Wednesday, November 24, 2010

McRobbie - Postmodernism and Popular Culture

McRobbie, Angela. Postmodernism and Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Happy Thanksgiving! I just finished my grading, which gives me... 1 week after break without grading to continue comp reading. Ugh. The grind continues...


In this collection of essays, McRobbie argues for a feminist postmodernism. "...a feminist postmodernism forces us to confront questions which otherwise remain unasked...we also find our academic practice and our politics undergoing some degree of transformation and change." (p.2) She goes on to say (on page 9) that the essays focus on "some aspect of social change." McRobbie uses feminist postmodernism to explore "how social relations are conducted" in popular culture. Thus, popular culture studies symbolize and reveal the experience of change.

Part I - "Postmodernity and Cultural Studies" [4 historiographic essays]
It seems to me, and perhaps this is an indication of how my brain works and how I learn, that collections of essays like this one are often organized backwards. I would prefer to start with examples of what the author is doing (as McRobbie offers in the last section) and then finish with an overview of the field, thus placing the author's work amongst the work of others. Of course, the historiography always comes first in a dissertation, and in a book proposal; the habit must emerge from those understandible practices.

Anyway, these four essays blur together in my memory. They discussa range of authors that are somewhat familiar, and who I have read only a tiny portion of. I'll list most of them below, for future reference, as well as to highlight names McRobbie is particularly interested in-

1 - "Postmodernism and Popular Culture": Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Dick Hebdige, Andreas Huyssen, Frederic Jameson, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal

Originally written in 1986, McRobbie defends postmodernism. (p.23) "The reason why postmodernism appeals to a wider number of young people [and intellectuals] that they themselves are experiencing the enforced fragmentation of impermanent work and low career opportunities. Far from being overwhelmed by media saturation, there is evidence to suggest that these social groups and minorities are putting it to work for them. This alone should prompt the respect and the attention of an older generation which seems at present too eager to embrace a sense of political hopelessness."

2 - "New Times in Cultural Studies": Jameson, Stuart Hall, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Hebdige, Sontag, Zizek, Frank Mort, Andre Gorz, David Harvey

Originally written in 1991, McRobbie explains the term "New Times," a term coined in Britain, and connoting the social and political upheavals of the 1980s.

3 - "Post-Marxism and Cultural Studies": Homi Bhaba, John Fiske, Stuart Hall, David Harvey, Jameson, Ernesto Laclau, bell hooks

This 1992 essay discusses the state of Marxism, connecting it to postmodernist cultural studies. McRobbie admits the state of Marxism's usefulness remains unclear, but she is far from dismissive of it.

4 - "Feminism, Postmodernism and the 'Real Me'": Bhaba, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, Stuart Hall, David Harvey, Jameson, Laclau, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

"The passage of feminism into the 1990s should not be seen... as a process of political dismemberment, leaving behind a sadly dispersed band of individuals... Nor should it be understood, after postmodernism, as a politics of difference based simply on pluralism, on everyone going their own way. In short the strength of feminism lies in its ability to create discourse, to dispute, to negotiate the boundaries and the barriers, and also to take issue with the various feminisms which have sprung into being."

Part II - Key Figures in Cultural Theory
Essays on the work of Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin, and an interview with Gayatari Chakravorty Spivak.

Part III -Youth, Media, Postmodernity [McRobbie's own work]
McRobbie delves deep into various aspects of youth culture, using sociology, cultural analysis, and her own journalistic observations. These essays were all written in the early 1990s.

8 - "Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket": A discussion of the emergence of "retro-style" dress. McRobbie does a particularly good job of analyzing not only the clothes of youth, but the place where those clothes are displayed and purchased. Her conclusions are somewhat incomplete. She notes that the frequent criticism that retro-style dress is a characteristic of rich kids, and thus demonstrates their disconnect from the poor they claim to be trying to connect with, is no longer accurate- students are often poor and the working-class itself is no longer predominantly employed in (and dressed for) the factory. The pastiche style of dress reflects a common theme of postmodernism that McRobbie observes elsewhere, but she hesitates to explain its precise significance. She also notes that the designer is playing less of a role in fashion trends then commonly assumed.

