Tag Archives: Frankfurt School

Mass Culture and Urban Space Field

To become a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at George Mason University, one must complete two fields—literature reviews of areas of study. My fields were “Mass Culture and Urban Space” and “Contemporary Theories of Sexuality.” Attached below is the “Mass Culture and Urban Space” field, but before that is my introduction. The only disclaimer I have is that the section of the Frankfurt School needs work.

 

INTRODUCTION

Mass culture theories vary in their perspective and object choice; each has its own history and trajectory. Within this field I limit my scope to mass culture theorists engaging with the relationship between structures and subjects. Most theorists acknowledge both as pertinent but thoroughly examine only half of the dichotomy. Cultural theorists define subjects’ existence and their agency within capitalist produced structures in wildly different fashions depending on which half is studied. Within this discussion, I explore how theories regarding mass culture’s production and consumption have informed (and have themselves been informed by) discussions of the production and consumption of urban spaces.  In this way, this field recognizes that the discussion of urban space has always played a significant and central role in larger discussions of mass culture, and has recently gained renewed attention within critical and cultural theory.  The first half of the field thus focuses on the major arguments within the structure/subject dialogue in mass culture theories. The second half then narrows in on the influences, trajectory, and impact of geographers within cultural studies, particularly around questions of the production, appropriation, negotiation, and transformation of not only cultural commodities, but also urban spaces and places.

I begin with Karl Marx’s account of industrial capitalism’s rise and the subsequent alienating of subjects from themselves, their labor, and their culture. I move to Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Siegfried Kracauer, and Walter Benjamin of the Frankfurt School and their diverse accounts of the way institutions influence population in order to create the (passive?) masses and situate the public for the exploitation of their labor. Jürgen Habermas breaks away from this trajectory by showing how reason could but fails to combat the irrationality of the system described by the Frankfurt School. As a backlash against studying structures, the Birmingham School, including Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, and David Morley, discuss mass culture as a site of ideological struggle between producers and consumers. Their models consider the consumer as active. Their influence within the field sparked others, most notably John Fiske and Ien Ang, into theorizing and investigating the audience and how they negotiate meaning. From here I examine political economists, such as Mark Andrejevic and Sut Jhally, who discuss how the industry transfers audiences into a source of labor. Other political economists, such as Robert McChesney, Vincent Mosco, and Herbert Schiller argue that economic strategies of monopolization, global saturation, and exportation of products and structures of thinking adversely affect political thought and cultural production.

The theories referenced above can easily be, and often have been, applied to the study of urban space. Capitalists produce both mass culture and urban space to suit its purposes, leaving subjects to navigate, acculturate, or appropriate within the systems provided. Marx, Benjamin, and Kracauer were early commentators on capitalism’s impact on space, either altering it to enhance productivity and reduce turnover times, or for the promotion and celebration of consumption. David Harvey draws upon Marxism and critical theory to examine the historical geography of capitalism and the inequalities, which result in the production of space suited to the needs of capital. His work began a long trajectory of other theorists, such as Neil Smith, Sharon Zukin, and Don Mitchell, each of whom examine the production of space and its impact on subjects on a global, national, and local scale. The work of these geographers contributes to questions raised by political economists. Differing in focus, cultural geographers such as Doreen Massey and Peter Jackson draw on the work of Michel DeCerteau, the Birmingham School, and feminists to examine how subjects navigate and alter spaces that seek to exclude them.

Mass Culture and Urban Space Field

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George Mason University’s Cultural Studies Conference CFP

Ecological Inequalities and Interventions: Contemporary Environmental Practices

The Cultural Studies Student Organizing Committee (SOC) of George Mason University invites paper proposals for our 5th annual Cultural Studies Graduate Student Conference. The Conference will take place on Friday, September 23, 2011 at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Call for Papers

“Since most of history’s giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias.”
(Mike Davis, “Who Will Build the Ark?”, New Left Review, January 2010)

The current and future impacts of ongoing, globalized environmental crises have animated scholars, activists, and professionals from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds and generated a burgeoning field of work that seeks to come to grips with the ecologies of the present as well as the possible ecologies of the future. This conference will provide a forum for emerging scholars and practitioners involved in cultural studies, environmental studies, the arts and humanities, public policy, political ecology and related fields to engage in conversations regarding contemporary and prospective environmental practices and politics.

