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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­shall McLuhan, W.H. Auden & Buck­min­ster Fuller Debate the Virtues of Mod­ern Tech­nol­o­gy & Media (1971)

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

Sci-Fi Author J.G. Bal­lard Pre­dicts the Rise of Social Media (1977)

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

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