Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Seeing and Reading Historical Images of Insanity

In early January 2010, writes Simon Cross, I will be attending the annual Media Communication and Cultural Studies (MeCCSA) conference to be held this year at the London School of Economics. The annual get together of our subject association is an important opportunity to introduce new research ideas.

For this reason, I will use the MeCCSA conference to introduce an analytic strategy for reading historical images of madness that enables us to see that while forms and figures of madness change there are threads of continuity. My main argument is that we can only understand continuity in the visual image of madness in relation to change. I want to use this argument to show that how continuities and changes are read into historical images of madness depend on three interconnecting factors. They are: media technologies, cultural forms, and historical consciousness.

In the nineteenth century, these factors interconnected in visually significant ways when the development of photography and a changing pictorial aesthetic of madness fused with new theories of mental disorder. Through close analysis of three exemplary, historical forms of representations of madness, i.e. clinical photographs, lithograph engravings, and portraiture in oils, I want to show how they produce certain constructions of madness, with different truth-claims and forms of visual rhetoric being involved, each with attendant consequences for certain historically-based epistemological positions.

Those of you interested in pursuing these ideas more closely might be interested to read my forthcoming book, Mediating Madness: Mental Distress and Cultural Representation, to be published Palgrave Macmillan on 1 March 2010.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Feeling Backward (why queer theory still matters)

I recently received a reader’s report for a book proposal in which the anonymous reviewer refers to queer theory as being ‘mid 1990s’ and ‘once cutting edge’. I was struck by the notion that queer theory was over, faddish and outdated and my first response to this was that queer theory will be over when homophobia, the closet, and so on is also over. In order to demonstrate the ongoing relevance of queer theory I would like to introduce a few ideas from a recent ‘queer theory’ book that also helped me make sense of pleasures that might be construed as wholly negative. The question then is why is Brokeback Mountain pleasurable when it also makes me feel bad?

In Heather Love's Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard University Press, 2007) she explains why hurtful, melancholic and depressing experiences constitute contemporary queer identity and thus need to be acknowledged, incorporated and negotiated since ‘many of these unlikely feelings are closely tied to the realities of queer experience past and present.’ (147) In this respect, Brokeback Mountain is a text that has a backward logic. It uses the past to speak to the present as it narrates a depressing story of historical injury and bad feeling in order to connect to a contemporary audience who may feel that they are still negotiating or finding it difficult to dispel a shameful and homophobic past – homosexuality is problematic! Love continues:

'Backwardness means many things here; shyness, ambivalence, failure, melancholia, loneliness, regression, victimhood, heartbreak, antimodernism, immaturity, self-hatred, despair, shame. I describe backwardness both as queer historical structure of feeling and as a model for queer historiography.' (146)

Many of the terms in Love’s quote may describe the characters and their narrative situations in Brokeback Mountain, as well as the spectator’s response to the film. It is important that the film does provoke negative and bad feeling. It is not a joyous experience; rather it is a film that leaves one feeling hurt and emotionally devastated in its backward turn. Yet, this is somehow what is rewarding about the film also. Brokeback Mountain’s stress on negative and depressive histories of the homosexual past help to constitute contemporary gay and lesbian identity and subjectivity since ‘the experience of queer historical subjects is not a safe distance from contemporary experience; rather, their social marginality and abjection mirror our own.’ (32)

The backward feeling and the pathos in the film articulate a refusal to see progress in the way it is often imagined by gay pride discourses. Brokeback Mountain demands us to accept that homosexuality is still impossible for many, that it is still permeated by tragedy and melancholia, and that it has a history that is still unresolved and needful of being properly negotiated in the present. Love’s work helps to unlock the process of understanding negative pleasures in political terms especially in relation to films like Brokeback Mountain. The film reminds queers that their modern subjectivity is constituted by a painful, closeted, homophobic history and that feeling backward and feeling bad are also important affective dimensions of queer subjectivity in the present.

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Monday, 7 December 2009

Iron Curtain

Patrick Wright brings us his reflections on the Iron Curtain, recently broadcast on the BBC World Service's The Strand

Did the fall of the Berlin Wall, twenty years ago last month, also mark the final disappearance of the Iron Curtain that had divided the world for nearly half a century?  We may like to think that it did.  For the length of the Cold War, after all, the Iron Curtain was closely associated with the militarized frontier dividing the blocs in Europe.  Yet the true history of this powerful metaphor suggests a different conclusion.

The first iron curtains had nothing at all to do with geopolitics or international relations.  Instead, they were anti-fire barriers installed in late eighteenth century theatres. Suspended between the stage and auditorium, these novel contrivances were proudly displayed to reassure audiences for whom theatre fires were an all too common horror. 

The early versions were little more than props.  By the late nineteenth century, however, these largely symbolic devices had been re-engineered.    Hydraulically powered in many cases and made of asbestos as well as iron, the new versions actually worked. So much so, that actors and other who worked backstage began to worry that, while the audience might indeed now be saved in the event of a fire, they themselves risked being trapped behind the lowered curtain and burned alive.

How, then, did the iron curtain get converted into a geopolitical metaphor?  Throughout the Cold War, it would be widely believed that the man responsible was Winston Churchill, who famously spoke of the descent of an iron curtain dividing Europe in the famous speech he delivered in Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946.

In fact, the originator was not Churchill at all, but a Liberal and cosmopolitan British born woman named Violet Paget, who wrote under the pen name of Vernon Lee.   Five or so months into the First World War, i.e. in the last days of 1914, she applied the phrase to the war between Britain and Germany – deploring how the conflict had cut off all communication between the opposed peoples, and surrendered them to the propaganda of their belligerent states.  For Vernon Lee the iron curtain had little to do with any frontier or wall.  It was instead a ‘psychological deadlock’ with which the warring states on both sides coerced their citizens into patriotic loyalty.

By 1920, Vernon Lee’s iron curtain, had been picked up by a number of her friends and associates – progressive, socialist, anti-war types - who removed it from its German location and applied it to the Allied blockade of Russia, where the Bolsheviks were still consolidating their seizure of power.  It continued to be used to describe the western attempt to isolate Soviet Russia through the 1920s.

Why might it be useful to bear this prehistory in mind as we watch the endlessly replayed tumbling of the Berlin Wall?  The iron curtain, in this earlier period, was never just another name for a frontier.  It involved economic blockade and trade embargo.  It entailed censorship and a state-driven use of propaganda to simplify the world into hostile camps – one of which, your own, was conceived as uniformly good while the other was imagined as wholly evil.  The iron curtain also retained much of its theatrical origin, not least in the methods of scene-rigging and stage management that were found necessary to the maintenance of loyalty on both sides.  

Did the iron curtain finally vanish with the Berlin Wall in November 1989?   I fear not.  Look at the false information and manipulated imagery with which George Bush and Tony Blair justified their invasion of Iraq.  Look at the way their most aggressive policy advisors applied the same polarized way of seeing to the Muslim world, whether in the name of the supposed ‘Clash of Civilisations’ or of the ‘War on Terror’.  Except for a few yards preserved in various museums around the world, the Berlin Wall may be well and truly gone. But, as we look at the recent interaction between the western powers and Iraq and nowadays perhaps also Iran, we may surely recognise that many of the capabilities and habits of thought that came with the iron curtain survive to tempt the world’s leaders still.

