The Mass Mummy Society

Unknown
I don’t read mummy blogs. If I want ‘reality’ I’ll go make my own children a sandwich. I am, however, fascinated by the theory of mummy bloggers and their cultural products. I have been reading about the mass society theory of media, as explained by McQuail (2005, pp. 77-109), and I will attempt to answer the question of whether mummy-blogging exhibits any of the features of this theory. McQuail says “new electronic media gives rise to a neo-utopian vision of what society can become, that runs counter to the central mass society thesis” (McQuail 2005, p. 95). I initially thought that the power of mummy-blogging as an example of niche-media brought into question the validity of the mass society theory, but on investigation, I was disappointed to find it a pretty good fit.

The ‘mass’ theory of media suggests a centrally constructed view of the world, a “substitute” or “pseudo-environment” (McQuail 2005, p. 94), its content reflective of producers’ political interests. The popular Woogsworld blog states a focus on “documenting the daily mundane” (Mrs Woog 2013), reflecting (yes, ok, mediated) reality concerned with normalizing the subjective ‘normal’ – hardly political. But recently Julia Gillard ‘cosied up’ to mummy bloggers, ostensibly to show an interest in ‘women’s issues’, hoping to gain “maximum advantage” from the association (Grattan 2012). With all this public attention on the power of this ‘mass niche’, I wonder if the quasi-feminist politics of mummy-blogging will become more overt in the future? I also wonder if the flattery of having Julia Gillard eat your homemade jam (Gillard 2012) outweighs the feeling of being “used for manipulation and control” (McQuail 2005, p. 20), forever a wielder of scone-soft power?

A couple of the factors that McQuail associates with the mass society theory of media are closely intertwined when it comes to mummy-blogs: economic interests and identity. He states a feature of the mass society theory of media is that “people depend on media for identity” (McQuail 2005, p. 20). In a culturally and geographically atomized society like Australia, compounded by the fact that mum-audiences have often left their professional identities behind, it’s easy to see how mummy-blogs could be essential providers of ‘identity life-support’. It seems mummy-bloggers are gaining economic power as a result of their relatability, with B&T saying “Consumers recognise and trust this authenticity, which makes them incredibly powerful for brands to work with” (Media Watch 2012). It seems the mass society of identifying mothers has ultimately been commodified.

Utopian theories of media promise dialogical communication, but the popularity of a small number mummy-blogs means that while dialogue with producers is possible, production is still largely centralized. Commenting and social media provide contact with media producers, but the ratio of ‘successful’ producers to audience suggests that true dialogue is largely imagined. At first I really thought that the example of mummy-blogging would invalidate the mass society theory of media, but when society is structured around gaining political and economic power through one’s identity as a producer and product (i.e. the values of the entire blogosphere), it’s probably not all that surprising. Ugh. I feel deflated now. I am going to go make my kids a sandwich.

References

Gillard, J 2012, ‘Julia Gillard (JuliaGillard) tweets..’, Tweetwood.com, viewed 10 January 2013, <http://tweetwood.com/JuliaGillard/tweet/218840542736424961>.

Grattan, M 2012, ‘PM cosies up to mummy bloggers’, SMH, viewed 10 January 2013, <http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/pm-cosies-up-to-mummy-bloggers-20121209-2b3gm.html>.

Media Watch 2012, ABC1, video and transcript, viewed 10 January 2013, <http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3616210.htm>.

McQuail, D 2005, ‘Theory of media and theory of society’, in McQuail D (ed.), McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory, McQuail, Sage, London, pp. 77-109.

Mrs Woog 2013, Woogs World, viewed 10 January 2013, <http://www.woogsworld.com/>.

Picture: Making amigurumi sandwiches helps me multitask my maternalism.

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Quitting Facebook – it’s all academic

overs

I’m one of the hipsters who recently quit Facebook. And for the next 400 odd words, I am going to pretend that my decision was calculated, rational, and rooted in my deep understanding of media and its complications. I’ll deconstruct Facebook, Thompson-style , explaining why it could be considered a ‘hybrid’ medium (1995, p. 6), containing elements of face-to-face interaction, mediated interaction and mediated quasi-interaction. Then, I will use this logic to vent a teensy bit of opinion.

Facebook’s space/time constitution
Facebook provides functionality for communications to be sent and received in real time, via ‘live’ streaming and ‘chat’, however, archiving allows users to dip in and out at leisure. As such, its temporal constitution shares characteristics with face-to-face, mediated and mediated quasi-interaction. The “activity of reception” (Thompson 1995, p. 10) often takes place in face-to-face situations as well as online; it’s not uncommon for users to check Facebook on mobile devices while in each others’ presence, using what they read as a “stimulus for interaction” (Thompson 1995, p. 8). During my time as a Facebook addict, I observed that couples in the same spatio-temporal setting – their house – would often make cloying comments on each others’ streams. I used to wonder if this was part of their ‘front’ (Goffman in Thompson 1995, p. 9), a gratuitous mediated PDA providing ‘evidence’ of the loved-up-ness of their relationships. Gross.

