Cultural Farming:

Critical TV Ethnography and Civic Mediaturgy

The challenge now is to think video, to think cinematically, to visualize, not only theory and culture as products of a complex visual cinematic apparatus, but to show how that apparatus entangles itself with the very tellings we tell.  To tell a theory visually… is to argue for a new ethnographic relationship to the old-fashioned writing self.  This self disappears behind its own traces as it struggles to articulate, in cinematic fashion, its own literal, visual relationship to itself, inscribing itself within a video, visual culture.  The disappearing voyeur is a key to this new visual theorist.    Norman Denzin (1995:200)

1.  Introduction

      The odds are high that I am not like you.  I am a tall, bespectacled, educated, upper-middle aged, upper-middle class, opinionated, white, American male.  This recognizable description, of course, also casts a long caustic shadow, as it probably should, that still brands me with the heat of white-hot iron even as my demographic shrivels in numbers, power and social appeal.  Also unlike you, once well established professionally, I purposefully quit my high-profile career.  I downsized, foreclosed my ties to power, hunkered at home, and made the cleansing effort to shrink myself to invisibility.  My wife, of course, was nervous.  Indeed, it took me almost a year to “detox” from a 35 year career as a visual rhetorician handsomely paid to help logocentric texts seduce.

      And so, also probably unlike you, writing here in essay-form about my “new path” is a daunting task.  I am no longer a professional; nor I am an anthropologist, sociologist, film theorist, or even an academician.  I am an autonomous media monteur.  I now “write” ethnographic videos with everyday television content about socio-communication practices in TV/Media cultures.  I write them publicly, personally, in “mystory”, auto-ethnographic, surreal fashion.  I publish it all on the internet rather than in books or journals.  And I do it all for free without copyright restrictions, without subsidy or affiliation.  In short, today I (re)give what I (re)build as freely as I (re)take, which in itself has proven to be an eye-opening “subsistence” ethic, reflexive well beyond ‘hit-and-run hunter-gathers’, a role which I performed for so many years.  But maybe I should back up a bit and fill in a few blanks, because this essay already “reads” as unconventionally as my ethnography.

      After receiving my first terminal degree in 1983, trained as a Broadway stage designer and spending 15 years designing scenery and costumes, I gravitated to television where in sole-proprietorship I worked for twenty more years in the US and around the globe.  I garnered numerous industry acclamations including 10 Emmy awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for my designs, particularly for news and information.  (1)

      Nonetheless, all hell broke loose in U.S. media once President Bill Clinton signed the telecommunications act in 1996 allowing unrestricted media ownership through deregulation.  It seemed almost overnight my newest TV clients grew increasingly younger, inexperienced, and distracted.  They were now number-crunchers first.  They moved up the corporate ranks quickly but their careers were short-lived.  Intentions of journalism were rarely mentioned anymore during design presentations.  I was no longer hired on expertise but pressured to participate in vapid competitions where the only designs bought were the prettiest, the most seductive, the most carnavalesque.  Long-standing principles of visual communication were ignored in favor of “sexy”, eye-grabbing, grotesque imagery.  I cynically coined this faux-visual turn “techno-rococo.” 

      What was happening to my field of expertise: visual communication?  If professional theatre production (cats on roller skates, etc.) had failed me, and TV news and journalism were withering on the vine, what would be my next move?  In this epiphanic moment I realized my utter need for critical, theoretical counter-balance to my prodigious visualization skills.  Maybe a second terminal degree would be the answer.  I closed my shop, dismissed my design assistants, and I walked away from my “authoritative” television career, never to answer my phone professionally again.

      And, it was during this transition period in 2003-04, before Facebook, before video-blogging and YouTube -- and while I was receiving a string of cold rejections to all nine of my U.S. PhD applications -- that I sat down and forced myself to watch television news all over again, in my own home, with new critical eyes looking beyond mere practice to see how the visual combines with all aspects of production, text, performance and ideology.  Well, I was flabbergasted.  TV news was changing ever faster; I had blinked for just one season and I was missing it already.  Was I the only one watching this moving target?  How could I pause this phantasmagoric spectacle long enough to study it? 

      I bought a personal video recorder and simply began archiving whatever struck me as I watched it on TV.   As my eclectic archives quickly grew I began mixing a few clips together and soon became mesmerized to something I had never known before: making moving images.  I culled exemplary clips from my archives and built hundreds of small Quicktime “mash-up” movies on my computer in sheer unadulterated excitement -- creating little, curiously surreal, observational stories about the media-world around me.  Immediately I could see the potential and the problem.  Would I make my little movies in the mannerisms of big media?  Would I jack-up each video with silly, vacuous content?  Would I use every special effect offered?  Would I go for the quick and easy punch line to keep my friends entertained?  Would I simply make more seductive content, more entertainment, all of which had been so “primary” to my former career for so many years?

