copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006

The cutting edge:
emergencies in visual culture

by Janet Staiger 

One of the major problems with intervening on the cutting edge in public culture and political life is recognizing that the visual is not self-evident. What the viewers bring to the image is extremely influential in what they see. Indeed, in this era of post-Rashomon, spin rooms, and general media savvy, people are as aware of the context in which an image is being interpreted and the positionality of the image’s narrator as is the scholar attempting to do “emergency analysis.” What I will discuss in this essay is what communication research suggests about making arguments in political debates, using the Terri Schiavo case as part of my evidence.

Cecilia Von Feilitzen has proposed at least four possible models of hypothesizing causal relations between the individual and media.[1] As I have explained her models,

"The first relation assumes that watching media occurs as 'cultural learning and/or frustration.' Media is assumed to be a primary learning site. This relation does not contend, for instance, that learned aggression is innate or a natural instinct. Rather, the individual is assumed to be a somewhat 'empty' vessel into which knowledge and experiences flow. I shall label this causal hypothesis the education model. A second relation [a reinforcement thesis] … is that media reflect culture and society and may function conservatively in 'maintaining social order.' … Conceptualizing the individual as having attributes of some developed sophistication from the person’s social context, the third relation asserts that the individual responds to the world based on those contextual, personal differences and uses media as a mediated access to that world. This mediation model appears in social science work on rituals (e.g., cultural studies), mood regulation (e.g., fantasy theory), and 'uses and gratification' theory. Finally, the fourth basic relation is that of power. Individuals may have some self-resources in the face of media, yet media are so overwhelming as both to insist on their influence but also to fascinate. Equally, conservatives and radicals often envision media’s relation to individuals in this way — either making good citizens into liberals or libertines (the conservatives’ view) or repressing progressive urges or movements (the radicals’ opinion)."

"These four basic theories or models about the relation between individuals and media require distinct conceptualizations of the individual to make sense. Both the education and reinforcement theses tend to imagine the individual as fairly malleable; the mediation and power theses conjecture a person as having agency and willpower separate from the particular situation of an encounter with media; in the case of the power thesis, however, the individual loses out in the contest."[2]

As a cultural studies reception theorist, I hold to the mediation position. In fact, most important to me in the Schiavo case is the fact that the constant barrage of moving images and interpretative assertions about those images in the newspapers and video clips on the networks seems to have had little impact in changing social opinion. Just a day after Schiavo’s death, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found for April 1-2, 2005, that 52% of the adults surveyed believed the feeding tube should have been removed while 42% did not. A Time poll over the period of March 22-24th found that 59% of those surveyed agreed with the Florida judge’s decision to remove the feeding tube while 35% disagreed; a CBS news poll for about the same time period had 61% stating it should be removed and 28% stating it should have remained. A month earlier, before the most dramatic and intensive media attention to her case developed, a Fox News poll found that 59% of their sample thought that the feeding tube should be removed while 24% thought the feeding tube should be retained. While the day after Terri Schiavo’s death produced a small drop in approval for the removal, given the variable polls and phrasing of the questions, the general steadiness of opinion is important to note. (See these polls at
 www.pollingreport.com/news.htm .[3] )

Also important to note is that when polled in October 2003 (more than 1 ½ years earlier) for the question, “when a patient is in a persistent vegetative state caused by irreversible brain damage, do you think his or her spouse should or should not be allowed by law to make a final decision to end the patient’s life by some painless means,” Americans responded 80% in the affirmative, 17% in the negative.
(See http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1011135/posts .[4] )
These numbers also remained steady over the term of the Schiavo debates. So, the difference between the general proposition about spousal rights to make a decision about ending a patient’s rights and the specific facts in dispute in the Schiavo case—Was Terri Schiavo in a persistent vegetative state? Is removing feeding tubes a “painless means” to end life? Did her spouse have reasons other than the patient’s best interests in mind in his decision-making process?—are obviously factoring into the opinions held at the time of Terri Schiavo’s death, and those opinions may well be related to how people interpreted the visual images of Schiavo.

Still we need to reckon with the very steadiness of opinion overall. Research on attempts to change political opinion indicates two important points for consideration here. The first point is that people tend to look only at the information that conforms to their current opinions—the so-called “selective exposure” thesis. The second point is that people tend to shy away from emotional arguments when they believe they should be considering a problem rationally.

Regarding research on both of these points, in a 1972 study of audience response to a documentary against the Viet Nam War, the authors were interested in the “selective exposure” which postulates that people expose themselves to what fits their beliefs during political campaigns.[5] People avoid “'communications of the opposite hue'” (48). One effect of this is “to reinforce the relevant existing attitudes.” Moreover, during political campaigns and other engagements with media, not only do people engage in selective exposure, they also have “selective perception and selective retention” (49). For instance, Barrie Gunter writes that studies of viewers’ memory of broadcast news indicate that in a neutral environment viewers remember fairly well what individual news items state, but this “fairly creditable memory performance was offset by frequent distortions or misunderstanding of important details of news stories.”[6]

Both cognitive and analytical psychologies theorize explanations for this deviation from what is represented. Cognitive psychology would discuss difficulties of insertion of unusual details in pre-existing schemata (or frames or narrative scripts). Psychoanalysis would consider personal association and distortions such as displacement and condensation as possible causes for this.[7] Obviously, this phenomenon is heightened if an individual attaches anything of value to an outcome; alterations are more likely. As Stuart Hall cautions, though,

“ …‘selective perception’ is almost never as selective, random or privatized as the concept suggests. The patterns exhibit, across individual variants, significant clusters.”[8]

