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.


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