Saturday, 20 December 2008
In defence of media studies
The criticisms are automatic. Whenever a commentator begins the phrase "useless subjects like ...", I know it's going to end with the words "media studies." Fifty per cent of the time, the commentator will continue by making the observation that media studies graduates aren't guaranteed jobs in the media at the end of their studies, as though the only end of a degreee was a relevant job. Obviously I'm old fashioned. I still believe - against all the declarations of politicians - that study can be an end in itself and that sustained thought on a range of subjects enriches the thinker, society as a whole and the democratic process.
Thirty years ago the phrase "useless subjects like ..." would have ended with the word "sociology." People still think of it as a new discipline - in fact the first university sociology departments were established in the nineteenth century - but at last its debates about society, the family and ways of life are taken for granted.
Eighty years ago English was the typical "useless subject" - so controversial that some Oxford and Cambridge colleges still refused to appoint tutors in English. The subject, which included Anglo-Saxon, history of language, the plays of Shakespeare and the poetry of Milton, was seen as best fitted for women, working-class people and colonial subjects but not a matter of serious scholarship. The subject which needed no justification was Classics - the study of Greek and Latin.
Now it's media studies that's under attack. And I wonder why. Our daily lives are saturated by the media. For the last couple of years I've barely watched TV, although I've managed to see most episodes of Doctor Who. But when I wake up, I turn on the radio. I check the internet so that I can read the papers and my favourite blogs. I notice advertisements on my way to work. Sometimes I go to the cinema. Occasionally I try playing a computer game or hunt for podcasts and video clips. I'm more influenced by the media than the literature I read - and I think that's true of most people. Surely something that influences people so much is worthy of study.
Media studies covers a huge area. It usually begins with thinking about the ways in which various kinds of media are created: what is the structure of a newspaper report, a film, a TV show, an advertisement? It's important to understand that these things are made to set rules and that the way they are shaped may control what they say.
The film-maker Peter Watkins, who is also one of the most acute critics of the media today, writes about what he calls the "monoform" - rules of editing, sound, etc. which are so aggressive and dominant that they deny the viewer or listener space for reflection, criticism or resistance. I once heard Peter Watkins speak to Media Studies students - I slipped in to hear him although I wasn't on the course. He asked the students to time the length of visual clips used in news broadcasts. I think they were about 6 seconds long then. They are shorter now, allowing even less time to reflect and question. But since Peter Watkins' lecture, I've found myself asking key questions: Whose film are we seeing? (Sometimes the film is library stock and not recent footage of the events described.) Does it tell the same story as the sound track? What story is being told by the way the clips are edited together? What stories are not being told? (A story without a useful film-clip is unlikely to make it onto the TV news. And complex stories which take time to understand don't fit the rules of narrative that rule the newsrooms.) Peter Watkins argues that these questions aren't asked enough in departments of media studies. I expect he's right. But outside the world of the media and media studies, these questions aren't asked at all.
I can't outline the huge scope of media studies. There are areas and debates of which I'm barely aware - and probably some I couldn't begin to understand. The practical skills some media students acquire - from storyboarding to sound recording to website design - require a range of abilities. I'm most aware of the work of media studies in film and cinema history. At times - as in studies of the documentary movement - it overlaps with literary, music and art history. And then media students use debates about society - about the treatment of class, race, gender, etc. - and apply them to their analysis.
For instance, in the clip below from Mervyn LeRoy's film, Gold Diggers of 1933, the media studies student would be able to use a range of approaches. It would be possible, using Peter Watkins, to consider how the intensity of the film - its use of music, the Busby Berkeley choreography, and the potency of its visual images and editing - make it hard to disagree with what it says. The power of the song is particularly strange given its place in the film - it is presented as a song in a stage show but it becomes something more powerful and political. An approach looking at the treatment of race and gender might note that something complex is happening. The song is sung by two women - Joan Blondell and Etta Moten. Although Etta Moten has the better, more powerful voice, the central role is given to the white woman, Joan Blondell. Etta Moten's name doesn't even appear in the credits. And while the words of the song say that women are dependent on men, the men's individuality gradually blurs them from objects of admiration and pity into a pattern on a screen. Meanwhile the historical approach would tell how the film picks up a famous speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt and sets its key phrase to music. And the historian might also have something to say about the film's original audience: mostly poor, suffering from the effects of the Depression and entering the luxury of the cinema in search of escape, hope and happy endings.