Symbolic cues and Facebook
Facebook interaction is “mediated symbolic exchange” on speed. Like mediated interaction and mediated quasi-interaction, Facebook narrows the range of available symbolic cues, accentuating text communication (Thompson 1995, p. 4). Facebook even has its own paralanguage, its symbols intensely tied up with institutional values. ‘Liking’, despite being a near-passive act, has become performative and quantifiable. Relationships can be cut short by ‘blocking’ or ‘unfriending’, enabling an interaction users would be unlikely to perform face-to-face. Thompson states, “participants must always consider how much contextual information should be included in (an) exchange” (1995, p. 4), however his wise words are often unheeded, with users of this new media seemingly confused about the locations of their ‘backs’ and ‘fronts’ (Goffman in Thompson 1995, p. 9): exaggerated intimacy and mundanity are frequently confused with ‘authenticity’ (apparently details of orgasms are not off-limits), while contradictory pictorial contrivances are posted as ‘evidence’ of attractiveness and happiness.

Action orientation? Dialogical or monological?
Facebook culture represents a contemporary desire to be a mass-producer of media (mediated quasi-interaction), while accruing a mass-dialogical ‘fan’ base (mediated and face-to-face interaction). I question whether this is realistic for the average user. Users broadcast ‘status’ updates, shaped by an imagined “reciprocity and personal specificity” (Thompson 1995, p. 5). Volume of interactions is valued, raising questions about whether ‘friends’ really can be considered “specific others”, like those addressed with mediated and face-to-face communications (Thompson 1995, p. 6). Without getting into highly subjective (and heated) arguments about whether Facebook friends represent real relationships, I will make a telling confession: I have, on occasion, seen ‘online-only’ friends in the street, pulled down my hat, thrown on my sunglasses and walked on by.

Conclusion
Quasi-face-to-face, Quasi-mediated, quasi-mediated-quasi-interaction – Facebook has it all! You may find a few rational reasons in this post to reconsider your relationship with the complex beast that is Facebook. And if not, don’t think me more-academic-than thou, even for a second: The true reason I quit Facebook was because all of my coolest friends did!

Reference

Thompson, John B 1995, ‘The rise of mediated interaction’ in Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media, California, Stanford University Press, pp. 81-118

Reimagining Media – Three works McLuhan would have loved

I have to admit that I’m not used to writers in the field of sociology who “refus(e) to moralize” (Scannell 2007, p. 135). So my first reading of Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” was deeply frustrating (1964). It wasn’t until I read Paddy Scannell’s ‘gloss’ that I was able to figure out what kind of mind I was trying to scrutinize. McLuhan is at once talkative and obtuse, hyperbolic yet without judgement. The man simply wanted to understand media – he was the first theorist to bother (Scannell 2007, p. 136). In the spirit of ‘McLuhanism’, I present three works which inspire much chin-stroking and verbosity (up to 500 words of course!)

The Road – Cormac McCarthy
While The Road (2006) is a linear narrative, unlike McLuhan’s preferred ‘mosaic’ form (Scannell 2007, p. 139), McCarthy’s tale begins at the apocalyptic ‘end’ of Western civilization. And the uncertainty of the human race at the novels’ end could hardly be called “narrative closure” (Barthes Eco in Scannell 2007, p. 132). McCarthy rejects generic ‘rules’ of syntax, creating an arbitrary system belonging only to him. At times his writing resembles ‘stream of consciousness’, resulting in the “intimate and involving” prose which both McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis had judged the exclusive property of orality. This example of metafiction brings the author into the reader’s line of sight (Barthes 1967). In a break from Realism, the medium is self-consciously and unapologetically ‘the novel’, not a claim to render a fictional universality with the grossly inadequate written word.

4’33” – John Cage
What is the medium here? Cage’s masterpiece is a metaphysical question about the “formal properties” of silence (Scannell 2007, p. 134). The composition is a sociologist’s dream : hundreds of listeners struggle to maintain a ‘front’ (Goffman in Abercrombie, Hill & Turner 2000) deafened by their inner monologues, willing hungry tummies to be quiet. The original performance was intimately tied to ‘place’ (Scannell 2007, p. 137), the formal setting and its attendant expected behaviours forming a crucial part of the mediation. Recently the piece was reimagined as a charity single for the Royal British Legion; celebrities performed, recorded and then commodified silence. The organisers also ascribed a social value to the project, citing the “poignancy of silence” as a medium of remembrance (Wallop 2010).

The Ascent – Yehuda Duenyas
This interactive installation allows unadulterated, unmediated brainwaves to ‘perform’ a communicable action. Or does it? Is this transcendental ‘evidence’ a form of communication? And does the EEG-driven apparatus change, expand or limit the message? I’m afraid that is a question for a wiser Zen master than I, but what I do know is that McLuhan would have been intrigued. He speaks prophetically about the “final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness”, (Scannell 2007, 135) but this installation pushes Singularity theories to their limit, suggesting that one day humans may have technologically mediated quasi-embodied experiences which defy space and time.

References

Abercrombie, N, Hill, S, & Turner, BS, 2000, Dictionary of Sociology, Penguin Reference, London, p. 155.

Barthes, R 1967, ‘The Death of the Author’, viewed 6 January 2013, <http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf>.

McCarthy, C 2006, The Road, Alfred. A. Knopf, New York.

McLuhan, M 1964, ‘The medium is the message, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, The MIT Press, Massachusetts, pp. 7-21.

