Appendix 8: The teaching of popular culture

Stated simply, the thesis offered by many popular culture scholars is that TV is a positive and democratic source of communication due to the shared language and experience that 'ordinary' people can enjoy through such widely viewed 'populist' programmes as soap-operas, game shows, police series, as well as via identification with the characters and issues involved.

But the premise that popular culture is a truly "democratic" force in society is very suspect, even if only because its PROCESS and FORM are in themselves the complete antithesis of a truly democratic experience.

The very process of receiving popular culture messages from the MAVM is experienced and known to most people only as coming from within, and entirely framed by, the present hierarchical relationship of the media towards the public - by which I refer not only to the kind of images that appear on the screen but also to the entire social and political interface between the media and its audience. Much of this hierarchical relationship is an invisible social process which constantly surrounds us.

The invisible framing of this process - and what we subconsciously feel about it - is like a supplementary hidden code, deeply colouring the way we receive all messages from the MAVM. (Part of the invisible hierarchy is the strict editorial control placed by the media on the issues they are prepared to raise with the public, and the members of the community they are prepared to address.)

Furthermore, the seemingly up-front messages of the media are coded by yet another hidden, background frame - the rigid, hierarchical structure of the Monoform. This special language-form has not only had devastating social consequences, but its compulsory presence throughout nearly all audiovisual broadcasting and cinema production has prevented the emergence of alternative forms of media experience, process, or relationship for the public.

As I describe here, the dominant forms of media education - the teaching of popular culture, and vocational media training - have largely succeeded in convincing several generations of students that the questions of media process and form and their relationship to ideology are not problems, indeed they are not even issues. One can enter most media classrooms today and find that these concepts are not even vaguely understood. Teachers do not mention them (which raises the question - do they know them in the first place?), and/or they ensure that media students are not exposed to alternative ideas and critical concepts.

Part of the contemporary tragedy is that the audiovisual popular culture is taught, especially at the tertiary level, as a model to be achieved. Many academics appear obsessed with what they call the "aesthetic pleasures" of the media, and are (or have been) particularly fascinated with TV soap-operas, which have represented a considerable proportion of academic study and writing since the 1970s.

Media academia devotes a great deal of time to explaining that soap-operas - popular culture in general - are positive, sharing experiences for the audience. Little attention has been given to the down-sides of popular culture, and there has been almost no attempt to critically evaluate its impact on society.

One of the many devastating aspects of the mass audiovisual popular culture has been its effect of prioritizing the trivial for many people. It focuses on creating massive public interest and attention on the lives of fictional people (in soap-operas), and certain public figures and celebrities.

The unprecedented reaction in the U.K. to the death of Princess Diana shows the direct impact of the mass media popular culture on contemporary life.

(See Appendix 4.)

A further dilemma with the present TV and cinema popular culture - one for which many educators share a prime responsibility - is that it continues to exist as one large, gross and crude form, without complexity, subtlety or variety. For decade after decade, its output and manner of representation, its language-form and themes, have remained within rigid hierarchical boundaries. Commercialism and pandering to voyeurism remain its central pillars. It is also very important to note that not all people want the popular culture - at least not in its present simplistic, narrow, often very brutal form.

The apparent acceptance within standard media education of huge budget allocations for the numerous popular culture films in which destruction, spurting blood, exploding limbs, disintegrating space-ships and computer special effects are often the only raison d'être, is astonishing! Recent examples include: WATERWORLD ($150 million), THE TWISTER ($80 million), INDEPENDENCE DAY, DRAGONHEART, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, ERASER, THE ROCK, DIE HARD: WITH A VENGEANCE, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, PULP FICTION, FACE/OFF, etc.

It is tragic to compare such obscene usage of money with the tremendous poverty throughout the world, and yet this and many other issues are mostly ignored at the tertiary level. The budgets for creating and marketing the morally corrupt and violent junk coming off the world cinema assembly line would feed, clothe, and educate entire populations of underdeveloped countries.

We need to look far and deep into our education systems to see where today's media students are being given a sense of alternative moral and ethical values with which to counter off-balances like this within global communications systems .. and even then we find relatively few examples.



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