Saturday, December 5, 2009

Writing About the Media

       'Semiotic guerilla warfare' is, according to Inglis, "reinterpreting televised texts to their own liking and often in a way that is oppositional to the interests of programmers and, more broadly, the capitalist system." It is a study of how people react and live their lives under the constant influence of the media (television, music, movies newspapers, the internet, etc.) Semiotic guerilla warfare also speculates which thoughts and ideas are totally original and which thoughts are influenced by an unauthentic external source.

         The assignment is to interview five people about a provocative popular culture item- I chose the ABC television series, LOST. Lost is a television series about a group of people who crash-land on a seemingly deserted island. Over time they discover that the island is not so normal (i.e. the Smoke Monster). They also find out that the island is not really deserted; that there are 'others.' Seasons three through five consist of the characters interacting with the 'others,' trying to figure out how to get off the island, and figuring out how to get past personal and group dilemmas. It is filled with mysteries, affairs, battles, psychological confusion, and a lot of metaphorical connotations. Many people consider its confusion, thriller endings, and viscous love triangles to come off a little provocative. It's 'rough around the edges' approach give it a raw, realistic approach dispute it's obviously fictional script. I have personally seen every episode thus far, and look forward to the final season premiering in January.

             I asked random people on my college campus two questions- "Have you seen, read about, or heard about the show, LOST?" "What do you like or not like about the show? If you have ever seen the show, metaphorically, does it mean anything to you?" Unfortunately, I would consider my interviews rather unsuccessful. Even though three out of the five people I interviewed had see the show, none of them really gave any brilliant metaphorical incite relative to the show. In my hypothesis and personal experience I thought the contrary. In relation to the topic though, maybe LOST is so complex and 'mind boggling' that people have a hard time metaphorically applying it to their lives. Could this concentration on confusion and lack of understanding of the underlying premise of the show be a result of pop culture reviews? I believe so. In my own experience of reading and hearing reviews of the show I rarely here about how the character's issue's in LOST transcend into our daily life. Person 5 said, "It doesn't really have any metaphorical application to my life. It is kind of another world." But if people think it has no personal application into their own life, then why are they so intrigued by it? Again, the issue doesn't lie in the reason for watching the show.

            The issue lies in the amount of external influence we allow by media and the people around who sway our opinion and knowledge. Maybe I personally find a lot of metaphors in the show because I have watched every episode by myself- with no one else around. This way I have been able to form my own opinions and thoughts about the show, without relying on the dramatic cues based on the facial expressions of people watching the show with me. Inglis makes a very interesting observation with this idea of 'semiotic guerilla warfare' in that, American society has been so skewed by media and the ultimate desire of hyper-individuality that we are slowly becoming less original and less innovative in our own thoughts, thus being the very antithesis of capitalism.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Local Pride

            ‘Local culture’ according to David Inglis is not so simply defined by a local event or group that is completely exterior of larger global forces and trends; i.e. going to a local night club and hearing songs that are played on the radio or featured in the “Rolling Stones Billboard Top 100”.  However, smaller populations can maintain some sort of rooted activity as long as it stays local, not spreading to far out of it’s borders, even if they do use commercial products in the actual event itself. An example of this would be a local bluegrass festival with local artists who use factory made instruments like Yamaha or Taylor. For this assignment I explored in my own hometown, Eureka, MO, to find something that was very locally founded and maintained. There is a small ski resort that has been locally owned in the back roads of my hometown called Hidden Valley.
            Hidden Valley was started over 20 years ago. The original owner is still alive and still running it. Working along side of her is her two daughters and a friend of daughters. They also seasonally employ many local high schoolers looking for a winter job and a discount on skiing. During the winter the few small snow covered hills (albeit fake snow) are filled with people from around town enjoying the holidays are having some after school fun, Because the hills aren’t mountains, most non-locals would rather spend the extra money to go to a resort that is more challenging. A few years ago, when the economy drastically declined Hidden Valley almost closed down. St. Louis city officials wanted to buy the land and use it to build expensive houses. When this news was made public to the people of Wildwood and Eureka, many were infuriated and raised heavy support to keep Hidden Valley in business. A large reason for this underground support’s success was because of local high schoolers who took a stand in the town by making Facebook groups and passing out flyers. In no way is Hidden Valley secluded from the outside world. They sell commercial foods like hot dogs, hot chocolate, Red Bull, and popcorn. They rent out factory made skis and snowboards. They use fake snow to keep the slopes full, since it doesn’t snow consistently in the winter. Skiing and snowboarding itself is not at all a local invention, but seen as a nation-wide vacation or leisure type activity. However, none of these things define what Hidden Valley is all about. Hidden Valley is a local phenomenon that strives to entertain locals of all ages (even though more targeted toward children and young adults) and provide a sporting activity that is not provided anywhere else in the St. Louis region. It remains one of the pride businesses of the Eureka-Wildwood area.

