Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Critical Studies in Media Communication Gets A Critical Forum, or "I Want To Get Critical"

What is still the most recent issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication features an article by the afore-mentioned Matt Carlson. Carlson's article addresses constructions of journalistic authority as found in news stories concerning the war-related deaths of David Bloom and Michael Kelly. The article itself is most excellent: there's a careful application of Barbie Zelizer-ian ideas of journalistic authority and a precise use of the texts under consideration. Bravo, Matt.

But the thing I want to talk about here is the critical forum that comes at the end of this issue of CSMC. After a short introduction by Jack Lule, Michael Schudson and Sari Thomas offer some critical insights about Carlson's article.

Having a critical forum was, I think, somewhat of a bold move on behalf of the editors of CSMC. CSMC began including critical fora in each issue when Linda Steiner took over as editor and Jack Lule took over as critical forum editor with the March 2005 issue. Clearly, the editors thought it was time to shake things up a bit. I think it's been a success, and has helped those who read CSMC to take a more careful view of their own field (and, let's hope, broaden their critical horizons).

This critical forum on Carlson's article finds Schudson being concise and precise,quick to bring up the difficult issue. He writes
I am persuaded by Carlson's work that the media's accounts of the deaths in Iraq of journalists David Bloom and Michael Kelly were rhetorical constructions that emphasized the valor and sacrifice of people who take it as their professional obligation to witness the events of war, on behalf of the broad American public and on behalf of the principles of democracy. Even so, I find myself impressed that these two men (and many others) who had already proved themselves, who were by no means forced or cajoled to put themselves in danger, chose to take the risks they did. Whatever the rhetorical work in which the media engaged, they had very solid materials to work with! Bloom and Kelly, by any conventional understanding of the term, were courageous.

The point, as I read Schudson here, is that it's not like Kelly and Bloom were schlub #1 and schlub #2 being turned into heroes of the people. Schudson seems to be trying to get to some of the epistemological presuppositions at work here, and hinting that the flexibility with reality that is implied in research into rhetorical constructions can be a bit off the mark. Some stuff, he seems to say, actually does happen, and we lose something (not sure what exactly) if we presume that our constructions of reality are entirely of our own making. He's picking away at the stubborn constructivst assumptions at the root of much current cultural work in communication. Schudson is a humble provocateur.

Sari Thomas writes the other critical reflection on Carlson's article. I'll post on that very soon.

Monday, August 21, 2006


I'd like to follow up on the call (from the International Journal of Communication) to identify five under-noticed books in communication. In a sense, this is not a very flattering category for these books. There is the danger of making it seem as if publishers had not done enough to promote the books, or as if authors had not done enough to make their ideas clearly relevant to the field of communication. That said, when I consider the neglect involved in these books' shared status as 'under-noticed,' I point the finger of blame not at publishers or authors, but at that ever-convenient bete noir: my field of study. 'Blaming the field' is a way to blame the victim and the perpetrator at the same time. So, I feel good and bad about it.

Without further ado, here is my list of five under-noticed books from the last decade (except for one from 1990). As with my top 5 books in communication in the last ten years, these are in no particular order.

1) Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field (Polity, 2005), ed. by Rodney Benson & Erik Neveu. I am an ardent believer in the proposition that Pierre Bourdieu's should be integrated more fully into media studies. It is gratifying to see an edited volume that picks up on this idea and runs with it. I think edited volumes are too often neglected when we try to identify important works in the field's past. And this one's a corker. Great chapters from French and American authors, including Patrick Champagne, Julien Duval, Dan Hallin, and Michael Schudson (who plays the familiar role of 'he who is not quite sure about all this hubbub' without being a stick in the mud). Journalism studies could use more theoretical armature (i.e. kill me before I have to read another straight-up public sphere article in journalism studies).

2) Redeeming Modernity (Sage, 1990), by Joli Jensen. An approachable and readable introduction to mass communication theory that serves double-duty as a subtly subversive reimagination of the field. Were Jensen less creative, she might have called this "What We Talk About When We Talk About the Media". It's from more than 10 years ago--thus outside of the 'last decade' stipulation--but still worth more attention.

