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)

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Palestine: Culture, Conflict, Representation

This interdisciplinary one-day symposium at NTU takes place on 2nd October 2009 and  brings together scholars working within a range of academic and cultural perspectives to explore the complex relationships between culture, conflict and representation in the context of Palestine. The symposium poses two key questions. How might the various conflicts faced by Palestinian society be adequately represented? Conversely, what are the conflicts entailed in the act of representation, whether of a political, cultural, artistic or scholarly nature?

The keynote address, 'Edward Said and Rethinking the Question of Palestine', will be offered by Professor Nur Masalha of St Mary's University College. Across a range of panels, participants will discuss topics relating to the representation of space, territory and nation; questions of media representation and coverage; conflicts of cultural identity and belonging; the politics of transnational scholarly representation; the potential and pitfalls of (post)colonial studies and other forms of theorization as modes of representation; Said's legacy in the representation of the Palestinian struggle; and the ethics of representing conflict itself.

The symposium runs from 10.15 to 5.00 on Friday 2 October 2009 in room GEE219 (located in the George Eliot building on the Clifton Campus of NTU). The event is free to attend but it is essential that you register your interest in advance as space is limited. If you would like to attend, please email Anna Ball at NTU to reserve a place.
(Photo credit: Takver. Permissions)

The Silence of Sound

The concept of the silent disco is gaining ground and business is booming for several UK companies at the forefront of the technology. The concept is simple: DJ equipment is wired not into speakers, but into a radio transmitter which broadcasts to multiple sets of radio headphones worn by the audience.

The practical advantages are several – no complaints about sound levels from neighbours being the most obvious, which allows the party to continue well after normal licences for music events expire (most famously exploited in late night sessions at the 2005 Glastonbury festival which launched the concept of the silent disco into the public eye). Individuals can also alter the volume of their headsets allowing a customised experience, and headphone volume can be limited to conform to emerging standards for safe listening (although this might be seen as a disadvantage by hardcore clubbers). The most intriguing advantage is that the provision of multi-channel broadcast and reception technology means that two or more DJs can play to the same audience, who can flick a switch on their headphones to select which DJ they want to hear at any given moment.

My recent experience of silent DJing at the Off the Tracks festival suggests that this provides a new twist to the old DJ tradition of the ‘soundclash.’ This originated in Jamaica but also became central in American hip-hop as the ‘battle,’ in which two separate soundsystems or DJs alternate tunes, fighting it out to win the approval of a crowd. Similarly, at the silent disco a friendly rivalry emerges as each DJ ties to capture the audience, although canny programming - which for best effect puts DJs playing radically different music together - means that the audience don’t really see it like that, and simply enjoy the fact that they can switch back and forth between different styles as their mood suits.

Potential disadvantages include a loss of the physicality of sound: dance music is designed with a strongly visceral experience in mind, in which sub-bass frequencies are felt in the body rather than simply heard through the ears. Interestingly, an obvious further worry - that the communality of the listening experience, in which crowds enjoy a transcendent togetherness, might be eroded by the isolating effect of headphones - proves misplaced: it seems that the mind quickly ‘edits out’ the headphones and a powerful sensation of shared sound persists, with the twist being that you are not sure if your grinning companions are actually dancing to the same thing as you! Additionally, the headphones seem to have a disinhibiting effect, with an enhanced willingness to sing along in evidence (it is quite a strange experience to enter the room without headphones and to hear people singing along to two different tunes at once in an otherwise silent space, whilst they dance out of synch with each other to the beat of different drummers).

Technical issues for the DJ include above all the challenge of mixing in headphones (normal beatmatching technique involves listening to the front-of-house tune with one ear whilst a headphone cup delivers the next tune to the other ear, allowing for the synchronisation of the incoming and outgoing tune). However, it is possible for the DJ to use a small personal monitor speaker as a workaround for this problem, although this does somewhat undermine the purity of the silent concept, and some DJ mixers already allow a ‘split-cue’ in which one ear cup plays the live tune and the other delivers the cue. A more subtle issue is that it becomes harder to respond to the dancefloor - trying to work out how well your choices are going down, and in what musical direction to travel next is complicated by the difficulty of knowing who is grooving to which DJ. In practice, as the set goes on, it becomes possible to attune yourself to that segment of the audience dancing to what you are playing through an attention to the rhythm of their dance – or, easier, the sound of any singing or whooping along that might be in evidence if you remove your own headphones.

