Contemporary Media Issues Intro to Postmodern Media
A2 Media Studies 2009/10
Unit G325 Section B
Critical Perspectives in Media
Contemporary Media Issues
Introduction to Postmodern Media
Contemporary Media Issues
This part of the A2 media studies course asks you to consider some key academic debates.
These debates are concerned with the media in social and cultural contexts. Put simply, this
means: how important is the media in society and what different roles do the media play in
people's lives? But as the nature of 'the media' changes to the point where it is increasingly
difficult to conceive of it as a singular entity, we have to pay attention instead to all the
complex and unique variations of media practice in people's lives. So we might need to think
about a person uploading a music playlist to a social network page alongside them watching a
film at the cinema.
There are no obvious 'right answers' here, but
you will need to engage with a range of
theoretical perspectives on how people use
media; know about a variety of research that
people have carried out in order to discover
specific audience practices and habits; and,
most importantly, demonstrate a personal
position on the issues. But this personal
position must always be informed by academic
Which topic you study and whether you focus
on just one, two or a few, and which area of the
media you look at within each theme, will be
determined by a range of factors. The choice is
vast - you could literally study any aspect of
the media that fits in with the topic heading and the specified areas of learning. However, for
each topic, it is mandatory to focus on three areas within your exam answer:
• Historical: you do not need to write a great deal here, but you must at some point
in your response show that you understand how relevant aspects of the
contemporary media can be compared to the past.
• Contemporary: most of your time will be spent demonstrating an up-to-date,
accurate, theoretical and academic analysis of today's media.
• Future: again, this will not be the main focus, but to gain the higher marks you
will need to have some ideas about where the media are going next.
When Media Studies starts to become, like, difficult
It is misleading to keep mentioning 'the media' here as the focus of study. Really we are
interested in how people, in cultural contexts, use the media at the end of the first decade of
the twenty-first century.
Media studies is a subject which is concerned with popular culture - the media that ordinary
people access in large numbers. While some people think this makes it easier than other
subjects (after all, you already know about popular music, film and video games, and the
physics student has less familiarity with, say, the speed of light), you will find that there are a
number of quite difficult academic theories of popular culture to get to grips with. As an
example, one of the areas you will reference is Postmodern Media, and this topic also
illustrates this easy/difficult balance well.
The world we see is the world of the commodity.
Guy Debord The Society of the Spectacle (1994).
Under this topic you could easily analyse Big Brother - hardly
the most scholarly text in the world, right? But to do so, you
will have to explore the extent to which reality TV is actually
‘real’; how it demonstrates, what the academic Dominic
Strinati (1995) called a 'fetishised hyperreality', in which
simulation has defeated any notion of the objective 'real'. Drop
that sentence into conversation with friends and see what
Postmodernism is said to describe the emergence of a social
order in which the importance and power of the mass media
and popular culture means that they govern and shape all other
forms of social relationships. The idea is that popular cultural
signs and media images increasingly dominate our sense of reality, the way we define
ourselves and the world around us…
Postmodernism tries to come to terms with and understand a media-
saturated society. The mass media, for example, were once thought of as
holding up a mirror to, and thereby reflecting, a wider social reality. Now
that reality is only definable in terms of surface reflection of the mirror.
In other words, society has become subsumed within the mass media. It is no longer even a
question of distortion, since the
term implies that there is a
reality, outside the surface
simulation of the media, which
can be distorted, and this is
precisely what is at issue
according to postmodern
theory. And if we no longer can
tell what’s real, how can we
know what’s right? Here’s
another bit of theory:
sceptical of any
claim to knowledge
and argues that
theories or doctrines
which make such
increasingly open to criticism, contestation and doubt. Strinati (1992)
Strinati is a critic of postmodern society – he doesn’t like it – as he sees a decline in
seriousness and stability:
Media images encourage superficiality rather than substance,
cynicism rather than belief, the thirst for constant change rather than
security of stable traditions, the desires of the moment rather than
the truths of history. Dominic Strinati (1992)
Here Strinati suggests that postmodern TV and film have become preoccupied merely with
surface style and imagery, rather than deeper underlying themes, which might relate to the
'realities' of our society. For example:
Action blockbuster movies like
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
(2009) dwell on special effects,
rather than strong plots and TV
dramas now depart from the realist
narratives of 1960's offerings like
Cathy Come Home which attempted
to look at serious issues such as
homelessness. Instead they embrace
a surreal world in which 'reality' is
often confused. Consider Twin Peaks
in the 1990’s, more recently The X-
Files, Life on Mars, Buffy: The
Vampire Slayer, Lost, or even this
year’s Flash Forward and True Blood.
