Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio drama – Neil Verma

December 11, 2013 by

Neil Verma divides the book Theater of the Mind into three parts that correspond with three distinct time periods in radio’s history: (1) radio aesthetics in the late depression, 1937-1945; (2) communication and interiority in 1940s radio, 1941-1950; and (3) radio and the postwar mood, 1945-1955.  Verma takes the phrase “theater of the mind” from a New York Times article that ran in 1949 to describe radio and its plays. Verma states that “radio is not a theater of the mind; it is the theater of the mind” (2012, p. 3).  Radio allowed listeners to imagine stories unfold.

In part one, Verma begins his study, not by looking at radio when it was a new medium, but after radio had developed a prominence in listeners’ lives. Radio receivers could be brought into homes, the private sphere, but listeners could discuss programs in the public sphere. This creates an issue of space, is radio public or private or both.

Several new terms are introduced throughout the course of the book. Verma uses the term “audiopoistion,” in place of “vantage point” and “point of audition,” to “indicate the place for the listener that is created by coding foregrounds and backgrounds”  (2012, p. 35). This means that one or more characters are exclude from the privilege of knowing how the story develops.

There are two audiopoistions formulas, intimate and kaleidosonic styles. Verma argues that these styles represent a way to solve “representational and narrative problems” (2012, p. 57). Intimate style allowed listeners to become close to the characters and, depending, either empathize or sympathize with them. Kaleidosonic style is defined as a way “to describe the feeling of a shifting sonic world that is accessed through a central point that is itself static and removed from events” (Verma, 2012, p. 68). The difference between the two styles is that “intimate plays take us around places, listening to the testimony in a succession; kaleidosoinc plays tend to center on events, conveying disparate voices all at once” (Verma, 2012, p. 73).

In part two, Verma makes a claim that the psychology of the war era can be understood, to a point, through the programs that were broadcasted at the time. It also changed how people viewed certain topics. The term “signals” is defined as “a type of sound effect that seems to take over the play and by extension, the mind” (Verma, 2012, p. 103) and is “a compulsive form of listening” (p. 106).

Paul Lazarsfeld’s, creator an early version of a Nielson recording device, paradigm is that “a ‘listener’ was a container of opinions and allegiances…and research consisted of surveying these opinions in order to unveil campaigns altered the content of mental repositories across populations (Verma, 2012, p. 122). This paradigm is connected to the idea of being passive. Characters are casted into either be “passive receivers” or “active transmitters” roles.

Another three terms are introduced in relation to radio: eavesdropping, ventriloquist, and signalman, found in chapter seven. Eavesdropping allows for certain stories or information to come forward through “ghost stories”. Ventriloquism allows the reinforcement of a “mask.”  Signalman tell, without the knowledge of the character, listeners certain facts for their consumption.

In the third and final part of the time, Verma writes about radio in the postwar era. He argues that radio plays a significant role in how people dealt with the transition and the eventual popularity of television in the home. The plays of the postwar era allowed for a return to imagining the story, as opposed to understanding communication that was present in the war era. New issues were discussed in the 1950s, such as the concept of boundaries and the paranoia of the Red Scare. Radio allowed people to grapple with the concept of a medium that could be brought into the home and paved the way for the publics that now include technologies such as computers. 

Comics vs. Art

December 5, 2013 by

Sam Miller facilitated the discussion on Comics vs. Art. The production consumption cycle was discussed first. The class was concerned with the definition of art and mass production. Controversy surrounding art also involved the notion of intent and whether the creation was intended as art or whether it was coincidental or accidental. The audience was another topic of discussion. Depending on what audience the comics were targeted at had an impact on how the art was viewed and also how it was consumed. The class tried to think of comics as art in comparison to other objects that aren’t traditionally viewed as art. Seen through this light notions of mass production and availability of the product presently, had an impact not only on value but also how it was accepted as art.

Production Culture Part 2

November 19, 2013 by

John Thornton Caldwell’s Production Culture is bifurcated into below the line and above the line production. The second half of the text deals with above the line production culture elements and analysis. Caldwell’s above the line analysis, beginning with Chapter 5, pursues concepts of production and aesthetic as a struggle between creative and managerial elements of production. This latter section attempts to examine how managerial structures impact production.

