Altermodern Literacy: Netflix, Apple TV, YouTube, and Cutting the Cord
Ralph Beliveau / University of Oklahoma

Poe's 'The Premature Burial'

Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” Harry Clarke

I looked; and the unseen figure, which still grasped me by the wrist, had caused to be thrown open the graves of all mankind, and from each issued the faint phosphoric radiance of decay, so that I could see into the innermost recesses, and there view the shrouded bodies in their sad and solemn slumbers with the worm. But alas! the real sleepers were fewer, by many millions, than those who slumbered not at all; and there was a feeble struggling; and there was a general sad unrest; and from out the depths of the countless pits there came a melancholy rustling from the garments of the buried. And of those who seemed tranquilly to repose, I saw that a vast number had changed, in a greater or less degree, the rigid and uneasy position in which they had originally been entombed.

-Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial”

Floating above, at night, and all the roofs of the houses become transparent. Picture the vast numbers of glowing video and computer screens. Radiant. Most showing images of something past, pictures, sounds, words. Are we watching decay? Disintegration? Is unity destroyed, broken down into constituent parts?

Premature burials are more frequent than we might think, Poe suggests, and we might be wise to check and see. For example, the invocations of “postfeminism” and “postrace” have often appeared…and appeared often. They appear, suggesting a burial; but, out the depths of the countless pits, there comes a melancholy rustling. Feminism is not dead; the problems have not been put in the past, much less put in the ground. The election of a black (though actually multiracial) president, with its cultural ripples of both approval and reinvigorated bigotry. shows the rustling of race (though actually ethnicity). But the “rush to burial” in these cases often reflects the desire to escape from the burden of past conflicts–and past responsibilities. They suggest that progress is complete, and now we can release ourselves from these areas of cultural conflict, the same way that Will and Grace put an end to homophobia and homohatred…or not. This myth of progress ought to be treated critically, even aesthetically, especially when it seems the case that they arise more out of wishful thinking than a fait accompli.

But, what about the case of postmodernism? Is it wishful thinking that the era of modernism has ended? Certainly, one could argue that we are seeing the end of Modernism as reflected in network-era television. Amanda Lotz has written extensively about the way ‘television’ has changed fundamentally in terms of production practices, financing models, audience measurement, and industrial structure. In many ways, television reflects a notion of modernity through the way it both solves the problem of representation by offering a reconstruction of the world that flows easily between fiction and nonfiction, and turns “traditional” (i.e., pre-modern) culture into an object to be studied, holding out the home for an increasingly perfect understanding of our insides (brain, body, soul) and our outsides (others, space, time).

Buried Alive

What have we buried prematurely?

The postmodern critique sought to blunt this notion of modernism by destabilizing the large scale stories that cultures believed…like the large scale story of progress. But all the postmodern theorizing, once so highly regarded, has dissolved into the radiance of decay. As Alan Kirby wrote in Philosophy Now in 2006,

Just look out into the cultural market-place: buy novels published in the last five years, watch a twenty-first century film, listen to the latest music – above all just sit and watch television for a week – and you will hardly catch a glimpse of postmodernism… The sense of superannuation, of the impotence and the irrelevance of so much Theory among academics, also bears testimony to the passing of postmodernism. The people who produce the cultural material which academics and non-academics read, watch and listen to, have simply given up on postmodernism. ((Kirby, Alan (2006). “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond.” Philosophy Now, Issue 58.))

Kirby argues that postmodernism’s death heralded the arrival of pseudo-modernism, a narcissistic technologized environment where resistance to market forces are seen as futile; the critique of modernist notions of history are no longer ironic and playful, and instead have been replaced by the real desire to return to the stories and toys of childhood. The postmodern sense of ironic interrogation, according to Kirby, is replaced by the trance–a total submersion into one’s own activity. Think of the trance as that space the person next to you goes to when they disengage socially and start texting. Whether this is considered rude or not, it is not the kind of incredulity that marked a postmodern attitude.
But, before we consign postmodernism to the grave prematurely, we might consider an alternative to modernity—what Nicholas Bourriaud (( Bourriaud, Nicholas (2009). Altermodern. London: Tate Publishing. )) has called Altermodernity, – the dreamcatcher of the world that is “to-come”:

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Sensing a different way of organization, Bourriaud, a curator and critic, put together an exhibition at the Tate in 2009 that engaged with the aftermath of modernity—as well as the problems with postmodernity—with a different attitude he saw reflected in the work of those contemporary artists who were reworking the new cultural “maze” in order to find new ways of meaning.


