Julie D’Acci on Mapping the Reflexivity of Cultural Temporality

January 15, 2014
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On (The) Wisconsin Discourses: Julie D’Acci (Part One)

Part Two: Here

Why map the relationship between media industries, audiences, and texts? Why has media and cultural studies not adopted a mass communication model for reception studies, although survey research is accurate at predicting and assessing responses to content?

D'Acci2According to Julie D’Acci, Evjue Bascom Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and longtime faculty at UW’s Media and Cultural Studies program, the answer is less due to differences in disciplinary approach than a methodological aporia. Since the 1970s, the field of media studies has attempted to understand the process by which distinct case “spheres”—social relation, industrial production, textual distribution, and content reception— might become a unified disciplinary focus. John Fiske, the subject of the first posts in this series, showed that “discourses” rely upon continued circulation of perspective to remain as coherent cultural forms. Julie D’Acci’s work has set out to correct one of the primary problems in media studies: reconciling why an examination of “process” inadvertently reverts to a de-politicized analysis of “object”.

When researchers only focus “case studies” on one of the four spheres, such work has tended to exaggerate a phenomenon at hand. This problem, which might simply be called “overemphasis”, has the unintended effect of concealing broader social effects of a phenomenon. Further, the methodological shift to a descriptive case study approach has increased concurrently to a decline in the political investments that characterized media studies between the 1970s and 1990s. Julie D’Acci argues that attention to the temporality of inter-mediation might provide compelling incentive to not only account for the dynamic between “industry” and “consumer”, but “social institution” and “cultural agent”. An analysis of the relation between culture, industry, reception, and text, usually referred to as “mapping”, is imbued by ethical imperatives because phenomena are already deeply immersed in discursive struggles over recognition, popular opinion, and cultural emergence. Such a study requires the difficult innovation of a holistic solution-based methodology.

Time or Effect?

The Birmingham School persuasively expanded the concept of “the public” to include “the popular”, the everyday ways that emergent discourses position as tangible forms, through the circulation of their perspective. As was noted by Raymond Williams, the philosophical problem of “emergence” requires a concept of “time”, for which Williams identified “residual”, “emergent”, and “dominant” relations. Yet his tripart analysis of temporality sometimes distracts focus from the fact that most temporality accounted for in cultural studies research is emergent. “Emergence”, like the concept “discourse”, acts as shorthand for a larger argument central to the cultural study of media: that internal change is implicit to any bloc formation, and that codification, representation, and circulation are central to bloc identity. Strategic action in the cultural sphere can influence discourses as they adjust and readjust to social phenomena.

An important contrast well-understood but not often cited is that media effects research began much in the same way, but has harnessed different methods for evaluation. Indeed, mass communications research is extremely accurate at assessing phenomena, and is further distinguished from cultural studies by its ability to divide and subdivide demographic results. Knowledge of demographic reception trends can be applied to social/political platforms with advanced prediction of receptive outcome. Political parties use this approach, and commercial networks have been conducting varied forms of survey research since the 1930s. Since “media industries” largely thrive thanks to quantitative analysis, why has “media industry studies” resisted a similar approach? Why focus on transitions, translations, and transferences instead of just detailing objects and effects?

According to discursive evaluation, the answer can be found in the question of when. Both cultural studies and media effects are capable of some degree of prediction. The difference comes from cultural studies’ belief that the contours of the object studied shifts proportionate to the relation that has been identified. Accordingly, the researcher must approach any question of object identity with some degree of reflexivity, not just in adjustment of methodological application, but also in the limits identified regarding the social effects of their project. An “effect” is an ossified time, with utility as a comparative precedent. “Emergence” is a negotiated time, with broader capacity to account for non-quantifiable aspirations, investments, and identities.

D’Acci’s major contribution to the working concept of “emergence” comes in her expansion of how dialectical temporality is negotiated as proximities of exchange, between specific spheres of study. A working concept of temporality sheds light on the duration of an exchange and possibilities for intervention during discursive adjustment.

Theorizing Performative Circulation: the Polity of Cagney and Lacey

Changes that take place empirically, in relation and in perception, constitute the conditions of the study of mediation, as mediation transitions into a tangible form. This is usually referred to as “circulation” in media studies. Assumptions, inequities, and precedents are written into these processes, and researchers spend careful time assessing where inequities take place. Cultural circulations of inequities are notoriously difficult to locate. Social contradictions often take place implicitly within exchanges, and are revealed only subtly and in passing. Any ossifying survey or case study will delimit the complexity of an event with the purview of the question asked; and as time passes, survey results reflect traces of context.

D'Acci3By accounting for exchanges between spheres, a theory of cultural time emerges in which the line of sight focuses not only on effects or political outcomes, but the performantive dimensions that take place during discursive adjustment. In other words, the tenor of temporal performances between circulating media spheres is not only constituted by exchange between production cultures and receptive communities. Gender performances, according to Julie D’Acci’s text on Cagney and Lacey, are central to and indicative of temporal processes. What is circulated by industries are ostensibly coherent representations of emergent processes. At no point in a holistic analysis of mediation does any specific sphere act as an essentialized cause, though degrees of relative stability are achieved during the mediating process, dependent upon the context of exchange. Thus it remains imperative that broader social investments act as a central impulse for media research, instead of fidelity to legitimize one category or another. Once media analyses struggle to emphasize “originary” cause within the social process, it only can lead to a push and pull over the primacy of a preferred sphere.

The current danger facing media studies comes from the assumption that a legitimation project must emulate a mass communication paradigm in emphasis, by re-appropriating the question of temporality as descriptive reporting of events after the fact, without the same rigor for empirical triangulation one finds in mass communication departments. The survey technique is quite effective for analytic communications, and cultural studies should not underestimate the progress made by that discipline. But for a cultural model to remain sustainable and viable, research must not seek to favor one causative explanation. If part of cultural research includes an investment in contributing to the reconciliation of social contradictions, a capacity to “map” purposively helps to avoid the unintentional reproduction of dominant paradigms.

The next post in this series will focus on D’Acci’s re-framing of Richard Johnson’s “circuit model” as method for mapping the sublimation process of industry studies.

*Thank you to Julie D’Acci for her help in development of this piece.

Previous installments of “On (The) Wisconsin Discourses” on John Fiske can be found here and here.



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