We seek to engage in efforts to develop a deeper understanding of human interventions – in the forms of work, art, and politics – into the environment. We also wish to examine the ways in which concepts such as “nature” and “human practice” inform, articulate with and determine one another.  “Ecological Inequalities and Interventions: Contemporary Environmental Practices” will offer an appropriately interdisciplinary forum for work in this emerging area of inquiry.

Possible paper topics include:

·      Environmental activism: past, present, and future

·      Labor, Nature and Culture

·      Marxism and Ecology

·      Ecology as critique and self-critique

·      Creative expression and Ecology

·      Neoliberalism and Discourses of Sustainability

·      Ecology and the Politics of the Global South

·      Environmentalism and Citizenship

·      Green economies

·      Academic interventions and public policy

We welcome proposals for traditional academic paper presentations, as well as alternative formats such as panel discussions, workshops, and film screenings. In addition we hope to publish select conference papers in an edited volume or curated journal issue.

Abstracts of 300 words and a current CV should be sent to Jason Morris (jmorrisf AT masonlive DOT gmu DOT edu) by 15 May 2011. Please include the title, presenter’s name, institutional affiliation, contact information, A/V requests and any other special needs required. Abstracts should be sent as .doc, .rtf or PDF file attachments.

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On Being Bored

My research and writing sometimes focuses on subjects and destabilizing subjectivity to create new possibilities. This research interest draws me to psychoanalysis and queer theory because of their ability to intervene into other disciplines notions of subjectivity and question the completeness and foundations of subjectivity. I mention this because of where and when I found the article that I will soon discuss. While completing my Mass Culture field, I read a collection of essays by Siegfried Kracauer and was taken back by his simple, yet provocative essay “Boredom.” Here is a short introduction into the work of a not-read-as-much-as-he-should-be Frankfurt School Scholar.

Siegfried Kracauer positions subjects as under bourgeoisie domination, which overpowers memory and distracts subjects from reality.[1] This domination reveals itself in “surface-level expressions,” which depict how a culture functions, the economic base, cultural hierarchies, dominant ideals, and subjects as alienated and sacrificing themselves to the larger mechanized order (reality).[2] Despite cultural domination, Kracauer does not position subjects as passive, but as a molded and still cognizant. Because surface-level expressions reveal more than they conceal, mindful consumers can see past the spectacle and into the injustices. Capitalists use sentimentalism and spectacle to make the bourgeoisie position amiable and desirable, hindering this revelation.[3]

Kracauer examines a similar potential in his discussion of space. Different spaces position subjects differently; suburbanites move with purpose due to the distance between spaces, while city dwellers move more aimlessly. Both face rising standardization in the experience of time, space, and commodities available, but location alters their experience and time spent on capitalists’ desired routes.[4] The standardization of experience causes alienation from their particularity. Alienation can cause subjects to seek momentary relief through religion, group politics, or commodities, which promise the truth, but ultimately distract.[5] Subjects can avoid these momentary satiations by committing to “hesitant openness,” a position of repose and reflection in a system that creates subjectivities and spectacular spaces that attempt to deter contemplation.[6] Certain spaces and moods facilitate hesitant openness, such as the aimless hotel lobby and boredom.[7]

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He begins “Boredom” with a campy sentence; “People today who still have time for boredom and yet and are bored are certainly just as boring as those who never get around to being bored.” Cultural conditions never allow us to be bored, but certainly allow subjects to be boring. Subjects have nothing to say about anything of interest because they are all occupied by the same mass culture. The subject is lost in a world where he or she must always be busy either doing something (work, child-rearing, or leisure) or fretting over what it is that they must do. When subjects are not “busy,” they occupy themselves with hobbies (such as blogging?).

