Thursday, June 29, 2006

Thank you, President Gore

I just had the good fortune of seeing An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about global warming as presented by Al Gore. It's a must-see.

Though I'm not a student of global climate change, I consider myself to be someone who's reasonably well-informed. After having seen An Inconvenient Truth, however, I've discovered that I'm not. The film is chock-full of information about the phenomenon, one that's disputed, apparently, only by those outside of the scientific community. There, there's a clear consensus: it's happening, and something needs to be done--yesterday. One of the most provocative moments of the film for me occurred near the middle, where Gore contrasted scientific and popular views on global climate change. Despite the fact that more than 900 scientific studies confirm the existence of global warming without a dissenting voice, more than half of all news stories appearing in the popular media dispute its existence.

Gore attributes this disparity of views, and the government's refusal to take more positive steps toward a solution, to those who cast doubt on the phenomenon--those who work, for example, in P.R. firms in the employ of energy profiteers. And here I need to make what's admittedly a strange leap to talk about cultural studies. I find, as I finish my own book, that a great deal of what I do as a practitioner of cultural studies is precisely that--to cast doubt. Part of what I try to do, too, is to tell a different, better story about whatever it is I'm trying to talk about, whether it's books, intellectual property, cultural studies, or something else entirely. But I find in my own work, and in at least some work in cultural studies, that we don't move sufficiently beyond casting doubt. I can't help but think that at least sometimes, my own work supports a culture of unhealthy skepticism.

An Inconvenient Truth shines, though, in that it puts forth a vision of a more environmentally sustainable word and explains how change could be made at the level of the everyday and beyond. The film offers a normative, forward-looking vision of the world, the kind of thing that I think cultural studies would do well to offer, too.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A second-rate discipline?

This post has been brewing for some time, and I suppose now's the moment in which to put it out into the world. It's about the discipline of communication--my own discipline--and people's perceptions of it.

I'll start with a few anecdotes:

(1) I recall attending a panel at the National Communication Association annual convention a few years ago, in which the panelists reflected on the discipline's wellbeing. One of them, I remember, commented on how the association's newsletter, Spectra, always included a list of books and articles that communication scholars had published in venues outside the discipline. He attributed the list to the discipline's self-consciousness about itself and, more specifically, to a latent sense in which the "real" work was taking place in disciplines other than our own. (I may be mistaken, but I think Spectra has since discontinued the list.)

(2) I've met with editors at various university and commercial-scholarly presses who've all commented on their ambivalence toward the communication discipline. Generally, they seem to feel as though there's a handful of scholars in the discipline whose work is exciting, but as for the rest of it.... Friends and colleagues who work outside of the communication discipline, or who are in it but don't identify with it, have expressed similar feelings to me.

(3) I wish I had a dollar for the amount of times a student said to me, "I wanted to major in business, but I couldn't get into the business school. That's why I decided to major in communication." (FYI, that's happened less frequently here at IU, where the department calls itself Communication & Culture.)

Enough with the anecdotes. By now you're hopefully getting the drift. There seems to be a pervasive sense in which communication is a second-rate discipline, one that's: discomforted with its being relatively young; perceived by many to be intellectually unstimulating; and imagined by some students to be their fallback to a more challenging--and presumably more rewarding--career in taking over the world.

The odd thing is, many of the most rigorous, imaginative scholars I know work in communication departments--and that's not only because I mostly know communication scholars. Beyond that, though, it's surprising to me to see how much weight both the idea and practice of communication are given in contemporary society. It seems strange that the communication discipline hasn't become the discipline of our age, or at least one of them. Maybe that's because every discipline seems to "do" communication in one form or another. I'm always struck, for example, when literary scholars publish research about, say, the internet, "communicative production," or immaterial labor (which often includes at least some communicative aspect).

In any case, it's clear that the communication discipline finds itself in an odd place. While its subject-matter unquestionably is important, the discipline doesn't seem to be perceived as equally important. The question remains, why?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Italian detours

Well, finally, I'm out from under the yoke of Harry Potter. I've been trying to finish my chapter on Harry Potter impostors, look-alikes, and knockoffs for some time, and for some reason it just kept slipping away. It probably had something to do with the shear volume of Potter doubles out there, not to mention his rights holders' bizarre efforts to make them all disappear. Anyway, the chapter's wrapped up, which means all that's left of my book, Equipment for Living: Everyday Book Culture in the Late Age of Print, is the introduction and conclusion.

This post isn't about Harry Potter, however. It's about my recent trip to Italy. I spent two weeks there last May (part of the reason for the delay in tying up loose ends in the HP chapter) and got a crash course in Italian history, culture, and politics. I'll spare you the photos of me at the Coliseum, the Vatican, and all the other usual tourist hot-spots, though I have to confess to being rather impressed across the board. Overall, the trip was just fantastic.

I also went on something like a Marxist "detour" while I was there, too. The image at left is one I took in Rome; it's of a political poster for the Italian Communist Party. That in itself wasn't interesting to me. What was interesting, though, was what it seemed to be espousing--within the limits of my admittedly spotty Italian, free culture and broad intellectual property rights. Though I think the idea of free culture does have its problems (I'm particularly leery of its libertarian dimensions), it was so refreshing to see a political party campaigning, in part, on a policy of open access to ideas, words, and things.

This next image is a photo of me at the gravesite of Antonio Gramsci, the brilliant thinker and activist who contributed so much to cultural studies' (and other field's) understanding of hegemony. His ashes are interred at what's called the cemetery for non-Catholics. (Sometimes it's referred to as the Protestant cemetery, though there are Jews and members of various Eastern Orthodox faiths buried there, too.) It's a lovely place--for a cemetery--and it also plays "home" to poets Keats and Shelley. What was intriguing about the cemetery, beyond the "celebrities" buried there, was the fact that Gramsci, apparently, was one of its main attractions.

Next time I'm in Italy, I suppose I'll have to track down Toni Negri or something....