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POSTMODERN MEDIA : Postmodern Media (OCR Media Conference 2009)


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Julian McDougall

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POSTMODERN MEDIA : Postmodern Media (OCR Media Conference 2009)

  1. 1. Postmodern Media Julian McDougall Focus for students – Definitions of postmodernism in relation to media products and media • audiences, and which definition is the one you want to work with. The difference between postmodern media and traditional media – • what difference does postmodern culture make, historically? Examples of media products which you think can be, or have been • defined as postmodern, and the reasons for them being analysed in this way. The impact of postmodern media on audiences and the ways in which • we think about texts. Debates around postmodernism and whether it is really a useful theory • or not. Extracts from McDougall, J, 2009. OCR Media Studies for A2. London: Hodder. 978-0-340-95871-1 Here are some basic postmodern ideas to get us started: Postmodern media rejects the idea that any media product or text is of any greater value than another. All judgements of value are merely taste. Anything can be art, anything can deserve to reach an audience, and culture ‘eats itself’ as there is no longer anything new to produce or distribute. The distinction between media and reality has collapsed, and we now live in a ‘reality’ defined by images and representations – a state of simulacrum. Images refer to each other and represent each other as reality rather than some ‘pure’ reality that exists before the image represents it – this is the state of hyper-reality. All ideas of ‘the truth’ are just competing claims – or discourses and what we believe to be the truth at any point is merely the ‘winning’ discourse. The Wire
  2. 2. The Wire has acquired a cult status in the UK despite never being broadcast on a UK terrestrial channel, which is a great example of how TV is increasingly watched by a ‘fragmented’ audience – most of the ‘viral marketers’ of this show (people who love it and ‘sell’ it to their friends) are watching it on ‘catch up’ or ‘on demand’ TV, through the internet (torrent offers a host of streaming options but these are not legal, be warned) and through the discount DVD box-set option. This is another TV product which is seemingly intended to be postmodern and unlike the films of Wong Kar Wai, where the director pays lip service to the idea but is uncomfortable with the label, this quote from The Wire’s writer, David Simon, is explicit in its acceptance of postmodernity as a context for the drama: The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It's the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomics forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. (Hornby, 2007: 1) So we have a very different example of postmodern media here. This TV show is not postmodern in style or aesthetics (or at least not explicitly so). But it takes as its subject matter postmodern society, in which, according to the creator, the individual human being’s life is increasingly meaningless in relation to the huge corporations and institutions that dominate the world in the capitalist system. This takes us back to Baudrillard’s work on the power of the system over the human and here we can think of The Matrix as a series of films that deal with similar themes but in a less ‘real’ context. The world as represented in The Wire is a matrix of power-holding institutions immersed in a capitalist system which has its own force. Here is another explanation from the writer:
  3. 3. Thematically, it's about the very simple idea that, in this postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We're worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It's the triumph of capitalism. Whether you're a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It's the triumph of capitalism over human value. (quoted in O’Rourke, 2006: 1) But what is the story? The Wire has so far been four series long (at the time of writing) with a fifth planned. Each series has a different theme but in each case the ‘network’ of corruption and exploitation across institutions and organisations to the extent where this dominates daily life for the everyday human being is explored. The first series represents a family of drug dealers and the police officers attempting to bring to justice the organised crime fraternity. The next series featured the murder of a group of sex workers and, again, the way that these crimes are ‘sanctioned’ by the corrupt system. Series three took a more political theme and the most recent series took the viewer into the American school system to look at the life chances afforded to inner city youth during a political election. If season five is, as is suggested, about the media, then this will be the best example yet for your studies of postmodern media. By the time this book is out you will be able to access this final series. DJ Shadow – Endtroducing Released by Mo Wax Records in 1996, DJ Shadow’s first studio album made history by being the first album to be produced entirely from pre-existing sampled music. As such it is an essential example for a study of postmodern media. The title itself mirroring the irony of the word postmodern (which is impossible), Endtroducing by DJ Shadow is a media text that is almost always referred to as postmodern in reviews, articles and fan discussions. There are a number of reasons why it gets this label. Firstly, it includes so many different recognisable but mixed up styles of music that it is not useful in any way to try to apply genre to the collection. Secondly, this is one album that many critics have celebrated for producing ‘art’ out of sampling (we could have a longer debate here about what counts as art). And then there is the cross-media experimentation of Shadow as a DJ, film composer, musician so more boundary blurring.
  4. 4. The track Stem / Long Stem is a case study in itself blending classical sounds with Nirvana to make something new, possibly as close to a ‘textbook’ example of what is meant by ‘postmodern’ as we are likely to get. His own description of the album – “a lifetime of vinyl culture” is also helpful as an illustration of the remix concept. DJ Shadow has made a new musical contribution out of what was already there. Whether you celebrate this as postmodern art or deride it for lacking originality is entirely up to you, but it will force you to a ‘judgement call’ on postmodern media either way. GTA4 Two concepts which help us understand videogames as postmodern are flow and immersion. The latter, immersion, describes how the gamer invests imagination in the game and is subsequently absorbed into the gameworld. The first concept, flow, is described by Csikszentmihayi (1997) as a state whereby an activity demands incrementally harder, but increasingly pleasurable and achievable challenges whilst providing regular feedback (a ‘loop’) on degrees of success: It is easy to recognise the conditions of flow. These include having a clear goal or problem to solve, ability to discern how well one is doing, struggling forward in the face of challenges until the creative process begins to hum and one is lost in the task, and enjoying the activity for its own sake. