12 October 2013

Hearing Modernity (i)


From an essay by Ian Power:

For the first ninety or so years of modern liberal arts education in the United States, the study of music meant the study of classical music, much like the study of literature was that of Great Books. As the advent of critical theory in other humanist disciplines began to expand the scope of scholarly study, music (somewhat grudgingly) began look to critical theory as well; with, for example, music theorists looking to phenomenology, and musicologists looking to gender studies. But perhaps most critical to the study of sounds themselves was the rapid expansion of ethnomusicology, which not only exposed academia to different musics, it brought to music departments a laundry list of ways of thinking about and experiencing music that were much different from the Western classical situation. There came to Western ears far more to tell of societies (contemporary and past) in which the boundaries between music and daily life were not so clear; where purposeful noise was integral and not polluting. In addition to these, scholars began to turn ears to contemporary consumers of American popular culture, much of which produced music that was not to be sat and listened to, but danced to, shower-sung to, run to, eaten to, and shopped to.

An important point goes customarily unremarked upon here: in the bygone era of cultural consensus (or the appearance of it), the arts nonetheless did not seem to fit very comfortably into the academic mandate, and it was never particularly gauche to suggest so. Canonical old-world musical figures like Berlioz, Wagner, Debussy, and Prokofiev certainly had their own strained relationships with the academic musical thought of their respective times, which is to say years or decades before music (of any kind) had gained its foothold in American academia1. With cultural consensus came the threat of enforced convention, and as goes one, so goes the other, or so it seems this cadre of sound scholars would have it.

The distinction here between "music" and "sound" is well-taken, and has shaped my own world more so than my overwhelmingly lines-and-dots-oriented work might outwardly indicate; in any case, I'm certainly not here to argue that classical music is the only kind worth studying. One wonders, however, if a precipitous lurch towards sound necessarily resolves the longer-standing tension, held over from the age of music, between academic theory and real-world practice; or if, in fact, as an almost purely academic construction (and at that, one taking significant cues from, of all places, critical theory), a field like Sound Studies merely threatens to transform the problem of studying music into something bigger, messier, and even less utilitarian than the paradigm it purports to supersede? Insofar as the "practice" of sound is less intention-driven than that of music, does it not pose a proportionately less tractable condition?

Indeed, the disintegration of cultural consensus was never music's problem alone: after all, with the "boundaries between music and daily life" now suitably shattered, what good is the study of sound without 1000 years of music as its contextual counterweight? Could Sound Studies justify its own existence without this backdrop? Throughout the musical era, the glaring and elementary epistemological problems inherent in the gesture of subsuming creative artistic disciplines as they were then understood within the academic environment as it was then manifested were nonetheless papered over, dwarfed as they were by music's (not sound's) larger cultural significance. Sound Studies, meanwhile defines such top-down, monolithic frameworks right out of its worldview; from what source, then, is its necessity taken to spring?

The matter of the arts justifying their own existence, in academia and elsewhere, is a frequent, if often indirect, topic of conversation these days, and rightfully so; yet no one I'm reading from either a musical or a sonic viewpoint is suggesting that both music and sound could be truly endangered academic species. I am beginning to take seriously the notion that they are; that more people think so than say so; and that we can learn something about the whole mess by studying these and other stakeholders' behavior. As a mostly musical creature myself, the rather calculated academic maneuver by soundists to dump the entire weight of postmodern cultural fragmentation onto the backs of us musicians strikes me as an omen, since these are the people that, if they understand anything, understand both culture and academic politics intimately.

Certainly with strict regard to music, the costs of pluralism (of which I have been a strong proponent here) are steep. The first is trite but all-encompassing: as a practical matter, schools of music can no longer provide comprehensive music education when the very notion of music has (rightly, I think) been exploded into something as varied as the individuals who sustain it and as vast as collective human intellectual endeavor itself. In other words, schools can neither expect their graduates to know everything nor can they afford to teach it to them. The second, equally trite and equally all-encompassing point: qualitative evaluation in the arts was a dicy proposition from the start, and in a self-consciously pluralistic educational environment, it is impossible almost by definition. If art and academia were always strange bedfellows, someone is sleeping on the couch for the foreseeable future. Does excising the study of art from the study of sound really solve the problem? Does it create another?

