Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for September 25, 2011

Canon Fodder?

To be sure, broadcast media are constructed around an agenda. Although we might argue whether the underlying goals of mass media are anti- or pro-social, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that we are continually being influenced (alternatively manipulated, persuaded, informed, etc.) by media. This particular view does preclude the possibility of audience agency, but also suggests that we must remain mindful of top-down messaging, no matter what kind of meaning is construed by viewers.

Often caught in the middle of this tension are media outlets, who evidence a complicated relationship as corporate subsidiaries who may or may not be working in the public interest.[1] To become cynical and overly suspect of media channels is to disengage from the system but failing to question the broad range of factors that shape media production is to be naïve and to remove oneself in another fashion—where, then, is the happy medium? How much energy can and should be invested into understanding how mass media intersects with all levels of life (e.g., individual, interpersonal, and communal)? When have we done our due diligence and when have we become paranoid?

I often wonder if the impulse to ignore the impact of media on our lives is less willful and more of a survival instinct. If we accept that modern humans are now assaulted with thousands of things that demand our attention, perhaps the drive to search for simplified narratives makes intuitive sense—our brain would shut down if we attempted to juggle all of the outside factors which, at any given moment, may or may not be affecting us. As such, broad declarations (helped along by catchphrases or clever wording) like “video games cause violent kids” or “television rots your brain” represent stable, if perhaps incorrect, positions about the ways in which media intersects with our lives. Taking the stance that “the Internet is for porn,” for example, uncomplicates one’s position to the Internet, removing all of the conditional clauses—the hemming and the hawing—and, in short, eliminating all of the subtlety.

And while I certainly do not expect all people to be as inherently interested in media as I am—to do so would be arrogant and short-sighted—I do often wonder about how I can encourage other people to want to engage with the subject. More than just modes of resistance, I think it is important for individuals to think about what kinds of power are inherent in the media (and its associated systems) and how this power can be leveraged. Resistance and disruption are one possible outcome, but I am much more inclined to develop a broader framework and set of skills.

Speaking to this notion of complexity, Eva Illouz comments on the value of canonic texts, noting that they are valuable not for some inherent quality of “excellence,” but because they offer new ways to organize knowledge. These structures, along with the resulting viewpoints, also provide theorists with a vocabulary to employ while supporting and contesting their positions and it is this process—what Illouz calls “tension”—that allows us to refine and articulate our perspectives. Tensions forces us to not only define the boundaries of our own thoughts but defend how, when, and why we draw the lines that we do.

Ultimately, although the products of this process are important, I think that it, in contrast to the practices of most modern Americans, speaks to a fundamentally different mode of engagement with media. We can complain all we like, lamenting about the manipulation of the masses, but we must also take a close look at ourselves, for we too play a role in all of this. If we are truly concerned with the inability of the average American to think critically about the potential influence of media, we must roll up our sleeves, get dirty, and engage with those whom we wish to help—and do so on their level. We cannot expect citizens to wake up one day and realize that they had it all wrong (nor did they necessarily) and we cannot chastise people for not intuitively grasping what is, to us, so clear. Rather, we need to think carefully about how we can encourage people to grow into a position where they actively question the media that they are exposed to.

[1] Let us ignore, for the moment, the outlets at the extremes of this continuum (e.g., state-run propaganda machines or pirate radio stations).