ideology – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Ghost Stories and Dirty Optics: Notes on the Hilmesian Closeup Wed, 10 Jun 2015 12:30:13 +0000 Brox Sisters Listening In. Courtesy: Library of Congress Online Prints & Photographs.

Brox Sisters Listening In. Courtesy: Library of Congress Online Prints & Photographs.

Post by Shawn VanCour, New York University

This is the twelfth post in our “Honoring Hilmes” series, celebrating the career and legacy of Michele Hilmes on the occasion of her retirement. 

This series has offered much well-deserved praise for Michele Hilmes as a scholar, professor, mentor, and colleague, detailing her profound impact on her department, students, and field. I heartily concur with these sentiments but for the present post shift from a concern with “Hilmes” the person to what we might call the “Hilmesian” – by which I mean a certain set of observable tendencies in historiographical technique. I use the word “technique” here in the sense of a regularized set of formal devices deployed toward consistent ends within and across a body of work. What are the defining techniques of Hilmesian historiography, and to what end do those work?

In an effort to open this line of inquiry, I will focus on the technique of the “historical closeup.” For sake of space, my examples are limited mainly to the pages of Radio Voices, although the technique is by no means limited to this work (nor to the work of Hilmes alone). The questions I ask here are twofold: 1) how does the historical closeup work in Hilmesian historiography, and 2) what does it do?

Well-worn cover of Radio Voices. Courtesy: Kathleen Battles.

Well-worn cover of Radio Voices. Courtesy: Kathleen Battles.

1. Ghost Stories (History as Spectrology)

One of the most telling passages of Radio Voices comes at the end:

Historians must continue to investigate the boundaries between what is known and what has been excluded from knowledge, what is heard speaking loudly in our largest public forums and what remains pushed to the sidelines, silenced or muffled in our historical accounts – and must continue to analyze the purposes and effects of such selections [. . . .] History is always ideological . . . . written by historians whose training, purposes, and basic assumptions and selections intertwine with present-day needs and preoccupations, and it finds a readership based on similar affinities (RV 288).

We are to listen, then, to the margins of history, to the voices silenced in existing accounts. Elsewhere in Radio Voices, this is cast as a strategy of Foucaultian reversal, or looking past the “smooth face of consensus” in the dominant discourse to recognize “the ruptured and seamed lines of tension and resistance that consensus seeks to conceal” (RV xvii). Equally important, we are asked to question the ideological underpinnings of our own, revisionist historiography: under what conditions may alternative histories be written, what forms may they take, and what modes of solidarity can they foster?

Radio Ghost. Painting by Rovina Cai.

Radio Ghost. Painting by RovinaCai (2014).

While written under the sign of Foucault, there also lies within Hilmesian historiography a trace of a Derridean spectrology – an asking after what haunts our speech and clings to it as its very condition of possibility. What we are listening for here is not the voices of those who speak from a space “outside” the dominant discourse, but instead those who exist as absent presences within it, whose “silencing” or “muffling”  is the condition for the dominant speech to itself be heard clearly. We listen for the murmurs of ghosts.

The goal here is not simply to restore these spectral voices to a past from which history has erased them, but rather to help their speech find a place within the dominant discourse of the present, creating conditions in which they may both speak and be heard. In Derridean terms, “[the scholar] should learn to live by learning . . . how to talk with [the ghosts], how to let them speak or how to give them back speech, even if it is in oneself . . . in the other in oneself: they are always there, specters . . . even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet” (Specters 221). This closing element of futurority (the “not yet”) is critical: the ghosts of history cannot, by nature, fully arrive within the present – they murmur, indistinctly, and it is the task of the historian to help find a place for their stories.

2. Dirty Optics (The Historical Closeup)

What, then, is the historical closeup, and how can it help us bring the ghosts of history into full presence? Here we may turn to Siegfried Kracauer’s book, History: The Last Things Before the Last, which he frames for his reader as the continuation of a line of inquiry first opened in his earlier book on film theory:

Recently I suddenly discovered that my interest in history . . . actually grew out of the ideas I tried to implement in my Theory of Film . . . . I realized in a flash the many existing parallels between history and the photographic media, historical reality and camera-reality (History 3-4).

