"..the finite and the infinite can never be compared. So however protracted the life of your fame, when compared with unending eternity it is shown to be not just little, but nothing at all."....Boethius

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Public Sphere......A discussion of the 'City' and the 'Internet'


For Haberman, “ The public sphere is a realm that emerged in a specific phase of ‘bourgeois society.’    It is constituted as, a space that mediates between civil society and the state; a place where the public organizes itself, and an arena in which ‘public opinion’ is formed.”   The idea here is that individual citizens can come together and have reasonable debate about what he calls competing truth claims.      
OK, can we consider the internet a Public Sphere?   What are some of the characteristics of the internet?   According to Barker 355 ‘Internet has provided a new political space for debate, however,  Pacharissi suggests that it is still plagued by the inadequacies of the broader political system.’  Barker contents that just because there is interaction, does not make the space democratic and further, ‘the sheer volume of material on the Internet can obscure that which is of worth.’   
And what can we say about the City?   Is the city a Public Sphere?    Let us look at the basics of the very idea of a city.   Early concepts developed by Marx, Durkheim and Weber in general ‘have regarded the city as both product and symbol of modernity,  both the birthplace of the aesthetic of modernism and the escape from the controls of tradition.’ (Baker 380)   Later theorists have said that a city is ‘a zone of transition, working class housing, a zone of high class dwellings and a commuter belt of towns.’   (Baker 380)
Later, the city was described by David Harvey ‘….as having a major role in the reproduction of capitalism and reshaping of urban environment.’ This then, ‘would lead to the site of a class struggle engendered by capitalism.’  The city is ‘marked by contestation over the control of space and the distribution of resources.’ So involved in this ‘struggle’ and ‘reshaping’ would one find honest debate?   Or, would one find citizens coming together and having reasonable ‘competing truth claims’?  
I guess my problem here is that there is honest discussion regarding the internet as a ‘public sphere,’ but  no similar discussion is centered around the concept of City.   Let us turn to the internet and examine some key elements that exist there.
‘A number of writers have hailed the Internet as enabling new forms of political activism that draw in previously marginalized communities.’  (Barker 352)   Further, Sassen has said that ‘the Internet is a powerful medium for ‘non-elites’ to contribute to a more democratic civil society and globalized cross-border activism.’  Sassen says that ‘cyberspace is often a more concrete space for the articulation of social struggles than many orthodox political systems.’(Barker 353)
However, ‘the Internet exists within a capitalist world driven by profit seeking and dominated by a powerful consumer culture.  The concern is that the Web will become a commodified sphere of entertainment and selling rather than that of political discussion’  (Barker 356)  ‘The concern that the commercialization of the Internet and digital media in general will diminish the public sphere is reinforced by the extension and utilization of copyright laws.’  (Barker 357)  
So there you have it.  There are two general concepts, City and Internet.  They are similar in that each is wrapped at  the center with  elements of ‘public sphere’ where people have access to reasonable debate, (meeting the requirements of public sphere) but each is surrounded by the  pesky  problems of Capitalism.

 Barker, C., 2009, Cultural Studies, Theory and Practice, 3rd edition, Sage Publications, London

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What Do Frank Sinatra and the Producers of 'Sex and the City' Know About New York?