9 - "Shut up and Dance: Youth Culture and Changing Modes of Femininity": This essay is typical of McRobbie's "Feminist Postmodernism" project. She offers numerous examples of "how fluid gender practices and meaning structures are." (157) The replacement of Jackie with Just Seventeen as the most popular magazine for girls from 12 to 16 is a positive move from a magazine that emphasizes a more traditional perception of the female as an object and victim of romance to a more autonomous being with a wider (at least relatively) range of identities. She brackets the essay with a personal anecdote about her parental worries about her daughter attending raves, noting that the underlying importance of the rave for youth culture is its separation from adult supervision, thus allowing the freedom for experimentation (drugs, sexuality) as the youth seeks his/her own identity.

10- "Different, Youthful, Subjectivities: Towards a Cultural Sociology of Youth": This essay reviews work on youth in both sociology and cultural studies in an attempt to bring them closer together. Her conclusion explains, (194) "...the emphasis in this chapter has been to encourage cultural studies away from an exclusive concern with texts and meanings, this is not to say that such an approach has no value and meanings, this is not to say that such an approach has no value whatsoever. Here I have been arguing for a return, not to the real world, as it is sometimes seen, but rather to the terrain of how young people live and how they experience the changed world around them."

11- "The Moral Panic in the Age of the Postmodern Mass Media": "Moral Panics" are moments of extraordinary public anxiety toward a particular incident of violence that are acted out in the news media. The term was analyzed in depth by Stan Cohen in his 1980 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. McRobbie includes an examination of how a moral panic works through mass media.

McRobbie is an excellent writer, and a creative researcher making this book a difficult yet enjoyable read. Occasionally, she is too Britain-centric for an American reader, but most of the time this is not a problem. Part I is somewhat dated, but individual essays from parts II and III could be useful for a graduate seminar.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Comstock and Scharrer - Television

Comstock, George A., and Erica Scharrer. Television: What's on, Who's Watching, and What It Means. San Diego: Academic Press, 1999.

This is a synthesis of television laboratory-type studies and quantitative research. The authors reviewed a vast array of data and analyzed its meaning for the medium of television.

Key Arguments (by chapter)
Chapter 1 - There were three eras of American television. 1.) The early years - late 1940s-1950s. 2.) Equilibrium - 1960s-70s, 3 networks spread over rising number of stations 3.) Transition - 1980s to present (1999), rise of cable and number of stations in general

Chapter 2 - Focuses on commercials, studies about their form, public opinion of, and effectiveness. Nothing too surprising here.

Chapter 3 - How people watch. Again, nothing I haven't heard.

Chapter 4 - News is controlled by gatekeepers, and shaped by journalists who strive for objectivity. However, it is also designed to be viewer-friendly and to attract viewers. The numbers of viewers who watch some form of TV news is surprisingly high, even among younger viewers, but their retention is surprisingly low.

Chapter 5 - Television has become increasingly important in politics since the 1952 election, with the Nixon-Kennedy and then Carter-Ford debates as key moments. The authors focus on Presidential elections in this chapter. They conclude that debates receive a high amount of attention but have little effect on the election results.

Chapter 6 - How does television news shape public thought and action? Observations include: "relevance to the consumer and magnitude of the occurrence" are the two key factors in determining whether a viewer will take action because of some threat or other news story. As newspaper reading declines, television is becoming more influential in setting the civic attention.

Chapter 7 - Does television have an adverse effect on scholastic performance? (262) "Viewing not only interferes with and displaces scholastic endeavors but also shapes the motives and directs the preferences of the young toward the trivial and the banal."

Chapter 8 - Does television lead to antisocial behavior? (310) The Surgeon General "was correct in arguing that television violence increases aggressiveness." It also influences illegal and harmful behavior, social functioning of the young.

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Putnam's thesis, that civic participation has declined in inverse proportion to television's rise, is noted, expanded upon, and somewhat complicated. The authors conclude that the news media serves interested voters positively, and could find no inverse relationship between TV news or newspaper reading and political participation.

