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September 2008

Cultural Farming: Interpretation, Reflection, Reflexivity

By: Holland Wilde

Video Research Examples:

Fallen Angels Redux

Interpreting Second Life

Porn Parody

In considering our ability to extract exact meaning from manufactured images, scholar John Berger (in Askew & Wilk 2002:47); rightly questions the all-too-easy exercise of interpretation, cautioning “One can (always) play the game of inventing meanings.”  Author Susan Sontag (1966:10) is equally suspect and parries repeatedly in Against Interpretation, “Interpretation does not, of course, always prevail.”  Regardless, this “game” of interpretation to which Berger alludes is of central vitality to Cultural Farming.  This is why semiotics partially fails my research.  Besides lacking in reflexivity (Rose 2001:97-98), semiotics, instead of bending back on itself, bends toward interpretative fixity (Sasseure, Eco, Hall, Bourdieu).  Indeed, both hard and fast interpretations are of less importance when action-ing for participatory democracy.  Indeed, potentialities for interpretive failure (as with Berger’s game?) can be a most useful element for examining the negotiations of everyday seeing.  And so what is purposefully held outside the scope of Cultural Farming are both extremities of postmodernist nihilism and positivist-empiricist conclusion.  Indeed, I am too much a John Dewey (1934:338) pragmatist for either:

“We lay hold of the full import of a work of art only as we go through in our own vital processes the processes the artist went through in producing the work.  It is the critic’s privilege to share in the promotion of this active process.  His condemnation is that he so often arrests it.” 

It is exactly because manufactured images are ubiquitous and polysemic that journalism, unlike typical cable news for instance, requires temperance, distance, reflection and reflexivity – along with dexterity -- within production practices.  Thus, as Richard Shusterman (2000:131), Professor of Philosophy at Temple University argues, maybe it is better to let the interpretive argument lay:

“But how do we determine whether our initial guiding understanding (in interpretation) is valid and not a misunderstanding?  …As the text’s meaning is not self-evidently given but is precisely what is in question, we have to determine more clearly what this meaning is.  Yet to do this we must interpret… Considerations of this sort have led Gadamer and other hermeneutic universalists to the radical claim that ‘all understanding is interpretation.  But this claim, I have argued, is not only uncompelling but misleading in suggesting that we can never understand without interpreting it.  For in many cases we are simply satisfied with our initial understanding and do not go on to interpret; there are always better things to do.” 

Although simplistic, I agree with Shusterman.   While it is always important to simply “do” the work -- form still seems to follow function, and experimentation still seems to be a prerequisite to theoretical stance.  Thus, while Cultural Farming research must naturally spring from normative a priori interpretivist ‘germs’; its raison d'être is to encourage the unveiling of (as well as to question and provoke) TV’s purposeful intentionalities (reflectively and reflexively, dialogically and dialectically) exactly as its makers attempt to persuade through common patterns of appearances observed.  And so, any available methodology or tool can help.  However this not an invitation to ‘anything goes’ amongst abutting disciplines, as visual scholar James Elkins (2003:29) reminds:

“If there is such a thing as a demotic, de-disciplined way of thinking about ‘everyday seeing’ it will have to emerge very gently between the many disciplinary, antidisciplinary, and trandsdisciplinary initiatives that currently constitute the field (of visual culture).  It will be interesting if it does.”

And Elkins adds (p:30):

“I am attracted by the possibility that several disciplines might work together but I am not interested in confirming such a configuration as a new discipline or arguing that it is interdisciplinary because I am not sure what relation obtains between the kind of works that seems most amazing, deeply insightful, provocative, and useful and the disciplines to which is owes allegiance.”

Although my research certainly does not intend to avoid interpretation or meta-theory; it does favor methods of observation first – across a variety of disciplines -- for exploring both purpose and intention, and is therefore situated more phenomenologically.  That is, Cultural Farming is a first-person-point-of-view approach that begins with an exploration of phenomena (that which presents itself to us in conscious experience), as a means to grasp intentional expression behind these phenomena (through the extraction of common essences) as pathways to understanding the everyday.  As Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962: 33) describes:

“Empiricism cannot see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it, and intellectualism fails to see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or equally again we should not be searching.” 

