Critical Approaches to Culture + Media

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 20 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Writing, Learning and Social Media (2)

Analysis of language both written and verbal, allows us to see into the motivations, expectations and often the assumptions of our readers and interlocutors. George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton are economists and over the last decade have been developing an area of economics which they called Identity Economics. "When we examine people's decisions from the perspective of their identities and social norms, we get answers to many different economic questions. Who people are and how they think of themselves is key to the decisions that they make. Their identities and norms are basic motivations. We call this approach identity economics." (Ref)

One of the most important considerations in thinking about the language we use is that embedded in what we say and what we write are numerous assumptions about who we are and what we think is important, valuable and also essential to communicate. Our identities define not only how we speak and with what emphasis, but our identities also clearly impact the very subtle nuances of intention and expectation. In other words, language counts and in ways that are not that visible and clear. 

Dialogue is the heart of language. What is often not acknowledged is that ambiguity is also crucial to the way we speak and how we write. Most of what we say in conversation is contingent, waiting in suspended animation for a response. We are never sure that the language we use actually matches what others hear. And, more often than not, there is no match, just an approximation.

I bring up these nuances in our use of language because the enterprise of teaching and learning is integrated with all and more of these composite elements. Take the activity of lecturing as an example. To speak to a large number of people is to engage in one of the most complex of human activities. Aside from the many different people who make up an audience, the dynamics of lecturing, expounding, speaking are determined in large part by a set of variables that are not in the control of the speaker. These variables range from the background of the people listening, to their personal state of mind at the time of the lecture to the state of mind of the lecturer. A good speaker can overcome these variables and bring an audience close to him or her. But most lecturers are profoundly challenged by the flux and flow of the audiences they address. So, they invest in the form and content of what they are saying, subjecting language to a set of constraints that may make communication even more difficult.

Akerlof and Kranton focus on the behavioral constraints produced by identity. They cannot however, dig more deeply into what motivates people who make choices of varying sorts depending on circumstance and position. Our modes of communication resist the simplicity of what behavior tells us about motivations and identity. They make the same mistake as many teachers which is to presume that we can read backwards from how individuals represent themselves to the reasons why they act in certain ways. Teachers know how difficult that is because their students rarely duplicate the intentions of the teacher. The challenge of teaching is how to navigate through this rather labyrinthine  and sometimes impenetrable challenge of language and understanding. (Part Three will delve into this issue in a more expansive fashion.)

Writing, Learning and Social Media (1)

Passion is an overused word these days, but its use reflects a cultural shift in the meaning of writing and learning in the context of work and everyday life. To varying degrees, writing is THE mode of communications in the digital world. Writing overlays everything and is built into the structure of the Web as much as it is at the heart of every form of messaging. Twitter represents the most condensed form of this intense use of language, but even the most trivial of marketing campaigns tries to use words and sentences with impact and functionality. 

In fact, thinking through the use of words as descriptors and as image makers has become one of the most important parts of strategic planning. All those sticky notes that appear in workshops on vision, reflect a desire to match ambition with expression and representation. And, it is rare these days to see an image without a caption or some other linguistic means of identifying its purpose or place.

This is in part why passion is used as a motivator. Make your words as meaningful as possible. Link your intentions to what you say with enough passion so that readers will quickly and efficiently understand what you are trying to say. Dense language is out. Intellectuals who fiddle with words that are not direct are also fiddling with their readers. All texts have to reflect this move towards a populist form of expression.

Except that, sometimes and perhaps more often than not, writing and the use of language is not as easy as that. In fact, there is an inherent ambiguity in our use of words. For the most part, we rarely are able to say or write exactly what we mean. The gap between intention and communication is a broad one. The minute you go beyond a few words, you are essentially in a murky world where what you say and what you write is not only open to misinterpretation but almost always is misinterpreted. The reason we often spend so much time trying to understand each other is that it takes more than just a few minutes to clarify what we are saying. That is even more difficult in writing which does not lend itself directly to interlocutors and where readers can only 'comment' on what is said, but cannot as in a verbal conversation directly challenge the writer.

