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.

Projecting Minds


Controllers (old and older)

Controllers (old and older)

One of the central metaphors at the heart of the activities of New Media, both from the creation and audience side, is “interactivity.” This is a powerful trope, since it suggests not only that something new is going on, but also that interactivity is what distinguishes “old” and new media from each other. Most analyses of new media celebrate the role of interactivity and the term has “sewn” its way into the fabric of present-day media somewhat like the ‘spiders’ that trawl the Web to classify and assemble information for search engines. It seems inconceivable to talk about modern digital technologies without referencing their interactive components. And to be fair, there are obviously radical differences between watching a Star Wars movie in the theater and playing a Star Wars game and the distinctions become even more pronounced with on-line games, which often involve hundreds of thousands of players.

 At the heart of nearly every analysis of interactivity is a set of assumptions about human experiences. These include, for example, that shifting characters or avatars within the multi-dimensional planes of a television screen gives control over those characters to players. To some degree, this is correct. But, the more interesting process that needs examination is the imaginative work of projection and interpretation that players engage in to achieve some power over the game and its outcome. In this case, projection has some similarities with telepresence which is the sensation of being elsewhere, a sensation that is aided by computer technology. However, it is important to recognize that telepresence, immersion and projection are also active parts of “conventional” experiences with any number of media and with the written word. Interaction, whether it be through the generation of mental images or tearfully watching a character die or whipping through a mystery novel to find the resolution to its plot, in novels, photographs, cinema and theater, is all about various levels of interaction. Clearly, Videogames integrate all of these characteristics into a powerful mix (except for the theatrical experience) that is distinguished by the use of controllers. (For a wonderful history of controllers and a family tree, click here) The type of hand-eye coordination that is required to remain in ‘control’ of the game is very specific, needs to be learned, and is precisely the kind of feedback mechanism which distinguishes Videogames from watching a sitcom. But, what is the relationship between the structure of a game and playing it? Can the experiences be understood by observing the players? These questions also apply to any number of other cultural experiences. In this essay, I will explore the issues I have raised by examining the connections between photography, cinema and games with some parallel considerations given to projection, immersion and identification. 

Screen Panic (2)

“Panic, rare before 20th Century.” Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1827, “to affect with panic; to scare into a hasty or rash action.” Panic is a contemporary phenomenon of profound power. It invokes deeply felt emotions with intensity and zeal that overcome reasoned thought. The contemporary world is driven by various degrees of panic, some frightening (Ebola) and some entwined with, and dependent upon, hypochondria. There is an underlying melancholy to the heightened emotions of panic. The word itself is derived from a fear of Pan, the Greek god, a fear of the capricious and the unreasoned. Hypochondriac experiences are built on a foundation of dread, as if disease has taken over, even if there is no evidence of illness.    

Screen panic is characterized by parental and societal anxieties and fears about the experiences of children in a world supposedly overwhelmed by danger and the potential for harm. The process invokes grief before any damage has been done. It anticipates injury before any exposure to the agents that might cause damage. It is an aggressive response, a presumably preventative one and most importantly, in contemporary terms, it allows parents to simulate the outcomes of children’s experiences before they are exposed to all the supposed dangers of the world around them.

Screen panic provokes parents to anticipate and control the images their children will view before children have had the chance to look and evaluate the screened images to which they will inevitably be exposed. After all, images have always invoked fear in the midst of intense attraction largely because of their artifice — because it seems as if images are imitations and not real. Images are effigies and as such lack originality even as their ubiquity unveils and sustains their power. Yet, it is images and screens that are the primary means of communications in the modern age. Those who rail against them use images and screens as the mediums to proclaim their danger.

The present generation of children now in their early teens is the most observed and also the most watched (imaged) — presumably, because their lives need to be framed if not determined well before they will become engaged in figuring out their own direction. They have been observed in schools, at home and in controlled social and cultural spaces. The surveillance of children reaches its apogee with cameras becoming an integral part of all bedrooms, so that sleep itself will not pose some hidden danger.