3) The Digital Sublime (MIT, 2004), by Vincent Mosco. Solid new media theory, dealing critically and directly with how myths of cyberspace have quickly become installed as common sense. Much of this is meta-theory, but Mosco is too good a polemicist to allow himself to slip into navel-gazing. Fantastic.

4) CODE: Collaborate Ownership and the Digital Economy (MIT, 2005), edited by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. Perhaps a chaser of (relative) optimism after Mosco's critical perspective? This isn't all sunshine and happiness, but the authors here, at their best, capture some of what makes new media novel. The book covers a very broad swath: creativity, mechanisms for collaboration, and intellectual property are the big ideas. There's some real mind-bending stuff on how creativity operates in this volume. Admittedly, it's not that much of a 'communication' book (I don't think any of the authors are communication professors or grad students), but so what? The field can stand to learn from other disciplines.

5) The Audible Past (Duke, 2004), by Jonathan Sterne. This is the definitive cultural history of sound reproduction. It's a rich narrative here (perhaps in need of more trimming), with an abiding concern for what we construct as 'sound' and 'not sound'. I found it unsettling to realize how much history is embedded in my own near-constant experience of sound reproduction.

That's it for now. I don't think these five books have found the audience they deserve, yet. I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


One of the great things about studying the media (especially 'new media', as they are called) is the chance to see new uses for media develop over time. One new 'app' that I have experienced (vicariously, through one of my students) is a phenomenon called Indietorrents.

What is Indietorrents? Glad you asked. Indietorrents is a strangely functional (yet terribly rude) community of like-minded music lovers who have found a new way to engage in peer-to-peer file-sharing. This community uses bit-torrent software, which is a kind of peer-to-peer file transfer code. These bit-torrents are used to share full cds (usually) of music. Music is both uploaded (seeded) and downloaded (leeched).

What's totally fascinating here is the machismo that is involved in this. There is a maximum number of 10,000 members of indietorrents, making it a pretty exclusive group. As if they needed to make it more exclusive, membership is only extended to those who have been invited to join indietorrents by other members. That's impressive. Furthermore, once you are a member, it seems remarkably easy to be kicked out (instantly, and sometimes forever) due to a) failure to provide new music for other members, b) saying something stupid in the online chat interface that is part of indietorrents, c) not maintaining enough activity on an account, or d) any other reason that occurs to the sysop. The mood of this group strikes me as overwhelmingly male, educated, and pretentious. And, of course, that's fine. [note: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member]

Oh, and they come up with a relatively interesting way to protect themselves from record industry litigation. It seems that record labels (and artists? licensing companies?) can remove their artists from the indietorrents community. The question posed to the music industry here is: will indietorrents help or hinder them? I have no answer to this question (yet).

So, is this indietorrents thing interesting? I think so. I suppose what I find so interesting, after a few months of hearing about this, is how the community has survived through strict enforcement of a relatively elaborate (though clearly laid out) set of rules. It would be very much interesting to see what kinds of music becomes popular on indietorrents, and what flops entirely. Is this format supporting certain sounds/communities/regions/ideas more than others? And how does this shape relate to the structures set up by the indietorrents community? Inquiring minds want to know.

Also interesting is the idea of 'indie' to be found on indietorrents. It should strike most of you as familiar. As their FAQ states...

Many of you have wondered what the indie stands for? I must admit originally it was intended to imply indie as in the indie rock genre. That was way back in the beginning days of this tracker. Since then we have grown significantly and with that we have somewhat changed what we think the indie stands for. We think of indie as in the term independence. Independence from the big corporate record labels. Independence from the commercialization of our music. Independence from the corrupting metality of the corporate marketing assholes. Be it doom metal, indie pop, grindcore, world beat or experimental noise, keep that indpenendent spirit and you are what we call indie. Keep it off a major record label and your indie can be shared here.

This is about enough to make any good media researcher's bullshit detector go off loudly and visibly. The glib division of music into 'indie' and 'corporate,' the cloying presumption that there is a wide variety of music here ('doom metal...experimental noise') that probably hides a certain tendency (or two) in the music that actually is downloaded (as boring and pretentious as those people who say they listen to 'everything,' which is always a dodge), and the presumption that 'corporate' music actually does something bad to people are all familiar tropes.