Paradoxically (perhaps ingeniously), the dismantling of cultural consensus short-circuits the possibility of the institutional training of music-makers while securing scalable, nearly unlimited avenues of inquiry for pure scholars of sociology and culture. Discourses of mastery and refinement (with, for Cage and post-Cageans, intentionality as their proxy) were the very first targets of the most vehement deconstructionists; all human beings, it turns out, create sound and shit in equal amounts (lots) and with equal effort (none). In an instant, there were no more musicians for academics to train and an unlimited number for them to study. Is it really all that farfetched, then, given, on one hand, the wide-ranging adademic-political implications of such a trend for what are, for the moment, known as music departments, and on the other, the well-documented limitless pettiness and insecurity of academics in marginalized fields of endeavor, to at least take note of all of this from an academic-political perspective?

"The advent of critical theory in other humanist disciplines" and its bleed into musico-academic scholarship is a topic which I'm neither prepared nor qualified to tackle in any mature scholarly way. I will say only that I suspect it deserves to be presented, as it is above, strictly as a history of academia itself, and as such is otherwise about as relevant to modern day musical practitioners as the list of Prix de Rome winners or the competing conventions for labeling secondary dominant chords. The emphasis on the role of ethnomusicology seems more justified, though this should also remind us that rigid convention, refinement of technique, and formal apprenticeship are not exactly unique to our own classical tradition. It is mere delusion to believe that excising them from our culture is inherently a depathologizing or liberationist maneuver.

As all-encompassing as the impact of critical theory can seem in the right circles, as well as the best of it explicates some important recent trends, and as thoroughly at odds as it is (representing fairly well, I think you could say, the facts on the ground) with the very notion of allowing pre-professional training of musical practitioners to dominate academic musical life as it has for several decades, musical academia itself has, of course, not (yet) truly begun to reform itself accordingly, nor has it ventured very far from the usual high-brow Western musical traditions. Last I checked, in fact, the numbers were continuing to explode. The institution I most recently attended, thought by itself and a few others to point the way forward on just these sorts of issues, is, of course, singularly proud of its accredited performance programs in several non-Western musical traditions, again solving one problem only to create another. It turns out that music-makers, those lovable idiot savants who make the entire musico-academic edifice hum, have a peculiar way of going on the offensive to protect their turf, preserving, contriving, and enforcing their own cultural consensuses among micro-communities just large enough (but plenty well-connected) to sustain the old monolithic ways in politically well-placed pockets of resistance. We are an eminently naive, outmoded and vulnerable species which critical theory has nevertheless completely failed to either reform or depose, not through exertion of external pressure, and certainly not through holistic infiltration of the subculture. (Really, how many conservatory brats could begin to understand the first thing about this literature? See the problem now?) As I continue to read about, study, and observe the world around me, the clearer it becomes that the academic training of practitioners of living musical traditions will remain in perpetual conflict with the values of liberationist critical theory unless or until such training ceases to be undertaken at all. So stay safe out there kids; there are Bolsheviks in our bathroom.


1Of course, it figures that the differences between (1) an old-fashioned (i.e. nineteenth century) national conservatory system and (2) a modern quasi-conservatory system subsumed within a nation's public and private universities are decidedly non-negligible, and would make for a fascinating angle from which to attack contemporary polemics surrounding the orientation and mandate of post-secondary music schools.

14 comments:

Stefan Kac said...

from Dreams For Sale: Popular Culture in the 20th Century (1989)
ed. Richard Maltby
pp. 186-187

"The counter-culture was essentially a movement of and for the middle-class male. Its ideas of liberation, especially when crudely understood as "from work, for sex", struck resonant chords across a broad spectrum of American male society, whose members sought to take advantage of the freedoms being won by the counter-culture.

"The middle-class nature of the movement is also evident in the development of two closely related ideas and practices: rock music as art, and rock criticism. As musicians' solos grew more ambitious, and their lyrics more involved, it became obvious that there was a role for the interpreter, outside the existing trade and fan magazines. Rock criticism grew out of the "underground press", which had developed a profound mistrust of the commercial and had singled out rock as expressing most clearly the ideals of the youth movement. As practiced in the newly founded journals such as Rolling Stone and Creem, it operated at least partly on a circular argument: rock's growing seriousness made criticism necessary, and criticism's existence proved rock's seriousness. The step from "serious" to "art" was a small one, especially when aided by the well-known parallel between the esthetics of 19th-century Romantics, whose revolutionary achievements in art, politics and life criticism had been enshrined sky-high.