Hidden Valley

Low Culture

          ‘Low culture’, according to Inglis, is both the antithesis of ‘high culture’ and exuding many of the same principles. A second, more boxed-in way of defining ‘low culture’ is a collection of ‘creative energies’ represented by people of lower financial and social hierarchy. In this short essay I will reiterate some of the examples Inglis brought forth and add a few of my own.
            One big common theme among low culture art revolves around an underlying ‘stick to the man’ mentality. This subconscious (and sometimes conscious) mentality takes many different forms, including Inglis’ example of the industrial worker who slyly uses the company’s time, materials, and tools to work on his on his own personal project. This is an example of an overworked, oppressed working class man using ‘the system’ to his advantage- one of the characteristics Inglis pinpoints. Another example (not written by Inglis), is my friends going to The Plaza in Kansas City after Thanksgiving (when the lights go up) to play music and collect donations on the streets. They use the rich’s charity money to buy food for the homeless (like Robin Hood).
            Inglis also says “A third way of seeing low culture is as values and activities which not only break the norms of ‘high culture’ but do so willingly and proactively.” Inglis uses the example of Brendan Behan, an Irish writer, making fun of the prison guards to their face while serving time in a juvenile prison. An example (not written by Inglis), is people at the low culture simplistic church I have attended (Wayfare Church) poking fun of the mega-church worship service style of churches like First Baptist Church.
            A final example that Inglis writes about roots in schools, relating to a study of Paul Willis. Willis grew up in as a ‘working class lad’ and describes the different pranks and humors he and his friends did in school- “plans are continually made to play jokes on individuals who are not there: ‘Let’s send him to Coventry when he comes’, ‘Let’s laugh at everything he says’…”. Amongst each other they played many practical jokes, but kept it to a certain limit. If you were an outsider, “the unsmiling, overly serious, ‘posh speaking’ and inflexible regime”, you were not treated with respect, thus resulting in more harsh verbal and physical ridicule. Some symptoms of Willis’ study of ‘low culture’ are “very pronounced xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic attitudes.”
            Obviously ‘low culture’ in largely defined by the social status that defines you, because ‘low culture’ is largely defined by personal perception. In these examples Inglis provides some imagery of what can be clearly considered ‘low culture’ or ‘low art’ in any social spectrum. Like Inglis, one should attempt to take an unbiased approach to defining something as ‘low culture’, and celebrating it or looking down on it in any way. Low culture, just like high culture, “contains its own ambivalences, hypocrisies and evils too.”

Did you grow up listening to Tchaikovsky?