‘I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps
And find I’m A-number-one, top of the list’
         As reported on NPR,  John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the lyrics for a movie that starred Liza Mennelli and Robert DeNiro.  The movie was a big flop but the music has lasted. Interestingly Ebb claims that he never wrote ’A-number one, top of the list.’  Frank Sinatra added that in 1980.  Ebb claims that he knew that it was the right line….so he left it alone.  Don’t we all want to be ‘top of the list, and A-number-one’?    What is it about New York then that requires a television program about 4 women and their exploits to be placed at that location?
          Sex and the City was a TV Show that was produced between 1998 and 2004 by HBO.  The show is important for a number of reasons.  Recently I became part of a group that was to report on that show.  My group met at least once a week for about 3 weeks, sometimes twice a week.   We met to organize and discuss ways to engage a class about 3 areas of cultural concern that may be relevant to the show.      
          The three areas included are, Feminism, Capitalism and Postmodernism and how the show relates to each point.     
          At the beginning of the report, we asked the class what their preconceived ideas were about Sex and the City.  Several of the en said that they believed the show was shallow and boring.  Most of the women responded with more positive answers.  Fun, sexy etc. 
          At my suggestion our group showed a clip from you-tube.  It was a parody of a 1940’s dinner party, and purported to explain how women shuld act.  It was a very funny video, because it showed that women should have no opinions and ust be charming and pretty.  I made the case that the best wasy to explain something was sometimes to explain what it was not.  This relates to Structuralism, which states that thing only have meaning when they can be shown in relationship to something else.  9Black is to white)  ‘Structuralism proceeds though the analysis of binaries: for example the contrast between pairs of signs so that ‘black’ only has meaning in relation to ‘white’ and vice versa.  
          We then broke into 3 groups and discussed the same 3 topics.  My partner and I led a group that discussed Capitalism.  (It was my suggestion to break into the groups as I thought it would feel like a more inter-active exercise)  Research that we had prepared allowed us to ask our group certain thought provoking (I hope) questions directed about the show, and how it relates to Capitalism.  What follow are the questions and some text from research that helps explain the relevance to cultural studies.  
1 and 2
What is Capitalism?  How does ‘Corporate’ influence ‘Sex and the City’?   Our group came up with a very clear definition of Capitalism, someone said it’s about the MONEY!   Barker says, ‘A dynamic and globalizing system of industrial production and exchange based on private property and pursuit of profit.  For Marxism, capitalism is an exploitative order that gives rise to the social relations of class conflict.’  (Barker 475)  
This relates to ‘Sex and the City through among other things their use of Product Placement which deliberately puts products on camera, and in the hands of the actors in exchange for fees.
What does the type of consumer product promoted on this show say about class?  The product that is put on camera are high end and expensive.  The actor/characters are seen as trying to achieve something or be more complete or better by carrying an expensive bag or wearing an expensive shoe. 
If ‘Corporate’ gives definition to the character/actor’s taste/style, what can we say if anything about political motive of corporate?
‘Marxism says that culture is political because, it is expressive of the social relations of class power.  It naturalizes the social order as an inevitable ’fact.’  And, it obscures the underlying relations of exploitation…’  (Barker 56)  Motive?  Buy more goods keep the corporations rich…..
Has ‘Sex and the City’ become a signifier?  What is ‘signified’?  Are the products/luxury goods ‘signifiers?
Barker on Page 78 tells us that ‘Signs become naturalized codes.  Their apparent transparency of meaning is an outcome of cultural habituation.  The effect of this is to conceal the practices of cultural coding.’   The answer is yes, and what is signified is the life that is just out of our characters reach. 
Do Corporations create a world of ‘otherness’ by giving the actor/characters certain ideas of taste/style?  If so who/what is the ‘other?   How does this relate to power?
I believe that corporations do create ‘otherness’.  Those who do not strive for the good things 9those luxury products that are promoted cannot be part of the happy life that is taking place on screen in New York. 
And, New York brings us back to our song……’if you can make it there (New York)…..you can make it anywhere…’ and isn’t that what our characters want?   Don’t they want to make it big in their lives and carry their expensive bags….just be able to pay for them too….The show has put us on their side… and we find ourselves rooting for them…..and maybe carrying a really good Gucci bag too!
Barker,C., Cultural Studies, Theory and Practice,3rd edition,  2009, Sage Publications, London
 NPR    http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/newyorknewyork/

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Do the British Need More Bond?