Thus, Cultural Farming is less concerned with extrapolating exactness and much more about positioning and identifying oneself -- reflexively -- within the ‘plastic’ processes of polysemic interpretation and visual disambiguation in everyday media.  And so, as always, when considering both reflection and self-conscious reflexivity, it is best to begin with case-by-case examinations (i.e., my own attempts). 

From 1986 to 2004 I participated in the evolution of U.S. TV production and presentation alongside a small cadre of visual communication designers.  As a production designer with expertise in news studio environments, I worked internationally, as well as in every major U.S. media market.  I served five years on the board of directors of the international Broadcast Designers Association - with 3,000 members from 22 countries – where I regularly encouraged our membership to more closely consider their production practices by inviting conference speakers such as media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, design critic Karrie Jabobs, author Bill McKibben, and film director Michael Moore.  I too spoke to our members, cohort and clients, at numerous annual Broadcast Designers Association conferences.  For instance, in 1990 I addressed a session in Las Vegas on the predicaments of TV production design:

“Regardless of where you stand on the Symbols vs. Reality or the Entertainment vs. Information argument, you just can't deny that we designers must still do more to elevate the level of debate.  The question isn't about whether the future of news design will be to look more like Roseanne Barr's living room or, NASA's Houston Control.  Instead, it will be about how we uphold the integrity of our art form.  And, how we lead the viewers into what could possibly become the new "Decade of Design" (Wilde 1990).

In 1993, sensing a forthcoming media production sea-change, I invoked a foreboding Gerry Mander (1978) telling conference attendees in Orlando:

“As television designers, we are mercenaries... video witch doctors.  Our waking hours are spent creating new addictions - impossible to hold, feel, taste or smell.  Bombarding visions screaming to be the better exception.  We are the purveyors of these new graven images.  And, from them we find:

      Violence always televises better than non-violence.

      Lust is better than satisfaction.

      Sex is better TV than brotherly or sisterly love.

      Loud is easier to televise than soft.

      The physical is better than the spiritual.

      Any fact is better than poetry.

      And, Death is always better TV than Life” (Wilde 1993).

In 1996, in Los Angeles, I spoke about the realities of, and paradoxes in teaching digital design:

“You know, art schools used to be bastions of anarchy; sanctuaries of the non-conformist; safe havens for free thinking.  But now, everybody's in cahoots with the big corporations.  We can't even scratch our lily-white butts anymore without hearing the siren song for underwriting, sponsorship or corporate funding.  So how should we teach? Well, if you take my stance that computers are little different than refrigerators, the answer is clear... Let's lighten up on this digital Jihad.  Concentrate, instead, on classic, liberal arts, not hard and software.  If one is not able to read or write, or critically analyze, or formulate logical opinions of our world beyond our own incestuous consumer spheres... how can we expect to promote brilliant, conceptual communicators... let alone citizens (Wilde 1996).

And yet again in Los Angeles, calling for more reflexive practices in a plenary session entitled “Provoking a Plugged Planet”:

“My theory, (and it’s certainly not mine alone) is that as the evolution of our planet gains speed through technology, and the world shrinks into one gigantic strip mall smack in the middle of an even bigger parking lot, new universal languages-via-imagery may become the only effective way to communicate across oceans, continents, and cultures.  Tomorrow’s printed word will, by necessity, be reinvigorated with images.  However, for this to happen it will take a global delivery system, like television and computers ... and a group of people to make the images.  Well, I don’t have to tell you that the infrastructure is already in place - and that we are the people who will make those images.  We are the designers of this new universal language.  We are designing the future modes of communication.  And these new languages will be a central component to any cultural structure.  Don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not a Luddite.  I’m not preaching the evils of technology, nor espousing the return to some agrarian civilization.  My concern instead, is that - in our haste to fill this new insatiable desire for more images – are WE designers taking the time to evaluate and expose our role in this new world?” (Wilde 1996)

