January 25, 2009

Why Are We Doing This?

Why theory is valuable

by Kaitlin Hanger, Ph.D.


You’re teaching a class in film history or literary criticism. A few students who always sit near the front of the room begin debating the meaning of a passage in a book by Jane Austen or a scene in Touch of Evil. They're getting intense, and damn if this isn't the very miracle you’ve prayed might occur for several weeks now--actual authentic engagement with the course material.

A student in the back row frowns now...raises a hand. You call on him and with that familiar tone of incredulity you've come to know too well he moans, “Aren’t you making too much of it? Do you really think this was what Orson Welles' intended when he made the movie?”

How you answer will depend on your classroom personality as much as anything else. Some professors give patient explanations of how meaning is constructed beyond a director’s or author's original intent. Others, like Jimmie Reeves who taught at the University of Michigan when I was a masters student there, may avoid answering altogether by presenting a curt disclaimer on the first day of class--something like: “Don’t ever ask me if we’re over-analyzing in here because I refuse to answer that question in a course whose primary purpose is to analyze television.” (I've always wished I had Jimmie's obviously practical wisdom.)

Professor Jimmie Reeves, now at Texas Tech.

One of the many dilemmas in getting students to examine any kind of symbolic communication is, as Pamela Shoemaker once said, that it is everywhere and nowhere at once (146). Through our day-in-day-out contact with television, for instance, we are all familiar with, but seldom experts at, mass communication. Students take for granted so many of the systems of symbols and messaging that define their culture. And in their hands a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing.

Some years ago, George Tysh, later a cultural critic for the Metro Times and more of inspiration than he'll ever know, was offering a European film seminar at Wayne State. I was thrilled to be able to sit in on those heated discussions, having taken classes with him before. George was one of those guys I could listen to all day. But one afternoon, after a particularly sarcastic rebuff from students he'd asked to consider a deep psychoanalytic analysis of an Antonioni film, he surprised me by asking in exasperation, “Do you think theory is useful to students looking at film? Or is it an impediment? Sometimes I wonder myself.”

I knew what he meant. The process is exhausting even when my students are listening. And a girl can look at a text from so may angles that she begins to wonder if she's playing mind games with anyone other than herself. Montaigne said that there are more interpretations of interpretations written than there are interpretations of things, as Foucault reminded us The Order of Things (40). At some point deep into a criticism it can seem that I’m excavating my own beliefs as much as uncovering the producer’s or filmmaker’s. This can be especially true while crafting an academic article that may be read by less than 1% of the world's population.

In dealing with communication, my colleagues and I deal with a human art. It cannot be quantified like a math problem or verified in lab tests. Every answer inevitably creates more questions, even for the querent. It's all "academic," as the saying goes, but for many of us, that is the beauty of the ongoing dialogue that is criticism. Where so-called pure disciplines may focus on the study of being (ontology), we must focus, as Lana Rakow so aptly put it, on the study of being and knowing (158). And yes, it's a painstakingly slow process. One with which our students become frequently impatient.

Yet it is our job to help these "customers" of ours comprehend the connection between symbol and reality–for instance, to examine how mass communication creates or supports cultural biases. In examining critical texts, we ask them to scrutinize what is taken for granted elsewhere and attempt to understand the patterns of culture. Then we use that understanding of the patterns to give these future professionals the means to negotiate their world. While students, as we so often complain, are too often getting degrees simply to guarantee themselves successful employment, it is still our role to teach them to evaluate messages, synthesize ideas, and effectively develop oral, written, and mediated messages by thinking critically about “the truths” of the world.

We may naturally have to stop sometimes to remember why we are doing this. Certainly, the student, if he is not a future artist or maverick entrepreneur, seldom gets why we're doing it and, in fact, considers our methods to be a kind of evil torture invented by people who clearly think too much about too little. Students must be "opened up" to the fact that there is more than one meaning to every text (or every encounter of human being and language, for that matter), and it probably helps for the professor to articulate her understanding of the mission of a liberal arts agenda to her audience (and herself) on occasion.