Patrick Wright's Iron Curtain: from Stage to Cold War, published in paperback by Oxford University Press, on  29 October 2009.

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Tuesday, 1 December 2009

What is so strange, lonely and troubling about Stephen Gately's death ?

The recent death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately inspired a number of generous obituaries and one shockingly vicious piece from Jan Moir in the Daily Mail (16th October 2009). The effect of this piece of writing was so painfully felt that it elicited a record number of 22,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission from Gately's fans, acutely tuned in to the nuances of homophobic discourse. Moir, of course, in a retraction a week later, denied that her intent was homophobic, but many of the readership, and 'overhearers' who were moved to read the original piece online, disagree. What, then, constitutes homophobic discourse?

There is little point in searching for obviously homophobic lexical items, but instead we must look at the discursive effect of texts. Leap's (2010 forthcoming) notion of a homophobic formation allows us to argue that although there are no recurrent formal properties which identify a homophobic text, there are several key characteristics which they share. Leap remarks that homophobic messages emerge from texts, rather than being contained within them. He is referring to the way in which language users may express homophobia indirectly or obliquely, through lexical items, idioms, metaphors, presuppositions, judgment markers and inference structures which reference homophobia. The homophobic formation appears not solely through explicitly homophobic language, but via a complex set of linguistic and social processes which work through context to deliver their message. I comment below on some examples of these in Moir's article.

Let's remind ourselves of the established facts of Gately's death. He had returned to his apartment after a night out, and was accompanied by his civil partner and a friend. Gately apparently went to sleep on the couch, and was later found dead by his partner.

The title of Moir's article, then, stands in contrast to this reality: “A strange, lonely and troubling death”. Troubling, yes, but why strange and lonely? These terms function here (using Martin and White's 2007 Appraisal framework) as linguistic markers of judgment, referencing some unstated, but assumed heterosexual norm. These reveal the point of view of the homophobe who judges gay men as essentially lonely, and strange. What troubles her, evidently, is her assumption that Gately's partner and their friend might have been having sex. To the homophobe, any gay male sex is distasteful, and the notion that a man may have sex outside a relationship disturbs the heteronormative ideal. These tropes of 1950s gay male sexual offenses are reinforced by the following characterisations, “shadowed by dark appetites or fractured by private vice. …..secret and not-so-secret troubles, or damaging habits”. Vice ? Damaging habits? These again imply negative judgment, and are modified by adjectives expressing negative reaction (Martin and White, 2007:56). It is unclear what she is alluding to – the nature of (unspecified but assumed) gay male sexual practice, or perhaps more scandalously and libellously, drug use. This becomes more evident when, without access to any evidence, and only her own prejudice to draw on, she writes of, “ the official reports point to a natural death, with no suspicious circumstances”. The emphasis on 'official' implies there are other unofficial reports which she has access to, but are concealed from us; 'point to' implies doubt and that the official reports are in fact inconclusive and tentative.

The reports, according to Moir's reading, serve only to obscure the self-evident and inevitable truth lying behind a gay man's early death, “The sugar coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath. Healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again”. Sadly, this occurrence is far from unknown, but this doesn't prevent Moir asserting her ignorance with a modality choice of certainty, indicated by a universalising use of the verb 'do' governing the following infinitive clauses. Such is her certainty that no gay man could meet a natural death in these circumstances that Moir feels justified in contradicting the considered verdict of the coroner, and the verified cause of death of pulmonary oedema. The death, according to her “is not, by any yardstick, a natural one”. Gay men, in the world of the homophobe are strange, troubled and unnatural. And for confirmation that all gay men die early deaths, she mentions the former partner of Matt Lucas. This sad death was no more related to Gately's than the Queen Mother's was to Jade Goody's. The only common factor was that they are gay and dead, but the one condition leads inexorably to the other, is the inference.

Of course another characteristic of the gay 'lifestyle' is the use of drugs. Disregarding the evidence of toxicology reports, Moir concludes that “Gately's family have always maintained that drugs were not involved in the singer's death, but it has just been revealed that he at least smoked cannabis on the night he died”... “Nevertheless, his mother is still insisting that her son died from a previously undetected heart condition that has plagued the family”. The contrastive adverb 'nevertheless' suggests a deluded mother maintaining her son's innocence in the face of obvious corruption. The function of the adverbial 'at least' is to deliver the presupposition that it was probably more than just cannabis. This impression is further reinforced in the next paragraph where we find that the men are judged by Moir to be sleazy. What seems to have led her to that determination is that Gately's partner and their friend went into the bedroom together, leaving Gately in the lounge. Whatever they did or did not do is irrelevant to the circumstances of death. None of this was criminal, unusual or even sleazy behaviour. Two men wanted sex, perhaps. In the words of the Stonewall t-shirt – get over it. This, for Moir, though, invalidates the possibility that 'gay marriage' can be as happy or as valid as heterosexual ones. This is effectively a 'straw man' argument - the spurious contestation of a civil rights issue in order to impugn the whole category of 'gay'.

Of course, Moir's 'retraction' a week after publication of the original piece denied any homophobic intent, stating; “Absolutely none of this had anything to do with his sexuality. If he had been a heterosexual member of a boy band, I would have written exactly the same article”. But as Leap (2010) points out, homophobic messages may be inferred by some speaker/hearers, whilst others will perceive them as unproblematic. I view Moir's apology as insincere. It takes a close critical discourse analysis to trace the emergence of a homophobic formation from her original piece. None of the linguistic choices made in this text are exclusive to the repertoire of the homophobe, however, what reveals a homophobic formation is its defamatory, shaming intent, and its reception by the audience/ readership. I think Moir's purpose is transparent in this piece, and she has been justly vilified for it.
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Thursday, 26 November 2009

Guest Paper: David Wright, Making Tastes for Everything: 'Omnivorousness' and Cultural Abundance

This is the latest guest paper in this year's seminar series organized by the Cultural Studies Research Group and ICAN and we are delighted to welcome David Wright from the Centre for Cultural Policy at the University of Warwick. The event takes place on Wednesday 2nd December, from 4.00-5.30 in room GEE219 on the Clifton campus of Nottingham Trent University. The abstract for the paper, 'Making Tastes for Everything: "Omnivorousness" and Cultural Abundance' is as follows
This paper argues that debates about the social patterning of tastes need to take greater account of changed practices of cultural production as well as consumption. It identifies two ‘stories of abundance’ in the cultural realm, firstly relating to the expanding and influential accounts of the cultural industries and secondly to the rich variety of widely available culture enabled by various technologies of distribution. Taking these into account, it argues that sociological analyses of cultural hierarchy might lag behind those that are mundane and everyday to both cultural producers and consumers. The rise of alternative sources of capital that have questions of cultural openness and tolerance at their core means that an orientation to culture that ranges across established hierarchies is increasingly unremarkable. Such a change is not solely related to age cohorts but the structural and discursive means through which culture is produced and valued. The paper concludes that cultural analysts need to modify their theoretical models and their methodological approaches to better reflect a variegated field of culture and a more fluid cultural hierarchy. In the tradition of both Peterson and Bourdieu, contemporary analyses of patterns of cultural consumption and taste need to take fuller account of the ways in which culture is produced, circulated and valued if they are to maintain their explanatory power.
If you would like to attend the event, please contact Joanne Hollows.
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Thursday, 19 November 2009

'I've Shaken Hands with Her': the Caravan Park and 'The Best Pair of Legs in the Business'

Drawing on research completed for his PhD, Matt Kerry discusses The Best Pair of Legs in the Business (1973).