      So, I set a few restrictions to scaffold my initial approach.  Each new mix could only be 60 seconds long in order to sharpen my skills through the confines of brevity.  And, I could only use free-and-simple video tools readily available to most of us in the Western world to construct the content, like Apple’s iMovie video software.  Looking back now it was clear that I was mastering every facet of mise-en-scène without even knowing the term.  I eagerly experimented with most every kind of video technique imaginable as I remixed my TV archives: quick-cutting, long takes, editing to music, using color, B&W, framing, composition, adding voice-over, adding text; all in personal charrette. (2)

      With this simple act, I began deeply collecting, recording and organizing TV/media’s traits, recognizing and interpreting patterns, rhythms, and essences as the pre-text to writing (culture) with television.  Indeed, I was practicing vital, classical, forms of visual ethnography while I was playing -- while I was slowing down media, distilling, concentrating, re-editing, and remediating content, which is so profoundly familiar to us today I fear we no longer even see it anymore.  I was finding a new visual voice and I was teaching that voice to communicate beyond mere rhetoric and towards a new brand of surreal, critical, theoretical practice. 

      Pathways were opening to me.  So, naturally, I built a website to collate my newest work.  I named it Cultural Farming. (3)  Its naming was a public declaration to becoming a visual farmer -- “subsistence living in a mediated world” as I like to call it.  In early 2005 I added a new thing called a video blog.  I named it Media Nipple, as a moniker for the media we suckle everyday. (4)  And then every day for almost 30 months, I uploaded to these sites more than 2,500 broadcast video clips ripped directly from my home TV for deconstruction, theorizing, and lampooning.  I then began to make longer compilations of my strongest, representative clips and soon realized I could actually perform my findings using TV content alone.  It was a revelation.  Throughout my entire life I had watched TV.  Now, finally, I could seemingly talk back to it using its own language and technique.

      About this time, 2006, I was finally accepted to begin post-graduate studies in Alberta, Canada.  We packed up and moved our lives north.  There, two of the very first items I read in my studies were Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Arendt 1968) and Norman Denzin’s Cinematic Society (1995).  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Each in their own way reached out and grabbed me by the collar.  My new pathways now had a map.  My coursework over the next two years would be innervated with purposeful video intervention, created in the glow of critical theory, critical montage, and critical performance towards a self-reflexive, feminist, communitarian, political practice. 

      Quickly, puzzle pieces came together.  Could I build from this approach a methodology to mingle and test the critical theories of the Frankfurt School of Adorno and Walter Benjamin; to the culturally situated Birmingham School of Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams; to the visually pragmatic Chicago School of John Dewey, Howard Becker; to the technological biases of the Toronto School of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan; while perfuming it all with the diaphanous Parisian philosophies of Baudrillard, Barthes, Bourdieu, and Debord?  And what about the truly surreal like Breton, Duchamp, Brecht?  What of the early Russian filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein?  Was it possible to weave these stunning similarities with all I had seen and experienced during my TV news-production career?  In other words, could I reflexively write media theory, ethnographically, using existing media?   And, could I do it all following the untapped potentials of ethnographic surrealism as sketched by George Marcus and James Clifford? 

      Indeed, I discovered I could provoke an essential, vital, emancipatory kind of critical-exchange by refunctioning TV’s own content.  But there was one small catch.  No one had bothered to advise me, in my utopian glee, that there would be scant interest in me, or my work, in academia.  My uniqueness was proving to be trouble incarnate.  Was I (too?) radical, too qualitative, too industry/production oriented, too willing to challenge, too “practically” experienced, and too intent on studying dusty, banal television; in short, was I too foreign?  Moreover, I was dead-set on “writing” much of my dissertation with video.  This combination spelled disaster; transgression, after all, must only go so far.  I withdrew from my Canadian studies and transferred to Australia in hopes of finding real intellectual exchange and peer review inside a practice-led PhD.  Unfortunately, I found things there incrementally worse (Elkins 2009).  Yet, it is exactly here, in qualitative appropriation and remix, where my doctoral research is intended to reside, in the critical, visual, cross-pollination of commonsense media practice and theory.  I want to test existing theories with media content as much as to extend experimental, ethnographic “writing” with existing moving images. 

      It came as utter surprise to find much of the academy resistant to visual writing even though today the visual has become a “value-added” prerequisite so necessary for selling contemporary media scholarship.  And so, I stand confused, further disenfranchised, and an inch away from ending my essentially completed PhD and leaving the academy altogether.  It is certainly not because of the superficial slights I’ve encountered with Cultural Farming; rather it is because the academy deeply clings to logocentrism, even when analyzing the visual, while everything around us continues to exponentially evolve.  From my point-of-view, we all teeter on the edge of full visual-language immersion, yet its full logical implementation is simultaneously prohibited in research.  Indeed, it is one thing to proselytize for a new, political, transgressive, redemptive ethnography, as Denzin does so eloquently, yet quite another to embody it as a student before the Byzantine machinations of “scholarship”.  But then, I suppose, how could it be otherwise? 

      --- This first portion of the essay renders my visual “predicament”.  The remainder will attempt to explicate Cultural Farming’s ethnography; to situate its agenda, epistemology, methodologies, practice and practicalities.  Cultural Farming, after six years of relentless archiving and response, is now shaping into a personally crafted, emerging form of practical, public mediaturgy.  Thus, my project should be seen as organic in that it continues to grow and evolve on a daily basis, as I continue to grow and evolve autodidactically.  Broadly conceived, it is for helping publics build abilities to critically see, appreciate, interpret and create healthier TV/media content, by comparatively re-telling the avalanche of media stories told to us everyday.  Hence, throughout this essay, Cultural Farming should also be seen as means of public “checks-and-balances” to help (anonymous) mediamongers see and hear their own work differently. 

