geert lovink on 1 Sep 2000 16:06:50 -0000

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<nettime> Interview with Catharine Lumby

"The Dichotomy of Pleasure and Power is Too Simple"
Critiques on Contemporary Media Moralism
An Interview with Catharine Lumby
By Geert Lovink

The Australian cultural commentator Catharine Lumby is one those rare
academic scholars, equipped with the ability to make theory accessible to
a broad audience without simplifying or losing any of the points she wants
to make. Passionate of the Differences, weary of the Homogeneous. Besides
her work as a journalist she published two books. "Bad Girls" from 1997
deals with media, sex and feminism in the nineties and critiques the moral
stand of some feminists in their unholy alliance with conservative
censors. She explains why feminists need porn and calls for an active
engagement of women in all issues related to both old and new media. Women
should no longer take the position of the outsiders. They are inside and
should deal with that new position, so Lumby. "Gotcha, Life in a Tabloid
World", which appeared in 1999 was partly written in New York and digs
into cases such as the O. J. Simpson, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the
death of princess Diana again from an engaged, amoral position. Taking
popular culture as it is - both a billion dollar industry and a fractured
mirror of society - might be common sense these days. Still, we somehow
can't get rid of the same old complaints about vulgar sensationalism which
stand for our Sin and decline of civilization in general every time we
find ourselves in the middle of a millennial scandal. I visited Catharine
Lumby in her office at Sydney University where she was recently appointed
as Director of Media and Communication where she was in the middle of her
next project, the protective, paternalistic media images of teenage girls.

GL: I suppose it was not your aim with "Gotcha" to convince the general
audience to consume tabloid media. They will do that anyway. Is it still
necessary to debate with the last remaining intellectuals about the
legitimacy of popular media?

CL: The polemics of "Gotcha" is addressed to a group of media commentators
who represent the interests and values of middle class educated liberals
and their hidden elitist ideas in relation to class. My concerns is the
way in which the public broadcasting service (ABC) defines who "the
public" is. Do they speak to the long-term unemployed, to women? Do they
understand the diversity of publics that make our society? Liberals see
all commercial media as irrelevant. They judges these media by standards
which they see as universal or neutral. Sometimes commercial media is able
to speak to people in a language that is accessible to them, addressing
issues that are important in everyday life, that are ignored by elite or
quality media. I am very suspicious when anybody claims to speak on behalf
of "the public". I began this book because I wanted to investigate my own
prejudices, coming from a middle class educated background. We need to
bear in mind that many interests and values are colliding, which may be
incommensurate. There is no universal position from which to judge the
quality of information. I am a pluralist, very interested in diversity,
supportive of public broadcasting. Often the liberal model is very
authoritarian, paternalistic.

GL: What is the reason why this liberal class in Australia still holds
such important power positions within the media?

CL: Australia has a relatively small population (19 million inhabitants,
GL). The range of media commentators is rather small too. The baby-boom
generation tended to have a smugness about their politics. They are
satisfied with themselves, convinced that they are still radicals. In "Bad
Girls" I looked at feminism, as a feminist, admitting that feminism has
become part of mainstream. It has become an institution. Once something
becomes mainstream you cannot assume it remains always radical. For me
feminism has to be a constant questioning. Some of the more prominent
senior feminists in Australia don't recognize that they have power
themselves. Admitting this would undermine their position. Some members of
this generation are so convinced that they are always radical that new
ideas, from new generations are easily dismissed. With others from my age,
I am in my late thirties, I find that is very difficult to even have a
debate about these things. You must be aligned with the right if you are
dare to disagree with the old left. Speaking positions in the media and
the knowledge and cultural industries became quickly occupied and the
baby-boom generation hung up to these jobs. Sometimes it is that simple.
For younger generations there is no such a thing as a secure job, with a
secure speaking position. They are forced to work in-between academia and
the media, or in-between the mainstream and alternative media. There is
much more flexibility and a tendency to see power as contingent and
relational, not as something you unconsciously inhabit.

GL: Let's move to the tabloid world. In "Gotcha" you looking into four
cases, Diana, Clinton, O.J. Simpson and Pauline Hanson, the Australian
populist right wing politician. Have you noticed any developments on that
front over the last decade?

CL: When I am use this word "tabloidization" I only looked into broad
shifts within mainstream news and current affairs media, both in content,
the formal shifts such a the sheer competition to attract audiences and
the collapse of entertainment and information. These shifts have been
intensifying since the eighties due to global capital flows and
technological changes. Apart from ethical considerations there are also
positive sides to these scandals. The O.J. Simpson case is sometimes
dismissed as just a voyeuristic story about a terrible killing. Why do we
have a year of coverage of this on CNN? Hang on. This is also a very
important case about race relations in America, domestic violence, gender
politics. It mirrors society on a deeply symbolic level. The verdict
itself split the nation. 96 million Americans watched the highlights of
that trail. People could see the trail, make up their own minds and act as
a jury. 86% of black Americans thought the verdict was fair. Almost an
equivalent amount of whites agreed, which tells you that white and black
America are two different countries. All in all an important, iconic event
not to be dismissed as non-political voyeurism.

