I came up with the idea for the course a few years back, deciding that discussing the new media of today would be far richer and more rewarding if they were considered in relation to the new media of previous eras. That's why I made Walter Benjamin's work, particularly his famous essay on the cinema, a key element in the syllabus. By reflecting on the way he wrote about the intersection of art and technology back in the 1930s, I reasoned, students could get critical purchase on the sort of long view necessary to make sense of our own era.
Because most of the students in this class were incoming freshmen, I eased them into the material. We began by reading Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash and watching a lot of YouTube clips. There was a good deal of humor, with serious subjects leavened by moments of silliness. As the semester wore on, however, and they became better adjusted to life as a college student, I began to ratchet up the intensity of our conversations.
By the end of the semester, we had developed a rapport that made it possible to move seamlessly from pondering the finer points of Walter Benjamin's work to examination of how our lives today are mediated by technology. Judging from the final exam and the last batch of papers I've grading right now, my students really understood why this application of cultural theory to everyday life matters. I'm deeply impressed with how far they came during the semester.
It's rare for me to have such clear evidence of my effectiveness as a teacher before I've turned in my grades. Typically, I hear back from former students several years after a class is over that they are finally realizing the usefulness of my approach. "I thought you were just going off on random tangents much of the time," one told me the other day, "but now I understand that what seemed to be beside the point was the point."
With this class, by contrast, I was already hearing comments like this five weeks ago. Maybe it's because they are first-semester undergraduates particularly open to being shaped by pedagogy. Or maybe I just got lucky. Whatever the reason, I have rarely felt so satisfied at the end of a course or, as a direct corollary, so sad that it has come to an end.
I don't usually write about work here. But this is one case when sharing my experiences feels appropriate. Plus, the content of the course overlapped with the experiments in social media that I've been undertaking here in the past month. As I get ready to launch the next stage in that project, a consideration of what I'm calling "photographic selfhood", giving a sense of where my head has been at when it hasn't been blogging seemed a good idea. With that goal in mind, here is the final exam for my course, which may be of interest to some of you:
As I had expected, most students avoided the longer, more abstract questions like #5 and #12. But I firmly believe that an exam should serve a pedagogic purpose and was hoping that, in reading through those questions, students would find ways of sharpening their responses to other ones. And the evidence in their bluebooks suggests that that they did just that. Not to mention that they left the exam with a taste of what higher-level study of our subject matter might entail.
Write responses to 8 of the following 14 questions in your bluebook (or equivalent). Your exam will be graded holistically. The longer, harder questions will get you more credit. But so will longer, more complicated responses to the shorter questions. So READ ALL THE QUESTIONS before you begin, to make sure you’re answering the ones that best suit you.
Don’t be afraid to “think out loud” for any of these. There isn’t one correct answer. What I want to see from you is your best thinking about the topics we covered in this class. And, to state the obvious, make sure you answer eight.
1) Which idea in Walter Benjamin’s work was the easiest for you to grasp? Which one was hardest? Why? Please be specific in constructing your answer.
2) The authors of our book on YouTube demonstrate the same enthusiasm for “user-generated” culture that has driven much of the technological innovation over the past decade, from amateur applications for the iPhone and Android platforms to all the ways – some more elegant than others – that consumers have been encouraged to “mash up” their media according to their own preferences. But as we discovered in class, such active consumption may not continue to play such a big role in the realm of contemporary New Media. What do you see as the most important trends in how people are using technology?
3) In discussing The Coming Insurrection, we pondered the distinction between the so-called “realm of necessity” and the sense of freedom from material reality, however temporary, made possible by the internet. We then contrasted the needs that fall into the former category, such as food and shelter, with the desires that animate the latter. Thinking hard about the different ways in which we’ve broached the topic of sex in the class – sexting, the “hug shirt” and its potential as a model for less G-rated wear, the film Catfish etc. – please reflect on the ways in which it complicates this distinction from The Coming Insurrection.
4) Think about all the movies you’ve seen this semester. Now pick one that we did not discuss in class that struck you as particularly apt for inspiring reflection on New Media. After giving a specific account of why you selected this film, try to connect it with the texts we read for this class and/or with class discussions we’ve had.