He saw these clustered around four different cultural points, which Bourriaud describes as his four prologues:

1. Altermodernity – the end of postmodernism
2. Exile – cultural hybridization
3. Travel – as a new way to produce forms
4. Borders – crossing beyond the current standards of form

The notion of the Altermodern builds off the world as truly multicultural and multivocal–not the residue of the dominance of the West, but a world that is finding new ways to carry on without building in an implicit hierarchy of values.


Altermodern at London’s Tate Modern

There is great power in Bourriaud’s vision, and it offers a good way to think about what we are seeing with changes in the forms of ‘television’—changes so complete the term ‘TV’ no longer seems to suffice. These are the changes from networked, centralized hierarchical control, whether through the licensing system of the FCC and the big networks, or the organizational “buffet” doled out by the lords of cable television.

The formal changes include Netflix, Vimeo, Apple TV, YouTube, and other new(er) forms for accessing content. The chain from producers to distributors to exhibitors has fundamentally changed. Correspondingly, the expectations of some viewers have changed, particularly in relation to when and how they enter and participate in the digital environment. Many of the values that are possible in this new world of forms are outlined in Doug Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed, values like noting that the connections on the internet are connections between people—not commodities, and that the scale of what we are doing has consequences in our experience of time and space.

Indeed, these new forms have changed the way we use communication cues to interact. In fact, in many of our digital “conversations,” we are losing the visual and non-verbal cues that help make people and their motives understandable. Sherry Turkle (( Turkle, Sherry (2012) Alone Together. New York: Basic Books )) discusses this, arguing that as we expect more from technology, we expect less from each other. On the other hand, Edward Docx wrote in 2011 in Prospect:

Certainly, the internet is the most postmodern thing on the planet. The immediate consequence in the west seems to have been to breed a generation more interested in social networking than social revolution. But, if we look behind that, we find a secondary reverse effect—a universal yearning for some kind of offline authenticity. We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinising, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. We want to become reacquainted with the spellbinding narrative of expertise. If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do. (( Docx, Edward (2011). “Postmodernism is Dead. What Was It?” Prospect, Issue 185 ))

This, I would argue, is reflected in the new configurations of form in the evolving media ecology. The range of material that can be found on YouTube, but even on Netflix, reflects a growing diversity. To some, the “bar” for entry is lower (i.e., some of the material, even on Netflix, is conventionally “amateurish”). But, this is the cost of the Altermodern. The wider diversity of form is leading to a wider diversity in content. Certainly, there is a lag, especially since the diversity of forms is capable of so much more than the content reaches. Think, for a moment, about the way we could use the hyperlinking of DVD or an online video, combining the ludic unpredictability of a video game with traditional notions of storytelling. At the least, it cold be a new age of Ballyhoo…but, at its best, it could offer new ways to tell stories to each other.

What does it mean to cut the cord? It can mean, “bye-bye, oppressive cable overlords,” getting us out of the position of the “captive audience” that Susan Crawford has recently been describing, where we are victims to the high profit margins of media companies that are too large to suffer competition. (Here she is talking to Bill Moyers on this issue.)

It can also mean cutting the cord to the modern, to the structure that historically recognizes the domination of the Western powers. Part of the notion of the Altermodern thrives on a new understanding of this relationship. If all goes well, if the creativity of form we have experienced is accompanied by a creative explosion in content, perhaps our cynicism can be laid to rest.

My inner Poe, though, sees this happening prematurely.