I often tell my students that as an independent filmmaker, I would be the first to admit that my original intent was not the only meaning to be found there. It is, in fact, quite possible that someone else might clarify why I did what I did better than I could myself. Filmmaking is a creative process, and a filmmaker may be too enrapt in the process to worry about what the end product "means" on life's broader scale of wisdom. Many directorial or editing decisions are intuitive. They just seem to emit the right spirit or feeling. The filmmaker doesn't stop to analyze why. If she stopped to analyze “why” at each juncture, she would probably never get the thing to screen. A good filmmaker is mindful while she creates, but not necessarily analytic. Analysis is the job of critics and scholars—and ultimately, all thinking people who choose later to reflect upon the work.

There are always many reasons why a text takes the shape that it does. Thomas McCain writes:
[M]uch of the structure and content of the media are shaped by accidents and forces of history. The political, economic, and social pressures that transpired at the time a particular communication technology developed shaped for generations the content and format of a medium within its culture. (174)
Explaining this to students, of course, is important work because the media is so influential in their lives. McCain has said: "People talk about television more than they discuss any other topic, including the weather, sex, sports, or family” (169). TV is not the creation of a particular artist. Nor is the typical Hollywood blockbuster so. When we critique a mass communication message, we are not trying to read the director’s mind. Perhaps that expectation on the part of students comes from a long tradition in public schooling that encourages one right answer to every question–that answer often bubbling up out of an advanced capitalist mindset that's invaded all the minutia of Western culture in the last few decades, including our schools through the Bush-endorsed "school improvement industry."The value of contemporary criticism is that it illustrates to students that truth is always changing. In criticism we unlock a door with one of many keys. And where you stand as a researcher at a particular point in time influences what you will discover behind that door. As an inductive method, cultural criticism focuses on individual media-makers situated within memberships. It recognizes behavior as part of a process, not a singular act. James A. Anderson describes the difference in examining aggregates and examining the individual situated within a membership as akin to the difference between viewing snapshots versus watching a motion picture (59). Explaining the naturalistic research paradigm, he writes:
This paradigm views human behavior as an ongoing performance, the characterization of which is dependent upon the social reality context of its appearance. While behavior is neither random nor capricious, it also is not coherent across contexts and its consistency within a context is subject to the choices made by the individual actors. Human behavior is, in short, essentially in process and must be understood within the operation of that process. (58)
As analysts of culture, we choose to critique mediated messages via theory because we choose to understand how we–both as situated individuals and as aggregate societies–consume and construct the symbols that define us. And we can't expect students, the future message makers, product makers, and policy makers of the world, to do the work of the future without understanding how this process of design and "consumption" works.


Students don't come to college knowing that the humanities disciplines are overriding paradigms or “world-views” that provide explanations for how and why meanings are constructed in their world. They find it difficult to comprehend how the metalanguage of the humanities disciplines is going to help them "do" a job. The visions they've been exposed to all their lives of successful people do not show those people engaged in discussions of academic theory. Television, websites, and billboards show successful people driving around in Mercedes using high-tech gadgets to buy more consumer goods, because that is what television, websites, and billboards sell.

These kids' lives have been "programmed" ad infinitum, from the moment they wake and turn on the TV every morning, through each regimented day of learning in a public school system where standardized testing and "one right answer" have come to define the curriculum, to the moment at night when a parent finally unplugs the computer and tells them to get to bed. Their mantra might very well be: "Tell me what to do, tell me what to buy, tell me what to believe to get ahead in life, and I'll do it, but don't tell me I have to think for myself."

There are, of course, students of exception and exceptional students. There are also many that are ripe for conversion, because they are already starting to feel disillusioned with the world. There others you may never reach. But sometimes it's the ones you're sure you'll never reach who will seek you out on the day of graduation to tell you, "You changed my life." They weren't your favorite students. In fact they irked the hell out of you on most days. But to your surprise, you discover they were listening.

Of course students suspect that what you're doing in an analysis is creating a verbal dance with academic smoke and mirrors. They are partly right. When we learn the theories that critique a mass media message, we are looking at ourselves look at ourselves in the place we go to see each other seeing each other. (I love what John Durham Peters explains mass media as: "the place we go to see each other seeing each other." [566])

Students may feel frustrated with your insistence on their participation in this mirroring process. In American society, which promotes immediate gratification, don't expect people to look at their actions through such a slow-moving mise en abyme, to co-opt a film term, without squirming. Their suspicion of thinking abstractly is not new. It is not necessarily postmodern. And it has had to be overturned more than once in history.

