Wednesday, February 24, 2010

my first video essay

Disposable Bodies Video Essay

I was immediately inspired while reading Norbert Wiener's "Men, Machines, and the World" to address a visual topic that also involved social responsibility.  The more theoretical work I read about media studies, the visual studies, and digital media, the more I was drawn into the notion of our changing view of our self and our bodies.  Here I was drawn to the work of  Amelia Jones's  "Dispersed Subjects and the Demise of the 'Individual 1990s Body in/as Art'"  and N. Katherine Hayles'  "Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers." We are constantly rethinking our bodily-kinesthetic relationship to computers based on the evolving technology of the interface.  The new tablet technology I use in the video is only the most recent manifestation of this.

However, the continued technologizing and multiplying of our bodies really only applies to those who constantly and consistently use this technology.  I began to think about a lecture I attended by Toby Miller in which he theorized our relationship to the television itself, as a thing. Our relationship with television screens and computer screens is not permanent, both metaphorically and physically.  The physical object of the screen will become obsolete as new technology comes to replace the old.  What happens to the self when the computer, which was once intimately connected to us, is disposed of?  What happens to those bodies that must deal with our techno-trash?

I propose that our relationship with the technobody, our and others, is entirely dependent on real world social and political realities.  Why else would we dump e-waste in developing countries where damage is being done to poor bodies of color?

Making this video essay was an interesting process.  I researched in the same way I would to write an essay, but the evidence I used seems more random and required more analysis on my part to make connections.  I also have not used irony in written essays before, but appreciate their use in visual text, and found it much easier to be visually ironic than on  paper.  I felt as if the technical process took up more time, not because of the use of video editing software, but because I was acutely aware that others would be viewing this video, and it was not just an exchange between myself and a professor.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reading a Photo with Cultural Anthropology

I've find myself continually returning to this image. While the aesthetics of the photograph are poor, much to my own chagrin of having taken it in a rush, it is an image I am continually rethinking. This past week in my Visual Research Methods course, I encountered some ideas that will help me in this desire to better read this image.

Our guest lecture during the class did an incredibly contextual analysis of 17th Century Genoan depictions of the Virgin Mary and the controversy of crowning her the queen of Genoa.  While I cannot say that the inter-workings of  the Genoa Republic will be useful in any of my future scholarship, it was an incredible example of how to dig deeper and use all available avenues to really dissect an image more than merely discussing its aesthetics. 

In encouraging us to apply interdisciplinary principles to the study of visuals, we discussed Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner.  While this was not my first time working through Geertz, I think that the value of thick description should not be underestimated when applied to visual images.  In my Elivs-Stormtrooper image you could continue to read the image in terms of what made Elvis so popular and imitable as well as what makes Star Wars, and specifically Stormtroopers imitable.  However, it is probably more than merely the symbol of these two popular images that prompted this individual to don his attire, but a larger cultural impulse of media convergence that has become popular.  The media technology that we now possess (or those of us who use and possess) has encouraged all sorts of re-interpreting and re-inventing of popular images that makes something like a Elvis-Stormtrooper possible.  There are so many layers to what could be said:  Is it that Elvis will live on--even into the future?  Or perhaps because Star Wars was "a long time ago and a galaxy far far way" that no one can escape the influence of Elvis?  Is it a commentary of what he wished was under the Stormtrooper helmet?  Do the values of Star Wars and the values of Elvis coincide?  Is it merely an attempt to get extra usage out of both an Elvis costume and a Stormtrooper costume?

But perhaps I should point out that this particular image is also tied to the place in which I took the photograph, San-Diego Comi-con, which comes with another set of "cultural" values as well.  Comic-con has an atmosphere of festival and performance that is not typical of everyday settings, and one in which dressing as a convergence pop-culture imagined figure would not be unusual, and perhaps encouraged.  I find Victor Turner helpful here, and wish that I had read his material before when for a previous class I attempted to discuss some of the aspects of convention costumes.  When you think about performance as an integral part of culture, that life is very much like theater, it is helpful to see very obvious manifestation of this in the costume culture of  dressing up at a convention.  We perform as part of a space that brings social cohesion and inscribes meaning in an event.  Comi-con is a kind of imagined community that only appears physically once a year, and so in participating in one of its most popular events, the masquerade, one could be said to have credentials to show one belongs in that community.   Our Elvis-Stormtrooper is as much at Comi-con to see as he is to be seen.  While most of us don't don superhero or pop culture costumes everyday, there is performance for all of us in the way we select clothing, wear appropriate work attire, or style our hair, that makes the costuming of Elvis-Stormtrooper less unusual that I would have previously thought.  Our own everyday performance enables us to show what communities we belong to, as much as Elvis-Stormtrooper is proving his part in the Comi-con community.

Friday, February 5, 2010

re-posting some articulated thoughts

I decided I needed to save this post, since the blog I originally wrote it in died a couple years ago.  I think it was definitely worth saving, especially since I find myself tackling issues of authorship and ownership again and again.

Previously posted:  Thursday, March 29, 2007

Here's something I've been working on for my cultural and media studies class:

Author and Textual Authority

Contention over who is the “author” is really a contention over truth and authority. Who has the power to declare textual truth? Who has the power to change textual truth? Two main issues need to be addressed when defining the author of a text. First, what is the author’s authority over the interpretation of the text, and second, how does the power of interpretation affect the relationship between the author and the audience.

