Bringing Things to Conclusion

So, we are approaching the end of the term; time for us to think in larger themes, talk in generalities, draw some conclusions.

Let’s begin where we ended. Tuesday we addressed narrative and genre. These are obviously linked, though distinct areas. As I indicated in the lecture, they exist at both the levels of form and content. As content, they are amenable to analysis vis-a-vis media (form). As such, we can begin to think about how content connects with/is facilitated by/activates form.

Thus, in this article that I mentioned in class, we see the recent rise of a particular narrative device in porn (incest). While a narrative device (an excuse for/way of packaging sex), it serves as a sub-genre within the porn genre–itself a certain genre of media content. The media touched by this genre include film, anime, comics, and fiction (at a minimum). Whether the narrative occurs identically or operates equally well in all (media forms) is an empirical question (i.e. a matter for investigation and demonstration).

Okay, now that we have the sex out of the way, let’s think a bit more about how narrative and genre fit where we’ve come from and where we are heading.

You know the basic parameters at this point: we began with the question of “reality” and how reality is represented. The mediations (i.e. the media through which reality is passed and the way that reality is presented by media) can be various, as can the angles by which we inspect and evaluate them; so, too, the interpretations of their activity and effect. The outer limit of this discursive thread is the fabrication of reality.

This theme was introduced in innocence, we could say, with the notion that flames created flickering shadow-images on a wall, reflecting unintentional distortions in our minds. We then discussed how the rise (particularly in this past election cycle) of intentional distortions (i.e. “fake news”) were fed through various media to conjure an “alternative set of facts” or an “alternative reality”. Some of this was simply a discussion of content, however, the way that media operate (i.e. its ontology) also had impacts on how knowledge was transmitted and received. Hence, media had a role in social outcome.

The final step in this fabrication of reality is fleshed out in the work of Baudrillard (one of our readings this week and a point of lecture/discussion in our coming class). The notion we are particularly interested in is “simulation”. His idea, in a nutshell, is that something is created from nothing–a fiction is brought to life as a real thing, upon which other real things (thoughts, rules, human action, etc.) occur. As evidence, we spoke briefly of Disneyland and the book/film/now TV show Westworld. The Matrix is a perfect example of Baudrillard’s concept of “simulacrum” (the thing conjured from whole cloth that takes on a reality all its own)–for those of you familiar with the movie).

While The Matrix is a film and Westworld is a TV show, these are not the only examples. Most common in our everyday lives is “Reality TV”–a perfect example of how a thing that once was nothing more than a logline on a piece of paper, pitched in a production company boardroom, came to take on a life of its own. Producers, directors, cameramen and sound engineers, scriptwriters, caterers, publicists (and more) all assume roles in bringing a story to life. Something actual, in short, is conjured from nothing. Ideas take shape in words and actions, conducted by actual people and communicated to others as if they were real.

There is one more point that should not be lost in our journey from the cave to Disneyland. It is the major role that narrative plays in giving shape to human activity. We have spoken a bit about this in the previous class and, without overstating its relevance, please think about how the tropes of communication and the rhetorical forms that we have developed over the centuries end up shaping the what and how of mediation. Within our communication shorthand (for each medium) are certain fixed, culturally-biased, socially significant “devices” that lead to social outcomes. Some of these are shaped by the medium itself; some are determined by genre; some take the form of narrative. All possess a certain structure and generate certain rules and expectations (depending on these elements of medium, genre and narrative).

So, where does this leave us, as we try to draw to a close?

Think, if you will, about this line from the cave to Disneyland, of representation of reality to actual embodiment of fiction. Think, if you will, of where, in your everyday lives, you see this evolution in representation and reality. Think, as well, of the role of media/mediation. Finally, think of what the consequences of this development have been; where it/they may lead us; by what process(es) and with what effect(s).

Remnant Considerations

Sorry to cut in on the McLuhan discussion (and thank you, Nicholas, for getting a conversation started so early), so take this as an optional diversion.

In sorting through the notes from our last class I came across a couple of questions that I thought worth pulling along with us as we move from MEDIUM FORM through ECOLOGY (and toward AUDIENCE).