But what is this "independence" described here? Of what are they independent? And in what manner might this independence matter to them, or to anyone else? This is a question facing indietorrents and just about everyone else who proclaims to be part of a 'diy' or 'independent' cultural formation. For those (like me) who believe that independence is indeed worth something, it is frustrating to see it spoken of in such a pretentious manner. Can we do any better than this?

Friday, August 11, 2006


Larry Gross, once my advisor at Penn, now my enduring sensei, posted to the cultstud listserv recently. In this post, Larry announced the coming of a new online journal of communication. It will be called the International Journal of Communication (one is to be thankful for unpretentious journal names), and it looks like the official launch will be this fall. They're looking for review and manuscript submissions now. I'm sure the IJoC will be worth watching. Larry's editing with Manuel Castells, and it's a stellar board of editors (and advisory board). So, good.

As editor of the IJoC, Larry invites communication scholars to "send us brief [or longer] notes on the following two topics: the five most important books in your area in the past decade...; and/or the most important but overlooked books in your areas of interest." Never one to fail Larry in his hour of need, I offer my list of what I think are the most important books in my area (call it 'media studies') in the last decade. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Speaking Into the Air, by John Durham Peters (1999).
This book has the kind of breathtaking scope you wish books actually had when you read reviews that describe 'breathtaking scopes'. Peters holds a huge houserockin' party in the run-down shack that is communication theory, and he invites everybody: Adorno, St. Augustine, Derrida, Emerson, Hegel, Heidegger, Levinas, Josiah Royce, William Blake, and geez, all kinds of other folks. But this is not just some name-check jamboree. Peters has a quill full of arguments, and he's out to slay a number of dragons (and perhaps bring others to life). Great quote: "that we are destined to interpret, and that interpretation will always involve our desires and their conflicts, does not signal a fall from the supposed grace of immediacy; it is a description of the very possibility of interaction." Yup.

2. The Media and Modernity, by John B. Thompson (1995).
Thompson offers us, with this book, a very successful attempt to reconsider all of modernity in terms of media processes. He takes a multi-perspectival, but recognizably socoiological, approach to communication, and he throws a mean old knuckleball (not fast, but curve galore) at some of the more faddish approaches to media theory. Thompson integrates tremendous variety of social scientific perspectives on communication. There's a lot in this book that isn't very surprising. But in its own way, it re-shapes what can be thought of as figure and ground in media theory and research.

3. The Good Citizen, by Michael Schudson (1998).
Schudson's writing style is quite recognizable. Effortlessly intelligent, pugnacious without being snotty, surprisingly controversial, Schudson here traces the history of "american civic life". We've seen this kind of thing before, of course. But Schudson's not interested in the dime-a-dozen narrative of civic decline. The book is hopeful about civic life, and remains steadfast in the most Schudsonian mode of all: skepticism about the great promise of 'dialogue'.

4. Canonic Texts in Media Research, ed. by Elihu Katz, John Durham Peters, Tamar Liebes, and Avril Orloff (2003).
This is a rather widely-read collection of chapters concerning what could be taken as the canon of media research. The volume gives us truly thouhtful reconsiderations of works that are sometimes thought to be too dusty to be worth it. We get Peter Simonson and Gabriel Weimann on Lazarsfeld & Merton's "Mass Communication, Popular Taste, and Organized Social Action"; John Durham Peters's subtle take on Horkheimer & Adorno's "The Culture Industry"; and Menahem Blondheim's altogether brilliant reflections on Harold Innis's notion of the bias of communication. This book raises more questions that it could hope to answer (questions about canonization's desirability and pitfalls, the field of communication's frustrating lack of concern with its own history, and much else), and one hopes that that is the point.

5. Convergence Culture, by Henry Jenkins (2006). It's a Henry Jenkins book, and it concerns new media and old media being pulled together. I rarely agree with Jenkins entirely (and, of course, he should not care whether I do or not), but he's a great writer, and he gets his fingernails dirty with what it is that interests me about current directions in popular culture. His understanding of convergence is very well-grounded in much time spent looking at things from the audience's point of view. I think this will be essential reading for some time.

I'm likely to revise this list. More on unheard-of stuff soon.

Monday, August 07, 2006


After my last post, an attempt to apply the notion of 'the aesthetic anxiety' to communication studies, I realized I'd largely ignored some of the major differences between how poetry and communication studies operate. I would like to address this with a typology.

