Monday, April 23, 2012

Floundering for Purchase: The Paradox of Water and Diamonds in Media

I have discussed dates, and deadlines to submit my progress to my two emphasis advisers. I will be submitting to them via email twice a month, the middle and the end of each month, May through July, and then submit the completed work around August. 10, hoping to defend around August 15.

TO: Professor Mark Jeffreys, Professor Chris Foster, Professor Scott Abbott, Professor Scott Carrier, and Professor Scott Hatch

FROM: Jared Magill

Date:  April 23, 2012

SUBJECT: Proposal for a critical, argumentative essay that compares the early forms of printed news media and their relationship to advertising copy with the current early days of social media and their relationship to advertising copy written as a first-person perspective from within the mass media industry.

            The essay I propose will be a post-modern, rhetorical hybrid; one part documented scholarship, and well-reasoned argument; one part gonzo-style, narrative/phantasmagoria of floundering personal experience within the academic environment during the time in which primacy shifted away from print media to web-based social media. But it is the apparent philosophical shift in the ethics that inform social discourse that I expect will be the real crux of the project. The same question of priority that has always existed in media—whether media as a vector for discourse drives the market, kicking and screaming, toward solutions to social problems, or whether the market, taken as the incarnation of ideology, drives media content to rationalize its social impact retrospectively through public consensus building—will likely remain unanswered, but shall stand as a unifying thread throughout the essay. Ultimately, my hope is to organize the research information, and marshal the narrative language so as to give the essay an underlying structural representation of the critique posited by the content.

