Category Archives: proposal

Articulating why we like what we know we shouldn’t like…

Reading The Romance begins with a heavy and complicated question that Janice A. Radway seeks to answer: (p.15) Does reading romance literature, with passive women characters, only confirm a patriarchal society? OR does reader satisfaction from choosing to read, against others wishes, act as a form of independence and opposition? Radway acknowledges the difficulties of answering this question when she states, “The struggle over the romance is itself part of the larger struggle for the right to define and control female sexuality. Thus, it matters enormously what the cumulative effects of the act of romance reading are on actual readers” (17). I think what makes this question even more difficult is that when talking about topics such as these (consuming romantic fiction, watching soap operas, etc) it is hard to articulate exactly what draws the reader or viewer in as well as what effects the consumption has. It is similar to asking someone if they are affected by mass advertising. Everyone likes to say no, when in fact everyone is, subtly or overtly.

The part we are reading for Monday does not answer this question yet, but it is interesting to see the results from Radway’s questions that she gives to her group of readers. Looking over the results, it seems that the average romance reader does it for relaxation as “me time,” likes a happy ending to a love story, and likes the hero of the love story to be intelligent, tender, and with a sense of humor. These answers seemed very predictable. The element of romance reading that most aligned with Radway’s assumption of the reading furthering patriarchy was that, “the romance’s short-lived therapeutic value, which is made both possible and necessary by a culture that creates needs in women that it cannot fulfill, is …the case of its repetitive consumption” (85). The book is similar to a melodrama television show that leaves the viewer unfulfilled and brings them back again next week in the hope of that fulfillment, only to repeat the cycle over again. One element that did seem interesting in her research is that the women liked to read historical romances because they felt they were able to learn something about the historical time period and impress their husbands and family with facts that they learned while reading. This attribute of reading the romances seemed the most aligned with Radway’s proposal that the reading could be seen as a form of empowerment. However, I feel that the act of reading in general is more of a form of empowerment. Therefore reading romance novels doesn’t necessarily seem like an act against patriarchy, but reading novels that teach some type of history align with reading in general as a form of gaining knowledge and therefore confidence in that acquired knowledge.

I have been looking at the viewing habits of “guilty pleasure” television shows as a form of research for my senior project. Women’s consumption of guilty pleasure TV shows has one major difference. The act of romance reading is mostly done solitary, as an individual activity, usually not with a romance book club. By contrast, guilty pleasure television is mostly consumed as a group activity. While the act of reading is seen as a legitimate activity because it is used as a deserved “me time,” watching shitty television is made legitimate by enjoying it in a group setting. Can the ways in which women consume television be used to answer Radway’s overall question of confirming or fighting against patriarchy? Or- is television consumption a different field entirely? I am not sure I can answer this question yet but I think demographics make this question very difficult. I do not think women can be grouped into one category. Consumption of media is very different for teenagers, young women, educated women, stay-at-home moms. Etc.

(On a total side note- I found Radway’s analysis too narrow. I would be interested in seeing her proposed project of researching working, educated women and their consumption of romance fiction.)

Revised Project Proposal

I’m not sure much has changed here, in fact I think much of what I will want to talk about with be strengthened by Apple’s latest earnings report (up 47% year-over-year, in a recession…mind you)…

I’m a huge Apple fan and find the entire cultural phenomenon that they’ve pulled off to be absolutely fascinating. I’d love to be able to use this paper as an opportunity to take a step back and try to use what I’ve learned about Media Studies in the past few years to analyze what exactly Apple has achieved and, reflexively, what that tells us about culture and how it’s formed. I plan to focus specifically on the iPhone, the hype surrounding it’s release and the resulting success.

“Kill Bill” as Parable

I have completely changed my paper topic.  Instead of looking at glamour, I am going to look at how certain stories shape our consciousness, “false” and otherwise.  In particular, I will use the “Kill Bill” movies as an example of present-day story that has taken hold on popular culture and public imagination.  This choice is also relevant as a type of cinematic indicator, since Tarantino uses so many references to other films and other styles/genres of filmmaking.