Scannell, P 2007. Media and Communication, Sage, London.

The Ascent 2007, Viewed 6 January 2013,
<http://theascent.co/>.

Wallop, H 2010, ‘Two minutes’ silence released as a charity single’, The Telegraph, viewed 6 January 2013, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/8115674/Two-minutes-silence-released-as-a-charity-single.html >.

Dumb Ways to Disseminate?

I’m a podcast nut. I let podcasts mediate my news, my literature, even my experience of viral marketing. Hardly anything gets to me unfiltered by my medium-du-jour. This is how I initially experienced the Dumb Ways to Die rail safety awareness campaign by Melbourne’s Metro Trains. I’ve been participating in a hyperreal experience of the campaign via ABC’s Common Knowledge (ABC Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012) and analysis on Mumbrella (Hughes 2012 and Mumbrella 2012). They’ve led me to thoughts on virality and the essential interplay between the effects (transmission) and the culturalist (ritual) views of communication.

I often hear advertising creative friends complain about digital briefs which are accompanied by the demand ‘Make it go viral’, as though this can be contrived. Many articles claim that it can, and Carey would probably attribute the action of ‘sharing’ to the cultural view of media, namely creative elements which generate and reflect “fellowship” and “commonality” (Carey 2002, p. 39). But, as Tim Burrowes points out (ABC Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012), awareness campaigns are traditionally for the purpose of saving (or controlling) lives – a function aligned with the effects model. Ritual is harnessed to disseminate, but the measuring of click behaviour seems to have usurped the importance of accounting for offline behavioural change; ‘Effects’ measurements have been amputated at the metrics.

Viral media represents an additional process in the hypodermic model: instead of a central source ‘injecting’ passive receivers (Gitlin 1978, p. 210), the receivers ‘infect’ others. As Carey says, “communication is a process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people” (Carey 2002, 36). Viral marketing achieves this end exponentially, but I question whether online distribution is enough to affect social and behavioural change: Is sharing-by-click too passive to do the job? Under the culturalist model, sharing would attest to a campaign’s success – and for a branding campaign, a viral result would be more than adequate. This campaign has the potential to save lives, but with efficacy measured in clicks and shares, we may never know if its popularity has averted a death.

Carey hints at the flaw in viral outcomes: measuring effects in numbers alone is just easier. Media pundits have historically congratulated viral marketers on their statistical ‘scorecards’, while questions about cultural influences like demographics are unpopular (ABC Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012). With a viral result, the question of whether a cutesy jingle and some fluffy graphics stack up to the bone-crunchingly graphic ‘offensive’ style awareness campaigns of the past becomes moot. Carey explains the resistance to cultural view of media, saying “This intellectual aversion to the idea of culture derives in part from obsessive individualism” and says that culture “provides ethnocentric error” (Carey 2002, p. 40). It’s easy to see how virality as an end in itself can be very seductive for campaign creators. Record stats achieved amid much peer-gushing? Job done!

Criticism and questioning like that by Hugh Stephens in a subsequent Mumbrella post may hail the eventual maturation of virality as a discrete medium (Hughes 2012). It seems the question finally being asked is not how to transmit the message to the most people in the shortest space of time (transmission), but how to then make those messages stick in the minds of the people who need to hear them most (culture). Dissemination is only part of the equation: culture can be harnessed to distribute a message, but equating “vanity metrics” with social change is a dangerous model of efficacy (Hughes 2012).

References

Carey, J 2002, ‘A cultural approach to communication’, in McQuail D (ed.), McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory, McQuail, Sage, London, pp. 36-45.

Gitlin, T 1978, ‘Media sociology: The dominant paradigm’, Theory and Society, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 205-253.

Hughes, S 2012, Stop using vanity metrics to measure behaviour change, Mumbrella, viewed 3 January 2013, <http://mumbrella.com.au/stop-using-vanity-metrics-to-measure-behaviour-change-126713>.

Mumbrella 2012, Metro Trains ‘Dumb ways to die’ video goes viral, viewed 3 January 2013, <http://mumbrella.com.au/metro-trains-dumb-ways-to-die-video-goes-viral-126171>.

Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012, Dumb Ways to Die and TLDR, Podcast, viewed 12 December 2012, <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/commonknowledge/november-25/4382126&gt;.

Selling normality – racialized healthcare in visual culture

all together smokes layered blog

A cursory reading of the Give Up Smokes for Good awareness campaign by South Australian Drug and Alcohol Services shows strong, successful, overtly Aboriginal sporting and acting celebrities, confronting Indigenous youth about the futility of smoking. This paper, however, is an attempt to invoke a less docile reading. Elements such as framing, context and casting, facial characteristics, design, and the presentation and subtext of type layers, will be analyzed in relation to the terms ‘normalization’ and ‘the gaze’. The creators of this campaign have applied a visual strategy traditionally associated with marketing and consumption, to an awareness campaign designed to change behaviour. The following analysis supports the theory that the participants’ gaze, while an attempt at ‘cut-through’ via “subject-to-subject recognition” (Kaplan in Hawthorn 2004, 139), is complicated by the forces of global, normative culture.

