1. 20040202

Garnham provides an extraordinarily complete survey of Media Theory and while he characterizes his work as a polemic, his actual arguments are very nuanced adjustments among the many “on the one hand ... and then on the other” discussions within his exposition. He relies heavily upon Habermas and I find few disagreements – having only read Habermas myself for the first time last week. The one criticism I did find was on pages 35/36:

“The problem with this [Habermas] perspective in my estimation is that it is built upon an a historical theory of alienation which in its turn it based upon and a historical theory of human essence which is in some way lost either, depending upon a theory, and the process of labour or in the process of linguistically based communication or through repression within the unconsciousness.” (35)

Garnham's concern is that we are social creatures (this is our essence) and that the form of modern social organization is not necessarily completely bad: it is of inter-related gains and losses, the necessary condition for greater ranges of social possibilities and difference, a higher level of social discipline and individuality and reflexivity. It should not be accepted uncritically, but it should not be rejected out of hand either.

First, for instance, the problem with Habermas' theory of communicative action and the historical account of the development and the re-feudilization of the public sphere on which it rests, is that, in spite of this attempt to escape from the problematic of alienation and ratification of the a theory of communicative rationality and the life world, the language of colonization and a distorted communication so reproduces the original way of setting up the problem. (36)

Re-feudilization is a return to the times when the rulers performed for the public, without comment or discussion with that public. In my estimation, this criticism of Habermas is slight. Habermas went in an admirable direction with respect to the public-sphere, but Garnham is perhaps disappointed that Habermas hasn't completely broken with the first generation of the Frankfurt school to the extent that Garnham would like? Garnham prefers a bio-evolutionary basis (see p.3/4, 22/23) for historical development - as do I – over the brilliant but rant-ish missives of Adorno and Horkeimer in "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception"

  1. 20040209

Arvind Rajagopal permits us to consider the relationship of media to a larger socio-political context. Yet, from Negt (24), Rajagopal argues this relationship is not easily reducible because a critical theory of media can't have media at its center because there are no generalizable (nomothetic) patterns. I'm not yet convinced of this argument and its implications but will continue to consider it during out discussions. However, I did immediately take to a related point made by Rajagopal: media doesn't, simply, reflect or cause events, it participates in them (31).

In the case of the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its program to raze the Babri mosque, Rajagopal argues that the role played by the media was to bridge a “split public” at a particularly sensitive moment. The televised Hindu epic, the Ramayan, was a flash-point in the tension filled dissonances arising from a vernacular working-class Hindi majority, and the secular English speaking Nehruvian technocracy, in the long-standing context of Muslim co-existence. Rajagopal argues that TV can be viewed as a system of representation that creates new circuits of exchange between a split public, casting existing terms of translation and the bourgeoisie public sphere into a crisis (148). TV set a context and foregrounded latent opportunities that were further reified in the Hindu and English print newspapers. From our class discussions of Habermas, it's interesting to note that this concept of a “split public” is offered as an improvement upon the “public sphere” which Rajagopal finds lacking because it tends to homogeneitize the subject of analysis. He argues this confers too much attention upon the autonomy of the elite and the subaltern politics, this can be misleading as it attributes a spurious sovereignty to the latter, and thus fails to explain the political constitution of a subaltern public (25). However, I'm not confident I completely understand this argument and would appreciate further discussion.

Finally, given we read Mauss last semester, I appreciated the argument that TV imparts intimacy without any social obligations or reciprocation.

  1. 20040216

In The Reality of Mass Media Niklas Luhman presents a theory of media predicated on a definition of information as novelty. The utility of this definition is that it permits him to describe the self-reflexive autopoietic character of media systems and their reliance on difference. This model is then applied to the “programs” of news/in-depth reporting, advertising, and entertainment.