            My perspective is one in which I have less of a statement or proposition to advance than a question to ask. Generally, where are we, and where do we go from here? Specifically, is the new media paradigm different in its social roles, and effects? Or is the shift we’ve seen in the last few years the recurrence of a cyclical pattern, or some other type of pattern? Certainly, we have seen a culture-wide shift in primacy from the concrete to the abstract over the last century, which our individually specialized media consumption obviously reflects, not to mention our heavily derivative-infused economic system. Print media gave way to radio, radio gave way to television, and television gave way to the Internet. Each case was taken as the radical liberation of social discourse. Some even considered whichever rising medium was new and novel to their respective time, the outright unpinning of social order, same as today. And in each case, the major economic, and political entities that owned the means to producing and circulating media, came to own the dominant voice in the public sphere, and indeed came to own the hearts and minds of the public at large. Again, none of this is new. The only newness I find is my own experience, the personal dissonance I experience interacting with new media, especially the prospect of seeking a career, or at least a job, in the world of new media. I guess my intention is to find some way to reconcile that with my lofty ideals surrounding the role of the fourth estate, which seem to be grounded in the concrete, or at least grounded in the headspace that takes the concrete world as morally superior to its subsequent.   
Working Outline
  1. By the end of my second year of college I had rediscovered my long forgotten talent for, and love of writing. At that time my writing talent could be described as basic competence at expressing my own thoughts clearly, and articulately in good clean grammatical form. But like so many non-traditional students my mind was no tabula rasa. Instead I entered academia with a brick-and-mortar worldview that, from my perspective needed not so much adjustment as information, and the correct set of ready-made facts to justify it decisively. Sure I had a certain innate awareness of linguistics, rhetoric, trope, and an aesthetic appreciation for language itself. But I had not studied literary theory, critical theory, poetics, literary traditions, political philosophy, or free speech theory. My talent was raw but at least my persona was of the type that tends toward liberal arts disciplines. Such as it was, my identity was mainly informed by rebel themes, DIY ethics, and a penchant for subversive behavior and I found that it lent itself nicely to majoring in journalism.
  2. My objective was to hold the feet of the corrupt, powerful, and self-righteous to the fires of scrutiny. But, unbeknownst to me at the time I was carrying a surprisingly conservative, almost religious belief in truth. What I believed in was a sort of atomic truth that could be found structurally in tact and at large, like something that floats around in the ether, rises to the top of social discourse by a method of simple mechanics, lies in wait to be discovered by the astute minded, and transcends falsehood in an environment of free and open exchange. To be fair to myself, it was not that I thought I had discovered truth myself, but I thought of myself as one who was at least walking the path toward it. I thought that I at least knew truth’s vector, that through hard experience I had deciphered the rubric for quantifying it, that although I had not found it yet, I certainly would eventually, and that although I didn’t know what it was, I would know it when I found it. And it was going to be my crusade as a journalist to point the public in that same direction. Ironically, I may still be doing that.  
  3. Early on, I enjoyed many successes. I had made predictions of how my academic career would track once I had made the decision to change my major to journalism, and to secure a position with the student newspaper. Things went pretty much as I predicted at first. I was awarded scholarships, and periodically sent away to represent the school at student journalism conferences. For a period of about two years, I felt I knew exactly where I was going and how I would get there. Like so many others I have openly criticized, I was taking my personal success as universal affirmation of my worldview. And like so many others who I have openly criticized, I only gave pause to reconsider after it all fell apart.
  4. My first year as a journalism major I phoned in a near perfect GPA while carrying heavy responsibilities on the newspaper staff. I found the journalism program at UVU to fall far short of the academic rigor I was looking for. The idea of interdisciplinary studies in writing appealed to me and after learning that I had already completed the math, and general academic prerequisites for matriculation into the Integrated Studies program; the choice to switch majors was a no-brainer. By then I had exhausted the few upper division journalism courses the Comms department had to offer so I turned my sights toward English Lit, critical theory and creative writing, and Integrated Studies core curriculum classes.
  5. I was denied the position of Editor-In-Chief of the student newspaper, which I felt I duly deserved. In retrospect, the decision of the publication board was probably not wrong. I was in a social environment that I did not understand, and it became more and more apparent as time passed. Others working alongside me seemed perfectly adapted to new media. I watched as their low-cost social signaling on Internet media sites yielded fairly high-value results. I couldn’t make any sense of the economics.. Previously, I had been a firm believer that it took high-cost signals to yield high-value results. That logic seemed perfectly rational.  And I had thought of myself as one strong, and resilient enough to pay high costs over and over. What I observed was that instead of prostrating oneself to the value gods, all one had to do in the new paradigm was the equivalent of speaking the word “prostrate.” I thought of myself as one who took action over expression. In the world I had come from, people did as they would, and spoke very little of it. The new environment consisted of people who did very little in the instrumental sense, but spoke or otherwise signaled accomplishments of virtually everything. I took the change as magical thinking having toppled the rational for good, and people who knew intuitively how to leverage those standards to their advantage surrounded me. I felt alienated. I had long since rejected that kind of religious behavior as a matter of personal piety. At least that was what I thought. In truth, I had my own version of magical thinking at the root of my behavior. It was just the wrong one.
  6. I had recently immersed myself in the more creative, and theoretical communication disciplines. My new curriculum consisted of creative nonfiction instead of magazine writing, poetry instead of AP style news reporting, fiction writing instead of PR, critical theory instead of free speech theory. And thank god for that. Through those studies I was able to find ways of understanding how my expectations and my lived experiences could be so disparate. And even though I was deeply depressed and unable to concentrate, I still enjoyed some very rewarding successes. In any case, the prospect of working in print media seemed very far-fetched, but only a minor setback since my longer-term goal was grad school. All it meant, at least at the surface level, was that I would have to find some other means of livelihood in the interim. However, what I eventually realized to be the deeper truth of that decision was that I would have to adapt myself to the new media environment.  
  7. At a writer’s workshop hosted by the English department at the Capitol Reef Field Station, I became friends with another Comms major with a bent toward the more literary side of writing. She was PR major, creative writing minor, and she was, like my colleagues at the student newspaper, perfectly adapted to the new media environment. She saw the world from inside the social media habitat, unlike me. Her social media profiles were rich, and in-depth. And although they could never be anything other than a repertory of low-cost social signals, which I had always considered superfluous, and cheap, interacting with her compelled me to retract my categorical dismissal of the value of that style of social behavior. I started to find the ability to re-evaluate my analysis of that model. That re-analysis is ongoing but suffice it to say, I am learning to identify with the idea of livelihood within that model although I am still being rejected at almost every attempt.

            At this point my infiltration into new, web-based mass media industries is ongoing, and therefore difficult to outline. I have worked one internship in which the job description advanced the idea that advertising and marketing now have to play the role of journalism on the grounds that flagrant sales pitches in an environment that is saturated with them, fail to captivate audiences. The academic advisor for the Department of Communications tells me that it is a new world for professional writers, that has not yet been clearly defined. And in a recent conversation with Professor Hatch, he pointed out some of the ways in which advertising in one issue of a trade publication, at least in the IT industry sometimes drives the reporting in the next issue since advertising sometimes breaks the story of emerging technology. I find shards of hope in what I’ve learned that I will find some way to integrate vestiges of my old-school values, rebel identity themes, DIY ethics, and penchant for subversive behavior with the reality I now live in. I am looking forward to any feedback that any of you may have on this subject, or any direction that you may wish to give me regarding this project. Also, if there are any insights or bits of information regarding sources that you may wish to pass along to me, it would be greatly appreciated.


