My name is Sarah Kay, and I will graduate from Brown in Spring of 2010. I am concentrating in Modern Culture and Media, Track 2. The Track 2 concentration is designed so that students can study and analyze theories of production in a number of different contexts (philosophical, artistic, technological, political, etc.) and also produce works of their own that reflect and critique these fields. I was attracted to this concentration because it allows me to study media from whatever angle interests me. Both of my parents are photographers, and visual media—photography, visual art, video, and film—have always been a big part of my life. However, because I come from a multi-cultural household, was born and raised in New York City, and attended an International school, visual media has always been intertwined with social or political implications and never existed purely as isolated art. I am fascinated by the power of media to alter politics and social structures: how one photograph or news story can alter an entire country’s view of itself or of others.
Last January I attended a class in Cape Town, South Africa as a participant in the “Democracy and Diversity” conference sponsored by the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at the New School in New York City. While I was there, I studied the Democratization of Media, which focused on how the media (local print journalism as well as public access television and local websites etc.) can affect the politics of a developing democracy like the one in South Africa. Afterwards, I was completely hooked. As the world continues to grow into a giant global network with linked economies and intersecting political spheres, “power” is going to be determined by the ability to communicate between people and countries. This communication comes in the form of news channels on the radio and television, on the internet, in movies, newspapers and magazines. While I am at Brown, I want to study the power that media has to affect change. Besides taking MCM theory classes, I took Radical Media last semester, which focused on the way that media can be used as an instrument for radical action. I really hope to take Global Media as a way to continue my education on how powerful and multi-faceted media can be. I think that only by really understanding its potential can we ever hope to harness it and find a way to facilitate important social progress.
This idea of power being tied to communication is touched upon in Roland Barthes’ essay on “Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers” in Environs of the Image. Barthes notes: “No help for it: language is always on the side of power; to speak is to exercise a will to power: in the space of speech, no innocence, no safety.” Barthes is describing the relationship between the teacher and his students, but the metaphor is extremely relevant to a study of global media. Within a paradigm of communication, the person speaking is the one in power. Even disregarding the content of what is being said, the very action of speaking is what grants the speaker authority, or as Barthes phrases it, “the law is produced, not in what he says, but in the fact that he speaks at all.” The same might be said for the media. The person or corporation who controls the output of a stream of media communication (for example, a television news channel) has access to an audience that will be receptive of whatever message is being sent. The message on the news could be anything, but it is the creation of the media, (the production of the news channel) that makes the television the speaker and grants the television authority over the viewer. The same way a teacher has “no innocence, no safety”— they act of speaking makes them responsible for their authority, so do the creators of a news channel have no innocence or safety in the incredible effect they can have on a nation of viewers. How much do unofficial polls during an election year end up being self-fulfilling? By airing a news program that seeks to guess who the winner will be, how much does that influence potential voters to follow the prediction? Just like Barthes’ “teacher” television news “proposes a discourse, without ever knowing how it is received.” How does this affect a nation’s internal politics? Its prejudices about itself and other countries? Its foreign policies? Power lies in the ability to communicate, and right now that communication relies on the media.