            James Bond came on to the literary scene in the 1950s’ He is handsome and handy.   The main character in a series of books written by Ian Fleming, he became a favorite of many including  JFK.   Bond is a very British persona.  He knows and understands fine things.  Bond  is a ‘flirtatious, culturally knowing parody  of the spy-thriller genre.’ (Bennett 14) 
            Originally these novels reached only a limited audience, (Bennett 14) however due to the serialization by the Daily Express and later by the Express’s cartoon strip of Bond; they became more common in Britain.  Sill they remained relatively unknown outside of Great Britain, until the American film versions were produced in the early 60’s.  (Bennett 18) 
            You might ask why Bond was so popular.  He was protecting the Free World!   British style.  The US had been trumping Britain for several years post WWII.  Bond could be seen to the Brits as a ‘shot in the arm!’   ‘Bond brought a resolution in which all the values associated with ascendancy over those associated with the villain and thereby, communist Russia, such as totalitarianism and bureaucratic rigidity.’ (Bennett 16)  The villains that Bond fought were most often from the East.   Bond provided a way for Britishness to continue to be defined in opposition to the ‘dark’ people of the world.’ (Baron 136)
            What is quite interesting about the series of Bond books and movies is that they were able to adjust politically and culturally to the climate of the time.  While originally fighting in the Cold War, Bond eventually was negotiating situations and besting the villains in the era of D├ętente. 
            Helping with the image of Bond was his relationship with women.  ‘The Bond girl…..became a new construction, constituted key sites for the elaboration of a new set of gender identities.’   ….Thus the ‘Bond girl embodied a modernization of sexuality, representatives of norms of masculinity and femininity that were ‘swinging free’ from the constraints of the past.’ (Bennett 24)
            ‘Bond himself became a point de capiton  within the ideological construction of gender relations and identities.’  (Bennett 24)  Further, ‘since that period had experienced a considerable cultural redefinition, a flux and fluidity, of gender identities, the figure of Bond furnished a point of anchorage in relation to which the sliding of meaning that had been introduced into the ideological ordering of gender relations.’   Much of this was done by allowing Bond to be aligned with products marketed with campaigns aimed at the ‘Bond girl’ in society.  
            Well, where does Bond fit in the world of today?   What are the pressing problems, who are the villains?   Does Britain need more Bond?   One would have to ask if the problems of today require the reader/viewer to look at the text of Bond in a certain light that make old versions seem out of date.  Would the old Bond be up to today’s challenges? Or, would a new Bond be required?
            ‘The audience is conceived of as active and knowledgeable producers of meaning not products of a structured text.’ (Barker 327)   Put another way, ‘the active audience ‘tradition’ suggests that audiences are not cultural dopes but are active producers of meaning from within their own cultural context.’
            Within the last 15 years there have been many world changing events that have taken place.  Some like the rise of the Fundamentalist Islamism are a threat to the West and have played into the text of the current Bond.  (The threat is out of the East)    However, more subtle threats are clearly looming.   The collapse of economic markets around the world and the reduced value of home and income are two current themes.   How would James Bond handle these threats when they are home grown?  Perhaps a James Bond would be welcome, but he would have to increase his skill set! 
Baron, C.,   Doctor No: Bonding Britishness to racial sovereignty. In: C Lindor,ed 2009. The James Bond Phenomenon. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Ch. 8
Barker,C. ed., 2008. Cultural Studies, Theory and Practice. London: Sage Publications
Bennett, T., Woollacott,J., The moments of Bond. In : C Lindor, ed 2009. The James Bond Phenomenon. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Ch. 1

