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June 18, 2007

recent movements in my academic 'career'

Posted by dogpossum on June 18, 2007 5:53 PM in the category teaching

I've just had an article published in a special journal issue on music. It's not the greatest article I've ever written, and reading it is kind of cringe-worthy. But that's not the interesting bit about this issue. The thing that caught my eye (once I stopped cringing) is the fact that I'm the only woman author in the issue.
This is probably just a coincidence, but I was suprised. I'd just assumed that music was one of those 'everyone does it' topics. I certainly didn't think I'd see a reenactment of the whole garage band/music industry scene happening in this issue. I was sure I'd see at least one article on female DJs or something by a woman on something to do with music...

Nah. So I'm the sistah Representing there. Which really is surprising. I'm not actually doing anything terribly feministah - I make a few comments about gender, but not much more than some of the other articles. It made me think, though: surely this bit of cultural studies isn't a boys-own? Surely?

This kind of ties into some thoughts I've had preparing for this course I'm teaching next semester. I'm the lecturer/tutor for a massive introductory media studies subject, on a team of 5 ladies teaching across three campuses and doing about 15 tutes between us (argh!). I don't have to write the lectures - just present the ones that have already been written. But I'm finding it a bit difficult. I really only have the lecture notes to work from, and the first one in particular was really difficult to work with. It used a few concepts I've never come across in 15 years and three universities worth of tertiary education (I'm thinking they're bullshit, but I could just be misinformed), and I've noticed a few assumptions about culture.

The first one is the emphasis on visual culture (well, of course), but this line really jumped out at me:

Images are the most powerful form of representation.
which followed on the heels of
All cultures produce images as forms of communication.
I guess I'm just sensitised to this stuff because I write about it, but I've recently spent a bit of time writing things like:
For a people denied the discursive power of mass media, particularly those dependent on the written word, dance became a valuable discursive space. I would argue that access the mainstream public sphere, to mainstream media discourse or the ‘official’ public sphere is a privilege accorded the most powerful members of a community (Fraser 1997). Media power, the ability to contribute to the production and dissemination of media texts and see your own interests and ideology represented in these texts and discourses, is a marker of social power and influence. This social power was not available to African Americans in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Though they were active contributors to music, dance and other creative practices, these contributions were often curtailed by their social position. Black record companies were frequently out-competed or bullied out of existence (a point David Suisman addresses in his discussion of the Black Swan label). In the 1920s black radio stations, though common in the early days of radio in the United States were eventually marginalised by the introduction of broadcasting legislation (Vaillant 2002). Black musicians were neglected by mainstream record companies in the earlier days of recording and what few recordings they did make in the earliest American radio programs were ‘limited to comedy or novelty styles, which established “coon songs” and minstrelsy… Coon songs were a popular style of comic songs based on caricatures of Negro life, usually sung in “dialect”’ (Suisman 2004, pp. 1296). Black men and women who simply spoke out in public were so routinely subjected to violence and murder in the south of America until the 1960s – with legislative protection for their attackers (Gussow 2002, pp.14) – that to speak of mediated power is highly problematic. For many black actors and dancers, the ability to control their filmed image was also beyond their reach, and it is these audio-visual media that texts became the source of revivalists in the contemporary swing community.
(from a forthcoming article in Convergence, references below).

I have reservations about the claim that 'all cultures use visual images' and that these visual images are the 'most powerful form of representation'. In fact, later in the lecture notes I'm reworking, there's a reference to Aboriginal identity, where one of the functions of images as communication is:

To store the memory of a culture, of a people so it can be communicated/transmitted in the present and future (paintings of indigenous Australians)

I'm not sure what that bit's meant to mean. It seems to imply that visual images are a) a way of preserving Aboriginal culture, or b) a way in which Aboriginal Australians hare or are going about preserving their culture.

This stuff doesn't sit right with me, particularly because dance, song and story telling - oral culture - was and is such an important part of Aboriginal culture. Far more important than 'visual images'. Particularly for semi-nomadic people.
I know I don't know much about this (and I'd hate to suggest that there is/was no indigenous Australian visual art prior to Invasion), but I do have real problems with the prioritising of material visual culture in this way.

I'm a bit busy about this right now, so I can't write anything more, but something about all this 'visual images = most important!' really gets up my bum. There are so many clear examples of the power and importance of things like oral story, music, dance, etc as really powerful and important cultural practices. It's just that they're not as appealing to researchers from such a material, privileged culture.

Fraser, Nancy. (1997). ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,’ in Nancy Fraser (ed) Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the "Postsocialist" Condition, pp. 69-98. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Gussow, Adam. (2002). ‘”Shoot myself a cop” Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” as a Social Text’ Callaloo 25 (1): 8-44.

Suisman, David. (2004). ‘Co-workers in the Kingdom of Culture: Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music’ The Journal of American History 90 (4): 1295-1324.

Vaillant, Derek W. (2002). ‘Sounds of Whiteness: Local Radio, Racial Formation, and Public Culture in Chicago, 1921-1935’ American Quarterly 54 (1): 25-66.

Posted by dogpossum on June 18, 2007 5:53 PM in the category teaching