Showing posts with label epistemology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label epistemology. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Common Language Problem

There is an interesting discussion going on the Visible Evidence listserv right now about the definition of propaganda. Interesting for what individual contributors are saying but also interesting because a number of those emailing seemed to think that matter was basic and settled but the discussion showed precisely how little agreement documentary scholars had on exactly how to define propaganda.

I won't summarize the debates but in short they point to one key problem in defining propaganda. Film scholars have a set of critical priorities that lead us to avoid the term propaganda. It's value-laden, it obscures more than it reveals, and it revels in a Manichaean division between good and bad nonfiction. The problem is that the term has a wide popular usage. There is no reason scholars cannot (and should not) resist popular terminology and usage, but they can resist it only to a point. For instance, we do not need to label Thin Blue Line a propaganda film simply because it has a strong polemic and in journalistic terms is not "balanced." But by nearly every measure the Why We Fight series are propaganda films and no amount of desisting the term is going to change that. We could come up with a less value-laden term like "persuasive rhetoric film" just as we could invent a "Manichaean frontier narrative film" to replace "Western." But that's little guarantee that scholars won't substitute "propaganda" or "Western" in their mind as familiar concept-clusters. The popular term has irrevocably shaped the object study and at least some aspect of how we understand it.

At one point in his Craft of Sociology, Pierre Bourdieu notes that the scientist makes a break from common language but the social scientist has to work with common language to some extent. This is one instance that I'm fine with insisting on analytical clarity to our vocabulary but think this analysis needs to take into account the common language usage as well.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Content of the Form

Next week in the Media and Culture class I’m teaching, we’re taking up the debate between ideological reading and (British) cultural studies, using Flashdance as a case study text and reading Michael Ryan/Douglas Kellner and Angela McRobbie. Now there are all sorts of philosophical differences underlying each approach, but I find it remarkable how the difference between the two readings can be determined by the priority they place on the same observations. Ryan and Kellner write,
Working-class films are contradictory in character. Most, like Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, and Flashdance, evidence a desire for transcendence of working-class life that potentially threatens the class system. But that desire to overcome the limited life possibilities which capitalism bestows on its bottom rung is generally limited to individualist forms, which tend to reinforce the founding values and the legitimating ideology of the class system.
What if we wrote, instead:
Working-class films are contradictory in character. Most, like Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, and Flashdance, tend to reinforce the founding values and the legitimating ideology of the class system by approaching class in individualist terms. But that desire to overcome the limited life possibilities which capitalism bestows on its bottom rung potentially threatens the class system.
Where you put the “but” makes a lot of difference. I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, and it makes me wish I knew a little something about rhetorical forms, or epistemology.