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Toward a Better Understanding of ‘Rules of Attraction’
        Rules of Attraction’ is a novel written in 1987 by Bret Easton Ellis.   The story of young adults living on-campus at an Eastern college.   The characters are all well off and live a rather isolated life amongst themselves.
          The author has used an interesting method to engage the reader.  Ellis starts and ends the novel in midsentence which gives the impression that the reader is just catching a glimpse of the lives of the characters.  There is the characters lives up to the time you (the reader) catch  a peek, and the life that goes on after you’ve stopped looking ‘looking over the wall.’  
          This reader felt as if she were glimpsing a speeding train, maybe a circus train.  The story is advanced by using the viewpoints of the various characters.  Each chapter is told by a different character.  The characters move along the same story line in a parallel way.  
          As the story moves along we see each character move separately, but acting in exactly the same aimless way.  The book is heavily layered with visual references.  Over that are the activities of the characters who are pursuing…what?   I felt that the characters were in pursuit of nothing.   Interesting to me was the fact that these characters were exposed to life’s lessons, but these people seemed unable to learn anything from these lessons. 
          The aspect of particular interest to me is Ellis' use of visual references in this book to humorous effect.  “A form of postmodern politics has emerged called ‘culture jamming’…’ culture jamming is subverting the meaning of mass media messages …through artistic satire.”  (Barker 205)  In one scene the character is planning to hang himself with …what….a Brooks Bros. tie or a Ralph Lauren tie?   Does a suicidal person ask that question?   What does the Brooks Bros. Co. or Ralph Lauren Co. think about being used to aide a suicide?  What does this say about the person killing himself? To me I found this hilarious. 
          The author has incorporated the use of a ‘brand’ in almost every thought or interaction.  It is not just a soda, it is a Tab.  Not just a beer but a St. Paulie Girl.  Postmodern culture is also marked by the ‘intertextuality, the citation of one text within another……“an aspect of enlarged self consciousness about history and function of cultural products.”    (Barker 203)    These actors understood, as the reader is expected to understand what it ‘means’ to use these products.  (Tab, a trendy diet drink that preceded diet-Coke and… Brooks Bros. ties speak of East Coast elitism, old money and establishment aesthetic)  
          The reader who understands the subtext of meaning will enjoy this book more.  Foucoult says,’ discourse is discontinuous…marked by historical breaks in understanding…by changes in the way objects are understood…..different historical eras are marked by different configurations of knowledge.’ (Barker 192)  The reader who encounters this book in 2011 without an understanding of the 1980’s  will not enjoy the humorous subtext throughout.  This seems an important lesson worth remembering when reading what we may innocently believe to be current literature.

Baker, Chris. 2008, Cultural Studies, Theory and Practice, 3rd Edition, Sage Publications

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Jerry McGuire, 'A Quick Look at Love'

       How does the movie 'Jerry McGuire' define love?   Good question.  I think it starts by showing us what Rene Zellwiger thinks is love when she overhears Tom Cruise explaining his marriage plans.   This makes us realize that she is pretty much an 'old fashioned girl' with values in place.  The movie takes us all over in terms of relationships.  It shows us as   class (see workplace) differences in Cruise and Zellwiger.  We see values change as Cruise long time girlfriend Kelly Preston leaves him because he has changed.  We see Cruise change in terms of how he handles his clients.  Ultimately, we see how C  ruise change in terms of how he sees his life with Zellwiger.  It appears that the movie defines love in  Zellwiger's terms which is..... tradional and romantic. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Viewing Starbucks