(photo credit: damian scott, creative commons)

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Conference Report: Language and (New) Media

Dean Hardman reports back from The Language and New (Media) Conference that took place at the University of Washington in Seattle between the 3rd and 5th of September.

This was the third conference in a series that has examined the role of the media in relation to the construction or representation of language, with the two previous incarnations taking place in Leeds in 2005 and 2007. While those conferences were built around themes of ideology in relation to how the media represented, constructed and produced language, this conference purported to take a step further and invited delegates to look more closely at the roles that new technologies and ideologies associated with new media play in the construction and representation of language.

As it turned out, the papers presented were an eclectic mix of studies and theories that discussed not only the discourses of blogs, wikis, texting, instant messaging, internet art, video games, virtual worlds, websites, emails, podcasting, hypertext fiction and graphical user interfaces, but also how these discourses affect the world in which we live and how new technologies have changed the ways in which we communicate and live our lives.

In general terms, the conference showed that the analysis of media discourse has well and truly embraced the electronic age, with a number of papers examining the role that social networking websites play in people’s lives and, by extension, how the language of these new genres has developed alongside the development of new technologies. Indeed, this was the thrust of one of the plenary speakers’ presentations, Jannis Androutsopoulos of Kings College London, who discussed computer mediated communication (CMC) and how processes of multimodality, intertextuality and heteroglossia can be used to describe and explain the generic features of web 2.0 sites such as Facebook and Myspace.

Another interesting plenary talk was given by Naomi Baron (American University) who focused upon how mobile phone use has reshaped social encounters. She presented data from a study involving university students from the USA, Japan, Italy, Sweden and Korea, which described how use of mobile phones has resulted in people feeling as though they have lost control of social encounters.

Clearly it is impossible in a blog entry such as this to discuss all of the 60 papers presented, but one other session that was particularly worthwhile was the special panel on the BBC voices project. Bethan Davies (University of Leeds) talked about how the BBC’s voices season had sought to utilise the internet to “stimulate a national conversation about language use in the UK”. She discussed how users had submitted their thoughts about their own languages, accents and dialects, and described some of the limitations of the project, such as the selection of specific languages and the availability of discussion forums. The paper offered evidence of a new way of examining accents and dialects as well as attitudes towards them through CMC.

(photo credit: kendrya, permissions)

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Neoliberal U – Australian version.

It is always interesting to be an onlooker at the internal workings of another university, as opposed to viewing the public face of an institution at a conference, and I was fortunate this summer to spend time at an Australian university which has frequently been cited as a trailblazer for the neoliberal academy. Through a local contact, I managed to secure a place on a staff development workshop, designed to groom mid-career academics in the image of the ideal university employee. Normally, at my own institution, I would have scorned such an opportunity. However, this was a chance to be a fly on the wall and to decode the culture of another university's management.

The presenter was offering the participants the benefit of his experience in effective networking and collaboration. The advice he extended seemed to be geared to the rather younger academic than the assembled mid-career constituency rather reluctantly gathered before him, as he revealed that, early on, he had decided to “surround myself with excellence”. How to do this? One brief role play required us to imagine this scenario – you are at a conference and find yourself at lunch standing next to the keynote speaker. What 'chat up' line would you use, in order to make yourself memorable to this heavyweight, who might subsequently facilitate your self promotion strategy? Apparently, the route to advancement is mediated through high quality academic partners who “make you look good”. I listened with my jaw progressively slackening; I had never been exposed before to such shamelessly direct exhortations to actualise self-serving sycophancy.

Building your network should feature high on your one-page career plan, which should be complemented with evidence of your esteem indicators. Your network should be viewed as an asset, and as essential to your CV as any actual professional accomplishments. However, networking and collaboration were defined in extremely limited ways. Partnerships were only viable if they led to outcomes – publications, grant application etc. There seemed to be no room for conversation, mentoring, interest groups, blogging etc. Instead, you were to be measured by the size and geographical spread of your network, and critically, by the status of its participants.

This presenter viewed networking as purely strategic. On the other hand, for many of us , it is experienced as a series of happy accidents, fortuitous collisions of minds, and sometimes bodies, at conferences. Collaborations are driven as often by personal or romantic liaisons as they are by pure intellectual attraction. Seminars, collegiate encounters and academic partnerships are as often organic as they are planned. I was startled at the apparent contradiction between the stated aim of the workshop – collaboration – and the rather vulgar focus on individualism which animated this particular model of the developing academic career. I wondered how this sat with the HR representative in charge of the academic development program, positioned at the back of the room – how was this aligning with the wider mission of the university which surely is not just a vehicle for furthering the priorities of the individual?

