My name is Chantal and I am a sophomore most likely concentrating in IR – PCI track and Middle East Studies. I’m very much in the process of discovering new avenues and abilities of media, and my interest is honed on media frontiers in the Middle East specifically, and the developing world in general. I will be going on a Students of the World trip this summer, where other members of the Brown chapter and I will work to document the work of a yet-to-be-determined NGO and its effects the community through film, photography, and writing. I’m currently writing and editing for a radio documentary called “Between Iraq,” comprising stories of Iraqi refugee families that I recorded in Syria last summer. I also have a radio show at BSR, and I’ve worked a few summer jobs at the kind of newspaper that requires you to bring your own digital camera.
I’m particularly interested in specifically motivated media that is bought and paid for – propaganda, if you will – and its relationship to what we, as viewers or as media producers ourselves, consider “legitimate” media. When I was in high school my mother had a job directing and producing promotional films for the U.S. army, and our house was flooded with tapes called “Best of Iraq Freedom: Parts 1 and 2” and similar. I’ve also spent time living in Syria, where dozens of quasi-militaristic posters of Bashar Assad faced my bedroom window. It’s easy for us in classrooms to dismiss such media as “Army of One” or a head of state lounging in army fatigues, but its easier, I think, to underestimate the extent to which people respond to simple kitsch, “motivated” or no. And within the vast abyss of various media sources available to us right now,
the dialectic of motivation – paid or no – and objectivity seems obtuse. What exactly is our standard – can there possibly even be a standard – for “objective” media? If, as Barthes tells us, all speech aspires to power, can we not say that all speech, and all media, is motivated? And how are we to go about judging the “legitimacy” of these motives, if at all?
So on to Barthes: The quote on pg 311 hints at something I find fascinating, which is the idea of our speech as separate from ourselves, and perhaps more powerful than ourselves. More often than not, we are armed only with our speech to represent ourselves, giving our language power not just over our audience, but also over us, the speaker, he who seeks to represent and be represented. Language creates space for interpretation and possible misinterpretation, which can easily become judgment and criticism – or “reduction,” which Barthes discusses soon hereafter. For a here-and-now example, this can degenerate further into a tit-for-tat “he said – she said” situation à la Barack and Hillary, which arguably lends power to neither party. It’s worth noting that although we may aspire to power through speech, it may achieve for us quite the opposite.
So what can we do about it? Barthes is unsympathetic. Like with footprints in the snow, we can turn on our own speech, backtracking and trying to obfuscate our original position, but we run the risk of just making a mess. The canvas of our speech – a classroom, a dinner table conversation, etc – will never be “innocent” of its tracks. As Barthes would say, it “smells.” This permanence of speech differs from writing in that there is no delete key, no White Out. If I am typing by myself, and I don’t like this sentence, I can delete it, and like a good hit job, no one will ever know what went down. Written word is more vulnerable to our whims, to our sense of style and pacing, to our pretensions and apprehensions about how our words represent us. The fact that this entrance exam is written rather than oral is telling of the kind of representation we are meant to achieve in completing it.
Barthes also says: “It is difficult for a teacher to see the “notes” taken during his lectures: he has no desire to do so... out of fear of discovering himself in a reduced version.”
“Imagine that I am a teacher: I speak, endlessly, for and before someone who does not speak... I am the one who, under cover of an exposition, proposes a discourse, without ever knowing how it is received, so that I can never have the reassurance of a definitive (even if damaging) image which might constitute me.” (both page 312)
In this section, Barthes discusses the institution of class notes and how they privately “reduce” the teacher in form and/or content. With regards to my experiences at Brown, this passage evokes another institution, the end-of-semester teacher evaluation. The teacher evaluation introduces a way for the teacher having a “definitive (evening if damaging) image of what might constitute me” in his students’ eyes, something that Barthes does not consider a part of the teaching relationship. It has the same characteristics that Barthes assigns to notes – the representative and reductive qualities, the possibility for an interpretation of the “message” that would offend the “sender” – but adds an analytical dimension, one that has larger ramifications for the teacher. The evaluation associates the students with a power higher than that of the teacher (department head, etc). It is, in theory at least, a momentary reversal of the student-teacher power dynamic, that of sender and receiver, criticizer and criticized.
The method of the teacher’s (or of any speaker’s) “reduction” is key and potentially problematic. Is what we write truly a compound analysis of the teacher over the course, or a polaroid of our relationship with yesterday’s lesson, with our current mood, with our most recent grade? Barthes talks about the teacher’s “fear” of discovering himself in some mutilated form (shrunken head metaphor drives this home), and of realizing that he is not in control of the destiny of his speech once it is stripped of its style (“compressed”), and in this case, submitted for his own evaluation. This harks back to the volatility of speech in general.
And finally: “... for political language itself is constituted by stereotypes.”
I chose not to write on this phrase, because ranting about how political rhetoric is stereotypical is itself a tired stereotype, but it reminded me of my favorite Youtube video of the week, which I think everyone should watch.