This “difference” is a common motif through his dialectic-like conceptualizations of information/non-information, self/other, and system/environment. What I find useful about this definition of information is that it does speak to its self-exhausting character: once something is known, it's no longer information, but a form of cultural “memory” (65) which is then taken for granted in common discourse – this might provide a useful definition of “mainstream.” When applied to his programs, he uses this exhaustive character and consequent need for novelty to explain the programs of advertising (whereby the trends of fashion ensures that “even ridiculousness can be nullified ...” (48)), entertainment (and its self-produced surprises and self-constructed tensions (54)), and news/in-depth reporting wherein he provides a laundry list of “selectors” including surprise, conflict, and norm violation (28).

Given our continuing conversation on the public sphere, I noted his definition that public is outside all system boundaries and therefore must be represented in forms of constructed reality (105). And while Lumen's theory is very much grounded in a form of social constructivism, is he a complete nominalist/subjectivist? I'm not sure, and even where he does seem to be, I have some concerns. For example, he argues that mass media is not a consensual construction of social reality (68) because of the differences of opinion found therein. But doesn't this contradict his theory of cultural memory? And what of the many theorists would argue that despite perfunctory debate there is a dominant social reality (e.g., Chomsky's “manufacturing consent,” Hall's “dominant meanings,” or Gramsci's “hegemony”)?

Finally, I found these definitions from the Principia Cybernetic Web to be of use:

AUTOPOIESIS

the process whereby an organization produces itself. An autopoietic organization is an autonomous and self-maintaining unity which contains component-producing processes. The components, through their interaction, generate recursively the same network of processes which produced them. An autopoietic system is operationally closed and structurally state determined with no apparent inputs and outputs. A cell, an organism, and perhaps a corporation are examples of autopoietic systems.

AUTONOMY

the condition of subordinating all changes to the maintenance of the organization. Self-asserting capacity of living systems to maintain their identity through the active compensation of deformations. (Maturana and Varela, 1979)

  1. 20030101

Maryann contends that Marx's theory is a revolutionary one and asks about the revolutionary potential in Bourdieu's work. First, I would argue that Marx is not revolutionary, though I realize I'm contesting a great deal of tradition. In my limited understanding of Marx, change was a consequent of the internal forces of the capitalistic mode of production; he did not dwell on the methods necessary to speed along capitalist destruction nor did he bother to theorize how the Communist society would work.

Consequently while the Marxist tradition likes to see itself as a revolutionary body of work, I contend that there are two problems. First, like Marx, any prediction of the future is as likely as any other. Second, I doubt the potential of theoretical treatments that provide little traction for effecting real change in the world.

Consequently. When I read Bourdieu and he does not make pepper his work with revolutionary verbiage I am actually relieved. How might change be achieved then? Proponents of change must achieve the dominant position within the fields in which they operate. How do they accomplish that? By contesting the others power within that field according to its logic. (Or may, in time, change the logic/boundaries!)

So just as Bourdieu cautions against taking his theory, or any other, divorced from empirical conditions, if you wish to understand the way to change media for the better, we would have to look at that specific field and could not derive much understanding the abstract theory.

However, as an aside, I'll note that while Bourdieu has encouraged folks to look at theory and practice at the same time most of my readings of Bourdieu is rather abstract theory. Perhaps this is just because this is what is on the reading lists of my classes.

I'll also offer a few questions of my own.

On page 67 Bourdieu seems to argue that reflexivity provides an escape rrom the historicist cycle, but is this just another loop, as we briefly touched on in the last class?

What do folks make of the concept of homology? I understand that is a resemblance with a difference. This is used in a way that I did not quite understand, and particularly in opposition to the concept of autonomy.

