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 clich├ęd 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