At Neoliberal U the individual academic is also responsible for managing their time so that the proliferation of demands must be accommodated unproblematically. In the presenter's own department, he has forbidden staff to claim they are too busy to take on new projects, organise seminars, work with new partnerships. The individual should just learn to 'work smart'. The self-managing academic must become the over-worked academic apparently.

I was also concerned that institutional impediments to networking were discussed, but I felt they were unlikely to be addressed. University managers have, for some years, sought to dismantle academic culture and sense of community. It is threatening to managerialist governmentality, and subject affiliations are seen as dangerously off-message. Part of this strategy has been the removal of social spaces where academics might actually mingle and coincidentally realise commonalities and opportunities for research. RAE culture in the UK has, because of the inbuilt competition, set limits on inter-unit collaboration.

I did come away with some good ideas and a recognition of a few truths about networking and collaboration. Go to conferences and talk to people you don't know, not the other people from your institution. Look for collaborations outside of your own department within your university. I think I knew this already, but maybe I'll go ahead and do it. Look for me on the NTU website as employee of the month sometime soon.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Dunlop to Dsquared: The Return of the Wellington Boot

This year has seen a conspicuous number of designers and luxury brands offering their version of the Wellington boot. Chanel (with rubber camellias attached), Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood (in iconic squiggle print), Dsquared (with built in socks), to name only a few, have all launched rubber boots, or rain boots as some prefer to call them. Even shoe designer Jimmy Choo, a name popularised by Sex and the City, has teamed up with the British brand Hunter to offer a fake crocodile print pair. What interests me here is that, as far as I am aware, this is the first time top-end designers have ventured to offer a type footwear that most would assume is antithetical to high fashion and luxury. Can Wellies actually be a fashion ‘statement’?

It is difficult for me to disassociate the Wellington boot from memories of childhood. I vividly remember that on rainy days I was always forced to wear a pair of black Dunlops to school. The rubber seemed really tough and it was necessary to keep your trousers tucked in. Annoyingly, your socks always seemed to fall down and get crumpled up making them even more uncomfortable to wear. They were rain proof but somehow Wellies always made you want to jump in puddles or anywhere water gathered, testing their effectiveness.

riginally a leather boot, the Wellington is so named after the Duke of Wellington who ordered from his shoemaker a pair of boots in the style of the German military officer’s Hesse boot – as a note they are also the basis for the cowboy boot. As a dandified figure, the aristocracy emulated Wellington’s style in the eighteenth century and they in turn popularised the style of boot that we still call the Wellington. The popularity of the boots was soon translated into a cheaper rubber form through the recent invention of vulcanisation, a process of heating natural rubber discovered by Charles Goodyear the tyre manufacturer in 1839. The rubber Wellington boot became a cheap alternative to more expensive leather footwear. The rubber boot also became an important element of military wear during the first and second world wars because of its waterproof qualities and still continues to be a staple of industry and farming. For such a ubiquitous and rather unglamorous piece of footwear why should it prove to be a popular choice for fashionistas?

I have two speculations that may account for the emergence of the designer Wellington boot. Firstly, the recession has hit the designer and luxury good sector quite hard. [1] Take the Gucci Wellington boot as an example – it retails at £175, which makes it one of the cheapest items you can purchase from Gucci except maybe a key ring. Gucci Wellies do not require the boots to be made by craftspeople in the protected Italian shoe and leather industry: a pair of leather boots from Gucci normally starts at around £550. Therefore, rubber is probably the cheapest fabric that a designer can currently offer. Having just bought a pair of Raf Simon’s neoprene high-tops, I can tell you that neoprene (usually reserved for diving suits and sports), surprisingly, is astronomically priced! The New York Times recently reported that a number designers (such as Vera Wang) are also opting for cheaper fabrics for their collections during these leaner times in order to keep costs down and customers still buying. [2] The designer Wellington offers an affordable alternative to leather boots and means one can still go Gucci at a third of the cost.

My second speculation is a bit more ropey but I do think the increase and popularity of music festivals, especially their endless airing on BBC3, makes Wellington boots the ideal choice for the fashion-sensed as they wade through muddy fields and grassy raves: the fashion blogs were full of summer festival snaps this year. The designer Wellington and fancy rain boot perhaps gestures towards the ongoing gentrification and trend-factor taking root in music festivals (with their more expensive VIP areas). As music festivals increase in number and increase in price they are attracting a new type of festival-goer who cares what they have on their feet, not to mention those who likes to flaunt the fabric bracelets given upon entry that says ‘I went to such and such a festival…’ because going to right festivals in the right fashions now seems to matter.