The first relates to VISUALITY. It begins with Benjamin’s conception of “OPTICAL UNCONSCIOUS”. Recall that his claim was that photography exposed movements and dimensions of reality hitherto unknown (that is, not acknowledged by perception). This (purportedly) has the effect of overlooking aspects of reality (or perhaps restricting those aspects to the realm of the unconscious). If this is true, thinking about our image-saturated society of today, do you think this idea still holds? Are there aspects of “reality” that often go undetected; that are not retained or perhaps not processed by the person engaging with the medium?

A second point about VISUALITY is inspired by Ong. As you know, his writing focuses our attention on cultures that are predicated on and evolve consistent with ORALITY or LITERACY. The question is what about VISUALITY? Similar to the oral and written, does IMAGE have (any or the same sort of profound) influence on:

  • consciousness
  • communication
  • interaction
  • social organization
  • action

In this way, might we talk about a “CULTURE OF VISUALITY” the way that we discuss a CULTURE OF ORALITY and CULTURE OF WRITING?

Finally, and part of this latter discussion, if PRIMARY ORALITY fosters personality structures that in certain ways are more communal, externalized and less introspective than those common among literates–in short, if oral communication unites people in groups–and if writing and reading are solitary activities that throw the psyche back on itself–what does VISUALITY do? Is it simply a variation on SECONDARY ORALITY, or is it something else entirely? If the latter, does it pose (psychological, social, structural, behavioral, phenomenological, moral) issues that require a different sort of social theorization than Ong forwarded?

Just a few extra possibilities for you to reason through together.

Odds and Ends: Theorizing “False News”, “Digital Aura”, Ong and Hypertext

Driving home from class last night I was replaying our conversations (as I generally do–I hope you all do, to some degree, too!).

One conversation centered on the Time-Out on “theory-testing” versus “theory-building”. I hope it was clear that the “levels of theorization” (macro, middle-range, micro) are (somehow) related to the selection of intellectual strategy: deductive versus inductive. While these are not fully linked/dependent elements, they are not mutually exclusive either.

Hence, if one is operating inductively–selecting evidence of “false news” (whatever that is) or (working perhaps more productively) collecting any news, then seeking to evaluate which bin (“false”, “truthful”) it belongs in–you may be able to work your way up to a middle range theorization (a “system”, say, or an “institution”, for example, or maybe a socio-cultural “milieu”); whether you can get to a macro (i.e. general, total, uniform) level of explanation is less clear/unlikely, but at least you’ve moved from evidence to some sort of “theorization”.

By the same token, I am skeptical that “fake news” can work top-down as a grand/macro theorization (since, it seems more likely evidence of a larger, but different phenomenon). Stated alternatively, while fake news may facilitate testing of some sort of theory regarding media, that theory would seem to be about something larger than fake news, itself. As such, fake news would be the phenomenon, but the architecture or structural dynamics generating that phenomena would likely be something different. In any case, in a theory-testing approach, fake news might be an aspect of this larger something that you would be focusing on as you sought to confirm or reject the hypothesis you had formulated about that larger thing.

So, bottom line, the study of “fake news” may belong in media theorization, but its actual place in/relationship to media theory is less clear.

One thing that I would encourage you all to do, though, is to keep the topic somewhere near the fore of consciousness as we enter the effects, political economy and audience sections of our reading. It ought to gain in both dimension and relevance, moving forward.

Continue reading

Berger, on “The Art of Seeing”

Class ended last night before we could debrief regarding the film we watched: part I of the BBC documentary, The Art of Seeing. I wonder what some of your thoughts/takeaways might have been?

From a pedagogical perspective, my hope is that you could peer beyond the quaint 1970s patterned shirts, flared pants and shaggy hair styles and hear beneath the distracting pops, hisses and crackles of the crude video copy to truly “see”. What did I hope might have come into focus?

