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Category Archives: and what about this?

I want to talk about something completely different this week. Well, to be honest it’s not that different. In fact it definitely constitutes an element of international popular culture. Star Trek. What role can or do television serials –a timeless format, have in political discourse? My aim for the remainder of this article is to demonstrate why this is not ridiculous to ask.

First of all, I believe that it is difficult to talk about the political, or at least to talk about it in traditional terms. The classic categories of culture, economics, and politics are utterly intertwined –the evolving product of human mind, mouth, and labor. We cannot criticize news for preferential coverage of elite ‘politics’ on the one hand, but then on the other hand suggest that hard news or strict informational programs (the very programs the officials fully harness) are the only formats of/for televised legitimizing discourse. While such programs, when presented in deliberative formats, may aid the democratic discussion, to suggest they are the only programs to do so is to look at only one part of the picture. To relegate the majority of what happens on television as ‘just entertainment’ and therefore irrelevant or even damaging to political discourse and then leave it unstudied and unanalyzed is a disservice. It conceptualizes entertainment content in monolithic and ‘less than’ terms without considering the actual quality of the various contents. Furthermore, it neglects the fact that not all politics is functional and issue driven. In addition to the ‘emotional politics’ exemplified in some talk show formats and adeptly advocated by Costera (Costera-Meijer: 2001). Politics also has a theoretical-abstract element as well which I believe people can and do access and consider in some storytelling contexts.

             Serialized story-telling is ancient. Communicating abstract concepts, morals, and beliefs through story is timeless. In story, characters, (usually) of a type the audience identifies/sympathizes with, navigate obstacles and antagonists both of which combine to bring the character’s life, identity, and/or normative views into crisis. Characters make questionable decisions. Audiences reflect upon the decisions a character made and sympathize, vilify, admire, admonish, ignore (or whatever) as they reflect and judge -a statement of agree or disagree or agree but… The actions of the characters in the story reveal ‘truth’ not only about the characters and ethics involved, but quite possibly some ‘truth’ within the life-world of the reader as well. In exceptionally crude forms this plays out in sensational dichotomous struggles. However, there are more ‘sophisticated’ morality plays, and it is the potential for television’s drama/fiction serial format to engage the audience in abstract thinking on issues as complex as ontology, epistemology, competing ethical codes, international relations, gender and identity, agency/structure, acceptance or rejection of the ‘other’, etc. that interest me. There is important ‘de-intellectualized’ discourse at play in culture that may well shape the way people approach and interact with ‘the political’.

In particular, I believe the three Star Trek serials: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, are examples of ‘popular’ television that can engage the audience in a substantive and humanist discourse using science-fiction scenarios of the Star Trek Universe as analogs for our own. I will give only one example, as there are probably more examples than there are episodes.

In “The Most Toys”, episode 70 of The Next Generation, Data, an android (a sentient machine) is abducted by an eccentric and extremely egoistic collector of rare objects. He covets Data because Data is a one of a kind object. Data is placed in a special room, made to shed his identity (Starfleet uniform) and ultimately coerced into sitting on the podium and chair intended as his mount or display. Data, who the audience has come to identify for 70 episodes as a peculiar subject, an emotion-les (incomplete) subject, is certainly to most in the audience more a ‘human’ than a thing. The injustice of this abduction is apparent. It is the narrative hook. The villain sees Data as a thing, no different in essence than a vintage baseball card that still smells of stiff and stale gum.

From this scenario one can draw many metaphors. However, one metaphor that has ‘really’ been drawn and applied (at least as a pedagogical tool) from this particular episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation has to do with ethnographic museums and the plundered nature of many ‘exhibits’. Although the discussion of repatriation of cultural artifacts is more progressive within the United States than in Europe, discussion of the issue is gaining ground. Behind glass casing objects lose much of their significance. They are removed from the culture and uses that endowed them with meaning. Behind glass the object is dead. However, that same dead object may possess a meaning beyond what we from our very different culture can perceive. The Maori skull recently repatriated from the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, here in The Netherlands, is a good example. What to us is a curiosity, a Maori skull, is to the Maori a ‘living’ ancestor. So sincerely is this meaning ascribed by the Maori that upon receipt of the skull they sang to the ancestor an orientation of the journey to come (since the ancestor had never heard of planes they needed to be briefed so as not to be alarmed or confused along the way). On two separate occasions two separate objects conservators known to me used excerpts from the aboved discussed Star Trek episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation to communicate these rather abstract and progressive treatments of subjectivity/objectivity, meaning, identity, and significance all of which in the case of repatriation connect to and try to address a legacy of plunder and exploitation in world systems.