"The academic study of popular music, while often bedeviled by the contradictions implied in much sixties' rock criticism, owes it many debts. Not least is that of having articulated the links between culture and politics. On the public level, this connection was made most clearly by the responses of the counter-culture to the Vietnam War (and especially to police intimidation of demonstrators) and to the continuing racial unrest. Short-lived though these responses were, they pointed to a breakdown of the barrier that had traditionally separated politics from life. "The personal had become political," and this was a profound achievement for the counter-culture of the 1960s."


Just one glaring omission: all criticism operates on this same "circular argument." Sound Studies and Musicology operate on it too. The arrival of a new form (here it is rock, but it could be anything) simply "attracts interpreters like leeches" (quoth Sontag), as do these interpreters subsequently attract validation-seeking artists "like dogs with their tongues hanging out" (quoth the rest of the artists). Sure, biz is biz. My point is that horse-trading is superfluous, should be superfluous, when it comes to "articulating the links between culture and politics." Why should it be only hypocrites who are able to make this articulation?

I need an academic specialist to point me towards the primary documents wherein seminal rock critics were "aided" by "the esthetics of 19th-century Romantics." My unsupportable conjecture is that such connections are typically overstated and that these overstatements are motivated by an agenda. For the moment, it seems that any "ambitious" solos or "involved" lyrics are evidence of genetic descent from Romanticism. This I find totally specious and oppressive, not least re: "the links between culture and politics."

Stefan Kac said...

Guy Debord
'Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency's Conditions of Organization and Action' (1957)
in Situationist International Anthology, trans. and ed. Ken Knabb

"One of the contradictions of the bourgeoisie in its period of decline is that while it respects the abstract principle of intellectual and artistic creation, it resists actual creations when they first appear, then eventually exploits them. This is because it needs to maintain a certain degree of criticality and experimental research among a minority, but must take care to channel this activity into narrowly compartmentalized utilitarian disciplines and avert any holistic critique and experimentation. In the domain of culture the bourgeoisie strives to divert the taste for innovation, which is dangerous for it in our era, toward certain confused, degraded and innocuous forms of novelty. Through the commercial mechanisms that control cultural activity, avant-garde tendencies are cut off from the segments of society that could support them, segments already limited because of the general social conditions. The people within these tendencies who become well known are generally accepted as exceptional individuals, on the condition that they accept various renunciations: the essential point is always the renunciation of a comprehensive opposition and the acceptance of fragmentary works susceptible to diverse interpretations. This is what gives the very term "avant-garde," which in the final analysis is always defined and manipulated by the bourgeoisie, a dubious and ridiculous aspect." (pp. 26-27)

A veritable barrage of now-canonical high-theory tropes. But do not lose sight of this one: an artwork's digestibility by the bourgeois culture machine is a function of its susceptibility to interpretation. To interpret is to divide in advance of conquering.

Stefan Kac said...

(Debord/Knabb, ibid)

"We have arrived at a stage of ideological absence in which advertising has become the only active factor, overriding any preexisting critical judgment or transforming such judgment into a mere conditioned reflex. The complex operation of sales techniques has reached the point of surprising even the ad professionals by automatically creating pseudosubjects of cultural debate. ... The professional judges of culture, seeing such a phenomenon as an unpredictable effect of mechanisms with which they are unfamiliar, tend to attribute it to mere crude mass-media publicity. But their profession nevertheless obliges them to come up with bogus critiques of these bogus works. (Moreover, a work whose interest is inexplicable constitutes the richest subject for bourgeois confusionist criticism.) They naturally remain unaware of the fact that the intellectual mechanisms of criticism had already escaped them long before the external mechanisms arrived to exploit this void. They avoid facing the fact that [Francoise] Sagan [or, more recently, Kim Kardashian] is simply the ridiculous flip side of the change of means of expression into means of action on everyday life. This process of supersession has caused the life of the author to become increasingly more important than her work. As the period of important expressions arrives at its ultimate reduction, nothing of any possible importance remains except the personality of the author, who in turn is no longer capable of possessing any notable quality beyond her age, or some fashionable vice, or some picturesque old craft." (p. 32)