The above helps to locate and clarify my personal inclinations toward commonsensical representation within non-fictional journalistic production and presentation.  However, I was (and oddly remained) a rare voice on these topics both in this groups and within the TV design profession.  While my cohort seemingly welcomed and admired my public pledge to work more reflectively, few if any members followed suit.  Throughout my career I found little substantive discussion, on any level, of self-consciousness in design, of ethics, intention, repercussion, purpose, principle, reason, effect, consequence, morals, beliefs.  To this day, I am unaware of any generalized critical tenets under which production is produced; nor how producers specifically determine, interpret, or value their design decisions, or their (self)position within their productions?

Meanwhile, to proffer a still more personal account of Cultural Farming’s call to reflexivity and critical provocation; in 1996 as my professional status grew on the international stage, President Bill Clinton signed a new telecommunications act allowing unrestricted media ownership and competition, which in turn unleashed a new era of media deregulation/consolidation.  Indeed, I felt the TV news industry change almost overnight.  My newest clients were increasingly younger, inexperienced, they moved up the corporate ranks quickly, but their careers were short-lived.  Journalism was rarely mentioned anymore during design presentations.  I was no longer hired on expertise but pressured to participate in vapid, speculative competitions where the only designs bought were the prettiest, the most sensational, the most carnavalesque.  Long-standing principles of visual communication were ignored in favor of eye-grabbing grotesque.  I likened this turn to an obligatory infusion of nonsensical visuality as  “techno-rococo.”  What was happening, and who was doing it?

Shortly thereafter, my organization, the Broadcast Designers Association, was controversially and illegally absorbed by its ‘partner’ organization, Promax (the industry management wing presiding over creativity), thus realigning our organization, indeed our design practices, under the TV industry’s newly preferred guiding structure of ‘sales and promotion’.  I resigned my board of directorship with BDA.  Then, in 2004 -- after my foreign Indian hosts intimated that I was hired to design the launch of a new twenty-four hour cable news network in New Delhi primarily because my studio designs looked “So American, like CNN.” -- I called it quits completely.  I could no longer be party to the TV news industry.  Of course, TV news and journalism production never blinked.  In India as in the U.S., rhetorics of visual artifice now trumped essential journalistic reportage; preferring instead un-journalistic production and presentation ‘values’ that overtly manipulate persuasion. Indeed, my personal evolution intones Theodor Adorno’s concerns with the culture industries’ systematic nature (in Taylor & Harris, 2008:78):

“The step from the telephone to the radio has clearly distinguished the roles.  The former still allowed the subscriber to play the role of subject, and was liberal.  The latter is democratic: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same.  No machinery of rejoinder has been devised, and private broadcasters are denied any freedom.  They are confined to the apocryphal field of the ‘amateur’, and also have to accept organization from above.” (Emphasis added.)

The chronological adumbrations above should be read as one professional’s plea for more reflexive, ethical practices within an industry increasingly spiraling away from attentiveness to journalistic practice.  But, what is the difference between reflective and reflexive practice within Cultural Farming’s scope; and is this difference important?  Undoubtedly, I want to provoke more reflection regarding all media production processes; but simple reflection occurs outside, and after, the act of production.  Reflexivity is something necessarily more; particularly where (news) production is the public performance of professional journalistic practice.  In his chapter entitled, “Performance ethnography: The reenacting and inciting of culture,” Bryant Keith Alexander (in Denzin & Lincoln 2005:423-424) begins to frame Cultural Farming’s idea of reflexivity:

“I want to claim and categorize this quality and process in the manner in which Victor Turner (1988) defines “performance reflexivity” as “a condition in which a socio-cultural group, or its most perceptive members acting representatively turn, bend or reflect back upon themselves” (p:24).  Turner’s thought on reflexivity is culture and context specific.  The inherent reflexive turn of performative experience is precisely its power to transmit as well as to critique culture and itself.”

