The Secret Protest Screening ethnographic project – part 1

September 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve spent a good portion of the summer being frustrated by the folks at Secret Cinema (London)–for reasons best left unsaid.

But then last night I get this:

For reasons of professional interest (the expansion of cinema, fictional presences in everyday life, etc.), I’ve been on Secret Cinema’s mailing list ever since we moved to London. I’ve never been to any of their events — but, surely, this has got to be the one.

And so starts the ethnographic project.

Query: why would people choose to express a protest by going to a movie? a movie they don’t know anything about? in a location they don’t know anything about? How does any of this make any sense, in the face of the plight of the 20 million or so refugees worldwide–or the plight of the more recent ones Europe has been struggling to welcome?

Method: audience ethnographic project. I will embed (with my 15-year old son!) within Secret Cinema’s audience for the evening, and conduct a field investigation. The trick, as usual with ethnography (at least since Malinowski!), is that this will perforce be participant observation

And so the ethnographic project really starts with a research diary: what is my trajectory from non-audience to audience and back? What discourses are framing my attendance? What expectations do I bring? What representations are shaping what I think I will see? How do I construct what hypotheses? And what am I to make of the show?

This is what this diary, over the next 5 days, will trace: my trajectory to the film (or is it a show?), during the performance, and after it.

Monday 7 Sept. 18:21 — reception of Secret Cinema’s commercial email.
My itinerary, my transformation from individual to audience member, to vibrating aesthetic subject (or to commercial subject blindly manipulated, as you wish) really starts as I receive Secret Cinema’s email. (Well it really started earlier, a long, long time ago in fact, but 1) there is literally no end to that regressus ad infinitum and 2) the notes below will indeed elucidate some of what has been building in my trajectory before that commercial sollicitation)

I am sitting at my computer, it is evening, I’ve worked all day at the computer but I should be doing more–I’ve been frustrated over the past couple of hours that I haven’t been able to work as I had planned. There’s an article that needs revising, the deadline is in 3 days. But I’ve had to deal with minor domestic crises (no ink in the printer! No phone service!)–and so I’ve ended up nervously checking The Guardian‘s website for the 1000th time today (like everyday). In terms of me being turned into an audience for entertainment, I should note that this message also comes at a point where we’ve talked, as a family, about our frustration of not doing enough shows, museum visits, films, etc., in London. We want to “make more” of the city. We want, in other words, to become cultural consumers.

I think frustration is a keyword here.

This email attracts my attention for several reasons:

1) I’ve been trying to get more involved to help refugees over the past week — I’ve been trying to get more involved with border issues for months now, in fact I’ve pretty much decided that understanding open borders is what I will be doing in terms of publishing in the next 2 or 3 years. I have several book projects on the topic of borders already in my mind. But getting to do something concrete, useful, apart from sending money…it’s been difficult. At bottom I think I am afraid of contact–in the sense that I overanalyse contact with refugees as being contact with the great unknown, and I am a control-freak. It’s stupid and I hate it, but the reality is this: i haven’t been to Calais, to the Jungle, though I’ve read and crossed it several times (even saw police chasing the people there one night waiting for the Eurostar). I have signed up to help refugees in the UK, though I don’t have a spare-room. I have signed petitions, sent tweets, liked FB pages…but nothing approaching contact.

2) I am disgusted that the UK is not opening its borders to more refugees. If Germany can take the equivalent of 1% of its population (800,000 over one year), so could the UK (this would be 650,000….not the miserable 20,000 over 5 years that the Conservatives have promised today…better than nothing, sure, but paltry). And so the urgency of expressing outrage publicly, as inefficient and self-centred as it may very well be, has been building. I want to put public pressure on governments to do more. “Standing-by” is not an option. But see 1)…. Still, this promises to be a public event.

3) I am indeed intrigued by the concept of a “Protest Screening”. When was the last time attending a movie was a civic gesture? I can count on one hand the films I have seen out of civic duty: Lanzman’s Shoah in a Paris theater, or that documentary about Yitzhak Rabin that I saw in a small downtown Los Angeles theater (was it this film?). These are films I felt I had to make a public point to see–a duty to watch. But here I don’t even know what film they’re going to show us!

