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October 22, 2005

connections between essentialized identities and violence

Students in my Intro to Mass Media class have been asking similar questions (especially after viewing Stuart Hall's Race: The Floating Signifier) as these two esteemed academics on the Association of Internet Researchers' listserv:

Charles: My applied ethics class, we're reading an essay by Robinson A. Grover, "the New State of Nature and the New Terrorism," which argues that new media and globalization have brought about a new version of Hobbes' war of each against all, etc.

Radhika: hmmm

Charles: I attempted to buttress some of Grover's claims with the work of Cass Sunstein, his notion of "The Daily Me," etc.

This inspired one of my students to ask: are there studies, etc., that suggest that the new media, by giving us greater communication with "the Other" works to make us _less_ fearful of the Other, and thus, under some circumstances at least, _more_ likely to engage in aggressive behaviors, including warfare?

Charles (continued): That is, his thought is that in a state of ignorance of the Other, one is more likely to assume the worst - the Other is bigger, more powerful, etc., so I'd better stay home. But once I see the Other on TV, the Internet, etc., I discover that this is not so...

Radhika: my first response to this was - is this for real? Hasnt this person seen Television and Film portrayal of some "Others" all his/her life and seen how that can as effectively work towards building up fear and paranoia?

My general response is - depends on who's producing this "Other" and what context this "Other" is being permitted to speak/represent hirself - and what code of (contextual) behaviour and hierarchies this representation of the Other is placed.

In other words - yes - in a state of ignorance what your students suggests is likely to be true - but the media dont necessary help us not be ignorant ...

As for citations - I know postcolonial media theorists, critical race theorists and critical media theorists etc have written about this sort of thing.

Posted by Steph at October 22, 2005 2:30 PM


Steph - could you elaborate a bit on how your students are reacting to Hall's video and what the connections you saw between C and my exchange....

Posted by: radhika at October 23, 2005 6:34 AM

Sure. :-) Keep in mind, I'm teaching mass comm for the first time - so the students' questions are new to me. We read a piece by Stanley Aronowitz last week ("Working Class Culture in Electronic Age"), which generated many questions about the relationship between particular 'identities' and depth of critical perception. For instance:

Is there a correlation between immersion and awareness? Take middle-class people and their representation in the media, does this lead them not to think deeply about the representations, whereas members of those groups not so well-represented might wonder why?

Are blacks in general more likely to notice their subordination because of secondary education and inferior resources made available to them – do these factors led them to notice the inequity more quickly than white children do. Is that regional?

After we saw Hall's video, the questions intensified, with some students needing to revisit the basic premises and others reaching for applications. I made a connection with the conversation between you, Radhika, and Charles with the list of questions that follow on the basis of othering. Many of the students' questions imply the awareness of violence as a perennial backdrop. They haven't gone as far as to pose whether or not images presented by the media make nations more likely to attack than stay home because the Other is presented as "attackable", but this is the point I thought I might try and steer us toward. In what ways does the media simply confirm the need for aggression - be it via military resolution or personal ambition? Schiller names five fallacies that structure mass media content, one of them being the myth of unchanging/unchangeable human nature...I think this is a huge element at the root of what many of my students are now grappling with, and is implied in Charles' student's question, which he just re-articulated and clarified: "_given_ precisely the tendency of media portrayals of "the Other" to head in clearly negative directions, i.e., to emphasize the strength, power, aggressiveness, irrationality, and/or any other dimension(s) that suggests that "the Other" is dangerous and to be greatly feared (i.e., building, as you [Radhika] say so rightly, fear and paranoia) (re-presentations that might well trigger aggressive responses - but might also engender sufficient fear that folk decide just to stay home, rather than confront a potentially overwhelming enemy)- might there be (striking) counterexamples of re-presentations of "the Other" that emphasize instead a comparative weakness, vulnerability, etc. - so as to encourage, rather than discourage, aggressive response?"

Here is the full list of student-generated questions after Race: The Floating Signifier:

How is the concept of “nature” or the natural used within a culture?

What would it take to get beyond the presuppositions already in place that lead us to assume things about each other based on “color, hair and bone”?

What is the relationship between capitalism & competition and racist stereotyping? Can we find answers to this question by examining the way (visual) images and (communicational) messages are merged?

How can we move from judging people based on the exterior (“color, hair and bone”) to the interior? What is the function of differentiating people on the basis of appearance? What do such distinctions “do” for our society as a whole?

Do stereotyping (noticing and categorizing on the basis of appearance) and racism (prejudice, hatred, discrimination) automatically go hand-in-hand? How does the media make or break such a linkage?

Why does race matter so much to us? How does the perceived significance of (so-called) “race” effect what is produced in and by the media, and how does this become part of “culture”?

Is there a way (would it be possible, and if so, desirable) to somehow separate “the media” from “the world” and/or from “culture”?

What is the relationship between sociology (the study of people in groups) and mass communication (the study of people interacting within and across groups) in terms of the concept of race? Can we easily separate the structures of group organization and group functionings from the messages about group organization and functionings?

If one has been raised to make judgments about others based on their appearance (“color, hair and bone”), is it possible to change? Does the mass media help or hinder this kind of perceptual/cognitive change?

How intentional are media producers in focusing on similarities/differences among people when they are deciding content? Is everything that happens in the media necessarily “political”?

Why might it be “important” to maintain stereotypical attitudes about, for instance, “whites” being “better” than “blacks” or the “upper class” being “better” than the “working class”?

What strategies are necessary – or even possible? – in trying to change current discourse about difference (“color, hair and bone”) into something else? What would/could this "something else" be?

Hall’s argument is a critique of three essentializing notions about the concept of “race”: biological, cultural, communicative. Is there a way in which these three approaches might actually work together? Does merging these competing camps of thought serve to make difference more “real” (and problematic) or more "imaginary" (and therefore less problematic)?

Why does Hall stress the role of language so much? How is that language (communication) can have so much influence on the ways we think about difference? If language really is so powerful, can we change the way we use it?

Is it possible that “we” (students, teachers, individual persons) are actually a part of the media? Do we somehow help create or generate the issues about difference? What is “difference”, and who defines it?

How cyclical are attitudes about difference? For instance, are there a set range of viewpoints that a society cycles among (say, from acceptance, to tolerance, to resistance, to violence)? Does “culture” use the media to instill these particular viewpoints? Is the negotiation among viewpoints about trying to find an acceptable level of racism – an acceptable level of dislike for difference?

How does isolating difference into particular racial identities generate or maintain power? What kinds? For whom?

Is Hall for or against the notion of “reading the body”? Can we learn to "read bodies" in ways that don't essentialize appearance?

How are notions of race, gender, and socioeconomic class related to each other? Do these notions (as we conceive of them) cause or create limitations in social functioning or are they empirical facts with which we simply have to learn to deal?

Posted by: steph at October 24, 2005 12:22 AM

check out the post "othering and violence" http://www.stephaniejokent.com/blog/archives/001769.html

Posted by: steph at October 24, 2005 12:42 AM

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