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September 2008

Cultural Farming and Critical Ethnography

By: Holland Wilde

Video Research Examples:

The Secret Code of Television

Media as Capitalism

Insidious Product Placement

Subliminal Perversion

Today the term ‘critical’ holds very little consensual meaning.  Its normative usage denatures, indeed bastardizes, theoretical significance by intimating some kind of ‘deeper’ thinking or critique.  However, the term critical (Critical) within my research implies groundings to the critically theoretical Frankfort School of Theodor Adorno (1993, 1994) Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse (1964, 2007); and among its orbiting intellectuals such as Walter Benjamin (Arendt 1968; Buck-Morss 1989; Demetz 1978); Seigfried Kracauer (1955); Rudolf Arnheim (1966, 1969); and others like Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci (Forgacs 2000). 

This more precise grounding offers re-limiting perspectives through which a qualitative researcher can frame critical questions and promote action.  Hence, for Cultural Farming:  Critical purpose is emancipation of cultural members from ideologies that are not to their benefit and not (necessarily) of their creation.  Critical thinking attempts to break open power, oppression, taken-for-granted 'realities’, and ideologies.  In this way, critical ethnography (a genre of cultural writing) goes beyond much quantitative and qualitative description of our culture by also ‘action-ing’ for change; by challenging false-consciousness and ideologies exposed through investigative examination.

Dick Hebdige (1988) Dean of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts writes that a mixture of conjunctional analysis and strategic intervention typifies a critical Gramscian approach:

“The Gramscian model demands that we grasp these processes not because we want to expose them or to understand them in the abstract but because we want to use them effectively to contest authority and leadership by offering arguments and alternatives that are not only 'ideologically correct' ('right on') but convincing and convincingly presented, arguments that capture the popular imagination, that engage directly with the issues, problems, anxieties, dreams, and hopes of real, (i.e., actually existing) men and women; arguments, in other words, that take the popular (and hence the populace) seriously and that engage directly with it on its own terms and in its own language.”  (original italics)

While Hebdige omits examples of how this Gramscian model c(sh)ould be manifested, we get a sense of Cultural Farming’s purposeful separation between critical as mere (re)thinking and/or critique and the notion of critical as action.  And here, Steven Gilbert Browns (2004:299-314), in Ethnography Unbound: From Shock Theory to Critical Praxis, renders still more important clarifications when the term critical is conjoined with the methodological practice of ethnography (CE: Critical ethnography):

- CE is not a univocal, but a polyphonic discourse.

- CE adopts a praxis informed by the theoretical imperatives of postmodern critique, which gestures toward a synthesis of the social, the political, and the personal, in which logos is infused with ethos.

- CE confounds theory with its fugitive signs, even as it refocuses its critical gaze on signifying practices of site-specific discourse communities.

- CE wages a liberatory struggle of counter-criticism against postmodern theory - talking back, as it were, to the theoretical discourse that would master it.

- CE exposes the limitations of critique that so effectively exposed its own – moving toward a more dialectic engagement with theory and a more dialogic solidarity with participants.

- CE is situated at the intersection of radical pedagogy and postmodern theory.

- CE is being informed by 'feminist pragmatism': “ethics of care.”

- CE counters the criticism of self-reflexive narcissism.

These critical ethnography notions open a door to the particular brand of critical research within Cultural Farming; which carries a certain utopian tone.  This is intentional.  As scholar Avery Gordon (Bennett, et al 2005:363) defines:

“Utopians practice a politics of everyday life, placing a premium on inventing and describing social arrangements designed to create an environment in which latent capacities for individual happiness can be fulfilled.  Notwithstanding the genealogy of the word, most utopians are distinguished by their willful insistence that the good society is not “no place,” but one that we have the human and material resources to build in the present.”

But mass media technologies broadly conceived by the Frankfort School were often conveniently painted as singularly oppressive culprits against mass culture; thus sharpening their pointed bias most against industries that deploy mass media technologies; as Armand Mattelart, Professor of Information and Communication Science at the University de Paris 8 writes:

“Schools of critical thought began to question the consequences of the development of these new means of cultural production and transmission, refusing to take for granted that democracy would necessarily benefit from these technical innovations” (in Berry & Theobald 2006:138).