In pace requiescat!

Image Credits:
1. Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” Harry Clarke
2. What have we buried prematurely?
3. Altermodern at London’s Tate Modern

Please feel free to comment.

Prisoners of Permission: Advancing the Cause of Fair Use
Ralph Beliveau / University of Oklahoma

The Prisoner, 1967-68

The Prisoner, 1967-68

The idea of “Fair Use” is receiving a great deal more attention these days, but only in particular circles. It needs to be widely and democratically understood, however; at least as widely understood as piracy, respect for intellectual property, and the fear of getting caught downloading episodes of The Prisoner.

On our best days we live creatively, but that creative life is trapped between an increasingly oppressive set of copyright laws, a set of technologies that these laws are ill-equipped to address, a desire to maintain healthy creative structures, and conflicting ideas about information, meaning, and freedom. Is something “free” because you didn’t pay for it, or because it is not under a state of oppression or suppression? Is meaning becoming increasingly individual rather than shared, and is meaning in danger of slipping into irrelevant isolation and solipsism?


Information: Controlled or Uncontrolled?

And what ought we do about the way information (which turned into power at some recent historical point) is distributed in ways that are probably unfair and are clearly unjust?

If we choose not to engage with these question, we drift more and more to what Larry Lessig called a permission culture:

For the first time in our tradition, the ordinary ways in which individuals create and share culture fall within the reach of the regulation of the law, which has expanded to draw within its control a vast amount of culture and creativity that it never reached before. The technology that preserved the balance of our history – between uses of our culture that were free and uses of our culture that were only upon permission – has been undone. The consequence is that we are less and less a free culture, more and more a permission culture. ((Lessig, Lawrence (2004). Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. Available under a Creative Commons license at For sale on Kindle and on paper. New York: Penguin.))

The incentives, Lessig argues, are no longer about creativity and creators; instead they are about the preservation of certain forms of business. Those certain forms of business have been in the best position to pay for the kind of lobbying that extends the profitability of those forms, limiting creativity. This is a culture that is already slow to incorporate media literacy into the public’s educational system, much less mount a successful effort to push against the lobbying of permission-granting industries. So an effort must be made to make people aware of what rights they already have, and at least present for them the option to maintain their creative potential.

For better and worse, there is a much clearer sense of property, though ideologically this centers on the private rather than the public sense of property. That sense of private property becomes a definition of freedom, which needs to be protected by constant vigilance. Thus, like Number 6 in The Prisoner, we can never tell the difference between the fences that protect us and the fences that corral us, much less who are the prisoners and who are the guards.

Fair Use and Panopticon

The creativity of our lives is now caught up in the fate of Fair Use. The effort to act ethically and respect the intellectual property of others is pressured in two different ways. In the most positive light, we want creativity and innovation to be rewarded, and we act as if our legal machinery shares this value with us and enacts it on our behalf. Matched to that carrot is the stick of vulnerability. We see take-down orders and feel conspicuous; we read of examples of kids and moms prosecuted for file-sharing activity; we are suspicious that when we are online…or even when we are not!…we are being watched. Maybe we are, maybe we are not…but the possibility of it instigates protective behavior, when we take down the video without a fight, or censor our activities because we might be breaking a law.

Presidio Modelo

Presidio Modelo, Cuba

As many have discussed, Bentham’s idea of the “panopticon” prison becomes a useful metaphor for our lives, online or not. Long story short, we are not suddenly carried off to prison; the prison, Matrix-like, materializes around us. The blue pill fills our insides with sensory devices.

Presidio Modelo

Who is watching whom?

A creative life then can take three different forms. We can accept it, play along, trust that being observed is being cared for; we can resist and reject the invasion of our privacy represented through the eyes upon us; or we can resist it more through the production of noise, the disruption of patterns, and adding feedback to the relationship.