Chapter five, Industrial Auteur (Author) Theory discusses the messy business of intellectual property and idea ownership. Caldwell’s research finds that creative find restrictions in the company ownership of creative products. Caldwell illuminates the opponents as “creative” verses “suits”. Caldwell delineates contributors that might be considered creatives in a media project discussing directors, writers, actors, but is critical of the idea of a producer as a creative. Caldwell cites Bordwell discussing how the manufacturing ideology of classic Hollywood defined the structure of film; not directors or even genre. Caldwell focuses on the production of film stating that the “controller-as-author” is the paramount structure dictating ownership of intellectual property (pg. 199). Streamlined money-saving production, not the art, of the film dictates much of the process. Caldwell offers that credits become currency as a way of validating contributions or solidifying necessary resources. Caldwell examines idea ownership and productivity from many angles and attempts to determine of a collaborative work environment is indeed more creative than a lone genius. However, later in the text Caldwell discovers that writers defend the collaborate approach as providing consistency to a production. As many production writers write as comedians which are solitary writing exercises; and in light of much research that demonstrates that corporate idea ownership discourages innovation, what are the implications for future development of production? How does this industry, steeped in self-preservation and fearful of homogeneity break away?

Providing the example of television, Caldwell discusses the reflective nature of production. In order to fill air time, television often appears to be airing substandard material. However, many invested in the industry assert that TV merely reflects society, that TV gives people what they want. Caldwell argues that this is an obfuscation. Team writing in “digital sweatshops” appear to contradict the classic view of TV production made popular culture by The Dick Van Dyke Show (p. 214). Examining the seemingly innate dominant male patriarchy in television production, Caldwell provides examples of sexism and ageism in the system. No advancement can be made in the industry unless a professional has served as an intern or assistant. “Anxious assistants and office workers kept off balance…create a disaggregated situation with which labor solidarities will never be formidable enough to force company executives to deal or to negotiate” leaving the assistants and interns on precarious ground indeed (pg. 225). If production of media rests with a dominant cultural element and increasingly collaborative work is the norm, how are these boundaries broken? How would a show such as Little Mosque on the Prairie come to be produced in a regime such as this?

Chapter six solidifies a concept only alluded to in Chapter five and that is that a screenplay is a business plan; a pitch where the merit of the concept is secondary to the full marketable package of script produced in a variety of forms complimented by soundtracks, video games, websites, smart phone applications, theme park potential, and licensed merchandise. This industrial identity is carefully masked by the creative glamour and the flash and awe generated by the streamlined factory. However, this is a relatively new model of manufacture as television and film moved into a “postnetwork” age where internet interactivity and technology toppled the dominant paid advertising monetization model as increasingly audiences skipped the advertisements (pg. 252). It was apparent that networks and producers needed to strongly brand material in order to sustain the system. Systems such as pilots and syndication needed to explore new ways to ensure financial stability and viability.

Chapter seven examines the solution to the “postnetwork” age. The industry responded with an integrated marketing approach with seven elements to achieve market penetration and stave off inevitable market decline. “Cross promotion, multimedia repurposed, merchandising, new technology development, domestic co-production, international co-production and new labor arrangements” became the mechanism by which new product was created, marketed, and distributed. The newly integrated hybrid marketing approach, further incorporating audience participation and interactivity seriously blurred the lines between production and consumption. Ease of access to online communities and fandom formats proved too tempting to avoid as producers began to comment as fans on their work to push promotion. If executives are posting on fan sites as audience alongside genuine fan contributions, how does this impact the circuit approach to media production and consumption?

However, a revolution may be in the next wave as below the line employees and above the line creative begin to examine the fairness of common practices. Digital technology, the pursuit of audience, as well as the business model approach has stripped the aesthetic production culture bare exposing controversial rifts in the factory. Digital technology has become a disruptive and destructive influence, conflating the highly echeloned production world. These conflated roles are examined by Caldwell in his conclusion. “Three other tendencies – distributed cognition, producers-as-audiences, consumerism-as-production do the opposite of regeneration and legitimation, since they blur lines between producer and consumer” (pg. 333).

Genre and Television

November 6, 2013 by

Jason Mittell’s Genre and Television is a collection of case studies that tries to understand a question plaguing media studies, in particular television scholars about genre theory. The question of genre and generic studies is a topic heavily contested because in the field of television it is difficult to narrowly define a genre with a core example or multiple examples. This is a problem distinct to television and not so much film or literature studies. This is because television programs have the unique ability to blend or even reshape genres in ways that were not previously conceivable.

Mittell explores these issues of genre through cop shows, quiz shows, and Saturday morning cartoons. There is a commonality that can be found in all of the examples he uses. Mittell believes that each program at their core has aspects that qualify them to be termed a specific genre. However, there are programs that can claim to be of one genre and use conventions that are tightly tied to another genre. This creates a hybrid program that showcases elements of both genres and yet cannot claim to be distinct of one genre.