So the best I can understand my motivation is,

1) that I feel I have a duty to signal my participation publicly–and indeed, as soon as I buy the tickets, I invite a few London friends via FB to do the same–although there is an added sense of potential danger as I don’t know whether the film will please, shock, move, or disgust me. So, metaphorically speaking, I am willing to be potentially emotionally tossed around (yes, this is a boat metaphor, and I am aware of the creepy link with refugees, but at this point, I wouln’t put it past Secret Cinema to have worked out that metaphor themselves, see the poster for the event). And

“Aren’t you a little short of storm troopers?” asks a pesky FB user

2) that this is the closest I will ever be to doing something together with refugees: I am particularly attracted by the promise that the film will also be shown, at the same time, to the migrants stuck in the Jungle camp in Calais. Yes, this will merely be a virtual connection (in 3 hours there is no time even for Secret Cinema to transport us to Calais and back…), but we will share, and share emotions which is what humans can do. And, to be honest, this doesn’t happen every day at the movies nowadays: audiences, the general claim goes, are fragmented (by age group, sociology, ratings, etc.), and the days of the “evening’s entertainment”, with everything for everyone in the family, are long gone. This promises to create an audience more diverse than we’ve become accustomed to, and isn’t that what cinema is supposed to do best, help us connect, the Esperanto of film, film language as universal language, and so on? Secret Cinema, bringing you face-to-face with fiction..

The nagging suspicion I have, so far, is that of course this is all commercial ploy. Secret Cinema has been trying to position itself as the rediscovery of the joy of cinema — a new Hollywood, as their cover photo of Aug. 21 intimates — and this re-creation of a common civic audience beyond differences (them and us, this side and that side of the border, poor and rich, etc.) smacks of a similar commercial positioning. Also I am not entirely at ease with a for-profi, commercial private company doing politics. The event Facebook page has been posting pro-refugee messages and promoting a very clear, astonishingly (for a private company) aggressive activist stance on the issue–but only since Sept. 2, the day news outlets published the picture of Aylan’s body on the beach: how long has Secret Cinema been supporting the Refugee Council? I can’t say. Are they seeking to exploit this tragedy? I can’t say. And I can’t say either how different this social media build-up is any different from their standard operating procedure and the FB build-up to their summer Star Wars show, for instance. Are they just trying to “put me in the mood”? Am I even supposed to enjoy myself at this show?

At the same time, for any company to take a political stance is gutsy–and sure enough, Secret Cinema is getting negative comments from FB users (“stick to what you know”)–Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 10.32.20but is this also staged? Is it just a ploy to allow them to answer “this is what we know”, so me, reading this exchange, will feel understood in my sympathy for refugees, immersed in a well-meaning and shared space of love and understanding for refugees, a space where I can abandon myself to emotions of pity, gratitude, etc., without a hint of critical disturbance, without, for instance, the dissonance created by this FB user’s ironical question “It will be interesting to see if this tempts any of the people in Calais to hang around there for the rest of the week so they can see the film, or will they try to illegally jump on the back of a lorry in the hope of being in London in time for the UK screening” ?

And so I end up signing up for a host of reasons, but one of which harks back to the best Barnum every did: is it truth, or fiction? Reality, or a hoax? And, honestly, I can’t decide.

Audience studies, through cultural studies

November 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

As usual, David Bordwell’s post on the psychology of movie-watching is essential reading as it surveys a whole century of theories trying to explain what happens in audiences’ minds as they watch movies, engage with them or (as some theories have it), submit to them. It ends, unsurprisingly, with a plea for a naturalistic, cognitivism-based explanation of movie-watching: basically, we make sense of movies because of thousands of years of visual cognition that have allowed us to read visual clues, make inferences, test visual hypothesis about movement, danger, and so on. Films (of the Hollywood narrative kind) are popular because they are easy to follow because they ask for cognitive skills that we are born with.

True as this certainly is, I cannot help but think that there is one aspect of film studies that is conspicuously missing from this account: cultural studies. Yet (especially British) cultural studies have been quite vocal, since the 1980s (30 years ago!), that audience activity in making sense of what they watch had to take into account viewing contexts, local cultures, family habits, and so on. See David Morley’s pioneering work on British TV audiences, or more recently Martin Barker’s work on young audiences to action movies. But none of this makes it into Bordwell’s account, where the drift in explaining movie-watching is universalising, all-encompassing, and in the end so general as to fail to truly explain anything. It’s almost as if Bordwell is looking for the killer-app here: groomed into the fight against Grand Theory, which he has masterfully waged and, in my view, won, he seemed to still be looking for the one theory that will make all theories moot–and that this theory is cognitivism, supported by the non-humanistic (ergo vague?) science of the brain. End of history, end of quest: humanities resting on the firm ground of experimental medical science.

