Being critical

Dipping back into the archives once again, but this time I’m pulling from the teaching wing, rather than the conference paper wing. This is the most recent (spring 2021) version of my opening lecture to the department’s big undergraduate intro course in media studies.

As the syllabus notes, this course is a basic introduction to “critical media studies.” What I want to talk about in this first lecture is that curious first word: critical.

It’s probably not that difficult for most people — even folks who’ve never set foot on a college campus — to figure out that “media studies” involves (surprise) “the study of media.” When I meet new people, and they ask what I do, and I tell them that I’m a professor of “media studies,” they almost always have a reasonably good sense of what that means. They may make bad assumptions about what type of media I focus on, or what sort of approach I actually take to studying the media, but they’re generally correct to assume that, on the whole, media studies scholars are folks who study things like television, the Internet, movies, recorded music, and so on. So far, so good.

So what does it mean to add the word “critical” in front of the phrase “media studies”? Perhaps obviously, it’s there to draw some sort of significant distinction between one variety of media studies and the rest of the field. But what’s the nature of that distinction? And why does it matter? What I want to do in this lecture, then, is offer five characteristics of “critical media studies” that distinguish it from “media studies” in general.

#1: Critical Media Studies research encompasses multiple media. Once upon a time (not that long ago, actually), it was pretty easy — and common — to find smart, well-respected media studies scholars who specialized in just one medium. There were folks who could tell you everything you ever wanted to know (and then some) about the television industry and television audiences and television producers (etc.), but knew next to nothing about similar issues relating to newspapers. Folks who studied newspapers, but could tell you nothing about film. Folks who studied film, but knew diddley-squat about radio. And so on. You’ll still find a handful of scholars who specialize this narrowly, but their numbers are shrinking — and the smart and well-respected folks usually aren’t amongst their ranks any more.

To be sure, no one scholar can plausibly claim to cover all forms of media equally well: the mediascape is simply too broad and too complicated for that to be feasible. But in an era where what were once discrete media industries all overlap and interlock with one another, it’s increasingly difficult for scholars to claim that they really know one medium very well if they can’t build bridges to other media in the ordinary course of their work. For example, if a “pure” film scholar is doing her job well, she needs to recognize that films are now much more frequently viewed on television and computer screens, via cable networks and streaming services, than they are in darkened cinema houses [and this was true long before the pandemic shut down all the movie theatres]. And she also needs to recognize that the “film” industry (if we can still safely call it that) necessarily makes aesthetic and economic decisions based on that fact. To properly understand film as a medium in the 21st century — its cultural politics, its social effects, its economic clout — one needs to have more than a passing knowledge of several other media as well. And that same argument could be made for almost any other medium you choose.

Put a slightly different way, the good media scholars who specialize in a particular medium these days — and, again, no one can really do it all, so we all necessarily specialize to some extent — can no longer do so to the complete exclusion of other media. Someone whose main work is on the internet, still has to know an awful lot about “neighboring” media and technologies that intersect with the internet in significant ways — smartphones, video games, newspapers, magazines, television, film, radio, etc. — in order to do a good job of studying the internet.

#2: Critical Media Studies is inherently interdisciplinary in nature. Communication Studies is an obvious and natural home for a lot of Critical Media Studies work, and there’s no reason to believe that will change — but it’s not the only such home, and Communication Studies scholars who do Critical Media Studies can (and should) learn a great deal by paying attention to media-related work that takes place in a broad range of other disciplines: from English to Ethnomusicology, Anthropology to Computer Science, American Studies to Theatre, and many, many more. One of the hallmarks of good Critical Media Studies scholarship is that it engages with whatever bodies of literature are likely to be the most fruitful for the specific projects at hand, not just whatever work exists within the scholar’s home discipline. Many of our readings this semester come from scholars who work in other disciplines besides Communication.

So if you look, for example, at the range of scholarship that focuses on the internet, you’ll find that it comes from a wide variety of different disciplinary perspectives. Communication scholars. Sociologists. Anthropologists. Political scientists. Literary scholars. Computer scientists. Historians. Psychologists. And then some. This is in sharp contrast to phenomena such as, for example, novels, which are much more tightly tied to a specific discipline (in this case, English).

#3: Critical Media Studies is driven by pressing “real world” issues. Ideally, anyone working under the banner of Critical Media Studies draws their primary research questions from social, cultural, and/or political problems that are taking place beyond the boundaries of academic discourse — even if those problems aren’t immediately or obviously media-related. In many ways, such a claim may appear to be obvious, but there is still an awful lot of research being done under the broader umbrella of “Media Studies” that is driven by purely personal interests (e.g., this is the stuff I like, even if no one else knows or cares about it), or purely business interests (e.g., it’s our job to analyze the culture/market so that Disney can boost their profits), or purely theoretical concerns (e.g., I’m interested in Theorist X, and so I’ll apply Theorist X to anything that crosses my path), or purely disciplinary interests (e.g., no one else in my field has written about this stuff, so I’m filling a gap in the literature). Put a slightly different way, Critical Media Studies always needs to be able to answer the “so what?” question, and it needs to be able to do so in a way that can carry weight with audiences who have no direct investment in Critical Media Studies (or Communication Studies) as a field.

An ordinary media scholar (for example) could decide to write a book (or teach a course) on the television show Westworld, and simply assume that his status as a scholar and/or the show’s status as a “hit” was all the justification necessary to engage in such a project. To the best of my knowledge, anyway, there hasn’t been much (if any) serious scholarship published yet on Westworld — and so that ordinary media scholar could claim that he was simply filling a gap in the body of knowledge that needs to be filled.