It is possible to imagine that the strategies employed by a range of actors in a discipline will be shaped largely by the structural position of that discipline within the larger social field. I suggest that we can understand some of these strategies in terms of heteronomy and autonomy, and in terms of high stakes and small stakes. It's a classic 2x2 grid, for those inclined to think in Robert Mertonian terms.

So, I'm sayin' this: communication has, as a field, largely been identified with what could be called high stakes heteronomy. It is heteronomy because, instead of defining its own terms, the field is much more likely to fit itself into existing institutional structures. The field's successes have largely involved institutional accomodation. Whatever successes communication has had, they have largely come from high-stakes heteronomy. I think this is what leads the field to define itself institutionally, as John Durham Peters describes in his still-relevant 1986 article "Sources of Intellectual Poverty in Communication Research." It's what communication has done well. We have done a good job of finding the needs for our own discipline. The question is whether or not the field will ever parlay this increasingly prominent institutional standing into something more intellectually challenging and cohesive (and some would argue that cohesion may be the enemy, anyway).

Poetry, meanwhile, experiences the aesthetic anxiety because it involves low-stakes autonomy. Poets have a tremendous amount of freedom to say whatever they want. There is a substantial amount of autonomy. It is 'low stakes' because this freedom does not translate into power. They have been granted an island, and though they have free range on this island, they have few inroads to the high stakes games of centralized power. To be blunt, they own their own irrelevance.

Friday, August 04, 2006


Bob Archambeau is a colleague of mine here at Lake Forest College. He's a poet, critic, and man of letters. He's also the creator of the blog Samizdat, which is always worth checking out. Bob has shared with me his essay entitled "The Aesthetic Anxiety," and it's pretty good stuff. The essay addresses avant garde poetry, and the hopes that some poets write onto the avant garde (and other seemingly autonomous forms). I think that much of what he has to say can be applied to the social sciences. Let's take a peek...

In "The Aesthetic Anxiety," Archambeau posits that "many poets have felt the allure of the radical freedoms of an entirely autonomous art." This leads them to face "the anxieties that such autonomy seems, inevitably, to create: fears of losing their readerships, theis social roles, and their political utility." How do they resolve this anxiety? They claim that "a commitment to aesthetic autonomy can, in and of itself, be a form of political action." One imagines a conversation going something like this:

POET: Regard my poems. They're far-out and freaky. They totally re-sort all of the categories of thought that, you know, hegemony has forced on you rubes.

RUBE: God, that's a weird poem. I don't understand it. What's the deal? I've got a second-grader who can put poems together that rhyme. You seem to have become so autonomous that it would be accurate to say that avant garde poets are just talking to each other, in a language nobody can understand. You are, sir poet, politically and socially inefficacious. You do nothing for anybody, except yourself.

POET (shocked): No! You just don't get it, man. These poems are revolutionizing the world. There are whole systems of thought that these poems are altering. The political effect of these poems is not to be found in some ballot measure. The political effect of this stuff--REAL ART, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD--is to revolutionize everything. You can't even handle how revolutionary this is. Ahem: revolution!

RUBE: [disappears into thin air, upon suddenly discovering that rubes and avant garde poets never talk to each other]

This interaction provides a succinct caricature of Archambeau's argument. But Archambeau is much more thorough. He traces the roots of aetheticism to the "alienation from the powerful classes of those committed to imaginative expression." He examines the aesthetic anxiety one finds in Algernon Charles Swinburne's writings. He traces this aethetic anxiety at work in Arthur Symons 1893 essay, "The Decadent Movement in Literature," and in W. B. Yeats' poems. Then he moves into the twentieth century with riffs on Peter Burger, the Surrealists, and the language poets (Charles Bernstein Ron Silliman amongst them). It's a very careful analysis, and fun to read. It should be a book before long.

But heck, I'm no poet. I'm a social scientist. What does this have to do with the stuff that media researchers do? Well, I'm going to go ahead and say it has something to do with us. There's a common theme to be found in the social sciences and in modern poetry. This common theme is autonomy/professionalism, and while social scientists may escape the aesthetic anxiety (as Archambeau describes it), there does seem to be a professional anxiety at work.