But meaning-making is what we still need to explain: every act of movie-watching is particular. Our eyes may, indeed, spend more time on average looking at the center of the frame — but they do wander to the edges, too. What does a close-up of a tropical plant mean for an audience in Sumatra? In London? to an audience of Polish immigrants in London? How do we account for dreaming at and with the movies? What of the processes of remembering a film to account for the pleasures of cinema? And so on and so forth. Cinema, as proliferating ethnographic studies of audiences establish, still today, in our so globalised world, does not mean at all the same to different audiences around the world… And its circulation, in cultures, memories, expanding media, continues to force us to confront movie-watching as a rich phenomenon.

It seems to me, to simplify, that cognitivism explains why audiences, when confronted to a film, are able to see a coherent object rather than an unrelated hodgepodge of visual stimuli. Just as cognitivism may explain how we are able, when confronted with the multiple stimuli of everyday life, to make make sense of the world around us — as opposed to perceiving a mess of visual impulses. But it does not address the question of meaning. And it certainly does not do justice to the richness of the processes, strategies, imaginaries deployed by audiences when watching a film.

CfP Velvet Light Trap — Performance and the Body

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Readers of this blog may find this CfP interesting:

Historically, studies of performance have often been tied to star images, focusing on issues of celebrity in professional, public, and private spaces. As a result, a large body of research has explored how the star is constructed through extratextual discourses and how this off-screen persona may shape perceptions of on-screen performance. However, scholarly attention to performers has been shifting from star image and celebrity to acting and performance. Several collections on film acting and performance – most recently Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke’s Reframing Screen Performance (2008) and Aaron Taylor’s Theorizing Film Acting (2012) – have extended our knowledge of the historical evolution of acting practices. The editors of The Velvet Light Trap would like to further the ongoing conversation surrounding performance studies by focusing attention on the relationship between performance and the body and the ways in which the body is being performed across the mediums of film, television, and new media.

Such unavoidably embodied performances as Buster Keaton’s physical comedy and Misty Copeland’s athletic Under Armour ad serve to foreground a fundamental, yet often taken for granted, premise: the body is the central locus of performance. Through movement, gesture, facial expressions, and vocalizations, the body provides the basic physical language of performance. Yet this language is neither fixed nor ideologically neutral but is instead continuously shaped and reshaped by historical and cultural pressures brought to bear on the body as contested site of identity. Much scholarly work has been attentive to identity construction and the body: Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), Kathleen Rowe’s The Unruly Woman (1995), and Deborah Harris Moore’s Media and the Rhetoric of Body Perfection (2014), for example, have explored identity issues pertaining to body shaming, body disorders, bodily violence, expressions of sexuality, and gender and sexuality performativity. Moreover, as Baron, Diane Carson, and Frank Tomasulo argue in More than a Method (2004), performative mediations of the body “lie[] at the intersection of art, technology, and culture” (p. 1). Thus, the representational practices through which bodies are enacted offer particularly fertile ground for interrogating the production and reception of performance from both interpretive and historical perspectives. Recent developments in new media (such as video games, social media, YouTube) and digital technologies (such as motion capture, 3D, and Photoshop) may have shifted how the body is viewed, visualized, and altered. The body can now appear in otherwise impossible situations or be changed into otherwise impossible shapes.

Issue #77 of TVLT, “Performance and the Body,” seeks both to advance discussions of the centrality of the body to performance studies and to encourage greater scholarly attention to performative bodies across mediums. The editors are particularly interested in work focusing on the performance of the body through movement and voice; the aesthetic and ideological construction of performative bodies through fashion, makeup, body modification, and digital manipulations; and digital performance of virtual bodies. For this issue, the editors seek to bring together original scholarship that engages new theoretical frameworks, archival sources, and historical perspectives that encourage re-evaluations of this crucial aspect of media studies.