2.  Agenda

      Television may well be our most important invention during the last 100 years.  In 2010, TV remains the “fattest” visual and rhetorical “information-pipe” into most Western homes.  And now with ever-newer technological advancements mixing with common broadcast television, we find most camera-screen communication converging to produce everyday hybrid-TV-style content.  Indeed, our future arrives inescapably flush with new technological communication possibility.  Inside these possibilities, however, our practices both intentionally and unintentionally condition our communicational meanings.  But how, with what, from whom, and for whom are these meanings conditionally produced?  And importantly: How might we respond, in kind, through this media to those communicating to us?  Moreover, now that we have the ability to make personal, global, broadcast media, what can we learn about our mediated culture(s) by examining and exercising our technologies, production techniques and communication practices more closely?  And then reciprocally, through comparative experimentation, can we use what is learned to critically inform and reform television practice itself?  These questions reside at the heart of Cultural Farming’s critical, ethnographic project.

      Since how TV/media is produced conditions much of our communication, what I am mostly concerned with today is the profound lack of reflexivity and critical craftsmanship throughout professional and “social” media production because, whether apparent or not, choices made during production are expressions of power and thus political.  Much of my work is an attempt to “shock” into public awareness the notion of tools and techniques as an originating “mouthpiece” of ethical media communication.  Here, I offer McLuhan (1968), “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” (5)  Likewise I submit in 2010, that despite growing TV/media production proficiencies, we continue to neglect how we become both what we behold… and hold. 

      As Pierre Bourdieu (1980: 110) reminds, “To appropriate the ‘sayings of the tribe’ is to appropriate the power to act on the group by appropriating the power the group exerts over itself through its official language.”  And now, in the face of decades of oligarchic mediamongering, our ability to “appropriate a response” has finally come.  But when perusing today’s widening TV/mediascapes where content hegemonically looks, sounds and means in similar ways, we are left asking, what else should citizens do within today's unique media-technology environment? (6)  Cultural Farming suggests one necessary form of civic, participatory expression is to re-examine and challenge media's taken-for-granted epistemological “grammars” by appropriating and re-mixing this content through specific tenets of (anthropological-ethnographical) film theory into simple, emancipatory, social-media documentation and critique.  This is a valuable kind of potent-play, urgently necessary and available to most anyone willing to try, even as our camera-screen communication technologies exponentially evolve.

      It is this civic obligation to respond to ubiquitous, often dangerously absurd, TV/media practice that begins to frame my notion of mediaturg, which springs wholly from Bertolt Brecht’s dramaturgical production-performance stance (Luckhurst 2006: 5-12).  In parallel, a television mediaturg is fulsomely knowledgeable of the history, theory and practice of TV/media communication, embodying not only Literacy’s credo of “reading and writing”, but also capable of directing philosophical reflexivity as well as critical production craftsmanship.  As an independent “interlocutor”, a mediaturg participates both as a critical voice amongst the team of content creators during the creation process, and acts as a bridging mechanism to the audience.  Hence, mediaturgs serve as primary thinkers about the performative, political and social objectives of TV/media.  Unfortunately, there are no mediaturgs in existence… yet.  This fact, however, does not preclude development towards a more public approach to civic mediaturgy. 

      Cultural Farming as mediaturgy, as a means of instructive reciprocation appropriates, examines, confronts and provokes everyday TV/media production.  This is shaped by five overarching agendas, which:

1. Unveil current media languages and techniques as fabrications.

2. Challenge dominant, oligarchic media-making power.

3. Inoculate against insidious media persuasion and cynical parody.

4. Invigorate critical, civic-media production through theory and praxis.

5. Promote public access and civic responsibility throughout the 

        communication spectrum.

3a.  Critical Theory 

      Critical Theory, formulated in the early works of the Frankfurt School, has expanded greatly over the decades but its purpose has purposefully changed very little.  The same might be said for critical ethnographic film/video.  Critical ethnography’s raison d'être is to describe, analyze, and open to scrutiny otherwise hidden agendas, power centers, and assumptions that inhibit, repress, and constrain.  As Jim Thomas (1993: 4) contends, while conventional ethnographic practice "describes what is", critical ethnography "asks what could be".  Where conventional ethnography studies culture for the purposes of describing it; critical ethnographers do the same in order to change it.  Cultural Farming resides in the latter, as a vital extension to sixty years of non-visual TV/media communication research.

      Sergei Eisenstein, Russian filmmaker and arguably the first theorist of critical montage, made his films almost a century ago in a manner similar to how Cultural Farming makes videos today with a computer: clip-against-clip, placed with an experienced eye-ear-hand-gut. (7) Critical montage, then, is collectively more than juxtaposition, collage, redaction, editing, mise-en-scène, or contemporary notions of “mash-up”.  Rather, it is purposefully intellectual collision (Eisenstein 1942) where the items (s)mashed are subordinated for unleashing new, incalculable ideas and viewpoints.  This approach to critical ethnography embodies both pedagogical and radical performance, as Denzin argues (2003: 31):

Critical pedagogy is a dialectical and dialogic process, whereas revolutionary, radical (and reflexive) performance pedagogy critically situates agency, identity, and discourse within and against a broader historical landscape.