First among these parallels was a tension between what Kracauer described as the “realistic” and “formative” tendencies, or competing needs to both respect and rework the reality documented by the camera or historian. However, as he was quick to note in his film book, “Objectivity in the sense of the realist manifesto is unattainable” (Film 15). The rendered reality was instead always inescapably shaped to some degree by the photographer-historian’s own subjectivity and larger concerns of his or her time. There is no possibility of a pure optics in Kracauer; there is no innocent or uncontaminated historical gaze.

New perspectives: Galileo’s telescope. Detail from painting by H. J. Detouche (1754).

New perspectives: Galileo’s telescope. Detail from painting by H. J. Detouche (1754).

The second major tension negotiated by both the filmmaker and historian, for Kracauer, is that both “must . . . move between the macro and micro dimensions” (History 122). In his film book he had pointed toward “Griffith’s admirable non-solution” of alternating between long shots, which offered subjects and actions in context, and closeups, “which do not just serve to further the action or convey relevant moods but retain a degree of independence” (129). For historians, the closeup retained this same power to deform the larger totality of which it was a part:

As I see it . . . [we should] concentrate on close-ups and from them casually . . . range over the whole, assessing it in the form of aperçus. The whole may yield to such light-weight skirmishes more easily than to heavy frontal attack (History 134-35).

The goal here is political, challenging received histories to gain critical insights on the present. This aim is achieved not just at the level of content, but also of form, exploiting the disruptive power of the historical closeup.

3. The Hilmesian Closeup

Who or what forms the subject of these closeups in Radio Voices? They are multiple, including particular programs (from Amos n Andy to Real Folks and An Open Letter on Race Hatred), performers (from Samuel Rothafel to Wendell Hall and Jack Benny), writers and producers (notably, below, Irna Phillips, Anne Hummert, Jane Crusinberry), and advertising agencies (J. Walter Thompson). In some cases, these are familiar figures whose examination in closeup serves to denaturalize the dominant narratives in which they have been traditionally inscribed, letting them begin to speak otherwise. In other cases, they are spectral presences, the muffled voices of those whom history has erased, invited back into the picture to say their piece.

1930s Magazine ad: Super Suds brings you NBC’s Clara, Lu & Em.

1930s Magazine ad: Super Suds brings you NBC’s Clara, Lu & Em.

As an example of the Hilmesian closeup in action, we may look to Chapter 6 of Radio Voices, titled “Under Cover of Daytime.” As with most chapters in this book, we open in long shot: whereas the early 1930s saw shows like The Goldbergs, Myrt and Marge, and Clara, Lu and Em running alongside more general-interest programming in the evening, as network radio expanded, women’s programming assumed a more “subordinate position” in daytime hours and was widely disparaged by critics for its sensationalism and crude commercialism (RV 151). From here we move into an even wider shot, as Hilmes discusses early twentieth century consumer culture’s production of what advertising historian Roland Marchand calls the “feminine mass,” seen as over-emotional, easily manipulated, and lacking in taste. At this point, an initial thesis is advanced: the relegation of more “feminized” and overtly commercial programming to daytime hours served a double containment strategy of 1) controlling women’s voices and 2) reconciling network broadcasting’s competing mandates for private profit and public service (152-3).

L-R: Irna Phillips, Anne Hummert, Jane Crusinberry.

L-R: Irna Phillips, Anne Hummert, Jane Crusinberry.

Three successive closeups of soap producers Irna Phillips, Anne Hummert, and Jane Crusinberry complicate this picture and work in dialectical tension with the opening long shots, showing how the daytime containment strategy at the same time created a space in which women and women’s issues could achieve greater public visibility and cultivate the solidarity needed for the formation of an effective “counterpublic” (RV 159). A closing return to long shot moves back to the previously posited daytime/nighttime division, the intermediary passage through a series of closeups having now challenged what at first appeared to be a strategy of subordination. What lies “Under Cover of Daytime” is not just the persistent commercialism that formed the seedy underbelly of network radio’s surface-level public service commitments, but also the creation of a protected public space in which women could build solidarity and begin to mount challenges to a dominant discourse that had traditionally excluded them. The voices of radio were not just those of male-dominated evening dramas and comedy/variety shows, but also those of daytime women’s programming, which are no longer forgotten or dismissed but now recognized for the serious cultural work they performed.

