Commerce and culture: What’s the diff?

September 29, 2008

For students in Visual Rhetoric, this rather important question: Are distinctions between advertising and news, advertising and entertainment, advertising and culture blurring or even disappearing? With trends such as product placement, cross-merchandising and the swooshification of sports, is commerce so intertwined with culture that there no longer are meaningful differences? Do we even care?

still from “I Am Sam”

I’ll mention just one example: Cinema.

Janet Wasko, writing about Disney, coined the term “cultural synergy” to describe the manufacture of culture in such a way as to maximize its commercial success. Disney’s “princess” films are classic examples. Films such as “Elle Enchanged” are conceived of first as a brand. Disney promotes the films across media and product categories. Culture becomes, then, to a large extent scripted and promoted by big media, which leverage the convergence of media culture and other forms of commodity culture.

The example is film, but other such modes of commercial culture production include the American Idol series, from News Corp., and the Hannah Montana-Jonas Brothers marketing machine at Disney that introduces, packages, manages and commoditizes a persona for audiences of pre-teens.

So, another question for us is, “So what?” Who cares? Is this an issue that we should care about? Should we do something about it? Does this blurring and blending serve to dull or blind us in important ways? I await your thoughts.

Getting the U.S. Constitution we deserve

September 26, 2008

First, a note to regular readers of Wandering Rocks: I feel badly for writing so infrequently this semester. I am teaching two brand new, from-the-ground-up courses, each of them taxing in their own ways: Freedom of Expression (HON 251), a new honors course on the Oxford-Cambridge instructional model, and Visual Rhetoric (COM 300), a new core curriculum course that has required a great deal of reading. I am also teaching Media Law (COM 416), which also is labor-intensive, and, for UNC Chapel Hill, Writing for Digital Media (JoMC 711), an online course for graduate and professional students. These plus a busy travel schedule has yielded precious little time to write for this space. (Travel actually helps a bit. I’m in a hotel room now!)

To the headline: getting a U.S. Constitution we deserve. Whether it is living or, as Justice Antonin Scalia prefers, “enduring,” the Constitution has to be interpreted anew for each and every new generation. An article not yet published by the New York Times (it will come out in this Sunday’s Times Magazine), by Noah Feldman, argues that every generation gets a Constitution, or, in reality, an interpretation of the Constitution, that it deserves. An excerpt from the article:

“Every generation gets the Constitution that it deserves. As the central preoccupations of an era make their way into the legal system, the Supreme Court eventually weighs in, and nine lawyers in robes become oracles of our national identity. The 1930s had the Great Depression and the Supreme Court’s ‘switch in time’ from mandating a laissez-faire economy to allowing New Deal regulation. The 1950s had the rise of the civil rights movement and Brown v. Board of Education. The 1970s had the struggle for personal autonomy and Roe v. Wade. Over the last two centuries, the court’s decisions, ranging from the dreadful to the inspiring, have always reflected and shaped who ‘we the people’ think we are.”

The Court’s next term begins Monday, Oct. 6. Before that date (let’s say Sunday night), I would like you to consider what kind of Constitution this post-9/11 generation deserves. In other words, what is or are the defining constitutional issue(s) or question(s) for this generation? I also recommend reading the article, which, among many other things, describes and discusses two views of the U.S. Constitution, one that sees it as an inward-looking document, one most if not exclusively concerned with the people of the United States, that people’s security, rights and interests, and “a more perfect ‘domestic’ order.” The counter view is that the founding document holds that rights similar to those it confers on Americans should protect all people everywhere, or a vision of freedom that should apply universally. Let’s see based on your answers to this post’s question which of these two views you hold and, therefore, what kinds of justices our President should be appointing.