5 Animations Introduce the Media Theory of Noam Chomsky, Roland Barthes, Marshall McLuhan, Edward Said & Stuart Hall

We watch it happen in real time, aghast as the media cannibalizes itself, turning reality into a parody of the kind we laughed at in goofy dystopian scenarios from Back to the Future, The SimpsonsIdiocracy. A brave new world of hypercredulity and monstrous disingenuousness arrived on our smart phones and TVs. It was gaudy and pernicious and lied to us like we couldn’t trust our lying eyes. We saw reality TV mainlined into reality. The response was to shout, “Fake News,” a phrase almost immediately redigested and spun into flimsy conspiracy theories. It now serves little purpose but to get the snake gnawing its tail again.

How?, many wondered in despair. Haven’t people read the theory? Noam Chomsky, Marshall McLuhan, Stuart Hall, Edward Said, Roland Barthes.... Didn’t we see them proven right time and again? But chances are if you know all these names, you’ve spent time in university English, Communications, or Media Studies departments.




You’ve hung around hip bookstores and coffeeshops in cities and puzzled over critical theory, pretending, perhaps, to have read at least one of these writers you hadn't. You gave up your TV years ago and kept your kids away from screens (or told people you did). You fit, in other words, a certain profile, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it was, in the scheme of things, a pretty narrow niche, and an often pretty smug one at that.

Maybe academics, critics, and journalists need to be better at talking and listening to ordinary people? Maybe fashionable waves of anti-intellectualism need to be resisted with almost religious vigor…? Whatever the solution(s) for mass media illiteracy, we can treat the video series here from Al Jazeera as a step in the right direction. Called “Media Theorized: Reading Against the Grain,” the project takes as its subtitle a quote from Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and literary critic who distilled cultural studies into highly readable essays, dissecting everything from wrestling to tourism to advertising. Barthes showed how these genres constitute symbolic texts, just like romantic novels and morality plays, but purport to show us unmediated truth.

“Media Theorized” surveys five cultural critics who have, in five different ways, made similar analyses of mass media. Marshall McLuhan famously declared the medium as the message: its signal inseparable from its noise; Noam Chomsky demonstrated how popular consent is engineered by a narrow set of shady special interests with influence over the media; Stuart Hall showed how mass media manipulates discourses of race, class, gender, and religion to misrepresent outsiders and marginalized people and keep them in their place in the social imaginary; and Edward Said documented the long tradition of “Orientalism”---a totalizing Euro-American discourse that estranges, belittles, and dehumanizes whole countries, cultures, and religious communities.

While it’s impossible to do justice to the richness and depth of their arguments with quick summaries and pithy animation, what “Media Theorized” does well is to present this handful of academics as accessible and uniquely relevant to our current situation. This works especially well because the presenters are people used to putting theory into practice, communicating with the public, and critiquing mass media. Activists and journalists from all over the world, who have not only contributed short videos on YouTube, but thoughtful supplementary essays and interviews at the “Media Theorized” site (which also includes high resolution posters from each video.) The project is an invitation for each of us to take several steps back and ask some highly pertinent questions about how and why the stories we're told get told, and for whose benefit.

Millions of people have had enough and are demanding accountability from individual figures in the media---a positive development, to be sure, though it seems like too little too late. We need to understand the damage that’s been done, and continues to be done, by the systems mass media enable and sell. This series introduces “critical tools” we can use in our “everyday encounters” with such salesmanship.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Every Front Page of The New York Times in Under a Minute: Watch the Evolution of “The Gray Lady” from 1852 to Present

Buckling under information overload?

The long view can be soothing, as filmmaker Josh Begley proves in just under a minute, above. The data artist reduced 165 years worth of chronologically ordered New York Times front pages---every single one since 1852---to a grid of inky rectangles flashing past at lightning speed.

You won’t be able to make out the headlines as the front page news whips past to the somewhat ominous strains of composer Philip Glass’ ”Dead Things.”

Instead the impression is of watching something---or someone---steadily bearing witness.




Obviously, any reputable new source does more than simply note the unfolding of events. Its readers look to it as a source of analysis and critique, in addition to well-researched factual information.

The Gray Lady, as the Times has long been known, has recently weathered an uptick in slings and arrows from both the left and the right, yet her longevity is not easily dismissed.

Blogger Jason Kottke watched the video with an eye toward some of the paper’s most notable design changes. His findings also remind us of some of the historic events to appear on the Times' front page---Lincoln’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation, and the election of our first Black president, which it described as a “national catharsis---a repudiation of a historically unpopular Republican president and his economic and foreign policies.”

How many of the over 50,000 front pages featured above were deemed personally significant enough to squirrel away in a trunk or an attic?

Have digital archives decreed that this practice will soon gasp its last, along with the print media that inspired it?