What interests me about this passage is the connection between susceptibility to interpretation ("a work whose interest is inexplicable constitutes the richest subject for bourgeois confusionist criticism") and the supersession of content by personality ("This process of supersession has caused the life of the author to become increasingly more important than her work"). Richard Schickel, e.g., has pointed out that the emphasis on personality can serve to preempt or deflect negative judgments of the work itself. It seems to me that taking refuge in interpretation also achieves this: "It sucks" is not an interpretation per se; "It's really about the coming-of-age process" is something more (or perhaps less) than a mere opinion. Schickel thinks he detects in the personality-driven artist an ultimate vulnerability or oversensitivity to criticism which motivates the deflection. But in any milieu where being *judgey* is the ultimate faux-pas, not just artists but audiences too have incentive to sublimate judgment into interpretation. Musical academia is just one such milieu.

Stefan Kac said...

It seems possible (and necessary) to distinguish here between a certain functional relativism ("to each his own"/"beauty is in the eye of the beholder") and what Debord calls "susceptibility to interpretation." Opinions may be socially or intellectually worthless, but they are at least sincere. To interpret, meanwhile, involves an arrogation which is something less than sincere. The act of interpretation (super)imposes of a sort of shadow-content over/against the existing artwork. Interpretation is opinion masquerading as fact.

There are those who would devalue the social currency of "opinions" per se based on oversupply. The same acquaintance of mine who is fond of the "lie that tells the truth" also maintains that "Opinions are like assholes: everyone's got one." True enough; but what horror to be deprived of an asshole just because it stinks. Conversely, to Debord's (rather oblique) point: not everyone has, or can have, an interpretation. By now it has become tiresome to harangue on the foibles of "professional judges of culture," but the point is still timely: works themselves can merely be "susceptible" (or not) to interpretation, but ultimately it is people who do the interpreting based on ascriptions of authority which are, in reality, mere irrational opinions themselves. It is worth asking, then, in orthodox Deconstructionist terms, whose interests are served by the privileging of interpretations over opinions. A sexualized Lacanian Feminist gloss on this art-critical concept of "susceptibility" would, for once, not be an overreach.

Stefan Kac said...

Previously Debord laments the onset of "total ideological decomposition" wherein "each judgment clashes with others." (p. 32) Here I would again invoke some distinctions between interpretations and opinions, i.e. interpretations as (1) shadow-content to their particular cultural objects, and (2) the domain of specialists or authorities (professional or otherwise). What both (1) and (2) indicate is the raised stakes which lead to, in Debord's (translated) term, "clashes:" turf wars, publication space, job markets, page views, etc. Conversely, since "opinions" are a dime a dozen, they have less professional currency. To gain currency, opinions have to be aggregated at great scale so as to, supposedly, indicate some empirical truth about the given social world. This truth is meaningful only in direct proportion to the scale of aggregation; and it is a truth about the given social world, not about the object of opinion. No one has ever taken an interpretation poll, at least not formally or at scale, because the essence of interpretation is that there is no empirical truth to be revealed this way. "Clashes" of opinion are unsightly, but they are micro-social phenomena. They are equal parts productive and destructive. Douglas Brode's books on Disney, e.g., are purely destructive and toxic precisely because they present interpretations rather than opinions. As mere opinions they are at least stimulating. As interpretations they are toxic.

Stefan Kac said...

And here is special case of "caus[ing] the life of the author to become increasingly more important than her work":

"As for the [Westernized] productions of peoples who are still subject to cultural colonialism...even though they may be progressive in their own countries, they play a reactionary role in the advanced cultural centers. ...an exoticism of the antiexotic...which does, however, serve the primary purpose of exoticism: escape from the real conditions of life and creation." (p. 35)

This is a remarkably prescient observation for a 25 year-old writing in 1957 to have made against quite the gathering storm of contrary opinion on the left. Marcuse, for example, seems to have taken with him to his grave precisely this misplaced faith in the cultural production of oppressed peoples, at least if certain passages in The Aesthetic Dimension are any indication. Interpretation is what enabled his mistake to be made and remade. Opinion would have nipped it in the bud rather without incident.

Stefan Kac said...

