Thinking Points (XIV) – Cultural Discourse in the Mass Media

Critical writing about popular and new media such as television, computer games and so on is arguably underrepresented in the arts media. This, combined with a generally low level of critical cultural coverage – that which exists to serve a purpose beyond informing purchases as most reviews do – has created a cultural environment lacking in the kind of healthy debate which drives improvement. Furthermore, there is a trend across news media to increasingly emphasise simplified, list-based reportage and controversial editorial – driven, as claimed by internal sources, by competition both from the tabloid press and the growing online media including sites such as Buzzfeed. Two recent pieces of television and film criticism – firstly Now it’s The Walking Dead for kids – must we all be teenage zombies (Moran, M. The Guardian, 24/03/14) and secondly The Good Wife’s shock twist: the latest in a long line of recent TV bombshells. (Donahue, AT. The Guardian, 25/03/14) I read in The Guardian seemed emblematic of this shift in focus in the cultural environment.

 

Both pieces focused on extrapolating a grand narrative – a hyperbolic creation of a significant artistic “movement” – from a handful of closely-picked examples while simultaneously rejecting close analysis of any of those works. There is a self-depreciating tone to this form of critical discussion; it is based around not simply ignorance of context or the wider cultural environment but an active abnegation – a continued equivocation to shut down challenges to the argument – of any possible refutation. This is made most clear in Moran’s continued admissions that he perpetuates the situation he decries – a supposed move toward juvenilia in popular culture – as if by claiming that he himself is not completely against the movement (but would rather slightly less of it) he places his argument in some unassailable position that is impossible to engage with. Observation and aphoristic statement of truth – mitigated with coy possibilities – is used as a replacement for detailed analysis. Take for example the following quote, and the paragraph which follows in a similar vein: “A cynic might suggest that our schools and universities are churning out graduates with the reading age of a 12-year-old.” The statement invites deeper questioning of the cultural environment that Moran is perpetuating; is there evidence to suggest that a poorer level of cultural discourse in society, caused by unequal access to cultural education, creating undiscerning and culturally-illiterate audiences? The article continues in this vein; hypotheses supported only by lists of examples without ever any in-depth engagement.

Moran provides a list of examples of works he considers juvenile – from The Walking Dead to Sherlock without ever providing a satisfactory definition of why. Take this quote: “Jonathan Creek? Sherlock? Agents of Shield? Pure Tumblr-vision. The wildly popular Mrs Brown’s Boys is little more than a Rabelaisian Krankies.” What matters is not why these works are juvenile – or any of the context surrounding them such as intended audience – but instead that firstly they are, in Moran’s estimation. Moran’s article is rich in examples and assumptions but distinctly lacking in any analysis – close study of the texts themselves – to support them. The emphasis is on laying out a broad and synoptic case and arguing that it is self-evident without ever providing the evidence. Moran does have a case that can be argued – textual evidence could be provided from any of the myriad series Moran cites to support any number of arguments about the influence of changing demographics and viewing habits on filmmaking and screenplays. This would be the kind of useful, practical criticism of new media that would create a better cultural discourse. If its thesis is to demonstrate why a trend towards juvenilia is a bad thing, and yet it cannot provide even a sensible definition of its key terms, it fails as a piece of critical writing. A grand statement is being made about the state of television as a medium based entirely on a select few examples within a limited number of genres.

The Donahue piece displays similar shortcomings; it begins and ends with a bold yet ultimately inane statement: “These days, no television character is safe,” restated as “Television’s long, drawn-out narratives used to offer a false sense of comfort against the big beats of two-hour movies.” This is as much a pointless and uncritical assertion as Moran’s repeated insistence that television is “for the Key Stage 3 set” and “Tumblr.” Donahue’s statement is perfect evidence of a kind of reductive cultural myopia – a list of examples of shocking character deaths in a series are provided as evidence to support the assertion that this narrative device is symptomatic of a newly-emerged movement in screenwriting. Even when subsequent comments explain how this “new wave of bloody executions” is not markedly different to past examples of character death for dramatic effect, the overall sense is of equivocation to deny this challenge. There is an obsession with framing established devices as novel ones because they have seen a resurgence in modern, popular media. As with the Moran piece, Donahue does not engage at all with the subject on the critical level that would provide useful analysis; Moran grasped at creating a cultural narrative without ever providing the critical evidence to make it seem informed. Donahue simply provides a list of examples as apparently self-evident and does nothing with the many critical questions this raises. If the examples provided are some novel, “new wave” of deployments of a long-established device, how are they different? From this, another interesting line of questioning goes unanswered; if a device reliant for dramatic impact on being unexpected is becoming prevalent and commonplace – as below-the-line comments claim with talk of characters being “culled” – is this not self-defeating?

The question of society’s perceived cultural illiteracy, which ultimately is Moran’s core point – and the argued undiscerning tastes of the modern generation of audiences – seems to me to be one perpetuated by a lack of pervasive, accessible cultural discourse in the mass media. If the critical status quo – in the popular eye – is assertions unsupported by analysis and lists of carefully selected examples to support assertions of a new era which actively reject past precedent, then there is effectively no cultural discourse. A critical environment obsessed with chasing novelty and forcing trends into definitive movements – one focused on synoptic analysis over close reading – cannot exist unsupported. It almost appears – especially in Moran’s use of language and stereotypes of demographics – that the status quo of new media criticism is to actively reject close reading. That is not to say this is the sum total of the modern arts world – for articles by authors such as Self and Zizec show that there can be a place for healthy cultural discourse, while a growing library of online writing on popular culture does provide good analysis of it. However, these two examples – highly emphasised in a national broadsheet newspaper – can be seen as examples of evident flaws in the way in which traditional media approaches and discusses the new media.

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