With Cultural Farming, I see our new media technologies as inevitably and invariably good, bad, and neutral; that is to say, it is the (un)intentional usage which engages my central research question.  And so, my (designer) pragmatism diverges from the despairing tones of the Frankfort School in that I remain sharply critical of most current media production (TV news) in culture-industry, generally; yet optimistic regarding its recuperation and equally optimistic about others gaining voice within its dialogue.  For all of cultural-creative industry is comprised of collective and individual agency.  But it is also apparent that struggle rises in parallel with every clamor for the inclusion of civic, provocative, or critical media representation into the cultural-creative industry project.  This, for Cultural Farming, only further renders a necessity to engage Judith Butler's (1997:160) idea of  “a speech act as an insurrectionary act.”  Indeed, it is a familiar premise throughout Cultural Farming.  Butler writes:

“As we think about worlds that might one day become thinkable, sayable, legible; the opening up of the foreclosed and the saying of the unspeakable become part of the “offense” that must be committed in order to expand the domain of linguistic survival.  The resigni-fication of speech requires opening new contexts, speaking in ways that have never yet been legitimated, and hence producing legitimation in new and future forms (p:41).

And in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Clifford & Marcus 1986:255), Paul Rabinow connects an ethnographical tone to Butler's “speech act as an insurrectionary act”:

“The guiding value of those interested in experimental ethnographic writing…is dialogic: 'the effort to create a relationship with the Other -- as in the search for a medium of expression which will offer mutual interpretation, perhaps visualized as a common text, or as something more like discourse.'  …Feminist anthropology is trying to shift discourse, not improve a paradigm: ' that is, it alters the nature of the audience, the range of readership and the kinds of interactions between author and reader, and alters the subject matter of conversation in the way it allows others to speak.”

Here again it should be remembered that the culture industries of Adorno and Horkheimer remain “in the end” (to use critical theory's wearisome phrase) ultimately and paradoxically comprised of individual producer agency which in turn is ultimately hegemonically persuadable.  Thus, notions of utopia continue to hold both purpose and promise.  In his excellent book on avant-garde design, The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917-1946; University of Illinois visual scholar Victor Margolin (1997) targets these notions:

“The utopian imagination… means to envision new possibilities for human life” (p:9).  Margolin continues, invoking Clifford Geertz, “ideology is a form of 'symbolic action' through which human beings consciously or purposefully create symbols-systems that establish boundaries for human behavior” (p:5).

And here, Cultural Farming’s encouragement of citizens into critical acts of ‘doing’ parallels education scholar Henry Giroux’s plea (2000:135), in Impure Acts:

“My call to make the pedagogical a defining feature of cultural studies is meant to accentuate the performative as an act of doing - a work in progress informed by a cultural politics that translates knowledge back into practice, places theory in the politics of space of the performative, and invigorates the pedagogical as a practice through which collective struggles can be waged to revive and maintain the fabric of democratic institutions.”

These applications of Critical + ethnography (although here, too, Giroux omits a template for “an act of doing”) are but a few examples of intention; others appear throughout Cultural Farming and this confirmation proposal.  But one additional importance can now be stated.  Critical ethnography stands in sharp relief to popular analyses of popular culture and their oft simplistic-neologistic characterizations, for instance the portmanteau “prosumer”, which conflates producer and consumer activity.  Media appropriation as critical ethnography is not production-as-consumption = consumption-as-production.  Conceived in this light, both ‘prosumer’ and ‘critical’ mistakenly become mere forms of existence in our world -- mediated or otherwise.  For instance, breathing in and out is no more or less critical than unwittingly snapping a cell phone photo.  Indeed, breathing does simultaneously consume and produce as does, say, the production and consumption of the world through innumerable phone pics, emails, personal videos, etc.  But these kinds of generalizations do little to advance Critical understanding since today one action is almost as involuntary as the other.  What distinguishes Cultural Farming from simplistic characterizations of everyday production-consumption is (self) reflexivity during the acts of production