Media and Popular Culture, Spring 2011
Take-Home Final Exam
Answer any 5 of the 10 questions below. Each answer should be at least one complete page long. The exam should be typed, double-spaced, in Times New Roman 12-point. The exam is due by 5 PM on Wednesday, May 2. You can either drop it off in my office mailbox (738 One Park Place South) or email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your response should demonstrate that you have carefully studied and understood class readings, lectures and discussion, and can apply ideas from the course to individual texts. When questions refer to specific authors, you should clearly address the ideas of those authors, demonstrating your understanding of their arguments.
1. Pick any contemporary media text. (You can choose a film, TV show, book, graphic novel, advertisement, game, website, or any other source.) Drawing on Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States, discuss the text as a “racial project.”
2. Pick any contemporary media text. (You can use the same text for multiple questions, or different texts if you prefer.) Drawing on Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, discuss the representation of gender in the text. How does the text reflect the “postfeminist” era?
3. Pick any contemporary media text. Drawing on Alexander Doty’s “There’s Something Queer Here,” discuss queer readings of the text.
4. Pick any comic book or animated text. Drawing on Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, discuss the “pictorial vocabulary” of the artwork. Draw a triangle on the page and show where the art fits in relation the vertices of “reality,” “language,” and “the picture plane,” then explain why.
5. Pick any game. Drawing on Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Video Games, discuss what makes the game fun.
6. Pick any game. Drawing on McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H3ORY, discuss the “gamespace” of the game and how it relates to the world outside the game.
7. Compare your own experience and that of your friends to the generational sensibility described in Emily Nussbaum’s “Say Everything.”
8. Pick any contemporary media text. Drawing on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, discuss how the text helps create a sense of national identity.
9. Pick any contemporary media text. Make a “culture-jammed” version of the text.
10. Visit a park, garden, or other nature space. Turn off all electronic devices. Sit quietly for at least 10 minutes observing the landscape and animals. Describe the experience, and compare it to your usual pace of life.
Popular culture is often described as “escapist” entertainment. But this dismissal evades some very serious questions. What are we escaping? Where are we escaping to? Does everybody go to the same place? How might the trip affect us, once we get back? This class looks at the social consequences and political implications of mass mediated entertainment. Its goal is to develop the theoretical tools and critical perspective to interrogate the TV shows, commercials, films, books, songs, videos, and web sites that saturate our lives.
The coursepack is sold by Bestway Copy Center, 18 Decatur Street SE (on the first floor of One Park Place South). Some readings are available online through the links provided. Links to additional optional readings will be distributed via the Twitter hashtag #popcult.
2/2 Regulation and Production
Thomas Schatz, “New Hollywood, New Millennium,” from Film Theory and Contemporary New Media, ed. Warren Buckland (Routledge, 2009). (CP)
Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail”: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html
Ellen Seiter, “Semiotics, Structuralism and Television,” from Channels of Discourse, Reassembled, ed. Robert Allen (UNC Press, 1992). (CP)
Roland Barthes, “Myth Today”: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~marton/myth.html
2/14 Reading the Romance: Cultural Capital
Janice Radway, excerpts from Reading the Romance (UNC Press, 1984). (CP)
John Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” from The Adoring Audience. (CP)
Go to a bookstore. Browse for, buy, and read a romance novel.
2/16 Ideology, Hegemony and Resistance
James Kavanaugh, “Ideology,” from Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (U Chicago Press, 1995).
John Fiske, “British Cultural Studies and Television,” from Channels of Discourse, Reassembled.
Stuart Hall, “Encoding, Decoding,” from CCCS Stencilled Paper 7:
2/23 Color Adjustment: Racial Formation
Omi and Winant, excerpt from Racial Formation in the United States (Routledge 1994). (CP)
2/28 Spring Break – No Class
3/2 Spring Break – No Class
Ariel Levy, “Raunch Culture” and “The Future that Never Happened,” from Female Chauvinist Pigs (Free Press, 2006). (CP)
Alexander Doty, “There’s Something Queer Here,” from Making Things Perfectly Queer (U Minnesota Press, 1993).
3/9 Mad Men
Unit IV: New Media Futures
3/14 Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud, excerpt from Understanding Comics (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993).
Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, Freakangels: http://www.freakangels.com/?p=23
(read through at least Volume 1)
The class assignments add up to total of 100 possible points. Your final grade for the class is determined by adding up your grades for each assignment, adjusting for attendance, then applying the final number to the following scale:
A 100-93 B+ 89-88 C+ 79-78 D 70-65
A- 92-90 B 87-83 C 77-73 F 64-0
B- 82-80 C- 72-70
Take-Home Midterm – 45 points
The take-home midterm will require you to relate concepts from the readings and lectures to the films screened for the first three class units. Due in class March 17.