Islamic leaders of the tenth century, such as the Ishmaili Batinis, who were often political philosophers and scientists as well, understood the usefulness of our type of contemplation. They used double negatives to understand the metaphysical and transcend the traps of mundane language–saying for instance that God was not ignorant, but was also not not-ignorant (Armstrong). The Buddhist, too, understands the value of intense contemplation on a single object, or labeling one’s thoughts about the object or even one’s thoughts about the thoughts about the object. Westerners, however, with our reductionist influences, tend to be less patient with “a representation that stands back from itself.” Criticism, I tell my students, uses its various theories to "figure life out." And to examine texts or products does not change how they were made, but it may influence how they are created in the future or shift the balance of power regarding who defines the making as "good."

The first time one watches a film, whether narrative or otherwise, it is difficult to experience that message outside of one's immediate emotional reactions–to be anything other than a viewer identifying with a subject. We associate first with characters and participants and not the medium. Criticism is a tool used to accomplish reflection and deeper wonder at a work of art or influence. But again, students aren't born knowing this.

But why theory, for God's sake? Can't we just watch a movie?

Mundane language, to begin with, is already analogy and is therefore problematic–bound in contemporary meaning. If you don't believe that, read a magazine from the 1920s. You will discover time-bound slang, cultural assumptions that no longer apply, and predictions that are simply laughable in retrospect. But most students come to college not regarding the fact that mundane language is susceptible to change along with changes in culture and hegemony. We know that a magazine film review alone, rendered in popular language, will not transcend time, because we've read hundreds of them by the time we get our Ph.D.s .

Art, literature, and theory are communicative vehicles among few that can transcend time. We apply theory partially in an to attempt to bind our interpretation within a proven analytic system of thought principles that might possibly transcend time. Theory turns back on itself, explains itself in detailed ways that mundane language is not expected to. A well-developed theory is a highly structured communication system decipherable to antecedent scholars in later epochs. Theory provides, the scholar hopes, a more stable linguistic or symbolic filter than commentary alone.

That's a lot for a student to comprehend. I say these things to them, but sometimes I simply say, "We're slowing down here to take a closer look. That's what college is. That's how critical thinking works. Creative thinking is the number-one skill employers are going to want from you in the 21st century. And exercises such as this will help teach you how to think outside the box, or at least from inside a different box from the guy who empties your office wastebaskets."

They also have to be taught that critiques influenced by recognized theories contribute to an ongoing conversation. Anderson explains, “The qualitative researcher’s aim is to add to the library of discourse on human life–this library is ever expandable” (249). Undergrads aren't likely to consider that analysis might save us time as we decipher the writer’s intentions through its overriding “world-view” (ie. according to the scholarly vocabulary applied). That there is an accepted, defined, clear vocabulary in critical theories, unlike popular language (which often uses words carelessly) is news to them. Understanding theory is like learning a new language. And although there are reasoned hypotheses that back what we assume in criticism, it doesn't sound like math or science to them, it doesn't sound like the eleven o'clock news, and it is therefore suspicious. Criticism tells us the why as well as the how, and unfortunately students have to be taught to ask why--a question they were often verbally hand-slapped for asking in public school. Criticism examines information in context, and many students don't even realize context exists.

Criticism based on anthropological paradigms and political ideas such as Marxism, for instance, does what quantitative scholars would generally consider insignificant–it reads the absent as well as the present. To a mass media scholar, what gets left out of a media message may be as significant as what is put in. As Hal Himmelstein says, “The things not said are part of the story” (237). Where does the media message position women or ethnic minorities, for example? Are segments of the population left feeling alienated by the text? We forget sometimes that we too had to learn to care about these questions.

It is a shame that career bound students majoring in film production or communication see theory as a waste of time, because theory impacts the production of mass media. In postmodern society, television and film have become increasingly self-reflexive. The media loves to report on the media, and an interesting theory or study often finds its way into the news. Likewise, film directors will read everything they can get their hands on that is written about their influencing directorial role models. Many, like Ingmar Bergman or Jane Campion for instance, were always as interested in the psychological or metaphysical elements of their work as they were production technique. Talented filmmakers learn about such processes by reading theory. As long as there are creators of media messages who consider themselves artists or quasi-artists with messages to communicate, theory will have an influence on production.