Suggested topics include, but are by no means limited to:

●      Performative bodies and the construction of identity (gender; sexuality; queerness; transgenderism; race; ethnicity; nationality; age; ability; political beliefs; nationalism)

●      Body modification as a performative practice (body augmentation and plastic surgery; extreme weight changes; the use of makeup and prosthetics)

●      Training the performing body (athletic training; military training; dance training; musical training; vocal training)

●      Performing bodily excess (representations of the drugged or drunken body; the grotesque body; death; illness; bodily violence; sex acts)

●      Performing the Other (blackface performance; racial masquerade; performing queerness; cross-gender performance; stereotyping bodies; voices; and accents)

●      The performance of the body through costume and dress

●      Laboring bodies (body doubles; stunt doubles; stand-ins; Steadicam operators)

●      Digital technologies and performance (performance in video and role-playing games; virtual reality user performance; digital resurrection; Photoshopping or airbrushing the body; robotic and non-human performers)

●      Performing animated bodies (vocal performance; motion-capture; rotoscoping; anatomical studies in producing animated bodies)

●      Supporting bodies (background performers; stand-ins; stunt performers)

●      Social media and YouTube (selfies; Instagram; YouTube makeup/fashion tutorials)

●      Non-traditional body performance studies (animal performance)

●      Genre and performance (action film performance and “hard bodies”; performing bodily humor; “body genres”)

●      The body and performance style (early cinema; silent/transitional; classical; Method acting; pastiching performance styles; performance styles in an actor’s “body of work”)

●      Performing “real” bodies (biopics; performers playing themselves; cameo performances)

●      Multiple bodies performing a single character and single performers representing multiple bodies (double casting; body/voice doubles; replacing performers in long-running texts)

●      Fans as performers/producers (reenacting and reproducing performances through cosplay; adjusting celebrity bodies in photo manipulations; fan art; and fan vids)

Submission Guidelines

Submissions should be between 8,000 and 10,000 words, formatted in Chicago style. Please submit an electronic copy of the paper, along with a separate one-page abstract, both saved as a Microsoft Word file. Remove any identifying information so that the submission is suitable for anonymous review. The entire essay, including block quotations and notes, should be double spaced. Photocopies of illustrations are sufficient for initial review, but authors should be prepared to supply camera-ready photographs on request. Illustrations will be sized by the publisher. Permissions are the responsibility of the author. Send electronic manuscripts and/or any questions to

About the Journal

TVLT is a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal of film, television, and new media. It publishes articles and interviews written with the highest scholarly standards yet accessible to a broad range of readers. The journal draws on a variety of theoretical and historiographic approaches from the humanities and social sciences and welcomes any effort that will help foster the ongoing processes of evaluation and negotiation in media history and criticism.

Graduate students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Texas at Austin coordinate issues in alternation. TVLT’s Editorial Advisory Board includes such notable scholars as Charles Acland, Richard Allen, Mark Betz, Michael Curtin, Kay Dickinson, Scott Higgins, Jon Kraszewski, Nicholas Sammond, Jacob Smith, Jonathan Sterne, and Cristina Venegas. TVLT’s local advisors include: Mary Beltrán, Ben Brewster, Jonathan Gray, Michele Hilmes, Lea Jacobs, Derek Johnson, Vance Kepley, Shanti Kumar, Charles Ramírez Berg, Thomas Schatz, and Janet Staiger.

Courtesy of

The Football World Cup for Smart People 6 – The round-up

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Media Res has a special round-up week (starting today!) on the Football World Cup. Short incisive insights to be expected, starting with Thomas Corrigan’s thinly veiled hopes that media broadcasters would have learnt their Napster lesson and would, this time around, go for a more inclusive approach to illegal streaming of football matches. Fat chance!

More to come this week.

Media and Persuasion — where have the last 60 years gone?

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

In 1959, after some 30 years of efforts of communication studies to establish that modern mass media did have terrible deleterious effects on children, could be used for propaganda, manipulated audiences into thinking what they did not want to think, had subliminal effects on audiences, etc. — 30 years, in other words, of  trying to establish the influence of media on supposedly passive audiences, this is what one of the founders of modern communication studies had to say:

this has been called the study of “campaigns”–to sell soap, to reduce prejudice, to induce the enemy to surrender–and this, I think, is what classical mass media research has been about. Even audience research or content analysis, though ostensibly autonomous concerns, my be shown to have been motivated by the problem of short-run effects. The question that best sums up this classical approach, I think, is “What do the media do to people?”