Nearly every chapter in Radio Voices follows this structure: a “big picture” presented in long shot with larger cultural contextualization leads to the formation of an initial thesis that is then strategically unsettled or modified through the technique of the closeup. The closeup becomes a means to resist or challenge the master narratives and sweeping views to which cultural history might otherwise be prone, a means of politicizing the telling of history at the level of form. It is a technique, I would suggest, that we also find deployed across other works by Hilmes, as something properly Hilmesian, though importantly, not the exclusive property of Hilmes. The historical closeup remains a vital tool for a critical cultural historiography that aims to restore the voices of those silenced in the past and create a space within the present in which they can be heard. Its Hilmesian deployment offers a valuable lesson in how to rewrite history, change the dominant discourse, and begin to make room for our dead.


Feminism and Anorexia: A Complex Alliance Mon, 09 Feb 2015 14:47:39 +0000 This post is part of a partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies where authors of newly published articles extend their arguments here on Antenna.

Free-Female-BodyWhen the young British celebrity Peaches Geldof was found dead at her home in April 2014, early speculations frequently pointed the
finger at anorexia, suggesting that her low weight and dramatic weight loss could have played a causal role in her untimely demise (aged 25). Indeed, the apparently high incidence of anorexia – which is still positioned predominantly as a female problem – within female celebrity culture is suggestive of the ways in which the latter can be seen to function as an arena which offers hyperbolic representations of femininity. Female stars and celebrities live under a constant media spotlight of surveillance which in turn demands a prescriptive regime of self-maintenance, and thus can be seen to represent an extreme version of the condition of femininity within patriarchal culture (Holmes and Negra, 2011). Furthermore, the emphasis on eating disorders as somehow an ‘inevitable’, naturalised and expected discourse in female celebrity culture at least gives space to the argument that eating disorders are culturally produced (by, for example, the pressures placed on female celebrities in terms of the dominant corporeal norms of the entertainment industries, which in turn reflect back upon the cultural norms and pressures surrounding the feminine body more widely). Although medical explanations of anorexia do not entirely exclude the presence of cultural or social factors, their definition of the eating ‘disorder’ – itself a medical term – as a mental illness places greater emphasis on psychological and ‘individual’ causes. In addition, mainstream treatments of anorexia – the limited success of which is widely noted – invariably pay no attention to gender at all.

I never really thought about this fact when I spent the summer of 2009 in a residential clinic for the treatment of eating disorders, a period which marked my 20th year as a sufferer of anorexia. Working as a lecturer and scholar in Media, Television and Cultural Studies, I had long since been aware that there existed a large body of feminist research on anorexia, but despite identifying as a feminist since my undergraduate  days, and adopting a feminist approach in many aspects of my research and teaching, I saw this as an academic terrain to avoid. I understood that feminists preferred cultural rather than biological or psychiatric explanations of eating disorders, and I imagined that the media was presented as a prime causal factor here. I felt insulted by the suggestion that I was simply pursuing an excessive imitation of the slender ideal, which simultaneously positioned me as a vulnerable or ‘passive’ media reader. I also didn’t want to give any more headspace to anorexia, which already dominated my every waking hour: to me, it was my life, my everyday hell, and not an object of scholarly enquiry or debate.

But in 2014, and five years into my recovery (the clinic worked for me, although sadly not for many of the friends I made in there), I got curious, and I began to read about feminist approaches to anorexia, staring with many of the foundational books in the field  (e.g. Orbach, 1978, 1986, Lawrence, 1984, Chernin, 1985). The work was more rich and complex than I imagined, yet despite the fact that some of the early books were penned by women who had experienced anorexia, or who had worked directly with sufferers, I baulked at the apparent assumption of commonality between all women, as well as the tendency to insist on one particular political interpretation of the anorexic body and experience. This was particularly so given the suggestion that the anorexic was seen as essentially unaware of the political contours of their problem or ‘protest’ (e.g. see Bordo, 1993: 159). This tension between how feminism speaks to the experience of ‘woman’, and the ways in which it cannot ‘be taken as a password misleading us into false notion of “oneness” with all women purely on the grounds of gender’ (McRobbie, 2000, 127) has been widely discussed within feminism. But it remains the case that the emphasis on political solidarity and common experience has historically retained an effective political charge within the feminist movement. Indeed, whilst I felt angry, frustrated (and initially somewhat patronised) by the feminist literature on anorexia, I also began to feel a sense of growing identification as I recognised myself on page after page. I realised that much of the feminist claims rang true for me and my own anorexic trajectory, and as a result, I got angry about how my two decades of suffering might well be explained by recourse to gender subordination.