Norman Denzin (2003:234) agrees, “It (critical, reflexive performance) privileges multiple subject positions, questions its authority and doubts those narratives that privilege one set of historical processes and sequences over another.”  Visual anthropology scholar Jay Ruby (1980:153) locates yet another viewpoint, “…I should reveal myself as producer and the process I employed in the construction of this work; that is, I should be reflexive about my ideas of reflexivity.”  And here, anthropological filmmakers Sarah Pink and Lucien Taylor, respectively, explore Australian ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall’s notion of “deep” reflexivity in documentary:

-  “ (Consider) “deep” reflexivity as opposed to explanatory reflexivity.  The former inscribes the relationships through which the video was produced whereas the latter takes place after the event and more common in reflexive ethnographic writing” (Pink, et al 2004:171).

-  “For such a reflexivity -– “deep reflexivity,” one is inclined to call it –- is not simply an aesthetic strategy; it is also an ethical position.  … MacDougall demonstrates that reflexivity and reality coexist within representation, and are not, finally, separable from each other.  We should be careful therefore to distinguish it both from the rhetorical reflexivity that is currently all the rage in anthropology, which aims at face value, at least to some degree, to subvert its own authority, and from the nominally “epistemic” reflexivity of Bourdeieu, which seeks to contrarily shore up the epistemological solidity of sociology”

(in MacDougall 1998:18-19).

More specifically, Sarah Pink contrasts reflexivity to subjectivity in yet another book Doing Visual Ethnography (Pink 2001:19):

“Reflexivity goes beyond the researcher’s concern with questions of ‘bias’ or how ethnographers observe ‘reality’ of a society they actually ’distort’ through their participation in it.  Moreover, reflexivity is not a mechanism that naturalizes ethnographers’ subjectivity as collectors of data through an engagement with how their presence may have affected the reality observed and the data collected.  Indeed, the assumption that a reflexive approach will aid ethnographers to produce objective data represents only a token and cosmetic engagement with reflexivity that wrongly supposes subjectivity could (or should) be avoided or eradicated.  Instead, subjectivity should be engaged with as a central aspect of ethnographic knowledge, interpretation and representation.”

Pink’s point is central.  Cultural Farming research intends not to counter subjectivity in journalistic production and presentation, rather, to encourage equal efforts of creativity regarding a reflexive exposure of the participants, techniques and practices “embedded” (Pink 2006:34) within the work itself.  For this addresses a necessary, yet sorely lacking, methodological balancing-lever within the production and presentation of non-fictional, informative, journalistic texts. And turning still deeper into production and presentation, we can revisit Jay Ruby (2000:155) who bulls-eyes the importance of reflexivity in Cultural Farming:

“To be reflexive is not only to be self-conscious but to be sufficiently self-conscious to know what aspects of the self must be revealed to an audience to enable them to understand the process employed as well as the resultant product, and to know how much revelation is purposive, intentional, and when it becomes narcissistic or accidentally revealing.  This knowledge – that is, knowing how much of the self it is necessary to reveal – is the most difficult aspect of being reflexive.  When successfully mastered, it separates self-indulgence from revelation. … However, it is possible, and indeed common, for this kind of awareness to remain private knowledge for the producer, or at least to be so detached from the product that all but the most devoted are discouraged from exploring the relationship between the maker and his or her work; furthermore, the producer often does nothing to encourage that exploration.  In other words, one can be reflective without being reflexive.”

It took time for Cultural Farming to come to terms with these scholars’ claims for reflexivity and demystification.  Not only is reflexivity considered anathema to art and design’s historical (and self-perpetuated) claim to production as something akin to a ‘mysterious’ process; within previous iterations of Cultural Farming, I typically balked at even the slightest inferences of personal-stance fearing this alone could be construed as a kind narcissistic advancement of ‘celebrity’ so pervasive throughout much of contemporary social media.  After 35 years of performing backstage, comfortably beyond the limelight, it took me a considerable amount of convincing to understand the ethnographical importance of claiming true public authorship and ownership by stating one’s (sometimes even uncomfortable) personal position within one’s case.  Indeed, this Cultural Farming is my most important acquiescence to date.