Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2004: Volume 8, Issue 1
Media and Theory Through the Writing Process
Dion Dennis, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. He has abiding publication interests in media, crime, politics and representational formats.
Fostering critical and literate habits of thought
requires that teachers move beyond using learning strategies that compel
students to “binge and purge” information in the manner of the bulimic. Utilizing concepts from Levi-Strauss, Whorf, Bahktin,
Barthes, and Foucault, this essay
theorizes about a counter-pedagogy , one that
moves students from the position of subjugated vassal and passive knowledge
vessel to an active and engaged intertextual
creator. As an application of theory, a
discussion follows on a media-based assignment.
Too many educational
practices emphasize due deference and imitation. From an early age, too many students
taught not to love learning for its own sake, but primarily for
externally defined rewards. Students are
exhorted to "make" straight A ’s and to
exhibit appropriate masks of docility.
Educational strategies that exclusively stress these qualities are
focused primarily on social control.
While developing a type of tractability, though, teachers, students,
parents, school boards, and even politicians too often mistake
short-term memorization for the ability to create, apply and
learn. By overemphasizing standards
based on rote
recitation and recognition, we have produced a generation of
college students who are obedient but
poorly equipped educational consumers .
the test Increasingly rare are
creative thinkers who are passionate about thought , and
investigate the assumptions and strategies that produced this outcome. A s a
prescription , I offer
up an educational antidote that refocuses th e
Theories and Tactics
Toward reorienting my student’s
understanding, I begin with the idea that social reality is constituted by
patterns of signification and that a malleable language shapes an equally
malleable and multi-faceted perception of reality.
the initial and inevitable cries of bafflement, I often introduce students to
weak and strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The weaker form argues that language
"shapes" perception; the stronger form claims that language
constitutes the ground for how we perceive "the real." Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf offers examples
from non-Western cultures epitomizing this notion. The Inuit of Alaska, Whorf reports, have
twenty-one words for types of snowflakes, as well as other words
for wet and powdery snow and snow with different crystalline patterns. Conversely, Whorf shows that the Hopi
language has no word for denoting a separate self, an "I." In its place, the Hopi
"self" is part of an ongoing and non-linear temporal event. The Enlightenment idea of "the
individual" who is uniquely endowed with "choice"--a notion
central idea to postmodern capitalist democracies--is alien to Hopi language,
perception, thought, and action (216). Given this kind
of example, Whorf's overall claim is that language does not function as a clear
pane of glass to an objective world.
Rather, language constitutes how people perceive and react to their
world. For PR spin-doctors, it's a taken-for-granted notion, but the
same is not necessarily true for students.
When the situation dictates, I'll ask them specific questions about how
local discourses shape what is seeable, sayable,
and doable. The idea is to lead students
toward recognizing how discourses enable and constrain. They investigate, in short, how they have
come to know what they know.
In S/Z, Roland Barthes
discusses how, when a denotation fixes a dominant or primary meaning, the
result is often ruse or even fraud. Over
Related to the Bahktinian
notion of words as a kind of symbolic and linguistic carnival is Julia Kristeva's notion of intertextuality. For Kristeva,
"any text [that] is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text [that]
is the absorption and transformation of another" (37). In another passage, she describes the concept
as "the transposition of one or more multiple sign systems into
another," with the production of new accretions of meaning (36). In everyday language, the notion of intertextuality means that texts
acquire new meanings
To illustrate the relevance of linguistic analysis to
my students, I sometimes sing the end to The Flintstones' theme song:
, with the Flintstones / Have a yabba, dabba, doo
time / A dabba doo time /
We'll have a gay, old time!" ( "Words"). Written in the early 1960s, the sentence did
not mean that Fred and Barney were going to the bathhouse or planned to enter
San Francisco's Emperor Norton (and his Court) Contest. Rather, the political identity of the term gay
emerged only after the Stonewall Riots in the 1970s combined the previous
denotation of a happy, perky demeanor with the buoyant and chatty affect
attributed to male homosexuals.