The notion of a creator or author’s textual authority can be viewed in two parts: the intentional or unintentional. Intentional textual authority functions as an extension of the author as a rational being, having authority over his creations. The author as creator can be used as a source of interpretive authority by merely asking the author about the original intent of the text. Popular culture and some sectors of academics, gives a large percentage of interpretive power to authors. One of the most prevalent examples of this is the case of film authorship. Popular culture gives a tremendous amount of credit to film directors as sources of interpretive authority, as evidenced by DVD extras and talk show interviews. A recent example of this is Mel Gibson and numerous interviews he gave about Apocalypto. Nearly all the interviews asked about his interpretation of the film, concerning the rise and fall of civilization, and a few asking about his view of Mayan culture.

This is in large part because of the theoretical legacy of the auteur theory, literally French for author, popularized by French film critics in the 1950s. Even though popular culture has largely misappropriated the auteur theory, and used it to give textual authority to directors, this theory of textual interpretive power is not entirely an intentional one on the part of the director. An auteur, usually the director, is given interpretive power only after a large body of work has been produced. The auteur may know, or not know, that over the volume of his texts, certain patterns and themes will emerge, and these are the core meanings of all his texts. Thus, an auteur makes and remakes the same film, over and over again, becoming the authority on specific themes. Howard Hawks is a commonly cited auteur because of his breadth of work and themes of male heroism.

The auteur theory was loosely based on a more prevalent theory that an author’s intentional choices are largely outweighed by the unintentional choices, mainly in the form of literary historicism. By privileging the author’s personal life and historical period, textual power is given to factors out of the author’s control. In a review of recent biographies, Leonard Cassuto observed that our idea of the biography comes from the influence of Leon Edel, who outlined the biographer’s purpose as “locat[ing] the subject’s secret self.” Anything that authors leave behind become evidence in the search for the secret self, and ultimately a source of authority on any text that the author has written. Cassuto highlights the 2005 biography of Theodore Dreiser as an excellent example of the secret self biography, claiming that at Dreiser’s core he was man of Nineteenth Century ideas writing in the Twentieth Century, and that his novels are reflections of this. If interpreting a text is dependent on the author’s life and influences, as evidenced by the legacy of these secret self biographies, then interpretive power is given to both the author (such as Dreiser) who makes intentional choices about what he writes and the author-biographer who uses psychoanalytic power to find the author-novelist’s secret self (uncounscious Dreiser). In this case the biographer triumphs as supreme author, or one with the most interpretive power because he enables others to utilize his information as entitlement. However, the biographer is himself an author, and subject to his own secret self. Either way, both of these ideas still invest interpretive power with the author.

This brings us to Roland Barthes’s pronouncement that the author is dead. Barthes states that the author is a modern figure and a product of society and English empiricism; that it is capitalist ideology that necessitates this “tyranny of the author.” As a semiotician, Barthes uses this to explain that the very act of writing removes the author from the text, because he is not present at its connection with the reader. The author is the past and the reader with the text is the present. The text does not disseminate an author’s secret self, but is “a multidimensional space,” a “variety of writings,” none of which are original. A text is only a translation of expression into words, and words are signs that can be lost and meaning deferred. Therefore, if the author is removed from the text, than all attempts to decipher it will be in vain. By imposing an author on the text, it gives the text a sort of finality of meaning. This is false, Barthes concludes, since a text should not be finally “signified” but allowed the play of language and cultural shift. The text is really a creation of the reader, because “text unity lies not in the origin but in the destination.” Ultimately, Barthes names the writer, formerly the author, as scribe to distance it from the author as supreme textual interpreter.

Because of Barthes declaration, textual power can now be given from author to reader, or audience. In this way the audience receives textual interpretive power; it takes on the traditional role of author as meaning creator. Audiences are not required to accept all of the content in a text, and may choose to only accept a portion of it. For example, if one were to watch a television program and disagreed with the content, one is empowered with the ability to change the channel. Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch call the audience “cultural bricoleurs” and are free to disagree, add or change assigned meaning, and ultimately become their own textual interpreters. An audience in a mass medium is not homogenous, and therefore the meaning that these individuals place upon any text will be controlled by their personal experiences inside and especially outside mainstream culture.

However, the textual authority with which Barthes or Newcomb and Hirsch endow the reader is contradictory to the power that scholars in other fields have given to authors. One in particular is Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. If Orientalists have the ability to construct the East as an uncivilized Other, and their versions of the East continually propagate themselves, then the author’s textual power is present. Said says that scholars and travelers are taken as experts that purvey their Orientalism throughout the rest of the Western world. The attitude of Orientalist authors shapes the reality of the Western experience in the Eastern world because Westerners only see stereotypes. Said basically concludes that colonialist literature of the Nineteenth Century is a closed text; it exudes Orientalism, which is not subject to interpretation. Evidence that these racial stereotypes are reinscribed by numerous authors, and all throughout society, would prove an author’s textual power. The author has power because people believe the stereotype.  This calls into question whether audience interpretation moves beyond story to culture.  If a reader, or audience, can disagree with narrative, then by association shouldn't the reader be able to disagree with the cultural messages contained within a text as well?

Because an author is traditionally defined as one who has authority over the text, the author can be writer, audience, or according to Said, culture. Textual interpretation is a power that shifts, from author to audience, depending on how each of them define their role in assigning meaning. It is not surprising then, that popular culture and theorists are not in agreement on who has this interpretive power. If what Barthes says is true about capitalism contributing to the tyranny of the author, then mass media will not want to deny its right to textual authority because it is linked with monetary power. Copyright law and the contemporary disagreements about fair use are probably the ultimate example of this fight for textual power in which we see creators and users disagree. Despite laws and opposing theories, an author’s textual power may ultimately reside in the amount of textual power the audience decides to give him.