Students should be reminded who criticism is for, however. It is not for the average viewer, content to be entertained. It is for people who want to understand how meaning is constructed within a culture through one of its more powerful vehicles–the mass media. The problem students often have with this is that they then want to know who is to blame for what the message lacks. They try to fit the idea of an underlying ideology into an existing paradigm that they carry around like so much baggage--that someone must always be to blame. In their heads, the "someone" responsible should be either a single person (the creator) or a group of people within an institution (a conspiracy). If those two possibilities are far-fetched, students often cannot comprehend that ideology is at work. Perhaps to see that ideology is a self-perpetuating hegemony is difficult for students, because it leaves them feeling out of control. There is no simple solution to countering hegemony. It is plausible to counter a person or a group of people alone, but not so the nebulous infrastructure of an advanced capitalist culture. Recognition of a self-perpetuating hegemony leaves many students feeling uncomfortably alienated, as it should.

Some students probably need to hear how change occurs before they will be able to listen to ideas about hegemony. Who is in power may not be the appropriate question. "What ideas contain power?" may be more apropos. How do ideas affect what gets put on television? How do ideas come into power? How do people change the symbols that change ideas? These are questions students can be encouraged to explore.


According to Metz, “There is always a moment after the obvious observation that it is man who makes the symbol when it is also clear that the symbol makes man: this is one of the great lessons of psychoanalysis, anthropology, and linguistics” (1977: 16). It is also the lesson, which a critical scholar in mass communication is trying to impart to readers and students.

When explaining the interpretive paradigm to students, it may serve us well to consider what Anderson said: "Generally, truth with a capital 'T' is considered unknowable if not impossible. An explanation can be true relative to its own system of evidence. As there are many interpretations, there can be many truths." Qualitative research is unabashedly interpretive, but it is not idiosyncratic. It is not a chaotic, “anything goes” endeavor. It appeals to intersubjectivity within its rules of evidence. Its explanation must derive from the empirical evidence presented and must be sensible to all who are equally literate in that evidence. That other sensible explanations can arise from that evidence simply confirms, for the qualitative researcher, the nature of human knowledge. (253)

We, as well as our students, often feel these days as though we are teetering on the brink of a new world shaped by a whirling storm of information and technological change. And as Rakow said, “We will have to stop thinking about how to prepare our students for the next century; rather we will need to prepare them to create it” (160). It doesn't hurt to tell them that's what we're about.

We were headed, even before the rise of Web 2.0, according to James Beniger, for what could be a million divers media in our future (24). Language and meaning change rapidly in the 21st century. Nearly twenty years ago already, Thomas McCain said: "[T]he modern educator must deal with issues of new technology and social organization that blur distinctions that were made about telecommunication and mass communication only a decade ago“ (169). How much more so today? Will jobs as we know them even exist tomorrow? How can we, in this unstable environment, conscionably limit your--a student’s opportunities--by forcing you to specialize in a "career" and learn only the "motor skills" of that career? Liberal arts and its debates are important--yes, even in the "real" world.

Works Cited

• Anderson, James A. Communication Research: Issues and Methods. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.
• Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. Audio cassette. Harper Audio, 1994.
• Beniger, James R. “Communication–Embrace the Subject, not the Field.” Journal of Communication 43 (1993): 18-25.
• Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. 1970. New York: Vintage/Random, 1994.
• Himmelstein, Hal. Television Myth and the American Mind. 2nd ed. Westport: Praeger, 1994.
• Johnson, Michael L. Mind, Language, Machine. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.
• Langer, Susanne. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1942.
• McCain, Thomas A. “Teaching Mass Communication and Telecommunication.” Teaching Communication: Theory, Research, and Methods. Ed. John A. Daly, et al. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erblaum, 1990. 169-180.
• Metz, Christian. –Film Language. Trans. Michael Taylor. New York: Oxford UP, 1974 –The Imaginary Signifier. Trans. Celia Britton, et al. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977.
• Peters, John Durham. “Distrust of Representation: Habermas on the Public Sphere.” Media, Culture and Society: 15 (1993): 541-571.
• Rakow, Lana F. “The Curriculum is the Future.” Journal of Communication 43 (1993): 154-161.
• Shoemaker, Pamela J. “Communication in Crisis: Theory, Curricula, and Power.” Journal of Communication 43 (1993): 146-153.