I felt that this apparent tension between my identities as (former) anorexic and feminist, and the complex, uneasy, frustrating and rewarding fit between them, was worth writing about, and in using authoethnography, I wanted to capture the contradictory ways in which the critical feminist work on anorexia spoke to me. Yet in writing this blog now in February 2015, I am aware of how my perspective on the feminist work has changed yet again: I now harbour even less anger and ambivalence about my own relationship to its claims, and I find the work increasingly persuasive, illuminating and even empowering. Such research has enabled me to undertake a political re-evaluation of the ways in which I was treated (and mis-treated) as an anorexic, seeing the medical definitions and interventions as deeply ideological, subjective and thus open to challenge. Indeed, writing the original article made me remember – although I had never really forgotten – the political travesty of the fact that thousands of girls and women are starving themselves, every hour of every day (and that many more are developing anorexia as I write these words).  Why such sufferers are unlikely to encounter feminist interventions of anorexia, why they should and how they might do so in the future, is the ambitious focus of my next piece.

[For the full article, see Su Holmes, “Between Feminism and Anorexia: An Autoethnography,” forthcoming in International Journal of Cultural Studies. Currently available as an OnlineFirst publication:]


Roots and Routes of the Cuban Revolution: Transforming Ideology into Heritage Wed, 28 Jan 2015 20:50:29 +0000 This post is part of a partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies where authors of newly published articles extend their arguments here on Antenna.

On January 2015, a new set of measures by the United States government opened a path towards the “normalization” of relations with Cuba after decades of mutual mistrust. However, as the expert in Cuban history Antoni Kapcia has argued, this should be seen as another milestone rather than a sea change in the long story of Cuban-U.S. relations. It is one thing to open up relations with the U.S. and another totally different thing to soften the internal power structure and the aggressive discourse towards the exile community in Cuba. Indeed, reconciliation between the “two Cubas” demands much more than political agreements or the abolition of the trade embargo. Since reconciliation is as much political as it is symbolic, it has to be preceded by a transformation of the public symbols and historic narratives that define what constitutes the imagined national community, and who is included or excluded from it. Cultural heritage and museums are tightly linked to the politics of recognition, defining the official discourses about past, present, and future. The politics of heritage have indeed played a fundamental role in this regard since the beginnings of the Cuban Revolution.

My IJCS paper “Transforming Ideology into Heritage: A Return of Nation and Identity in Late Socialist Cuba?” aims to shed light on the transformations of Cuban heritage policies in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This contradictory period is characterized by pragmatism and ideological ambiguity, as Cuba has been hovering in no-man’s-land, not clearly transitioning towards capitalism nor abandoning its communist past. Since Cuba has not enacted a complete break with the symbols and heritages of its communist past, it is still more appropriate to talk about heritage management under communism than about the management of the heritage of communism. The latter applies in Eastern European countries, where post-communism has been characterized by a frenzy of heritage destruction and the construction of new monuments, as well as the musealization of the communist past and a popular nostalgic drive for communist material culture.

Cuba, however, is comparatively closer to countries such as China, Laos, or Vietnam where the communist party leads the transition towards hyper-capitalist economies. The ongoing process could be proof that Cuba is moving in the same direction in terms of economic and heritage policies, although a few decades later. These states endured the Soviet collapse because, as in Cuba, their revolutions enjoyed local support and were grounded on nationalist and anti-colonialist ideas rather than ideas imposed by the Red Army, as in Eastern Europe. The commoditization of the communist past in these Asian countries is paralleled by a growing divergence between the official heritage discourse and the capitalist values and beliefs that pervade their societies. The question remains whether Cuba will follow their steps or whether the representational regime inherited from communism will still be the dominant symbolic and representational regime. If this were the case, it is not feasible to expect abrupt short-term changes in the official discourse of the Cuban leadership — although the erratic trajectory of the Cuban Revolution defies any attempt to foreshadow its future routes.