Ultimately, this emergent connotative meaning became the denotative,
reflecting the realities of late-twentieth-century identity politics. And so, the Flintstone's promise of a
"gay old time" can now be plausibly heard as something other than what creators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera intended. Much as I do with the
familiar Flintstone 's song , I like to use popular
culture in teaching the practice of intertextual allusions, this time with
The Simpsons . The Simpsons is part
of a long parade of sitcoms detailing the travails of working-class families, a
parade that ranges from the The HoneyMooners
(1950s) to All in the Family (1970s) to the more recent Malcolm in the Middle . As a cartoon, The Simpsons
shares its format with cartoon families of the 1960s, n otably theThe
Saturday Night Live, the visual images, rhetorical puns, and plots of The Simpsons satirize contemporary and historical political
figures, music, and film, as well as other television shows. Full appreciation and enjoyment of The Simpsons depend on recognizing how and where the show's
clever citations and recontextualization of previous
cultural texts have occurred. Also, its
durable popularity is attributable to the way viewers can construct their own
novel intertexts, bringing their own histories,
cultures, and sensibilities to interpreting the show. In this larger sense, the human agent in
these practices resembles what Claude Levi-Strauss called the bricoleur--that
is, the self who assembles and reassembles cultural and material elements from
disparate sources. The bricoleur
a technique by which people use the icons, objects, and texts around them to
develop and assimilate ideas . It's
a creative and active process of self-discovery and self-invention (7).
The sweep of the aforementioned theories funnels into
two final concepts. The first
is the Barthian notion of changing everyday habits of
interpretation from the readerly to the writerly text. The readerly text
is formed by the habit of absent-mindedly embracing the most conventional
narrative interpretations (4-5). It's
often the product of what Walter Benjamin called reception in a state of
distraction (239). We naïvely digest
prefabricated meanings. In contrast, the
writerly text emerges when the receiver of the
communication probes and analyzes the content and format of messages. The meaning that an active reader/viewer
generates is a spontaneous and plural intertextual
product. Finally, my pedagogy embraces
Michel Foucault's notion that theory is continually emerging from and
descending into the details of everyday life (67). Practiced as integral to the art of living,
theory is therefore an expression of freedom. David Mamet's Glengarry
of theory into a writing assignment for an upper-division course offers both
challenges and rewards. In particular, I
like to use the 1992 film adaptation of David Mamet's play, Glengarry Glen
Ross ("GGR"), which offers an insider’s look at the world
of telephone/real estate boiler rooms.
Set in the late 1980s, the film depicts the activity of selling
quasi-worthless real estate. In this
world of white-collar crime, the only real skill the men possess derives from a
lifetime of cold sales calls. In all,
the film is well suited for analysis across a variety
of theories, from the conventional to the radical. To boot, GGR’s theoretical
availability is matched by its ubiquity at video rental stories. The script, moreover, is even
available online. Elements of the
assignment are below, followed by a discussion of student responses.
a dialogue between two or more viewers involved in interpreting Mamet's GGR from different theoretical perspectives. Youir dialogue may
be set in almost any setting--a conference, coffee house, home, bar [. . .]
whatever. Pleas e use a transcript-like style, clearly
identifying each speaker (and, in some way, the position they represent). Possibilities from traditional sociological
theory usually include anomie/strain theory, differential association, labeling
theory, rational choice, neutralization/drift, and social control. A second category is also included, and
encompasses critical/radical and feminist theories.. They must represent the voice of at least one
theory from each of the two groups (though more than one each is certainly
The purpose of the exam has never been not to come to any "final" or "official" definitions. Rather, it is meant to be an event for developing student abilities to think about and represent complexity. As their professor, I assess the accuracy of the positions described, the inventiveness and plausibility of the dialogue, and the degree of insight into the various positions and possible points of confluence and divergence of these imaginary speakers. I tell them that they are the "puppet master" of this discourse. I urge them to be plausible, imaginative, skilled and attentive to detail.
Student Responses to the Assignment
Because the assignment emphasizes student construction of plausible intertexts (between personal experience, imagination, the film script, and social theories), the exercise steers far from the denotative in all its "correct answer" mantra. Additionally, because the format requires active, multiple readings and theoretical voices, a successful response to this exam means that students must produce a self-constructed "writerly” text. Finally, Foucault’s notion that theory is something emerging out of and returning to experience is embedded in the very spirit of the exam.