  The definition of high culture, as stated by the nineteenth century English author Matthew Arnold and discussed in David Inglis’ “Culture and Everyday Life”, involves two key aspects: it is “the ‘best’ works of art that have ever been produced” and the effects that these works have on people who are exposed to them on a regular basis. For the purpose of personally experiencing high culture I listened and meditated on one of my all-time favorite classical pieces, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (Part 8) “Waltz of the Flowers”. Tchaikovsky wrote the Nutcracker Suite to coincide with a ballet to the story of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. For its first performance, the composer made a selection of eight sections from the ballet before the ballet's December 1892 premiere, forming The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a, intended for concert performance. The suite was first performed on March 19th, 1892 at an assembly of the St. Petersburg branch of the Musical Society. The suite became instantly popular, but the complete ballet did not begin to achieve its world-wide popularity until around the mid-1950s. My mother, being a professional musician, would always put on the Nutcracker Suite around Christmas time. The “Waltz of the Flowers” is my favorite section of the suite, because the ending moves me to unexplainable ends.
The “Waltz of the Flowers” starts of very methodical and sweet. The way the wind ensemble introduce the piece and the way the harp beautifully and articulately moves up and down scales cause me to visualize the opening of a book, the start of something new and pure. As the waltz continues it picks up tempo and intensity, yet still keeps its intricacy and its ‘sweet and light’ (p 77) nature. After a short venture into something different and a key change there is a final return to the main melody. At this point the orchestra just starts going nuts; increasing intensity, difficulty, and complexity until a final climax and a ‘big bang’ ending.
When I truly try to just experience this music and allow it to move my emotions I find that I stop trying to musically analyze every intricate part, but merely take the piece as a whole and allow it to spark visualizations and inspiration. If I were truly honest I’d have to say that I did feel a “higher” experience intellectually than if I were to listen to something more mainstream like Lady Gaga. Enjoying the art of classical music, such as the Nutcracker Suite, is truly a blessing passed down by my mother. Without her I can’t say that I would even appreciate this type of art. That probably has a lot to do with why I still love listening to classical music to this day.  I would say this may be the same for other people as well. Children who grow up being exposed to “high culture” often have more of a tendency to enjoy it as adults. I would argue that someone who grows up only listening to the country tunes of Tim McGraw or boy band sensations like the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, can’t get a equivalent ‘high’ or appreciation from the creations of musical studios to that of an imaginative child listening to a recording of a live orchestra playing the Nutcracker Suite.

Scots and Darth Vador

Inglis indentifies some interesting issues in the modern Western pursuit of authenticity. Specifically in one section, he discusses the recent tendency for Westerners to seek out their historical nationality (i.e. Scottish) (pg 66). The problem with this is that the idea of being Scottish is a politically fabricated idea that evolved from a revolution against the United Kingdom 200 years ago- having little to do with how we view the Scottish today (bagpipes, plad quilts, Welch accent, etc.). In my own world, I found an attempt at authenticity similar in principle. At the University of Central Missouri Annual Homecoming Parade, I spotted a group of people dressed as characters from Star Wars. Now, Star Wars is in no way a nationality, but it has formed into a culture of its own- similar in concept to Scottish nationality. The pursuit of knowing as many details as possible about the ground-breaking films, and replicating the characters accurately in appropriate settings, exemplify a similar pursuit of authenticity to that of modern Western Scottish imitators.  
This clan of Star Wars characters in the parade looked like they had come straight out of the movie studio. Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Bounty Hunter, a Storm Trooper, a Tusken Raider, and the Dark Lord of the Sith where all represented in as accurate of imitations as I’ve ever seen in real life. The costumes were seemingly flawless. Later at the football game, I spotted Darth Vader  again, and took advantage of the photo opportunity. After the picture I asked where he got his costume and how much it cost. He said he had ordered it online for about $1,500. To the average person, that is a lot of money to spend on a costume of any kind, regardless of the occasion. Yet according to Inglis, that is how modern Westerners work. They will go to great extents to immolate something real and authentic because the common view is that our everyday life has so become significantly less authentic, that we must cling to or identify ourselves with something more ‘real’.
Just like modern Scottish imitators, most Star Wars fanatics fail to accurately depict the originally intended nature of the character personas. Just like Scottish imitators, most Star Wars fanatics dress, accessorize, and even attempt to act like their favorite character, yet fail to be truly devoted and loyal to this culture in their everyday life. And just like the idea of being ‘Scottish’, the idea of being ‘Star Wars’ was fabricated to address an underlying issue from the perspective of outside sources. In the Scottish case, it was the political revolutions of Germany and Italy that sparked the interest of people residing in the region of Scotland inside the United Kingdom (pg 66). In Star Wars, the outside sources are Hollywood-influenced American ideals and a mixture of eastern and western religion. Neither are an attempt to create an original culture or way of life. So like Inglis, my point is: even though the Darth Vader depicted in the photo is pretty accurate in its physical authenticity, the rooted subject is not authentic in itself, canceling out any attempts of originality.

