Wednesday, 19 November 2008


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.


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 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.


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).





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.


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.



Common Sense

Moral Panic


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.


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 –




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