This week’s Production will focus on Morell’s article on Critical literacy and popular culture in urban education. This is essentially a practice that allows students to see the world around them through an inquiry lens that assists them in questioning realities that are the social norm and those that are abstract. I think what he is trying to say is that people feel the need to correct representations that are incorrect. Meanwhile creating their own representations by perhaps remix-ing information and making it their own – almost like DJ-ing information that you choose.
The form of engaging literacy varies depending on the socioeconomic factors. Morell says that essentially everyone exercises literacy in some way or another, depending on how the individual decodes information and texts. But the disparity lies in socioeconomic factors- what he calls the Rich vs poor. His point is to somehow bridge the gap that is between this by aiding the marginalized communities by what he calls the “expression of universal human values”. These include all forms of multiliteracies. Including dance, pop culture, visual arts, films, etc. The idea is to make learning more relatable to students in what ought to be an honest attempt of engaging students to want to intrinsically learn, via decoding information that they have access too.
His also discusses ways to educate the youth of urban environment by introducing hip-hop into their lessons. Something urban youths can relate too. By bridging this gap between interest and education we as teachers are doing the same thing as students where we are decoding information and finding ways to remix it in our own representation and then selling this to the students. The moment students get hooked is when we as teachers have become successful in delivering what was once known as “boring material”. Of course, this challenge is difficult and teachers will have days where they “just need to get by”, however, I believe that if students see the teacher making an honest effort to enlighten education they will follow through. Or at least I have faith they will…
Production 6: Samurai Obama
In my recent travels to Japan, I’ve come across some pretty weird stuff. Speaking only from a cultural point of view, it was to be expected as our countries differ vastly in pop culture and media literacy. Generally speaking, to perceive something to be “weird” is to say that it is out of the social norm of what a person may be acquainted with.
A few years ago while I was flying home from Vietnam, I stopped by Tokyo, Japan for a couple of days. While there I did what other tourists would do, go shopping, see landmarks etcetera. As I walked through the Akihabara district, – known for their great deals on electronics, games, toys, and huge anime collection, I noticed an Obama action figure – equipped with a samurai sword, gun accessories, and even an iconic “light sabre”. (Star Wars) At first, I thought nothing of it as I had already prepared myself mentally to see some things that were out of my norm. However, reflected upon I saw many things that questioned my understanding of Japanese culture and toy marketing.
The Obama action figure was marketed towards male children with a “bad ass” theme. It framed a cultural narrative that I understood that America and Obama were these power hungry nations that “destroys” all her enemies. It forced a specific identity on American people and by implication, Canadians as well. (Or anyone in the western world)
It positioned a specific intersection of gender and cultural roles in what was seen in native Japanese boys vs boys in the western world. Firstly from a marketing aspect, these toys, in my opinion, were popular with the adolescent youth that were into the alternative culture that was not expected of Japanese children. (purely personal conjecture as this was what I saw with my own eyes). Media marketing and representation of the western world or anything for that matter, (probably most things) are all done in the form of cartoons. (Anime) Almost like a spoof, perhaps satire or to make light of something, the marketing in Japan gears towards cute little “chibi” versions of their characters. This could be tenuous; however, as someone whose family shares some cultural references to Japanese culture, I understand that Japan socially is an extremely polite society. It almost seems forced at times, however, respect comes in the form of class and where you or your family ranks determine how one ought to treat each other. In this sense, we could say that it differs from the traditional western culture that normally focuses on the character trait and merits of the individual. Yet for literacy to benefit students, and promote social justice it must enable empower their capacity to difference. Seeing a different reality than what you’re accustomed too doesn’t mean evil and this is the conclusion I’ve arrived as I navigate through pop and social culture.
I think the Japanese representation of “Samurai Obama” would agree… I wouldn’t want to say no to him…
- PAUL NGUYEN
Promoting literacy in this day and age calls for a more expansive conception of “literacy”. It is imperative that as educators we understand that providing students with the tools necessary to access texts, though important, is incomplete. For literacy to benefit students, improve lives and promote social justice it must enable empower their capacity to dissent. Dissent from social or other structures the act as barriers to their own fulfillment, and participation in global struggles to enhance the status and well-being of marginalized populations. Literacy can be both immediately beneficial to students and result in their ultimately living in a better world by resisting the forces that reproduce existing power structures.
Technology has provided varying text formats and popular culture a general message or resistance to power structure. As evidenced by the Morrell and Duncan-Andrade article, even disparaged and even vilified art forms like hip-hop can be corralled for the promotion of literacy. In modeling an approached based on this strategy, the selection of the pop cultural text would, of course, be based on the cultural/ethnic particulars of the class. Where hip-hop might work in a heavily urbanized school – other texts might be appropriate elsewhere. In terms of a specific popular culture text; there is no reason to assume that popular texts do anything but reproduce misconceptions about marginalized people (as was especially made clear by Reel Injun last month).