In short, I think attention needs to be paid to the ways in which television entertainment acts inter-textually with politics instead of ad hominem dismissals. What other meanings are people drawing out of serials? What elements must be present between the reader and text to engage in the type of meaning construction discussed here? To what extent do people passively watch or actively watch such theoretically loaded and internationally known shows as Star Trek? How do we measure this or something similar? Could a model like Costera’s be adapted to analyze the discourse of television serials? “The variety in attitudes and activity begs an open mind towards what constitutes the political. Citizenship, for that matter, is not a constant, but constantly changing in content and meaning. Life politics and the ‘language of the lifeworld’ (should) have a collective echo in political communication. (Brants: 413).

Works Cited 

Brants, K. (1999). A Rejoinder to Jay G. Blumler. European Journal of Communication, 14(3), 411-415

Costera-Meijer, I. (2001). The public quality of popular journalism: Developing a normative framework. Journalism Studies, 2(2), 189-205

At the front end of last week’s We Media Conference in London, the BBC radio show ‘World Have Your Say’ posed this question for audience response: ‘Who do you trust to provide accurate, truthful information?’

Before moving on into the meat of this post it might be prudent to offer context. The We Media Conference was, ostensibly, commited to furthering ‘the power of us’. Hosted by The Media Center, Reuters, and the BBC, the intent of the conference was to: 

‘foster collaboration through conversations, connections and shared knowledge; organize conversations with individuals and organizations who are using the Internet as a collective force of unprecedented power; create a setting to talk to them and to each other – a day for learning, sharing, ideas and opportunities. We Media is about how we create a better-informed society by collaborating with one another.’

Much of what I overheard, in bits and pieces, seemed to have championed ‘bottom-up’ approaches to structuring ‘new media’ -putting more power in the hands of us by promoting the proliferation of the tools and skills necessary for news and narrative production. This can only be accomplished by cooperatively constructing a structure of de-industrialized news and narrative production process, a de-centered and inter-subjective news, a news where sender and receiver roles are more reciprocal and the number of senders and receivers greater than now and growing. Podcasts, blogs, wikis, and mash-ups are the formats and models most referenced as exemplary potentials. However, we are off track. Suffice to say, AV will take a close look at what information The Media Center has made available (which is a lot) on the conference to see if their activities measure up to their aim (we hope so!).

But first the preface! The question of the day, ‘Who do you trust to provide accurate, truthful information?’

While it is clear people will have particular information sources they trust and others they trust less, the problem I have with this question is that it presents the concepts of ‘accuracy’ and ‘truthfulness’ in objective terms. That is, the question is framed in such a way as to make the issue of blog versus traditional ‘news’ as merely a matter of which media structure is able to adhere to present and popularly (though this may be changing) held ethics of ‘objectivity’ in news production.

The question assumes, as does the objectivist ethic, that there is THE truth out there to report on and that if the reporter distances themselves from the events in question the news will be free of subjective bias and therefore truthful. The problems with this are many, but essentially it boils down to two things: a) is it possible, in the first place, to ever entirely free one’s self of subjective bias? In an industrialized news production process this question takes on additional implications in terms of the many structural influences and directives placed upon the reporting. b) to what extent is ‘objective’ news dehumanized news, a news that silences the voices of the many people effected by the events being ‘objectively’ reported? In the case of Iraq, for example, while the ‘objective’ media focused on explosions and political power plays, it was bloggers who were able to provide subjective context by ‘broadcasting’ their own narratives to the world -or at least the world wealthy enough to purchase access equipment (which were the world members whose governments were causing all the ruckus in the first place -and I’m not just talking about the United States – Europe does imperialism too). 

This is, of course, not even addressing the extent to which social assumptions and presuppositions of news organizations as institutions of truth and its distribution inadvertantly (or perhaps even cynically in some cases, i.e. Fox) both create and mask bias in the news business.

While news institutions are blogging, blogs et al are largely de-centered and generaly cannot pretend to offer ‘objective’ views, i.e. THE truth. It is generally evident to a reader, one would suspect, that the views and information offered are the views and information of and from a partiuclar person with a particular agenda which, in many cases, is explicitly stated. I suggest that such a contextualized subject as provider of information of interest to them is more ‘truthful’ than their counterparts constrained by hierarchy, credentials, and a veil of ‘objective’ ethics.

In light of this, the whole question of ‘who do you trust?’, at least in terms of ‘popular press’, i.e. blogs, podcasts, etc., is largely irrelevant. As one of the respondents to the question said to much applause (and I praphrase heavily since the BBCs online radio player has no ‘rewind’ function) ‘There are over 50 million blogs all run by different people; all offering their own information and perspectives on different or related discussions. Some blogs I trust; others I do not trust, in much the same way there are some journalists I trust and others I do not trust. Therefore this question of whether or not I can trust blogs as a whole means nothing to me’. Can we trust a populated media? Can we not trust ourselves?

(See Wed, May 3rd):