Britain in the early 1970s was a place of moral panics, strikes and power cuts. Stuart Hall comments that 1972 was a year of ‘sustained and open class conflict of a kind unparalleled since the end of the war’ (293). Terry Staples also points out that the miner’s strike of 1973 had a direct influence on the film industry in early 1974 when the ‘restrictions on the non-domestic use of electrical power’ during the ‘three-day week’ meant that cinemas had to ‘reduce the number of shows they put on’ (229).

British cinema itself was heading for a crisis. Most of the debt-ridden Hollywood companies had withdrawn funding from British films at the end of the 1960s. Filmmakers had to resort to tried and tested formulas, such as movie spin-offs of TV sitcoms, or sex comedies, in order to sustain a living. Although Best Pair is not based on a sitcom, it is a film adaptation of a TV play, both of which star Reg Varney in the central role of Sherry Sheridan. During this period there were a number of films released which looked back nostalgically to the traditional British holiday such as Holiday On The Buses (1973), That’ll Be The Day (1973) and Carry On Girls (1973). However, Best Pair appears to evoke the mood of the time more successfully, exposing the holiday on a cheap caravan park for the dismal experience it could be.

A lot of the action in the film takes place at night. This darkness adds to the gloomy atmosphere. It’s as if the lights have literally been turned off – pre-empting the blackouts of the early 1970s. As the campsite’s only resident entertainer, Sherry attempts to construct some sense of community in the half-empty clubhouse of Greenside Caravan Park, by starting sing-a-longs such as ‘Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’, but the merriment appears to be forced. The atmosphere is like the aftermath of a party where the guests have stayed too long – a hangover, perhaps from the affluence and optimism of the late 1950s and 1960s. It’s as if the decade before hasn’t lived up to its expectations, and the decade that has followed has seen both an economic and spiritual slump.

The caravan holiday in Britain had originally been a middle-class pursuit in the 1920s and 1930s, as part of the fashion to ‘get back to nature’, just as the original pioneer holiday camps had been. Camping in a Romany style van had been a rare novelty for Bohemian types who wanted to get away from it all, the whole point of the holiday (as Angeloglou 49 - 50, explains) was to ‘rough it’, by digging your own toilet, cooking over an oil stove, and by looking after the horse, which most city folk were not used to. The static caravan parks of the post-war era, however, had little to do with the origins of middle-class camping, instead providing a cheap alternative to the holiday camp, with cut-price accommodation. As Walton points out, the number of people taking caravan holidays at the end of the 1960s had more than doubled to 4.5 million in comparison to the 2 million who took a similar holiday in 1955, and ‘The coastline of Lindsey (Lincolnshire) saw caravan numbers increasing at 1,000 per year throughout the 1950s and 1960s from the 3,000 already present in 1950’ (43). The rows of static caravans were seen by some traditionalists to be an eyesore. In his 1974 poem, ‘Delectable Duchy’ Betjeman expresses a wish for them to be swept ‘out to sea’ by a ‘tidal wave’ (21).

The crisis of the central character in The Best Pair appears to embody the crisis of Britain at the time the film was made. As an entertainer who has just been dropped by his agent, Sherry’s future job prospects look very bleak. In one scene he announces his options as “the Labour Exchange, National Assistance, and very shortly the old-age pension”, and as a last resort, he pessimistically hopes for death. Sherry belongs, suddenly, to another era. He sings Flanagan and Allen songs and does a terrible drag act that allows him the freedom to fill his gags with innuendo, when in actual fact he disapproves of the sexual revolution – in one particular scene he decries the world as a ‘filthy, dirty’ place, after discovering that his wife is having an affair. Not only has Sherry been stripped of his masculinity, but he has also lost his authority as head of the household. His son, Alan, for whom he paid to have a private education and then go on to university, is now effectively middle class and Sherry feels threatened by this. Sherry believes that Alan is also ashamed of his father for ‘making a living by being a lady’, even though his act is ‘good enough for Royalty’, as Sherry points out.

Sherry is a monarchist. His ‘idea of England’ as Stuart Hall refers to, is an imperial one, with ‘a commitment to what Britain has shown herself to be capable of, historically…rooted in ‘feelings about the flag, the Royal Family and the Empire’ (147). The film was made at a time when the Royal Family was relatively free from scandal, and it could be argued that the strong Royalist sentiments of the time were a reaction again to the crisis of the period. Princess Anne’s wedding was celebrated in the year of the film’s release, and the Jubilee came four years later. These celebrations were part of a trend of nostalgia, as Britain desperately looked back to the Coronation; a time when it was coming out of a period of austerity and rationing and was looking forward to better times.

Sherry constructs part of his national identity around his monarchist values, and name-drops the Queen at any given opportunity, his brief meeting with her, being the highpoint of his career, and a boost to what little ego he has left. He stretches the story, however, beyond credibility, telling two young campers that his Royal command performance was by special request from her Majesty, and that his job at the caravan park is merely a ‘paid holiday’. Later, we get a glimpse of a photograph of the occasion. The Queen is greeting a group of entertainers after their performance, but Sherry is on the back row, and not in close proximity to the monarch, which puts paid to his later claim that he’s shaken hands with her.

The culture clash between working-class entertainer and his educated son is brought to a head in a scene where Sherry and Mary go to have tea with Alan’s prospective in-laws. Their son is due to marry into an upper-middle class family who live in a Georgian vicarage. During his visit to the vicarage, Sherry modifies his regional accent and mimics the vicar’s body language by walking with his hands behind his back. When the vicar questions him about his job in a caravan park, Sherry disguises his shame about the job by saying that he has merely spent the summer there as a ‘try-out’, and that he intends to take over the site when he retires. Sherry feels that working in such a place is only acceptable if you are the owner, just as working as an entertainer is only acceptable if by Royal command.