travis

Foucault’s use of them term ‘the gaze’ describes the power relationship between the viewer and the subject (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 442). For women as subjects in film, the male gaze would infer objectification of a female subject (Hawthorn 2004, 138); surveillance cameras denote a controlling gaze (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 108); ethnic typological photography exerts a colonial gaze (Pugliese 2012, 6). Schirato and Webb explain that “while the notion of the scientific gaze refers to a set of operations that help produce the visual world, the concept of normalization extends this operation to take into account how the effects of that gaze are manifested socially, culturally and politically” (Schirato and Webb 2004, 140). An initial reading of the Give Up Smokes for Good campaign suggests an authorial intent to establish a mutual gaze, however further investigation reveals oppositional elements (hooks in Hawthorn 2004, 139).

bbfaireyblog

Rejecting the passivity of the colonial gaze (Pugliese 2012, 8), the subject confronts the viewer from within the image, interpellating their young, Indigenous intended-audience. However, the campaign creators have asked subjects to ‘oppositionally gaze-on-demand’. In contemporary artist Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls, the gaze is directed onto lewd, white Australian males hoping to indulge in some Indigenous exoticism (Moffatt 1987). But while Moffatt creates a self-authored representational corrective of female Indigeneity, the creators of this campaign do not hail from a culture equipped to enable Indigenous self-management of the gaze. The portraits are compositionally reminiscent of iconic images of oppression, like the film rendition of George Orwell’s Big Brother and Shepard Fairey’s OBEY street posters featuring Andre the Giant. The omnipotence of their eye contact surveils the viewer. The effect, however, is that the normalising authorial intent undermines the potency of the gaze, mostly empowering institutions with vested interests in normalization.

Schirato and Webb explain normalisation as “the ways in which discourses, ideas and practices associated mostly with the government and other sites of power . . . establish norms against which people are measured (and measure themselves) to determine whether they are ‘normal’. (2004, 196). This concept is linked closely with what Foucault called biopower. Foucault believed that administering health care, the labour market, and the military, were all more controllable if people managed their own health and behaviour (in Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 109-110). People outside ‘norms’ pose control issues, are potentially unproductive and costly; Self-surveillance is an extremely economical way for societies and the powers which control them to manage bodies. Not only is the notion of a racialized healthcare campaign in and of itself normalising, the visual analysis of this campaign reflects the roots of normalization in science, and provides clues about the ways in which biopower is catalysed by contemporary aspirational culture.

curtisallblog

The full face close-up portraits of “hand-picked” (Campaign Brief 2012) subjects suggest an authorial intent to establish a kind of confrontational intimacy with the intended audience: young Indigenous smokers. The photographs, with their high level of detail and lack of context, have “evidentiary status”, providing ‘scientific’ proof of the good health of the subjects (Pugliese 2012, 3). The cropping of contextual elements and the stylised design also create the effect of stripping the subjects of individual identity and diversity. Skin tones are suspiciously homogenous (as a result of post-production or careful casting, the viewer cannot be sure), and the set appears to be lit to darken already-serious eyes. Pores and hair are visible, suggesting ‘authenticity’, however these details give the images an equally ethnographic quality, reminiscent of American frontier photographer Edward S. Curtis’ cataloguing of ‘Indian-ness’ (Vizenor 2000). The ethnographic documentary recording of the subject has a dehumanising effect, further eroding the intended power of the gaze.

Celebrity plays an overt and covert role in normalization (Schirato and Webb 2004, 147): celebrities play a crucial role in capitalist hegemony when they are paid to endorse products, but in this example, they have been co-opted to encourage self-surveillance. As such, these subjects are complicit in marketing ‘normality’ to their cultural group. The advertisements use ‘aspirational’ subjects, with campaign credits placed at the bottom of a ‘hero’ image; The layout is suggestive of film poster design, creating an intertextual link between the campaign’s message and stardom. The messages inherently associate being smoke-free with super-normal success, with the text of the messages inseparable (graphically and symbolically) from the subjects: The subjects live through the message. It is interesting to note the lighter coloured skin of the message’s transparent text layer – a Derrida devotee might read the skin as being symbolically ‘purified’ by the text, light (as binarily opposed to dark) being morally the privileged tone.

Kriger posits that Indigenous health inequalities are actually “biological expressions of race relations” (in Patychuk 2011, 8). Diane Patychuk’s report on (American) Indigenous health equality places much emphasis on recognising diversity in the creation and implementation of racialized health promotion programs (Patychuk 2011). She cites racism, poverty and food security as just some of the factors at the core of health inequality for Indigenous people (Patychuk 2011, 6). As such, celebrity-surveillance and the simplistic conflation of fame, success and good health seem like dangerously wasted time and resources. Analysis of these images, with their omnipotent gaze following the intended subject, hail an Indigenous panopticon, employing Aboriginal eyes in the hope of recruiting yet more “docile bodies” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 110).

References

Campaign Brief. 2012. ‘Drug & Alcohol Services SA targets indigenous youth in anti-smoking campaign via Jamshop’. Campaign Brief. Accessed December 14.

Hawthorn, Jeremy. 2004. A Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Arnold.

