Sunday, January 30, 2011

Habermas - The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article

Habermas, Jurgen. “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article.” From Durham, Meenakshi Gigi, and Douglas Kellner. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Public Sphere - a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is granted to all citizens. Media is of the public sphere. Contested and constructed by the state as well as private interests (i.e. public interest groups). The public sphere arose in the eighteenth century once public opinion became valued.

bourgeois public sphere - collection of private individuals who engage with the public authority (ie state) through regulated "intellectual newspapers."

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mast - A Short History of the Movies

Mast, Gerald, and Bruce F. Kawin. A Short History of the Movies. Boston: Longman, 2011.


As a text book, it was interesting to see how Mast organized the history of film. I would list his priorities as follows:

  1. Nation - what advances/movements came from which nation when?
  2. Auteur - Who were the key auteurs, how did they advance film as art, and which film or films are most representative of their work.
  3. The business of film, and its effect on film as art
  4. Technical advances
  5. American Periods: they are as follows...
1. Early film-1890s-1910s
2. First features (Birth of a Nation) 10s
3. First talkies (Jazz Singer) 20s
4. Studio/Hollywood Era (studio controlled stars, directors and each studio had its own recognizable style) late 20s-40s
5. Hollywood in Crisis (threat of television, decline of studios, impact of Italian neo-realism and French New Film) 50s-60s
6. Neo-Hollywood (Bonnie and Clyde) 60s-70s
7. Return to myths (Star Wars) 1977-
8. Digital Era (Toy Story, Attack of the Clones, O Brother Where Art Thou) 1995-

Less important were the following aspects
  1. Genre - Mast discusses the broader trends of genres such as westerns, noir, and comedy but this is not an organizing theme.
  2. Actors - Only actors who were themselves auteurs, such as Chaplin, are discussed at length
  3. Film as popular art - He is more interested in films/auteurs that pushed the boundary of the art and spends little time dissecting blockbuster hits unless they were innovative in some other way (ex. Start Wars).
  4. Ideological criticism - He does some of this broadly, especially in his discussion of post 1977 films and the return to broader, Reagan/Thatcher/Conservatism myths away from the more cynical, anti-mythic films of the prior period.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Friedan - Feminine Mystique

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

"The Problem that has no name," the Feminine Mystique expects women to find complete fulfillment through marriage, raising children and caring for the house as a housewife. This circumstance, peculiar to post-WWII women, has prevented women from achieving their full intellectual and, indeed, personal fulfillment as women. Women are expected to forgo their own lives - careers, ambitions, etc. - to submit to the vision of the feminine mystique. Friedan writes to raise awareness of this issue, to announce to women that they are not alone in having these feelings, and to destroy the Feminine Mystique by encouraging women to balance marriage and family with a meaningful career.

The early portion of the book is constructed off of cultural analysis, including the analysis of advertising and writing (fictional and non-fiction) in women's magazines, which Friedan herself had been a contributer of. Friedan reveals a change in the image of a fulfilled woman as presented in these materials - fulfillment became "happy kids, a clean house, a working husband."

Friedan both subscribes to and takes issue with Freud. She accepts some of his arguments for the sources of psychological problems for both genders, but takes it one step forward in suggesting the feminine mystique leads to unhappy mothers who seek fulfillment through their children, thus leading in turn to psychologically unhealthy sons and daughters. On the other hand, she accuses Freud of completely mis-understanding women, portraying them as "maneaters" and generally labeling them as a feebler sex.

Friedan also criticizes universities for pushing women into the home and (along with professions who fire married women) making career and marriage an either/or proposition. Also, she notes and attempts to disprove a stigma that educated women have less satisfying sex lives.

Where this Fits in
Culture, in the Feminine Mystique, is a dangerous force that subconsciously shapes values and images of fulfillment. In 1950s America, culture has warped women's understanding of how they can achieve fulfilling lives.

The Feminine Mystique is about the 1950s. In launching a social movement, it is a primary source. It is more sociology than pure history, but it nonetheless contains interesting cultural analysis.

More than any other text I have read, I was reminded of Mad Men as I read this book. That television show really sets out to explore the ramifications and drama caused by the Problem That has No Name in the early 1960s.

It is what it is - ground ground breaking, in fact, that it is dated. I was most surprised by how much Friedan is specifically criticizing the gender roles of the 50s, rather than the gender roles throughout history. She very much sees the Feminine Mystique as a recent problem, NOT a timeless problem.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Newcomb - TV: The Most Popular Art

Newcomb, Horace. TV: The Most Popular Art. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1974.

As the title suggests, this is an early attempt to apply a critical lens to television as an art, rather than merely dismiss it as low because it is popular. I don't think he uses the term, but Newcomb breaks television down, chapter by chapter, into genres.