A critical media scholar, on the other hand, would want/need a better reason than “no one else has done this yet” to tackle such a project. She would want to be able to point to some aspect of Westworld as a cultural, political, and/or economic phenomenon that makes it relevant and important to study more closely. She might, for example, want to argue that the popularity of a show like Westworld — with its recurring themes about the “threat” supposedly posed to the public by a mythical segment of the population (e.g., hosts) — tells us something significant about contemporary social, cultural, and/or political attitudes about real minorities of one sort or another (GLBQT folks, people of color, immigrants, etc.). Or she might want to argue that the fact that the show is a big hit for HBO — i.e., a premium cable channel, rather than a traditional broadcast network — represents a significant shift in how the television industry tries to create large, loyal audiences and generate profits in an increasingly fragmented entertainment market. Either way (and there are arguably more than just the two options I’ve presented here that she could choose from), the difference between her project and the ordinary media scholar’s project is that he’s assuming that the show matters for its own sake, while she’s assuming that “what’s at stake” is something much bigger than the show: e.g., the political climate of the culture, or shifting forms of audience engagement and/or industry marketing.

#4: Critical Media Studies engages with — and speaks to — “real world” constituencies. Ideally, if Critical Media Studies is drawing its research questions from “real world” issues, then it needs to be able to produce answers that matter to the “real world” at the end of the day, and it needs to be able to share the fruits of its labors with people who aren’t professional academics. There’s an old notion, dating back to an Italian activist from the 1920s named Antonio Gramsci, that the primary task of the intellectual is twofold: (1) to know more than “the other side” and (2) to communicate that knowledge effectively to other people.

Put another way, Critical Media Studies needs to be able and willing to listen to “real world” constituencies as well as (if not better than) it can speak to them. Critical Media Studies is not a vanguardist or elitist project, and actually engaging with the “outside” world involves more than placing CARE packages of ready-made knowledge in off-campus “drop boxes” and expecting an eager populace to accept them with unquestioning gratitude.

This means that, unlike many academic projects, Critical Media Studies makes a concerted effort to address people who aren’t other professional scholars. It may still do that, too — almost every profession, from plumbers to professors, from computer programmers to hair stylists — has moments of “backstage” or “internal” communication reserved for members of “the club.” But Critical Media Studies assumes that it needs to have significant conversations with people outside “the club” as well.

One example here. Several years ago, the US Supreme Court considered a case about online filesharing — MGM v. Grokster — where several big media conglomerates had sued a software company for making and distributing software that could be used by ordinary people to share unauthorized copies of music, movies, TV shows (etc.) over the internet. “Ordinary” media scholars would have responded to this event (if they responded at all) by treating it as just another media-related event that they could study and/or analyze. A large number of critical media scholars, on the other hand, took it upon themselves (or I should say “ourselves,” since I was one of the folks involved here, even if only in a small way) to offer the Court our professional opinions — as media scholars and critics — on the various issues raised by the case. We did this by writing what is known as a “friend of the court” brief — a document submitted to the court to be used as part of its consideration of a case — that required us to explain the cultural value and significance of digital filesharing to non-scholarly audiences (in this case, the SCOTUS).

#5: Critical Media Studies is actively engaged with cultural politics. By now, it’s probably obvious that Critical Media Studies is something more than just another intellectual endeavor. It’s a politically charged project — or, more precisely, a politically charged set of projects, since I don’t think it can safely be reduced to a single or simple agenda — and it conceives of “politics” in a very broad sense of the term.

  • It recognizes that there are pressing political issues at stake in media texts, in public discourse, in symbols, in rhetoric, and in ideological representations.
  • It recognizes that there are pressing political issues at stake in media institutions, in corporate decision-making, in government policies, in systems and technologies, and in the global flows of hardware and software.
  • It recognizes that there are pressing political issues at stake in media audiences, in social and familial networks, in media-saturated public spaces and private homes, and in communities that only exist in mediated contexts.

Most importantly, it recognizes that a healthy and vibrant democracy depends on something we don’t really have right now: a fundamentally democratic media system. Not just in the sense that we need a free and independent media system so that we might have an open marketplace of ideas and a well-informed electorate. That’s important, of course, and any Critical Media Studies worth the name will advocate the formation of such a media system. But that’s only a piece of the puzzle — and perhaps not even the most important piece.

I think that Critical Media Studies takes this principle a step farther, and recognizes that an open marketplace of ideas is meaningless if it doesn’t offer genuine opportunities for democratic participation as well as democratic consumption. Which means that Critical Media Studies needs to concern itself, not just with the politics of texts and representations, but also with the politics of institutions and systems. And that Critical Media Studies needs to concern itself, not just with helping people become more critical and literate readers of the mass media, but also with helping people become more active and creative producers of their own media discourses.

In 1961, in an essay called “Communications and Community” that we’ll be reading in Block #3, a British scholar named Raymond Williams wrote: “We have not yet seen in the world a democratic system of communications, but unless we can conceive it, unless we can begin to think about it in detail, the present situation will continue. . . . The effective control of what people see and hear and read will continue to be in very few hands. . . . We have to think of ways which would truly disperse the control of communications, and truly open the channels of participation. . . . However difficult it may be, I think we have to go on to try to put flesh on the bones of a democratic communications system. [Though] I don’t honestly expect it to happen for some considerable time.”

Sadly, Williams’ skepticism about the time-frame for such a revolution was well-founded: we’re arguably no closer to actually having a democratic media system now than we were then. We may even be further away. The dream, however, remains a worthy one: one that lies that at core of what Critical Media Studies is all about. With a little luck — and an awful lot of work — by the time another 60 years have passed, we won’t still be talking about a democratic media system as a dream yet to be realized: hopefully, we’ll have found a way to make it happen.

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