Meaghan Morris
"Banality in Cultural Studies" (1988)
www.researchgate.net%2Fpublication%2F312989011_Banality_in_cultural_studies&usg=AOvVaw2mNB66QrhaI9Cv6y7z-vAD

"In Fiske's text..."the people" have no necessary defining characteristics—except an indomitable capacity to "negotiate" readings, generate new interpretations, and remake the materials of culture. This is also, of course, the function of cultural studies itself... So against the hegemonic force of the dominant classes, "the people" in fact represent the most creative energies and functions of critical reading. In the end they are not simply the cultural student's object of study and his native informants. The people are also the textually delegated, allegorical emblem of the critic's own activity. ...

"Once "the people" are both a source of authority for a text and a figure of its own critical activity, the populist enterprise is not only circular but (like most empirical sociology) narcissistic in structure. Theorizing the problems that ensue is one way...to break out of the circuit of repetition.
(23)

Sounds like a plan. I myself remain at a loss on this question. The best mean-but-true theorization that I can manage at the moment: this circularity evinces an essentially journalistic rather than academic or Critical orientation, no matter how much Derridean jargon gets trotted out. It is necessary to "break out" of such circularity only if our ambitions are academic rather than journalistic in nature.

Sociologists are often (and always hostilely) likened to journalists: "journalists who can do regression analysis," or some such barb. In the era of ultimate spin and polarization it can be easy to forget that journalism per se has an indispensable role, should anyone wish to play it, and should anyone else be paying attention. The basic value of journalistic cultural studies is that such work is, in a word, informative. This is something that I do value about it. Morris here, for example, is razor sharp, well read, and also quite funny. In such hands her opening anecdotes about some specifically Australian events are quite informative indeed for this landlocked American, who previously had no idea of any of them. This is the journalism of a supremely overqualified knowledge worker. It is journalism nonetheless. The rest of the paper, dare I say, is so difficult to understand and so esoteric in its sourcing that any supposed concern with The People takes on a viciously ironic tinge.

Stefan Kac said...

(Morris, cont. #1)

For someone with my background it is easier to "theorize the problems that ensue" from the academic-analytic route that I have known more intimately, and then to "theorize" where me and my people might look for help. Academics have been known to misconstrue and misrepresent The People based on (a) too much distance from the action, (b) lack of skin in the game, and (c) an academic business model which demands both an ample bibliography and some conceit to originality. Some empirical problems cannot be solved the academic way, and of course some perfectly ordinary things only look to the academic like problems needing solutions. I am sorry to say, then, that I do see a problem with this "indomitable capacity to "negotiate" readings, generate new interpretations, and remake the materials of culture", namely that these are what Jorn called "secondary" rather than "primary" creative actions. ("Critique is a secondary reaction to something primary which already exists. What one expresses through artistic creation is joy of life. Art is primary action in relation to the unknown." See https://fickleears.blogspot.com/2021/04/karen-kurczynskijorn-critique-is.html)

I have been on the lookout for some angles in on this question for quite a while. I never seem to find any in the interdisciplinary dustbowls to which the scholars most explicitly concerned with The People have migrated. What I do find is a lot of inductive bluster pushing back against the deductive streak in academic thought. Power: "we had been studying the actions of a minority of aesthetes; studying sound is, almost by definition, studying everyone." Similarly, Morris/Fiske: "against the hegemonic force of the dominant classes, "the people" in fact represent the most creative energies and functions of critical reading."

This is a pretty ridiculous strategy and plays right into the academic's hand. Examples are multiplied endlessly regarding, as Ian Power put it back in 2013, "music that was not to be sat and listened to, but danced to, shower-sung to, run to, eaten to, and shopped to." Great! Keep these news stories coming! Academics are terrible journalists, and people shopping to music was not news in 2013. You can find as many of these shoppers as you'll ever need to in order to prove that many more people shop to music than contemplate it, that the contemplators are both "a minority" and some kind of "aesthetes." At that point it seems we have merely restated negatively what the old Elitists proclaimed positively. This is journalism without the advanced math.

Stefan Kac said...