Moffatt, Tracey. 1987. Nice Coloured Girls. Accessed December 14.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjj5uVr3PBs

Patychuk, Diane. 2011. ‘Health Equity and Racialized Groups: A Literature Review.’ Health Nexus. Accessed December 14. http://www.healthnexus.ca/projects/building_capacity/HealthEquityRacializedGrps_Literature_Review.pdf

Pugliese, Joseph. 2012. ‘Week 3 Scientific Visuality and the other’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed December 14.  http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/pluginfile.php/1654228/mod_resource/content/1/Week%203%20Scientific%20Visuality%20and%20the%20other%20PDF.pdf

Schirato, Tony, and Jen Webb. 2004. Reading the Visual. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Sturken, Marita  and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices of Looking. New York: Oxford University Press. http://www.campaignbrief.com/2012/04/drug-alcohol-services-sa-targe.html

Vizenor, Gerald. 2000. ‘Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist’. Accessed December 14. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ienhtml/essay3.html

#itriedtobeauthenticbut

johncitizen

“I would love to think that a highly traditional Australian Aboriginal, who is nevertheless charismatic and inspirational in modern Australia as well, might enter the Federal Parliament.” – Tony Abbott (ABC News 2012)

Statements like this are easy targets for critical analysis. However, global modes of dissent have made it possible to address such statements as ultimately dialogic, with media like Twitter enabling timely and highly visible oppositional responses. This paper demonstrates how the politics of Tony Abbott’s statements, and the subsequent creation of the hashtag #itriedtobeauthenticbut, can be understood using whiteness theory. Tony Abbott’s comments will be framed as a product of Australia’s culture of ‘tolerance’. Tweets in response will be examined with reference to key issues in whiteness theory, namely invisibility, whiteness as property and issues of power in representation. The ‘conversation’ shall be treated as a single cultural text, or dialogue, but ‘politics’ will be shown to be multifaceted, that is, not only concerned with governance, but infiltrating power structures in media and popular culture.

Tony Abbott’s statements, as reported by ABC News, represent an ill-received attempt at token ethnic engineering (2012). Apparently Abbott underestimated the diversity of Indigenous identity, delineating Aboriginal politicians as being exclusively “urban” or “authentic”. His comments fit perfectly into Hage’s theory of tolerant, multicultural Australia as White fantasy (1998). Hage believes that tolerance, as the central tenet of multiculturalism, is founded on a racist power imbalance. Hage cites Preston King: “Where we empower an agent to be tolerant, we empower him equally to be intolerant” (in Hage 1998, 9). Abbott beneficently ‘invites’ more ‘authentic’ Indigenous politicians into his space, namely parliament. As Hage’s paper makes clear, Abbott’s comments “confirm an image of the White Australian as a manager of national space” (1998, 91).

Ten years ago there may have been quiet and personal outrage on the parts of Indigenous individuals. However last week’s participatory response via Twitter sparked a national debate, with traditional media stoushing against individuals taking collective action, and even a well-known Indigenous academic attacking dissenters (Robinson, Kelly and Burns 2012). The hashtag backlash quickly trended, albeit only in urban areas (Pearson 2012b). The instigator of the Twitter response, who goes by the handle @Ebswearspink, quipped that “The days of marching in the street for indigenous rights are over…But change is happening when people aren’t looking” (in Harmer 2012). The statement seems at best simplistic: As Hardt and Negri posit, global participatory media contains its own politics and power imbalances: the language of dissent is available only to participants in the dominant culture, in this case Indigenous players on the right/white side of the global digital divide (in Schlunke 2008).

According to Cheryl Harris, whiteness is intrinsically linked to entitlement (1993). She explains the roots of whiteness in law in the USA, saying:

“According whiteness actual legal status converted an aspect of identity to a vested interest. The Law’s construction of whiteness defined and affirmed critical aspects of identity (who is white); of privilege (what benefits accrue to that status); and, of property (what legal entitlements arise from that status)” (Harris 1993, 1725).

Whiteness is also characterised by invisibility. O’Connell elaborates, saying that whiteness is “unspoken”, and that “A condition of privilege is the capacity to have one’s identity left uninterrogated” (2007, 36). But Audrey Thompson points out that if the privileges of the white are threatened, their whiteness becomes hypervisible (2001). This was exemplified in Andrew Bolt’s opinion piece “White is the New Black” (2009). Bolt’s position was that those he named were attempting to benefit materially from both white privilege, as a result of their lighter skin, and their Aboriginality, simultaneously; his tone implied that this was akin to rorting. Bolt’s piece also singled out land rights activists, a perceived direct threat to white material entitlement and power in Australia. Twitter user Hannah Donnelly appears to recognise this threatened white status, and its opposing reality, reflecting with acute irony “#itriedtobeauthenticbut the local council won’t recognise our shared custodianship & I do actually have to pay all those parking fines” (2012).

While most of the #itriedtobeauthenticbut dialogue was by unknowns getting hard-won satisfaction from laughing in the face of absurdity, stakeholders like academic and writer Dr Anita Heiss added weight to the critical debate. Her tweet “#Itriedtobeauthenticbut I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to join the dots…. Just paint them!” was an intertextual statement demonstrating a theoretical and lived understanding of whiteness theory (2012). The actual – not just the metaphorical – Indigenous culture industry is awash with complications as a result of its binary ‘positioning’ as either ethnographic or Art. Laura Fisher explains that “Ethnography is usually associated with colonialism, primitivism and regarded as circumscribing the art, while Art is posited as unequivocally progressive and good” (Fisher 2012, 2). In art world politics, as in politics generally, the white dominant culture is usually doing the “positing”.