Take-Home Final – 45 points
The take-home final will be structured just like the midterm, covering units 4-7. Due May 5.
Presentation – 10 points
You will sign up with two partners to research the creators, economics, and audience contexts of a television program or video game. You will then choose a sample episode or gameplay experience, present your research to the class, screen the episode/game for the class, then participate in the class discussion. More information will follow in a separate handout.
As Woody Allen put it, “80 percent of success is showing up.” It’s less than that in this formula, but the bottom line is that you can’t contribute to the class if you’re not there. You’re allowed one unexcused absence for the semester. After that, each unexcused absence subtracts one point from your grade total. Excused absences include medical and family emergencies. You will be expected to schedule any employment responsibilities around this class, or accept the consequences of missed classes for your grade. If you do need to miss a class, please contact me ahead of time, and make arrangements to catch up on missed material.
Re-Writes and Makeup Tests
Opportunities for revision and improvement will be available for the midterm and presentations. In addition, I will look at optional drafts of the final submitted on or before the deadline listed above.
Late and Unsubmitted Papers
Late papers will be marked off by ½ point for every day overdue unless an extension is agreed upon before the due date. No work can be accepted after the deadline for the take-home final. Any unsubmitted papers will receive a 0. Likewise, any unanswered exam questions will receive a 0. So, if you answer only 2 out of 3 required exam questions, you will get a 0 on the third question.
Students withdrawing on or before the midsemester point will receive a W provided they are passing the course. Students who withdraw after the midsemester point will not be eligible for a W except in cases of hardship. If you withdraw after the midsemester point, you will be assigned a WF, except in those cases in which (1) hardship status is determined by the office of the dean of students because of emergency, employment, or health reasons, and (2) you are passing the course.
Incompletes may be given only in special hardship cases. Incompletes will not be used merely for extending the time for completion of course requirements.
Changes to the Syllabus
This syllabus provides a general plan for the course. Deviations may be necessary.
It’s the end of an era. Two of the most influential figures in American pop culture were fired this week: Tom Freston and Robert Christgau. Freston, who was head of Viacom’s cable networks, was one of the key executives behind the rise of MTV. Christgau is the self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics,” the writer who redefined the rock canon away from the populism of the mainstream music press, and toward what he sometimes called “semipopular music.”
The old frameworks for making sense of pop culture are starting to collapse. Pop’s presumed market of scarcity – only a handful of songs can make it to heavy rotation, only a handful of artists can become stars – is being overwhelmed by an information explosion. On MySpace, thousands of local band listings sit side by side with Paris Hilton promotions – and Paris needs the locals more than they need her. No one indie band has the reach of a pop star, but it’s the community they’ve built that brings eyeballs to Paris’s page. Meanwhile, viewers are tuning out TV channels and becoming their own programmers on YouTube.
The demassification of American popular culture continues. Every year, the big networks lose ground to cable, while the big cable channels lose ground to the profusion of newer digital channels. The big record labels’ sales shrink, while the global jukebox becomes available on all-you-can-download subscription services like Rhapsody. Radio listeners abandon terrestrial’s shrunken playlists for Sirius and XM. “The Long Tail” grows ever longer.
Which explains not only Freston’s departure, but perhaps Christgau’s, too. When the mainstream dissolves, how do we define the margins? If there’s no longer such a thing as pop, how can there still be punk?
Christgau himself was never an indie snob – he’s always had the open-earedness to praise a big star like Garth Brooks if he thought the music earned it. And I’m sure he’ll land on his feet – some smart publication should grab him for some instant hipster credibility. Freston, I’m not so sure about, although I’m confident his parachute was much more golden than Christgau’s. But the real question is what comes next.
Pop Culture 2.0 no longer needs a lowest common denominator. Traditional media companies are always out to score a blockbuster, because it’s so much more efficient to sell one product to one million customers, rather than a thousnd products to a thousand customers each. But to MySpace, it’s all the same. They make their money off ads, and a million pageviews is a million pageviews, no matter how they’re sliced up. In fact, better they be a thousand different pages with a thousand viewers each – all the more room for growth. Finally, the economics are on the side of cultural diversity.
That doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way. I’m sure that Fox, which bought MySpace, would love to see it simply replace MTV as pop’s top tastemaker. But I doubt we’ll ever again see the kind of teen monoculture I lived through in the 1980s. There’s just too much cool stuff out there to listen to. Christgau’s the one who taught me that. And now everybody’s figuring it out.