Friday, 6 November 2009

"Is that really true or is it just something theory dreamt up": The Death of The Author and Student Media Analysis

One of the key problems of teaching media studies is that to many students are naive and inflexible realists and intentionalists. That is to say that their first question of any media text is 'what did the author mean?'. This is understandable but irritating. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism tend to be some of the last things that students encounter because the more basic issues, concepts and theories have to be in place before they can start grappling with the denser theoretical issues.

One of the most important realisations necessary for media (& cultural) studies is that authors and their intentions are secondary concerns (or more likely utterly unimportant). There are several reasons for this but they are best (first) summed up by Roland Barthes (Foucault's analysis of the problem would be the next step).

For Barthes (and thus for us) the problem of the author emerges out of the great insights of Structuralism. Levi-Struass, Propp, Todorov, and Barthes himself (amongst many others) showed that there were deep underlying structures in human societies and cultures that were universal; they appeared every where there were humans. These universal structures were also present in narratives; plot elements, character types, discourses, etc, are distributed across and are to be found in all societies & cultures. It follows from this that 'authors' are everywhere only re-figuring and/or re-arranging pre-existing elements rather than creating 'new' things ex nihilo.

More importantly still it follows that the theoretical insights we apply - from semiotics, structuralism, etc, - are more important than authorial intention because they concern themselves with context and reception and 'authors' do not.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Convolute N: The Arcades Project & Method

James Kennell and I have started to post about Convolute N of The Arcades Project on our project blog. This Convolute is concerned with Benjamin's methodology and epistemology and is thus a central concern for us. We hope to post some more on it over the next little while.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Texts as 'surfaces'

In media studies we use the literary and cultural studies term 'text' to refer to the objects we study (e.g. TV shows, dvds, games, dress and its codes, fashion, adverts, photographs, websites and the internet, films, music, radio, newspapers & magazines, etc) because we approach them through 'reading' and because they possess the same 'woven' structure ('texture'?) of human construction as written texts (i.e. novels).  The problem arises from the metaphorical depth we ascribe to these objects.  We can talk of how something is 'embedded' in the text or 'projects' from it as though it was a fully three dimensional object with lumps and bumps.  This is of course not the case in reality (almost none of the 'texts' we study can be considered to have much in the way of actual physical depth to them) but this seeming paradox is easily removed when we remember that we are using these terms and ideas metaphorically.  The language of media studies (and of cultural and literary studies in general) is highly metaphorical and we need to get to grips with this often very loosely structured use of language.
The 'surface' metaphor is a useful place to start.  All texts have a physical surface (on which they are printed, projected or displayed or from which they are read or decoded; i.e. the difference between a page or screen and the media of a DVD) but that is not what we are concerned with here (although the shiny surfaces of modern media are interesting and have attracted attention) rather we need to deal with the metaphorical sense in which texts (another metaphor after all) are 'surfaces'.
Firstly, this metaphor reminds us that there is nothing behind the text.  The text is brought into existence by social forces and practices and through certain technologies but these are not its foundations or history.  Rather the text is an expression of these social forces and objects and they surround the text as a scaffold rather than buttress it from behind or found it from below.  Second, the metaphor is used to remind us that there are many intersections and points of contact between these surfaces - as there is between the surfaces of bubbles in a foam. Thirdly, the surface metaphor showes us that our relationship with the text as its audience is not really with the text but rather with the social forces and pattern of connexions that it represents and/or stands for.  Finally the idea of texts as surfaces indicates the representational nature of these objects.   All texts are built  up from and in a sense only consist of representations and by conceptualising texts as surfaces we bring paintings, photographs, screens and mirrors to mind when we analyse them.

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Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Ideology of Now! Ashes to Ashes, George Gently and the anti-golden age.