The argument that ensues is triggered by Sherry’s not knowing the proper way to eat cake during middle-class ‘tea’. The vicar’s Georgian silver tea service, handed down from his grandmother is a symbol of inherited wealth. Mary expresses her admiration for it – she sees it as a symbol of ‘family’, whereas, Sherry is intimidated by it. He tries to go one better by saying that he has eaten off gold plates with the Queen. The claim is so ludicrous that no one believes him for a minute, and the lie is further compounded by Sherry’s saying that it happened first at Buckingham Palace, then Windsor Castle. Sherry wrongly believes that an association with Royalty gives him ‘class’, not realising that those who do have class might not necessarily give a damn whether he has met the monarch or not. He also attempts to speak of his relationship with the Queen in ‘show business’ terms by saying she has ‘warmth and star quality’. This is an attempt by Sherry to exclude the vicar and underline his allegiance to the Queen, and in turn demonstrate her supposed loyalty to entertainers.

Sherry’s façade then slips. He stops speaking in Received Pronunciation, throws down his pastry fork and eats the cake with his hands, much to the disgust of everyone else. By trying to break their pretence by disregarding the rituals of eating with a fork, plate and napkin, he reduces eating to its most basic function and makes it grotesque. He then also admits to his working class status by arguing that he has ‘slaved himself into the ground to make a gentleman’ of Alan. When his lie about having eaten with the Sovereign fails to convince, he desperately claims that he has ‘shaken hands with her’. Even this is a lie, and one which his wife refuses to back him up on. The bitterness of Sherry, and his lack of identity is fore-grounded in a scene which could have come as light relief, set as it is in an English country garden, away from the bleak and depressing campsite. The setting, however, throws Sherry’s inadequacies into relief. He doesn’t fit in with the middle-class traditions of the past, and without the support of his family, and uncertain job prospects, his future is uncertain too.

If earlier depictions of the holiday camp in films such as Sam Small Leaves Town (1937) and Holiday Camp (1947) attempt to construct an ideal working class community in the pre- and post- world war, in The Best Pair community falls apart, prefiguring an emergent pessimism, expressed in the crisis of the three-day week.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Academia-UK: the story continues

Colleagues may have seen the news that the Sociology department at the University of Birmingham is under threat. Liz Morrish writes occasionally for the United University Professions newsletter, State University of New York. This is her view on the 'review' of the Sociology department.

Here in Academia-UK we mount another defense against the neoliberal insurgency. Colleagues in the department of Sociology at the University of Birmingham face redundancy after the university administration announced the results of a recent 'review'. No meaningful consultation with faculty or students has taken place, and yet administrators have made plans to transfer responsibility for the undergraduate degree program in Media and Cultural Studies to another department (Social Policy), with only three of the current teaching complement of 17 to deliver it. All this will happen behind the breastplate of 'quality assurance' vaunted by Birmingham and every other UK university, and almost certainly without any murmur of dissent from the discredited Quality Assurance Agency.

Let me put this controversy in some context. Academia-UK is governed by league table lottery, however, this operates in unpredictable ways, a bit like snakes-and-ladders. So, despite their excellent results in terms of teaching quality, student satisfaction, etc., Sociology at Birmingham performed less well than expected in the recent Research Assessment Exercises. Birmingham is a 'Russell Group' university, equivalent to US Research tier 1 universities. Since this group seeks to dominate the research rankings, and certainly the research grants awarded on the basis of RAE performance, no slippage is tolerated by university heads. Quite simply, Birmingham Sociology is being punished pour encourager les autres. To call this short-termism would be to miss several ironies. Firstly, Birmingham is a large multi-cultural city and the university makes a claim to be diversifying its student body through its 'widening participation' agenda. Sociology would seem to provide a resource and a natural home for many of the target demographic for such a mission. Secondly, the next RAE (which will be titled the REF) will place an emphasis (and allocate funding) partially on 'impact'. Impact is widely interpreted as economic, but in the arts, humanities and social sciences, impact on social and cultural policy will be assessed. Funding is likely to be bestowed on departments which 'transfer knowledge' to social policy agencies, NGOs, local government etc., - precisely the sort of work encapsulated by the department's Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Culture. The website offers this description of its work: “It is a focus for the department’s engagement with the local community (and wider policy agendas), while the community’s multi-ethnic character brings the global ‘home’”.

The loss of Sociology at the University of Birmingham will represent a loss to the wider world of research in the field and to the local community. Perhaps an enduring loss to the university will be to its recruitment of both staff and students. Who will now take the risk of planning a career at the University of Birmingham, whether that should be as a lecturer, researcher or as an undergraduate, if the structures within which you work are not likely to endure for the extent of your ambitions?
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Thursday, 12 November 2009

Guest Paper: Professor Liesbet van Zoonen, 'Islam on the Popular Battlefield'

The first guest paper in this year's seminar series organized by the Cultural Studies Research Group with ICAN, and we are delighted to welcome Professor Liesbet van Zoonen from Loughborough University. The talk takes place on Wednesday 18th November from 4.00-6.00 pm in room Gee219, in the George Elliot building on the Clifton Campus of Nottingham Trent University.  The paper is entitled 'Islam on the Popular Battlefield'. The abstract of the paper is as follows:
In March 2008, Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders released a 16 minute anti-Islam movie called Fitna. Wilders had a hard time finding a broadcaster or internet provider willing to air the film, because his mere idea caused an immense global controversy, leading to death treats, violent protest, diplomatic incidents and fierce public debate. One of the reactions consisted of organised and unorganised video protest by young people from all over the world, who uploaded their reactions to websites such as YouTube or LiveLeak. Since then, Wilders has tried to export his video to the UK and the US, with a widely published refusal of entry in the spring of this year.
This talk will be about all the video reactions to Fitna, raising the question whether a 'video=sphere' has emerged on YouTube that offers a visual complement to more traditional manifestations of the public sphere. The project is funded by the AHRC Religion and Society Program. More info can be found here.  If you are interested in this talk, please watch Fitna beforehand (on YouTube) since I will not be showing it in my presentation.

Everyone is welcome but there are a limited number of places, so if you would like to attend, please contact Joanne Hollows.
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Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Freeview and DRM: An update

In an earlier blog I discussed how the BBC was requesting a form of digital rights management for its Freeview High Definition service, which is due to begin rolling out in December. In a submission to Ofcom, the BBC said so-called 'content providers', which is widely taken to mean principally US rights holders, would withhold content if such provisions weren’t put in place. Critics such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation argued that these rights holders were attempting to improperly influence the development of future TV hardware and the move would not be in the public interest.

Despite the brevity of the consultation period, in a letter to the BBC Ofcom yesterday put the proposals on hold. It said it had received a large number of submissions, mainly from consumer groups, who had ‘raised a number of potentially significant consumer “fair use” and competition issues that were not addressed in our original consultation.’ (Such groups included the Open Rights Group, a UK based organisation similar to the EFF that campaigns to ‘preserve and promote your rights in the digital age’.) Ofcom ordered that until these issues have been resolved no DRM requiring a licence, which is the critical point in all this, can be implemented.

Given the imminence of the HD rollout this is something of a cat among the pigeons, but then again the BBC only applied for the change in its broadcasting licence at the end of August. And it seems the BBC is suddenly left holding the baby. According to a contributor to the BBC’s ‘backstage’ mailing list, ‘The big shock was that (and I read all of the responses) no “content provider” was prepared to say why they asked the BBC for it in the first place. No PACT. No BSkyB.’