Yet, and quite ironically, this is also the generation that is sexting to a degree and with an intensity that contradicts and overwhelms the parental control mechanisms that they have experienced.

As I said in the first part of this series, the data on the impact of screens and images is at best poor, with efforts at meta-analysis even more questionable because so many of the studies use small samples to draw major conclusions. The paradox is that so little evidence is needed to produce panic and fear. Perhaps, we are seeing the end of reason or at a minimum, reasoning that no longer connects to history. As I also said, there is a profound need to understand how images connect and disconnect people to each other. There is a need to be critical and learning how to be critical is a far more complex task than the swirl of emotions surrounding panic ever permits. (More in part three of this series.)





Screen Panic

We are living in an era that is hyper hypochondriac. Add to that a substantial amount of paranoia from security concerns through to Ebola, and it seems almost justifiable (not quite, as we shall see) that Douglas Quenqua of the New York Times, would write a front page article, entitled, “Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?"

There are a number of articles in the Oct 12th edition of the Times that reference health and concerns about diet and other medical conditions. I won’t comment on those other than to say that every newspaper now engages in speculation about health, both psychological and physical. Most of the time, as in Quenqua’s piece, the research underpinning the articles is referenced but not genuinely explored. This would not be an issue were statements like the following not made: “In a 2013 study, researchers found that children ages 3 to 5 whose parents read to them from an electronic book had lower reading comprehension that children whose parents used traditional books.” Prior to this comment, Quenqua points out that we don’t know too much about what happens when children read with the aid of an iPad for example, and we certainly know very little about what happens when they listen to their parents reading from a screen. There is an important reason for this. The iPad only appeared in April of 2010 and from a market point of view only reached critical mass in 2012. The time it takes to do research in this area does not match the appearance of the technology. Turns out, of course, that the research referenced talks about devices from early in the 2000’s, but that is not the worst of the approach taken by this writer.

When journalists play social scientist, or when they don’t take care with headlines and don’t engage with the researchers they quote, other than in the most superficial of ways, we end up with Quenqua’s article. Its appearance on the front page of the Sunday Times attests to the importance editors have placed both on its content and with respect to readers.

So, let’s explore some of the comments in the article. Parents, it is suggested, focus more on the device than on the children. The researcher who is quoted saying this, Dr. Julia Parish-Morris is a developmental psychologist and completed this research in 2012 and published it in Mind, Brain and Education, Vol. 7, No.1 (2013).

The abstract makes the following assertion: “Early experiences with books predict later reading success, and an interactive shared reading style called ‘dialogic reading’ is especially beneficial to emergent literacy.” (200) There is nearly twenty-five years of research in dialogic reading. The best way to describe this type of learning is to think about the dialogues you might have with your children about any number of different topics at any given time. Dialogic reading suggests a variety of techniques to bring out discussion and interaction. Most of the articles about dialogic reading use the research of Grover J. Whitehurst, and he began writing about this method in 1991. And clearly, interacting with your child as you read, makes sense. Except, aside from the heady terminology, parents have always done this as have teachers. In fact, the nature of the interaction between children and their parents has been an area of research most particularly since Dr. Spock wrote his now famous book, ‘Baby and Child Care.” (1946).

Keep in mind that for the most part, the NYTimes article is referring to preverbal children or children who have learned some words, but not too many. When the article says: “…dialogic reading, the sort of back-and-forth discussion of the story and its relation to the child’s life that research has shown are key to a child’s linguistic development,” it is referencing behavioural studies of parents and children, observational studies that generally would have focused on children older than 2. Parish-Morris’s research was formulated from surveys and discussions with 165 “parent-child dyads” (200). This might be the kind of study from which others would develop, but to draw any conclusions from such a small sample makes no sense. This is data that cannot be treated as anything other than anecdotal.