      For Cultural Farming, following Eisenstein, Benjamin and Brecht, TV/media ethnography employing critical montage is inherently “revolutionary” in both idea and practice as it interjects a necessary form of Gramscian reverse-interpellation; or a “hailing back” to TV/media (Forgacs 2000).  This in-kind, critical, mediaturgical reciprocation carries the potential for invoking a sway of civic governance to traditional one-way forms of corporatized media production and reception. (8)  After all, technology watches us as closely as we watch it. (9)  But to truly embody this, “subsistence farming” must be widely practiced as public verification that technological lust, runaway capitalism, surreal spectacle, narcissistic self-promotion, and even academic gravity hold little more “authority” than humble civic responsibility, reflexively rational curiosity, and intellectual courage.  Hence, robust theoretical notions like mediaturgy require simple, lean, elegant, and publicly available experimental methods which, once combined, oblige a deeply focused civic action because good critical ethnographic storytelling demands longitudinal commitment, experiential discernment, ethical motivation, and craftsmanship.

3b:  Surrealism 

      Walter Benjamin writes, “’The cameraman and the machine are now one’, and adds that ‘we hardly know what really goes on between the hand and the metal’” (Gumbrecht & Marrinan 2003: 136).  While this observation remains crucial to Cultural Farming’s agenda, missing in my video project is both camera and film.  It is because I very rarely use a camera anymore.  As I illustrate throughout Cultural Farming, cameras today can and should be theorized as an equivalent to guns. (10)  In evidence today, both machines certainly perform similarly; too similarly for my liking.  While this metaphor has been intimated elsewhere (terrorizing: Mirzoeff 2005; bombing: Virillio 2000; shooting: Sontag 1973), less considered is its actualization practiced throughout contemporary media production. (11)  Indeed, in our mediated worlds we see endlessly reckless forms of “armed” surrealist camera/gun performance -- whether professional or amateur – uncannily reminiscent of André Breton’s monstrously surreal quote from his Second Manifesto (1969):

“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”

      Breton’s reckless invitation-to-absurdity may appear to proffer carte blanche license to surreal visual ethnography.  However, Cultural Farming importantly “cherry-picks” from Surrealism as well.  Where porcelain urinals and fur-covered tea cups were once necessarily curious but simplistic self-promotional brands of surreal non-conformist provocation; today, similar insidiously hegemonic seductions materializing through common camera usage -- which, in turn, encourages still more viral-parodic replication of what Benjamin calls “the sex-appeal of the anorganic” (Ferris 2004: 26) -- are to be vehemently rejigged into public disenchantment and resistance.  Hence, the well-worn surrealist modus operandi of “prestige provocation”, in all its conspicuous forms, is anathema to several more important “agendas” Cultural Farming does appropriate from the complexities of Surrealism.  As Lucian Taylor writes (1994: 184):

“The movement sought to realize the avant-garde’s optimistic project of transforming daily existence by infusing it with the redemptive power of art.  Although often employing the provocative verbal violence we’ve seen in Bataille, the Surrealists were never as willing to celebrate waste, expenditure and destruction as ends in themselves.” 

Also generally ignored, as Calvin Tomkins (1996: 261) elaborates:

“Surrealism, the movement conceived, shaped, and dominated by (André) Breton, would have no use for humor.  What could there be to laugh about in an enterprise whose goal was to launch a revolution in human consciousness?  For Breton and his followers, Surrealism was always more than a literary or artistic movement.  It’s avowed purpose was to “change life” by freeing the human mind from all the traditional strictures that enslaved it.”

And from Guy Debord (Knabb 2006: 48):

“A movement more liberating than the surrealism of 1924 – a movement Breton promised to rally to if it were to appear – cannot easily be formed because its liberativeness now depends on its seizing the more advanced materials of the modern world.  But the surrealists of 1958 have not only become incapable to rallying to such a movement, they are even determined to combat it.  But this does not eliminate the necessity for a revolutionary movement in culture to appropriate, with greater effectiveness, the freedom of spirit and the concrete freedom of mores demanded by surrealism.”

      Beyond these lesser acknowledged surrealist manifestations and following Walter Benjamin (Arhendt 1968), what is particularly true for camera-screen media -- from television to anthropological film -- is that reproducing the original with a camera/screen kills the “authentic”.  Mass reproduction destroys aura; that is to say, it extinguishes sacred distance by bringing objects too near.  However, while Benjamin sensed this profound destruction of the authentic through “technological reproducibility,” he also construed these new 1930’s modes of mechanical reproduction as potentially capable of emasculating the overwhelming fetishizing auras of repressive idolic reification expressed in both Nazism and the Church.  As a double-edged prospective, Benjamin understood aura’s “decay” might, indeed, cut two ways (Petersson & Steinskog 1997).  This mixing of “the work of art” along with social acts of liberating transgression, as embodied by the Surrealists, and particularly by Bertolt Brecht’s provocative Epic Theatre methodologies, conflated to shape Benjamin’s media-communication stance.  Indeed, Brecht claims personal involvement in editing Benjamin’s classic “Work of Art” essay (Wizisla 2009: 162).  “‘(A)nyone can be creative, it’s rewriting other people that’s a challenge’  For Brecht there was always an alternative way to read a narrative” (Peter Thomson 2006: 25).  As Terry Eagleton (1981: 23-24) elaborates:

“(W)hat we have here are all the seeds of Benjamin’s later defense of Brecht.  The drama as fragmented, device-barring, non-hierarchical, shock-producing, theatre as dispersed, gear-switching, and dialectical, ostentatious and arbitrary yet densely encoded: what Benjamin discovered in Brecht was precisely how you do all this and be non-melancholic into the bargain.”  

       Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project was to be his seminal (surrealist montage) experiment for critically invoking the social disjunctions and mechanical horrors newly resident amid everyday modern life between two world wars (Marx et al. 2007: 4-5).  Yet, while Benjamin’s “theory is intimately related to that of montage” (Buse et al. 2005: 34), he stopped short of professing that critical re-objectivization through subsequent critical acts of montage might also carry a “mechanical reproduction” potential for aura’s recuperation.  Indeed, his deep interests in Trauerspiel, well before the Arcades Project, suggests as much. (12)  But of course, Benjamin could never have foreseen anything like Cultural Farming.  He had no premonition of the ubiquity and potential of twenty-first century personal-media technologies. 

      And so, another ethnographic “experimental moment” (Marcus & Fischer 1986; Russell 1999; Denzin 2005) arises anew for us: Can the same processes that indiscriminately efface aura today also serve in its necessary recovery?  For when all is seduced outside the boundary of sacred, all becomes surreal, postmodern simulacra (Baudrillard 1994).  Indeed, throughout TV/media, we must surely see and feel the effects of the global, exponential increase of absurdist media practice over just the last twenty years.  Unending “shocks” of surreal seduction, once amusingly novel, are today bludgeoningly ubiquitous techniques, numbing and choking off common-sense throughout communication practice.  It is here that James Clifford (1988: 147-148) helps synthesize much of my patchwork historicity of surrealism into concrete experiential, ethnographic practice:

“Ethnographic surrealism and surrealist ethnography are utopian constructs; they mock and remix institutional definitions of the arts and science.  To think of surrealism as ethnography is to question the central role of the creative “artist,” the shaman-genius discovering deeper realities in the psychic realm of dreams, myths, hallucinations, automatic writing.  This role is rather different from that of cultural analyst, interested in the making and unmaking of common codes and conventions.  Surrealism coupled with ethnography recovers its early vocation as critical cultural politics, a vocation lost in later developments.  …Ethnography cut with surrealism emerges as the theory and practice of juxtaposition.  It studies, and is part of, the invention and interruption of meaningful wholes in works of cultural import-export.  …Cuts and sutures of research are left visible; there is no smoothing over or blending of the works raw data into a homogenous representation.”

      Where formalistic surreal expression rose historically through commodified machinations of art, stage, and film, Cultural Farming can employ ethnographic surrealism for refunctioning, responding to, and redeeming ethical camera/screen communication production within today’s rapidly changing, ever-contested realities.  As Marcus and Fischer (1986: 123) write:

“Like the Frankfort School, the surrealists contested a reified culture, in which they viewed traditional norms, conventions, and collective meanings as artificial, constructed, and repressive.  They reveled in subverting, parodying, and transgressing those dead conventions through unexpected juxtapositions, collages of incongruous elements, drawing from the erotic, the unconscious, and the exotic.  …They used the term 'ethnographic' to convey their relativist, subversive attitude, which could contest the contemporary work of French anthropologists in Africa, Oceania, and aboriginal America.”

      Marcus and Fischer (1986: 125) continue, however, and correctly temper the use of surrealism by cautioning that a “liberating commentary on modern life,” one that ultimately remains “unreflexive about its own epistemological viewpoint” offers little more than “semiotic guerrilla warfare” when simply altering an object out of context.  For these authors:

“The ethnographers who emerge from the dialogue with surrealism, however, are left with a duel legacy.  First, to bring out the critical potential embedded in the ethnographic method requires that anthropologists take seriously the notion of modern reality as a juxtaposing of alternative cultural viewpoints, which exist not merely simultaneously, but in interaction, and not as static fragments, but each as dynamic human constructions.  Second, the view of culture as a flexible construction of the creative faculties encourages ethnographers to expose their procedures of representation, makes them self-conscious as writers, and ultimately suggests to them the possibility of including other authorial voices (those of the subjects) in their texts.”

      This “juxtaposing of alternative cultural viewpoints” in many ways guides my Cultural Farming approach to constructing video montage for analyzing media generally and non-fictional TV journalism specifically.  Heeding Marcus and Fischer's reflections of the Frankfurt School and French surrealists of the 1930's; I do not intend to simply “toy” with ungrounded “semiotic guerrilla warfare”.  Nor is Cultural Farming remix merely toothless “subversion” or culture “jamming” (Lasn, 1999), which too often ironically promotes what it contests.  Whereas Walter Benjamin saw “shock…was the condition of modernity that needed to be mobilized by the avant-garde… that the revolutionary potential of surrealism lies in its blasting open” (Russell 1999: 39); my ethnography is intentionally, theoretically, and methodologically more.