So far, much of my reading has been about the “trickster” figure in mythology.  For example, the protagonist of much Native American lore is a coyote or raven.  Hermes is also an example in Greek mythology.  “Tricksters” share characteristics such as an ability to wriggle their way out of traps, to exist on the edges, to adopt other animals’ ways of survival, to confound polarity (ie trick others into thinking down is up or visa-versa) and to deny their apetite in favor of some other goal.

I am interested in what this figure means about the cultures that tell stories about it.  Stories seem like powerful ways of reading a society because so many values are embedded in them.  This is particularly true for parables, or stories where “good” and “bad” are painted clearly.  The valuative aspect becomes all the more clear in children’s stories, which have a “good” protagonist and a “bad” antagonist who tempts the protagonist to break the rules.  Yet so often the protagonist is a transgressor, and almost always falls for the temptation. Thus it seems clear that the trickster figure still exists in our culture and, despite being a rule-breaker and a boundary-crosser, nevertheless has a great hold on popular imagination.

My argument is that Beatrix Kiddo, the protagonist of “Kill Bill,” is a type of protagonist similar to the trickster in that she can cross boundaries between regular society and the underworld.  Furthermore, a huge part of her character has to do with learning how to discipline herself (ie denying her momentary “apetite” or fatigue in favor of a future conquest).  The entire premise of the film is related to revenge and a search for justice, which is a justification for enormous brutality.  This brutality, in turn, is also culturally indicative.  The movies are told in chapters, which can be treated as distinct episodes dealing with archetypical characters.  The stories have to do with discipline, determination, the Wild West, and the struggle between master and student, to name a few.

My main question, then, is as follows: when analyzed as a sort of parable or legend, what can the themes and characters in the “Kill Bill” films tells us about our culture and consciousness?  How are these (culture and consciousness) related to our economic means of production?

This second question is obviously the link the Marxism, and will have to be expanded upon quite a bit.  There are two approaches to this question.  First of all, how do the figures and concerns raised in the film relate to consumerism, capitalism, and the ways in which Americans exist economically?  Second, how do the behind-the-scenes aspects of the film relate to consumerism, capitalism, etc.?  These questions may turn out to be circular.  In other words, I’m asking how the film’s subject reflects our economy.  I’m also asking how/why the economic realities of Hollywood made this film come about.

Self-help books for depression

The phenomenon of self-help books for depression really breaks down into two phenomena, depression and self-help books, which have distinct relationships to Marxist thought. In looking at the ties between Marxism and depression, I found it necessary to look more broadly at Marxist critiques of the field of psychology. (Is it weird that most of the work I found about this was by Russian intellectuals?) Leont’ev highlights the ways Marx’s idea of consciousness challenges both functionalist and biomedical views of the mind, both of which are currently used (at least in part) to explain and treat depression. Leont’ev writes, “the reflection of reality arises and develops in the process of the development of real ties of cognitive people with the human world surrounding them; it is defined by these ties and, in its turn, has an effect on their development.” Marx’s insistence that man’s understanding/consciousness/mind is tied to reality raises serious problems with the current methods of treating depression which are grounded in the idea that depression is caused by abnormal brain chemicals and/or by the depressed persons misguided perceptions and ideas about themselves and the world around them.
I will explore the ways self-help books propagate an ideology which downplays the idea of an individuals consciousness being tied to reality: what personal qualities/traits is being praised? What is being highlighted as problematic? How do the qualities which are being advocated for in self-help books (such as functionality, productivity etc.) play into larger capitalist values? In what ways do self-help books address (or more likely fail to address) the idea that aspects of reality are the sources of depression and that social, political, economic issued may need to be addressed. I found a fantastic (Foucauldian) article that highlights the way in which the field of psychology is used by liberal governments to influence the individuals in the nation. Self-helps books and psychology offer a means for social institutions to move into and govern the private sphere: the scientific basis of psychology and the idea of experts and facts in Psychology are being increasingly used to normalize subjective experiences (such as depression).
Basically I will be looking at the ways in which the popular conception of depression and the means for treating it and explaining it, as highlighted and propagated in self-help books, is part of a powerful ideological system which attempts to deny individuals of a tie to reality (or consciousness grounded in reality) and which attempts to normalize happiness regardless of (or at least barely acknowledging) the reality of social/personal problems.

