understanding media

Week 8

Vehicle Strand: Realism
The first part of this week’s class deals with “modes”--like genres but bigger--and with two modes in particular: realism and the fantastic. The main aim is to question our common sense understanding of what’s real, or realistic, by treating realism as one media style amongst others, with its own set of conventions and techniques. Recognition of the constructed nature of realism leads us to ask an important political question: who gets to decide what’s real, and what gets dismissed as mere fantasy? Having inquired into the significance of the rise of reality TV, we close by questioning the opposition between realist and fantastic modes, suggesting that genres such as horror, science fiction and fantasy might have just as much to tell us about the way we live today as documentaries or grittily realistic shows like The Wire.
Required Reading: Branston and Stafford (2010), Ch. 13: 'Documentary and "Reality" Debates'.

Environment Strand: The Rear-View Mirror
In this second part of the class we consider McLuhan's notion of the rear-view mirror, one of the means by which we engage with new and unfamiliar technologies and media. We go on to discuss the suggestion that McLuhan himself is a technological determinist who privileges the power of technologies over individual human control. McLuhan proves as slippery as ever, and the paradoxes of the rear-view mirror lead us to reconsider even this seemingly incontestable claim.
Optional Reading: McLuhan and Fiore, 1967, pp. 22, 63, 68, 74-75, 81, 94.
Optional Reading: Levinson, 1999, Ch.14.

Module Forum
Topics under discussion in the Module Forum this week include realism, reality TV, documentary, examples of technologies seen through a rear-view mirror, and the issue of technological determinism.

Case Study
If you choose to write a Case Study using the concepts drawn from this week's vehicle strand you will need to concentrate on some aspect of realism, the fantastic, or the relationship between the two. You might look at an example of a realist text, such as a Ken Loach film or a documentary, and consider the different ways in which it appeals to values such as authenticity and believability. Or you might look for traces of the real in a text operating in the fantastic mode, such as Pan’s Labyrinth or The Event. Or again, you might consider an example of reality TV, and examine its rhetorical appeals to notions such as interactivity, demystification and democratic access.
Useful Reading: Branston and Stafford, 2010, Ch. 13; Williams, 1988, pp. 257-262; Harris, no date; Hallam and Marshment, 2000; Biressi and Nunn, 2004.
If you would rather look into McLuhan's concept of the rearview mirror, you might choose a particular medium or technology (e.g. the mobile phone) and examine the way in which a true understanding of its implications and potential has been hampered by old ways of thinking. Alternatively you could consider the question of technological determinism: to what extent are we controlled or determined by different technologies?
Useful Reading: Levinson, 1999, Ch. 14; Chandler, 1995; Hardt and Negri, 2006.
Whatever you choose, you will probably want to arrange a tutorial with the Module Tutor. For more information on the Case Study see the section on Assessment in the Module Handbook.

Before the Next Class You Need To...
(1) Read carefully through the brief for the Case Study assignment in the Module Handbook.
(2) Re-read the recommended or optional reading for the Case Study topic in which you are interested.
(3) Come to the next class with an idea of what you would like to examine in your Case Study. If you are interested in a topic yet to be explored in future weeks of the module then read the overviews of these sessions and begin to engage with the recommended reading.

If you're stuck or confused, post your problem on the Module Forum or .