This strange state of affairs seems to speak ill of the whole exercise. Today would be an interesting one to be a fly on the wall in a number of boardrooms.

See also

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Friday, 6 November 2009

Mosaic: Fragments in Search of the Bigger Picture in FlashForward

We're delighted to welcome our second guest blogger to the site. Today's guest is Mark Jancovich (Film and Television Studies, University of East Anglia) who is currently working on a history of the 1940s horror film. Below, he takes time out to discuss some recent TV.

In FlashForward, the whole world experiences an unexpected and unprecedented event – everyone appears to lose consciousness for 2 minutes and 17 seconds. The event causes devastation and loss of life and, it soon transpires, that each person did not lose consciousness but rather had their consciousness shifted six months into the future. In other words, the world has seen its own future, if only a decontextualized 2 minutes and 17 seconds of that future. For some, this future offers hope and for others despair, and soon the Los Angeles FBI are trying to make sense of the event by piecing things together – literally. They set up a website called MOSAIC on which people can post their visions of the future and verify their experiences by cross-referencing them with the visions of others.

In this way, the series continually plays with the notion of fragments that are meaningless in themselves but form part of a larger picture – like most network television in the US, it follows a series of characters whose different narratives form a complex multi-layered broader narrative arc. More importantly, the larger arc is explicitly global.

In many ways, then, the series creators hope to emulate the global themes of Heroes and its frequent narrative globetrotting, but with the exception of one Asian-American character, Demetri Noh (John Cho), the series lacks the multi-national cast of characters that distinguishes Heroes, and remains firmly centred in the US. However, where it fails to replicate certain aspects of Heroes, the ways in which it borrows from other shows are rather more successful. Indeed, what is odd about FlashForward is how familiar and fresh it feels.

On the one hand, the series borrows heavily from the fan favorites of post-X-Files television in ways that are often surprisingly blatant but, on the other, it does so without seeming to be derivative. The show features FBI officers searching into an inexplicable and possibly paranormal event in ways that are clearly reminiscent of The X-Files. It is also features Brannon Braga as an executive producer, a figure whose presence is highly significant. Braga was not only a key figure behind Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise, but also, while Enterprise wandered off into a rather misguided post-9/11 storyline (see a forthcoming blog entry on this topic), he has since become associated with another key series to which FlashForward is greatly indebted. After Enterprise folded in 2005, Braga was hired to work on the post-9/11 counter-terrorism series, 24, and he had just finished working on season seven (the last episode of which aired on 18 May 2009 in the US) when he began working on FlashForward (the first episode of which aired on 24 September 2009 in the US).

Much like the Jack Bauer and his associates in 24, the FBI of FlashForward whizz around trying to explain the mysterious event and counter an increasingly bizarre conspiracy. Furthermore, the event itself is clearly likened to 9/11. While it is clearly presented as a global event, it is largely visualized in terms of urban devastation in which smoking skyscrapers figure prominently. Even the Mosaic website is strongly reminiscent of the numerous 9/11 memorials, with they collages of fragmentary photographs and testimonies that are supposedly unified by a common trauma. From these disparate details, it is hoped a pattern will emerge, and an enemy will be identified that can account for things.

Of course, another feature that is central to 24 is its use of time but, while 24 unfolds in ‘real time’ as Jack Bauer and his associates race against the clock, Flashforward’s use of time draws upon yet another key show, Lost. In its early seasons, Lost (which told the story of the survivors of Flight 815 after their plane had crashed on a mysterious island) dedicated each episode to a different character and not only told the story of their present but also features flashbacks to their previous lives before they arrived on the island. In later seasons, however, the time-line became increasingly complicated, with flash-forwards, and with the character’s literally jumping between different time periods. It is hardly any surprise then that by the end of episode four of FlashForward, Dominic Monaghan (who played the drug addicted musician, Charlie, in Lost) turns up as Simon, a character that seems to be central to the conspiracy behind the event.

In other words, while FlashForward imagines a world trying to make meaning and coherence out of fragmented experiences, the show itself tries to bring together bits and pieces from a range of other shows and, at least so far, has fashioned something fresh and coherent out of its raw materials. Of course, there is a very real question about what will happen once time catches up with the series itself, and its character’s visions of the future have become visions of the past.

(Photo credit: qbix08. Permissions)

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Diasporas, Migration and Media: Crossing Boundaries, New Directions

NTU is co-hosting the conference of the ECREA Diaspora, Migration and Media section with Utrecht University and the University of Thessaloniki. This year's conference takes place on November 6-7 and focuses on Diasporas, Migration and Media. With a key note speech by Kenan Malik, panels focus on a range of issues such as Concepts and Methods in Diasporic Film and TV Research; Social Media and Diasporas; Urban Environment and Multicultural Encounters; and Diasporic Audiences. The contact person at NTU is Olga Bailey.
(Photo credit for Window-cleaners at the University Library of Utrecht: .Storm. Permissions.)

Friday, 30 October 2009

Carry On Researching

Matt Kerry who teaches media and cultural studies at NTU has also recently passed his PhD. As he explains below, his doctoral research explores the representations of holidays and their relationship to ideas of nation in British cinema.

The representation of the supposed free space of the holiday by a medium of mass entertainment offers a highly condensed image that demands analysis. In my thesis I question the ways in which the holiday film constructs a sense of Britishness based around the idea of community that is shaped and pressured by forces at different historical moments. Modern capitalist society offers us a structure where the holiday is presented to us as the ultimate contrast from work. It is commodified, and we choose to enter into this ideology, take our break, and return to work, refreshed. The holiday also offers a particular type of freedom, which distinguishes it from other forms of leisure. It can be considered as more of an ‘event’ than a weekend break from work, for instance.

The emergence of the holiday as a form of mass entertainment for the working class appears to coincide with the birth of cinema in the same respect. By studying the holiday film I reveal what it tells us about British culture, the nation and British life, and how cinema audiences may have engaged with and responded to these texts.

As well as providing textual analysis of the films, I also address the holiday as a liminal, carnivalesque space (Inglis 2000, Shields 2002), and also consider how the landscape is mediated through the tourist gaze (Urry 2002, Bell and Lyall 2002). I explore the ways in which the cinematic representation of the holiday shifts in relation to changing social contexts – in new formations of leisure, class and landscape. I also consider how audiences might actively respond to these films, and how these texts might construct an ideal working-class community pre- and post- World War II. Overall, I argue that representations of the traditional British holiday in these films are mostly white, working-class and raucous, but that these representations are not fixed.

Image from Carry On Cruising (1962)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Did Little Chef Change Heston?

 In the run-up to tomorrow’s Did Heston Change Little Chef? on Channel 4,  Joanne Hollows and Steve Jones decide to reverse the question, exploring how Big Chef Tales on Little Chef, broadcast earlier this year, reworked elements of Heston Blumenthal’s brand image.