***I feel like I’m writing a rather extremist or at least very provocative paper…I would love feedback/criticisms/questions. I’m a little worried I’m going off the deep end although at the moment I’m entirely convinced by all of this…****

Revised Project Proposal: Don’t feel so good about green

In my research so far on green products/the green economy, I have focused more on the production end of the equation, but I am currently thinking that I would like to focus my exploration of this issue on the green-product consumer.  I would like to further explore Josee Johnston’s concepts of the citizen-consumer and consumer activism, particularly as they relate to environmentalism (“The citizen-consumer hybrid: ideological tensions and the case of Whole Foods Market”).  I am struck by the inherent contradiction in the idea that through the conscious re-direction of our money (namely to buying “green” products) we can right the (environmental) wrongs of capitalism.  I will use this contradiction to further analyze the concept of hegemony laid out by Gramsci and Williams, particularly the idea of emergent alternative and oppositional culture.  Green products seem a perfect example of the way new, potentially oppositional trends can be co-opted by the dominant culture.  Even so (in a move typical of cultural studies), I am not yet ready to rule out the potential benefits of this absorption of environmental consciousness.  Can emergent ideas co-opted by the dominant culture in this way further that culture – can this new green consciousness so present in marketing and business have more than a marginal impact on capitalist practices, products, and consumers?

Though I still need to do more research (and I’m trying my best here to let this be an honest exploration and learn from my research – we’ll see how that goes), I am currently rather skeptical.  I am particularly intrigued by Andrew Szasz’s argument that these acts of green consumption are actually motivated by the urge to isolate and protect ourselves (as opposed to a primary concern with the environment), and promote what he calls “political anesthesia,” the feeling that we have done something to solve the environmental problem and thus are required to do nothing more (Shopping Our Way to Safety).  I currently see myself making an argument similar to this one, pulling a Said-esque move to examine the ways our new narrative about ourselves as “environmentally-conscious consumers,” though perhaps producing a superficial awareness of environmental issues, negatively impacts our actions, making us content in our consumption and undermining what is being claimed by many to be a true, world-wide mass movement along the lines of what Marx had dreamed of…

Revised Term Project Proposal

So, after doing some skimming, here are a few things I’ve gathered about what is controversial within American copyright law as it applies to music: The blues tradition has roots, as Muddy Waters stated, “in the cotton fields”. In the first half of the twentieth century, many songs within the blues tradition were very similar, following the same melody and varying perhaps in rhythm and most importantly, style. A song is different if it is sung with a radically different style. As the century progressed, popular artists, starting with Elvis and continuing with almost every rock band in existence, drew heavily upon the blues tradition, following both the form of the blues (which is not copyrightable) and many of the same melodies. Some bands, such as Led Zepplin, borrowed entire songs from artists such as Muddy Waters, without giving him any credit. At the same time, these cross-over bands were much more popular and wealthy than the blues artists had been. The blues artists by and large were unable to take these bands to court because they did not have the legal or financial resources. The next rupture in copyright law came with the proliferation of hip-hop into mainstream culture. Until 1991, hip-hop largely relied upon sampling from other songs in order to provide a beat for the rapper. Sampling, most of the authors I’ve read have claimed, goes along with the tradition within African American music of borrowing from what came before and refiguring it; several of the authors relate all of this with the signifying monkey and African folkloric traditions. Whatever the origin, it was outlawed in 1991, in a ruling that included repeated allusion to the seventh amendment that “thou shalt not steal”. Mark Volman, a member of the Turtles, a 1960’s rock band, went so far as to say “Sampling is just a longer term for theft… Anybody who can honestly say sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative.” Contemporary hip-hop now must make sure its artists have consent (which costs money) from the artists from whom they are sampling. This is a very brief history of copyright law in the United States that I’ll probably put in the beginning of my paper.

The simple interpretation of all of this (which, I think, is partially and sadly true) is that throughout the history, black artists have been exploited to the financial gain of white artists, and, to an even larger extent, record company executives. Why did copyright law become more enforced only after black artists began to reappropriate the work of white artists, such as Led Zepplin? Zepplin themselves borrowed heavily from the blues music and did not have to shell out royalties as the mostly African-American hip-hop artists have had to do more recently. There is a double-standard at the racial level in this history. That quote from Volman, whose band, I am sure, did not invent all, or even most of its chord progressions, lyrics, improvisational styles, harmonies, rhythms, or any other musical aspects, really bothers me within this context.