Genres (with chapter noted)
2 - Situation Comedy - A group of characters, usually a family, is placed in some zany set of circumstances. Each week the star of the show navigates a problem to solution. Ex. The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched
2 - Domestic Comedy - Built more specifically around a family, with a more heartfelt conclusion. Less slapstick, less hysterics, deeper character, a touch more seriousness. Ex. Father Knows Best, My Three Sons
3 - Westerns - Similar to its film and radio predecessors, but Newcomb argues television has come to make the Western into a lens to view contemporary culture, thus complicating the code of the West. (82) Ex. Gunsmoke, Bonanza
4 - Mysteries - The tension of the mystery drives a story that presents a united pattern of contemporary values enforced by the policeman or the detective. Ex. Dragnet, Police Story
5 - Professional Shows (Medical and Law) - Centered on a series star, these shows deal with human issues as they solve medical or legal problems. Ex. Marcus Welby MD, Perry Mason
6 - Adventure Shows - A character or set of characters (loners in the U.S. and explorers in space) confront a complication, extricating themselves by the end of the episode. Note that these series tantalize the audience with continuity (although they fall well short of current shows!). Ex. The Fugitive, Star Trek, Route 66.
7 - Soap Opera - Newcomb is especially defensive of this oft-maligned genre. He discusses how the flimsy sets are actually part of the genre's feel. He also emphasizes their serialization as allowing them to be the most realistic of any genre.
8 - News/Sports/Documentary - Present reality, but in a way that is more similar to fictional shows than might be expected because these shows emphasize the star - newscaster, sportshero, etc.
9 - The New Shows - Newcomb partly forsees but could not possibly fully predict the changes television would undergo in the next decade. He notes the serialization of primetime dramas, and the social consciousness of Norman Lear's shows. He does not, however, envision the great blending of genres that would come far into the future.

Also Note
Chapter 1 is a decent historiographical essay of "Responses to Television" from its early history to the early 1970s.

Orsi - The Madonna of 115th Street

Orsi, Robert A. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880 - 1950. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2002.

Orsi explores the community of Italian Harlem through an analysis of the devotion to the Madonna of 115th street. Besides religion, he covers family (particularly gender roles), first and second generation immigration issues, the decline of the community, and much more.

"The domus of Mount Carmel drew its meaning from and found support in its identification with the domus; the domus drew its meaning from and found its support in its identification with the domus of Mount Carmel." (171) After describing the way the festa of the Madonna would have looked, Orsi strays from the Madonna to describe life in the neighborhood before tying them back together in the large penultimate chapter, "The Meanings of the Devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street." The domus is the southern Italian emphasis on family, and the Italian immigrants claimed their identity in the new world through this emphasis, demanding rispetto (respect) to the family above all else. Thus the Madonna (and the Catholic faith in general) symbolized and mirrored the expected behavior of all Italians.

Other interesting tidbits
  • Orsi's introduction reflects on his initial attempt at absolute objectivity in pursuing oral history, followed by his realization that he could allow himself to connect with the community on a personal level without damaging his work.
  • The final crisis the community faced was the exodus of Italian-Americans from Harlem sparked by their improving economics. Actually, Italian-Americans retain some resentment to the Puerto Ricans who they believe forced them out of their community, while it was their own departure that opened room for the transition from Italian Harlem to Spanish Harlem.
  • In 1903 Pope Leo XIII elevated the Madonna from shrine to sanctuary, something that only happened in the United States 3 times before 1954. This was partially motivated by his desire to protect his fellow Italians from the anti-Italian attitudes of American Catholics. This one of many facets of the tension between Irish and Italians in New York (and elsewhere). Another is the fact that Irish tended to be the bosses of Italian laborers.
  • Italians mythologized the mafia as defenders of the domus outside the household in the cruel streets of New York, "forgetting" their cruelty and violence.
Orsi mainly draws from oral history and documents from the community. But he also supplements this with cultural works, such as novels, that came out of the community, using them as colorful examples that highlighted certain aspects of the reality of the community.

How does this fit into my reading list?
Social stems from culture. Culture is changed by change (I know what I said). Orsi sees the social dynamics of the community (the way the community functioned, from how marriages occurred to the jobs it pursued) stemming from its culture, which was created out of the desire of immigrants to retain a connection to Italy combined with the reality that they were very far from Italy indeed.