What will we use to wrap our fish and line our bird cages?

Read the New York Times 2012 (non-front page) coverage of Apple’s rejection of Josh Begley’s Drone+ app here.

via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and theater maker in New York City.  Her play Zamboni Godot is playing at The Brick in Brooklyn through tomorrow night. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent and How the Media Creates the Illusion of Democracy

For nearly as many years as he’s occupied the public eye, famed linguist and anarchist philosopher Noam Chomsky has made claims that might have discredited other academics. Perhaps his many books, articles, lectures, interviews, etc. carry such weight because of his “famed linguist” status and his longtime tenure at MIT. But there’s more to his longevity as a respected critic of U.S. state power. His voice also carries significant authority because he substantiates his arguments with erudite, granular analyses of economic theory, history, and political philosophy.

We’ve seen him do exactly this in his fierce opposition to the Vietnam War at the beginning of his activist career, and in his critiques of proxy wars, imperialistic repression, and corporate resource grabs in Latin America and Southeast Asia in decades since.




When it comes to the U.S. domestic scene, one of Chomsky’s most pointed and continually relevant critiques addresses the way in which we’re led to believe the country’s actions overseas justify themselves, as well as its actions upon its own citizens. We might debate whether the U.S. is a democracy or a republic, but according to Chomsky, both notions may well be illusory.

Instead, Chomsky argues in Manufacturing Consent—his 1988 critique of “the political economy of the mass media" with Edward S. Herman—that the mass media sells us the idea that we have political agency. Their “primary function… in the United States is to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector.” Those interests may have changed or evolved quite a bit since 1988, but the mechanisms of what Chomsky and Herman identify as “effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function” might work in the age of Twitter just as they did in one dominated by network and cable news.

Those mechanisms largely divide into what the authors called the “Five Filters.” The video at the top of the post, narrated by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, provides a quick introduction to them, in a jarring animated sequence that’s part Monty Python, part Residents video. See the five filters listed below in brief, with excerpts from Goodman’s commentary:

1. Media Ownership—The endgame of all mass media orgs is profit. “It is in their interest to push for whatever guarantees that profit.”

2. Advertising—Media costs more than consumers will pay: Advertisers fill the gap. What do advertisers pay for? Access to audiences. “It isn’t just that the media is selling you a product. They’re also selling advertisers a product: you.”

3. Media Elite—“Journalism cannot be a check on power, because the very system encourages complicity. Governments, corporations, and big institutions know how to influence the media. They feed it scoops and interviews with supposed experts. They make themselves crucial to the process of journalism. If you want to challenge power, you’ll be pushed to the margins…. You won’t be getting in. You’ll have lost your access.”

4. Flack—“When the story is inconvenient for the powers that be, you’ll see the flack machine in action: discrediting sources, trashing stories, and diverting the conversation.”

5. The Common Enemy—“To manufacture consent, you need an enemy, a target: Communism, terrorists, immigrants… a boogeyman to fear helps corral public opinion.”

Chomsky and Herman’s book offers a surgical analysis of the ways corporate mass media "manufactures consent” for a status quo the majority of people do not actually want. Yet for all of the recent agonizing over mass media failure and complicity, we don't often hear references to Manufacturing Consent these days. This may have something to do with the book’s dated examples, or it may testify to Chomsky’s marginalization in mainstream political discourse, though he would be the first to note that his voice has not been suppressed.

It may also be the case that media theory and criticism like Chomsky's, or the work of Marshall McLuhan, Theodor Adorno, or Jean Baudrillard (all very different kinds of thinkers), has fallen out of favor in a 140-character world. In the late-80s and 90s, however, such theory received a good deal of attention, and Chomsky appeared in the many venues you’ll see in the short video above, excerpted from an almost 3-hour 1992 documentary called Manufacturing Consent, a film made by “die-hard fans,” wrote Colin Marshall in an earlier post, that “curates instances of Chomsky going from interview to interview, debate to debate, forum to forum, making sharp-sounding points about the relationship between business elites and the media.”

Our desire for instant reward and settled opinion may have overtaken our ability to subject the entire phenomenon of mass media to critical analysis, as we leap from cliffhanger to cliffhanger and crisis to crisis. But should we take the time to watch this film and, preferably also, read Chomsky’s book, we may find ourselves somewhat better equipped to evaluate the onslaught of propaganda to which we’re subjected on what seems like an hourly basis.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage (1967)

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

Briefly noted: In 1967, Marshall McLuhan teamed up with graphic designer Quentin Fiore to write The Medium is the Massage, a short 160-page book that offers a condensed, effective presentation of his ideas on the nature of media, communication and technology. The book was soon accompanied by an album bearing the same name, which Wikipedia describes like this:

An audio recording based on the book was made by Columbia Records in the late 1960s, produced by John Simon but otherwise keeping the same credits as the book. The recording consists of a pastiche of statements made by McLuhan interrupted by other speakers, including people speaking in various phonations and falsettos, discordant sounds and 1960s incidental music in what could be considered a deliberate attempt to translate the disconnected images seen on TV into an audio format, resulting in the prevention of a connected stream of conscious thought. Various audio recording techniques and statements are used to illustrate the relationship between spoken, literary speech and the characteristics of electronic audio media. McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand called the recording "the 1967 equivalent of a McLuhan video.