(Morris, cont. #2)

I think it eventually comes time for a good old-fashioned academic reckoning with the capital-letter fields, the fields which all ____ Studies fields were, whatever good things they also have achieved, intentionally designed to circumvent: most especially Science, History, Philosophy; the fields which involve, it is true and we should say it proudly, plucking The People and their consumables out of their own empirical contexts and placing them into an artificial, immaterial context of our own design. This is where academics get accused of universalizing, essentializing, of overreaching re: the way people are. This is wrong. Academic distance doesn't just cause you to imagine things; it also causes you to notice things which are unnoticed by the empirical agents themselves. To take what you think you've noticed and to bring it into higher relief for the benefit of others, a scene change is necessary. The curtain must be brought down, an intermission taken, and a crew of knowledge workers brought together to install a new set. Scientific, historical, philosophical contexts are more than anything contexts of the past, and so they help us account for the fact that "The past is never dead. It is not even past." To treat this as an attack on people's self-determination in the present is an act of political and epistemological anarchy. To reduce it to an expression of personality or identity or class is to deflect the entire academic enterprise toward one tiny hallway on one end of campus. To insist on treating contemporary topics only in their own context is to be willfully ignorant of a past that is not even past.

Stefan Kac said...

(Morris, cont. #3)

It is said that if you want a question answered on the internet, don't post the question, post the wrong answer. Perhaps that is where we're at with scholarship too. Pretty lame, I admit, but if we do eventually get an answer here and there then it's better than nothing. The academic project is necessarily speculative, deductive, theoretical. It steers clear of value judgments (explicit or implied) only with great effort and, usually, poor results too. It is skeptical rather than affirmative. The academic is not content merely to raise questions but must, however provisionally, attempt to answer them too.

People who need to be affirmed beyond their elemental family and social structures have an awful lot of trouble with academia. The academic is the epistemological apex predator of journalistic sardines, on whom it relies for survival and against whom it commits the ultimate aggression. This is why Cultural Studies people hate it with all the visceral rage of a subjugated caste (or a disaffected music major from a tight-knit rural family). One way to get even is for all the sardines, in the name of The People, to form a shark-shaped mass of inductively-formed, academically-sanctioned publication, and to saber-rattle their little fins off at the slightest deductive arrogation by the elites. This certainly scared the bejesus out of me when I first showed up. On the other hand, after seven years of academic toil, hundreds of books, blog posts, and journal articles, I still can't even understand most of what is written. Quite ironic indeed given the populist conceit underlying the whole charade.

I can only think of two paths forward for this contingent. One is to continue humbly reporting on the developing story of real live people whose behaviors don't comport with this or that academic theory; to embrace the role of sardine without secretly aspiring to become a shark; to start flame wars in the comment threads of wrong academic answers; to stay circular my friends. I would very much appreciate and have many uses for such material. The other path is to assume the academic posture toward the people that interest you and, rather than merely "turn[ing] ears to" them (Power), also turn your faculties of hindsight, foresight, morality, inference, judgment, exchange, skepticism, empathy...the whole panoply of hurt words that your revolutionary forebears of the 1970s and 80s found dispensable. I think both of these tasks are worthy. I'm not sure that they belong anywhere near each other.

Stefan Kac said...

Ernst Karel: Response to Ochoa and Hirschkind
https://hearingmodernity.org/ernst-karel-response-to-ochoa-and-hirschkind/

"these papers exemplify an idea mentioned in the last seminar that sound studies need not ultimately even be about sound per se, but rather takes notice of the interrelationships that sonic and other sensory engagement can imply as a way to get into matters of cultural, political, historical, or other significance. So these papers take listening and sounding as entry points to constellations of interrelationships. Sidestepping acoustic ecology, they each delve into a complex “acoustic political ecology”, as Ana Maria Ochoa terms it, “a form of echolocation in inter-cultural relations”.

All I can really do for myself here is continue to collect these pronouncements. Maybe one day I will understand them.

The posts are still available on the regular internet. They aren't dated or attributed within the template, but only (sometimes) within the title and body of the posts. The actual papers that were presented are password protected.

"rather than reducing the multidirectionality of relationships between the ear and heard sounds to a kind of anthropological relativity (in other words, that there’s an independently existing object, or sound object, but the way we hear it is dependent on own specific cultural background), instead she articulates a theory of sound in which “entities that listen and entities that produce sounds produce each other"."

This rhetoric needs a name. Socio-epistemological outflanking? Spatiotemporal dick-wagging? Accurate but too clumsy. Ideas?

