Media Ethnography 2.0 – David Morley revisiting David Morley, 40 years on.

June 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Just spent the morning at lovely Goldsmiths University campus — where the wind, mind you, was blowing in the tall branches of the large oak trees just as it does in Antonioni’s Blow Up*  for a half-day of workshop on media ethnography: “Media Worlds and the Ethnographic Imagination“. The point was to “interrogate ethnographic practices” in film studies, something David Morley, the keynote speaker, addressed heads-on. Morley’s keynote was an update on his 1974 publication “Towards an ethnography of Media Audiences” (published in his 2d year of PhD research?). Morley 2.0 then.

Morley first pointed out how relevant ethnographic media studies could be, as they allow to debunk abstract claims of a “we” in the media audience (or in the West. Is there a “we” in “Western”?), what he called the “abstracted sociology of the postmodern” that supposes all global audiences subsumed by the meanings  and practices of global “cyberspace.” Indeed, for ethnographic media studies, there are multiple media practices, multiple media communities, countless media cultures, where media takes on meanings. And not just media meanings at that, but meanings in cultures. Charged, in the following Q&A, with overstating his case of the absolute centrality of media in audiences’ lives, as media consumption after all does not occupy a majority of what we do in life (debatable, but an interesting debating position nonetheless), Morley brilliantly, and effortlessly, started reorganising the lecturer’s podium and chairs to graphically make the case that television was not only a content-provider that impacted people’s lives only during consumption, but was also what furniture in the (UK) living-rooms was pointing towards. Media, thus, with architectural meaning.

The second point of relevance for an “ethnographic turn” (which happened, by the way, in the 1980s and 1990s) was for Morley to definitely, conclusively and — one would hope — once and for all break the hold that hypodermic, deterministic models of media communication keep having on some parts of media studies. Significantly debunked by more complex models of active spectatorship, and declared dead in mass communication research since at least 1959 (!), hypodermic models are making a troubling come-back with our exposure to New Media. Case in point quoted by Morley: Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brainwhere the Internet, now treated as a creature with some sort of agency of its own (aren’t we supposed to wait for the Singularity for that to happen? Isn’t the Internet, gasp, us, and not the other way around? If we don’t like the Internet, guess what we can do about it…), appears to be responsible, directly at that, for us (who? all of us? only the idiots among us? only the idiots who live in New York City among us? Who is this “we” again? Is that people in China too? Which ones over there?) losing our powers of concentration, of reflection, of profound thinking, of…. Hang on, I’ve heard all this before — in fact, this reminds me of what a lot of old-technology teachers kept on telling me, in low-tech France, back in the 1990s, praising paper technology to me as all this new tech was accused of making scholarly work more superficial — at a time when the Internet was, in fact, and quite unexpectedly, making it possible for researchers like me, in France, with no money, and a desire to account for the full wealth of film wonders, to access documents from distant libraries around the world — thus making reflection, of the scholarly kind (slow, ponderous, boring scholarly thought with lots of inclusions and convoluted sentences) even more possible than before. Ah, the sadness of hypodermic communication theory indeed.

Ethnographic media audience studies, by comparison, of the Morley kind of course, looking at what happens to whom at what times of the day and at what point in the life of actual people in their actual context when they confront media, has brought forth so many uses of media. Two quick examples from this workshop:

  • Julie Archambault, presenting an example from her field-work in Mozambique, on how mobile phones have had profound impact on dating and romantic relationships between young people there, leading to cultural adaptations to navigate new forms of “authenticity” in the expression of feelings, from

1/ “before if I wanted to talk to a girl, I would risk being beaten by her brothers; now I just phone her”, to

2/ “what can this man offer if he can’t even call me back?”, to

3/ mobile phones with magic powers of forcing romantic break-ups as SMS history stored on the phone may reveal cheating.

  • Richard McDonald, presenting preliminary results from his current research into what I would call “spirit spectatorship”: films being projected to no human audience in outdoor installations in north Thailand as ritual practice of bribing the spirits by offering them entertainment. Interestingly, as he points out, the installations rely on 35 mm equipment, rather than the cheaper digital equipment that could be used. The materiality of 35, with large projector, complicated reel changes, noise of the projector, etc., possibly being the actual point in making the offering of value? This is research to watch for: the projectionists, apparently, boast that they know how the spirits watch those films, and what they make of them…

Ethnography, in Morley’s words , helps understand “how audiences perform television-viewing in their natural contexts”. A humbling shift to “how” questions, a turn to the everyday, to the banal, the what “goes without saying”, for, to quote again from this morning, “what goes unsaid is the single most important structuring force of cultural life“.

Brilliant, simple, illuminating, and answering a real need.

*  Antonioni’s Blow Up:  clearly, the film is about the wind in Britain — which I had not realised before coming to live in Britain where trees are works of art and the grass and leaves combine for a cultural masterpiece in green. In itself, I find, this is a good example of how meaning is a construct permanently revisited in the viewers. This is a common occurrence that every media scholar has experienced, yet it is often forgotten by media scholars busy deriving meaning from film semiotics and relying on essential readings of film texts. There is no definitive meaning, there are just meanings deploying through time and places.

Listen, then, the wind **:

**As it turns out, “Listen, The Wind” is the title of at least 2 works that deal in some way with evasion and flights of fancy: Jamaican Roger Mais’ 1943 short story on the wind at night and a young woman’s inner, secret smile, and American Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book recollections of flying with husband Charles (yes, that Charles).




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