The culinary documentary Big Chef Takes on Little Chef (BCTOLC) marked Heston Blumenthal’s move from BBC2 to Channel 4. His previous series for the BBC saw him In Search of Perfection, combining a didactic approach to culinary skills with segments of travelogue as he deconstructed and then reconstructed classic meals in order to produce the ‘perfect’ version. BCTOLC marked a significant departure from this format. Focusing was on the reconstruction of a failing chain of British roadside diners Little Chef, the series employed many of the features of earlier culinary documentaries produced by the channel (associated with Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Gordon Ramsay) which revolved around a standard ‘problem-solving’ structure. Indeed, BCTOLC was aired within a two-week season of food-related programming –  the Great British Food Fight – which worked to brand Blumenthal within the star chefs of the Channel 4 stable.

The series followed Blumenthal’s attempts to transform both the menu and the ambiance of a single Little Chef restaurant prior, he assumed, to rolling out a larger programme of change across the chain. However, the narrative is driven by a structuring conflict between the chef and the CEO of Little Chef, Ian Pegler. While Blumenthal seeks to make a deep transformation of Little Chef, conflict is provoked by Pegler’s assumptions that the ‘magic’ and ‘alchemy’ that had become central ingredients of Heston’s culinary image could be applied to the chain as a superficial marketing gimmick. In some ways this involves a reversal of the viewer’s assumptions about the chef: rather than engaging in the avant-garde culinary experimentation that was the hallmark of Perfection (and the later Feasts), Blumenthal’s recreation of Little Chef is based on ‘great ingredients’, a respect for both Little Chef’s own heritage and a wider British culinary heritage, and offering greater ‘value’ to the consumer. Paradoxically therefore Blumenthal never accepts Pegler’s sycophantic praise of his cuisine since it is based on a misrecognition of the chef’s value. Indeed, Pegler frequently appears to use Blumenthal as a ‘trophy chef’ whose celebrity adds value to the brand while the chef himself is shown to be engaged in the more serious work of breathing life into the ‘most iconic roadside restaurant chain in Britain’.

The opposition here isn’t simply one between art and commerce – indeed, Heston is frequently shown to be deeply concerned about such commercial imperatives as costings and staff training – but about the role of integrity in the conduct of business and management. The failure of Pegler as a good leader is frequently demonstrated though his clichéd use of management jargon such as ‘blue skies thinking’, ‘thinking outside the box’ and ‘when the rubber hits the road’, phrases familiar to many viewers from The Apprentice, The Armstrongs and The Office. Blumenthal’s own critical position in relation to such forms of discourse is literally built into the redesigned Little Chef which delivers Pegler his ‘blue skies’ in the form of a mural in the ceiling. This works to reaffirm Blumethal’s brand image, built around integrity and playfulness, within a show which is essentially a rebranding exercise for Little Chef.

While BCTOLC was therefore a departure from Blumenthal’s earlier television projects – and also not indicative of his future trajectory - the series deployed some important continuities. The chef’s willingness to resuscitate Little Chef is based on nostalgic memories of the brand’s centrality in the 1970s Britain he grew up in. His project was therefore to articulate this memory of place, and of the Little Chef brand, with people’s wider nostalgic memories of favourite meals (which had been a feature of Perfection). An important component of this nostalgia is its link to national identity: Little Chef is ‘part of the national fabric’ and ‘just sings British. I feel… [this] is about reinventing British classics for the Twenty First century’. This is reinforced in the first episode by Blumenthal’s road trip to Little Chefs  scattered around England in an act of imaginative mapping. In this way, Blumenthal’s project of re-enchantment relates to other examples of ‘retro-futurism’ such as Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards (1999) with their shots of early motorway service stations (Moran 2005: 124).

Just as Parr’s found postcards simultaneously ask questions abut the recent past and work to reinforce the photographer’s ownership of a pure aesthetic, so Heston’s journey and project are both an intervention into the past and a demonstration of his own aesthetic distance from it. On the one hand, through the mournful memories of Little Chef employees, the series plays with a public memory of a promise of roadside modernity which was never quite achieved in England. On the other hand, the choice of Little Chef is a continuation of Heston’s ability, demonstrated in the Perfection series, to disrupt the opposition between ‘authenticity’ and ‘inauthenticity’, the maintenance of which boundary is widely assumed to be a key legitimating mechanism by which particular social groups make gains in distinction (May, 1999)

By adopting the position of a cultural omnivore who refuses the distinction between authentic and inauthentic foods, Blumenthal’s brand image is kept intact within the seemingly vulgar space of a Little Chef. While contemporary food discourse emphasize the virtues of the local, seasonal and freshly-made, there is little attempt within the show to steer Little Chef towards these values. As in his previous series, Blumenthal is respectful of artisanal ingredients but, unlike shows such as Jamie at Home and River Cottage in which the chef is seen growing or rearing produce, Heston maintains a clear distinction between artisanal and restaurant production. Instead, Heston uses his creativity within the world of industrial and mass-produced food rather than against it. As a route to legitimation this is a rarity within British culinary culture. While raiding the tastes of British and European ‘peasant’ cuisines is a well-worn route to making gains in culinary distinction, this is predicated on the assumption of their authenticity. The industrialized and mass-produced, by contrast, are marked by inauthenticity and consequently unavailable for translation into distinction. It is Heston’s investments in the scientific field that make this unpromising territory available to him (although not all modern technologies are created equal: scrambling eggs in a microwave is rejected in favour of the more cheffy technique of cooking vacuum packed eggs in a water bath.) Yet it is the confidence with which Blumenthal can embrace the inauthentic that marks both his difference and distinction from the contemporary culinary field which festishizes the authentic.

While Heston refuses the legitimation offered by Ian Pegler, the series built towards an event to re-launch the Popham branch of the Little Chef, and to launch Blumenthal as a Channnel 4 chef, attended by celebrities and, more particularly, a group of food writers. While Blumenthal has been active in theorizing his own work and does not simply rely on the validation of the critic for legitimation, the stellar nature of this coterie of food writers (including Fay Maschler and Matthew Fort) is an approximation to the ‘recognition of those [able to] recognise’ identified by Bourdieu. However, the presence of these critics at the relaunch of a Little Chef is not only a testament to Heston’s status within the hierarchy of restaurant chefs but they also operate as a chorus who experience the meal on behalf of the viewer (prefiguring his next series, Heston’s Feasts).  It is also the critics who therefore affirm the success of Heston’s makeover of the Little Chef. However, unlike the makeovers that are associated with lifestyle television, the audience is not offered guidance on how to makeover the self. Indeed, in many ways, the show can be understood as delifestyling project because of the centrality of standardized production and industrial technique, necessitated by the requirements of a mass-market chain.

While BCTOLC established important continuities with Blumenthal’s reputation as a restaurant chef and his persona in his earlier TV output, the documentary format played a key role in further disseminating and nuancing his brand image, promising the audience access to the ‘real’ Heston and his vision as a restauranteur as well as a chef.
(Photo credits: trixie. Permissions.)

