1st Oct – Media, Culture and Identity – how do they relate?



James and I are going to try to engage in a running critique (assessment and reconstruction) of social and media theories that privilege representation over inter-action and what is called ‘performativity


…And which tend to ignore temporality as the variable unfolding of cultural, social, political, economic factors and of selves.


This way of going about things is underpinned by a phenomenological perspective that has its origins in the writings of its founder Edmund Husserl (1854-1938) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)


Phenomenology focuses on an analysis of modes of appearance (phenomena)  – the fluctuation (flux/flow) of our (human) relations to the external world (and that includes other humans opening up questions like how we can have shared culture/meanings/understandings whose RELATIVE stability allow agreements, exchange, markets, values to persist and be recognised.


(What would it be like if everybody was so dynamic that hey kept on changing their minds and tastes etc – how could even capitalism keep up. How could programme makers ever satisfy public taste?)


Phenomenology markedly pulls away from standard social theories/methods notably Marxism and functionalism - what I call lumpy theory – theory that draws on ontological lumps such as, in the case of Marxist explanations, class, and the conflict between one class and another..or in the case of functionalism, structural units e.g. social class or say, the education sector, or business and explores how they all interact in a system to function better or worse.


Another theoretical approach which comes closer to phenomenology is that of Methodological Individualism: this explains society etc. in terms of the choices individuals make and their rational interactions and agreements with others…


But none of these seem to me to capture what a rich enough account of flexible selves rather unpredictably unfolding in time in a swirling interaction with others under variable processes of the

determination of meaning within, between, and upon  actors


Today, I am going to explore what we may mean by the very contested  and thereby unstable term ‘identity’ in relation to ideas of culture and media.


But I start with a quick run down of:


Phenomenology versus more positivist approaches.


Positivism: I can know theorise (generalise) what the world is about and looks like by regular, structured, clear and distinct observation (empiricism) and then I generalise.


This assumes there are definite things (unvarying objects) that have a recognisable stable (fixed) identity (are therefore ‘countable’  - which allows for statistics to be used). Positivism turns on an image of rather static world.


And we gather stats about social reality from which to make plans and predictions – it has happened for ages so it will happen tomorrow – ok lets invest…. Such past to future inferences is know as an inductive process.


This is all about an image of a world that is essentially not just clearly knowable when inspected by using the right methodology/method – the epistemological thing – but is controllable.


Subjects dominate objects; human meaning and purposes can harness nature.


Husserl/Heidegger and other phenomenologists took a rather different view whereby the world (humans+nature) and its horizon are in flux – it is dynamic.


I cannot impose meaning upon the world as a simple matter of will…I do it under conditions that are give by my nature. I am a plane of sensation – an affective body – and those possibilities are given to me by nature itself..that I can:


feel, have fears, think, have ideas, can imagine, dream, have emotions


The way I am in these matters is not closure but make the world possible for me – it open up a world of experience..of external reality and human others.


But it also filters me variably…by my moods shall the world appear to me i.e. does a TV programme seems to same to me if I am happy as opposed to sad, interested as opposed to bored (Can I make myself bored?)


NOW…many sociologists and others bang on about ‘social construction’ – the denial that there is a natural foundation to choices, decisions, the basis of society i.e. that there arte always social processes via power of others that ‘caused’ such and such to happen…


But surely moods are not constructed – they underlie how we perceive the world and how it appear to me – it constructs a world if you like…an there is the affective body – the one by which I perceive the world in the first place and that is not ‘socially constructed’..but still makes meaning and understanding possible


So in addition to Marxism and Functionalism, perhaps we ought to have doubts about the rightness of ‘social constructivist approaches to explaining society and media and culture.



My body/nature opens the world of appearance for me but…

that world comes towards me as I am open and attend to it.


So not subjects (us) that control/determine the meaning of objects…


But we live in a third space…the creative ‘between’ where in the flow of TIME we have variable experiences/perceptions that intermix – colours and feelings can co-occur – synaesthesia – ‘cos my nature/natural dispositions let this happen.


The world seizes me as I seize it – and we meet in the middle varyingly!


That I have imagination is a sign of my freedom – I can think against how things appear – what would this be like if it was larger? A different colour and so forth. And that I can think against the world is what man has called utopian thinking – how different world can be thought of.


So then…we have to see that even identitywho we are is variable – can thought of in aspects.


Let us create a typology (a list of the different types available)


a) Identity as our natural capacitiesaffective identity


b) Identity as our activities – the totality (your total history) of all that we do from the tiniest little movements to large scale actions. (Identity as temporal)


c) Identity as meaning: the symbolic actions I engage in and receive: words/gestures/signals – ‘I mean this…/It means that…’ I feel lie this today/I want to look my best so I will put on these clothes


d) Identity as recognised by others: how others see us – I am meaningful for others. ‘He looks a bit dodgy’


Merleau-Ponty (1903-1962) french phenomenologist close to Jean-Paul Sartre in his greatest work: Phenomenology of Perception (1945) points out that our relations to others is not a world of inaccessible transcendence where each of us look at the other as some object that we tower over (transcend in that sense)(that would be a positivist approach) but rather as a space of modes of recognition of the others as an opening of a space of inter-subjectivity. This is for the most part a fairly easy going world of glances and seeings that do not surprise us or cause us to stare very hard..but a kind of giveness and acceptance of the ongoing flux of everyday life.


Phenomeneology does tend to be conservative with a small ‘C’ in the sense that it tends to assume we are creatures of habit and routine and change is not usually rapid and wholly unpredictable..but that may well be true anyway. And in the world of media/culture some argue that we are speeding up the rhythms of life. How might this be?



And there is another dimension to identity that will be key for us this year and that is identity as imposed or attempting by others as exercises of cultural and social power


e) Identity as ideology – a not just ways of everyday life but us a vehicles of a fairly stable, predictable set of values and views resistant to frequent change


and here the role of media in the construction of such an identity has been seen s at the very heart of media theory viz the impact of Stuart hall’s article Encoding/decoding for the last 40 years because it said that we could be resistant to ideology