Visual Me

Our assignment was to use a box and decorate with images that describe ourselves. I flatted out a box, covered it with butcher block paper and used images from magazines. When I finished and saw my classmate's projects I realized there was no clear-cut theme to mine. It was quite random. Which actually in itself made quite a statement about my personality and it's post-modern undertones.

The Name Game

“Schoolchildren obey (or are expected to obey) the schoolteacher, not just because he or she has a certain sort of personal character, but because he or she has a role of schoolteacher (pg.42).” According to Weber, in modern Western society, bureaucracy reigns everywhere. Even in the classroom, students are expected to give an unspoken respect to their teachers because of their educational credentials and their expected expertise in their subject. Yet despite our underlying expectation of a purely professional professor, there is something to be said about professors who educate their pupils in a more personable manner. Specifically in college, professors are not expected to take much interest in the personal lives of their students as secondary or elementary teachers might. An example of a college professor who seems to take more personal interest in students is a professor who learns students’ names. Should a professor be expected to learn the names of their students? Are students deceived in thinking a professor really cares about them personally merely because the professor memorizes their name?

First I’d like to focus on the ethical implications of learning a student’s name. Is it something a professor should do? When I asked a fellow student he stated, “In a small class, I expect them to know my name. In a large class I don’t.” Class size seems to play a significant role in whether it is to be expected of a professor or not. Regardless of the fact that the professor probably has many other classes and students that they teach, the students might be subconsciously mislead to think that a small classroom size will output more individual attention and care. In a large classroom setting it is easier to visualize that the professor probably teaches a lot more students, because the individual’s class size already seems large. So should a professor learn students’ names? I think that decision should be left up to the professor: as an individual extracurricular goal, not necessarily an expectation of their colleagues.

Another topic to be examined is the effect of a professor knowing a student’s name on the student’s interest and learning success. I asked another college student if they value a professor who knows their name and why. “Yes. It engages me in the class. It makes me feel like the subject is more important. For example, at KU (University of Kansas) there are like 600 kids in a class and everybody is only there to get a grade.” Even in everyday life we realize that memorizing someone’s name doesn’t mean you necessarily ‘know’ that person as more than a casual acquaintance. Yet, somehow this illusion that a teacher is taking personal interest in a student merely because they know their name, affects the way a student behaves in a class. From my own experience and in observing other students, when a teacher knows a student’s name, the student attends class more consistently, they become more interested in the subject matter, they engage in more class discussion, and they seem to respect the teacher on a more personal level. So, maintaining an illusion that they ‘know’ you, albeit artificial, may be educationally beneficial.

The text states (pg 45) “we can see all sorts of particular facet of modern life as rationalized and bureaucratized, even those which seem the most emotionally charged or expressive of free and unfettered individual expression.” Inglis states that even the professional situations that are emotionally driven are rooted out of bureaucratic rules (examples used: doctors and flight attendants). In contrast, most college professors use their undergraduate and graduate courses to study their field, not to study how to educate (like an elementary, middle school, or high school teacher might). In light of this it becomes quite clear that professors should not be expected to memorize student’s names. However, it should be individually taken into consideration based on the fact that it has a direct correlation with students’ success level in class.