Sunday, December 7, 2008

Colbert and Costello

Two great entertainers defend Christmas. I'm surprised by how moved I am by this song:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

An interview with Douglas Kellner

It's hard to get a soundbite out of Douglas Kellner. A preeminent scholar of social theory, media spectacle, and postmodernism, the man is all about nuance.

Kellner is the George Kneller Chair in the Philosophy of Education at UCLA, and his work is ubiquitous in the University of Iowa mass communication department, and others I'm sure.

Along with scores of journal articles, book chapters, and other titles, Kellner's penned The Postmodern Adventure, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy, and this year's Guys and Guns Amok: Domestic Terrorism and School Shootings from the Oklahoma City Bombing to the Virginia Tech Massacre.

I spoke with Kellner over the phone yesterday about Barack Obama's new media campaign, a subject he recently wrote about for Mediascape. We discussed the death of newspapers, the 2008 media/election circus, Obama's skills as a television performer, and Neil Postman's seminal indictment of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death.


Me: How much attention did you pay in this election cycle to Barack Obama’s new media campaign?

Douglas Kellner: I have an article on this UCLA site Mediascape, and I just wrote it up for another book. It was about the election and the media spectacle: first the Obama spectacle versus the Hillary spectacle and then the Obama spectacle versus the McCain/Palin spectacle. I have a long, detailed study of it.

Me: What did you think of Obama’s campaign specifically? Do you see his election as a victory for Internet activism?

DK: I would say that that is a component of it. You’ll see in my article that I have some paragraphs on Obama and the Internet spectacle, but also there was artwork for Obama. There were the campaign events; his appearances were media spectacles. I would say it’s a combination of Internet and television.

Me: Since 2000 we’ve seen a societal shift, particularly generational, away from old media like TV and toward new media like the Internet. Is this a positive thing?

DK: These things are so big that the terms "positive" or "negative," "good" or "bad," don’t really apply. It’s a massive shift. I think definitely young people are much more into the Internet, text messaging, and cell phones, while older generations are into television. I think you can get more and better sources of news and information from the Internet. On the other hand, you can get a lot of crap on the Internet. So it’s a complex thing, it’s not one-good, one-bad. Both of them are mixed bags and big bags.

Me: But in terms of political news coverage, would you say the Internet has been a generally positive force?

DK: Oh, absolutely. I’ve written a lot on this. Things I’ve written with Richard Kahn, for instance, on Internet politics, and in my book The Postmodern Adventure with Steve Best on technopolitics. Blogs, wikis — I have some articles on. Definitely I see a whole lot of positive things on the Internet that open politics up to progressive voices and young people. It’s really a democratization.

Me: In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman talks about the Age of Typography becoming the Age of Television. Are we now in the Age of the Internet? What are the traits of this age you see in play?

DK: I would say, generally, yes, we are in the Age of the Internet. The positive thing with the Internet vis-a-vis television is that the Internet is more participatory and it’s more bottom-up, or at least it has that potential. Television is a more passive, consumer thing. It’s corporate-controlled, more top-down, etc. But, television is still the major force for news, information, and politics. The big events happen on television.

Me: As the Internet surpasses a medium, it tends to swallow its traits. Given the rise of YouTube and online video in general, can there be an argument made for the Internet as a cultural extension of the Age of Television?

DK: There’s always some continuity between media, McLuhan argues, but I think here there’s also a big discontinuity as well. I mentioned some of the features of what’s new about the Internet — it’s more participatory, more democratic, more open, more active.

Me: I ask that question because, to me, the Internet is hurting typography and print in incredible ways financially. Do you see the Internet as being harmful to print in a similar way that Neil Postman saw television as being harmful to print?

DK: I see this differently here. I agree with those points, but I would make contrasting points. The Internet, to some extent, is a return to typography. We type. Literacy, reading, and writing are more important than ever before with the Internet. You have more to read and you have to read faster; you need to respond faster with email and blogging. But there’s also a downside to this. See, everything is dialectical. There are positives and negatives, continuities and discontinuities — the negative being that it’s a debased form of writing. You know, ‘How RU?’ with the ‘RU.’ Writing loses some of its richness and complexity, particularly with text messaging.

Me: Does this relate at all to the decline of newspaper readership?