Another critic, this one a feminist, Carla Kaplan (1987) identified music videos as perfect
examples of post modernist culture because they abandon all notion of narrative structure -
there is no attempt to 'tell a story'; rather the power of the music video lies purely in the
collage of images mixed with music.
None of that is too scary, right? This booklet, and the sections that follow, will guide you
through this part of the exam in a way that will scaffold your understanding, from what you
already know from your AS studies, to the more complex aspects of each theme, like Strinati's
idea of ‘fetishised hyperreality’...
When Media Studies becomes Cultural Studies
There are a number of different ways of approaching media studies.
There are parts of the subject – analysing TV drama, for example - that are similar to
English Lit., as we are studying texts and considering their conventions.
There are parts which are more like art or performing arts or IT - production work,
And there are themes which require an understanding of how people make sense of
and use media products as part of their lives.
Section B of this exam is to do with an approach called cultural studies, and it is important
that you remember this because it will help you remember that we are not just looking at texts
and what they 'mean' or how they are 'consumed' by an audience. Instead, we are looking at
people and what they do with media.
This description from Toby Miller (2006) will help get us started.
By looking at how culture is used and transformed by social groups,
cultural studies sees people not simply as consumers, but as potential
producers of new social values and cultural languages.
We need to break this down, to look in detail at the three elements Miller mentions here
“What is Culture? Hmmm...how long have you got?”
A recent BBC promotional campaign for The Culture Show provided a wide range of
definitions of culture from famous people. Indeed, the point was to show how hard it is to
define it, which does not help much here.
A common way of thinking about
culture is to say that it is
everything that is not nature. In
other words, culture is made by
humans. But perhaps it makes
more sense to say that culture
describes all the various forms of
belief, communication, ritual,
representation and ideas that the
human race uses to make sense of
our existence. In this case, culture
would be the things we produce
that animals do not - culture is
the outcome of collective thought, as this is what separates us from animals. Just to really
confuse you, lots of people would argue with even this attempt at a definition. Nobody said
this would be easy…
Whole books are devoted to just trying to answer the question - what is culture? I know, I’ve
read them. So give me the benefit of the doubt here for trying to come up with a working
definition. Chris Jenks (1993) described four definitions of culture:
1. As a state of mind (an aspiration - the 'cultured' person);
2. As a collective pursuit of civilisation (as part of progress);
3. As artistic and intellectual activity (this is perhaps the most common use of the term);
4. As a social category - the things that people do, our ways of life (which is more like
where we started - how we are not mere animals).
Here’s the good news - the important thing for YOU to remember is that in media studies we
are mostly interested in 'popular culture', and we do not distinguish between what is and what
is not 'cultural'. For us, everything we might study in the media and produce for the media is
culture. If it’s on your course – be it a TV programme, a movie, something on the Internet, a
videogame - it’s cultural.
What are social groups?
This is much easier. This is all to do with representations…
Wherever it is possible to give people a label based on collective characteristics or traits, as
opposed to their individual or biological make-up, we can say they are part of a social group.
Examples range from very broad groups of people, such as gay men or Japanese women, to
more specific groups, such as teenage girls who play World of Warcraft.
New Social Values and Cultural Languages
This is the other important bit – all to do with audiences and how the changing media world is
changing audience habits.
What might these new social values and cultural languages look like?
EXAMPLE 1 – BROADBAND INTERNET - Consider the impact of broadband internet on
how people use media – how does the gradual updating of the old BT telephone infrastructure
offer the chance of creating something culturally new…
Do people 'watch television' in the traditional sense anymore? If not, is that a change in social
values? Are there any distinct 'media institutions' in the era of convergence? If you can share
music on a social network with your 'friends', and they can purchase it (or take it for nothing)
online and access the video within a few clicks on YouTube, what does this do to the music
industry as we know it? Is this part of a new shared cultural language? Even more
importantly, is there such a thing as 'audience' in this postmodern 'we-media' age?
