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02.02 Megan Boler

Politics in the New Media Classroom

  • Introduction:

Thinking about educators some may argue that there is no room for the personal politics of the professor in the classroom. We disagree. The Greek word "professore" means " to proclaim." It does not mean "say nothing, look the other side when hundreds of people die in Iraq, when our civil liberties vanish under the Patriot Act, academic freedom of speech is questioned, or when the International Monetary Fund ruins yet another Jamaica.

Megan_bolerAbout Megan Boler:

Knowledge, Media, Design Institute (KMDI)
Megan Boler is Associate Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, and works in the area of new media and cyberculture studies. See her website Critical Media Literacy in Times of War. 

in Speaker Series | this section only


Politics and New Media Education

Trebor Scholz: Please start by introducing us to perspectives on relationships of today's new media, media ownership, and power?

Megan Boler: As media scholar, educator, and activist, I see this as the best and worst of times. The best, because there is increased access, production and use of new media; the worst, because we are in midst of the greatest political repression and absence of free press within mainstream media perhaps ever witnessed in U.S. history.

It is helpful to situate our relationship to technology and communication, and how has this changed over time, by reviewing briefly three schools of thought in media theory.

First, consider the combination of nostalgia and technological determinism reflected in the work of Neil Postman (or we might look here at McLuhan or Ellul). "In Amusing Ourselves to Death" Postman argues that the telegraph and photography displaced print, resulting in a culture that lacks the kind of intellectual rigor and rational, debate and is instead run by gods of television and computer. There are obvious appeals in accounts like this: we do have to inquire about who owns the public sphere, and what aspects of technology have become so commonplace they are naturalized and hence not easily seen and observed through a critical lens- i.e., what do we take for granted and assume cannot be changed? Such as one way broadcast as opposed to interactivity?

Neil Postman is a technological determinist as he sees technologies such TV and computers profoundly defining our epistemology and relation to the world. One of the dangers of this view is that determinism ignores agency and resistance, and nostalgia assumes an innocence and moral good to the past which is deceptive. Early America was not a utopia; many voices were disenfranchised from the public sphere; and a return to print and rational dialogue will not ensure equity or equality.

A second school of thought, closely related to Postman and McLuhan with a Habermasian spin, is a recent book called Rebel Sell. The thesis of this 2004 book is that culture jamming is dead in the water. Culture jamming is as dead as any hippy counterculture ever was, according to the authors. They vehemently oppose the views of those who follow Gramsci and Marx, and notions of hegemony and ideology. Those of us who do accept notions of hegemony believe that interventions in ideology are possible through re-appropriations and consciousness raising; our hope lies in “intervening” in ideology by making small incremental changes in consciousness. In this book the authors argue— counter to all Gramscian conceptions of hegemony--that the sphere of culture and politics must be separated entirely. However, these authors— who don’t seem to be right leaning but rather of progressive mindset— state that cultural interventions make no difference whatsoever. Buried in their slam of culture jamming as a waste of people’s energy, one finds a hidden revival of Habermas! –they state that what made the civil rights and women’ liberation movements in the US successful was rational debate, democracy, and legislative change (thereby dismissing cultural change as part of those revolutions). What are the risks of this analysis? First, it’s absolutely not possible to separate culture and politics. Second, we need alternatives to Habermas’s notion of the public sphere and rational dialogue as only route to democracy. Culture, and politics, are complex, riddled with power inequities, and highly divergent and inequitable authority granted to many voices in our so-called pluralistic democracy. Classical models of political institutions and political economy tend to overlook micro level of social change, which includes everything from emotions to anarchistic resistances to tactical cultural interventions. You cannot argue that the civil right movement was successful only because of political and nor cultural work and change.

(Related to these concerns, it is interesting to note that leading media scholar Robert McChesney, at a recent conference, argued that he feels the blogosphere is not robust enough a challenge to mainstream media. For him, hope lies in public outcry against FCC change in ownership.)

Finally, there is a third school of thought represented by Stuart Hall—and this, combined with the work of media activists, that offers the most hopeful frame— one that would support the kinds of intervention represented by Situationists or contemporary culture-jammers. Hall discusses in Encoding/Decoding, dominant, negotiated, and oppositional readings of media. The value of Hall’s model is that we do not need to assume the passive, couch-potato model of viewing but rather understand that no meaning is guaranteed: meanings are always negotiates and/or opposed by audiences and viewers. Thus hegemony has no guarantees.

TS: How does tactical media fit in with contemporary visions of the relationship of “civic engagement” and the public sphere of media?

MB: I began by saying that this is in some ways the “best of times,” because I am optimistic about media interventions.

TS: Please describe some of the hopeful examples that you referred to.