Ethnography is a method of reporting on culture.  It has two parts.   The first part is a record of observation.  This involves literally viewing and recording what is seen.  The second part  is a description of what is seen through the lens of theory.  For this ethnography I have selected a Starbucks Coffee.   This is a free standing building located in a shopping center.  There are other commercial buildings located in this complex.  This study was conducted at 2:45 PM on Monday July 25th. 
Part I
What follows is a description of the room and the people that are moving in the space.  The room is  rectangular space of  about 40’ X 30’.  One side has a counter that runs the length of the room.  It is about 8’feet away from one of the long walls.  There is space behind the counter for people to move.  The floor is one color, brown.  It is composed of 12” tiles.  The front of the counter is a blond wood color. 
Moving behind the counter are 3 young men.  They are dressed in black clothes with green aprons.  One man has a white long sleeve shirt.  He also wears a green apron.  There is a pastry display counter with deserts and breakfast pastries.  Below there are bottles of water, fruit juice and pre-packaged sandwiches, plastic containers of fruit and containers of yogurt with granola.    There is a sign in front of the pastry counter that says ‘Bistro Boxes.’   In front of the counter are 3 baskets of varying heights filled with packaged coffee, and pre-packaged snacks. The room has windows on 2 walls.  One window wall looks out to the street.  The shades are ½ way down.  The other window looks out on an arcade and a parking lot.  The entrance door is in the parking lot window wall.  There is an air conditioner over the door.  Mounted on the glass next to the exterior door are signs indicating that there is no smoking in this business.  There is a sign advertising opportunities for employment at the Starbucks.  There is a cylinder shaped trash can next to the door. 
            The clear glass of the window is decorated with a frosted pattern so the view of the parking lot is partially obstructed.   The walls of this Starbucks are painted a medium grey green.  There is a washed oak wainscoting around the room.  The wall behind the counter has some shelving.   Packages of coffee are neatly lined on these shelves.  These packages have the Starbucks logo on them.  There are also shelves that contain glasses.  There is a sign identifying these as ‘Plastic Tumblers.’ 
            The cash registers (there are two) are obstructed from view by small displays of packaged cookies, instant coffee, small cards, and packaged nuts.  There is a platter of bananas.        
            There is furniture in this room.  Near the front door are 4 leather chairs.  There are small tables between them.  There is a person sitting in each chair.  Each person has a lap top computer.  One of the men is resting the computer on his knee.  One man has placed his computer on a table and the other 2 men are holding their computer in their laps.  One man is wearing ear phones and is tapping on his computer. 
            There are 2 men sitting at the tables near the door.  Each man is hitting the keys  on his computer.  I can see that each computer is a Mac lap top.   One is black and one is white.  One man is black and one man is white.  The white man is continually moving his knee up and down.  He has his head in his hand.  
            Two Asian ladies talk to the man behind the counter.  They then stand near a wall.  They are dressed casually in pants with a sleeveless blouse.  One woman has her hair pulled back.  The other has her hair down.  When they sit down at the table they lean in, talk and laugh.  They sip at their cups. 
            Behind the counter on young man writes something on the cups as people talk to him.  There is a woman with blond hair talking to the man at the counter. .  She is older, wearing a long turquoise skirt.  She turns around smiling and is now standing by the wall.   There is a young man and a young woman sitting at  a table together.  They are both looking down at their own I Pads.  They look up exchange words, laugh and then continue to look down at their devices. 
            More people enter.  They stand in line to talk to the young man who writes on the cups.  As people wait in line they don’t stand still.  They talk or look around. 
            One man leaves the leather chair and a young black woman reserves his space for herself by placing her notebook on the chair, then returns to the line. 
            The air conditioning is on.  I can feel the cool air on my feet.  I am wearing sandals.  A man enters wearing a brown suit.  He is talking on his cell phone.  He talks to the young man behind the counter and moves into a small group of people forming at the end of the counter. 
            A small boy has come in with a women and an older boy.  He has a tall iced drink with whipped cream in front of him.  Behind him are 2 teenage girls.  They laugh then talk to the young man in black. 
            There is music playing.  The music has an upbeat rhythm.  It is an undistinguishable tune.   There is a sign on the back wall that says at the top, “Starbucks: Shared Planet…..”    There is more, but I can’t read it. 
            A man approaches me and asks to borrow my pen….he writes something on a card and he thanks me.   
            Part II  
            Viewing this through the lens of Baudelaire, Baker reports that ‘crucial of modernism is….the  flaneur.  A flaneur, or stroller walks….. spaces of  the modern city experiencing the complexity, disturbances and confusions of the streets with their shops, displays, images and variety of persons.’  (Barker pg 183)  Further,  Featherstone adds  this ‘directs us towards the way in which the urban landscape has become aestheticized and enchanted through architecture, billboards, shop displays, advertisements, packages, street signs, etc.’  (Barker pg 183)         
            As the patron of Starbucks enters the environment he recognizes but can view the surroundings with a certain calm detachment. 
            Also, "identity projects and the aestheticization of daily life are linked together within consumer culture through the creation of lifestyles centered on the consumption of aesthetic objects and signs.  This is linked to a relative shift in importance in society from production to consumption."  (Barker pg 203)    For Baudrillard "commodities have sign values that confer prestige and signify values that confer prestige and signify social value, status and power."  (Barker 207)
            The mass marketing of Starbucks coffee  is aimed at the consumer, while masked in a non-threatening  surrounding. Regarding a postmodern environment Habermas has said, "the public organized itself and where public opinion is formed."  Also, "the increased commodification of everyday life by giant corporations transform people from rational citizens to consumers." (Barker 199) Thus,  people are comfortable and buy more coffee. 
             The patron can enter Starbucks, and stay in Starbucks to work or read.  Patrons are confronted with predictable behavior of other patrons.  "Identities are both unstable and temporarily stabilized by social practice and regular predictable behavior." (Barker 225)  The single patron becomes part of a family, part of a group.  "Collective identitiy exists, that it is 'a whole' expressed through symbolic rreprresentation." (Barker 227)   Thus,  the uniformity of signs, furniture and advertising adds to the comfort of the custormer. 