The answer, from study after study, is that the media do less than they had been expected to be able to do.

In the next 60 years or so, we’ve seen media research in audiences veer into more complex studies of the uses of media by audiences, of how communication is a multi-step process, of ethnographic local uses of media cultures, of audience activities — in other words, how media consumption is anything but passive, and how media persuasion is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon — irony, self-reflexivity, media literacy, remediation, all coming into play as audiences, young and old, educated or not, Western or not, meet media texts, flow, and cultures. Clearly, “the media”, still today, “do less than they [are] expected to be able to do.”

And yet, the media are still expected to have tremendous, hidden, magical, witchcraft-like influence on audiences. And I mean not just in the popular press, in the form of regular media panics that shape much of public discourse about media (violence in movies ! Violence in video games! the dangers of virtual reality immersion!). I mean in official, well-funded, very much public research of the kind the Guardian of yesterday reported. As the newspaper reported:

The Californian internet giant [Facebook] has published details of a massive experiment in which it manipulated information posted on 689,000 users’ home pages and discovered that through a process known as “emotional contagion”, it had the ability to make users feel either more positively or more negatively about things without them knowing it. (my emphasis)

Cue readers’ comments about the “The Manufacture of Consent” and the evil powers of Facebook, and the vulnerability of “people” — by definition others, as said commenter has to be, miraculously, exempt from the manipulatory powers of FB :

I suppose the fact of the matter is that most people are not very self aware if not outright stupid. The problem is knowing this how some people conclude that this fact gives them license to manipulate the thought and emotions of the vulnerable or their own purposes usually commercial but often political. Again the basic problem is it works. People really are that dull and many others have no moral qualms about manipulating them.

Now, to be clear, this story is indeed a story of “manipulation” — but the only manipulation that took place is FB manipulating users’ News Feeds without their consent (not to mention the researchers’ manipulation of users’s FB News Feeds without their express consent, in itself a clear breach of research ethics). And there is clear cause for massive outrage over this, though maybe not surprise, given FB’s history of misusing users’ information.

But manipulation of emotions? “Emotional contagion”? Manipulating users’s emotions “without them knowing it”, especially as this only applies to that “vulnerable” Other who is “outright stupid”, but not me? Others who are unconsciously manipulated, but not me?

Quick check on the original research paper reveals shoddy thinking and dubious scientific basis for the original claim, which is, to quote from the research:

emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness

This the “study” achieves by manipulating the degree of positivity (or negativity) that users can read in the messages posted to their News Feed. Several questions off the bat:

  • how do you define a positive message, or a negative message? Simple: “Posts were determined to be positive or negative if they contained at least one positive or negative word”. Good luck irony, double-entendre, hoaxes, jokes and other formulations of the “I could not agree with you more” kind (is that a positive message? a negative one as it has “not” in it?). 
    • UPDATE 30.6.2014I do not have access to the data-analysis tool used by the researcher, but someone who has makes the point that this “method” is even more of a joke as the tool does not, repeat, does not detect negations! In other words, “I am not happy” is coded as a positive message ! Dear me…
  • how do you make sure that a post with a positive word will result in a positive emotion? What’s a positive emotion, by the way? Tell me forty times that I am smart and this will very likely result in several “negative” emotions: 1/ I will get bored and 2/ I will get suspicious and depressed that I am being insulted to my face.
  • how do you measures what people feel in this “experiment”? Simple: you read the posts they post and…well, you get it. Back to our first 2 objections. How sure are you that a positive message reflects or expresses a positive feeling, whatever that means?

Now, let’s ignore those “minor” complications for a second — though from the very start, confusing emotions with the expression of emotions is a huge problem as it treats media (here the media of words, but also the media of social networks) as transparent — which it never is, especially when it says it is.

So, what does our study measure, then, in terms of what it calls “emotional contagion”? This is worth quoting at length:

When positive posts were reduced in the News Feed, the percentage of positive words in people’s status updates decreased by B = −0.1% compared with control […], whereas the percentage of words that were negative increased by B = 0.04% […] . Conversely, when negative posts were reduced, the percent of words that were negative decreased by B = −0.07% […] and the percentage of words that were positive, conversely, increased by B = 0.06% […].