Student responses vary greatly. While some students embrace the inventiveness the assignment offers, others find it a source of anxiety and uncertainty. The resulting less-than-successful first at this task may exhibit one of the following coping strategies: First, I often receive dual or triadic monologues. Speaker "A" espouses one theory, sometimes with little or no reference to applying his or her particular theory to the text of the film or to the comments of previous or [imagined] subsequent speakers. Speaker "B" reprises this strategy, and so on. An absence of personal or ideological interaction, let alone conflict, defines this adaptation.
An alternative response is the "fill it up with noise" approach. Because I invite students to invent, in essence, a script within a script (imagined characters discussing the action in a script, which itself is imaginary, even if informed by reality), some students create overly elaborate imagined setup scenes and florid interactions. Such scripts go on (and on) about the local ambience, the qualities of various alcoholic beverages, and the nature of imagined relationships, etc. When theory and film do emerge, it is an evanescent event, like a hummingbird's landing on a flower barren of pollen.
Yet another strategy is what I call the "dumb it down" approach. If the student doesn't want to make the effort needed to master the assignment, this strategy consists of creating characters so "dumb," so stunningly inarticulate that they do not have the linguistic ability either to evoke the necessary background scenery nor to describe or apply theories. Although this approach is not so common as the other less-than-successful approaches, it is always very striking when superimposed on the literary quality of GGR.
Less frequently, I’ll find myself on the receiving end of the "I'll tell you right now all about the heroic and tragic struggles of my life" approach. Usually, this takes the form of a tortured personal confessional. Desperately, students misapply the theories to the most intimate details of their lives. These students exhibit the greatest angst and often are very candid about how the assignment raises their fear of failure. That said, the energy level triggered by the assignment may drive these students through their distraction to marked overall progress.
These are understandable responses to an assignment that destabilizes both the standard pedagogical format (with student as vessel) and the associated power relations (with student as vassal). Sometimes in shock, frequently in self-doubt, students find the assignment bridges the passive and active, the consumer and the producer, thus exposing the false dichotomy between experience and practice. Occasionally, the assignment becomes a catalyst for individuals to experience their own micro-Copernican Revolution. They begin to realize how ethnocentric their understanding had been.
In class, I discuss the problems associated with these approaches. Sometimes, I offer students a chance to re-write the assignment. In all cases, the weight of the first assignment is less than subsequent assignments in this format. Generally, students struggle with this format, but what began as a grudgingly undertaken task of actively interpreting both film and theory ends with a transformation of perception.
In fashioning and using this assignment, I face two
issues with each group of students I teach: What does my students' resistance
to an active use of theory represent? How has such docile and literalist
thought and behavior been produced? In
response, the dialogic format of the assignment deliberately inverts the
standard choreography of teaching and learning.
Indeed, standard notions of teaching/learning social theory function
like an academic version of bulimia.
Students are expected to "binge," obediently taking in
"foreign" ideas and then ritually purging in a frenzy of test
but not the joys of discovery and self-transformation. Neither are they well
Films like Glengarry Glen Ross offer rich sources for
constructing theoretical intertexts. To perform well, students are compelled to
explore where and how to recognize, apply, and advocate multiple theories in
creating their interpretations of the script.
They must construct multiple, unique and interactive voices. This is not a process amenable to rote
memorization and subsequent forgetting.
Rather, it is a process intended to produce insight even as it develops
the ability to think strategically.
Theory becomes practice, and practice become theory. Somewhere, I hope, Michel Foucault is
smiling. When this and other assignments
do their work, the result can be a new understanding of the relationships among
representation, perception, thought, and social reality. After the course is over, many students tell
me that these dialogic assignments have permanently altered their perception of
media products and of the relevance of
Barthes, Roland. (1974). S/Z: An Essay. Trans. Richard Miller.
Benjamin, Walter. (1968). "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, 217-51.
Foucault, Michel. (1988) "The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom: An Interview." The Final Foucault.
Mamet, David. (1992) Glengarry Glen Ross.
Henry, Matthew. (1994). “The Triumph of Popular Culture: Situation Comedy, Postmodernism and The Simpsons.” Originally published in Studies in Popular Culture 17.
Kristeva, Julia. (1986) "Word, Dialogue and Novel." The Kristeva Reader, 34-62.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. (1966). The Savage Mind.
Volosinov, V. N. (Mikhail Bakhtin). (1986). "The Study of Ideologies and Philosophy of Language." Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. .
Whorf, Benjamin Lee. (1956) "Linguistic Factors in the Terminology of Hopi Architecture." Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, 199-206.