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Game play and social networking.

Joost Van Loon's encounter with the MMORPG Runescape engages some questions in relation to Derrida's reworking of the gift.

As an avid gamer myself, I have started to consider how I might combine my so called ‘addiction’ (passion sounds too much like ‘X-Factor talk’) and my professional role as an academic researcher. Being a member of the steering committee of NTU’s Centre for Contemporary Play, I am involved in attempts to bring game-research into a truly interdisciplinary field. The CCP already has a footing in four key areas of gaming: computing science, art and design, social science and humanities. This enables us to develop a unique platform to create truly exciting cross-disciplinary research projects.

My own research focuses on one particular MMORPG (Massively Muliplayer On Line Role Playing Game) called Runescape.
Quite recently, I have finished a bit of research on the role of the gift and reciprocity in engendering associations. This is to be published in the journal Parallax in 2010.

This article reflects on the coming into being of ‘networked actors’. Its aim is to provide some reflections on what could be a more productive way of conceptualizing ‘action’ in relation to questions over embodiment and disembodiment. Rather than engaging with questions about subjectivity and agency, or the nature of authenticity in virtual worlds, or the ontology of virtual bodies, it simply asks what happens if we start thinking about the gift as constitutive of actors (rather than the other way round)? Starting with a critical engagement with Derrida’s reworking of Mauss’ theory of the gift, it seeks to distantiate itself from the implicit subjectivism that underpins the axiom that gifts and commodities are different in essence. Instead, it provides an understanding of gifts and reciprocity that does not treat gifts as ‘mere objects’, but instead shifts attention to the central roles played by gift-objects as modes of enactment. It thereby posits in place of the ever-deferred subject, a net¬-worked¬ being whose existence is always already heterogeneous and dispersed.

It is this ‘networked being’ that I would now like to encounter in a larger variety of empirical situations. I am particularly interested in the ambivalent relationship between on-line and off-line transactions and associations.

(Photo credit: marti macg, permissions)

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Recent Calls for Papers

Below is a round-up of some recent notices about upcoming conferences that might interest people working in cultural studies.

First up is the recent call for papers for the MeCCSA postgraduate conference to be held at the University of Glasgow, 30 June - 1 July 2010. The organizers invite papers from postgraduate students working on any topic relevant to media, communication and cultural studies with a deadline for abstracts of 15 March 2010. The  Screen conference  also takes place at its usual home of the University of Glasgow, 2-4 July 2010. Although a strand of the conference will focus on performance, the conference welcomes papers from any area of Screen studies. The deadline for abstracts is 8 January 2010.

Finally, the next Console-ing Passions conference  will be held at the University of Oregon, 22-24 April 2010. This major international conference focuses on feminist research in television, aural and new media. The deadline for abstracts is 2 November 2010.

(Totally gratuitous use of picture of Vitra conference centre credits: alan.2008. Permissions)

Friday, 9 October 2009

On the art of not asking the right political question

In this post Simon Cross examines last week's announcement that The Sun is backing David Cameron in the next General Election.

The Sun newspaper, Britain’s biggest selling national daily tabloid, last week announced that it was no longer backing Gordon Brown and the Labour Party in the next General Election (to be held by early June 2010 at the latest). The decision by The Sun about which leader and party to support in the General Election is often taken to be a huge symbolic moment in the political life and death of government.

However, it takes no great political insight to have foreseen this withdrawal of support.
The Sun has been attacking Brown for a long time now. Nor should anyone give much credence to the notion that The Sun’s decision to withdraw support from Gordon Brown will actually decide the election when it comes. At best, the paper’s influence will be marginal though this does not negate the point that the paper seeks to curry influence with the likely government in waiting – look no further than Rupert Murdoch’s all too real telephone hotline to Tony Blair in the run up to the Iraq War.

But the real story here is Rupert Murdoch’s brazen attempt to set the agenda of intense anti-Brown/Labour rhetoric that will be intensified from now on. With this in mind, when I watched The Sun’s political editor Trevor Kavanagh being interviewed on BBC1’s political coverage of the Labour Party conference in Brighton. He confirmed that the central decision to switch allegiance from Labour (the paper will back David Cameron’s Conservative leadership) had been taken by Rupert Murdoch in his capacity as Sun proprietor.

Again, this is no surprise. What is a surprise however is that the interviewer viewed this admission as the end-point of the debate when it surely should have been the beginning. The next obvious question to ask Kavanagh should have been the democratic illegitimacy of an Australian-born US citizen using his privately owned newspaper in a blatant attempt to influence the outcome of a General Election of a sovereign nation of which he is not a citizen!

Why did the interviewer not ask this question? Incompetence is one answer. Poor political savvy is another. However, journalists rarely possess the intellectual rigour needed for exercising ‘joined up thinking’ and which makes for the art of asking the right question. Meanwhile, we can expect Rupert Murdoch to invite David Cameron (ala Tony Blair in 1996) to appear before his senior executives in the Cayman Islands (or wherever) and for the Etonian-educated leader of the Tory Party to drop everything to curry favour with a man who regularly pronounces hatred for the British class system. Should make for an interesting relationship over the coming years but as always these relationships are maintained far from the democratic gaze.

(photo credit: just.luc, permissions)

Monday, 5 October 2009

Freeview Retune Day Part II

The second part of Dave Woods’ report on last week’s Freeview retune. Part I is immediately below.

At present the restrictions on Freeview HD seem pretty modest. As Graham Plumb, the BBC’s head of distribution technology explains, ‘Even in its most restrictive state [the system] still allows one HD copy to be made to Blu-ray […] (and for most content there will be no restriction whatsoever on the number of Blu-ray copies permitted)’. This hardly seems like the end of the world, then. (A less well known consequence is that if your set top box dies so do your recordings because they are paired with that particular box, but again this is only going to be a rare occurrence.) So why are the critics getting so heated? There are two recurring reasons. First, attempts to close distribution systems in the name of protecting content holders’ interests are identified with a stifling of creativity and competition. As Danny O’Brien puts it elsewhere,
It was the very lack of control by big media over what citizens plugged into their TV aerials that got us video-recorders, video rental stores and digital video recorders. With a pre-emptive veto, no broadcaster or movie company would have ever let those happen. In fact, the movie companies sued to have VCRs banned in the US. Yet it was those innovations that led to movie rental stores, a widening of ‘prime time’ and a vibrant TV industry.
In particular, open source solutions—a prime source of technological innovation that has more complex relationships with capitalism than conventional, proprietary rights-based production—would be outlawed.

