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Towards a new synthesis

I would like to finish this overview with an observation from Bill Green (1995: 400) identified by Burn, struck as he was by Green’s 1995 “ambitious synthesis of ideas” (2009:2):

“English teachers need(ed) to seek a critical-postmodernist pedagogy ‘within which notions of popular culture, textuality, rhetoric and the politics and pleasures of representation become the primary focus of attention in both “creative” and “critical” terms’” (ibid)

It is arguable that insight such as this should permeate the curriculum and not just inform the teaching of English, a subject to which media education often remains annexed.  Burn echoes Green’s concerns and argues that it is surely time to use the affordances of widespread digital authoring tools in the service of such an undertaking: yoking critical understanding with creative production to illuminate cross-curricular learning paths, paths that would ideally be pursued throughout the school years and beyond.

Figure 1

The Circuit of Culture, from Du Gay, 1997, Production of Culture/Cultures of Production

Burn uses Green’s declaration as a rich source of inspiration for a new theory of criticality: one that subsumes the familiar nodes within and movements around the context-favouring “Circuit of Culture” and the text-favouring social semiotic multimodal framework introduced by Kress and van Leeuwen in 2000.

Whilst Buckingham (2003) championed the significance of regimes of production and sought to reassert the non-slavishness of audience interpretation, Kress et al’s object of study remained the minutiae and arrangement of the sign itself. According to Burn, far from being antithetical in nature, “these two approaches need each other” (2009:6), especially in a turbulent socio-economic environment within which material media production as well as access to it, is accelerating and becoming more democratized.

Making New Media: Burn 2009

He proposes that in order for students to examine media texts, or indeed any text, “with some degree of confidence” (2003b:3), a more “(integrated) textual analysis” (2003b:4) is called for, one “rooted in social semiotics” (ibid).

Finally, whilst maintaining the same sense of even-handed caution evidenced in Buckingham’s “Beyond Technology” (2003), I seek to align myself with Burn’s “critical utopianism” (2009:23) which re-visits Williams’ historical perspective, draws together salient aspects of different academic approaches and shines a positive light on media education and ways forward.

Loaded and Overlapping Terms

Reframing Literacy Campaign BFI

Reframing Literacy Campaign BFI 2006

Firstly I wish to define my terms and introduce some of the theoretical arguments permeating my account. The term “fashioning and flow” is taken from Loveless’ 2007 NESTA Futurelab report update (2007:14) focusing on debates about the use of ICTs and creativity. This has an important bearing on my question in that digital media production is conceived as a practice that draws on creativity for the ‘fashioning’ of resources. The creation of media texts can induce ‘flow’, a term coined by Csikszentmihalyi (1996, see 14: 24 mins) defining a sense of focused, sustained, enjoyable immersion that can often be experienced during the processes of combining and re-combining using non-linear digital video editing software.

I have borrowed the 3 C’s from the BFI’s 2006 ‘Reframing Literacy’ campaign, where they advocate a creative, critical and cultural approach to moving image literacy with a special emphasis on film production. I am using this approach and will extend it to assess the ways in which media production processes might impact on learning as well as on pleasure and social engagement.

Looking at the 3 C’s in more detail: I feel there is a pleasing serendipity to the A – Z order in which Raymond Williams’ “Key Words: a vocabulary of culture and society” defines “CREATIVE”, “CRITICISM” and “CULTURE” (1976:82 – 93), that is, they follow on consecutively almost as if the history of language development has conspired to bind them together as interdependent elements in the gradual transformation of culture and society.

Raymond Williams: Key Words (1976)

Raymond Williams: Key Words (1976)

For Williams the inherent complexities of each of these words is explained by their different contexts of use, which is further complicated by a tendency for meanings to overlap within each context. He talks about the unsettling “conventional” use of the word ‘creative’ as applied to “certain general kinds of activity” (1976:84), for example, the ‘creatives’ in a commercial advertising company or ‘creative writing’ as a subset of general writing skills. Such discursive use he sees as obfuscating its original meaning:

“to the extent that creative becomes a cant word, it becomes difficult to think clearly about the emphasis which the word was intended to establish: on human making and innovation.” (1976: 84)

Contemporary critical accounts in relation to creativity continue to circulate and will be referenced later in this commentary.

Given his massive influence in the field of British Cultural Studies and its elevation of the significance of context and lifestyle in the pursuit of meaning, it is not surprising to see Williams wrestling with the term ‘criticism’ and what it means to be ‘critical’. He insists that we kick “the habit” of associating “criticism and ’authoritative’ judgment as [an] apparently general and natural process” (1976:86) and simply stop abstracting our responses to cultural texts:

“when what always needs to be understood is the specificity of the [critical] response, which is not an abstract ‘judgment’ … but a definite practice, in active and complex relations with its whole situation and context.” (1976: 86)

This is a key debate in the field of media education, where critical acumen might be examined less as a question of taste or discrimination nor on one’s capacity to look through the text to ‘hidden’ eternal truths and more as a question of looking at the text, at its historically situated “stylistic surface and rhetorical strategy” (Lanham, 1993:63, 84). Better still, a truly rounded critical understanding would debate all such questions of cultural origin, value, credibility and positioning.

Williams lays emphasis on early uses of the word culture as “ a noun of process” (1976:87) – from agricultural processes through to those of human development including popular culture. He makes explicit culture’s various strands of meaning: as “a particular way of life” (1976:91); as associated with “the works and practices of art and intelligence” (ibid); on cultural anthropology’s focus on a culture’s material production and finally British Cultural Studies’ primary reference to its “signifying or symbolic systems” (ibid, my italics). Thirty years on we still live with these unresolved ambiguities and our tendency is perhaps to isolate these strands or perhaps favour a particular trajectory. The struggle is to relate these seemingly contrasting and multiple claims on culture precisely because the resultant tensions have implications for educational strategies, and in particular those that concern media education.

Dissertation Abstract

Teen Ski Trip Video

Teen Ski Trip Video

In February 2011 my (then) 14 year old daughter went on a school skiing holiday and within several hours of her return she had made a 7 minute short film of the trip and posted it on YouTube, viewable here. (The quality of the original video clip was much better but YouTube deleted it because of copyright issues on her backing track…. We ended up having to film the computer screen to post it back up because her original source material was lost…)

Her efforts were intense and calculated: from pre-holiday digital prep, through to the capturing of footage and photos and editing the final cut with a soundtrack. From a cultural studies perspective this is indicative of how some more digitally engaged young people are informally synthesizing an array of skills, indulging creative and social impulses and exploiting cultural repertoires to share and glory in a speedy text, of value not only to the producer and her peers but also to the wider community.

Questions must continue to be asked of how traditional school settings with creaking curricula should be responding to some young people’s everyday capacity to manipulate rich media content. Furthermore and democratically speaking, diverse social groups should be benefiting from the affordances of digital processes and not just those with relatively easy access to creative forms of expression and communication. During a historical moment in which the turn to the audiovisual is being normalized in western societies, this dissertation aims to examine the edges of digital creative practice to assess the extent to which the processes of media production can enhance learning, stimulate higher order thinking and increase social participation; this, in an environment of competing socioeconomic tensions.

Benjamin Franklin:

"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn."

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