means of creating status within that part of society. Although the genres are similar and the issues addressed and narrative forms used appear the same there is a very radical difference in social status between reading Skins & Teen Vogue one the one hand and Hollyoaks and More on the other (and it is a step higher to transfer to Sex and the City and Vogue proper). The former is the mark of the aristocracy of (female) teen media culture and the latter is far more plebeian. This is by no means the full extent of this scale and it is not the only scale - there are a huge range of different social fields of status competition - but it is a good example of the the media texts and forms we can connect with Bourdieu's ideas.


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Tuesday, 8 April 2008

A Happy Night in Lardland

Viewing the first episode of the new series of Dr Who evokes even more intertextual echoes. Obvious points of reference were Gremlins, Alien, and Supernanny. Less obviously it seemed to me that there was a hint of Sur Mes Lèvres in the scene were The Doctor and Donna first encounter each other.


Thursday, 3 April 2008

A Dark Night in Toyland

Dr Who returns to the BBC's Saturday night line up with a story about adipose that provokes the intertextual echo of a short story by Bob Shaw. Shaw's short story anthology Dark Night in Toyland, as with all of his works out of print, contains a creepy tale (entitled Cutting Down I think) of menacing adipose that I would be unsurprised to discover bore uncanny similarities to the plot of the forthcoming episode of Dr Who.

Monday, 31 March 2008

Funk-to-Funky

Ashes to Ashes and its equally remarkable sibling Life on Mars are most remarkable for the divergent political readings they provoke. There are two main readings that will be considered here; the media studies reading and the conservative nostalgia reading.
The media studies reading of both series is rather straight forward. Sam Tyler & Alex Drake are the synecdoche of us and of our struggle to overcome the bigotry and discrimination that used to be such a powerful part of our society. Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars share a hopeful (perhaps too hopeful) view on the state of present day Britain and on the direction that British society seems to be taking. The discourse of both shows is that even though the things of the past have some good points today is a better world to be in if you are a member of a non-hegemonic group (not white, not male, not straight etc).
This tension is rather neatly displayed by the appearance of Lord Scarman as a character in the last episode of the first series of Ashes to Ashes. The camaraderie of Gene's team in the face of the 'threat' posed by Lord Scarman is a positive thing but Alex, and we, know that Scarman's way is the only way for British society to take. That the police had to stop being an instrument of racial, homophobic, and state terror in order for British society to function at all. Lord Scarman was charged with the official investigation into the Brixton riots of 1981 (or see here) and many of his conclusions regarding the role of policing in the initiation of those riots were eventually incorporated into the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 and into the practices of the Metropolitan Police. Lord Scarman and his report were a good thing and Gene's failure to recognise this is a key part of his backwards facing understanding of the world.
The conservative nostalgia reading of the two series is rather more complicated. It begins with a reading of Gene Hunt as a tonic to the so called political correctness of our age. In this reading Gene is the key figure and not Sam or Alex and his 'unreconstructed' views and behaviours are read as an affirmation of the bigotry and discrimination of the past. As though Gene were the heroic leader of a movement to 'call a spade a spade' and gloss over the ethnic slur this phrase came to contain. In this reading the BBC have either been conned into broadcasting this heroic illiberalism or have finally started to see sense (neither of these seem all that likely to me).
The next phase of this reading is a form of golden-ageism (i.e. looking back to a time that was better than today) because by some quirk both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes are set at moments of Conservative Party government in Britain. Life on Mars is set during the fag-end of the Heath government and Ashes to Ashes near the beginning of the Thatcher years. In each case viewers with Conservative political inclinations are provided the opportunity to escape to a time when the horrid Labour lot who currently form the government were safely out of office. 1973 is not as effective a setting as 1981 for this golden-age version of the conservative nostalgia reading because Heath never possessed the same cult of personality or the same degree of fanatical devotion that Thatcher did and because Heath was not involved in the transformation of British society during the 1980s that tends to fly under the eponym of Thatcherism regardless of whether it had anything to do with Thatcher and her government's policies or not.
Both parts of this reading can be seen in Matthew d'Ancona's review of Ashes to Ashes in The Spectator; he is politically Conservative and The Spectator has long played a central role in right wing politics in Britain as the house magazine of the Conservative Party (three of its editors in the 20th century went on to become Conservative cabinet ministers).

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Stop Boris! It almost goes without saying

He can't keep his hair out of his eyes.
He can't keep his foot out of his mouth.
He can't keep his **** out of other women.
Just the person to be left in charge of a city as large, powerful, complicated and problematic as London!

This post might not seem to have much to do with reading the media but then hegemony (see the work of Gramsci and Stuart Hall for instance) would be a useful thing to start thinking about Boris with. As would any feminist perspective you could think of (Judith Butler's perhaps).
The approach that most interests me, however, is to consider Boris' participation in our culture of celebrity and what Baudrillard's theories of simulacra & of hyper-reality might tell us about this participation. For Baudrillard simulation - copying - was the key aspect of modern existence because nothing was real and everything was in fact a copy of that which had once been real. The result of this dominance of simulation was the coming into existence of simulacra; simulations that had utterly replaced their now distant and dim originals. Which in turn left us with no access to 'the real' whatsoever. Rather all we can know is the hyper-real; that mediated world of simulacra we can experience through the ubiquitous communication media of our time.
The explosion of the realm of celebrity in our current socio-media world is the perfect example of this. Once celebrity emerged from something else (beauty, notoriety, ability, luck, fortune, etc) and was a property of people. Now celebrity can be manufactured, allocated, and consumed - it is simulated from past models - and has replaced people possessing a particular property with simulacra infused with the simulation of celebrity during the manufacturing process. Celebrities are of course hyper-real as we only know them as media constructs and because of their ubiquity we really do know them. Consider the simularca called 'Jordan' and its counterpart 'Katie Price' and how hyper-real they both are.
Boris then is a simulacra in that he is a simulation of so many duffers and cads from 1950's British cinema (alchemically combined) and our understanding of him is hyper-real in that we know him through the media and only through the media. It may be time to take the red pill, or any other colour, rather than the blue.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Symbolic violence and Stabile update

I have just added some resources on Nick Broomfield's Biggie and Tupac to the stabile of this blog (they can be found under Documentary or just by searching for Biggie and Tupac). The notes deal with a variety of issues but perhaps the most interesting is Bourdieu's concept of symbolic violence.
Symbolic violence is (along with all of the concepts that Bourdieu introduced into sociology; field, habitus, symbolic capital, etc) not the easiest thing to get to grips with; Bourdieu seems to have been rather committed to forcing his readers to think very hard for themselves. One way of thinking about symbolic violence might be to consider it the as the effect of a specific implementation of symbolic power; which Bourdieu defines thus "symbolic power is the power to make things with words" (in his 'Social Space and Symbolic Power', Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Spring, 1989)). This capacity to make things with words is rather more dramatic than this simple statement suggests; social groups and identities are after all made with words. Symbolic power is then the power to define, label, categorise, and thus control. It is the power to determine the way people are thought of and spoken of even by themselves.
Symbolic violence is the application of this symbolic power in a directed fashion against individuals and groups. The way in which Catherine Tate's 'Lauren Cooper' and Little Britain's 'Vicky Pollard' have been used to label, define and categorise poor young females in recent times and the way in which those categorisations are used against individuals and the entire social formation these characters stand for (are the synecdoche of). It is this use that is the symbolic violence in this case.
A useful wider discussion can be found in the chapter on Bourdieu in Angela McRobbie's very useful The
Uses of Cultural Studies
(London: Sage, 2005)
.

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