The IJCS paper attempts to ground these questions in terms of heritage by showing how heritage policies have been tightly connected to government interests. Late socialist Cuba has concentrated on creating a sense of historic depth, triggering a memory-war to reinforce the idea of siege by an external enemy — globalization and the U.S. — and reinforcing the geopolitical links with Latin American left-wing governments. In addition, national identity has been highlighted over the class identity that had formerly permeated Cuban discourse under Soviet influence. These transformations are encapsulated in what I call the transformation of ideology into heritage. This process implies that every new ideological shift is immediately given heritage status through monuments and museums. The twofold aim is to emphasize the significance and future endurance of the new ideology, and to make it look older and therefore to appear more legitimate. The transformation of ideology into heritage involves a construction of identity in exclusionary nationalist and dialectic terms, thus posing a challenge to reconciliation. The revolutionary insistence in defining Cuban identity against an external Other and to reinforce the sense of collective belonging can indeed be problematic if a transition towards more inclusive forms of discourse is intended in the new period.

Statue of Cuban intellectual and national hero José Martí in the Anti-Imperialist Tribune, Havana. Martí is holding the children Elián González and pointing with an accusatory finger to the US Interest Section, the potential future full-embassy of the US. This hostile symbology of the area illustrates the need to revisit public symbolic landscapes in Cuba if new political and social identities are to be constructed.

Statue of Cuban intellectual and national hero José Martí in the Anti-Imperialist Tribune, Havana. Martí is holding the children Elián González and pointing with an accusatory finger to the US Interest Section, the potential future full-embassy of the US. This hostile symbology of the area illustrates the need to revisit public symbolic landscapes in Cuba if new political and social identities are to be constructed.

Reconciliation should not be limited exclusively to giving exiles the possibility to travel or live  in Cuba; it should consider their inclusion in the narratives and symbols of the nation, which still present them largely as traitors or “others” rather than as constituent subjects of the national community. Heritage has been fundamental in the negotiation of these identities, both in the island and abroad. In Miami, a parallel Cuban exile heritage industry has emerged where monuments and museums make different claims from the past, commemorating other Cuban stories, heroes, and values. On the island, an utterly ambiguous but clearly more open institution that could pave the way for reconciliation in heritage terms is the Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad (Office of the City Historian of Havana), led by the charismatic Eusebio Leal. The Office revisits the Republican and Colonial pasts of Havana while restoring Old Havana and packaging it for international tourists.

The official discourse of the Office avoids state propaganda and aims to establish more friendly relationships with foreign cultural and political institutions. Certainly, the new Cuban-U.S. agreements will boost tourism and will probably force the Cuban government to follow the path of the Office in presenting a friendlier image for tourists through heritage representations. The maintenance of two images of Cuba for different target publics (domestic and foreign) will not be feasible to sustain as tourism rockets. However, it is unlikely that the regime will market the communist past and symbols because those have become the official “language of power” and representational regimes of the state (e.g., socialist realism).

Understanding the roots of this process is fundamental to current prospects of reconciliation with Cuban exiles, as Cuba will surely not get rid of the burdens of the past right away. The radical nationalist approach to heritage policies and the politics of recognition deriving from it distort history prevent the possibility of learning from past errors and conflicts. Because inclusion can only be successful by recognizing the narratives of others and representing them publicly, the endurance of exclusionary and acritical heritage policies hampers any move in this direction. Cuba is thus beset by a complex conundrum. If the revolutionary past is ignored and the country draws a line under the past to move on, the society that caused the Revolution might reproduce their conflict. But, if Cubans strive to deal with the heritage of the Revolution, they will most likely cling to partisan views and be surely conditioned by their involvement with the system in one way or another. The new turn in the Cuban-U.S. relations therefore opens more questions than it solves in terms of the future political and cultural trajectory of the Revolution and the question of reconciliation. Without doubt, however, heritage will be a terrain of struggle for Cubans, both on the island and abroad, in the years to come.