Hage and hooks talk about the Other being defined in terms of its value to whites, for Hage in terms of cultural and economic contribution (Hage 1998), and hooks in terms of the extent to which Otherness can be onsold or commodified (hooks 1992). This is certainly evident in Philip Batty’s “Saluting the dot-spangled banner”, where he claims sacred Indigenous iconography has become white Australia’s cultural property. Its ‘utility value’ is its ostensible usefulness in representing a happy, whole, multicultural Australia (1998). He cites not only events such as the Atlanta Olympics closing ceremony, but cultural appropriation by multinationals like QANTAS, aiming at once to define and cash-in on ‘Australianness’. Fiona Nicoll cites numerous examples of white Australia’s possessive relationship to Indigenous people (2008). In these examples, possession and use-value mark Indigeneity as something to be valued and packaged by the dominant white culture.

Twitter user Olivia Slater joked “#itriedtobeauthenticbut I prefer my toes painted hot pink instead of caked in red ochre” (2012). Luke Pearson wise-cracked “#Itriedtobeauthenticbut the security guards at Coles get REALLY shitty when you walk around the meat aisle spearing roo steaks” (2012). Their irony reveals a desire for Indigenous self-representation. Barthes speaks of “myths” of representation (in Hall 1997) which often reveal nationalist fantasies of harmony, and the above tweets certainly indicate opposition to such unilateral mythmaking. The politics of media in Australia reflect the power imbalances of mainstream politics, with ideas of what Indigeneity should look like defined by industry power brokers, like casting agents and producers. The agendas of the powerful feed into these representations, which then feed into mainstream culture in a kind of limiting stereotype-loop.

Casey and Siron track the representation of, and representation by Indigenous actors in Australian popular culture. They summarise the paradoxes of Indigeneity as represented by entertainment media, speaking of the “implicit demand that the Indigenous actor not only be ‘black’ as the ‘Aboriginal character’, but also white, fulfilling the invisible norm of the ideal white actor in a context in which they and their stories are marked as white Australia’s Other” (2005, 111). Their paper echoes Hage’s writing on space as property when they say that “Implicit in the framing of Indigenous actors as the racialized other, and the benevolent inclusion of these actors on these terms, is the unspoken claiming of the professional theatrical space by the dominant white group as a form of property which they are choosing to share” (2005, 111).

The examined Twitter responses to Tony Abbott’s gaffe demonstrate an embodied everyday experience of whiteness theory. Responses reflect structures of whiteness as uninterrogated identity, whiteness as entitlement, and whites as managers of space. Social media enables ‘global’ participation in such political struggles, however new media ironically excludes many from this circumscribed democracy: the coloniser has been replaced by an also-colonising and domineering global culture. While the origin of this debate is in conventional Australian politics, this paper has demonstrated how inequities infiltrate the politics of culture industries, complicating even those with the most potential for furthering Indigenous self-determination.

For full reference list, click here.

Image by the contemporary artist I would most love to own right now, John Citizen.

On rectangles

I’m embarking on a new unit this study period, Sociology and Media at Macquarie. Media and inequality have been hot topics even in Week One. It’s got me thinking about the digital divide, and how we tend to think of it as a bit of a third world issue. I’m going to argue here that it’s a mobility and class issue.

I live and work in a semi rural area. The employment market is fairly depressed, and there are a lot of unaddressed (because they’re expensive and inaccessible) mental health issues in the area. I work with kids whose parents have to decide between getting broadband and registering the family car. They naturally choose the car. There are no internet cafes and the nearest McDonald’s is about 13km away, so free Wi-Fi out of school hours is out of the question. Broadband may actually be cheaper than the petrol to get to the Wi-Fi.

Most of the kids I work with didn’t grow up with a computer in the house, let alone an iPad. The only techno-rectangle in the house was the flat-screen. It’s an entertainment device. Give one of these kids a new portable rectangle after a lifetime of entertainment-as-furniture and what do they do? They entertain! Work isn’t on computers; Work is something you do in a fluro vest – and you’ll need a shower afterwards. So the unreality of working on or with a rectangle is the mindset they bring to all interactions with their new free device.

By the time the kids hit their teens, the opportunity to condition them to see the internet as a tool is missed.

To give this opinion post some balance, I want to tell you about my carpenter. He is around my age, doesn’t have an email address, barely knows how to send a text, doesn’t use a calculator, but can re-clad a house, fence a yard, turn up on time, and quote to within a dollar’s accuracy. If he had a laptop at school, would he be as numerate? I honestly don’t think so – technology bears no relevance to his chosen (highly successful) path and would only have been a distraction from the nuts and bolts of core learning. My students have free BER laptops, are functionally illiterate, and can’t tell a plus sign from a multiplication sign.

I love technology. But I see something wrong here and am not sure how we fix it. Thoughts?

Image from Decals for Macbook on Etsy

What do cannibalism, Phil Beadle and Indigenous law have in common?

