Community Media Cultural Literacies – Zoom Drop-In Thursday 21st July 2022

This week at the Community Media Makers Zoom Drop-In, we’ll be chatting about how media literacies have been limited by a focus on commercial media and the so-called creative industries. We’ll be chatting about what we can do to foster an open view of culture and creativity, within the context of art, philosophy, drama, and many forms of aesthetic practice. How can community media makers take a broader view of culture, and avoid limiting ourselves to imitation and filling in gaps left by others?

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Discussions around media literacies often get entwined with a belief that we should prioritise consumer skills and information management in order to promote public proficiency with media in our role as either citizens or consumers. What this view fails to ask, however, is the more profound question: what purpose and character should people who make and use media aspire to as bearers of culture? In my experience, the media literacies debate, here in the UK at least, tends not to ask these fundamental questions anymore, because they demand the need to explain both social and cultural processes, and the value of judgement that are made in the service of a long-term process of enculturation necessary for an enduring sense of civility. We are left using largely economic and transactional terms, and when all you have are hammers, every problem you see tends to look like nails.

Discussion about media literacy, then, is now generally focussed on the pressing requirement to support economic development based on practical aptitudes, i.e. the need to supply a steady stream of competent artisans and technical producers who can meet the employment demands for what is now labelled the ‘creative industries.’ While independent thinking and embodied cultural expression feel like they are being diminished in relevance, we should note that it wasn’t always like this. Only a few short decades ago no one had heard of the term creative industries. The creative industries are a new term that encapsulates a myriad of economically novel electronic and mass media systems and platforms. The use of the term creative industries, moreover, has reached a point of evident absurdity, whereby, along with concepts like marketing and efficiency, they have become touchstone concepts in summa summarum. Thus, the use of the term creative industries is approached uncritically, and assumed to be universally applicable and valid in and for itself.

What is now mislabelled as a ‘sector’ of the service economy was, until recently, a constituent component of our overall cultural repertoire and civilisation. These repertoires of creative practice themselves contributed to the function of our overall sense of development within an active process of collective advancement. Media, to use the term etymologically, is an intermediary mode of expressed agency. Media is something which is deployed in the service of the practices of both ‘high’ art, and the practices of ‘folk’ or ‘popular’ arts. Culture is sometimes said to be the summation of objects that can be traced archeologically, as symbols, through their usage in different circumstances and by different people.

Those in the past who expressed an appreciation for art, literature, music, poetry, drama, and all forms of aesthetic contemplation, would, I believe, have regard the priority of educational and intellectual expansion in our universities, for example, to be impossible if it only encompassed media production and craft skills alone. As Carl Jung explains, to understand culture and civilisation, one needs a understand the archetypal dynamics of the development of our collective consciousness. As Jung describes, “man has achieved a wealth of useful gadgets, but to offset that, he has torn open the abyss, and what will come from him now – where can he make a halt?” (Jung, 2003, p. 155). To take the view that our culture and civilisation in reducible simply to products in an economy of products, labour and signification, is reductive beyond belief and experience.

The precepts of Western Civilisation, as famously mapped out by Kenneth Clark in the 1969 BBC documentary series Civilisation, seems to have fallen out of favour, and is being endlessly deconstructed and decolonised. Clark’s ground-breaking use of television to tell the story of European culture seems audacious now, simply because it dared to account for European civilisation by continuing to pay attention to the major pillars of European artistic and creative life. Philosophy, artistic expression and cultural value were threaded together by Clark, and were used to trace and track the changes in both individual and collective consciousness, as evidenced both through, and in, the expressed European cultural tradition and academy. The fitting 2018 follow-up, Civilisations, rightfully expanded the scope of this analysis to other cultural perspectives, and presented a global view along the same lines. Notwithstanding the many differences in emphasis, and the need to bring new voices into the conversation, it is clear, Civilisations argued, culture and civilisation matter.

It must be noted, however, that those who attack this focus on tradition and the role of the academy, for example, for simply being a tradition and academy, do themselves and all of us a great disservice. For we would not be where we are today without these civilising forces and processes which provide the ground on which we stand. To reject them as being entirely corrupted by privilege and bias fails to account for the radical and progressive shift that was articulated by people who challenged previously held dogmatic views. We would not be ready to push-off into a new and uncertain future if we did not have our feet firmly planted on solid ground. As Robert Johnson puts it, “there is a universal sense in humans that there is a unity and cohesion at the heart of life, and that it is possible for us to be consciously aware of it” (Johnson, 1986, p. 39). This does not mean that we should endlessly deconstruct the ground on which we stand, in the hope that we might discover something new. Instead, we are better seeking to understand the past as an act of conmuniter, so that we can articulate something new in the future.