[For the full article, see Pablo Alonso González “Transforming Ideology Into Heritage: A Return of Nation and Identity in Late Socialist Cuba?,” forthcoming in International Journal of Cultural Studies. Currently available as an OnlineFirst publication:]


“We Saw Your Misogyny”: The Oscars & Seth MacFarlane Wed, 27 Feb 2013 14:00:40 +0000 MacFarlane at the 2013 OscarsIt’s the moment I wait for every semester–when something happens in popular culture and opens up an opportunity to reaffirm with my students, friends, and family why the work that media scholars do matters.  This semester, it arose courtesy of 2013 Oscars host Seth MacFarlane.

I’ll be honest: I watched the Oscars live on Sunday, and though I found MacFarlane spectacularly unfunny, didn’t find a whole lot to be offended over.  So imagine my surprise upon waking up to a Facebook news feed full of proclamations that the host was not only unfunny, but misogynist and racist, to boot (In my defense, I appear to have missed several of the most egregious displays of sexism and racism while chatting with fellow partygoers and/or noshing).  There’s a lot of excellent reporting and analysis out there, so I won’t spend my space here recapping it (Two of my favorite pieces include this one from The New Yorker, and this from The Atlantic).  Throughout the day, I not only learned about the moments I’d missed, but entered into online discussions with folks far and wide about the controversy, and by mid-afternoon, came across several instances of backlash in which people defended MacFarlane’s right to make the jokes he wants to make, and accusations that those upset by the ordeal were overreacting.

For my money, Margaret Lyons’ Vulture piece offers the best response to this particular counter-critique:

Jeez, the song was a joke! Can’t you take a joke? Yes, I can take a joke. I can take a bunch! A thousand, 10,000, maybe even more! But after 30 or so years, this stuff doesn’t feel like joking. It’s dehumanizing and humiliating, and as if every single one of those jokes is an ostensibly gentler way of saying, “I don’t think you belong here.” All those little instances add up, grain of sand by grain of sand until I’m stranded in a desert of every “tits or GTFO” joke I’ve ever tried to ignore.

Lyons’ argument offers the jumping-off point for this post.  I’m not here to make any grand claims about whether MacFarlane was funny or within his rights as a comedian.  I’m not even here to argue that his jokes were sexist or racist, appropriate or inappropriate (Though I welcome thoughtful arguments on all sides in the comments, or as another Antenna post entirely!).  I’m here to make a plea that before we each go to our separate corners, carefully guarding and maintaining our own position on the controversy, we open ourselves up to the opportunity to interrogate what happened and consider what it reveals about comedy, about Hollywood, about society.  I would argue that MacFarlane is not so much the problem as a symptom. There’s a lot that’s problematic about Hollywood’s treatment of women, and it neither begins nor ends with MacFarlane OR the Oscars.  But if we stop identifying the symptoms, we stop thinking about the problem.  So let’s seize the moment and have conversations about these issues.  They’re incredibly complex, but absolutely worth taking seriously and unpacking.

Hegemony is pernicious because it relies on invisibility.  The system can only be maintained by convincing everyone that the way things are is the way they should be–that our beliefs, our existing social structures structures, our interactions are normal, and thus not worth interrogating.  Even for those of us personally and professionally committed to challenging ideological structures, normalization proves a difficult force to escape.  I confess that at the party I attended, a colleague said, “Man!  Does he think that by telling all the women how nice they look, he can get away with murder?” and I failed to see the brilliant critique that comment articulated.  Most of the time, most of us walk around without seeing the ideologies which guide our lives as constructed.

And that’s why moments when the machinations of hegemony are laid bare are so powerful.  For a few days after MacFarlane’s hosting gig, discourse has opened up around questions of patriarchy and the media’s role in perpetuating misogyny.  These moments when some of us are thinking, “Wait a minute…there’s something wrong here” and some are saying, “Oh come on.  It’s fine.  It’s normal” provide us with an opportunity to have conversations about the things we take for granted.  Take to Facebook, to Twitter, to the classroom, to coffee klatsches and have the conversation.