In her essay “Eating the other: Deconstructing the ‘ethics’ of Cannibalism”, Nicole Anderson explores ways in which cultural studies theory helps us to understand what cultural practitioners do in the real world (Anderson 2008b). Anderson draws specifically on Derrida’s theories of deconstruction, binary opposition and différance to explore the ethics of cultural cannibalisation. She makes strong instructive links between the real life legal case and the ethics of consensual cannibalism, and Derrida’s deconstruction of cultural appropriation. This paper summarises and evaluates Anderson’s own deconstruction and finds that the chapter clearly illustrates how cultural theory is essential for understanding what cultural practitioners do. While Anderson does not fully explore how binaries impact her ‘real world’ cannibalism case, and while some pragmatic aspects of the case are ignored, the author does stimulate important debate about how societies may come to mitigate homogenisation while still preserving the law.

Anderson uses Jacques Derrida’s process of deconstruction to explore the case of German cannibal Armin Meiwes. While this particular ‘cultural practice’ is not part of most people’s experience of the ‘real world’, the ethics employed by lawmakers and society is. As Nick Mansfield states in lecture five, “Cultural studies believes that behind all cultural practices … lie un-interrogated assumptions about the nature of reality” (Mansfield 2013, 2). Deconstruction interrogates those assumptions in an attempt to make sense of cultural practice. The case illustrates the mismatch in views on the “nature of reality” and the application of the law; Meiwes, despite consensual cannibalism not being a recognisable offence, was sentenced to life in prison (Anderson 2008b, 69). Anderson draws on Jacques Derrida’s interview, “Eating Well: or the Calculation of the Subject’, explaining the theories needed to understand the subjectivity of experience, and how it applies to society, identity and the law.

Anderson explains how Derrida’s theory of différance reveals the fluidity of boundaries of oppositions. In an earlier chapter, Anderson explains the origins of différance; the word ‘difference’ comes with its own meanings, so Derrida created a custom term, which “incorporates two significations” (Anderson 2008c, 55) those of ‘deferral’ and ‘difference’. The first term refers to the deferral of time and space between the word and the concept: for example, the word ‘happiness’ stands in for the feeling. The second term, ‘difference’, indicates that the word ‘happiness’ will never feel the same to any two people, and the experience is not identical to the word itself. In this way, Anderson explains that the way we understand cultural practice, through language, in the real world, is unstable, and experience is subjective. Anderson proceeds to deconstruct the Meiwes case, along with Derrida’s deconstruction of ‘eating’, using this theory.

The reduction of Meiwes’ ‘victim’ to the status of ‘animal’ is exposed by Anderson to present logical problems. Meiwes’ consenting victim, Bernd Brandes, was painted by media and legal teams, as an animal, ostensibly “because at the heart of the ‘rational subject’ is … self-preservation” (Anderson 2008b, 71). However, as Anderson explains, Merleau Ponty’s theory of embodiment posits that there is no fixed relationship between biology and identity (Anderson 2008a, 6-8); rather than being separate, we live and think through the body” (Anderson 2008b, 71). Thus the binary delineation between rational man, and vulnerable animal, is arbitrary. The corresponding ethical issues Derrida’s work raises complicate the Brandes/Meiwes case: if Brandes is an animal, and humans eat animals without compunction, does this not provide Meiwes with justification (Anderson 2008b, 73)? By linking Derrida’s everyday example and theory with an extreme case, Anderson warns of the “subtle and insidious danger” of applying a “singular morality” to cultural practice (Anderson 2008a, 6).

While Anderson makes an impactful case for the interrogation of real world cultural practice using cultural theory, some of aspects of the theory have not been fully applied, and some elements of the case have been downplayed. Anderson’s earlier discussion outlines the ways in which binaries are hierarchical, meaning that usually only one of the opposing positions are privileged; for example, men are privileged over women, and white skin is privileged over black. And while this works to explain Brandes’ position as animal/victim and Meiwes as human/attacker, the implications of Meiwes’ position in several binary oppositions is unexplored. Meiwes occupies a middle class, white, male position, calling into question the extent to which embodied issues like class, gender and inequality have played into this phenomenon.

On initial investigation, the chapter builds a strong case for reviewing Meiwes’ actions in light of his marginalisation; however, in doing so, Anderson downplays the subjectivities influencing Brandes’ decision to allow Meiwes to kill him. Brandes was suffering from a severe psychiatric disorder, was under the influence of sedatives, and was bleeding heavily when he gave consent (Harding 2003). Anderson cites morality, not illegality, as the impetus for the discursive construction of Meiwes as active hunter and Brandes as passive victim. She further posits that Meiwes’ life sentence is, like Derrida writes, a symbolic cannibalisation of Otherness: that society feels safer with deviants – though not technically outside the law – behind bars (Anderson 2008b). So while this case serves an illustrative purpose, and calls for balance and recognition of blurred binary lines, the generosity that deconstruction can provide errs on the side of Meiwes.