Mittell uses Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding and Foucault’s discursive formations as the basis for his case work. His rationale for his methodological framework helps explain that television programs cannot work in isolation, but in the context of their time and cultural ramifications. In other words, the audience as a whole may have preconceived notions of how a television show is going to operate. Programs that contrast this notion can do one of three things: fail miserably, create controversy, or become a television phenomenon. Encoding/Decoding comes quickly into play here as a program that is embraced by the audience garners attention from other networks and numerous concept clones come to the surface. A prime example that Mittell uses is The Simpsons. The show created controversy because it was a hybrid of sitcom and animation. It highlighted working class issues, a practice that was not the norm when the show first aired. It was criticized for luring children in with animation because cartoons were still considered children’s entertainment. It was critically acclaimed for highlighting family issues in a new way and laid the groundwork for future animated programs like Family Guy and American Dad. All of these aspects confronted audience expectations and changed the way that audiences perceive the cartoon genre.

Inside Prime Time

October 28, 2013 by

Todd Gitlin’s Inside Prime Time (1982) closely examines the culture industry’s often-sticky relationship between the production, business, and management triad of network television. Gitlin’s text attempts to answer – or at least adds clarity – to one of our course’s main discussion points: how does the bottom line affect aesthetics, in this case, of television production.

The first unit, “Nothing Succeeds Like Success”, details how programmers fill in their prime-time grids. Through his numerous interviews with industry professionals, Gitlin discovers how taking a creative risk means taking an economic risk. Networks rely on past formulas to develop seemingly-new premises because they’re safe. One notable observation is how inductive reasoning was often favored over research and audience studies. These gut instincts ultimately limited the scope of new ideas brought to the silver screen.

The struggle between a program’s content and marketability emerged as one of the central themes of the second unit, “The Television-Industrial Complex”. In a medium where the audience is the commodity and reaching its targeted demo group is the goal, advertising appeal is vital. In chapter nine, ‘Movies of the Week’, Gitlin digs into the questions and issues behind commercial appeal. Why do some social issues translate to television gold, while others don’t? Why are shows featuring ethnic characters never a sure sell? When advertisers are spooked by a controversial actor or topic, how does a network respond? This brief education of television as a “living-room advertising medium” (pg. 192) leaves no doubt where programs and commercials rank in the hierarchy.

The case study of Hill Street Blues offers a thorough account of the typical push-pull, pick-it-apart tussle between production and management. According to Gitlin, creators Stephen Bochco and Michael Kozoll had  developed a show which broke the mold by employing never-before-seen production techniques and complex storylines. At first, the team was promised artistic freedom and the show flourished. Then, despite its critical acclaim and growing ratings, the show’s groundbreaking ways soon reverted back to the same predictable formulas, due in part to network pressures. Viewers have certain expectations, network executives argued, so why mess with a good thing? The text speaks to anyone who has suffered from the obstacles of stifled creativity in a very relatable way. In the fight between capitalism and creativity, money usually wins.

The viewer experience has evolved greatly over the past thirty years. Cable television and subscription services (Netflix) have given us more options, while high-definition television has offered us a whole new look. How have these changes impacted program content? Recycled programs like Hawaii Five-O, and a bundle of American Idol rip-offs make one point clear: the more things change, the more they (very predictably) stay the same.

Bordwell and Neoformalism

October 16, 2013 by

Neoformalism:  a method of film criticism that moves away from the interpretive theory and towards a more empirical analysis of film.  

Bordwell Notes the genesis of the interpretive school which was borne of literary studies.  Marxist, psychoanalytic, reader response, structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstructionism are all types of the “method” Bordwell notes; the aim of which is to bring to light explicit and implicit meanings in literature and film. Conversely, Bordwell argues that cinema has not gone through the rigorous semantic structures that literature has.  Instead, Bordwell asserts that Aristotle’s poetics provide a useful interrogative with which to derive answers of production, the effects of film’s principles (it’s underlying concepts and the conditions that govern the use of material in film).  Next Bordwell outlines the the shift from a formal/theoretical examination of film (e.g. a humanist approach to interpretation) by noting that the heuristic of Aristotle’s poetics allows for the possibility of an empirical approach to film study.

In order for Bordwell to transition from an interpretive school of film criticism he cites Andre Bazin’s, “Evolution of the Language of the Cinema” which focuses on the “options” a director has. Bordwell notes that Bazin’s work on film allows he and Kristen Thompson to craft the concept of Neoformalism.  Specifically, Bazin’s work, which concentrates on the material uses that the director has at his/her disposal, provide a platform for Bordwell and Thompson to examine film using a set of assumptions about the material conditions that exist when a film is in production.