      Thus, seen in parallel from a Cultural Farming perspective, totalitarian media processes (mediamongering), which are now ubiquitous and insidious in 2010, can potentially be captured and re-purposed for instilling critical salience into mass-communication itself -- via classical techniques of Eisensteinian montage (1942) and Brechtian “distanciation” (Eagleton 1981; Willet 1992).  This is to suggest critical ethnographic’s dual (duel) remediation can be employed to both challenge what Graeme Gilloch refers to as “artificial aura” (Petersson and Steinskog 2005: 4) and to regain or redistance beneficial auras that are now too close, lost or decayed through decades of fetishized oligarchical objectification and mechanical reification. (13)  This circumscribes Cultural Farming’s two-prong agenda to both describe (remediate) oligarchic media practices and to publicly distribute transgressive exemplars as (remedial) provocation to reckless non-fictional TV/media production; and to do each ethnographically through archival transcription, critical theory, production literacy, and reflexive civic storytelling.

      Walter Benjamin’s “aim was not merely for philosophy to catch up with Surrealism, rather for philosophy to become surrealistic” (Buse et al. 2005: 77-78).  He intended to eliminate too convenient interpretation.  Meanings were meant to emerge solely through the shocking juxtaposition of material, which of course is the very essence of intellectual montage.  As Benjamin fully understood architecturally with his Arcades Project and as I am now discovering with my work in Cultural Farming, it is not the empirical collection of cultural “bits” that matters, however important that may be.  Rather, it is in their placement, re-ordering, juxtaposition and collision – montage -- where effective cultural critique comes to fore. 

3c: Montage  

      Cultural Farming is for “subsistence living in a mediated world.”  It is manifest theory, both tool and technique, for publicly and intellectually scrutinizing fecund TV/mediascapes. (14)  After a century of “one-way” mass communication accompanied by non-stop logocentric (academic) theorizing, Cultural Farmers understand that media appropriation and remix today with ethical means and for democratic purposes is both urgently necessary for subsistence and luckily still provided by law (Hobbs 2010).  And, as any good socio-anthro-cultural ethnographer understands, “respect for culture” often means allowing our “subjects of study” the opportunity to speak for themselves with minimal, interpretive, linguistic translation.  The work of Cultural Farming embodies these concerns.

      Considering yet another historical perspective, Sergei Eisenstein’s techniques of montage employed as early Soviet propaganda often resemble not only the agitprop of Dada, Futurism, Surrealism and the later International Situationists, but also appear uncannily reminiscent of common mediamonger production practices today.  This was purposeful.  Eisenstein, like so much advertisement marketing today, viewed the spectator as putting up a material resistance that must be overcome by violence (Bordwell 2005: 115).  The audience, he thought, must be attacked: “If I had known of Pavlov at the time, I would have called 'the montage of attractions' 'the theory of artistic irritants’” (Eisenstein 1996).  But then, in the first blush of Marxism, Eisenstein saw montage like a farm tractor for plowing the spectator’s psyche for collective political and economic ends.  Why else would Eisenstein famously state, “It is not Cine-Eye that we need but instead a Cine-Fist”? (Taylor 1998: 59).  Eisenstein characterized his montage of attractions thusly (Christie & Elliot 1988: 31):

“The collision of shock elements which would strike and dazzle the audience setting off a chain of associations in a quantifiable stimulation of their psychological reflexes.  (There was) no time for or interest in shading, cross-hatching or chiaroscuro.  The idea came first.”

      Cultural Farming, in contrast, is a redemptive act of cultural critique through uncomfortable equivocation: through a hybridization of allegorical lament. (15)  This is to suggest an intentional Janus-faced elevation of common media content by way of rending, via dialectical motion-play, a material critique of the fragility of the symbol.  And so, there are both similarities and differences between Soviet montage, Surrealism and Cultural Farming.  To Eisenstein, the surrealists simply wanted to expose subconscious emotions, whereas he sought to use emotions like tools to provoke specific reactions (Bordwell 2005: 119).  Cultural Farming by contrast employs montage almost in reverse for exposing manipulative media production practices, to help render them opaque.  Significantly, this encourages emancipation from camera-screen authority via negotiable disambiguation, rather than through overt political manipulation.

      It is this refunctioning of early political Soviet montage, which provides technical method to Cultural Farming’s methodological and theoretical scaffolds.  For oft forgotten with today’s commonplace quick-editing is how Sergei Eisenstein (1942, 1949) and Dziga Vertov (Michelson 1985) originally radicalized their montage approach, revealing cinematic artifices and consequently pushing them to their ethical and aesthetic extremes (Christie & Elliot 1988: 86). 

      Yet, where Vertov's work grew more towards a realistic and documentary “direct cinema” style, Eisenstein's formalistic approach was artistically and explosively charged (Antoine-Dunne & Quigley 2004: 51):

“Although Eisenstein incorporated Vertov's productive aim he shifted things from Vertov's emphasis on documentary reality towards his own cinema of attractions.  Content, for Eisenstein, meant a series of connecting shocks arranged in a certain sequence and directed at the audience, and organized in relation to principles which would lead to the desired reaction in correct proportion.  …This squared with Brecht, and with Benjamin's philosophical outlook (as conveyed in The Author as Producer).  In this way Eisenstein, Brecht, and Benjamin foresaw a revolutionary use of communications technology such that montage could be used to open things out to explicitly political purposes.”