  • the idea of decomposing a larger tableaux, for one. Of being able to tell multiple (not necessarily consonant) stories by simply shifting the frame or isolating a particular aspect of content within any single “mediation”.
  • or how about recognizing that an image may speak to us in different ways if it is viewed in silence ; then, again, when viewed accompanied by varying sonorities (narration, a canned soundtrack, electronic compositions, a range of genres from opera to classical/chamber to jazz to pop).
  • how about the idea that the meaning of images (or moving visuals or other media products) can be influenced by the products that are sampled before or after our encounter with them; in short, that there is a “modifier effect” at work when media operate or when their content is processed as part of a larger, connected fabric.
  • consider also the idea that a medium (like a church or a museum) can contain content (like frescoesor, icons or relics), but those contents, themselves, can serve as media for transmitting other messages or abetting other human (social, communication, political, economic) acts. The same is surely true for a device, like the desktop or laptop or tablet or phone that you are currently reading this message on.
  • how about the notion (undoubtedly inspired by Benjamin and reprised in slightly different form by Sontag) that reproduction has stripped works of art of their particular (i.e. individual, unique) character, while investing them with a general (i.e. widely accessible, widely-disseminated) nature, thereby enabling greater consumption, more varied uses and, potentially, even more enormous cultural power?
  • what did you make of the argument (implicit though it was) that interpretation (in the form of the written “authoritative” word) was an impediment–even a block–on sense-making? Were you persuaded by the final segment where adolescents were asked to deconstruct the signs, to decipher denotation and work toward connotation (in ways that seemed to bespeak factors like gender)? Do you suppose, I might then ask, that factors like social class or race or geographical location or political ideology might also end up influencing how one encounters media (i.e. how they “see”, “hear”, “taste”, “smell”, “feel”)?

So, that is a partial list. A good (enough) place to start, I suppose. I am sure there are some points I’ve glossed over or neglected. And I would encourage you to add to the list, if you wish.

But after that, what other steps might you take? Well, perhaps you could critically assess Berger’s claims. For instance, forty years on, do they still hold value? Apply the ideas above to specific cases taken from the sense world surrounding you. How do Berger’s ideas fare? Widen the circle beyond painting . . . are these ideas applicable to other media? Could some of the ideas above be applied to other mediations–other media and their products? And, if so, which ones, in which ways, with what observed results?

You might give that a bit of a go as the week advances. I’d be interested to learn what you discover.

Perhaps we can take this up a bit at the beginning of next Tuesday’s class.

Photography and Border Crossings

Apropos of two discussion points tonight, this photo-essay centers on life along the U.S.-Mexican border 80 years ago.

Given our discussion about capturing and reproducing reality, what are your thoughts? Keeping the Hindenburg discussion in mind (where reality was both captured, but also partially obscured), what do you think might be missing in these images? is there any way to “know” or would it all be speculation? More, to what degree do you think selectivity or framing come into play (i.e. that which is “in-frame” and also that which has been omitted/left “out-of-frame”)? And how, after 80 years, would we be able to know (one way or the other)?

The essay’s accompanying text asserts:

Lange’s images, while uniquely of their time, capture both the recognizable signs of bureaucracy and the timelessness of life on the periphery.

This harks to Carolina’s question about author’s intent. Do you find this (above) interpretation of the photographs persuasive? Or, reflective of our discussion of the recipient’s interpretive power, do you see other messages/ideas present in the photograph’s content.

Finally, do the photographs work as a unity to convey a meaning that departs from any one, in isolation. In short, like a syntagm, do the (photograph-) signs operate collectively as a system of meaning, independent of the individual (photo-) unit present within the paradigm (set)?

Ideology and Utopia

Dear FMS 040ers,

I wanted to apologize (a bit) for (the disorder of) last night–the technical glitches not only interfered with our rhythm, it also influenced our ability to work through the video examples (i.e. the empirical data that was intended to facilitate our epistemological work–to use terms from last night’s lecture). Hopefully, in subsequent classes we won’t have as much environmental interference, so that we can just roll up our sleeves and get stuff done.

So, as you saw (and heard), last night involved a goodly amount of lecture. Just so that you know, that is not my preferred style; but in this course, some amount of lecture is unavoidable. I will try to find ways around it, but (just a head’s up): on certain opaque or else congested topics, it will be unavoidable.

Apologies there, as well.

Anyway, while we are on the subject of the empirical/epistemological interface, if I might make a suggestion . . . perhaps you might care to think though the evidence provided as a means of better mastering it. For instance:

  • how does the Abbott and Costello routine help us process elements like paradigm, syntagm, convention, code, and system?
  • how do the Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders’ political ads help us understand the 3 elements of semiotics: sign, code, culture?
  • what aspects of those political ads help facilitate understanding of concepts associated with semiotics: sign, signification, denotation, connotation, constraint, motivation?
  • are elements from Plato’s allegory–form, representation, reality–discernible?
  • at a more advanced level, how would the Barthes model of connotation be applied to the political ads?