One reviewer on Amazon describes it as "more of a performance piece than a treatise." And thanks to Spotify, you can hear it below, in full. Also find it on YouTube.

The Medium is the Massage--yes, it was originally spelled that way--will be added to our list: 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free

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New Handbook for Educators Explains How to Produce & Distribute Free Video for the World

mooc-video-handbook

The chicken-and-egg, forest/trees question for those who produce educational and public service media is really who are we producing our content for. MIT’s Director of Digital Learning Sanjay Sarma has said that “we” – universities in particular (but also museums, libraries, and other educational and cultural institutions) – “are all sort of Disney, and Sony, and MGM – we produce movies.” But who are we producing our movies for?

The answer is – perhaps obviously – that we are producing for multiple stakeholders, but that many of us are really producing these productions for the world. At a time when so much crap is happening around the globe, it is ever more clear that our real responsibility is to improve the planet while we are on it, and if we can help effect that by sharing our knowledge, so much the better.

Much as U.S. and other national industries of research and scholarly publishing have begun to mandate some form of open or free licensing for the output of grant-funded written work, so now the question arises should video and educational video in particular find its way, too, into the commons. Here, too, the answer is: of course.

On the occasion of the third LEARNING WITH MOOCS conference at the University of Pennsylvania, Intelligent Television is releasing a new guide: MOOCs and Open Educational Resources: A Handbook for Educators. The guide is a step-by-step manual to how to produce and distribute educational video content under the freest of licenses, with an emphasis on Creative Commons.

The Handbook situates educational video production in the context of more than 100 years of moving-image work at universities and beyond. Indeed, the booklet draws on the work of educational producers from the early 1900s – works such as Charles Urban, The Cinematograph in Science, Education, and Matters of State and the 1920s journal Visual Education.

The impulse to share knowledge in a free environment also is not new. In many ways MOOCs and Open Courseware and Wikipedia and Creative Commons and Google/YouTube are all part of the same project – envisioned by visionaries such as Richard Stallman, media producers behind the start of public broadcasting here and abroad, much earlier, even, by publishers active centuries ago in the Enlightenment, and even earlier, in ancient Alexandria under the Ptolemaic kings. The vision? A giant rich resource: a gigantic global encyclopedia, or Encyclopédie, or library or museum, contributing to universal access to human knowledge. With the Internet upon us now, we can help realize it.

Does the rest of the world have any right to the knowledge that we produce at universities and other cultural and educational institutions? And do we have any obligation to share it? We live once, but our problems live on. And if the work of Richard Hofstadter (an expert on "anti-intellectualism" and what he called "the paranoid style in American politics”) and Edward Said (so wise on the collapse of colonialism and media bias), just to pick two Columbia University examples, could have been recorded and shared – and shared openly – we’d be the richer for it. Disseminating knowledge now through the world’s most powerful medium could be our highest calling.

Start reading MOOCs and Open Educational Resources: A Handbook for Educators here.

Peter B. Kaufman is an author, educator, and film producer and the founder of Intelligent Television in New York. Twice serving as associate director of Columbia University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, he produces films and educational video in close association with universities, museums, and archives, and he publishes, produces, and organizes numerous projects at the intersection of video, education, and open educational resources. He is executive director of a foundation to promote Russian literature and culture and runs a summer documentary filmmaking institute for high school students every year in Connecticut.

Photographer Bill Cunningham (RIP) on Living La Vie Boheme Above Carnegie Hall

New York City lost some of its charm this weekend, with the news that Bill Cunningham, the Times’ beloved, on-the-street fashion photographer, had passed away at the age of 87.

Much has been made over the fact that he was designated a living landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. It's an honor he earned, hitting the streets daily in his usual mufti of khakis, sneakers, and bleu de travail cotton jacket to hunt his quarry by bicycle, but one could never accuse him of courting it.




His employer frequently sent him to cover the elite, but he had no interest in joining their ranks, despite his own growing celebrity. His "Evening Hours" column documented the dressed up doings on the “party circuit.” (This living New York landmark never shook his Boston accent, one of the chief delights of his weekly video series for the Times.) A recent installment suggests that shooting the likes of actress Nicole Kidman and Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour during tony private functions at MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“aht”) was far less exciting than encountering colorfully clad Himalayan dancers and a children’s craft table at an entirely free Sunday afternoon street fair sponsored by the Rubin Museum of Art.