“Fair Use,” I would like to argue, is an ethical way to resist. As outlined in Reclaiming Fair Use: How To Put Balance Back In Copyright, Pat Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi ((Aufderheide, Pat and Peter Jaszi (2011). Reclaiming Fair Use: How To Put Balance Back In Copyright. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.)) describe the circumstances where fair use can allow people to get out from under the assumptions of the panopticon. Fair use—the use of copyrighted material without permission or payment—has experienced a resurgence since the 1990s as a tool that can be used by people whose creativity was enhanced by the creative use of new digital technologies. The online platforms for these technologies have—at least at the moment—created a two-way communication model that surpasses the one way, top-down, center-out communication process we think when we use the word “broadcast.”

This may be a threat to traditional media organizations, who are in the position of losing control over how media is accessed and what is done with the content. Sensing this possibility over the last two decades has led to a copyright system that serves corporate content owners and their lawyers, only incidentally helping the creative class that actually produces the content.

But the popular understanding of people’s rights is complex, though not overly so. Fair use, as reiterated in the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use, holds that copyright has included the ability to quote without payment or permission for 150 years, including the right—not the privilege, but the right—to fair use. The conceptual guiding question is, when taking all the facts and circumstances into account, “whether an unlicensed use of copyright material generates social or cultural benefits that are greater than the cost it imposes on the copyright owner.” These are often summarized as the “four factors” on which fair use is considered: the nature of the use, the nature of the work used, the extent of the use, and its economic effect. Users of copyright material, as Aufderheide and Jaszi note, need to think through answers to two particular questions:

• Did the unlicensed use “transform” the material taken from the copyrighted work by using it for a different purpose than that of the original, or did it just repeat the work for the same intent and value as the original?

• Was the material taken appropriate in kind and amount, considering the nature of the copyrighted work and of the use? ((Ibid., 164))

If the answers to these questions are “yes,” according to this approach, a court is likely to find a use fair.

Fair Use

A companion to the FBI’s Anti-Piracy Warning

One of the challenges in understanding “fair use” is the lack of specifics—though this needs to be understood as one of the advantages of the right. It does not ever say, for example, what percentage or what number of seconds are the outside limit within fair use. But the need to think through the argument for the specific use becomes, instead, a way for the creator to understanding meaning. If we consider using copyright material without permission or payment, we need to think through our rationale for that use under the rights we have in “fair use.”

In other words, this becomes a valuable way for all of us as creative people to become more media literate. We are put in the position of taking seriously the value of intellectual property without acting too timid to either use references, allusions, citations, and quotations, or commit acts of analysis, criticism, satire, and education. The conversation among different speakers should proceed without fear. Amateurs, students, novices, and the newly tech-savvy need to take the responsibility to make sure that their uses have a clear argument within the understanding of fair use as it currently stands.

“As it currently stands?” Yes, that is the circuit, between current freedom to use and mash-up, and the understanding of fair use. Copyright has been allowed to expand well past the point of reason, mostly because of the imbalance in lobbying for legislation between private stakeholders and members of the public. Technology becomes a double-edged sword that shifts this struggle. Simple digital tools that became widely available made it possible for the role of producer to reach much further than it ever had. At the same time, professionals in areas like documentary were being subjected to what amounted to extortion when it came to rights clearances. Eyes on The Prize (1987 and 1990), the excellent history of the civil rights movement, was made up of licensed archival footage, and when the licenses for that material needed to be renegotiated, the rates had gone up significantly. As a result, the series went out of circulation for about a decade, until a series of foundation grants allowed it to resurface legally.

The law might change over time. If the right to fair use is more broadly understood, the ability to eat away at it becomes less likely. The easiest route to this is not to stop people from using copyright material in all cases out of some fear, but to develop a broad cultural understanding of fair use. Part of this knowledge should consider the way we define originality and ownership of ideas.

Power and Meaning

Media texts are very powerful, so control over them becomes a kind of power. As fans (or as “aca-fans”, if one is in the academy, as Henry Jenkins has suggested) people participate in the spread of the media text across different contexts and platforms. These experiences are called transmedia, since they take a set of ideas or characters or images and move them across formal boundaries.

