Contemporary Media Issues Intro to Postmodern Media

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Contemporary Media Issues Intro to Postmodern Media

  1. 1. A2 Media Studies 2009/10 Study Notes Unit G325 Section B Critical Perspectives in Media Contemporary Media Issues Part 2 Introduction to Postmodern Media 5
  2. 2. 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 understanding. 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. 6
  3. 3. Postmodern Media 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 happens. 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. Strinati (1992) 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: Postmodernism is sceptical of any absolute, universal and all-embracing claim to knowledge and argues that theories or doctrines which make such claims are 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: 7
  4. 4. 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, most clearly.  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. 8
  5. 5. 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 9
  6. 6. 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 10
  7. 7. 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 signing autographs'. 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 divide’. 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? Postmodern Media 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. 11
  8. 8. 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. 12

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