Neoformalism–Bordwell notes that he and Thompson have been processing the concept of Neoformalism.  In contrast to specific types of humanistic Grand Theory interpretive approaches within the humanities, Neoformalism operates as an empirical approach to examining film and seeks wholly to identify “facts” about the film.

Bordwell takes pains to note that Neoformalism is an attempt to move away from the concept of a “fixed point” which is present in traditional theoretical methodologies.  As such, the positivist approach of “disproving” a supposition according to the data set is no longer a function of the empirical approach.  Instead, Bordwell offers the concept that Neoformalism’s dialectic provides an “active” heuristic as its theoretical foundation.  This is likely because the nature of the object of study is one which is in constant “motion.”  The production of the film is one which constantly moves from pre-production, production, and then to post-production.  It’s phenomenological experience is one which is constantly in motion, or at least, appears constantly in motion (i.e. persistence of motion).

Among the problems that arise with an active heuristic with no fixed theoretical points is the problem of continually shifting objects of analysis.  Bordwell and Thompson say that they provide “stylistic/narrative devices” and “systems” which help the analyst identify conditions of production.  These categories provide teleological normative functions that poetic Neoformalism positions its object against.  In short, a film must be scrutinized both as a subject and within the range of genre it is positioned against.  This antagonism allows the analyst to provide indices of variance among the film in question as it is positioned against its normative counterparts.

Bordwell and Thompson have constructed three expository models for the Neoformalist heuristic.  These include:

1.  Rational-Agent Model–The purpose of which is to reconstruct the historical conditions present at the time of the filmmakers employment of his/her agency.

2.  Institutional Model–the social and economic system of filmmaking examines the filmmaker’s “constraints” in filmmaking.  These would include, labor, economics, and technology available to the filmmaker.

3.  Perceptual-Cognitive Model–This model attempts to explain the effects of film as it is constructed and against the inferences of the viewer.  These include elements of style, narrative norms and technique, as well as continuity editing.

These models allow Neoformalist poetics to move away from thematic interpretation and toward dynamic systemic constructional effects of film criticism.

Understanding Media: Understanding McLuhan

October 8, 2013 by

Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media is a study in media effects and their implications for communication scholars. This particular reading opens us up to some of the most elementary elements of media ecology theory including, but not limited to, medium as message, hot and cold media, media as extensions of humans, and aesthetics of media. McLuhan’s main argument is that media are extensions of the human senses/functions and that each new introduction has a particular effect on the human experience and on the media that preceded it. For instance, McLuhan details the way that the Gutenberg press changed the way we consumed information and with the introduction of the typewriter, people were once again changed because of an ability to not only consume but also produce.
Of particular interests ought to be McLuhan’s discussion of media numbness and its impact on our discussion of aesthetics. McLuhan’s claim that hot media, those that intensely extend one sense, and cold media, those that require more involvement on the part of the subject, have different effects on our ability to engage certain media has a dramatic impact on his argument of numbness. Are those media deemed cold really providing a sense of numbness? McLuhan’s numbness suggests that we tend to ignore the implication of media, read light bulb, in favor of incorporating the media as an extension of our senses, something that is natural.
Furthermore, McLuhan’s examples in the remaining chapters provide us a way for thinking about how we might apply his Media Ecology theory. Providing a plethora of examples, it should be evident that humans live in an environment that is somewhat dictated by technology/our extensions. One should be able to think about McLuhan’s claims of hybrid energy to see how things like the internet and the smart phone continue to be extensions of technologies past and how they may have heated up or cooled down the media from which they claim their hybridity.

Radio: An Art of Sound & Arnheim on Film and Media Studies

October 2, 2013 by

Radio: An Art of Sound by R. Arnheim

Arnheim’s (1936) Radio: An Art of Sound discusses radio as a new form of media. In Ch. 2 “The World of Sound”, the author looks at the properties and meaning of sound.  By the very nature of radio it is only aural, unlike film that is also visual, therefore more hurdles must be overcome. Arnheim uses the example of ‘radio drama’ and music that is broadcasted to work through sound as an important part of our overall senses. How media shapes out experience of the world is a central idea found in Arnheim’s work.

The media, in this case radio, is seen as an artistic expression, which is part of the concept of medium-specificity that is seen throughout the readings. Radio’s defining “virtue and source of expressive potential” come from being an aural medium and is the main theme of Ch. 7 “In Praise of Blindness” (Vancour, 2010, p. 181).

