Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for January, 2012

Somewhere Only We Know

The concept of the archive runs through this week’s readings in various permutations:  as a place, a space, a metaphor, but, above all, as a construct. Conceptualizing the archive as an imagined way of ordering information causes us to question the legitimization that the term implies–this is not to suggest, of course, that the archive is false or that its contents are fabrications but rather an askance that we consider how the construction of the archive plays with notions of history and memory. Furthermore, this intersectionality gains additional weight with the realization that not only is the “archive” a construction but that it, by its very nature, also serves to (re)invent its contents; put another way, the archive’s artifacts are the invented products of the intersection of history, identity, and critical theory. As Joan Scott argues in “The Evidence of Experience”:  “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation. What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward.” We must not only question the story being told by the contents of the archive but also how such a story figures in a larger narrative about history as a subject.

Dominick LaCapra comments in History and Criticism:

“The archive as fetish is a literal substitute for the “reality” of the past which is “always already” lost for the historian. When it is fetishized, the archive is more than the repository of traces [and, according to Derrida, representations in an archive are always a trace] of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction. It is a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself–an experience that is always open to question when one deals with writing or other inscriptions.”

In various ways, this notion of the archive forces us to examine our practices of sight and seeing (metaphorically at least, if not physically) and how these stances overlap with the known and the knowable. For me, one of the most valuable ideas of Akira Lippit’s book was the differentiation of two types of invisibility:  things that are obscured contrasted with things that are outside the realm of sight. The archive, I think, is often associated with the former category (i.e., its contents are items that are rediscovered, reintroduced, or rescued from history) but I wonder if we should challenge the archive to assume the philosophy of the latter; I think that we must actively engage in a process whereby we question what sorts of items are not included in an archive and why this may be so. What things did we see (and thus include in the archive) and what might we have missed? Although the archive undoubtedly houses pieces that belong to history and allows us to reflect on our past, I also think that it possess the potential to spur forward-thinking as we participate in a process that endeavors to uncover new ways of seeing.

Similarly, Ann Cvetkovich speaks to Lippit’s definitions of invisibility through a discussion of trauma:  according to Cvetkovich, trauma is not only bounded by the confines of domesticity but also occasionally “doesn’t appear sufficiently catastrophic because it doesn’t produce dead bodies or even, necessarily, damaged ones” (3). Through Cvetkovich’s mention of trauma we again witness the two-fold way in which something can be rendered invisible and a call for an expanded rendering of what is (or should) be seen and therefore known. I continue to think on the way in which individual/private trauma competes with collective/public trauma for a place in our memories and our archives–what is “worthy” of remembrance? What happens when our cultural/national identities are haunted by travesties that we do not have a direct relation to? Or do archives allow us to overcome this supposed gap and connect to a past that we have not experienced for ourselves? How do projects like that AIDS quilt that embody both an individual and collective identity, history, and trauma intersect with movements like PostSecret, StoryCorps, and One Hello World that represent collections of individual narratives? How is the current interest in archives situated in societies obsessed with innovation and marked by rapid cultural turnover?

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Communicating Interest and the Interest of Communication

In “That’s Interesting! Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology” Murray Davis outlines a number of variations on a single theme:  the reversal of established expectations constitutes the basis for an “interesting” finding. Although Davis adequately details of why a particular publication or study may hold interest for an audience, we must be careful not to equate interest with value (or, as Davis notes, with accuracy).

Additionally, we might note how Davis’ construction of binaries may struggle to find resonance is a post-modern world. While the core of Davis’ argument may continue to hold true, the language may benefit from a slight alteration:  instead of “X” versus “non-X” we may consider how interesting studies may contrast “always X” and “not always X.” For example, we might point to interesting developments in audience studies that argue against the passive nature of consumers. Although we see the emergence of agency and active audience, this phenomenon exists alongside passive viewing suggesting that our dominant assumptions about the audience need to be refined but also that an either/or binary must give way to a model that incorporates a both/and stance.

However, regardless of minor issues, we can apply Davis’ notion to a host of current theories in order to assess the relative level of interest that they may hold. Media theories, for example, may be considered “interesting” as they often unpack and denaturalize adopted or learned practices. The great potential for theories of mass media or media and culture to be considered “interesting” lies in their ability to challenge the simplicity of the everyday (e.g., watching television, reading a newspaper, or browsing the Internet), arguing that media is both impacted and consumed in incredibly complex ecologies. For example, we readily see that theory like that of the knowledge gap lends itself to the conclusion that the same media artifact can hold vastly different amounts of information for various populations (with extensions of this to media literacy) and, from there, it is a short leap to the notion that various groups may respond to, or be affected by, media in different manners.

The realm of media also invokes questions about the ways in which communication is affected by information and communication technology. Ranging from issues of presence to uses and gratifications and computer mediated communication, this cluster of theories attempts to investigate the ways in which communication aided by technology may in fact be a more complex process than originally thought. Put another way, these theories question the assumptions made around the design and use of communication technologies challenging the notion that the protocols surrounding technology adoption and implementation are in any way natural.

Similar to media, of which the average person typically has an intuitive or common sense understanding, we can consider how theories of persuasion and advertising may be deemed “interesting” as they cause us to reconsider something that we rarely contemplate because it is ever-present and, on some level, simply assumed to be part of life. Alternatively, we see that persuasion theory can also be interesting as it deflates the sensationalism of catch phrases like “subliminal advertising” and explores how the process of priming actually works. This field has also seen a minor resurgence after the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink with regard to the process of decision making for we have been exposed to the idea that our choices may not be entirely up to us (and who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?).

Ultimately, although we see that Davis provides one method for determining whether a project is “interesting,” we must also remember that not everything that is of interest is also significant. Using novelty as a guide may give us a place to start our investigation but we must also think carefully about the import of the cultural assumptions that surround our questions. As scholars, we must also challenge ourselves and our work to go beyond a threshold of “interesting” and be relevant and meaningful.


I Like ‘Em All Shapes and Sizes

It’s no secret that America’s Next Top Model is, in large part, about Tyra Banks:  from her desire to serve as council to young girls experiencing a form of heightened reality to the frequent intrusion of personal projects (e.g., Tyra as photographer, Tyra as singer, Tyra’s epiphany about homelessness, etc.), Tyra’s presence is felt throughout the show. In the most recent cycle, Tyra asked a crop of competing all-stars to shoot a video for her latest project, Modelland.

Ostensibly aimed at a generation of girls plagued by doubts about themselves and their bodies, Modelland fits firmly within Tyra Banks’ stated intention of challenging the dominant notions of beauty.

Although the book’s main character Tookie, like the contestants on America’s Next Top Model, is undoubtedly altered for the better by her brush with “real” models, transformative agency—the power to change—continues to be located in an outside institution. We do a disservice to our populations of interest by focusing solely on the gains made and foregoing the process by which this makeover[1] occurs; we nobly envision the “what” but entirely forget about the “how.” Moreover, despite the potential feeling of empowerment experienced by the young women under Tyra’s eye on America’s Next Top Model, the fact remains that actual power is controlled and conferred by a system that is far beyond their current demonstrated scope. Those who appear on America’s Next Top Model may hold a fleeting interest for fashion and introducing alternative body shapes to the mass audience is certainly part of the process, but we must also ask ourselves the extent to which these efforts challenge viewers, industry, and culture to meaningfully redefine the conceptualization of beautiful. What Tyra hopes for is a consideration of aesthetics, economic forces, and values regarding women’s bodies but her efforts demonstrate a clear inability to actually engage us in such an endeavor.


[1] The choice of words here is deliberate as the “makeover” is a prominent feature of every cycle.