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997: 113) Within flow, immersion (a pleasurable loss of reality) becomes difficult and challenging whilst also feeling creative and pleasurable, so the feeling of being ‘lost’ in the gameworld leads to an enhanced state of ‘happy hyper- reality’. Grand Theft Auto 4 is probably the most discussed videogame of all time. This is a media product that made roughly $500 million in its first week, eclipsing even Hollywood blockbuster releases with that scale of distribution and demand. As the section on Contemporary Media Regulation explores, this game has polarised the public – there are not many people who are ‘in between’ the two conflicting opinions - the game is a masterpiece versus the game should be banned. But what both sides of the argument do seem to agree on, whether they use the term or not, is that GTA4 is postmodern – that it immerses the player in a convincing, intricate and believable world, but that the reality it represents is the stuff of films and other media. Like Disneyland, The Matrix and The Gulf War, to take on the character of Nico Bellic and live in Liberty City is a profoundly hyper-real experience. The emotive debate is about the extent to which intense experiences of violence, sex, crime and ‘vice’ in the hyper-real situation translate into ‘effects’ in our real society, and of course a postmodern position on this has to be that there is no discussion to be had, as the separation of the two ‘states’ is meaningless. But as the postmodern theorists tend to be see contemporary media experience in terms of play and ‘picking and mixing’ aspects of identity and meaning, the idea of ‘effects’ are also off-limits.
  5. 5. Much of the discussion of Grand Theft Auto 4 as a media product with the potential for harmful ‘effects’ focuses on the content, which is undoubtedly ‘seedy’ in many ways but ignores crucial contextual factors, the most important of which is what we call ‘situated literacy practices’. This means, simply, that we need to explore how players of the game ‘read’ it and whether playing this game is very different to reading a book or watching a film. Until we know this, we won’t be able to make very informed judgements about what is going on in peoples’ heads when they fight innocent members of the public or visit prostitutes in Liberty City. So what we are saying here is that it’s not so much a question of whether the content of Grand Theft Auto is postmodern – as far as the working definition we are using goes it probably is – but it is rather a matter of whether the playing experience is postmodern, whether the player / reader of the text / game is immersed in a set of practices that can’t be understood using the ‘old’ concepts – representation, narrative, audience. The player in GTA4 has so many options we can’t list them all here. Not just options within the single player game (which are, if not infinite then at least countless) but also the chance to play in multiplayer mode, within which there are several ‘mini-games’ such as ‘Cops and Crooks’, ‘Hangman’s Noose’ and ‘Mafiya Workout’. Equally, when first playing the new product in this long running franchise, many players will be comparing the game to the previous incarnations. Certainly a great deal of the ‘360 degree’ media coverage of the 4th game in the series has obsessively made these intertextual observations. Even if we are thinking of videogames as ‘always already’ postmodern as a media form more broadly, considering the whole GTA series for a moment, we can identify the experience provided by the product as being ‘more’ postmodern than other games because of the ‘sandbox’ principle and the choices offered to the player, as this extract from Play magazine’s “Unofficial History’ agrees: It was in the gameplay itself where Grand Theft Auto managed to break the mould in many ways. Grand Theft Auto contained free-form ‘go anywhere you please’ gameplay that saw you tied to an over-arching plot that contained various missions to complete but also left you free to explore the huge world in your own time, finding hidden packages and Rampage icons, exploring the world and doing what you wanted. (Play: 2007:9)
  6. 6. Woman Clone by Sophie Hughes Woman Clone is a ‘postmodern punk band’ with all female members and the image we will be discussing is the CD cover for the first, eponymous album. The CD cover is not the ‘main task’ but it is crucial that you produce all of your media products to the same standard. So we focus here on an ‘ancillary task’ for two reasons. Firstly, we can’t reproduce the whole video in a text book for you to refer to, and secondly, it gives us more of a ‘steer’ for theorising the whole brief and the synergy between the products. Had we only reflected on the main task, the other materials would be marginalised, and this would reinforce a common failing of student production work – one excellent outcome and then a few vague ‘afterthoughts’ with no consistency. For Sophie, the whole package is very well conceived. The members of the band, like Gorillaz, appear to the audience in computer generated form, but that side of the postmodernist aesthetic at work here is more relevant to the other materials produced for the A2 portfolio – the music video in particular. Whilst it is getting harder in the online age to conceive of a media audience as a stable identifiable group, a key question for Media Studies remains this – how do people make sense of and give meaning to cultural products. During the production process, Sophie will have used blogs and social networking tools more generally to share images and gain feedback, and this can be described reflectively in the Critical Perspectives response. She will relate the music of Woman Clone to other bands and artists, making intertextual connections to justify her commercial decisions in relation to an existing audience for this music, and then she can go on to describe how the postmodern images were constructed to appeal to this group of people. But she will also need to complicate matters by reflecting on the difference between art work, which is arguably originated on a more personal level and then sold commercially, and CD cover art, which is perceived as being ‘always-already’ commercial in orientation and desired outcome. And in relation to her attempts to produce a knowing, reflexive, postmodern return to feminism in her CD cover, she might usefully relate her creativity to this theoretical intervention from Paul Willis: Pop stars are, to some extent, symbolic vehicles with which young women understand themselves more fully, even if, by doing so, they partly shape their personalities to fit the stars’ alleged preferences. (Willis, 1990: 57).
  7. 7. Woman Clone arrives at a time when the interplay between ‘pop idol’, female fan and media is already ‘knowing’ and ‘ironic’ but nevertheless the symbolic exchange of gendered meanings around music is still powerful. Sophie can write at length about how she is deliberately displacing the relations between band, cover art and fan to expose and subvert the conditions of possibility for a female listener to ‘understand herself’ in relation to Woman Clone. This displacement and ‘mixing’ of meaning is what allows her to theorise her work in relation to ‘the postmodern turn’.