  1. 20030308

I wish to raise three concerns with Bourdieu that revolve around the question of to what extent does his political, or otherwise personal, biases effect the theory of cultural fields. For example, Bourdieu clearly values the autonomy of the journalistic and academic fields because of the particular circumstances of those fields and his own position within them. Yet Benson (1998:465) writes that, "A fields autonomy is to be valued because it provides the preconditions for the full creative process property each field and alternately resistance to the ‘symbolic of violence’ exerted by the dominant system of heirarchization." Yet, there is research (Barki Hartwick 1994, Levina 2003) that indicates pluralistic and multi-disciplinary interaction contributes significantly to the quality and innovative character of work.

Second, the term field theory is often conflated with its actual application. For instance, if one were to say that field theory predicts something (e.g. their readers appear in homologous positions in different fields) with respect to Le Monde or The New York Times are, we not confusing the general theory with its application which must be dependent on the empirical study?

Finally, to what extent does field theory contaminated with personal bias fail to capture salient characteristics of the phenomena studied? For example Bourdieu's concern with autonomy leads him to criticize the "Fast thinker/talker" character of televised media. Are there any benefits to this media? Granted, after a fair and careful assessment one might come to the conclusion that they are not worth the detriments, but I feel much is being lost by relying solely upon Bourdieu’s theory.

To be fair, I very much appreciated Benson's comparison of field theory with Marxism, hegemony, technological, political, organizational, and cultural theory. Each of these have their own biases; but I wonder to what extent anyone has been able to use for dose theory to propose a finding or that is contrary to Bourdieu's own biases?

One such application might be the effects of blogs in the journalistic field. in one sense they are destroying the boundaries and autonomy of the journalistic field via their pervasive and accessible popularity. In another sense, they are challenging the dominance of the commercial journalistic marketplace. So in considering this case, to reduce the analysis relative to produce own horse sense of the journalistic field, or to the present field that he laments?

In any case, perhaps I'm been most critical because, so far, this theory is a one that appears to be most promising to me.

Barki, H. and J. Hartwick (1994). "User Participation, Conflict, and Conflict-Resolution - the Mediating Roles of Influence." Information Systems Research 5(4): 422-438.

Levina, N. "Collaborative Practices in Information Systems Development: A Collective Reflection-in-Action Framework," 23rd International Conference on Information Systems, Barcelona, Spain, 2002.

Baker

Perhaps because of my own policy background I very much enjoyed this text. Like Sam, Baker presents a number of arguments that would have been useful to me in the past, and which I will certainly employ in the future. What is so refreshing about this book is that it debunks the overly simplified market/libertarian arguments usually presented in a economic/instrumentalized fashion with straight forward arguments that anyone, including economists, can understand. (I would very much like to see this text reviewed by free-market proponents though I can find very little critical comments on this book whatsoever.)

While I was reading the book I was placing what I was learning in the context of examples about the Internet and blogs. Consequently, the fact that he provides a postscript on Internet and digital technologies was an extra bonus! In particular, he addresses the question of whether why and voluntary content creation on the behalf of digital music, video, or journalistic production is significant:

"The new technologies expand the universe of people offering information, opinion, and other communicative contents to strangers. They may empower "volunteers ," unpaid individuals who construct Web pages and create content solely out of a desire to create, report, and communicate, whether for personal expressive, political, charitable, or more nearly self-interested reasons.... nevertheless, to the extent these volunteers with pages or postings are no more read than were the earlier leaflets when distributed on streetcorners, the fact that they now can self-published makes less difference than they often naively hope" (Baker 286).

He identifies four ways in which these new tools can change what consumers and citizens receive: digital technologies reduced the cost of copying and delivering content; they can reduce the difficulty of finding materials; they can reduce the costs of media producers in assembly and synthesizing inputs; and digital technologies can reduce the bottlenecks and gatekeepers related to distribution. Yet, as he showed in earlier chapters there are economic scenarios in which more content can displace less but better content, "Many people would experience a net loss if they deemed access to hundreds of randomly selected streetcorner speakers (or the speakers with pages) but lost access to the York Times" (289).