In Ashes to Ashes, its predecessor Life on Mars, and the newly established George Gently, there is a very powerful negative presentation of the past relative to now. The casual and institutionalised racism, misogyny, homophobia and violence of the police forces of 1982 in Ashes to Ashes & 1973 in Life on Mars are set before us to show clearly pointedly and deliberately that the reforms and changes that the police force & (as they are the synecdoche of society by implication [or should that be 'by connotation']) we have gone through were for the better. That our society now is better because although it is still bigoted and violent it is not as bigoted and violent as it was in earlier decades and that this was achieved through a worthwhile struggle is something to be cheered and there is a certain chorus of approval for our world (for now) in Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars [see here for a fuller analysis].
There is a similar but more legally focused version of this trumpeting of NOW in George Gently. The law is especially criticised in Gently; the death penalty [effectively ended in 1965], the criminalisation of suicide [ended in 1961], the criminalisation of abortion [until 1967] and the legal frameworks of parentage and child protection have all been criticised in this current series and all through the 'ideology of now'.
The problem of this use of the 'ideology of now' to criticise the past and reflect on the strongly negative aspects of the police and the criminal justice system is how closely it is patterned after the trope of 'inoculation' that we find in one of Roland Barthes' more intriguing mythologies; Operation Margarine.
To instil in the Established Order the complacent portrayal of its drawbacks has nowadays become a paradoxical but incontrovertible means of exalting it. Here is the pattern of this new-style demonstration: take the established value which you want to restore or develop, and first lavishly display its pettiness, the injustices it produces, the vexations to which it gives rise, and plunge in into its natural imperfection; then, at the last moment, save it in spite of itself, or rather by the heavy curse of its blemishes.
Barthes is very clear in this short mythology that 'a little confessed evil' is a powerful means of occluding something really rather worse. Mythologies was first published (in France) in 1957 and Barthes has a range of contemporary cultural works in mind - including From Here to Eternity's inoculating representation of the army as an institutionally brutal entity - but this trope is not a thing of the past as we can see from its use by the TV shows under consideration here. Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes both inoculate the police not just by acknowledging the bigotry and violence of the Police but also by pushing it back into the past; leaving our 'now' cleansed of this little evil. This double inoculation is also found in George Gently where it is the bigotry and violence of the law that is treated to the ideology of now.
In both cases the inoculation, already a subtle ideological instrument, is doubled by the use of the past as a dumping ground of acknowledged evils. It is, therefore, worth making doubly sure we know what we are looking for. So let us finish with Barthes recapitulation of this trope from the final section (Myth Today) of Mythologies:

The inoculation. I have already given examples of this very general figure, which consists in admitting the accidental evil of a class-bound institution the better to conceal its principal evil. One immunizes the contents of the collective imagination by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil; one thus protects it against the risk of a generalized subversion. This liberal treatment would not have been possible only a hundred years ago. Then, the bourgeois Good did not compromise with anything, it was quite stiff. It has become much more supple since: the bourgeoisie no longer hesitates to acknowledge some localized subversions: the avant-garde, the irrational in childhood, etc. It now lives in a balanced economy: as in any sound joint-stock company, the smaller shares--in law but not in fact-- compensate the big ones.

P.S. for some other media tropes see here and for a good institutional reading of the current series of Ashes to Ashes see here (with some audience numbers here).

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Arcades & Promenades

James Kennell (of Hyper, Pessimistic Activism) and I have started a project to read Benjamin's Arcades Project and, eventually, study the Promenades of the British Seaside.  Read all about it.