DK: I’d say it’s television and the Internet. Newspapers are more and more a thing of the past. I mean, I’m a newspaper junkie. When I was a kid, I delivered the Washington Post for about five years. I’d read the post cover to cover, everyday. Then I moved to New York and read the New York Times. I delivered the New York Times and read it all the time. Then when I went to Austin, Texas, I subscribed to the New York Times when they started national delivery. Here in LA I’ve been reading the LA Times. On the one hand, I love the materiality of newspapers, just like I love the materiality of books. But the Internet gives you every single newspaper for free at your 'tips. So, on the one hand, newspapers are declining, but on the other hand, a lot of their material is more accessible to more people than it’s ever been.

Me: When you read about a news staff getting cut back or another study showing that more and more people are going online, how do you react to that?

DK: Well, it’s too bad that newspapers are declining. The LA Times has been just decimated with corporate takeovers and cutbacks. I’ve seen it, month by month. It’s still a relatively good newspaper.

Me: That’s one of the worst in the country as far as cutbacks.

DK: But, I follow entertainment closely and their entertainment section is one of the best in the country still.

Me: In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman described John Marshall as the preeminent Typographic Man — someone who was "detached, analytical, devoted to logic." He also described Ronald Reagan as the prototypical Television Man. Is Barack Obama the prototypical Internet Man?

DK: I would say you cannot personalize an Internet Man. It’s a generation and it’s a multiplicity of voices. There’s no one person that embodies the Internet as a mode of communication. I would say that Obama’s genius was as a television performer. Obviously he himself doesn’t do much on the Internet. I think his supporters used the Internet in brilliant and original ways, but I don’t associate Obama himself with the Internet as a mode of communication. He’s clearly a TV guy.

Me: So you see the campaign as more Internet-oriented whereas he himself—

DK: I see the campaign having a very strong Internet component, but I would say equally if not more so — with Obama himself — it was a television campaign. Everyday he looked great on TV. He looked great in the debates. He was cool, calm, and collected during all the fights with Hillary, and then during the campaign with McCain and the global economic crisis. He always kept his cool. And that was Kennedy. Kennedy was totally cool, and I’m using that in the [Marshall] McLuhan sense, as a media and TV figure. He just always looked in control, sharp, and on top of things. I think Obama is also cool in the hipster sense. He’s like a cool guy. His favorite TV show is “The Wire.” Someone told me they once bumped into him in a gym in Los Angeles, this was before he got gigantic, and he was working out and listening to Eminem on his headphones. He’s like a hip black guy. You know, culturally. And he’s cool in the sort of Kennedy/McLuhan sense, which is good for TV. McCain was way too hot. Sarah Palin was very, very hot. At first she was dazzling but then she became a joke, a caricature of herself.

Me: It seems to me that the notion of being "on message" has become more and more important in elections. Politicians have become fearful of Macaca-style moments, which can be repeated infinitely on YouTube.

DK: And Obama had none of those moments, which is fairly astonishing.

Me: McCain’s campaign stopped doing the Straight Talk Express because of the fear of cameras. Is that healthy, that because the Internet brings this 24/7 aspect to politics, politicians have become afraid to speak without a script?

DK: Yes and no. I think McCain and Palin totally self-destructed because they were such fools. They ran such a ludicrous campaign with all the media coverage everywhere they went and YouTube. YouTube was big on this. From the positives like Obama Girl, to the negatives like Paris Hilton mocking McCain. So I see this as not bad. It exposes the truth in a sense. Obviously there is a downside; [YouTube] sensationalizes and decontextualizes. It has a reductive aspect.

Me: I'm interested in your comparison to Kennedy. It seems like another way of saying a politician is cool and in control is to say a politician is "on message." So this need to be constantly on message hasn’t necessarily amplified with the Internet.

DK: Reagan was famous for it. They had a message of the day and never went off it. Clinton learned from that and tried to do it. There’s always been a continuity in TV politics.

Monday, December 1, 2008

"The Big Bang Theory"

During my flight from Portland to Denver, I watched an episode of NBC's "The Big Bang Theory." I'm pretty sure it's the worst sitcom I've ever seen on a major network. I cannot believe such a thing in the world even exists.

I'll show you around this Alphabet Town

Here are some photos from Portland. I hope you'll forgive the non-stop Elliott Smith references.

At my sister's suggestion, I went to Saint Cupcake, a Portland sensation. One coconut cream cupcake and two cups of coffee later, impossible was nothing.

I went for a brutal, uphill walk into Washington Park. The clouds hung low, hovering just above the (mostly clipped or dead) roses in the Rose Garden. It was ghostly and beautiful.

And here are a few of the other sites from Portland. I'm typing this as my plane is about to board to Denver and then back to the Midwest. It has been a good time.