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Rethinking Thinkpieces
Michael Lawrence

Thanks Aaron —

Yes! It does seem like we’re seeing the ripple effects of what we’ve been teaching for the last few decades — coming back to haunt us, as it were.

Though I’d disagree on one point — I think the “teaching critical thinking” movement may actually be on the wane, giving way perhaps to new kinds of fundamental literacies — coding, “design thinking,” etc. See for example this editorial by the president of Wesleyan http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/10/young-minds-in-critical-condition/?_r=0

As for the significance of the recontextualization of pop culture by way of think pieces — In some ways, they’re just allowing, say, a pop song, to be “more” than a pop song the way that pop songs always have been ‘more than.’ They’ve always been shared as an expression of love (mix tapes), experienced together with a group of friends, etc. But perhaps the think piece can make that secondary function spread faster than exposure to the text itself. For example, my first exposure to any new Beyonce song is likely to be by way of a social media post about the song — and that post is likely to take the form of a link to a think piece. By the time I actually get around to hearing the piece of music, it’s already been framed for me by the various headlines about it. One might argue that the space for both “my own thinking” and “my own experience of the song” gets truncated.

Another possible significance, which connects back to the first point you raise, is that in the context of the sometimes thin, poorly developed pop criticism offered by think pieces, we see very important kinds of critical engagement with culture get made to look rather vapid — perhaps adding fuel to the fire of various crusades against teaching critical thinking, cultural studies, etc.

Rethinking Thinkpieces
Aaron Dickinson Sachs

Great slideshow and post Mike, thank you.

Do you think that the rise of the “think piece” is at all correlated to the rise in an academic emphasis on “critical thinking” at the collegiate level? It seems to me like there’s been an increasing emphasis on critical thinking in the last 10-15 years. What are all of those “critically thinking” alumni to do once they’re out in the world to scratch their newfound itch? Isn’t this what we academics have wanted from our students—engaged members of society who can think about cultural phenomena beyond the surface level (if only just beyond that surface level sometimes)?

I appreciate making the connection for how this work is productive of something, whether it’s community formation, value policing, or just free labor for marketers.

I’m wondering if you could also say a little bit more about the significance of the recontextualization of popular culture that happens via the think piece.

Why You Always Lying Meme - Image of Creator, Nicholas Fraser
Aaron Dickinson Sachs

Problematizing what the audience is laughing at reminds me of the Chappelle Show and Bamboozled…

Why You Always Lying Meme - Image of Creator, Nicholas Fraser
Brianni Nelson

In your example, crossing over isn’t always a positive thing, I more so meant it (here) in a kind of collective remix/editing culture kind of way. I think that is a positive, when different genres are being introduced to one another and remade in new, creative ways. There’s just levels to it, where we quickly go from “oh, that’s a fun thing to share” to “oh, well I can engage with this other thing because it’s not so abrasive or scary or (other black adjective).”

Why You Always Lying Meme - Image of Creator, Nicholas Fraser
Brianni Nelson

I would say that stripped down can represent both completely removing something altogether and just leaving very small traces of it. For either though, it falls on the audience member to decipher what is/is not there and then decide (immediately in most cases) whether or not they find the object funny. When parts are reduced or missing and you understand it, then it’s funny. My concern is that people can still laugh and not understand that there’s relevant context missing … so, exactly, what is it that they are laughing at?

Why You Always Lying Meme - Image of Creator, Nicholas Fraser
Aaron Dickinson Sachs

I’m interested in what you mean by “transcending boundaries” here. It reminds me a little of the use of “cross-over” in U.S. music circles, which we know refers to when a song written by a person of color (most often an African-American) appeals to white people because much of the cultural specificity is either missing or illegible to that audience. I’m not always sure that transcending boundaries is a good thing in that regard.

Why You Always Lying Meme - Image of Creator, Nicholas Fraser
Aaron Dickinson Sachs

Stripped down implies that it is taken out, but it seems like what is really happening is that it’s condensed into a citational style that allows some people to read the text as dense while others read it as stripped down.

Aaron Dickinson Sachs

Yes, Leanne, I think the “Thriller” video is a great example of a sort of inverted convergence—it is symptomatic of technological and cultural convergence, and the kind of flow across platforms that Jenkins (2008) discusses, yet it also seems to be about the rupture of that convergence through a kind of clash. It’s been a while since I read Jenkins, and I wonder if he’s got a good way to help categorize a phenomenon like the Cebu prison dance videos. What interests me with this Sochi video, as well as the Cebu prison videos, is the ideological work that is also being done when a pop song is taken up and recontextualized as a viral video. I don’t think that there is much ideological authorial intentionality in either the Cebu or Sochi videos—for example, I can’t really imagine Putin or a bunch of CEOs from the prison-industrial complex sitting down and trying to decide on how to use these pop songs—but the songs nevertheless do some ideological work for us as audiences across the globe, watching the videos in our own contexts. I suggested what ideological work the Sochi video did during the Olympics, but I’m less sure of the work it does now. What do you think?

The Cebu prison videos seem to suggest that prison isn’t so bad, that it can be fun (if not to experience, than at least to watch), and that, in some ways, prison is there to serve as entertainment for us who are not in prison. I can’t help thinking about Baudrillard’s (1981) famous discussion of Disneyland in relation to prisons: “Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the ‘real’ American that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral)” (12). And here we have a kind of Disneylandish prison dance video! What do these videos hid from us?

I brought up John Fiske (2010) and his work on audience-use centered popular culture, and I also wonder what he’d make of these videos. They certainly seem to be attempts by groups of people, though neither group is exactly representative of “the people” in the way Hall (1981) would articulate them, nor I think would Fiske, but they also don’t exactly represent the hegemonic group. Of course, the Sochi group does represent hegemony in the form of the repressive state apparatus of the police, but in this situation they seem to be representing a collection of policemen rather that the state. And in some ways the Cebu group similarly represents the repressive power of the state, but on the other end. So perhaps in neither case is the material of “mass culture,” the popular song itself, being recontextualized and used for the pleasure of “the people,” and as a result reconfigured as popular culture. Though in neither case is it also clearly the opposite of that. And perhaps that’s what you meant, Leanne, about clash rather than convergence. While these both seem to be about convergence culture at some level, there is also a fundamental clash at work.

Why You Always Lying Meme - Image of Creator, Nicholas Fraser
Brianni Nelson

Hey Leanne, (in true short media form) - YES! I didn’t go into it here, but I am also exploring how the technology (and the rules within in) shape our understanding and interactions with these jokes. Vine gives you 6 seconds to get to the joke. At that rate, essentially everything has to be stripped down - including original context, cultural nuances, or any other long winded explanations/justifications/insight.

Leanne Weston

Great post, Aaron. I commented on shifts in meaning for re-produced texts in relation to Brianni’s post, but I think it equally applies here. The context viewing can really impact upon our engagement with texts like these, how we understand them, and as you suggest, how we interpret them. I can’t help but be reminded of the many viral videos of the ‘Thriller’ dance, where the meaning is less about convergence and more about clash. I think it’s particularly true in the case of the Cebu prison video.