How transmedia creates meaning is a valuable side-consideration to the question of fair use and copyright. Who owns our incorporation of someone’s creative work, especially when we decide to use digital tools to act on it? In Spreadable Media (2013), Jenkins, Ford and Green ((Jenkins, Henry, Ford, Sam, Green, Joshua (2013). Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.)) relate the tale of how the characters in AMC’s Mad Men expressed themselves through character-named Twitter accounts. Many admired and congratulated AMC, though it was not to their credit. These identities were being created by fans, and AMC’s inquiry to Twitter about the source of these accounts resulted in several being shut down. As Spreadable Media suggests, this was a conflict between the old regime of control and the new. AMC suffered a backlash of criticism for trying to control the content and by extension to control the experience for the viewers. AMC’s recent troubles with The Killing and the repeated complications with the creatives involved with The Walking Dead give a sense that the organization doesn’t really understand yet how to play with their own product (not the content—but the eyeballs they deliver to their advertisers).

The additional players here, online sites like Twitter and YouTube and other internet content venues, play a role in the distribution of take down and cease and desist orders. Sadly, such orders are thought to be legal, when in many cases it is actually a violation of a person’s “fair use” rights. As it is spelled out in their Model School Copyright Policy for Using Copyrighted Materials in Digital Media Production, the University of Rhode Island Media Lab explains in their Q & A:

When my academic or creative work uses copyrighted materials, can I post it to YouTube or somewhere else online?

When your work is transformative under the fair use standard, your new work is protected by copyright, and you can choose to distribute it in any way you want. If your academic or creative work is removed from YouTube or another Internet Service Provider by a mechanized take down process, you can claim fair use and have it reinstated.

This only becomes an active part of the creative world if people feel like they have enough knowledge to exert control over their own participation. This kind of literacy can be achieved through a broad cultural investment in spreading knowledge about the tools that make spreadable media work. If the effort falls short of a broader cultural effort to understand how fair use rights work, how they are necessary to the encouragement of a culture that trades in complex symbol systems, than the territory will continue to be eroded. This moment where control over the new arrangements of content and form will settle back into a top—down model of distribution, which also means a top—down type of creativity. In this case, the argument for “best practices” needs to include the practice of spreading knowledge about the potential for freedom and meaning made possible by a culture where “fair use” is common knowledge.

Image Credits:

1. The Prisoner, 1967-68
2. Presidio Modelo, Cuba
3. Who is watching whom?
4. A companion to the FBI’s Anti-Piracy Warning

Please feel free to comment.

The Unbearable Literacy of Media: Travels in the Reality-Based Community
Ralph Beliveau / University of Oklahoma

Poster for The Dead

Would an audience know the historically ironic significance of zombie cannibalism returning to Africa?

“And whose the shame, at every mute micromillisyllable, and unslakable infinity of remorse delving ever deeper in its bite, at having to hear, having to say, fainter than the faintest murmur, so many lies, so many times the same lie lying denied, whose the screaming silence of no’s knife in yes’s wound, it wonders.”
– Samuel Beckett, Texts for Nothing XIII. ((Beckett, Samuel. (1995). Texts for Nothing. In S.E. Goratsky, Ed., Samuel Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989. New York: Grove Press))

Media literacy is a problem and a challenge for all of us, especially those of us who think we have it figured out. It’s an example of how a little knowledge can be dangerous because we get comfortable; we forget the difference between thinking we know something and realizing how knowing something is almost always compensated in the great balance sheet of the universe by the stark awareness of how much we don’t know. It is, as Beckett mentions above, the screaming silence of no’s knife in yes’s wound.

Do the fans of Twilight films and books need to be aware of the struggle between Gothic and modern horror, much less romances that are as much about the presence of sex as the repression of it? Do viewers of The Walking Dead need to consider their experience not just against the revolutionary (for its time) work of George Romero, but also against the history of African American representations on stage and screen, looking for a way to manage race through a terror of the syncretism of African religion and Christianity?