[1] Though not all designers and luxury brands it would seem. The past few years have actually seen the re-emergence of a number of almost dormant couturiers offering ready-to-wear collections designed by cutting edge designers. Balmain, Balenciaga, and Lanvin have all recently made a return to fashion producing some of the most creative, expensive and desirable items.

[2] Cathy Horyn (2009) 'High Fashion Faces a Redefining Moment', New York Times, September 11th.

(Photo credit: lomokev, permissions)


A few gremlins appear to have crept into the appearance of the blog so we're taking this as the opportunity to do a planned redesign. If things look a little odd over the next few days, normal service should hopefully return soon.
(Photo credit: Inti. Permissions)

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Toys and the Commercial Battlefield in a Time of War

Simon Cross
explores the meaning of the new Ministry of Defence-approved Action Man.

Every former schoolboy of a certain age played with or coveted ‘action men’ figures. For the uninitiated out there, what are they? Well, basically, they are play figures based on the British armed forces and thus sanctioned for playing with by boys. I spent many a long hour throwing my action man around as I imagined single-handedly pulverising the Nazis (I was born in 1964 so World War 2 games were my thing). I haven’t thought about action men for a long time; until recently that is.

Why? Well, earlier this year, the first ever Ministry of Defence-approved toys went on sale. You guessed it: action men are back! These dolls-for-boys are an updated version of ‘action men’ figures based on the modern British armed forces. They now trade on their verisimilitude to the uniform and equipment of the real-life infantryman, commando and pilot (‘action women’ don’t get a look in here I’m afraid; presumably the makers view them as unappealing to their target audience of young and not so young boys).

Launched on VE (Victory in Europe) day (of course) the new action men are trying to capture (military metaphors could be rife here, but I’ll resist) the commercial environment left empty by the demise of the original action men figures in 2006 when the toy makers Hambro discontinued the product. Why are they being brought back now though?

I suggest that there is a new media-promoted mindfulness about ‘our brave boys’ fighting and dying in far flung places like Iraq and Afghanistan in relation to which Character Group, the makers of the new action men, want to exploit for their own commercial purposes. But why are they being licensed by the Ministry of Defence? What is in it for the MOD? How might we think about these toys more broadly?

Firstly, the MOD has clearly stated their optimism that the new toy will help promote the military (see The Guardian 7 May 2009, financial section, p. 28). I would want to add here that promoting the military is part of a wider strategy to garner public support for the role of the military in a time of war.

Secondly, the battle for Afghanistan and Iraq is a battle for the hearts and minds of the British public (we are beginning to see this more clearly now with every media image of dead repatriated soldiers) and I want to suggest that a small plastic figurine with officially licensed insignia forms part of an ideological struggle to legitimise war in the popular imagination at the same time as many people question its legal legitimacy.

Thirdly, war sells. From film to figurines, war is a good commercial opportunity and Character Group clearly see the potential for shifting hundreds of thousands of these figures on the back of heightened attempts to support the activites of the troops in the field. Later this year, the toy makers will be launching their villain against which the new action men can kill and kill again. It will be interesting to see who are what the villain looks like and of course the toy makers hope it will make them a killing. I want to suggest that in a time of global recession and banking crisis perhaps the villain can look like an international mercenary such as hedge fund managers and the like.

Promoting the military in a time of war is a tricky thing but looks to me like the new action men will be doing ‘their bit’. To view the new MOD action men follow this link.
(Photo credit: Pikaluk. Permissions)

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

University mission statements

Universities, Marketization and Missions
Over the past two decades, universities have been encouraged to serve the needs of the economy, and also to reposition themselves as simulacra of business. Indeed, so far has the association cemented itself in the governmental mind, that universities in 2009 have become the provenance of the newly-formed Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Part of pretending to be a business has been the espousal of a mission statement.

The work that I have been doing with Helen Sauntson, of the University of Birmingham, aims to examine the impact of mutually reinforcing discourses of neoliberalism and marketization on universities in the UK. We take as a particular case study mission statements – what they represent and what they communicate, and we present as evidence the linguistic analysis of three electronic corpora of all of the available mission statements for UK universities in the (elite, research-focussed) Russell Group, (smaller research-intensive) 1994 Group and Million + group (comprised of ‘new’ post 1992 universities). We hope to show the extent to which mission statements represent uniqueness, or whether this claim is tempered by findings of discursive uniformity and standardization.

