we’re all cultural studies scholars now?

Rather belatedly, something interesting struck me about the furore in the UK a week or so ago over a tweet sent by Emily Thornberry, now the ex shadow attorney general.  For those of you with short memories or not UK-media-aware, Thornberry’s tweet was criticised for being contemptuous of working-class voters, and she resigned from her shadow cabinet role after a couple of conversations with her party leader.

Here is the tweet (and notice the text as well as the photo):


In the online discussion of the tweet, loads of things were happening, of course, but there was something about the whole dynamic of the discussion that I thought was intriguing: the way the tweet swung in and out of being seen as ‘representing’ something.

On the one hand, there were a lot of claims – including by Emily Thornberry herself – that the image was meaningless.  It meant nothing; the scene had just struck her as something that could be shared on Twitter.  Now, we could discuss the conditions under which certain things become noticeable and photographable, of course, but still, given how so many photos are put onto social media in just that way, not as meaning anything, just as a sort of ‘oh look’ statement, ‘I am here’, ‘that is here’, I think her claim has some credibility.  Perhaps it really wasn’t an image that meant anything, it wasn’t symbolic, it was purely descriptive, just a picture of a van and flags, a pure “Image from #Rochester”.

Its status as pure description also prompted a lot of online discussion about how photographs become meaningful rather than inherently carrying meaning as well.  So on the other hand, huge amounts of online work went into interpreting the meanings the tweet implied.  The flags, the van, the location: all were decoded, re-coded, explicated, interpreted, repeatedly, by very very many people.  And so were the processes through which all that interpretive work was being done, because there was also a lot of discussion about the sort of coverage given to the tweet in and by different media outlets.

Noortje Marres has been interviewed on the excellent LSE Impact blog about digital sociology, and a point she makes very well there is that the tools and techniques of  social analysis are now widely distributed among many kinds of social actors.  As she says, “social actors, practices and events are increasingly and explicitly oriented towards social analysis and are actively involved in it (in collecting and analysing data, applying metrics, eliciting feed-back, and so on)”.  She is particularly referring to the digital tools embedded in social media platforms, the internet of things, online transaction databases and the like.

But one of the things that the Thornberry tweet affair made evident to me was that the same might be said of the tools of cultural interpretation.  Textual and visual analysis, and an understanding of the significance of the role of the media – in the strict sense of the term – are alive and kicking pretty much everywhere, it felt like, as the vigorous debated unfolded.  The furore was a sort of mass cultural studies seminar.  And if cultural studies has gone viral, what are the implications for those of us who do it – possibly more carefully, certainly much more slowly – in the academy?

cultural studies and digital culture

hartleyI have just finished reading John Hartley’s hugely entertaining and provocative book on cultural studies past, present and future.  Called Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies, it argues that cultural studies as a discipline has ossified into a field where ‘reading’ after ‘reading’ of cultural texts accumulates to no particular end, and where those readings are based on assessments of value (some form of the ‘how critical is this?’ question) rather than any other methodology.

I’m pretty sure if I was a fully paid-up member of the cultural studies club I would be pretty aghast at the very generalised level of his account… nonetheless, a lot of his argument really got me thinking.  Not least because I am trying to figure out a way to plan the ending of a paper I am writing without assessing the value (ie how critical of capitalism/neoliberalism/national identity/) of the images I am writing about.  It’s a hard habit to break.

His book also has some very interesting thoughts on the methods required to deal with the nature of digital cultural production, which means methods that can engage with the mobility and malleability of digital texts and images, as well as understand the systems through which they circulate.  He suggests that the traditional methods of cultural studies – the close reading of specific texts that usually depends on an unremarked mish-mash of semiology and discourse analysis, with which the question ‘how critical…’ gets answered – is simply inadequate to deal with the cultural work being done by the ‘distributed expertise’ of large populations.  His critiques of the guardians of High Culture in England/English is just great, as is his discussion of YouTube viral dance-off videos as the true descendents of the eighteenth century radical presses: sex, scandal, power and all.

All of which means that the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies is going to need a pretty radical rethink, based as it mostly is on the careful analysis of ‘finished’ images…

reading the ‘situation room photograph’

Just looked at Marco Bohr’s visual culture blog and his commentary on the photograph of Obama watching the attack on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout.

Marco has also a collected a great set of spoofs of this photo on that post.  Here’s one I found:

Private Eye is a satirical magazine in the UK. Here it’s commenting rather cruelly on the fate of the Lib Dems, the junior partner in the current national government coalition, in the local elections held earlier in May this year.  Marco describes these sorts of spoofs as constituting “a wave of creativity (and mockery)”, and he’s right.  But what does that do to how we interpret the photograph itself?

The classic cultural studies approach to a photograph like this would be to isolate specific elements of it and discuss how they relate to wider structures of meaning: a mix of semiology and discourse analysis.  (Although of course one of the very interesting things about contemporary visual culture is that an awful lot of people can do this sort of analysis now, not just tenured profs in cultural studies departments: just listen to a radio phone-in about ‘the media’.)  Marco does something like this when he discusses the implications of how the photo pictures the figures of Barack Obama, Brigadier General Marshall B. Webb (the guy in the uniform) and Hilary Clinton. Looking at Clinton, for example, he suggests that her face is showing “tension, shock, and maybe even fear”, and since she’s the only person in the room showing any emotion, he suggests that the photograph is drawing on and reproducing the idea that women are more emotional and less rational than men.

Well, yes, I get that.  Except… is she looking very emotional?  The more I look at the photo, the less sure I am that she is.  Somewhere in his fantastic book on photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes says that the photograph is “matte and somehow stupid”, and that the more you look at one the less you see in it.  This photo reminds me of that comment; I’m just not sure how to read Hilary’s face and hand.  So, is there a risk that, as good cultural studies scholars, when we read gender stereotypes into images, we are ourselves reproducing dominant discourses of gender?  Moreover, how are we supposed to interpret the sheer silliness of some of the spoofs of that photo?  What are we to make of the hunk pasted into the back of the room, or the one where everyone is wearing the hat that Princess Beatrice wore to the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William recently?

While it’s tempting sometimes to think that the main reason so many cultural studies scholars have now abandoned the interpretation of representation is because that skill is now very widespread — hence to preserve their mystique they now deal with philosophers and theorists far more abstruse than Stuart Hall ever was — thinking about what’s happened to the ‘situation room photograph’ also suggests some other reasons why critiquing the politics of representation can sometimes seem rather tired now.  First, there’s that concern that, in identifying oppressive representations, we are reproducing the power relations they picture, rather than dislodging them; secondly, there’s a sense that ‘dislodging power’ is rather beside the point of the joyful daftness of the spoofs that so many media images generate; and finally, there’s the perhaps rather more interesting issue of all that spoofing going on.  Perhaps the spoofing is the thing to explore, rather than — or maybe as well as — the meaning of the texts it produces.

I mean, just how did whoever made the hat spoof get all those hats at all those different angles?  How to approach the time, skill and energy that’s put into such spoofing?  And what are the effects when such spoofs travel into all sorts of different contexts, including, heaven help them, visual culture blogs like mine and Marco’s?