We will do a bit more work on these aspects in class next week (especially Barthes’ model of first and second order connotation)–so, head’s up there. Please feel free to work through some of these points in this space and/or post questions about this on the Wiki to help facilitate our classroom discussion next Tuesday.

One final dimension before closing . . .

Yesterday we identified a few heuristics that we might carry forth in our theorization of media, including:

  1. Plato’s allegory;
  2. Kuhn’s model of scientific (r)evolution; and
  3. Mannheim’s ideology and utopia.

Removing the third heuristic from the realm of theory, can you see specific instances of this dualism play out in the “real world” of experience?

In effect, rather than focusing on the form (theory, itself) do you see evidence of “ideology” and “utopia” at play in content (actual real world thought and action)?

Extra plus bonus points if you can discern evidence of ideology and utopia in media form or content, itself.

If you have thoughts on any of this, we’d all benefit from hearing them!

About the (Dis)Course page

This category (page) is the “obligatory” space; the one where students will be expected to create/moderate/contribute to reading and lecture-related discourse each week.

Note that there are a few roles specified: blog creator/moderator and blog contributor. These roles differ, but one is no less important than the other.

“Blog creator/moderator” are those students (for the moment, given the current class size, usually two per week) who initiate a thread on a topic associated (primarily, in the first instance) with the readings. Past lecture material and/or previous readings may be broached, but the primary intent is to get us all thinking about the current readings. Discussion about lecture material or previous readings may best be diverted to/found in the “Post-Hoc” page.

In order to stay abreast of who is responsible for thread creation each week, students should refer to the “blog leader/creator thread rotation” posted in the “Resources: Course Administration” section of the course website. As intimated above, the rotation may have to be revised during the course of the semester, depending on adds/drops, so consult with the rotation schedule periodically, so as not to be caught off guard.

At a minimum, then, it is anticipated that there will be 2 unique threads per week (although moderators) may choose to create more. ALL students are expected to respond (by writing a reply) to at least one thread per week. Thus, students can anticipate penning between 13 and 26 blog entries during the semester. Obviously, the more threads one contributes to, the more (potential) impact on one’s participation evaluation (although, please note that quality trumps quantity). Students will be asked to keep a record of their posts and replies in one file inside their Dropbox folder on Trunk, in order to facilitate evaluation of their effort at term’s end.

Designated thread leaders are also asked to moderate discussion—which may mean asking for clarification of writers, or seeking to stimulate lagging discussion, or redirecting wayward discourse. How well a week’s conversation transpires is factored into the moderator’s evaluation.

What sort of content is being sought? What topic a moderator selects choose is up to her/him, but it ought to:

  • be reading-centered;
  • make a connection to prior readings and/or class lecture/discussion;
  • incorporate/reference phenomena from the social world (a media production, event, utterance, etc.)

Again, once a post is made, all students are expected to log a response, and the complete thread will likely be touched upon in class, so students should be ready to explain and defend what they have written.

Any questions? Use the comments section (below).

What is this (“Post-Hoc”) page for?

As the name implies, “Post-hoc” is where we turn for further discussion about lectures past.

Not clear about what was discussed?
Have a point that there wasn’t time to address?
Want to suggest further readings or make connections to media products that others may wish to sample (as they pertain to our in-class discourse)?

Here is where that can transpire. If we’re lucky, it won’t only be one student speaking in a vacuum; others will choose to weigh in . . . and from that, so much more may follow.

About the ‘Dicta’ page

This category (page) is the “free” space; the one where students with initiative or simply time to kill hanker to post something related to Media/Theory that may or may not have been on our primary radar. Dicta is not quite dross, but it also may not be on the mainline. It can be a follow-up to a reading, something mentioned in class that (you believe) warrants greater airing, an application one sees between the reading/lecture material and the world outside.

This is basically one of the “organic” aspects mentioned in the syllabus: a tool that contributes to on-going knowledge generation, shaping and growth.

For students looking to improve their grades, here’s one outlet. Your opportunity outside of class time to offer opinions, analysis, post links, make connections, ask questions, provide assistance to those who are uncertain about the material, offer one another encouragement and, otherwise, keep our intellectual community energized and focused on the course themes. If you have ambition and energy, here is where you can make a major impact.

In a word: if you are up for it, go for it!