This suggests that what we describe as social media relies on the relationships among a variety of voices and forms of expression. No one message communicates in the absence of many others. This array of words, sentences, expressions and outlets creates and sustains a mosaic of potential messages and meanings. The transformative change here is in how we navigate through all of these elements, that is how we engage with the many layers of communications or better put how well we understand the layers and how we navigate through them. Part Two will appear next week.

Douglas Coupland everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything

Douglas Coupland has a new and wonderful show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The author of 14 books and numerous works of art as well public monuments and more, Coupland is one of the rare Gen X’ers who has explored with greater and greater depth, how different creative groups and communities interact. Or perhaps the better word might be interface. All of his works explore the relationships within cultural phenomena and individual struggle, linked to an attempt to more fully understand what makes people and communities tick. He is part of a generation for whom media and information are crucial pedestals for identity and for critique. If Coupland could control his own representations, he would in theatrical fashion allow his art to speak with the voice and authority of a teacher. But he recognizes that most of what he places into the public sphere will be taken up and taken apart in unpredictable ways. Recognizing this, he plays with chance in all his work, written or visual, and because he is a master of installations, he opens audiences to the opportunity of reconfiguring what he has created. This is especially true in his book on Marshall McLuhan, which is McLuhan on steroids suddenly rewritten for another age and another generation, a celebration of experiential fragments and how they coalesce into stories, and in particular with McLuhan, a life story.


Symbols, Media, Interface Culture and of course newspapers

Coupland’s show at the VAG borrows extensively from Duchamp. It is a celebration of the found object, in this case thousands of found objects gathered through E-Bay and foraging in cities and on islands in the Pacific Northwest. Many of the main installations have hundreds of objects carefully arranged to tell stories not only about youth (toys) but also about history (trains, planes and other technologies that move people from different locations to other locations, no specified end in sight, just movement). One room is wallpapered with thousands of tiny boxes of different colours, creating the effect of a screen onto which Coupland has placed portraits of people obscured by what looks like a can of paint thrown at the picture. The result is a controlled wipeout, paint streaming from nowhere converting expression into aesthetics — or a construction of the twin towers, now at human height, which for a moment recovers what was lost without drama or nostalgia.

Lego is an important part of the show and is Coupland’s answer the challenges of prefabrication and customization as well as mass production. In fact, Lego is a central metaphor for Coupland. Everything about Lego screams for change. Change the shapes, alter the ways in which the pieces connect, transform their colours, and make them work as sculptures. Get rid of the literal! If there is one overriding theme for the show, it is this desire to layer every object with metaphorical importance. And it works, just as his reinterpretation of Ziggy Stardust captures the hopes and failures of David Bowie’s almost ethnographic exploration of androgyny at a time (1972) when sexuality and sexual identity was being challenged in the most fundamental of ways. No part of Coupland’s show is without some sort of reference to the history of pop culture majestically set off by giant sculptures in plastic of otherwise mundane objects like detergent bottles.

So, here we are in perhaps the most “virtual” of times (and I trailed William Gibson as he toured the show), dominated by screens and many other complex interfaces, and Coupland finds a way to resurrect objects and to play with their meanings. The irony of the show is that it is as much a look forward as it is a look backward into history, the history of the 20th century. Here Coupland becomes a chronicler of the hidden moments, large dolls, globes covered with black paint, and paintings that transform the Group of Seven into collages of coloured paper, hinting at landscapes but abstracting nature from them. In the end, Coupland wants us to participate in his world. Enter stage left and join him in a dance to material culture. He is an archivist, archeologist and also most importantly, a chronicler of what we miss when we don’t take in the full view of the cultural spaces we inhabit. 

The Group of Seven, circa the 21st Century

The Group of Seven, circa the 21st Century

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