Using deconstruction, and the collapsing of binaries that différance can illuminate, less extreme examples can be explored. A recent podcast with UK secondary teacher of the year, Phil Beadle, reveals that working class boys are burdened with the stigma of being perceived as uncultured and lazy as a result of their position in the class binary. Beadle draws attention to school discipline systems which do not honour working class cultural values, explaining that boys caught fighting are both punished, when clearly one party has instigated violence (Beadle 2012). He points to the success of Launcelot primary, where rather than the symbolic cannibalisation of working class values, local culture is celebrated: pictures of successful local citizens adorn the school’s walls, replacing symbols of middle class success (Beadle 2007). Here, an acknowledgement of the multitude of aspirations present in British society reveals how questioning binaries can improve real world outcomes.

Parallels can be drawn between Anderson’s concern regarding consent and the recent recommendations in Australia regarding Indigenous customary law. A key recommendation of the discussion paper was that

“A partial customary law defence … should be introduced that would reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter in those cases where an accused acted in the well-founded belief that the customary laws of his or her Indigenous community required the act constituting the offence” (Australian Law Reform Commission 2010).

It could be argued that Meiwes was also acting in the belief that he was operating within the laws of his culture. In the case of Indigenous Australians, concessions have been made to allow for subjectivity when meting punishment. A similar concession was initially made for Meiwes (Anderson 2008b, 68) but charges escalated to murder. Deconstructive approaches failed Meiwes and Brandes in practice, but the theory nonetheless has important and promising real world applications.

The discourse emerging from the case, and Nicole Anderson’s instructive deconstruction of Derrida’s interview, exposes the serious and concrete applications of cultural theory. In this case, the autonomy of Brandes is posthumously retracted as a result of adherence to a logically questionable humanist rationale. Meiwes is caught in the ethical crossfire: the act of literal cannibalism, while technically legal, is so outside the realm of ‘decency’ that his Otherness must be cannibalised to preserve moral order: Anderson describes Foucault’s ‘genealogy’ as “The attempt to reveal the contradictory and non-linear aspects of historical events, in order to show the influence power has on subjects and bodies” (Anderson 2008a, 9). While cultural studies does not claim to be able to provide all the answers, it does disrupt and question, giving fresh – and perhaps more just – perspectives on what people, even cannibals, practice in the real world.

A full reference list can be found here.

Image by the incredible Mario Hugo. 

Poor excuses for behaviour

A recent conversation with an academic in the field of regional inequality in education has resulted in some circular rumination for me – so circular that I am compelled to post after almost a year’s blogging hiatus. I was chatting to said lecturer at a recent community event, explaining that the school I work at has some serious behavioural issues present, and a bit of a lack of strategy and leadership on the subject. He replied that there are huge social problems influencing this situation and that most of the students don’t live locally, but are bussed in from poorer villages. The locals would never deign to send their children to a public high school of disrepute! (And this I know to be true).

To be fair, it was a short, and as such a fairly shallow conversation, but it reminded me of some similar mental circularities that descended on me when I was writing this paper on consensual cannibalism. Armin Meiwes ate another consenting adult. To cut a long story short, prosecutors couldn’t find any extenuating circumstances, like the usual parade of excuses like childhood neglect, poverty, or even minority status, so Meiwes was gaoled for life; it seems that even though he didn’t commit a crime as such, the unexplainable nature of his urges was evidence that society would be unsafe with his foibles on the loose.

Some googling of criminal ‘excuses’ led me to this really interesting article about the way the white middle class derive huge satisfaction from rationalising the crimes of the poor, and in a way which they don’t do for equally destructive white collar crimes, such as those perpetrated by the Bernie Madoffs of the world. I wondered to myself whether rationalising conduct disorders and generally shitty behaviour in schools was also symptomatic of staff ‘knowing what’s best for poor people‘. Is explaining behaviour in terms of extenuating circumstances disempowering students? Is it giving up on them?

It seems that a lot of these conversations about what’s best for students go on behind closed doors. If there’s a trend towards self determination in Indigenous affairs, why not other areas?

Image: Richard Hickock and Perry Smith shot by Richard Avedon. For more info read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

The Community Conundrum

I have chosen this blog as the home of musings which don’t entirely belong on university discussion boards. They’re inspired by course work but they fit with my experience of the world, not necessarily the prescribed world that universities seem to want us to connect with. I have been reading Bauman’s The stranger revisited – and revisiting (1995) and wondering why, though it’s a great piece, it doesn’t really address rural jingosim in Australia.

I have selected a passage which explains Bauman’s support of theories that societites band together against the ‘other’ in order to construct an almost-forgotten sense of community. He suggests that in our consumer society identities and communities are constructed around flimsy consumer subcultures at their richest and around detached flaneuristic slumming at worst. He suggests that uniting against a common ‘stranger’ strengthens communities’ ideas about what they are and what they are not, and that this unity stands in for genuine community.

I agree. Except that it doesn’t explain Australia’s jingosim, or the appeal of parties like the BNP in rural England. My experience is of semi-rural Australia. I bemoan the lack of avenues for self expression through consumerism and I easily tire of the lack of anonymity in our communities. Our communities here are all too real and defined. I would argue that in contrast, our sense of self is so limited by our community mindset that we fear the stranger as someone unknown and potentially dangerous. In this sense I think the regional explanation is more simple than it seems.

Bauman, Zygmunt. “The stranger revisited – and revisiting” in Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality , Bauman, Zygmunt , 1995 , 126-138.

Image: PDF Highlighter.  The best study-app ever.