At the same time, a Marxist perspective might offer this critique: That the only reason copyright law began to have more of an effect upon artists with the proliferation of rap into popular culture was because sampling, an invention of hip-hop, was the first time in American musical history, when it was easy to prove that something was directly taken from a different song. It would be futile to prove that almost every bebop musician “plagiarized” Charlie Parker because of the difference in style of the different musicians, and the different tones, etc. With sampling, however, record company executives saw a clear-cut case of their commodity being used without their profit, and they changed that. Sampling represents a sort of “rupture” in the history of American musical copyright law. I’m interested in a quote by Juan Carlos Thom, a Los Angeles lawyer, musician, playwright, and actor: “Sounds are not ideas, but expressions, and therefore copyrighted works.” The distinction he makes is very important, because before the rupture, sounds were ideas, being reworked, and reformed—ideas so that they couldn’t be “stolen” or “borrowed”, but rather changed within the context of a new feel. With sampling, they became expressions, because it was recognizable where they came from. The quote begs a question: How are ideas not commodities? How do they resist being bought and sold? What constitutes an idea in contrast to an expression? At this point, I’d want to return to Marx and other more contemporary cultural theorists and see what he might say about the extent to which ideas can be traded and marketed…

Revised term paper proposal

Rather than focusing exclusively on the Situationist International, I propose shift my focus to the relationship between Marxism and the evolution of punk culture.

The paper will be structured more or less chronologically, beginning in the 1970s with the first wave of punk in the UK. In this period, there are two major threads I’d like to follow: first, the role of Situationist theory and practice in the formative years of punk, including (but not limited to) Sex Pistols manager Malcom McLaren’s cynical appropriation of Situationist rhetoric in engineering punk as “spectacle.” Second, the emergence in this period of self-proclaimed leftist artists such as the Clash, Billy Bragg, and Gang of Four, and the consequences of, to borrow a line from Bragg, “mixing pop and politics.”

Next, I’d like to look at the development of punk-derived “DIY culture” in the late 80s and early 90s, presenting a more aesthetically diverse, fragmentary, yet distinctly “underground” mode of cultural production, much of which was either indebted to or explicitly aligned with Marxist ideas. Potential artists/figures of interest in this period include the Minutemen, Ian Mackaye and the founding of Dischord Records, Ian Svenonius and the Nation of Ulysses, and Calvin Johnson’s vision of the “International Pop Underground.”

Finally, I’d like to conclude with a broader view of the rise, decline, and reemergence of punk as a means to understand how “alternative” and mainstream cultures engage one another, and how these processes of cultural exchange, appropriation and resistance shape our understanding of culture and cultural studies.

Some questions present throughout: What happens to Marxist rhetoric as it enters the vernacular of pop culture? What issues arose from the contradiction between punk music’s radical politics and its commercial mode of distribution? and, drawing on Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: what is the importance of style in subculture, and how did punk and its derivatives disrupt the symbolic order?

YouTube as society

YouTube is really a community unto itself and I want to look at the website as such. I want to look at the similarities and differences between the real world and YouTube societies. I really want to observe the differing roles of individuals and rules of society within YouTube society. I think that looking at YouTube as a society can provide insight into real world society. I’m pretty excited because I think a lot of the theory we have read so much is reflected or in some way touched upon in the YouTube society. I was especially thinking about the recent discussion about the concept of nationality and the fact that citizens do not actually know most of the other citizens within a nation (making the definition of the nation lacking) but within the YouTube society the opportunity to know every other member at least exists. I definitely want to look into the social pyramid of YouTube, is there a social pyramid of YouTube?