Stefan Kac said...

Marshall McLuhan
Understanding Media (1964)
MIT Press edition (1994)

"Advertising got into high gear only at the end of the last century, with the invention of photoengraving. Ads and pictures then became interchangeable and have continued so. More important, pictures made possible great increases in newspaper and magazine circulation that also increased the quantity and profitability of ads. ...both the pictorial ad or the picture story provide large quantities of instant information and instant humans, such as are necessary for keeping abreast in our kind of culture. Would it not seem natural and necessary that the young be provided with at least as much training of perception in this graphic and photographic world as they get in the typographic? In fact, they need more training in graphics, because the art of casting and arranging actors in ads is both complex and forcefully insidious."
(p. 230)

"In education the conventional division of the curriculum into subjects is already as outdated as the medieval trivium and quadrivium after the Renaissance. Any subject taken in depth at once relates to other subjects. Arithmetic in grade three or nine, when taught in terms of number theory, symbolic logic, and cultural history, ceases to be mere practice in problems. Continued in their present patterns of fragmented unrelation, our school curricula will insure a citizenry unable to understand the cybernated world in which they still live."
(p. 327)

Seems to me that we have long since made the acquaintance of the devil in these particular details.

Stefan Kac said...

Michael R. Real
Mass-Mediated Culture (1977)

"Mass-mediated culture sits at a complex and problematic crossroads. It is immediate to each individual and pervasive throughout the social system. It is capable of receiving serious intellectual consideration or the lightest popular treatment. It falls within areas of academic expertise but is simultaneously of great public interest... Its Janus face is intimidating. As a result, many who write or read about popular culture and mass communications are made defensive about their choice of subject matter and carry a confused love-hate feeling about it: They liked the Beatles, but not too much."
(p. x)

I include this mostly for its wittiness, somewhat for its accuracy, and marginally for the corollaries it suggests. I have often sensed that academics who specialize in mass and/or popular culture in fact feel nothing but pure unabashed joy in its presence. Here Real hints that any concurrent negative feelings arise more from how these people feel they will be judged by others and minimally, if at all, from their own authentic feelings towards their subject matter. What I have always wondered is whether the very act of studying such topics in depth is what inevitably suggests some very good reasons to be embarrassed. In this such scholars would, it must be said, merely have something in common with virtually every other academic specialty that is not, at that precise moment, enjoying a vogue all out of proportion to its true usefulness. But I do wonder if the situation of pop culture scholars might create its own distinct flavor of ambivalence.

Stefan Kac said...

Michael R. Real
Mass-Mediated Culture (1977)

"[James] Carey ['Communication and Culture' (1975)] proposes cultural studies as a means to move beyond the American emphasis on studying the precise psychological and sociological conditions under which persuasion occurs. The behavioral and attitudinal focus thus widens to an investigation of specific expressive forms of culture... Carey prescribes neither a behavioral science aimed at the elucidation of laws nor a formal science aimed at the elucidation of structures. He prefers a cultural science whose objective is the elucidation of meaning. Thus, cultural studies have modest objectives:

'It does not seek to explain human behavior, but to understand it. It does not seek to reduce human action to underlying causes and structures, but to interpret its significance. It does not attempt to predict human behavior, but to diagnose human meanings. It is, more positively, an attempt to bypass the rather abstracted empiricism of behavioral studies and the ethereal apparatus of formal theories and to descend deeper into the empirical world...attempting to be truer to human nature and experience as it ordinarily is encountered.'

"The approach to mass-mediated culture in this book is that of "cultural studies." Neither the approach of American social science research on the transmission of messages nor the European humanities analysis of ritual is, in isolation, adequate to the subject of mass-mediated culture."
(p. 236)

Did he seriously just subsume the task of "the elucidation of meaning" under the heading "modest objectives"?! Count me out of any scholarly endeavor which so completely misjudges the lay of the land. Among all angles in on "culture," is "meaning" not in fact the very most resistant to such efforts?

As usual, it's the theoretical intro and outro to this book which are most interesting. In the middle it is, again, more like what nowadays is called Long-Form journalism. Why should it require 200+ pages of "investigation of specific expressive forms of culture" to establish that Walt Disney, Billy Graham and Richard Nixon all make appeals to optimism and traditional values?