Baker, Chris. 2008, Cultural Studies, Theory & Practice, 3rd Edition, Sage Publications     

Sunday, July 24, 2011

An Interested Audience

Recently I watched scenes from American Psycho, a film based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis.  In one of the first scenes in the movie, a young man is washing his face.  He is also using creams and putting on a cosmetic mask.  It appears as if he has quite an extensive beauty ritual.  
Within in the framework of this movie this beauty routine may  mean certain things.  One thing being the cosmetic mask hides the vacant life that the character actually has. In this movie, what else can we surmise from this young man use of cosmetics?  Thinking about this film through the lens of feminist theory, may change or add to our understanding of the screenwriters’ motives.  I would like to explain how some different theories help explain why this scene is effective.
Feminist theory starts from a basic position that has historically portrayed woman as the ‘other.’  The Feminist theory maintains that women are outside of what is considered the main. Simone de Beauvoir, an early Feminist, maintained that “legislators, priests, philosophers, writers and scientists, have striven to show that subordinate position of women is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth.”  She says that woman “represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria”
 Women therefore, because of secondary position or inferior status are constantly in need of products to aide in their maintenance.  It is women who commonly use cosmetics, creams and coloring to attain wholeness, not men.   Women are a huge market for the cosmetic market. 
Shifting focus to the movie once more, the beauty routine of this young man seemed useful to the screenwriter  portraying  him in a certain light.  The author was using ‘signs’ as discussed by Ferdinand de Saussure. In the movie the screenwriter was using cosmetics as a ‘sign.’
Saussure believed that the structure of language is what has importance.  In doing so he divided the ‘sign’ into 2 parts.  The ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified.’  The first being the code used and understood to represent the second.    According to Barker, “Culture is said to work like sign language.” Put another way, it appears, there are signs in culture besides language that enable a person to immediately understand their meaning. 
This particular example could further be examined using the theories of Roland Barthes.  Barthes examines ‘myths.’  He says, “Myth has the task of giving a historical intention a natural justification…”  (Women use cosmetics)  The author of this movie, Ellis, is using this ‘myth,’ that women are the ones who should be using cosmetics, to make a dramatic point in the story. 
Regardless of what the message the author has ultimately wanted to give to the audience, the interesting idea to me is that the author has used this device at the beginning of the story.  By doing this he seems to be disturbing the established concepts of what is socially accepted.  By doing this he has engaged the audience by changing and ‘playing with’ the accepted cultural signs.  He is pulling the audience into the story.  This forces the audience to ask, “What’s next?”

Barker, Chris, 2008. Cultural Studies, Theory and Practice. 3rd ed. Los Angeles,  Sage Publication
De Beauvoir, Simone, 1949. The Second Sex. Introduction, Woman as Other