EXAMPLE 2 – The BBC iPLAYER – How has the BBC has acted as a pioneer in the digital
age? Is the online development of the iPlayer a good use of the licence fee - a cornerstone of
public service broadcasting in our democracy – as you don’t have to pay it, to watch it?! Also,
if the public have more access to an institution like the BBC via the Internet what does this
mean for other examples of 'we media'? What about the global reach of the BBC's services,
made possible by. broadband internet? What difference will the increasingly ‘global’
dissemination of ideas makes to British culture and identity? This takes us to a consideration
of whether our identities are increasingly shaped by media in the online age and whether this
creates a 'postmodern' state of mind, and if this is a dangerous thing. Then what kinds of
regulation are needed in this Web 2.0 world and what impact might these, new modes of
regulation have on the BBC compared, to ;more; orthodox forms of regulation such as charter
renewal or the role of OFCOM?
Another example comes from Dan Gillmor's book We
The Media (2004).
EXAMPLE 3 – CITIZEN JOURNALISM - Does
'citizen journalism' in the form of blogs offer a change
in social values? Gillmor argues that Web 2.0 enables
ordinary people to participate in politics and news by
producing their own accounts of real events and
commenting immediately on 'official' journalism.
Another media academic, John Hartley (2007), in his
book Creative Industries describes the shift from a
‘demand-led’ market of creative industries to a ‘social
network’ market. Hartley describes these changes in
the context of the shift to long-tail economics. This
idea came from Chris Anderson, editor of Wired
magazine, who suggested that businesses are increasingly realising that the best way to make
money is to sell less of more, to create more niche markets, to diversify. This supports the
long tail theory of media production – that explains how the proliferation of small chunks of
media content at the opposite end of the body to ‘the head’ - where the big institutions make
hugely popular media products like The Dark Knight or
the final of the X Factor are just as profitable.
Describing the implications of this long tail of media
distribution, Hartley suggests that the liberating
potential of Web 2.0 might be as important not only as
the emergence of 'mass literacy', but beyond that, to the
introduction of mass public schooling a century ago. So
this part of your exam is about exploring theories like
universal digital literacy and the We-media
phenomenon -'one minute you're a fan, the next you're
So is Web 2.0 a ‘global village’ made
possible by broadband?
Taking these examples together, we end up thinking of the media more as a range of networks
via which the public can decide to participate to whatever degree in creative, communicative,
collaborative and democratic activities, and less as a group of powerful organisations
influencing us. Actually, we are probably halfway between these two states - or at least the
developed world is (don't forget that less than 20 % of the world has a broadband connection -
a somewhat sobering riposte to the
'global village' discourse). Academics
call this difference between developed
and less-developed countries the ‘digital
The most popular Web 2.0 sites are
owned by huge companies, so every
moment of democratic We-media social
networking makes money for the big
corporations -the same ones that were
making billions from Web 1.0, in fact.
Hitwise (2007) reports that 0.16 per cent of YouTube visitors upload video, 0.2 per cent of
Flickr visitors upload photos, and Wikipedia is edited or expanded by 4.59 per cent of users.
So most of us are using the Web 2.0 sites to read, watch, play and listen (not to create and
upload), which is how we were using 'old media', whatever using the media might mean. For
these reasons, might we be more sensible to think of where we are now as web 1.5?
But this is just an example of a cultural studies approach. Not all the topics demand a direct
study of these Web 2.0 debates, but it’s always important. The topic we’re examining most
closely, Postmodern Media, will involve consideration of how we can create simulated
identities for ourselves online, and how the internet provides an enormous challenge for
regulators; but it will also lead you to look at a variety of cinema, TV and video games. What
the topics all have in common is the emphasis on the active audience, on how people 'give
meaning’ to cultural products, otherwise known as media texts.
All the themes that you can choose from for Critical Perspectives are connected, as the mind
map shows you.
So though we will focus on Postmodern Media, we’ll almost certainly branch off to explore
related areas, as in this diagram. Doing things this way might lead you from Postmodern
Media to research into how Global Media pose a threat to local and national identities, for
example. Or you might start with Media and Collective Identity and end up in an exploration
of how Media in the Online Age provide new ways of representing yourself. In other words,
whichever theme you are studying, learning about other topics will be extremely useful.