Okay, Pravda, you say. What is this professional anxiety? Well, I'm glad you asked. In the social sciences, the anxiety about the autonomy provided by professionalism often involves the public. Professionalism often progresses in a manner that enhances the autonomy of those within the profession (cf. Eliot Freidson, Magali Larson, Andrew Abbott). Professionalism is classically thought of as inward-looking. Professionals look not to the public, but to their peers, for professional validation. The social sciences, though less 'professionalized' than, say, medicine, still work in a roughly similar fashion. We use jargon, we look to each other for validation, and we establish networks within our disciplines/fields.

But surely we social scientists don't have an avant garde that casts its own autonomy as a blow for the revolution, right? Well, I suppose not. But we do have anxieties that arise from our own professionally-derived autonomy (to the extent that it exists). We often deal with issues that are blatantly relevant to the public, and yet we just as often remark how little the public cares about it, or how sad it is that it is all written in a jargon that does not lend itself to the sustenance of a non-expert audience.

As a grad student in communication, I recall many discussions ending in an ironic appreciation of how little our work mattered to the outside world. But instead of spurring those in communication to become more autonomous, and to make the (let's call it gutsy) argument that being crazy and drenched in theory would revolutionize THE WORLD, instead communication seems to be in a position where those who feel this anxiety are give up on communicating with the public (which is too bad, I suppose) or find a way to muster some sense in which their research can be thought to actually matter. Frequently enough, this latter option means sacrificing intellectual autonomy to those who actually do have power. This can involve simply fitting research interests into the pre-existing interests of funding organizations. Christopher Simpson's famous book Science of Coercion provided a well-known and important demonstration of how some of the 'founding fathers' of comm research hitched their methods and some of their ideas to the interests of the CIA and other groups. To a great extent, the supposed successes for the field of communication (as detailed every month in the National Communication Association's Spectra) have come from capturing grant money. I believe this indicates a lack of structural autonomy in the field of communication. We feel the anxiety of autonomy/professionalism, but our response is not to come up with some claptrap about the revolutionary value of 'out there' theory, but to get busy and figure out how to fit our intellectual interests into the needs of those around us. And I think that's too bad.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


As I have pointed out before in this very blog, I am quite interested in the issue of the public intellectual. In particular, I find it frustrating that discussions of the public intellectual so often involve the same basic themes. To a great extent, the debate about public intellectuals (since Russell Jacoby's 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals) has involved a persistent attention to features of professionalism. Most of us are familiar with the argument that Jacoby makes. It goes something like this: it used to be that we had truly public intellectuals, but the increasing professionalization of academia has made it so that our intellectuals are our professors, and these professors have been programmed by their graduate schools so that they are totally unable to write in a clearly legible prose. Also, they're a bunch of sellouts more interested in tenure (and brandy, easy chairs, beard grooming...) than in doing anything for the public.

Well, I'm happy to say I have a lot of problems with this narrative of public intellectual decline. And whaddyaknow, I've got an article out in a recent issue of the International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics that deals with this issue. I won't re-write the article here, but I will just go over the big point: little can be said about the public intellectual without attending to media processes. In particular, it's worth pointing out that public intellectuals aren't all that different from journalists. And, of course, we media studies folk have said a lot (some would say too much) about journalism. Why not apply this to public intellectuals? I realize there are some differences between public intellectuals and journalists. However, when the best known definitions of 'public intellectuals' (those of Russell Jacoby and Richard A. Posner) are examined, we find that these definitions bring us closer to journalism than we might have expected.

Of course, I've got a bunch more things to say about the connections between media studies and the issue of the public intellectual. But one point worth making now is simply that a more multi-dimensional sense of the public intellectual would result from looking at how media processes have been part of the role of the intellectual for pretty much as long as the word 'intellectual' has existed (this point can be read from much of Robert Darnton's excellent work on French media history). Instead of focusing just on 'great' public intellectuals of the past, and the supposedly compromised public intellectuals of today, why not focus on the background that makes these roles possible and sustainable? Blaming professionalization in academia for the death of the public intellectual is probably part-right, but academia doesn't have as much power over who is and is not a public intellectual as, say, Time-Warner does.

I'm sure I'll return to this issue again. It's going to take a long time to work this out.