A lot of the books I am using for research look at YouTube, or Internet interactions in general, as a modern day extension of society. What led to this new society, and does it have something that real world society lacks? What, exactly, are people hoping to find? It’s really interesting that people view YouTube as a way of making their voices heard, how true is this? What sort of impact does YouTube have on actual reality? Does it have any impact at all? Or is it simply an attempt to flee from a real world society that seems incapable of adequately representing everyone? Overall, I really want to look at how Marxist theory fits into the YouTube society. Do the observations made of real society hold true for the modern virtual one? In what ways? Personally, based on how things are going so far, I think Marxist theory is going to be scarily accurate for YouTube society. I’m not really certain what that means… Perhaps that a virtual recreation of society is not the best form of revolution.

Revised Project Proposal

Hey everyone, hope you had a great fall break!

I expressed an interest in exploring the commodification of a modern celebrity; using Marxist concepts like “labor” and “use-value” in breaking down publicly marketed life and identity will demystify both the process of creating celebrity and the work of retaining it in the right kind of way (i.e. being labeled a star versus a has-been). I’ve decided to focus on Tyra Banks as a microcosm of this phenomenon. Details:

Tyra is a great example of one of Marx’s most hearty points: the laborer embodies both labor and commodity, consumer and consumed object. He is selling himself – ability, talents, social identification, appearance – in order to make and sell to others. Tyra aggressively seized the reins of her modeling career and retained a pivotal management role through her transition from swimsuit girl to model coach to talk-show host. She created socio-historical context for herself early by speaking out about the industry’s stance on black models, making herself a spokeswoman for a larger discourse on race and ideal physical American standards. She intertwined the separate worlds of her model-training program (“America’s Next Top Model”) with her brief foray into hip-hop music and her talk show. Tyra saturated any sphere she could lay her influence on with an almost comically obvious self-veneration, and she thus created a product that transcended its media environment. The image of Tyra Banks became conflated with TYRA, an emblem of the successful Other whose relentless business savvy is not disguised, but cheerfully exposed as another facet of the Tyra brand.

I like Tyra as a subject because she demonstrates the process by which a systematically oppressed population can penetrate the hegemonic structure through its own channels – something Fanon decries as selling out. I’m interested in examining how Tyra continues to dissect, and sometimes criticize, the visual ideal of whiteness and physical beauty while fiercely retaining her place as a popular, prosperous black visage in the media. I would love the opportunity to bring in some other theorists more well-versed on race in visual culture (i.e. bell hooks) in order to bring the drier political theory of Marx into the modern matrix of post-feminism and the slow assimilation of the “black is beautiful” dogma.

“Can Angelina Jolie Really Save the World?”

After doing more substantial research and beginning to read deeper into the sources I identified for my preliminary bibliography, I have decided to narrow my topic. I am still going to focus on celebrity culture and its involvement in the political sphere but I want to specifically explore celebrity endorsements of political, social, and economic causes. I want to investigate the influence of this celebrity involvement and attempt to answer some of the lingering questions that I have including:

Is this form of celebrity involvement a new phenomenon? When did it start and how have its effects changed over time? Do public figures like Angelina Jolie and Bono have a greater capacity to influence the masses? Do celebrity endorsements of political candidates sway voters? Do celebrity sponsored campaigns such as “Rock the Vote” actually have an effect on voter turnout, specifically with regard to the youth vote? Why do celebrities get involved in these causes? Is it for their image or do they actually believe they can make a difference? Do politicians appreciate celebrity support or do they attempt to distance themselves, such as with President Obama and Scarlett Johansson? Should celebrities publicly endorse political candidates or are they simply taking advantage of their public image? What would Marx have to say about the use of celebrity in an attempt to influence mass culture? Is it an exploitation of the public? Are celebrity endorsements of charitable and political causes inherently good or bad? And does it matter?

I know that I have many unanswered questions at this point, which makes it difficult to make a definitive argument, but I do have a clear direction of where I want to go. Even though I am including celebrity involvement in social causes in my research, I think that I will probably choose to focus more on the political end of the spectrum. I am going to show the effects of celebrity involvement in politics, specifically around elections, using several academic studies that I have found. I will probably focus on the 2000, 2004, and 2008 national elections. Based on my findings, I will use Marx’s theories to identify the implications of the intermingling of celebrity culture and politics. Any suggestions would be much appreciated especially with regard to how I can incorporate more of Marx’s ideas into my paper.