This book didn't blow me away as much as I expected it to. Perhaps I was not invested enough in the material, because the work itself is a spectacular piece of history. Personally, like many books, I think it could have been trimmed down (less examples, less repetition of certain points). But the brilliance of the book lies in the way Orsi starts with a specific aspect of a historical community and spirals out from that to discuss all aspects of that community's history. I also like the delicate way Orsi discusses religion, arguing that the Italians' sense of the control Saints had over their lives was not so much fatalism as their own humility and respect of the reality of the world as they understood it.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Poster - "Postmodern Virtualities"

Writing in 1995, Poster muses on how Internet communication might drastically change the way humans interrelate and how communities function. He dwells on the possibility for people who have never met and will probably never meet to interact over the Internet, thus allowing for greater "fluidity of identity." He suggests that, although it is possible an authoritarian technocracy could develop, this nature of the medium will help to disrupt to metanarratives of modernity, allowing for "little narratives" in the postmodern world.

The problem with pondering the development of a new technology early in its life is that an author may either overestimate where it is going or else be overly cautious about how much it is going to change the world. Other than imagining a rapid development and implementation of virtual reality, Poster walks this line rather well.

Hall - Encoding/Decoding

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding.” From Durham, Meenakshi Gigi, and Douglas Kellner. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2001, 163-173.

Television communication theory can best be understood through a consideration of the relationship the viewer (decoder) has to the media apparatus (encoder).

Rooted in Marxism, Hall begins with an extensive discussion of semiotic theory, also using Eco and Barthes.

Specifics/Key Terms
  • It is important to recognize the inequality of the positions of encoder and decoder. Thus, the meanings produced by the encoder are not necessarily the meanings understood by the decoder.
  • Misunderstanding - a result of this lack of equivalence
  • The televisual sign is complex, in part because it is composed of both visual and aural signs.
  • iconic sign - a sign that has some of the properties of the thing being represented (Charles Peirce), because it reproduces the conditions of perception in the viewer (Eco).
  • visual sign - an iconic sign, such as the image of a cow on television. It is important to recognize that visual signs are arbitrary to varied degrees.
  • linguistic sign - the word "cow," a much more arbitrary sign.
  • denotation - generally understood to mean the literal meaning of a sign
  • connotation - generally understood to mean less fixed meanings associated with a sign
  • HOWEVER, Hall stresses that this distinction (denotation/connotation) rarely happens in real life
  • Finally, he comes to the climax of his essay: the three hypothetical positions which television discourse is decoded:
  1. dominant-hegemonic - operating inside the dominant code, the viewer is able to take the full and straight meaning. i.e. Members of the ruling elite, members of the profession able to understand professional code.
  2. negotiated position - Most audiences understand what is being signified, acknowledgin the legitimacy of the hegemonic discourse while making exceptions for local conditions. i.e. Corporate positions, laborers who approve of a legislation for national interest while opposing in their own case.
  3. oppositional position - retotalizing of the message in an alternative framework. Don't identify with the message.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Gunning - Narrative Discourse and the Narrator System

Gunning, Tom. “Narrative Discourse and the Narrator System.” From Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 470-481.

How do films tell a story?

Gerard Genette, a literary critic, breaks narrative into three different meanings: story (content), narrative (the text that communicates the story), narrating (the act of telling). Gunning takes the later on in this essay, renaming it "narrative discourse."

Three functions of narrative discourse:
1. tense (temporal relation between discourse and story)
2. mood (point of view, narration's perspective to the story)
3. voice (relation of narration to the story, first or third person narrative)

Gunning adds a fourth - narrativization - to use Genette's theories on film.
Three parts of film narrativization:
1. pro-filmic - mise-en-scene - everything placed in front of the camera to be filmed
2. enframed image - mise-en-cadre - the act of transferring what is in front of the camera to celluloid
3. editing - mise-en-chain - after the act of filming

Griffith changed "the way films are narrated" and because "audience is an active spectator who contributes to the construction of the narrative," "the way films are viewed."

Uses Paul Ricoeur, who points out that maintaining the term narrator emphasizes that the film is a product of human labor assembled by a creator.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mulvey - "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” From Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 837-848.

Mulvey applies Freudian analysis to break down the gender issues she sees as inherent in mainstream Hollywood cinema. She notes that while independent films are increasingly economically possible, such films can only position themselves in opposition to the norm she is describing here.

There are two contradictory aspects of the pleasurable structure of looks within Hollywood cinema
1. Scopophilia
2. The narcissistic aspect of identifying with the male lead as the ideal likeness of the self (ego). There is pleasure in seeing the male lead exert power and get the girl in the end.

Mulvey subsequently breaks down how these aspects play out in film - how directors position the female lead as the object of the look, how the medium emphasizes female as object (darkened room, you can't see the camera)

She discusses the films of Sternberg & Dietrich, and the construction of Dietrich's characters as erotic objects. Then she goes further into Hitchcock's Marnie, Vertigo, and Rear Window as key examples.

Key Terms
scopophilia - taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze. As in, the film audience's pleasure taken from watching an actress as sex symbol. Voyeurism.