He also asks the much-discussed question of whether the cost of investigative journalism can be born by volunteers; this is yet to be seen. Furthermore, citing Sunstein's evidence (Republic.com) he notes that when people discuss an issue with those of a like mind there positions become more extreme; this can lead to a segmentation and radicalization of the public. Baker also notes that even with much content, the concentration of "hits" will fall on a limited number of sites (preferential attachment). And one of the more interesting results of his analysis is that content itself can become more generic even though there are more outlets: "If the only way to write a letter is by hand, the norm would be individualized letters. But if copy costs are negligible, the temptation increases to send the same letter to multiple "friends" (292). This tendency was what led me to start one of my own blogs: instead of sending many personal emails to my family and friends while traveling I began to create one report and then slightly customize it, eventually I abandoned even this and instead created travel scenes and blog entries.

20040329

In my notes for Monday's class identified some of the substantive contributions and questions I have with his proposals. Today, I’m going to be somewhat critical of the book in general.

While the text is well and clearly written, I found it frustrating in that for the first half I kept thinking, "OK, so you are drawing (relatively minor) distinctions with existing disciplines , but give me a hint of your proposal or an example the problem." He never does until the third part of the book, which is a complete let-down. Perhaps, to people interested in this topic the distinctions he draws are worthwhile, but I feel that this book could have been written in a quarter of the pages it presently uses.

If anything, this book, for me, is demonstrative of the challenges in the dissertation project. I've now read a few post-dissertation books and find that two of the challenges are in genuinely linking the theory with the findings, and hopefully having interesting findings. I don’t feel Lembo accomplished either, though I certainly can’t fault him for the effort.

20040405

This week's readings are reminiscent of our discussion of Stoller's "The Taste Of Ethnographic Things" from last semester. Like Stoller, Geertz -- borrowing from Gilbert Ryles’ concept of "thick description" -- seemingly advocates for ethnographic analysis that attempts to discern meaning, not simply a surface description, within a social context. I appreciate Geertz's pragmatic position that ethnographic description is an interactive process describing and interpreting meaning, that, "Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete" (29). However, he does not address the question of how that iterative process works. In an interpretivist tradition what metrics do we use to judge the validity of the work?

 

A common question throughout the readings was, what is culture? Geertz notes that culture has been defined as a self-contained "super-organic" reality with forces and purposes of its own, a pattern of behavioral events in some identifiable community, or that culture is located in the minds and hearts of men. Geertz seems to prefer Goodenough’s definition that, “ a society's culture consists of whatever one has to know for believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members" (11). I find that definition overly functionalistic and static. Improbably most sympathetic to a formalistic definition in which culture is simply social information.

 

Yet, most of the reasons did not concern themselves with theoretical questions, but of how cultural analysis is used with respect to "foreign" societies: including Latin advertising and Tibetan activism in America, and movie theaters in Niger. I enjoyed the Latin and Tibetan articles because they demonstrated the sensitivity of the context. The “meaning” of the Dali Lama as associated with celebrities, and the irony that the construction of the Hispanic market is that for it to remain authentic and ready for mass consumption the Latino population is presented as an external or recently incorporated segment of the U.S. population. This then has interesting ramifications wherein darker Latinos are presented in U.S. advertising because “Hispanic advertising still responds to the social hierarchies that subordinate Latinos in this country and is still predicated on the need to project positive images, leading it to rely on the same cliches of the good, traditional,not-too-dark/not-too-light Latino who, against the always-present specter of Anglo culture, still dominates their commercial representation” (276). But in Latin cultures, the social hierarchies are different there, resulting in different images/advertising.

20040412

I will briefly note the similarity into of this week's readings.

Both Joyrich and Laplace comment on consumerism in the feminist context. For Joyrich, television has been feminized to the benefit of the dominant socio-economic structures in the U.S. in general and the TV industry specifically. She argues that this feminization is intimately tied to consumerism via the advertisement of lifestyle products. Consequently, the feminization of the TV viewer relates to the “women's role as a primary consumer.” However, she is arguing that this does not make television feminist, "… broadcasters and advertisers are first and foremost concern with increasing ratings and sales rather than with promoting a particular social and sexual relations ..." (40).