Arnheim on Film and Media Studies by S. Vancour

Vancour starts with a summary of Arnheim’s past works, but with a concentration on the book Radio.  The main purpose of the essay is to shed light onto the lesser-known work Radio. The aesthetics of sound are again discussed. There is a discussion of how Arnheim thought that recorded radio (i.e. ‘radio dramas’ and pre-recorded music) is better than live radio (i.e. live music) because of its ability to be manipulated or edited.  Vancour (2010) points out “Radio raised critical questions concerning the role of external determinants in enabling or limiting particular forms of aesthetic expression” (p. 182).

Radio took programs (i.e. music, plays, etc.) from being a public way to enjoy entertainment and made it possible for it be private. When used properly, radio can be a tool for community building. “Aesthetic form…arose at the dynamic intersection of medium, artist, and social context, as a ‘gestalt’ formed in and through their interaction that was irreducible to any one part” (Vancour, 2010, p. 189).

Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman

September 23, 2013 by

Du Gay, Hall, Janes, Mackay, and Negus’ Doing Cultural Studies is a text about examining the taken for granted knowledge and assumptions we have about the world and its’ objects and using that knowledge for methodology.  The authors examine the Sony Walkman as a case study to make their argument.  The authors wrestle with two definitions of culture, the first meaning “as a ‘whole way of life’” and the second as “’the production and circulation of meaning.’”  They go on to explain that these meanings are debates that have not been resolved.

The authors provide a basic explanation of representation and signification and how these in turn shape identity or how they try to shape identity.  An overview of the many ways that the Sony Walkman has been represented is provided by the authors.

Products are created by people and by companies.  The book provides excellent analysis of the people integral to the Walkman’s design and production as well as Sony, the company responsible for its production.

The book then provides the reader with a sense of the design of the Walkman as it becomes more personalized for the consumer.  This personalization of the Walkman allowed it to be marketed to wide varieties of targeted consumers.  The authors note the tension of an originally Japanese company becoming a global firm.

The authors then shift their focus to consumption of the Walkman.  A quick overview of culture industry is provided in respect to views promoted by Horkheimer and Adorno.  The Walkman provided the public easy ways to consume popular music.  This led some to worry about the pollution of culture and the more traditional or “higher” values of culture by “mass culture.”  Mass culture was seen as a standardized way of viewing the world that would turn individuals into mindless consumers.  Notions of power are introduced by the authors noting that advertisers are hidden persuaders and then offer a product to satisfy consumers’ desires.

The Walkman also created a problem by blurring the lines of public and private spheres.  The Walkman allowed individuals to “privately” consume music in “public.”  This led some to accuse the Walkman of being anti-social, a problem that Sony would try to remedy.

Finally, this book provides a different methodology paradigm and forces us to consider how objects become culturally embedded, their impact on culture, and the meaning that we give to these objects.

Patterns of Intentions

September 17, 2013 by

 

Baxandall’s Patterns of Intentions is an attempt to answer the question, what is the nature and basis for the historical explanation of paintings? Adding to Aristotle’s vocabulary, Baxandall provides the language to explain the social, cultural and economic circumstances facing an artist with terms like Brief, Charge and Troc. Understanding the environment and the specific problem an artist may be attempting to resolve help the audience comprehend the choices in style and form the artist made. In a way, Baxandall is proposing a method, a triangulation of description, explanation and socio-historical context as a means to arrive at the intention of the artist. While this method highlights some causal determinants, what is certain is the myriad ways an artist has to solve a problem. Using the construction of the Forth Bridge as a model to re-construct the builder’s account of cause and effect of his choices, Baxandall illustrates the utilitarian choices and the ancillary aesthetic choices Baker made when building the bridge. With an obvious problem such as spanning a chasm and limited options for medium, with the added constraints of durability, stability, and public safety, Baker’s purpose and audience are clear. Yet even with the narrowly defined purpose and static problem, the historical recreation of circumstances is still only suspect when trying to pinpoint intention.

 

Applying this same process of analysis to visual art yields even less certain results. With a painting, new problems emerge with each brushstroke, conveying the complexity of analysis. Thus the end product of a painting, its patterns of color, line and form an artist chose, do not reveal the problem the painter was trying to solve nor his intention. Problem solving becomes problem finding and the two interpenetrate one another. This process of analysis of a painter’s intention highlights the tendency for description to provide more insight about one’s thoughts of the picture, not the picture itself. This equates to viewers responding less to the object itself and more to the mental engagement and memory of it.

 

The second half of the book focuses on the systematic ideas of the time influencing the artist, namely the scientific and philosophical underpinnings. Understanding another culture and period is an added layer of analysis. Baxandall highlights the necessity of taking the context of the painting into consideration, the negative examples influencing the artist as well as the aesthetic choices when trying to arrive at the artist’s intention.