Can Downton Abbey make sense to people who don’t contextualize its representations of a class system within an empire where knowing one’s place was expressed through colonial racial violence?

These kinds of questions arise out of a concern for getting at what media experiences mean, where they come from, what they tell us about ourselves individually and collectively. But they also have a two-sided relationship with history. The larger contexts of history are appraised as the place we locate meaning; at the same time, we empower this history at the cost of understanding the moment, the experience that should also be seen “free” from the burden of history.

I would never argue for historical ignorance; but I think a dose of humility is also in order. And that humility should arise from knowing that, as either Seneca ((The whole section from Seneca reads: No man of exalted gifts is pleased with that which is low and mean; the vision of great achievement summons him and uplifts him. Just as the flame springs straight into the air and cannot be cabined or kept down any more than it can repose in quiet, so our soul is always in motion, and the more ardent it is, the greater its motion and activity. But happy is the man who has given it this impulse toward better things! He will place himself beyond the jurisdiction of chance; he will wisely control prosperity; he will lessen adversity, and will despise what others hold in admiration. It is the quality of a great soul to scorn great things and to prefer that which is ordinary rather than that which is too great. For the one condition is useful and life-giving; but the other does harm just because it is excessive. Similarly, too rich a soil makes the grain fall flat, branches break down under too heavy a load, excessive productiveness does not bring fruit to ripeness. This is the case with the soul also; for it is ruined by uncontrolled prosperity, which is used not only to the detriment of others, but also to the detriment of itself. What enemy was ever so insolent to any opponent as are their pleasures to certain men? The only excuse that we can allow for the incontinence and mad lust of these men is the fact that they suffer the evils which they have inflicted upon others. And they are rightly harassed by this madness, because desire must have unbounded space for its excursions, if it transgresses nature’s mean. For this has its bounds, but waywardness and the acts that spring from willful lust are without boundaries. Utility measures our needs; but by what standard can you check the superfluous? It is for this reason that men sink themselves in pleasures, and they cannot do without them when once they have become accustomed to them, and for this reason they are most wretched, because they have reached such a pass that what was once superfluous to them has become indispensable. And so they are the slaves of their pleasures instead of enjoying them; they even love their own ills,— and that is the worst ill of all! Then it is that the height of unhappiness is reached, when men are not only attracted, but even pleased, by shameful things, and when there is no longer any room for a cure, now that those things which once were vices have become habits.)) or The Doobie Brothers put it, what were once vices are now habits. The vices that people with a critical perspective on media literacy identify are the vices of not taking the TV, film, or online material seriously from a critical perspective. Audiences consume, satisfy their pleasure centers, ritualistically reinforce their grasp on the universe, and move on to the next experience. The downside is pretty clear to the critic; any depth of understanding is not achieved because it is not sought after, and meaning remains superficial.

True enough. And if and when a culture realizes the fundamental value of media literacy this could be challenged.

This American Life, from my old WNUR news radio friend Ira Glass, recently did an episode on middle school life. It presented the idea that the things that we learn when we are in that terribly odd part of growing up—12-, 13-, 14-years-old—we learn in a deep and profound way. Our neural circuitry tries to go about the business of multiplying to get the greatest chance of establishing who we are. And what we learn goes quite deep. This would be the greatest stage to plunge kids into a media literacy way of thinking, so that the TV, and movies, and novels, and radio, and music that they see are seen with both pleasure and a critical eye.

They will also, however, be involved in a media environment that the older and the ossified will find harder to inhabit, and this is where the humility of the critic needs to be emphasized. These young (and privileged) folks are wiring themselves for an environment where cellphones are the norm; where online is a source for cheaply produced entertainment and relationship development; where Facebook is old school, Pintrest is last week, and two hours ago was Instagram/Hipstagram; where TV is DVD sets, streaming, grey market downloads, and fan poaching. To the natives, this isn’t new or revolutionary; this is the water they are swimming in. And that water is free from the contamination of historical perspective.