In the Long Revolution, Raymond Williams suggests that “the growth of every human being is a slow process of learning… ‘the rules of seeing,’ without which we could not in any ordinary sense see the world around us” (Williams, 1992, p. 33). According to Williams, this ability to understand the rules of seeing is a process through which we form ‘reality’ in creative acts. Williams points out that,

“The philosophical implications of this view are both far reaching and difficult, but there can be little doubt that henceforth we must start from the position that reality as we experience it is in this sense a human creation; that all our experience is a human version of the world we inhabit.” (Williams, 1992, p. 34).

Williams argues, moreover, that the process of enculturation, represented by those forms of aesthetic expression undertaken as part of our cultural history in Europe, which have been in process for millennia, have led us to the point whereby our insight as modern people of the world “makes it impossible for us to assume that there is any reality experienced by man into which man’s own observations and interpretations do not enter” (Williams, 1992, p. 36). The consequence of which, according to Williams, is that we should embrace the task of enculturation anew, and seek to use this meta-knowledge to form the culture of the future, which in turn will become the cultural backdrop for those who follow us.

A gap has opened-up, in my view, between the world of enterprise management and that of stewardship of our common culture and civilisation. The contemporary obsession with economic development shapes and limits the range and forms of cultural expressions available to us. The term culture industries, therefore, is an oxymoron which points to a paradox that challenges the way we might otherwise embrace our cultural traditions and modes of development of our civilisation(s). Cultural industry has become increasingly dissociative, as many seek to generalise the principles of economic expediency as the defining principle for cultural enrichment and growth. For example, universities in the UK are now downgrading and closing English Literature courses on the basis that they do not supply graduates to work in the booming television industry that makes endless, and often asinine, content for Netflix. It would seem that the enduring process of enculturation that has been happening throughout European history, is being dismantled because there is no market value for critical and independent cultural expression and thinking.

Now, one might rightfully ask why this is important for any consideration of community media? So, apart from getting something off my chest, I would hope that we might articulate a sufficiently flexible view of community media whereby we can adopt the widest possible view of our culture, over the longest period that is relevant, and form an integrated and developmental view of our culture, particularly as we can go beyond the function of economic and social expediency. It’s often said that community media needs to adopt the same platforms, routines and formats that mainstream and corporate media offer. Indeed, many get frustrated that community media isn’t professional enough and doesn’t have the infrastructure to sustain itself in an economically challenging world. Shouldn’t community media simply do the same things as mainstream media? Shouldn’t community media simply seek to fill the gaps that large-scale media platforms can’t reach? Shouldn’t community media act as a stepping-stone into the ‘real’ media industries. I’ve heard all of these many times over the years, and I’ve come to the view that rather than imitating the routines of mass media, where community media makers produce content that is consistent with, and guided by, the principles of mass and industrial communications, that we should be actively finding ways to reject, parody and call out those routines and expectations.

I’ve often said it myself, that community media allows people who find themselves at the edges of our culture to express themselves in new and innovative ways, thereby speaking with and for their communities in ways that are different to what mainstream and mass media do. The problem, however, is that this is often dismissed as merely a tolerance for people to practice their hobbies, their niche interests, and the esoteric points of view. This is tolerated as long as no one is doing any appreciable harm to others – and I favour accountability models of media – but it also results in a safety-first approach, where the testing of boundaries, and the development of new forms of expression are given little support and space for development. Simply put, then, this is not sustainable. Community media has the potential, in my experience, to be so much more than an asinine imitation of a failing mass-production model of media.

Radio Art Zone

Take a look as Radio Art Zone, for a demonstration of how this alternative space for cultural expression is being tested and developed. Radio Art Zone takes forward the idea that we can use forms of aesthetic expression in radio and audio to bring new forms of consciousness into being. Ernst Cassierer notes that

“If language is no longer regarded as a distinct reproduction given reality, but as a vehicle of that great process in which the I comes to grips with the world, in which the limits of the two are clearly defined, it is evident that the problem is susceptible to many diverse solutions. For the finished determinate form between I and world in not finished and determinate from the outset but comes into being and gains efficacy only by giving form to itself” (Cassirer, 1955, p. 269).

In other words, we are not bound to accept the dominant expectation of received modes of expression, but are free to explore and experiment with many forms and processes that will tell us not only about ourselves, but our wider culture as well. At present, the focus on transactional and positivistic media literacies limits our capacity to define and redefine our culture, and thus our civilisation. For as Lyman and Vidich remind us, “the advantage in the long term is in the hands of the side which is able to capitalise on the prestige and strength of the transcending group” (Lyman & Vidich, 2000, p. 232). The question, then, is what is the appropriate way to approach the transcendent?

Cassirer, E. (1955). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Yale University Press.
Johnson, R. A. (1986). Inner Work – Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth. Harper One.
Jung, C. G. (2003). Four Archetypes. Routledge Classica.
Lyman, S. M., & Vidich, A. J. (Eds.). (2000). Selected Works of Herbert Blumer – A Public Philosophy for Mass Society. University of Illinois Press.
Williams, R. (1992). The Long Revolution. The Hogarth Press.

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