First: The most watched nightly news show among the demographic of age 18-30 is Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Whatever its limitations— there are many- this satirical show represents a counter to mainstream media that significantly intervenes in dominant network and cable news discourses.

Second: I have been studying and writing about online political digital multimedia, and how these forms of tactical media represent significant political interventions in civic and public discourse about U.S. foreign policy, Bush administration policies, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The wide circulation of these kinds of counter-discourses is extremely inspiring and represents a creative use of tactical media in the best sense [URLs listed at end].

[Whether or not one considers these “art” is fruit for another conversation, but I would urge one to look at the variety of expressions online, and if one considers none of these art, then perhaps one believes that by definition art cannot be explicitly political? A huge topic of course.]

A third point of hope are weblogs that have developed specifically as alternative sources of news about war— war blogs, as it were—
and blogs that function, collectively, as a “fact checking” in relation to the representations of mainstream media. While no one blog is sufficient, as a collection blogs functions as a powerful counter and check on mainstream news reporting. Mainstream news has been forced to change its story, change its timeline, apologize, and essentially be on its toes as a result of the power of blogging.

(I would also argue that the blogosphere as a political space is presently dominated by a very distinctly white, male, middle class voice, and we urgently need greater diversity of voices in the “recognized” blogosphere).

A final point of hope is the use of new media for digital storytelling: young people given access to means of production who tell their identity and cultural stories, often through a partnership of university and community/school. [URLs listed at end]

TS: How do you re-frame these interventions in the current political context?

MB: This is arguably the worst of times in recent political history particularly given US foreign policy and the Bush administration’s stranglehold on power and media. “Free press” is an oxymoron if one of talking about mainstream news. Even in Canada, most recently the three major newspapers were taken up with the spectacle of democracy in Iraq, a fantastic propaganda moment that will fuel the Bush Administration’s leverage on more tax dollars and increased foreign support for occupation and continued imperial expansion.

I have spoken in numerous countries about my website Critical Media Literacy in Times of War (http://www.tandl.vt.edu/Foundations/mediaproject). I have learned a great deal through this collaborative project, which uses new media as an educational tool to have the news tell on itself. How much contact do people have with the news? Do they read international news? Do people take time to read different and international sources? The answer to all of this is a bit discouraging. Additionally, people continue to ask, “If I could read just one source, what should I read?” or “Thank god the CBC [the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] is objective!” Such questions make me aware of how far we have top go in engaging educated people in think critically about the media.

TS: What are the challenges educators, media theorists, and activists face in the current climate of political repression?

MB: Yesterday, a colleague sent me a CNN article
that shows that a majority of young people in the U.S. feel that the first amendment goes too far in its assurance of rights. Data like this simply confirms that those of us who have the privilege to teach in colleges and universities must gather even more courage in what and how we are teaching. It is incumbent upon those who have tenure and job security to introduce the most unpopular ideas, to engage critical thinking it the best ways we can understand this, and to encourage active participation that engages new media.

In 1950 Jacques Barzun wrote critically of what he terms “popular history:” history learned through course textbooks and through popular media. These versions of history are reductive, partisan, and fail to show complexity of historical events.

As scholars interested in media and education, we face a double whammy in the face of popular histories: neither education nor news media are helping us grasp the complexity of the contemporary political moment in its historical frame.

Education is not teaching students about basic concepts such as the bill of rights. Rather, the media is doing a superb job of creating a new form of virulent racism and anti-Muslim climate. Dissent is penalized not only through absence of free press but silencing of expression in schools: through threats to teachers and directives within schools not to discuss issues such as the war in Iraq. The absence of school curricula alongside media blackout— no images of bodies returning to Dover Airforce base; blackout on questions raised about recent presidential election results in Ohio- these factors are some of what creates a culture of fascism [URLs listed at end].

Within teacher education, for example, the interest in media literacy and media education is minimized not only in US but also Canada. At the same time, new media educators, teachers, and literacy and media studies scholars are acutely aware of a shift to “multimodal literacy.” What literacy means, how it is defined, is radically changing given young people’s media practices.

We urgently need more conversations between people involved in instructional technology and engineering, and critical theory. There tends to be a split between these two communities and discourses. By engaging more conversation— as you are doing here— we have hope of engaging
new media in ways that take seriously the challenge of counter-hegemonic work and implementing tactical media within mainstream educational and software programming.


-Tactical Media Links

Bush in 30 Seconds


Lying Action Figure

Grand Theft America (Stolen Election 2000)

Spliced Republican Sound Bytes on Terrorism

How to Spot a Fascist Regime

-Digital Storytelling Links

Youth Media Distribution

Listen Up! Youth Media Network

Global Action Project: Youth Making Media

As part of WebCamTalk 1.0

Posted by: rts | 2005-02-09 9:00:59 PM

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