Generations of meaning; above, Jane Austen and zombies; below, vlog meets Pride and Prejudice

Lizzie Bennet Vlog

Ok, so that last part is not really a good thing; but it is a thing. It is a way of being in the world that has a vitality and energy to it that critical minds can sometimes diminish without understanding. And that is the humiliating point: we don’t understand it. Our tastes were formed in other places, our intellects formed with other contexts, our emotional dimensions formed in a different “structure of feelings,” as Raymond Williams put it. In The Long Revolution, he argued that the structure of feeling…

…is as firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it operates in the most delicate and least tangible parts of our activity. In one sense, this structure of feeling is the culture of a period: it is the particular living result of all the elements in the general organization…[T]he new generation will have its own structure of feeling, which will not appear to have come ‘from’ anywhere. For here, most distinctly, the changing organization is enacted in the organism: the new generation responds in its own ways to the unique world it is inheriting, taking up many aspects of the organization, which can be separately described, yet feeling its whole life in certain ways differently, and shaping its creative response into a new structure of feeling. ((Williams, Raymond. (1961). The Long Revolution. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press))

Yes, this is a territory where older, more critical folks are visitors, colonizers, aliens. And like the colonizers of yore, there is an unfortunate tendency to assume a position of superiority. There are clearly justifiable reasons to invest in that critical position, since it seeks to more fully understand and articulate the problems in a media ecology, especially one that is not really as interested in the lessons of history and critique as it is in the lessons of consumption and competition as fundamental civic virtues. But the dangers of assuming the superior position lay in the potential of misunderstanding the new structure of feeling, and in doing so failing to understand how to communicate back and forth to its citizens.

This in no way diminishes the power and significance of investing in media literacy at all levels of a culture, across different structures of feeling, through different media ecologies, and across networks. Consider, for example, the efforts on the other end of the media literacy spectrum—communicating young to older—represented in the BBC’s “Give an Hour” campaign. What are the implicit lessons about “moving about” online?:


It does not mean that the potential threats that come from the general ignorance of net neutrality, fair use rights, or the illusionary state of progress in identity and oppression issues are not issues that need a vastly larger presence in public pedagogy. But it does mean that the discussion that arises will, indeed, be more of a dialogue, a place where, as both Paulo Freire ((Freire, Paulo. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Books)) and Maxine Greene ((Greene, Maxine. (1988). The Dialectic of Freedom. New York: Teachers College Press)) have argued, teachers become students and students become teachers.

Becoming a student again requires humility, but it also requires generosity. It requires granting validity to the experience of others in their media contexts even before it is subject to context based, historically informed critique. People who practice media literacy or television criticism might want to invest a bit more time in developing ways to talk about pleasure, for example. It occurred to me in a class I was teaching about key media literacy ideas and questions that the notion of pleasure was not on the list (which was drawn from the work of the Center for Media Literacy). On realizing and bringing this up, a discussion ensued where my students were asking me how one can square the “guilty” and the “pleasure.” I’d like to say the answer is clear, but the implications are very complex. On the one hand, watching things from a critical perspective does not extract one completely from complicity. When we see a series of images designed to critique a media formation like violence against women in music videos, as in Sut Jhally’s brilliant Dreamworlds series, it’s easy to reproduce the problem. Perhaps Jhally is successful at reducing potential pleasure that can be drawn from the images, but in a culture where celebrity has such extensive exchange value, attention might not be as discriminant.

Cellini as Public Art

Cellini as public art: what does the visage turn us into as we gaze upon it?

This becomes an even more complex challenge as the desires for a more media literate culture mean moving across a landscape of cultures of feeling. How do we understand the experience of others who have a different structure of pleasure and guilt? If our priority is focused on teaching and learning across the boundaries, an important start is questioning our own judgments about the experiences of other ecologies before gaining a more local understanding of how these structures work.

Image Credits:

1. Poster for The Dead
2. Jane Austen…and Zombies
3. Lizzie Bennet Vlog
4. Cellini as Public Art

Please feel free to comment.