Fair and Accurate?
My name is Jessica Kerry, and I’m a senior concentrating in Comparative Literature in English and French. I want to take this class because it encompasses my most urgent interests: politics and culture; and the study and production of media. My favorite part of the five or six MCM and literary theory courses I’ve taken at Brown has been the insight they’ve given me into the subtle ways politics and power are both expressed and constituted by media, particularly media we tend to think of as apolitical. All media—not just news and documentary—take some kind of stance, intentionally or not. I think this background in critical theory gives me a different, complementary perspective to the (majority of) International Relations concentrators in the course and will make discussion and collaboration much more fruitful. I also think that the course’s IR theory will supplement and enhance my understanding of the more direct ways that politics and media influence each other.
I have been a journalist since high school (most recently interning at the Providence Phoenix June-December) and am considering entering the field professionally after I graduate; so the questions of culture, economics and politics that we will explore in this course are, for me, practically as well as intellectually pressing. I cannot be a good journalist if I don’t understand the various forces at work, not only in the issues I cover, but in my role as a media maker. This is also why the production portion of the course is particularly important for me. Although my medium has always been the written word, I don’t want to be left behind by the seismic shifts in the field of journalism over the past few years. The internet has changed the form as well as distribution of journalistic production, creating opportunities that require the practical skills I hope to learn from this course.
Barthes’ assertion that “language is always on the side of power” describes the teacher’s use of speech to claim authority over knowledge; by speaking, the teacher constitutes the content of his speech as “correct” or “accurate," negating any other possible interpretations or perspectives. This is what Barthes’ means when he says “the Law is produced, not in what he says, but in the fact that he speaks at all”—the teacher’s authority depends not on the content of the lesson but on the articulation of the lesson itself. Exposing and questioning this relationship between teaching and power is particularly important for a course that examines the workings of political power, and one that relies so heavily on student production and participation. How does the Law operate when students themselves create some of the course material (the vlogs)?
Crucially, Barthes’ power dynamic applies not just to speech within the classroom, but to all speech acts. Founding semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure argued that the relationship between words and their meanings is arbitrary and therefore must be determined negatively; lacking any essential link to its meaning, each word is defined by what it does not mean. In this way, language itself corresponds to the authoritative structure of teacherly speech: it constitutes itself by denying alternatives,
Understanding the fundamental non-neutrality of language is, I think, central to understanding media’s interpretations of international events and problems, especially when so many of the media producers who shape the course of events claim to be “fair and accurate,” etc. What can be dangerous about this is that the world we live in is so media-saturated, from our internet use to the sheer amount of images we see on a day-to-day basis, that it’s hard to tell anymore where reality stops and spin begins in our own heads. I can’t help but think of political campaign coverage, which always seems to turn non-issues into big stories simply by talking about them. Who holds the power when politicians are forced to respond to the newsmedia?
While some media are undeniably agents of power, however, others can also be agents for change—e.g. many documentaries, political blogs, web activists, etc. So I would propose an alternative to Barthes “speech,” which “is on the side of the law”: speaking out, perhaps the equivalent of a student talking back to the teacher. The difference between speaking and speaking out is something I’m personally interested in as I look to my (potential) future as a politically- and globally-minded writer, and I think it will be incredibly relevant to the media we examine in this course.