While pop culture texts saturate our lives largely through visual and aural media, we, as academics, oftentimes analyze and critique these texts through alphabetic text alone, largely within the confines of the traditional research paper. We tend to ask students to do the same, proliferating the idea that images and sound comprise the language of entertainment and consumption while academic writing and critical thinking relies on alphabetic text alone. Such thinking reifies the false dichotomy of "high" and "low" culture, and works to ensure that cultural critique will only reach a small audience of like-minded academics.
The sample assignments below challenge this idea by suggesting ways to teach cultural critique through multimodal composing. Building from their own experiences remixing video, still images, audio, and alphabetic text, the authors suggest general steps to help students remix pop cultural artifacts into a new text that challenges mainstream discourse and appeals to the sensibilities of a general audience.
Presenter 1: Amir Hassan
School Affiliation: Miami University
Email: hassanak at muohio.edu
- “Culture is only true when implicitly critical, and the mind which forgets this revenges itself in the critics it breeds. Criticism is an indispensable element of culture.” ~ Theodor W. Adorno (1967)
- “Critical consciousness is the recognition that society contains social, political, and economic conditions which are at odds with the individual will to freedom. When that recognition is given voice, and a decision is made to do something about the contradiction between the individual and society’s workings against individual freedom, even if the action is no more than critical reflection, there is praxis.” ~ Victor Villanueva, (1993)
Although academic writing is an important skill to acquire for communication within the university, academic essays do not reach very large audiences. As writers, we need to attune our language (rhetorical decisions) to the needs of multiple audiences. Rather than conceptualizing writing in the narrow sense of the academic essay, the point of this assignment is to practice writing within a different genre. Your mission is to critically investigate mass media and popular culture. You will “remix” images, sound-clips, videos, or some combination of these in order to expose contradictions in popular discourse.
Collect various digitized cultural artifacts and “remix” them to communicate a new message. This may involve re-contextualization (through the use of background music or other means), juxtaposition of contradictory ideas, dubbing, looping, or even more advanced techniques such as auto-tune. Try to achieve emotional resonance while communicating about a social issue you care about. Bear in mind that emotional appeals fail when they are interpreted as fabricated, or synthetic; “remix” instead should allow you to “speak back” without uttering a single word.
- Choose a commonly held cultural belief or assumption that you would like to challenge.
- Collect images, sound files, videos, or some combination of these and analyze these media representations for contradictions.
- Arrange the artifacts you’ve collected in a way that creates new meaning while critiquing the existing discourse.
- Present this arrangement in a context geared toward the audience’s senses and emotions; in other words, “set the mood.”
- Make use of the affordances of at least one of the software programs we learned in class.
Example of remix:
Presenter 2: Mandy Watts
School Affiliation: Miami University
Email: wattssa at muohio.edu
For my final project in a New Media Studies graduate course, I created a video remix that critiqued Toby Keith and Willie Nelson's hit song "Beer for My Horses" (2003) for its relationship (perhaps unintended) with the Bush Administration's pro-Iraq War rhetoric. The goal was to illustrate how a pop culture text that primarily entertains also has persuasive power. Drawing from that experience, I've offered a basic assignment organized around suggested steps for composing a cultural critique/multimodal remix. For each step I have added reflections on questions/affordances that may arise when cultural critique meets remix.
This assignment asks: How can students use remix to recognize the ways that pop culture texts can function as entertainment while also perpetuating problematic cultural values? How can students use remix to critique a pop culture text?
Students choose a pop culture text that functions primarily to entertain but that also reinforces commonly held beliefs that they would like to explore, expose, and challenge. This text could be a song, an image or series of images, a television show, etc. Using iMovie or Windows Live Movie Maker, students create a brief film that juxtaposes video clips, images, sounds, and text (students decide the media mix that works best) to "speak back to" the original text and critique both the text and the cultural values it perpetuates.
1. Step one: Play! (albeit in a serio-ludic way, a la Albert Rouzie)
Begin by taking a cue from Albert Rouzie, who argues for serio-ludic play, which inhabits the space between drudgery (boring research) and passive consumption (p. 37). Students collect images and sound clips, and burn video that may work in their film, but this should not be grueling. Students should be allowed the time to explore and ask how their collectibles help them re-see the text they are critiquing as well as the arguments they are making about it. On the "serio" side of Rouzie's serio-ludic, students keep track of all citation info for materials gathered and borrow from Creative Commons as much as possible.
(Some thoughts: While critique is often thought to be serious, the fact that students will be critiquing texts packaged as entertainment may present a challenge in terms of striking a tone in the video. Have students consider how the texts they locate can be used to make their video humorous, dark, serious, tongue-in-cheek, etc. As they collect cultural artifacts for their remix, have them re/collect the tone struck by each artifact and consider how this tone may need to be modified to work in their remix.)
2. Step two: Remix (Repeatedly)
Students juxtapose their collectibles and continually ask how multiple media are working together to invite viewers to interpret their project in certain ways. Consider how song/sound evoke certain emotions in the audience, how images invite multiple gazes and interpretations, and how text can stabilize meaning or overwhelm. Allow more than one peer review session so that students can recognize the various "reads" of their critiques.
(Some thoughts: Within the context of a student's project, can an image of a model on the cover of Seventeen magazine be "read" as celebrating a certain kind of ideal beauty that the student is trying to critique? Could a critique of a song's misogynist lyrics get lost in the upbeat tempo of the song itself? How can we account for these multiple translations? What can be done to negotiate multiple texts so that we are communicating the message we intend?)
3. Step Three: Reflect
Students consider how the affordances of new media and remix allow them to continually reinvent their project's component parts, its progression/ organization, and perhaps even their primary critique.
(Some thoughts: How does the final project differ from the student's initial vision of her video? How do we account for the differences between the drawing board and the final project? How does the process of remixing allow students to re-see how images work? How aural texts work? What could still be improved upon in this project?)
Adorno, Theodor W. (1967) Prisms. Cambridge : MIT Press.
Keith, Toby. (2003). Beer for my horses. Unleashed. Dreamworks Nashville. CD.
Rouzie, Albert. (2005). At Play in the Fields of Writing: A Serio-Ludic Rhetoric. New Jersey: Hampton Press.
Villanueva, Victor. (1993). Bootstraps. Urbana: NCTE.