There is a wealth of useful information synthesized in this book. Unfortunately, little to no effort was put toward the prose. Some sections read like this, "X and Y studied this problem, with these results. A and B studied this problem in a slightly different way, with these results. We, the authors, support the results of A and B for these reasons." Clearly, a vast amount of work was done in compiling this work. But this book could have benefited from a year's worth of editing, moving the studies into footnotes and actually writing an interesting argument based on the data. I hope I never fall into the trap of writing a book like this.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hunter - Culture Wars

Hunter, James Davison. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: BasicBooks, 1991.

I've hit a busy stretch with job search reading and grading, but I managed to grind out Culture Wars, so let's get right to it...

Scope & Argument (and connection to Election Night 2010)
Published about a year before Clinton's election and three years before the 1994 Republican Revolution, Hunter describes the cultural tension between conservative Orthodox religious groups (Protestant, Catholic, & Jewish) and Progressivists in America from the late-1970s. On its shallowest level, this is a book about the key political issues contested by the two sides. Going deeper, it is about the core Religious beliefs held by both sides that make it nearly impossible for both sides to engage in a constructive debate. (Using a broad definition, Hunter argues that even the moral framework under which the most secular Progressives act constitutes a Religious belief. p.119)

Hunter levels some criticism at the media, which boils dialogue down to short soundbites and thus adds to the polarity of cultural and political discourse. But most of all, the problems lies with the methods and language of both sides. Admittedly, it is difficult to foster a polite discourse between two sides with such drastically different core values. Nevertheless, Hunter shows how both sides seek to discredit the opposition rather than understand, de-legitimize rather than engage, and describe with hyperbole rather than fairness.

Indeed, it is ironic that I am writing this on the night of the 2010 election, one of the most bitter in recent memory. It feels to most observers that America has never been so divided. The campaigns seemed to emphasize this division, with ever-increasing negativity typifying races across the country. Furthermore in light of the economic woes, there is a strong anti-incumbent mood. The Tea Party seems to have taken advantage of the setting, channeling voter anger towards their anti-government, libertarian message. Conspicuously absent from the main Tea Party (and indeed, Republican) professed ideals is a strong emphasis on Orthodox religion. Their influence, even on the right, seems to have faded somewhat, perhaps after the failure of Bush II. Perhaps 1994 was their pinnacle, a point that supports Hunter's argument in 1991 that, contrary to what some observers believed and in light of the decline of the Moral Majority and televangelist scandals, the Orthodox right had not run out of steam.

Hunter correctly describes the important coalition between neo-conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and the Orthodox (socio-cultural conservatives) that led to Ronald Reagan. I wonder if perhaps this coalition has re-aligned slightly, taking more of a libertarian stance in 2010. We shall see how the Tea Party candidates mesh with the Republican party once tonight's turnover is in place.

Key term
secular humanism - The Orthodox "dirty-word" for the Progressivist agenda which the Orthodox say is anti-religious belief and anti- moral absolutes. The Progressivists respond by saying they are merely upholding American ideals of nonsectarianism and individual autonomy and responsibility. (202-3, 206)

Hunter spends parts I-III describing the historical roots of the conflict, drawing the fault lines, explaining their respective moral visions, and comparing the discourse of the two sides. Part IV describes, in turn, five "fields of conflict" - family, education, media and arts, law, and electoral politics.

This is a splendidly written book, accessible to a wide audience. The introduction sets Hunter's balanced tone brilliantly, with a series of "dispatches" from the culture front, each revealing the background and beliefs of key actors on both sides of key conflicts. Thus, Hunter humanizes both sides, giving the reader a chance to develop sympathy and understanding towards the characters. The balanced tone continues throughout, as Hunter delves into both sides of controversies with fairness and understanding. The book is itself, thus, a model of a better discourse.

Most of my friends, from the more Orthodox who tend toward conservatism to the more Progressive, could learn from this book. I wonder what each side's reaction would be? My gut tells me an Orthodox reader would have a more difficult time with the scholarly tone, detached as it is from the Orthodox conception of a moral authority.