In order to bolster her argument, Parish-Morris says that e-book sales increased 164.4% from 2009-2010, (200)but she would have known that the majority would not have been children’s books. This statistic is used to make it appear as if there is a tsunami of growth even though in 2010, 9% of consumer book purchases were e-books. The vast majority of these were best-sellers. But take a look at this quote from Publisher’s Weekly, the bible for sales figures in the book industry. “…the percentage of e-books to total sales was much smaller: only 16 children’s books sold more than 200,000 copies digitally last year, [2013] compared with a combined 125 titles that sold 200,000+ in print. Granted, those 125 print titles include everything from Dr. Seuss to Pinkalicious to Charlotte’s Web, books that would be unlikely to end up on e-readers in large numbers. But the disparity in those numbers reinforces the fact that kids are still predominantly reading books the old-fashioned way.”


So, the majority of sales are still in print. Should we panic? What is so disturbing about both the research by Parish-Morris and the NYTimes article is that the actual analysis of the impact of screens on everyone from parents to children needs to be analyzed. But if panic is the foundation for comments on children, and the research is at best limited and superficial, how are we to proceed? Of course, talking to your children, reading to them, interacting with them, is essential and just pure common sense. Ironically, the same panic about screens was applied to the advent of television. The 1950’s and 1960’s are full of discussions and debates about what television was doing to the minds of our children. In the 1950’s, parents told their children not to spend so much time on the telephone, an echo of arguments in the 1850’s about photography, which was seen to be a vile influence on the minds of children, distracting them from the real world. The cinema was panned as a distraction in the early 20th century. The core of the issue is that research in this area, particularly with respect to children, needs to be inter-disciplinary, needs to learn from scholars in communications and cultural studies. More on Screen Panic in my next entry.



An Early Inlander


This painting is from the 1950's when Henry Inlander won the Prix de Rome, which is still considered one of the most prestigious prizes in the world of painting. The painting is a view of the valley that sits beneath the village of Anticoli Corrado. The style is a mixture of Asian and Eastern European art, bringing Chagall together with some of the scroll paintings that are such an important of art in China.


A classic example of the ancient art of scroll painting in China

A classic example of the ancient art of scroll painting in China

These similarities are not an accident because Inlander was a devoted student of art history and when he wasn't in his studio, he went to gallery and museum exhibitions nearly everyday. I am often asked why he was so interested in landscapes and why so little of what he painted has any references to urban life. My own sense is that he found some peace from the nightmares and depression that haunted him all his life. His landscapes were an imaginary space of repose and most importantly, a place to contemplate and to find some harmony. In that sense, he is more akin to some of the 19th century painters he loved, in particular, Cézanne. He was also profoundly influenced by Van Gogh and on the occasion of a massive retrospective of Van Gogh at the Haywood in London, he and I walked around in a frenzy as he commented on every work in the exhibition. He was also a lover of poetry, even though English was his third language after Viennese German and Italian. In the 1970's he became a close friend of the exiled Spanish poet, Rafael Alberti

Alberti lived in Anticoli and gave this to Henry and his wife Antonia. Leopardi was one of Italy's greatest poets.

Alberti lived in Anticoli and gave this to Henry and his wife Antonia. Leopardi was one of Italy's greatest poets.

Here is one of Alberti's poems:

For Federico García Lorca

(Sal tú, bebiendo campos y ciudades)

Go, drinking fields and cities,

Transformed to a great deer of water,

Be the ocean of bright dawns,

The kingfisher’s nest on the waves.

That I might go on hoping for you, deadened,

A done reed, in the high solitudes,

Wounded by the air, and needing 

Your voice, alone among the storms.

Leave me to write, frail cold reed,

My name in the running water,

Let the wind cry, solitary, river. 

My name dissolved now in your snows,

Turn again to your upland slopes,

Deer of spray, king of the mountain stream.


The heart of Alberti's work is centered on delving into exile and what diasporic experiences do to the people who live their lives away from their places of birth or upbringing. That is why he and Inlander became so close. More on the relationship between exile and creativity in my next blog entry.

China Art Academy

Founded in 1928, the CAA is both traditional and profoundly innovative. They mix courses in calligraphy with courses in advanced industrial design. Their philosophy is based on the premise that contemporary art always reflects to varying degrees, a set of important historical antecedents. Their campus in Hangzhou is a mixture of traditional studios and beautifully designed workshops and open spaces.