What is a Mission Statement?
Pearce and David (1987: 109) provide the following definition of a mission statement, “An effective mission statement defines the fundamental, unique purpose that sets a business apart from other firms of its type and identifies the scope of the business's operations in product and market terms….. It specifies the fundamental reason why an organization exists”. As we know, hardly anyone, especially not academics, pays any attention to the university’s mission statement – so why do they exist?

What are we finding?
There are apparently just 21 frequently occurring nouns (more than 10 occurrences in each corpus) from which Russell Group universities construct their mission statements. !994 Group universities make do with 22 frequent nouns, while creativity rests among the members of the Million + Group who recycle 35 frequent nouns. This evidence would lead us to agree with another commentator who describes mission statements as “promotional ‘discourse kits’ with which to construct a brand” (Atkinson, 2008). Surely such standardization must compromise universities’ claims to ‘distinctiveness’ and ‘unique selling points’ that are so fearlessly marketed to students.

There are cheeringly still a few relatively enlightened mission statements, and by that I mean that they portray values that most academics would raise a hat to. Honourable mentions, then, to Kingston University which claims to be liberal, critical leaning, radical and public; University of Birmingham which is the only Russell Group university describing its (historic) mission as radical; and Goldsmiths University which mentions intellectual, freedom.

There are also, of course, some neoliberal nightmares, so let us enjoy the embarrassment of the following anonymised universities, which can be identified by a simple Google search for these publically available documents, produced with public money. All of these belong to the Million + Group of new universities. A controversial university in London appeals to the following abstractions: benchmarked, seedcorn, sustainable, corporate, robust, stakeholders, supradepartmental. Despite Laurie Taylor’s ridicule in the Times Higher, only one university describes itself fawningly as business-facing. Another university, with campuses lining the M4 corridor, styles itself as the “foremost employer-engagement university”. But the prize goes to a Scottish institution, characterized by “Exploring and exploiting the ‘whitespace’ interfaces between disciplines so as to create and transmit new knowledge and learning in new ways”. What an aspiration!

Skills aren’t mentioned as often as we might suppose in these times when universities are administered under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Predictably, most mentions come from within the Million + Group, with the fewest mentions in the academically aspirational 1994 Group. The Russell group has no customers at all, but even this buzzword only occurs twice among the missions of the Million + group. However, the latter do recognise stakeholders.

An interesting adjective is sustainable and its related nominal sustainability. It appears to be trading on a kind of eco-friendly acceptability (just in case any potential students might be reading), but this is often a smokescreen for its neoliberal function, since it frequently collocates with, or refers to financial management!

We have to conclude that universities construct mission statements simply because they feel they have to. It is part of what Richard Johnson calls their ‘corporate boast’. No doubt there are committees of highly paid university managers who are almost permanently engaged in this, as it is clear that these mission statements are constantly under revision. As government behests change, universities must comply, at least discursively, even though these discourses fail to be internalized by the majority of people who work within their walls.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Julie & Julia

With next week's UK release of Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia, Joanne Hollows reflects on the movie's roots and what the cookery writer and TV cook Julia Child might be able to offer feminism.

The first blog I ever read was The Julie/Julia Project. I can no longer remember how I found it – I may have read about it or I may have been idly googling Julia Child. But I spent hours messing around on a rather unforgiving website following Julie Powell’s epic quest to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. A ‘government drone by day, renegade foodie by night’ in a ‘crappy outer borough kitchen’ with a fondness for Buffy and a nice line in digs at the Bush administration, Julie may not have pleased the purists but she made me a hell of a lot more interested in Julia Child and gave me a significant number of laughs along the way. And when I read about Child’s death, Julie’s site was my first port of call where (with a developing tear in my eye) I read Julie’s response to the news and her celebration of what Julia meant to her.
'Julia was so impressive, so instructive, so exhilarating, because she was a woman, not a goddess. Julia didn’t create armies of drones, mindlessly equating her name with taste and muttering ‘It’s a Good Thing’ under their minty breath. Instead she created feisty, buttery adventurous cooks, always diving into the next possible disaster because, goddammit, if Julia did it, so could we.'

If this was my introduction to blogging, then I now find myself blogging about next week’s release in the UK of the film (Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia) of the book (Julie and Julia) of the Julie/Julia Project. Not being the kind of blogger who gets invited to movie premieres I haven’t seen it – and I fear it because its a Meryl Streep star vehicle which might threaten to be more about the actress than Julie or Julia.