I admit that I didn’t necessarily expect this semester’s opportunity to unpack the relationship between media and ideology to come in the form of an awards show.  But I am spectacularly grateful that it did, and for the chance to open essential dialogue about these issues with my students, colleagues, friends, and family.  (And you!  Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments!)


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Our Intractable Ideological Moment: Surnow, The History Channel, and the Kennedys Thu, 18 Feb 2010 14:20:56 +0000 For me, the dilemma began in 1991. I was teaching an “Introduction to Political Science” class at the time, and one evening I boldly proclaimed that what the new talk radio media phenomenon, Rush Limbaugh, was saying was a load of crap. I simply assumed that anyone attending college would, of course, recognize that Limbaugh’s spurious claims, ad hominem invective, and dubious social and political analysis would be obvious to any sentient human being. I was taken aback, though, when a round-faced young man on the front row from somewhere in rural Alabama earnestly and honestly proclaimed that I was wrong—Rush Limbaugh was not lying; he spoke the truth, I was told.

Ever since that moment, I have wrestled with what I see as the fundamental issue that defines our political moment in time—the seemingly irreconcilable epistemology of liberals and conservatives. That is to say, conservatives have mobilized a full scale assault on our previously shared ways of knowing and what counts for truth. For at least two decades (if not longer) they have routinely promulgated a myth of an untrustworthy and dangerous “liberal media,” as well as “liberal elites” that supposedly dominate much of society. That has grown in recent years into a full-throated screed against any sector of society that doesn’t adhere to the orthodoxy of right-wing conservativism. While this line finds obvious currency in the rhetoric of media populists such as Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Limbaugh, it is now much more pervasive through all segments of the Republican Party and conservative establishment, including politicians such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Eric Cantor, and others. Furthermore, it is now routinely a rallying cry for all ilk of ill-informed grassroots groups, including that amorphous yet dangerous grassroots populist uprising known as the Tea Baggers.

As I have argued elsewhere, what lies at the center of these attacks is an epistemological challenge to how society arrives at its truth claims. From the ridiculousness of Conservapedia (the right-wing’s answer to the supposedly liberal and anti-Christian Wikipedia) to the patently offensive assault on knowledge and history that is Glenn Beck’s “documentaries” linking Fascism and Hitler to Communism and Stalin (and by association, the great American Socialist Barack Obama), the far right is making headway in their promulgation that the old ways of arriving at knowledge are not to be trusted (a point parodied, of course, when Stephen Colbert noted that “reality has a well-known liberal bias”).

The latest flair-up in this epistemological challenge can be seen through Joel Surnow and The History Channel’s upcoming documentary on the Kennedys. Press accounts report that left-wing documentarian Robert Greenwald (Brave New Films) is spearheading a campaign to thwart what he and former Kennedy staffers see as a tawdry and malicious hatchet job on the Kennedy family. The best the press can do in trying to measure such disputes is point to a previous docudrama, The Reagans, to suggest a historical corollary. The Reagans suggested that Ronnie was “insensitive to AIDS victims, and that Nancy Reagan was shown as being reliant on a personal astrologer” (which history also suggests was true in both accounts). Surnow can, of course, assert that the Kennedys were womanizers (which is also historically accurate, however that is defined), and offer a fictionalized account that can display that in all its soap-operatic glory.

What we are left with, though, is competing truth claims—a He Said, She Said of political history and, ultimately, historical truth. But what conservatives realize is that at this moment in time, truth is up for grabs, and popular culture is as good a realm as any (if not better than most) for making historically revisionist claims to alter history toward their preferred readings. With a distrust of elites, a delegitimized news media, a populist-paranoic rise in anti-intellectualism, and a hyper-ideological political culture, what constitutes historical truth (and even contemporary reality) is and will be hotly contested in the foreseeable future. It is a contestation that will be played out repeatedly and with much gusto across media platforms, formats, and genres. When such conflict is derived from a profound difference in our (no longer) shared ways of knowing, I am unsure how society arrives at the “common good.” In sum, if the conflict really is epistemological, I am worried it is going to get worse before it gets better–and frankly, that scares the piss out of me.


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