One text that would be especially useful this year would be the upcoming Justice League film, to be released next month. One member of the Justice League is the character Victor Stone (“Cyborg”). He is the only black member of the League and currently appears in his own comic book, plus the regular twice-monthly Justice League comic book. He also appears in the Teen Titans. Animated TV series (available online). Cyborg has often been criticized by cultural observers as being at once a parody of the Black American experience (football player with an absent father, taking a decidedly inferior status to Batman and Superman), or as a cultural icon – brilliant, kind, powerful. Having students examine this character thru different media formats and comparing them could be a useful exercise in promoting a creative engagement with different texts. Depending on their assessments of the varying texts, this might prove an opportunity to foster the critical literacy necessary to resist a negative representation of a marginalized group.
The question asks how do media representations serve the needs of the dominant culture, with the premise that cohesiveness requires on “Other” to oppose the dominant culture. The article goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the sweeping majority of media products are generated by a small group of conglomerates in service of advertisers. The function of advertising is to market goods or services. It seems doubtful that a corporation assesses the efficacy of its investment in advertising on it’s promotion of cultural cohesiveness, or its effective subversion of ethnic or other minorities. All media products generated by the market; advertising, films, video games, comic books, should be understood in this manner. Media, like every force in daily life, is a factor in individuals negotiating their identity with the world around them. The job of an educator or parent is to help young people understand the media for what it actually is; it is a structure designed to attract audiences and sell things – so that a few million people in Hollywood and around the world can earn a living. It is inevitably a factor in forming identity – but there is nothing inherent in it that says it must be the primary factor, or that it must be undermining.
The academic approaches we’ve examined all seem to start with the premise that media consumers see first the ethnicity or some cultural signals when assessing media representations, and that this is a principle plank in forming identity. This was certainly the case in Reel Injun, which hung its hat on this “post-colonialist” idea. This colonized/colonist dominant culture/minority culture perspective is an elaboration of the neo-Marxist oppressed/oppressor paradigm at the root of postmodernism. The article’s reliance on the term “resistance” in negotiation with media messages is telling. Negotiation with media is apparently not unlike an armed struggle against factory owners. On page 12 of the reading, “resistance” is defined as “opposition with a social and political purpose” to target “particular power imbalances and inequalities”. In an educational context, this seems to be advocating using children as fodder for some egalitarian revolution.
Human being are far more complex than simple representations of ethnic groups. I will use myself as an example. My ancestry is Vietnamese on both sides. A few years ago I say the movie “The Green Berets”(1968) with John Wayne about the Vietnam War. This was a film that would fit very neatly into the whole “colonialist” perception of media. Yes – virtually all the “bad guys” were Vietnamese, but I did not identify with them. I was identifying with and “rooting” for the white Americans. This is because my parents and (some) of my educators encouraged me to perceive myself as an individual, not as a member of a group. As a consequence, I tend to overlook ethnicity and respond to values in media products. In the Green Berets I was not going to side with Communists (like Nazis, demonstrably representative of objective evil) even if they looked like me.
It seems that as educators we should instruct young people as to what media products are – more or less marketing tools. However, we should always discourage self-perception limited to stifling, inhibiting ethnic/racial categorization.
New Literary Studies is an umbrella term roughly covering the relationship between the reader or “consumer” of a given text and its producer. It largely perceives this relationship as being mediated, even shaped by social structures, possibly being manipulated for the purpose of supporting those structures. It is distinguished from the “autonomous” literary school, which conceives of literacy as benevolent and objective individual negotiation of a given text to extract meaning.. It calls for literary instruction as the teaching of reading and writing skills that ignores, or at least minimalizes social context.
Helpfully, the Alvermann article in its discussion of the history of Mass Media studies refers to the Franfurt School and associated scholars as being in the forefront of this new conception of Literacy studies. . The Frankfurt School (generally speaking) attempted to explain the relationship between text producer and consumer through the Postmodernist lens. Postmodernism at its core is simply the application of the classical Marxist group oppressed / group oppressor conceptualization of every social phenomenon. The colossal failure of Marxism as the basis of an economic system did not spell the end of the oppressed/oppressor root. The Frankfurt school as pivotal in the spreading of this paradigm into every area of the Humanities; Anthropology, Social Science, and certainly Race / Gender / Queer Studies. Mass Media Studies and Education were no exception. Since the 1970s it has just been the repeated pouring of new subject matter into a very tired, decrepit paradigm. The 3rd debate discussed in the article of especially demonstrative of this (“A Question of Identity Politics”). In discussing how young people construct identity through negotiation with text. It refers to the work of Dyson, who says this self-construction is an opportunity to manipulate this selfhood construction to bring about some utopian “social equity”. It seems to me the job of an educator is to promote skills and critical thinking – not to weaponize human beings for some egalitarian revolution.
In New Literary Studies we see the echoes of the old Marxist paradigm, with its ancillary devaluing of the individual’s capacity for negotiation with a text. Of course, any individual has sprung from carious social structures which guide his/her negotiation with text. Engagement with the written word ina book or on a computer screen or language or music heard in a film or video gameare received in an individual mind. Understanding social context is useful – but has far less utility than acknowledging the individual’s participation in the extraction of meaning.
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