      Again, where montage extends beyond mere expressive editing, its relevance lays within the open-ended explosion of new meaning created amongst and between intentional collisions; this is something more than simple juxtaposition, but less than pure political fabrication.  And within Cultural Farming these explosions are thoroughly more formidable than mere quick-editing, surreal shock or bricolage alone.  Indeed, montage collisions implore viewers to actively participate liminally, politically, reciprocally, making an excellent tool-method for critically examining all of today’s TV/media -- particularly news production and presentation -- exactly at the intersections of “truth” interpretation.  In Eisenstein Rediscovered (Christie & Taylor 1993: 167), Franco Cassetti writes:

“In Eisenstein we find a constant urge to operate in the interstices of different sciences, between linguistics and anthropology, between psychology and aesthetics, between the history of art and biology.  This impulse might suggest a mistrust of procedures of analysis but, on the contrary, it takes advantage of the relative weakness of various paradigms to make the research more effective - and to obtain better results.”

      The importance of montage arises not (primarily) out of accidental or everyday cultural action; rather it derives its power and import from intentional visual/anthropological/creative practice.  As such, the experimental methods in Cultural Farming both challenge and champion intersections of interpretation with bold, dialectical, alternative, polyphonic viewpoints.  As an extension of Denzin's (2003) “experimental moment” in ethnography, this approach challenges much ethnographic practice by exemplifying what Marcus and Fischer (1986) suggest is a defamiliarization by cross-cultural “messy” juxtaposition through which: “The ethnographer, like the surrealist, is licensed to shock” (Clifford 1988: 133).  But it should be remembered, where “licenses to shock” are often dismissed as aggressive, improper, or nonsensical; nonsense “forces the exploratory intelligence to work with gaps created by grammar, logic, and mathematics produc(ing) a strong desire to derive intelligibility from a still broader range of sensory interplay with other gaps and surfaces” (Theall 1999: 45).

      Here too, Cultural Farming’s brand of polysemic collection and montage replicates, in form and in theory, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project.  Cultural Farming projects too are constructed of bricolage, bits and pieces of everyday cultural detritus, or “rag-pickings” as he called them.  Benjamin too collected multitudes of quotations and pasted them into his unique palimpsest, which revealed his enormous range of interests and his genius for distilling associations.  Even Theodor Adorno commented that the Arcades Project appeared to be an attempt at surreal, montage historical writing (Buck-Morss 1991: 206).

      Likewise, Cultural Farming’s critical montage projects are constructed from countless video fillips for unveiling and challenging camera-screen ‘truth production’ in ways that subvert taken-for-granted ways of thinking and ‘realities’ not necessarily of our own making.  It implies that by thinking about and acting upon our world we are able to reassess both our subjective interpretations and our objective conditions.  And so, critical montage is never just criticism.  Nor is it completely interchangeable with the later-theories of the Frankfurt School, which are primarily explanations of capitalist-society.  For Cultural Farming, critical montage is conventional ethnography with political purpose (Thomas 1993: 4).

      Critical montage does not reject the cannons of science; instead it challenges its central metaphors and the ways they see and symbolize objects of study.  And so, a crucial issue for Cultural Farming’s brand of critical TV/media ethnography is not whether or not one can begin examining TV/media with montage -- value-free -- without distorting the research process.  Rather, in a postmodern world of “armchair radicals”, the larger obstacle to more vital TV scholarship is whether projects like Cultural Farming can materialize intellectual purchase using television itself.  For TV, long considered a worn-out banal object of study is often discarded for sexier, moneyed “new media” research.  With Cultural Farming, however, I emphatically argue that TV remains a vital and under-utilized area of research, and more of it should be critically researched soon.

      Television research, particularly within non-fictional, journalistic production needs radical revitalization.  Montage can help; and one need look no further than the early-days of Soviet-film to find inspiration.  Sergei Eisenstein along with his filmmaker associates like Vertov, Kuleshov and Pudovkin took for granted that avant-garde artists worked for political ends (Bordwell 2005: 4).  And even while Eisenstein’s notions of intellectual montage were eventually attacked by the State as formalistic and incomprehensible to ordinary viewers (ibid: 13), he worked continuously toward one end: that theory would arise through tangible, creative work (ibid: 36).  This is Cultural Farming’s premise as well.

      And so unlike Vertov, Eisenstein suggests that the principle of montage goes beyond techniques of redactive editing.  And where Kuleshov considers montage to be primarily a storytelling device, Eisenstein sees no reason for it to be bound by plot-requirements.  “’Montage is a beautiful word,’ writes Eisenstein,  ‘One does not create a work, one constructs it with finished parts, like a machine’“ (ibid: 121).  Reminiscent of Cultural Farming, this form of “plotless cinema” is a tool for engaging the audience in activities that materialized theoretical concepts into working objects for critical examination.  And montage elicits this very simply, in three stages: “Perception of an event triggers some motor activity, which yields emotion; which in turn, launches a process of thought” (ibid: 124).  Thus, Eisenstein’s method is an essential kind of (Brechtian) designer pragmatism – that is to say, whatever works is admissible.  But it also assumes that the artist will creatively rework whatever is taken from the past.  Borrowed material is to be subordinated to the immanent demands of form and intended effect.  And for Cultural Farming, the effect is transgressive montage as provocation to non-fictional TV/media production.

        While the stark, historical realities of implementing montage as a “hammer” within Soviet Russia is probably beyond our comprehension today, Eisenstein’s theories of intellectual and dialectical montage spring to life again when recuperated inside certain frameworks of surreal critical ethnography.