Playwright Winter Miller shared this anecdote the morning Cunningham’s death was announced:

…he didn't give a fk about who was famous or not. I once met Bill Murray in the lobby of the old New York Times building. He’d shown up to see if he could track down a photo of him and his then-wife that Bill had shot. I brought one Bill to the other, but Bill (Cunningham) was out on the streets with his blue jacket, white bike and camera. When he returned, I explained how I'd come to take Bill Murray under my wing to help him track down this photo. Bill had no idea who Bill Murray was and not unkindly told me (that) none of his photos were digital, so it would involve him personally digging through old files and he didn't have time. I admired that he knew his priorities and never strayed from his task. I had been eager to get Bill Murray the thing he'd wanted and would have combed though vast files myself… but I never looked. Bill Cunningham's files were impenetrable to an outsider.

One likes to think that Murray, who’s known for using his fame as his ticket to hang with ordinary mortals, would find much to love about that.

In fact, Murray strikes me as the perfect candidate to play Cunningham in a biopic covering the six decades spent living and working in a studio over Carnegie Hall. As far as I know, Bill Cunningham New York, a feature length documentary, is the only time his story has been captured on the silver screen. How can it be that no one has thought to make a movie centered on the lost bohemian period Cunningham recalls so fondly in the slideshow above? It sounds like an American spin on the Lost Generation---sneaking down to the unlocked stage for photographer Editta Sherman’s impromptu amateur performances of The Dying Swan, an elderly circus performer and her dog roaming the halls on a unicycle, someone always in a state of undress…

Perhaps Murray’s frequent collaborator, Wes Anderson, could be enlisted to set these wheels in motion. The colorful cast of characters seem tailor-made for this director, already a fashion world favorite.

The hats alone!

Prior to acquiring an Olympus Pen D half-frame camera from a friend in 1966, Cunningham worked as a milliner. Marilyn Monroe used to crack herself up, trying them on in between classes at the Actor’s Studio. The wife of a Carnegie Hall neighbor and Cunningham’s boss, fashion photographer Ray Solowinski, served as his model. After he was established as a fashion expert in his own right, Cunningham admitted that his designs were “a little too exotic – you know, for normal people”.

billhat6

I think they’re wonderful, and hopefully, Bill Murray, Wes Anderson and you will agree. See below. I think they’re wonderful, and hopefully, Bill Murray, Wes Anderson and you will agree. Hats off to the inimitable Bill Cunningham, as much a fixture of New York as Carnegie Hall.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

How to Spot Bullshit: A Primer by Princeton Philosopher Harry Frankfurt

We live in an age of truthiness. Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word to describe the Bush administration’s tendency to fudge the facts in its favor.

Ten years after the American Dialect Society named it Word of the Year, former president Bush’s calendar is packed with such leisure activities as golf and painting portraits of world leaders, but "truthiness" remains on active duty.

It’s particularly germane in this election year, though politicians are far from its only practitioners.




Take global warming. NASA makes a pretty rock solid case for both its existence and our role in it:

97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

In view of such numbers, its understandable that a suburban Joe with a freezer full of factory-farmed beef and multiple SUVs in his garage would cling to the position that global warming is a lie. It’s his last resort, really.

But such self-rationalizations are not truth. They are truthiness.

Or to use the old-fashioned word favored by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, above: bullshit!

Frankfurt--a philosopher at Princeton and the author of On Bullshit--allows that bullshit artists are often charming, or at their very least, colorful. They have to be. Achieving their ends involves engaging others long enough to persuade them that they know what they’re talking about, when in fact, that's the opposite of the truth.

Speaking of opposites, Frankfurt maintains that bullshit is a different beast from an out-and-out lie. The liar makes a specific attempt to conceal the truth by swapping it out for a lie.

The bullshit artist’s approach is far more vague. It’s about creating a general impression.

There are times when I admit to welcoming this sort of manure. As a maker of low budget theater, your honest opinion of any show I have Little Red Hen’ed into existence is the last thing I want to hear upon emerging from the cramped dressing room, unless you truly loved it.

I’d also encourage you to choose your words carefully when dashing a child’s dreams.

But when it comes to matters of public policy, and the public good, yes, transparency is best.

It’s interesting to me that filmmakers James Nee and Christian Britten transformed a portion of their learned subject’s thoughts into voiceover narration for a lightning fast stock footage montage. It’s diverting and funny, featuring such ominous characters as Nosferatu, Bill Clinton, Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, and Donald Trump, but isn’t it also the sort of misdirection sleight of hand at which true bullshitters excel?

Frankfurt expands upon his thoughts on bullshit in his aptly titled bestselling book, On Bullshit and its followup On Truth.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

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