My own route out of the Julie/Julia Project was rather different. I’d been thinking about why second-wave feminism had refused domesticity rather than attempting to re-think what it might mean for feminism. One of the most obvious answers (although not the only one) lay in one of the foundational texts of second-wave feminism, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), published two years after Mastering and the same year Child first appeared on TV in The French Chef. Both Friedan and Child had clear, but very different, ideas about the role of domestic consumption but were unified in their dislike of the figure of the housewife. So (in a Carrie Bradshaw-esque way) I got to thinking about whether feminism could learn something about domesticity from Julia Child (and – at the risk of product placement - a rather more extensive comparison of the two women appears here).

Although Camille Paglia has called Julia Child ‘a great feminist’, my interest in her was how she imagined a form of domestic femininity that could inhabit the kitchen without being a housewife. Child’s opening gambit in Mastering is: ‘This is a book for the servantless cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, timetables, children’s meals, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.’ (Beck et al: 13) In this way, Child disidentifies with the need to care for others and maintain an appropriately feminine body that characterized the work of the housewife.

Betty Friedan attacked the trend (closely associated with Child) for ‘elaborate recipes with the puréed chestnuts, water-cress and almonds take longer than broiling lamb chops’ (p. 231), arguing that it not only sapped the housewife’s energy but also tied her more closely into what she saw as the housewife’s key role, consuming. But while Friedan saw gourmet cookery as a means of masking the drudgery of housework, Child saw it as its antidote. Rather than a form of alienated labour, Child saw cooking as a labour of love of cooking itself rather than love for other people. Whereas Friedan saw people like Child as catering to the housewife, Child strongly disidentified with the role. When asked to reflect on her early audience, Child denied that she had been addressing what she called ‘the stupid housewife’, claiming that ‘my audience is not la ménagére, but anyone interested in cooking, no matter the sex or age or profession.’ (cited in Fitch: 293). Indeed, she also claimed on another occasion that ‘our programme is for people who really like to cook… plain old housewives get plenty of encouragement and recipes from the daily newspapers.’ (cited in Drake Mcfeeley, 122).

Nonetheless, Julia Child differs from second-wave feminist constructions of domesticity. While she presents a mode of femininity based on a refusal of the housewife, she does not refuse domestic femininity. Furthermore, through her conception of culinary practice, she blurs the distinction between public and private, and between labour and consumption, divorcing domestic practice from the singular gendered identity of the housewife. Betty Friedan was clearly an important figure in shaping assumptions about domestic consumption within second-wave feminism. However, if contemporary feminism is to find a means of thinking about domestic femininity and domestic consumption without continual recourse to the figure of the housewife, then we might have something to learn from Julia Child.
(Photo credit: mamichan. Permissions)

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Crafty Magician or Bad Accountant? Identity and Ideology in British Newspaper Discourse

Dean Hardman offers an outline of his paper for the conference on Language in the (New) Media: Technologies and Ideologies that is about to take place at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Newspaper editorials perform a special role within the pages of the press, as they, unlike other news texts, are openly persuasive and there is usually less emphasis on objectivity (Lee and Lin, 2006). They represent the participation of the newspaper in public debate (Le, 2003) and are sites where ideological stances can often be found (Hackett and Zhao, 1994). This paper examines a selection of British newspaper editorials that focus upon British politicians and British party politics, in order to examine the relationship between the newspaper, its readers (idealised or otherwise) and the political parties and politicians represented.

The paper forms part of a wider study into how the ways in which newspapers construct identities for individual politicians can reflect political ideology, and utilises an analytical method which combines the approaches of critical discourse analysis with the concepts of performed identities and communities of practice. The study highlights how, by constructing identities for politicians, newspapers reveal their own political identities that are closely aligned to political parties, while simultaneously encouraging readers to conceptualise events in such a way that serves the ideology in question.

In this paper, editorials about financial policy from four British newspapers (The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror) are examined in detail. The paper highlights both the ways in which newspapers construct identities for politicians, alongside the effects of doing so - how this serves to construct identities for the newspapers themselves and orients readers towards sharing a particular point of view.

The paper will identify the role of metaphors, modality and other linguistic markers of stance in identity construction, and will compare and contrast the ways in which broadsheets and tabloids and the left and right-wing press orientate towards politicians and encode political ideologies.

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