4.  Practicalities

      As Faye Ginsburg (Rothenbuhler & Coman 2005: 21) suggests, “Anthropologists at last are coming to terms with the inescapable presence of media as a contemporary cultural force engaged with the mediation of hegemonic forms and resistance to them.”  Cultural Farming is necessary because today’s recent and substantive technological integrations particularly in regards to “social media” allow most any citizen to elaborate directly at the screen-surface a host of obscure critical notions like Georges Bataille’s eroticism; Stuart Hall’s oppositional decoding; Mikhail Bakhtin’s heteroglossic carnival; Judith Butlers’s excitable speech; Laura Mulvey’s scopophilia; Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of reciprocity; Jürgen Habermas’s public sphere, to name only a few.  All this can be explored through Cultural Farming’s self-consciously authored “civic play” -- experiences Victor Turner, Richard Schechner, Gregory Ulmer, and Dwight Conquergood would applaud (Denzin 2003).

      However, “farming media” longitudinally is a difficult, tedious, deeply personal project.  Few scholars have the necessary stamina, courage and financial stability, plus the production expertise, plus the theoretical curiosity to “subsist” in any sustainable, mediaturgical fashion.  On top of this, television content is not pretty.  It is more than difficult to spend one’s days mucking through TV/media’s content.  (16) There is little non-violent, non-misogynistic, non-exploitive, non-seductive, non-objectifying, non-sensational content in North American TV; particularly within news, which remains my primary locus of appropriation (CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, CNBC).  In toto, North American television does not symbolize a healthy, happy or warn place.  It invites in numerous other ways.  By definition, this should suggest that Cultural Farming videos are as difficult to watch as to make.  Indeed, montage is much harder than watching TV, yet significantly more rewarding.

      And so, Cultural Farming is not like going to the movies.  It is not so much “social media” found throughout YouTube.  It is not home movies, cell phone video, surveillance, or mixing images with popular music.  It is not sketch-comedy seen on Saturday Night LIVE, or political-parody seen on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  It is neither MTV, nor “public access” TV.  It is not cynical performance or promotional spectacle.  It is not righteous policing or legal ombudsmanship.  It is not a blog coterie, a Flickr page, a Facebook/MySpace aggregation, a Twitter shout-out, or a news-watch service.  It is not talking-head editorial or citizen-journalism.  Rather, it is critical, surreal ethnography.  Yet, support for Cultural Farming comes hard since employing and assessing critical visual methods as scholarship requires twice the work -- and thus a doubling of complications -- since both theory and practice demand equal amounts of intensive “bi-lingual” mastery.  And what “peer review” has time for this?  Where “visual anthropology has had an uncomfortable (or perhaps too comfortable!) relationship with photography and ethnographic film” (Banks & Morphy 1997: 5); Grimshaw (2001: 150) goes further still, contending:

“Television, like cinema, offers itself as an interesting site in which a new kind of ethnography might be explored.  Its power and ambiguity, however, have long made intellectuals uneasy.  Anthropologists, too, however have shared this wariness and suspicion, remaining largely aloof from engagement with television’s presence in the worlds they seek to investigate and rejecting, almost by instinct, its potential as a medium of ethnographic communication.”

And here, Grimshaw’s concern is only sharpened by Stam (1992: 224):

“Television, meanwhile, is regarded as almost a dirty subject by the literary intelligentsia, as hopelessly vulgar and congenitally tainted, a not surprising reaction when one reflects on the rude challenge that it offers to traditional prerogatives of that intelligentsia.”

      Still, production at any level, even inside visual anthropology, isn’t something enacted orthogonally to ameliorate meaning making; rather media production is a primary cultural discussant – artifacts of agency.  Thus writing anew towards TV, rather than on or against, agitates Cultural Farming’s radical, mediaturgical “anthropology of response” towards a kind of “re-gifting” civic potlatch

“(Potlatch), the solemn giving of considerable riches, offered by a chief to his rival for the purpose of humiliating, challenging and obliging him… it is necessary to startle, to stifle the rival group… to pay back with interest… potlatch remains the opposite of a rapine” (Bataille 1991: 67-72).” 

      And so, when Cultural Farming appropriates television’s content, it is too often mis-read as exploiting the very media production it claims to recuperate.  When Cultural Farming attempts to expand existing methods of ethnographic writing, it threatens the ancient academic ritual of logocentric scholarship.  When Cultural Farming eschews self-promotion, it spits in the eye of both of “social media” self-aggrandizement and celebrity scholarship.  When Cultural Farming resists banner-ads, t-shirts sales, fund-raising, grants, fellowships, donations, PayPal, etc., and offers its contents freely to the public without copyright, it displays a civic ethic anathema to late-stage capitalism.  When Cultural Farming circumvents “proper” publication and distribution protocol, it challenges the very premise of historic visual documentary.  When Cultural Farming attempts to test existing media theory to see if it still “holds water” in an evolving world, it provokes experts who’ve grown accustomed to being right.  When Cultural Farming warns that cameras today must be theorized as guns, it reminds how we fundamentally ignore the theoretical implications of our own visual, mechanically reproduced (sur)realities.  All of which makes “quite thin ice” for a middle-aged, white-guy, student-autodidact, autonomous, media ethnographer.  Exactly as it should be.

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