Staus Symbols of Media Culture

Our media culture, the world of media that we engage with and consume, is replete with status symbols that we can either use or have used against us.  The most obvious are costly media texts (Vogue, The FT, DVD Box Sets, etc) but the volume and form of consumption and the types of media read or consumed are also indicative of social status and the great game of status competition.
Status competition is a deadly serious game and one that is impossible to avoid.  You may not seek to participate in the game of status but that does not prevent others situating you in their games and treating you (poorly or well) accordingly.  In fact it is impossible to escape being classified by others and even the act of active rejection of classification on your part in effect classifies (into those who classify and those who do not (you)) and is therefore the ultimate act of status completion; 'I do not participate in status competition' is the claim of those who consider their status in the field in question to be so far beyond the others around them as to be axiomatic.
Media status competition is a question (following Bourdieu) not just of the volume of media consumed but of the composition of that media.  The volume of media consumption will position an individual in the great game of distinction but may not necessarily always afford a high position in the hierarchy of that game.  Indeed massive and conspicuous consumption of media can be stigmatised and stigmatising rather than distinguishing.  On the level of display this conspicuous consumption of media (through really substantial multi-channel TV subscriptions [especially through dedicated film & sport subscriptions], high bandwidth broadband contracts, expensive mobile phones on expensive monthly contract terms, possession of expensive new media equipment [especially the very wide screen TV], etc) is concerned with display of access to resources (economic capital) and not with social/cultural capital.  It can therefore be used to denigrate those who enact this media-potlatch by those with surplus socio-cultural capital.  This is to say that a strategy of distinction can be mobilised by those of high socio-cultural capital against those of equal (or greater) economic capital who have less socio-cultural capital.  The very display that equates to successful distinction in one field of status competition can be a failing strategy in another.  This is very easy to imagine simply by considering the cultural position of Premiership Football.  Football does not hold a position in the high reaches of the cultural life of England but TV access to it requires just the media-potlatch under discussion; dedicated multi-channel TV equipment (not Freeview) and special (and expensive) subscriptions.
It is this antagonism between groups with different amounts of cultural capital (even if the total volume of capital is equal the unequal composition will come into play) that leads to denigration of the media (and thus cultural) choices of those people located in the lower parts of the cultural hierarchy (of the "they live in council houses but can afford satellite television..." type).  As the lower reaches of the cultural capital hierarchy are, typically, also the lower reaches of the economic capital hierarchy this competition leads to the enactment of symbolic violence against that lower capital volume part of society.  The least powerful feel the double effect of the actual violence of low economic capital (the choice of the necessary) and the symbolic violence of low socio-cultural capital; they have less and are made to suffer shame and disgrace for that lack.
As our society utilises a 'capitalist' mode of resource allocation (i.e. rationing by power of resources) it only notices persons with a certain capital volume and is uninterested in the rest of society and so those who lack and are made to suffer for that lack are not represented by our media and so suffer the final annihilation of not existing in our media society.  The absence of the poor from our media landscape is a brutal expression of the brutality of our social formation.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The Missing The Point Society

The Royal Society of Chemistry have generated great deal of 'news' coverage for their Solve The Italian Job Competition without ever noticing what a horrible display of ignorance of socio-cultural matters in general this represents. The end of The Italian Job is left open to afford the slight possibility that the team get away with the loot because such a possibility was a radical departure from the previously strongly imposed conventions on crime not being allowed to pay. The contrast between the conclusion of The Italian Job (1969) and the conclusions of the great English comedy-heists of a slightly earlier generation [e.g. Two Way Stretch (1960), The League of Gentlemen (1960), The Lady Killers (1955)] could not be clearer. Fictional criminals were not allowed to profit from their crimes because the hegemonic-ethic of society was utterly opposed to such an outcome. So what is breathtaking about the literal cliffhanger ending of The Italian Job is the audacious playing with the ethical conventions of the heist movie not the unstable physical mechanics of the bus (which of course do not exist being just a plot device and an effect of the composition of the text of the film). The inability to recognise that there are no physics to discuss but that there are interesting things about society and culture to consider - not least the extremely nationalistic ideology of the text (which is only slightly undercut by the ironic composition of this nationalistic framework) - suggests an absolute (and deliberate) ignorance of literary studies and theory and of socio-cultural studies and theory more generally. As an approach to media culture it is very reminiscent of the poor deluded fools who try to establish scientific rationales for the 'events' 'reported' in the Bible and other holy works (the ten plagues as side-effects of volcanic activity, the deluge as memory of the formation of the Bosphorus, the star of Bethlehem as comet or nova or both) as though there were a necessary reason for those things to actually have happened.
What is particularly galling about this is that the standards they set for other peoples knowledge and understanding of science are reject by them when it comes to their dealings with other fields of knowledge (e.g. their fear of The Flintstones).
The RSocChem are not alone in this as Sense About Science and the rest of the 'science-communication-industry' are equally guilty of this hypocritical hectoring foolishness when it comes to knowledge of fields of enquiry and understanding beyond their own borders. If we consider Sense About Science's annual pop at celebraty ignorance of science we can see this deliberate ignorance of other fields of knowledge quite clearly.
Consider the following two examples.
First, Delia Smith is disturbingly, praised for keeping out of the politics of food (i.e. GM) but castigated for considering over indulgence in sugar to be a problem and suggesting excluding it from ones diet. The SaS response to this is remarkable and worth quoting in full