5) The great sociologist Max Weber argued that the modern era was characterized, first and foremost, by a secularizing impulse, the urge to take what had once seemed the province of divine or magical power and turn it into rationally undertaken human endeavor. This argument powerfully influenced Walter Benjamin, who gives his spin on it in “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”, the title essay in our book. But the fate of the aura in a world that had been, to use Weber’s term, “disenchanted” was only one of Benjamin’s concerns. He was also deeply interested in religious mysticism and made a point of including cryptic statements in many of his pieces that highlighted the continuing importance of belief in the supernatural.
Considering where things stand today, over a hundred years after Max Weber presented his thesis, how would you characterize the relationship between social media and his notion of a disenchanted world? Does the unprecedented access we have to information about other people make it easier for us to analyze their actions in a rational manner? Or does the sheer volume of data we have to sort through lead to a kind of paralysis in which we despair of understanding? Are we more likely to treat social media as tools that we control or forces that control us? Please use these questions as a guide, while offering your own thoughts on this subject.
6) Neal Stephenson’s vision of the near future in Snow Crash anticipated many of the technology-abetted changes of the past two decades. But we have a long way to go before our world matches the world of the novel. What aspect of that world that has yet to become reality seems most likely to come into being in the near future? What aspect seems most implausible today? Explain why for each response.
7) If you were given the responsibility of running a major media corporation, how would you plan for the future? Think about both the short term – what will work in the year ahead – and the long term – what will work five, ten or twenty years down the road. In constructing your response, be specific about how different media and the platforms used to distribute them would factor in your decisions.
8) Write about a time in which you made use of technological mediation – texting, e-mail, phone etc. – to facilitate a conversation that your were reluctant to have face-to-face. What factors made you wary of the physical presence of the other party (or parties) in this exchange? How did this experience affect your perception of the strengths and weaknesses of technologically mediated communication?
9) If Walter Benjamin were somehow, though the miracle of time travel, able to read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, what aspects of the novel do you think he would focus his energy on? Think about both the title essay from our book and such pieces as “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” as you formulate a response.
10) What mobile phone feature that is not currently available on any current model would you most like to see realized? Given everything we’ve discussed in this class, explain why you desire that feature and then imagine how your life would be different if you had a phone that possessed it.
11) Is it possible for a copy of something to acquire the traits we associate with originality? Why and how?
12) Dziga Vertov, the director of Man With a Movie Camera, was radically opposed to the imposition of narrative, whether borrowed from novels or the stage, on cinema. He felt that the medium’s revolutionary potential would be destroyed if its new tricks were deployed to tell old tales.
Seventy some years later, we live in an era in which traditional narrative structures are under severe assault by technological innovations that make the act of decontextualization – through excerpting, sampling, mashing up etc. – easier than ever before. More and more people watch television and even movies in pieces, frequently never bothering to make the effort required to assemble them into a coherent whole. But we are no closer to realizing the truly free society to which Vertov aspired – he was punished under Stalin’s faux-communist regime for advocating avant-garde art as political practice – than anyone was in 1930. On the contrary, the closed-mindedness that he associated with bourgeois narrative seems as widespread as ever.
This begs the question of whether a revolutionary approach to art today should still celebrate, as both he and Walter Benjamin did, the power of new media to break-up old structures and fragment experience or whether, by contrast, it would be wiser to make a case for old forms, such as traditional narrative storytelling, as a way of counterbalancing current trends. What do you think should be the principles guiding a self-consciously political attitude towards art today?
13) How have the media, old and new, been biased in favor of the senses of sight and hearing? What technological changes could diminish this bias, in your estimation? Would the negative aspects of (new-)mediated communication be offset by innovations that would extend the reach of other senses?
14) What do you think the underlying message of The Social Network is? Be specific.
I also like to give students the opportunity to connect the content of a course with reflections on their own lives. That's why questions like #8 and #10 are part of the exam. They help to lighten things up, certainly, acting as mental breathers. But they also demand the kind of self-examination that I insisted upon all semester, whether in the New Media logs students maintained or in those "fun" classes when I asked them to talk about their lives.