For Laplace, consumerism is one of three lenses by which she considers a character in the film Now, Voyager. In this case, the character Charlotte Vale is repressed and neurotic because she fails to engage with consumerism: "The primary sign that she is ‘sick’ is the way she looks: dowdy, overweight, ungroomed and un-madeup; it is a source, as well as a symptom, of her neurosis" (141). So, again femininity is dependent upon conformant behavior if in the consumer context.

This theme is also present in Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth : How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women.” However, one of the implications of that text is that there is no innate predisposition of “femininity” towards consumerism. Consumerism sells. So to the extent that any unhappiness, including that which derives from non-conformance with a socially constructed gender, can allegedly be mitigated by a product, advertising will seek to a exaggerate that unhappiness.

20040419

This semester I have had the opportunity to do a fair amount of reading about technological determinism (hard, soft, symptomatic, social constructivist, user heuristic, nomological, natural, unintended consequences, etc.), social structuration, the social construction of technology and interpretive flexibility, hard and soft determinism, and theories of causality. Consequently, armed with all of this knowledge one would think when approaching the question of McLuhan's stance I would have a rather straightforward answer.

However, after having the opportunity to read McLuhan, I would offer that he is not so much a determinist as simple the fund-nuanced. He makes a number of claims (probe's) and resists any global framework for his pronouncements. Hence, my reading is that he is likely to make many statements in a rather bold fashion, and most of the statements are about technology, and he is subsequently read as being a technological determinist.

For example, he holds the development of printing as a responsible factor for nationalization and industrialism (Playboy 243). And the personal and social are the dependent variable: "This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium -- that is, of any extension of ourselves -- result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (Medium Is The Message 151).

Yet, he also writes, “unfortunately, no society in history has ever known enough about the forces that shape and transform it to take action to control and direct new technologies as they extend and transform man" (Playboy 266). and while unintended consequences are sometimes thought as an argument for non-determinism, in this case again probably be read as a technological determinism that exceeds all human/social control.

But he also claims that, "of course, packages will be obsolete in a few years. People will want tactile experiences, they'll want to feel the product they're getting" (Wolf 1996:2). And I don’t know whether it would be appropriate to label him as a anti-package-ist.

20040503

What an elegant book! (Both the design/binding and the text.) Unfortunately, and perhaps it is silly of me to complain of such a thing, I thought to myself while reading, "Ugh, another book about television." While I certainly appreciate being able to look at specific electronic media much of the work on this topic which I've read seems quite dated -- and I suppose that shouldn't be surprising as this is seminal literature dating from the '60s and '70s.

In any case, I found my own retrospective reading of Williams's predictions to be interesting -- perhaps even more so than with McLuhan. I suppose Williams's playing his predictions closer to his chest: extrapolating from changes that are already material to a future only a decade or two away.

In particular, I appreciated his discussion of (nince) versions of cause and effect in technology and society discourse: that the power of the medium altered all proceeding media, institutions and social relationships, perceptions of reality, and the scale and form of society; it results in unforeseen consequences, and centralization; and it beget a domestic consumer economy, psychological inadequacy, a complex but atomized society.

And then, he makes some of these causal arguments himself in the concluding chapters with respect to the technical and institutional trajectory of television with an argument that we must make the right decisions for our society; of course, some of his concerns have been realized including media concentration and monopoly, the confusion of choice with freedom, the absence of local community, etc. That's a rather sad realization.

Finally, a question I would have for class discussion is about the importance of intention for Williams' analysis. Granted, not considering the motives of actors in an analysis would leave much of this story untold, but it also approaches that murky realm of the trading to malice that which might simply be incompetence -- something that I think cultural critics are very much prone to.