The boredom he discusses is not the kind achieved through repetitious labor (this crushes subjects and because subjects still have to do something in this process), instead a position of “radical boredom” is where one can just be. We never get to boredom because mass culture occupies us: “One forgets oneself in the process of gawking, and the huge dark hole is animated with the illusion of a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone” (332). He discusses people standing and sitting next to each other, not having boring conversation or wondering if their existence is significant, but engaged with the latest popular trend, looking as if they were not present. Radical boredom creates a space where one pushes out the daily noise and is simply present. Through this position, there lies the possibility to see the world  as dull, predictable, as dead. Subjects could reject this world that was fabricated for them. New ideas would come to them, allowing world-making.

Kracauer offers an interesting approach to creating new subjectivities. Boredom is not the solution to the world’s problems. (Could you imagine a world of people sitting in boredom?) However, what he provides is one position that subjects can occupy. He points out a space that is not available to us and shows its potential. The difficulty and feelings of “wasting one’s time” by being bored will have to be tackled. We have been trained to think that idleness and repose are insufficient ways of using one’s time. Additionally, what kind of politics can be created out of this?  I would have to say that there is no political project in boredom. Instead, it can be a momentary rejection of the world that allows the mind to wander. This wandering allows subjects access to something normally denied— contemplation. No massive movement will start from this, but perhaps it can provide an opportunity to be more engaged with one’s world and being. The only clear objective we can have is to facilitate this through creating spaces that allow for relaxation and timelessness, such as Kracauer’s  hotel lobby.

What is for sure is that boredom will have to be actively sought by subjects.


[1] Siegfried Kracauer “The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies,” “Photography,” and “On Bestsellers and their Audiences”                                         

[2]Siegfried Kracauer “The Mass Ornament”

[3]Siegfried Kracauer “The Mass Ornament,” “The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies,” and “On Bestsellers and their Audiences.”

[4]Siegfried Kracauer “Analysis of a City Map” and “Travel and Dance”

[5] Siegfried Kracauer “Group as Bearer of Idea”

[6]Siegfried Kracauer “Those Who Wait,” “Boredom,” and “Cult of Distraction”

[7] Siegfried Kracauer “The Hotel Lobby”

These essays all appear in The Mass Ornament by Kracauer

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Field Proposals

I doubt this post will have much use to anyone outside of my Cultural Studies Ph.D. program, but feel free to continue reading if you are not enrolled (you may be bored).

Below I have posted my two field proposals: “Mass Culture and Urban Space” and “Contemporary Theories of Sexuality.” Upon reading the proposals you will see how different they are. Dr. Tim Gibson, the chair of my “MC and US” field, wanted me to state what direction I was going and how it was a coherent field. Dr. Tim Kaposy preferred a more open-ended proposal where I raised more questions than answers. He was concerned with what I wanted to learn from the texts.

I have finished writing a rough draft of “Mass Culture and Urban Space,” so the bibliography following the proposal is complete. “Contemporary Theories of Sexuality” is  being written, so the bibliography is incomplete and more likely than not, going to change.

I hope this helps. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me.

Mass Culture and Urban Space Field Proposal

Contemporary Theories of Sexuality Field Proposal

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Walter Benjamin and the Case of the Abuse and Misuse of Photography: On Benjamin and Technological Determinism

When reading the works of Walter Benjamin, I am always apprehensive. I fear that his claims are technologically deterministic. One example is in is discussion of painting. He states that a painting can never be received by a large group of people; instead, painting innately allows only small group or lone person to consume it (36). This is one reason why paintings contain an “aura.” In this essay, I grapple with this issue by examining his reflections on photography in his pieces “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” and “Little History of Photography.” By doing this I will draw out what Benjamin states about technology as a force and the role of photography in the age of reproduction.