The results show emotional contagion.

I kid you not. This is research from Cornell University, supported by the National Academy of Science in the US. A variation of, at best, 0.1% is deemed proof of “emotional contagion”. 0.1%. Or about the usual amount of people who “vote” against dictators.

Now, to be fair, the authors did recognise that maybe this result was somewhat insignificant. In conclusion:

Although these data provide, to our knowledge, some of the first experimental evidence to support the controversial claims that emotions can spread throughout a network, the effect sizes from the manipulations are small (as small as d = 0.001). These effects nonetheless matter given that the manipulation of the independent variable (presence of emotion in the News Feed) was minimal whereas the dependent variable (people’s emotional expressions) is difficult to influence given the range of daily experiences that influence mood. More importantly, given the massive scale of social networks such as Facebook, even small effects can have large aggregated consequences: For example, the well-documented connection between emotions and physical well-being suggests the importance of these findings for public health

The variation observed is laughably small, but because the network is vast, the effect is potentially big? Wait, the effect is on each individual, therefore it is not, by definition, a network effect. Oh, but wait, there is more: because there is a “connection between emotions and physical well-being”, this is important research for public health? This is how you justify this garbage? Really? Another logical jump unrelated in any way to the study? What other problem responsible for 0.1% of potential public health problem should we spend public money on, tell me?

This is shoddy work, unprincipled, and a money-grabbing initiative with zero scientific basis.

Rhetorics manipulate emotions. It’s often called art, the pleasure of making believe — and, unless you’ve never used FB or any other social network, you have to be aware that a lot of social network activity is about making believe and enjoying the pleasures of the fake — fake identities, exaggerated expressions of feelings, loose sense of “friendship”, on the spur “liking”, etc. — what Martin Barker investigates, in a recent article on online porn, as “the productive possibilities of fantasy”.

But FB cannot make you vote for Dick Cheney or buy a gun “without you knowing it”. Nor can TV, films, video games, bla bla bla. This is the modern form of the age-old dream of humanity of escaping agency and responsibility as exhibited in witch-hunts in medieval days — or, more positively, the age-old desire of humanity of believing in magic, the magic of unmediated communication of self to self. This is the magic — the magic of the agency of art and media —  that should be investigated (not “persuasion”, “manipulation”, and so on), the question that led William Mitchell to write about What Do Pictures Want? (2005):

Why is it that people have such strange attitudes toward images, objects, and media? Why do they behave as if pictures were alive, as if works of art had minds of their own, as if images had a power to influence human beings, demanding things from us, persuading, seducing, and leading us astray? Even more puzzling, why is it that the very people who express these attitudes and engage in this behaviour will, when questioned, assure us that they know very well that pictures are not alive, that works of art do not have minds of their own, and that images are really quite powerless to do anything without the cooperation of their beholders? How is it, in other words, that people are able to maintain a “double consciousness” toward images, pictures, and representations, in a  variety of media, vacillating between magical beliefs and skeptical doubts, naive animism and hardheaded materialism, mystical and critical attitudes? (7)

0.1%. This is how much media “does” anything to you. Researchers have known this since, at least, 1959. Audiences have known this, and enjoyed it, for even longer.

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).



French cinephilia — the source !! in an easy-to-understand video essay !! and all under 50 seconds !!

June 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

 Was just looking at the newly launched project of producing film criticism (and film scholarly criticism to boot) by the InTransitionCinemaJournal team — with notably a series on Bergman’s senses (or is it on the glorious, painful frailty of the human condition? Maybe both [at least!] ?) here when it all came back where I had seen my first video essay.

Actually, I don’t remember when, but all French film-lovers will remember this jingle as it played, every sunday evenings, in introduction to films famous or not, Hollywood or not, during the 1980s (still today!). An introduction that has stayed with us all and must be created for fostering the love of cinema [the love of Hollywood**any difference between the two?**], a lovely rendition of the dialogic nature of films, film as regard, film as mode of regard, film as mode in regard, here and there, the lover and the loved, today and yesterday, from this film to the other, film as “oscillation” (Laura Mulvey).



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