Working Annotated Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. The Intelligence of Evil or The Lucidity Pact. Paperback. Oxford: Berg, 2007. Print.

Baudrillard considered The Intelligence of Evil or The Lucidity Pact, to be the culmination of his work during the last twenty years of his life.  Within its pages, Baudrillard offers his final analysis of what he considered to be the most fundamental conflict of the contemporary era. Baudrillard divided human civilization into two primary symbolic regimes that operate as antagonistic forces against one another. One is based upon a system of symbolic exchange, which Baudrillard describes as dual and reciprocal. The other is based on money, and sign exchange, which he describes as totalizing. While non-western societies can create genuinely symbolic, durable cultures, the western world system, based on a logic of empire, is designed to create an integrated and sealed reality, to snap tight around the world and its image. If the first is indestructible and the second is irresistible, who can win and what will victory look like? Baudrillard hypothesized that the answer to that question may lie in the capacity for violence in the world-system itself, threatening that system from the inside with the purest of symbolic forms, the challenge of resistance.

Baudrillard , Jean. Passwords. London: Verso, 2003. Print.

The best place to begin understanding Baudrillard’s sociological analyses of symbolic regimes is with his glossary of terms. Passwords is exactly that, published into a book. Each chapter defines his specific use of a single word or term, and indoctrinates readers into his language paradigm. Consequently, for each term defined in Passwords, there is a corresponding book. I doubt that the fact that many of the actual books were written decades before Passwords renders it any less relevant as a starting point. Marxism, Post-structuralism, Freudian psycholanaysis, Derridian and Lacanian theories of linguistics are some of Baudrillard’s more prominent themes, but his heavy overlay of tech language, his fondness for Calculus metaphors, and references to Gödelian feedback loops, lends his famously poetic syntax a very contemporary voice. Since I will be analyzing the psychological and sociological implications of industries that deal directly within prominent symbolic systems, along with my own participation in them, I plan to rely heavily on Baudrillard throughout the piece.

Baudrillard, Jean. Seduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. Print

Based on Baudrillard’s recurring analysis, which appears in more than one of his other works, the worlds of advertising, marketing, and any related mass communications media that have a persuasive objective, depend specifically on a game of seduction. While a more vulgar concept might place seduction somewhere between equivocation, and manipulation by means of flattery, Baudrillard’s definition apprehends a much deeper affect. Baudrillard’s seduction is a game involving what he calls the universal reversibility of signs, and symbols, which he argues advertising takes even further, not so much to a logical conclusion (because such a term radically contradicts the psychological impact of advertising), but to what he termed “The lowest form of energy of the sign. Degree zero of meaning. The triumph of entropy over all possible tropes.”
The world in which I found myself accidentally immersed was one in which advertising had shrugged off its role as a specific power. It no longer mediated any exchange between inter-social agencies. Indeed it was a world in which the entire social enterprise had collapsed into the simplified, yet agitated language of advertising, where marketing and advertising were proffered as goods and services, in and of themselves, while ordinary objects were sold as either marketing solutions or bearers of derivative social values. And there I was, seduced by it all, frantically trying to assimilate myself into it, getting rejected at every turn.

Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. London: Verso, 1996. Print
The System of Objects is professor Baudrillard’s in-depth, analytical critique of the contemporary state of commodity fetishism.  In Passwords he explains his fascination with objects as originating from their apparent ability to break free of functional purposes and become signifiers capable of establishing syntax with each other and ultimately execute a form of revenge on the subject. The object’s revenge is a heady concept that involves objects coding the behavior of their human subjects with reductive signification, and symbolic values that they bear—as a form of highly simplified language. Once freed from their use value, Baudrillard explains, objects as derivatives or bearers of derivative value—sign value, historical value, ideological connotations, sexual identity themes, and so on, integrate into a discourse of their own, in which human subjects play by their rules. As he explains, these derivatives, when combined according the simplified language of advertising reduce the human experience to a sort of gaming. Integral-Reality he calls it. The final conclusion to this game is status.
            While Baudrillard concedes that objects probably always signified subjects, at least in some way, he argues that prior to the pervasive circulation of advertising through media, objects signified in ways parallel to real human experience. Now however, we have fallen to a state in which advertising is our one and only moral code in a game of status. Even to escape it, he explains, “in a private sense, cannot prevent us from participating every day in its collective development. Not believing in it still means believing sufficiently in other people’s belief in it to develop a skeptical stance. Even actions intended as resistance to it must be defined in terms of a society that conforms to it (213).”
            Now imagine being an outsider in the environment he describes, in which politics, economics, livelihood, religion, and any subordinate cultural discourses are moderated on the personal level by the language of advertising. But here’s the real kick in the gut. That last quote, and this last paragraph up to here, both reveal the same identity themes I’ve asserted in my earlier posts—artist type, DIY ethics, Billy the Kid, Odysseus lost at sea, penchant for subversive behavior and the like. The Cinderella story, the underdog, the rebel, these all show up as motifs in advertising at least as much as any others, and I’ve clearly bought into them. And I’m afraid I would be lying to myself if I said my central identity themes predate my exposure to media and advertising culture. So maybe when I get to my Jaques Lacan citations I’ll find some redemption for myself, some way to blame it on my mom, or dad perhaps. Until then, I’m stuck in this weird paradox. And here is my worst fear—what if characters and themes designed to appear resistant are exactly what give the system of objects its equilibrium, and keep it from reaching its tipping point. If that is true then I feel like Neo whose job is to fight valiantly, miraculously even, and lose anyway, and Mr. Smith has just punched me in the junk for sport. Occupy Wall Street anyone?

Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge: Belknap, Harvard, 2009.  
From the standpoint that art is an adaptive, biological trait stemming from play, which is not exclusively human behavior but observed in other intelligent species as well, Brian Boyd argues that storytelling, particularly fiction, was adapted because of tangible advantages it lends to human survival. Boyd’s account is comprehensive, and covers the biological advantages storytelling creates for human beings in the natural environment as well as the social benefits it generates within organized human civilizations. It would take an act of pure divination for me induce the sum of possible citations and insights this work provides. But one section that I find to be right on point with my experience and the critique I intend to advance in my capstone project is Chapter Eight. Acutely titled From Tradition to Innovation, part of Chapter Eight introduces the concept of “Costly Signaling Theory (117),” and contrasts high-cost and low-cost social signaling. Experience leads me to project Boyd’s social signaling analysis onto communications media in their various forms, and categorize them accordingly. Print media, by my estimate at least, is high cost. Producing it is more labor intensive. It involves physical materials such as paper, ink, and printing presses that must be acquired.  Over time, social conventions, and market forces have imposed sets of standards for print media production. Internet social media, on other hand, at least in the case of individual users is remarkable low cost. A social media user needs only to set up an account, create a profile with no imposed standards of validation—no fact checking or the like, and they can immediately begin signaling to an audience of potentially thousands. Seems superfluous to say the least. But what surprised me was how quickly the value disparity between traditional print, and the new high-tech media was leveled.

Grassmuck, Volker. "When the Virtual Becomes the Real: A Talk With Benedict Anderson." (1997): n. page. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <>.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage. Corte Madera: Ginko Press, 2001. Print.
“All media work us over completely.”

Ong Walter J., Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New Accents. Ed. Terence Hawkes. (New York: Methuen, 1988).
Ong pulls together two decades of work done by himself and others on the differences between primary oral cultures, those that do not have a system of writing, and chirographic cultures to look at how the shift from the oral-based stage of consciousness to one dominated by text changes the way human minds organize information. His approach to the subject is both synchronic, in that he looks at cultures that coexist at a certain point in time, and diachronic, in that he discusses the shift in western civilizations from oral to text based which, according to Ong, began with the emergence of script some 6,000 years ago. In addition to pinpointing certain fundamental differences in the thought processes of the two cultural models, he comments on the current emergence in western society of what he calls a secondary orality. This secondary orality, Ong argues, is dominated by electronic modes of communication, incorporates elements from both the chirographic mode and the orality mode which has been subordinate for millenia.

Welch, Matt. "When Losers Write History." Reason Magazine. (2012): n. page. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <>.