First it is important to briefly discuss the difference between the time before and the time after technological reproduction. Before technological reproduction, people created art for eternity since it was an original that could never be replicated fully. It additionally meant that people received art in particular places outside of the everyday. This created an aura, the space that separates the artifact from the masses, around art (27). Mass reproduction frees art from aura because it is no longer tied to specific rituals, spaces, or ideas of uniqueness. This lack of aura allows the viewer to get closer to the artwork and find pleasure in it. The mechanically produced artwork entertains. Viewers uncritically allow it to become part of them (as opposed to objects with aura, which are distanced from subjects) (39-40). This is dangerous because politics becomes aestheticized and uncritically absorbed (41). The aura’s demise allows capitalism to invade the lives of citizens. This is not however the only possible result of the demise of the aura. The aura’s demise allows people to get close to photographs, which can expose the phantasmagoric (the artificial and traumatic world of capitalism).

It is important to note that photography at first did not break away from traditions of art. Photographers sustained the aura in two ways: the process at first was slow and not mechanically reproducible and the tradition of the portrait was carried on by photography. These bourgeois portrait photographs held on to conventions of remembrance and the sentimentality of painting. Portrait takers were simply perpetuating old ideals of art in their production. According to Benjamin, Eugene Atget emancipates the aura from photography when he broke away from portraiture and took photography to what Benjamin calls its “objective principle.” Atget establishes what photographers should be doing and the true potential of photography (284).  Since Benjamin elevates the photographs of Atget, we must ask, “What is Atget doing that is different?” and “What are his reasons for elevating Atget?” to discover what the objective principle is.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Atget does not focus on the human being in his pieces; this could cause a “cult of remembrance.” Instead Atget, for the most part, photographs the deserted streets of Paris and the discards of Paris (27). Atget photographs are not of the official spectacular places, but the everyday and typical spaces. His photographs allow a different view of something that people believe to be already understood or common sense. His photos “suck the aura out” allowing people to feel close to the artifact and let it become part of them. Atget’s photographs are not the commodities that cause indoctrination into the phantasmagoric, like images of the spectacle are. They instead unmask and reveal what is beyond the surface (284).

Benjamin compares Atget’s photographs of Paris to photographs of a crime scene; the purpose of shooting a crime scene is to collect evidence (27). Benjamin makes the comparison because he believes photographs have the ability to do something other mediums cannot (photographs can “record images which escape natural optics altogether”) (21). Photography has a potential to access what experience cannot. It has the option of being objective and capturing the “fleeting and secret images.” When one is living out their life they are not using a critical eye, which the photographic camera has. This objectivity allows capitalism’s impact on society to be captured. Atget “wiped off the mask [off the bourgeois profession of photographer] and then set about removing the makeup from reality too” (284).

Atget’s photographs do not please, cause remembrance, or have an aura, but upset the viewer. These photographs upset the viewer because they reveal the phantasmagoric, which in everyday life appears natural, as socially constructed and destructive. Therefore, the crime the photographs capture is the phantasmagoric that causes alienation, and the criminal is capitalism. With the proper (objective and aura-less) photograph in hand, the observer becomes close to the photograph and sees what he or she experiences everyday in a new light. They see the façade of capitalism and realize that the world they experience is a construct that capitalism and commodification has built. It is in this moment that photography reaches its potential; it can show the world objectively.

I end in an odd space, Walter Benjamin is and is not a technology determinist. His discussion allows culture, the social matrix, and the historical their proper place. He traces how they have all impacted the uses and expectations of photography. Photography can be used for many things including the perpetuation of the phantasmagoric and the aura. However, photographs that incorporate the political and lacking aura can be dangerous because viewers allow the images to be closer to them. Benjamin believes that photography has a potential latent within it; it has the potential to be objective (284). The potential of photography is to place the viewer in a position to see the social construction of the world and reveal the damages that capitalism has brought. It is the job of the photographer to facilitate this process and act as a liberator. In the last paragraph of “Little History of Photography” he states, “but mustn’t the photographer who is unable to read his own pictures be no less deemed an illiterate? Isn’t inscription bound to become the most essential component of the photograph?” (295). If the photographer who cannot critically read his own photographs is illiterate than there must be something latent or special within the photograph. The photograph does not automatically do anything because people can misuse photography and destroy the objective and revealing potential latent within the technology.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. Print.

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