A great example of the selective perception and retention phenomena, based on actual polling data during the final week of the Kerry-Bush election, is that 72% of Bush supporters still believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that 75% believed that Iraq had provided substantial support for Al Qaeda.
(See http://www.doonesbury.com/strip/dailydose/ for 1 November 2004.[9] )

Yet despite expecting evidence of the selective perception and retention theses, the authors of the 1972 study were surprised when part of their audience “expressed varying degrees of dislike” (52) for the documentary shown. The audience who saw the film was already almost all against the war, and the film’s political message conformed to this position. However, about one-quarter of the audience expressed their opinion that they disliked the “’overly emotional’ approach” of the film and “the lack of rational argument and objectivity” (52). In fact, 7% actually indicated they had become more sympathetic to involvement in the war as a consequence of seeing the film. The authors named this the “boomerang” effect.

Cultural studies has begun to consider how emotion interrelates with cultural maps of meaning. Being aware of the historical and social dimensions attached to “raw” affect and emotion is one thing. Considering how spectators might engage with political films and images as a consequence of these connotations is a new area for research. As we know from feminist and cultural studies analyses, not only are affects socially constructed but so are attitudes about which affects are better than others. A long discursive history exists of assuming that emotions are dangerous to rational thought. As Alison Jagger writes, reason is constructed as “the mental, the cultural, the universal, the public, and the male,” but emotion is “the irrational, the physical, the natural, the particular, the private, and, of course, the female.”[10] Communication theories are also suspicious of affect, fearing that emotions may reinforce dominant ideologies and weaken resistance to bad ideas, theories well known in the public sphere.

To determine what might be at stake in spectators’ relations to images that represent and produce emotions requires a systematic and extended research project. I would speculate that the viewers’ own emotions and personal memories are parts of the dynamic. Additionally, however, rational argumentation may not be what wins a debate. Jérôme Bourdon believes that people “do not seek true or false propositions concerning the political world”; rather they look for “symbolic” interpretations (such as what the collective already believes) to help them evaluate political propositions.[11] Moreover, without me seeming to be too theoretically retrograde, I would recall a proposition that Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld made in 1955 about the importance of personal influence in our political lives.[12] In a much more recent and critical revision of Katz and Lazarsfeld’s research, Jeffrey Alexander and Ronald Jacobs argue:

“The new understanding [of political life] sees civil society as a cultural space in which different individuals and groups jockey to ‘narrate the social’ and where citizens actively construct their own understandings of the real and ideal civil society by filtering overarching discourse and narratives through multiple public spheres and communities.”[13]

If this is the case, and it makes sense to me, then the role of the cultural studies critic is exceptionally significant despite patterns of selective exposure, perception, and retention by the populace. We need to narrate these images to provide citizens with possible discourses and stories through which they can find a progressive narrative that conforms to, mediates, and enhances their views so that those holding progressive views may remain unshaken in their opinions and those not yet decided have a reason to become so. We need to use our positions as opinion-leaders and as friends to bring progressive interpretations to people who might at first disagree. It is not that people cannot re-interpret an image, but that they require discourses, symbolism, emotions, and narratives that effectively enjoin them to ally with or even to enter progressive communities. Emergency analysis and political intervention can assist in that.

Notes

1. Cecilia Von Feilitzen, “Media Violence: Four Research Perspectives” in Approaches to Audiences: A Reader, ed. Roger Dickinson, Ramaswami Harindranath, and Olga Linné (London: Arnold, 1998), pp. 88-103. I expand on this in Media Reception Studies (New York: New York University Press 2005, pp. 18-19.

2. Staiger, Media Reception Studies, pp. 18-19.

3. Accessed 31 July 2005.

4. Accessed 31 July 2005.

5. David Paletz, Judith Koon, Elizabeth Whitehead, and Richard B. Hagens, “Selective Exposure: The Potential Boomerang Effect,” Journal of Communication 22, no. 1 (March 1972), 49. The film was Tell Me Lies (Peter Brooks, 1968). The selective exposure thesis comes from research by Joseph T. Klapper, The Effects of Mass Communication (Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1960).

6. Gunter, “Responding to News,” p. 231. The research indicates that educational attainment is not a cause.

7. Also see Staiger, Media Reception Studies, pp. 186-96.

8. Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding” in Culture Media, Language, ed. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobsen, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis (London: Hutchinson, 1980), p. 135.

9. Accessed 31 July 2005.

10. Alison M. Jaggar, “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology,” in Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Representations of Being and Knowing, ed. Alison M. Jagger and Susan R. Bordo (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), p. 145. Also see Catherine Lutz regarding our discourses of trying to control emotions: “Engendered Emotion: Gender, Power, and the Rhetoric of Emotional Control in American Discourse,” in Language and the Politics of Emotion, ed. Catherine A. Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 69-70.

11. Jérôme Bourdon, “Television and Political Memory,” Media, Culture and Society 14, no. 4 (October 1992), 542. The Democrats may be learning this: see Matt Bai, “The Framing Wars, New York Times Magazine, 17 July 2005.

12. Elihu Katz and Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communication (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1955).

13. Jeffrey C. Alexander and Ronald N. Jacobs, “Mass Communication, Ritual and Civil Society” in Media, Ritual, Identity, ed. Tamar Liebes and James Curran (NY: Routledge, 1998), p. 29. An additional essay just published that is particularly exciting in its theoretical and practical implications is Mike Kesby, “Retheorizing Empowerment-through-Participation as a Performance in Space: Beyond Tyranny to Transformation,” Signs 30, no. 4 (Summer, 2005): 2037-2065.


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