The second issue is a consequence of the first. Critics point out that once the viewer’s control over their own media use is in principle taken out of their hands, other perhaps more invasive types of control become possible, such as disabling the skipping of adverts and the automatic deletion of recordings after a set time. It’s important to be clear that there is no hint of such measures in the current proposal, but the critics are arguing for the long term. After all, probably all mainstream TV will be HD one day; whatever is set in place now will have lasting effects upon the public broadcasting landscape. And that landscape looks set to be one where Ofcom effectively cedes control to rights owners to specify what sorts of technology will be allowed to develop, and what sorts of restrictions they will require and be able to impose. In this context, the fact that, as Paidcontent puts it, ‘it’s taken just 21 days to go from broadcaster request to the end of a public consultation’, does look somewhat precipitate. Writing in The Guardian online, anti-DRM campaigner Cory Doctorow puts it in perhaps extreme terms:
The BBC's cosy negotiation with big rightsholders and offshore manufacturers excluded the public and the free/open source software community – the very groups that blew the whistle on previous attempts to lock up the public airwaves. It's almost as though it wanted to limit the "stakeholders" in the room to people who wouldn't cause any trouble, so that it could present Ofcom with a neat and tidy agreement with no dissenting voices.
Trying to step back from the detail, of course none of the above is to say that content holders don’t have a legitimate interest in protecting their rents and that piracy doesn’t have real consequences. Nevertheless, a familiar pattern I’ve found in other new media forms seems to be playing out once again. On the one hand, large media corporations or bodies representing them lobby, predict industry collapse and threaten boycotts to secure their media content. They propose DRM as a means of doing so. Their actions provoke more or less well founded suspicion on the part of critics such as Robert McChesney who points to ever-increasing concentration of media ownership and the power that accrues therewith, or Kembrew McLeod who highlights the overweening ambitions of rights owners to extend control over their content. On the other, as outlined above, DRM—least of all the token version of it proposed here—doesn’t prevent illegal uploads and thus downloads. It does however make greater or lesser impositions on ‘normal’ users, who may thus become motivated to explore ways of getting around them. This seems to be a vicious circle where no-one really wins.

Another point rather closer to home for academics is that these measures could impact upon existing copyright agreements. The MP Tom Watson had an early blog on this issue. (This at first got something of the wrong end of the stick, condemning the fact that millions of existing set-top boxes would be made useless, which isn’t true, as he later clarified. However, he’s definitely on target when he asks ‘If implemented this will make it difficult to view or record HDTV broadcasts with free software. Where’s the consumer interest in that settlement?’) The comments on the blog are a rich source for critiques of the issues, and I recommend a read of them. Amongst them is David Newman’s observation that
Once again, the proposed technical changes will overrule existing copyright licensing arrangements, like the one offered by the CLA to all schools and universities to use for education all over-the-air broadcasts forever.
In light of Graham Plumb’s comments it’s unlikely we’ll see copying restrictions being implemented for the BBC, but the system will be in place and there is no guarantee the other public service broadcasters will follow suit. UK librarians may feel obliged to follow their American counterparts. Except by then it might be too late.

Latest: Graham Plumb posted a response to Doctorow’s article on the BBC blog on Friday, with Doctorow in turn providing a counter (post #13). This blog and its comments is also recommended (and lively!) reading.

photo credit: jbonnain, permissions

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Freeview retune day: the thin end of a long wedge? Part I

In a two-part post Dave Woods reports on the Freeview update that happened earlier today.

As of lunchtime today, approximately 18 million UK households will have to retune their digital televisions and set-top boxes in order to keep receiving certain Freeview digital television channels. The main changes are to Channel Five and some channels in the ITV bouquet, along with the arrival of a new Discovery channel, Quest. After the retune, little will be different for most people apart from the appearance of Quest, though there will some loss of services to a small percentage of households. (See here for more details.) Behind the scenes, however, this reshuffle is part of the technical preparation for Digital Switch Over, the turning off of the analogue TV signals that makes terrestrial TV reception entirely dependent on possessing digital receivers. There are two main outcomes from the changes. First, Channel Five will become available ‘universally’ (which means about 98.5% of homes) to Freeview viewers, the same proportion as the other public service broadcasters (BBC, ITV and Channel 4). But the changes also pave the way for the introduction of high definition (HD) TV reception via the rooftop aerial, and it’s here that controversial measures that could affect the viewing habits of the nation are being pushed through, and rather speedily at that.

The big issue is Digital Rights Management (DRM). Or perhaps more accurately, DRM is the technological expression of a wider struggle over the future of UK television. On Sept 3, Ofcom began a consultation stating that it was ‘minded’ to allow for ‘the protection of intellectual property rights in High Definition television services’ on the public service channels. The consultation itself was a response to a letter from the BBC sent at the end of August requesting such measures, in which the BBC made it clear that the pressure to implement some sort of content management system (i.e. restrictions on copying programmes) for HD was coming not from itself but from ‘[t]hird party content owners’.

Trying to introduce a system to control the copying of television content for public service television is a legally tricky business since it is a condition of the broadcasting licence that the signals be available ‘free to air’, i.e. cannot be encrypted so that proprietary hardware is needed to receive them. Ofcom duly rejected this suggestion. As a way of coping with this, the BBC proposal suggested encrypting not the video and audio signals themselves, but the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) needed to make a set-top box usable. Hardware manufacturers who were willing to produce equipment that obeyed the copying controls embedded in the signal would be given access to the keys to unlock the EPG.

There are several crucial implications in this development, reflected in the rapidly growing number of responses to it. First and foremost, we have been here before. From the early 2000s in the US, the ‘content owners’ (which broadly means the film and television production complex based mainly in Hollywood) started pressing for a legally enforceable ‘broadcast flag’ for digital TV, which would have had similar effects to the proposals currently before Ofcom. The demand was taken up by the Federal Communications Commission. Due to the efforts of librarians and public interest groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, such measures were found to overstep the remit of the FCC and rejected. As Danny O’Brien of the EFF puts it, ‘Veterans of the broadcast flag battle in the United States will recognise [the language of the BBC proposal]: rightsholders are once again attempting to use the power of the public regulators to force universal DRM on the general public, and place their veto power over the next generation of HD digital TV technology’.

To expand this point a bit further, while the explicit aim of these measures is to help to ‘prevent mass piracy’ as the BBC proposal puts it, this has been argued to be a rather implausible reason. At least it needs some clarification. The sort of encryption (in fact a sort of compression) envisaged is very weak, and as the BBC acknowledges is unlikely to deter for long anyone intending to overcome it. Perhaps it would be better to describe it as deterring casual piracy, i.e. preventing a non-technically minded person from copying a programme onto a DVD and giving it to their friend. As a defence against uploading material to the internet (whence relatively technically unsophisticated people can acquire it easily) it is barely a token gesture. And that is all it needs to be; once it is in place hardware manufacturers,
in order to be legal, will be obliged to implement whatever DRM the content owners specify. For O’ Brien this is precisely the point: ‘In Britain, as in the United States, this proposal isn't about piracy. It's about creating a rightsholder veto over new consumer technologies in DTV’. In other words, the technologically enforced modification of ordinary people’s habits without the option of other hardware becoming available to allow the old habits to continue.

But to try to be more specific, what habits are going to be modified? What are these restrictions on copying? Why is there widespread criticism of these measures?

Part two coming soon.

(photo credit: Lee Jordan, permissions)