Filed under: Media Studies
Understanding Media Studies Fall 2009
From a young age, I have been exposed to many cultures and perspectives. As a child I spent a few years in Saudi Arabia. While growing up in the Middle East, I was able to travel with my family extensively and became interested in how different cultures seemed to represent themselves, and how we as an ex-patriot community were able to interact with the world from which we came. Throughout my years at Tufts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, I found myself further exploring these ideas through my art, with the added layer of interaction with the Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian traditions. I myself was not raised in either tradition, but became part of the community at an adult age. Susan Friend Harding’s book, The Book of Jerry Fallwell (2000), opened up a new avenue of sociological perspective on what I was already experiencing; Christian Smith’s book of interviews on quantitative data with qualitative assessments also had quite an impact. I was reading these texts while also taking classes with photographer Jim Dow and professor Sarah King at SMFA Tufts, focusing on a deconstructionist approach to art history and cultural studies. Derrida and Foucault’s writings on language and power structures became very important to me in my understanding of the manner of how what we know becomes known. Dow and King co-taught a class on colonialism where primary sources were deconstructed and re-viewed within a post-colonial framework. From here I was introduced to Edward Said, who further helped me to develop my understanding of how we create knowledge, in what community, and towards what end. It was through these studies of Said that I became more aware of my own intellectual and cultural prejudices that colored my work.
My artwork at the time dealt with the gaps between Christian televangelism, ideology, practice, and the perception of those concepts by people from outside the community. Ideas such as media is the message among others which I gleaned from from The Essential McLuhan (2007) , and Postman’s chapter, “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem” from Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985),” contained fascinating perspectives, and were very influential. In my class “The Death of Painting” with Ron Rizzi, which was a practice and theory class, we started contemplating the question of why
do we paint in a digital age? It was here that I was introduced to Benjamin, Adorno, and Zizek. The added dimension of class consciousness and cultural production spheres added depth and new avenues of interest to those that I had already been pursuing. Issues of separation between “authentic” and “mediated” experiences increasingly manifested in my installation work. Attempting to create spaces for experiencing the in-between spaces in life, and acknowledging our own structures and creating spaces to dialogue in within the common ground. My photographic body of work, “Traditions Project,” was a visual investigation of communities of faith which profess the Nicene creed. T he crux of the project was that these communities of faith all hold the same profession of faith as central to their ideology, yet through exploring their spaces that cultivate these comunities and the artifacts left behind, one can tell that there is a wide variety of interpretation occurring. The converted garage from an old ranch house in Las Vegas which acts as a halfway house and still has oil stains on the floor, juxtaposed with the liberal congregation on Boston’s affluent Newbury street with Louis Comfort Tiffany chandeliers are markers of the people who communicate to their God there. The finished series was displayed as part of Boston’s “First Night, New Years” celebration in 2004, and seen by an estimated 2,200 people the first night. The exhibition stayed up in the lobby of the historical Park Street Church and was also viewable from the historic Granary burial ground through the glass window separating the two.
I found in the process of building this work that during the critiques, many people would react from their own predetermined viewpoints, prejudices, and experiences rather than engage the work in the context presented. The most notable (and disturbing) to me at the time was one person who kept repeating, “this makes me think of raped little boys” while looking at a picture of a window and a pew. Some of the people offering critiques seemed to be conscious of the framework within which they were working, some completely oblivious. The attitude that everything goes in a critique– that anything can be displayed, shown, and talked about was being tested as many were saying, “oh, you can talk about everything, just not that!” I was able to make sense of these reactions through the theoretical inquiry that I had been pursing. Habermas’ writings upon the social spheres, public and private, that we are conditioned to have our roles and to fulfill them– as well as Adorno’s conjecture that we are all part of the culture industry and conditioned to take our places– were being enacted by the same people who proclaimed to be free from such boundaries.
During this time, I was also studying Modern Chinese History, the time period often marked from the end period of the Qing dynasty to the establishment of the PRC, and Chinese Film. I found that in my classes the same types of issues arose again; specifically many people in the discussions were more involved in their own summary and interpretations, rather than starting a dialogue with the information presented. Sometimes this was not the fault of the person involved: it may have been a mistranslation from the text, or the film we were watching, which created another interesting avenue of inquiry as far as what happens to those who are dependant on a third party for the accurate translation of a text (in the broad sense). One such example involved the film, Sacrificed Youth (Qingchun Ji), directed by Zhang Nuanxin (1987.) In one class, taught by an American who did not speak fluent Chinese, we took the subtitles at face value and the entire lecture was based upon the end of the movie in which the heroine returned to the village where she had been sent during the cultural revolution time period, to find it destroyed. In another class, taught by a Chinese professor from Shanghai, she told us that the subtitles were incorrect– the destroyed village was actually the neighboring village of the heroine’s love interest, changing the entire meaning of the ending sequence of the movie and arguably the entire film.
This misinformation, was then turned into an entire lecture which became disinformation. I think that during our changing times, it is important that we learn from cultural exchanges of the past. Most places in the world have some form of access to the internet now, but not all of them have it widely, accesible, unfiltered and without restrictions. The entire world does not enjoy freedom of speech, nor what many in “developed” nations like to call rights of expression. That being so, does that mean that we in these “developed” have a right or obligation to make them like us? Or, does it mean that we need to reflect on how their customs came into being and how they influence us as we influence them and become bi-lateral agents of change in dialogue. I’m fascinated by Mitchell’s compilation of essays in High Technology in Low Income Communities, as well as Kale Lassn’s ongoing global crusade against big media dominance and a quest for a way to have a viable global non-commercial dialogue.
I personally want to study the period of Chinese– specifically Shanghai’s– cultural development from 1919-1949, rather the May 4th movement (五四运动) through the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. During these years, Shanghai experienced many reactions and protests by scholars reacting to imperialistic forces and growing nationalist tendencies. This then became the “New Culture Movement” (1915-1921) in which European and Amerian literature stimulated Chinese intellectual and cultural thought. These three turbulent decades also saw the occupation of China by Japan, and increased foreign interest and involvement until the civil war and eventual establishment of the PRC. I hope that in studying how media played a role in this time period, that we may be able to glean some insights as to how to navigate our current complicated media framework.
As an educator here at the New School I am very happy that it has given me the opportunity to study these theories in our great and diverse student body. Our faculty here are also from very many diverse backgrounds, both culturally and academically. I am looking froward to continuing in the New School’s tradition of progressive and inclusive education.
1. Harding, Susan F. The book of Jerry Falwell : fundamentalist language and politics 2000
2. Derrida,Jacques, Caputo, John D. Deconstruction in a nutshell : a conversation with Jacques Derrida 1997
3. Bentham, Jeremy, Barou, Jean-Pierre, Foucault, Michel, Perrot, Michelle, Le Panoptique 1977
4. Said, Edward W. Orientalism 1978
5. McLuhan, M., McLuhan, E., & Zingrone, F. (1997). Essential McLuhan. London: Routledge
6. Postman, Neil. Amusing ourselves to death : public discourse in the age of show business 1985
7. “The Work of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” Benjamin, Walter: reprint Durham, Meenakshi G., Kellner, Douglas. Media and cultural studies : keyworks 2001
8. “Culture Industry as Mass Decption” Adorno, Theodore: reprint Ibid. 7
9. Zizek, Slavoj. On belief 2001
10. Habermas, Jurgen. The structural transformation of the public sphere : an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society 1989