Lisa Miles, senior nutrition scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

“Delia, you’ll never get rid of sugar from the diet, nor would you want to, as you consume sugars naturally in many foods such as fruit and milk, which provide us with important nutrients. Also, the causes of obesity are much more complex. Although you’re right, in so far as that if you have too many foods/drinks with high levels of added sugar, it can upset the balance of a healthy diet.”

Note the 'ontological gerrymandering' at the begin of the second line in the move from the cooking term 'sugar' to the nutrition science term 'sugars'. The deliberate transition from singular to plural transforms the meaning of the words. Although these words are connected they do not posses the same meaning here and are, indeed, not even members of the same family resemblance. 'Sugar' here has been used to mean sucrose processed from the plant Sugar Cane and used as an ingredient in cooking - as we would expect from a famous cook. Whereas 'Sugars' has been used to indicate water-soluble carbohydrates - as we would expect from a nutrition scientist. There is a fundamental difference between the two uses of these words and there is no sense in which SaS's criticism of Delia is meaningful. It is not the case that this is ignorance of Wittgenstein on the part of SaS rather it is a wilful display of ignorance of cooking on the part of SaS and there is simply no ignorance of science on the part of Delia Smith to be discussed. Consider what a culinary disaster it would be if you asked a member of the SaS team to pass you the salt when cooking as they would have to pass you some salts; the combination of Lead Diacetate and Copper Sulphate sounds particularly yummy!
Second, we have this gem of wilful ignorance;

It’s unusual to hear celebrities talking about maths, but science sells and Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 is so famous that it even makes a cool album title. Mariah Carey explained her choice of an equation as her latest album title by clarifying that it stood for “emancipation equals Mariah Carey times two”. Dr David Leslie, mathematician “Unfortunately, Mariah has misread the algebra. The two in the equation means c squared, not mc multiplied by two. The correct reading of the equation is E=mcc, so perhaps Mariah's re-interpretation should have been “Emancipation equals Mariah Carey Carey”? I would have been very happy to chat with her and check it out before she went to print.”

There is so much that is outrightly silly about this statement and it displays such blindness to other fields of knowledge that at first I assumed this was some kind of ironic piss taking of Sense About Science's communication project. Now I am forced to accept that this was sincerely meant. I look forward to Dr Leslie giving Garrison Keillor a good talking to about the impossibility of all the children of Lake Wobegon being 'above average' and slapping the producers of Lynx deodorant silly for claiming that the mere act of addition makes women undergo forced and immediate chimerism! The sign in question has marketing effectiveness because it is an icon of the modern world and is immediately recognisable to almost everyone. Their is no 'misreading' of this equation because it is not an composite entity in this case but one icon. In mathematics the five individual components are meaningful as an assemblage whereas in marketing or semiotic terms this is but one whole iconic entity.
The problem of this is that all of the fields of knowledge and understanding essential to communication are deliberately ignored by the professional communicators of scientific knowledge and understanding; which is a useful starting point for a discussion of irony.


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