GL: Sensational reporting has been around ever since media were invented.
After the Frankfurt School dismissal of popular culture which dominated
the seventies, and the Cultural Studies response of active, engaging
consumer of the eighties, what position has been developed over the past

CL: That dichotomy between power and pleasure, or manipulation and
resistance, is too simple. The media sphere is very diffuse and defecated.
People don't belong to one demographic and inhabit different audiences at
different times. The consumer in the way market research would like to
carve people up doesn't make any sense. People are constantly negotiating
their personal, social and political identities in and through the media.
They are producing, interacting at the same time as they are consuming. It
does not make sense anymore to distinguish between the producer and the
consumer. Media literacy has grown. A broad understanding of how images
and text are being put together that you did not have with television in
the sixties or seventies. You can see that in advertisement which targets
at youth audiences. Advertisers are very aware how clued in young people
are. Media buy people's attention. At the same time, if they were able to
do that, Hollywood would never make a bad movie. They spend millions of
dollars on market research and continue to have turkeys. The audience
remains allusive and does not exist in a mass manipulative form.

GL: Despite numerous attempt to overcome and deconstruct the division
between high and low culture, that distinction still is in place.

CL: I think it absolutely is. Not because it is natural. Many people are
invested in this distinction. There is a certain level of fear about the
rapid changes in popular culture. The other night I did a radio program on
ABC, a quality program, and they asked me about television. They had
people calling in, and at least three of them began by saying "I don't own
a television set, but. " and then they would talk about television. How
would they know popular culture being bad for everybody? There is a claim
here to have some highbrow taste but in reality, how people negotiate
culture in the everyday, these distinctions are increasingly meaningless.
It is also class-based. Of course you can see some really bad opera and
first class Hollywood films. Not all European films with subtitles are
good. It all becomes laughable.

GL: Internet has come out of its stage of infancy and hype and is rapidly
becoming a mass medium. Do you see possibilities for the Net to develop
itself in an interesting way or will it go through the usual phases of
corporatization, like all other media?

CL: The Internet is offering more possibilities for alternative spaces.
Because of the rise in media literacy the issue of government control is
being debated on such a higher level. Look at the Microsoft case and the
level of suspicion amongst users it is causing. As governments and large
commercial entities take over or dominate spaces on the Internet, there is
still always a possibility for new spaces opening up. It is rhizomatic, in
that sense. There are structural reasons to be more optimistic. A little
movement in one part of the Internet can force public recognition on a
much broader level. You don't have to be able to produce a glossy magazine
or a documentary to make some public space.

GL: Despite all this we can see a "tabloidization" of the World Wide Web
happening, as we speak. It is an ideal medium for rumors of any sort.
Would a code of conduct make any sense in this context or should we just
except the fact that all information on the Net is potentially unreliable?

CL: We need to rethink ethics. What might an ethics for this diverse media
sphere look like? It would have to radically critique the liberal concept
of ethics which is about imposing an code. This is right and this is
wrong. My politics are probably radically democratic. Any attempt to
regulate this sphere I would like to come from the grassroots up. We need
to give citizens and media consumers access to inexpensive forums where
they can have their concerns about the media expressed, like invasion of
privacy and unfair reporting. A system of simply fining media
organizations does not work very well. What is required is a forum where
consumers can negotiate with producers. The sanction would be publicity.
Mainstream media often pretends it is outside society, that it is not a
powerful institution. It does influence events and people's lives and so
not merely reporting. We are dealing here with powerful institutions which
need to be under permanent scrutiny. The European inquisitorial model,
where you look at things case by case is better than the Anglo-Saxon model
which is about an abstract code that you apply. Right across the Western
world consumer groups have these concerns. We saw the anger at the media,
after the death of Princess Diana. The journalist is the evil person now
and has replaced the Russian in popular culture. It needs to be a flexible
system of conciliation, bringing parties together, and this includes the

GL: Where do you stand in the debate about taboos? If there is a taboo, it
needs to broken, reported about, displayed, at any cost. Some critics have
started to question this blind response and long for a moral climate in
which society can protect, and care, its own taboos, against the inherent
tendency to break them.

CL: There is no issue that should not be examined. There is always the
question of context. There is no absolute line. It is always a
negotiation, the balance between public and private interest. Unethical
reporting can escape any code. I don't have some fantasy that we could
prevent the abuse, also because technologies to spy on people have
exploded in such a way . You could be anarchistic and say that anyone can
publish anything. That's fine for the Net. My concerns are more targeted
towards large media corporations. For instance when you have unbalanced
reporting in a situation of war or geo-political conflict, it would be
good to have an international body, a forum where people could be heard.
If you look at CNN, on many occasions people have raised the question:
What is the other side of this?

GL: The trend of media reporting on media is on the increase. But that's
not exactly what you mean.

The programs we have here in Australia, like "Mediawatch", are grounded in
traditional, liberal journalism. They look for spelling errors. Journalism
has been largely unreflective about its own practice. Objective reporting
is given as a given value, rather than a concept that was invented in the
twentieth century. In some sense investigative journalism can be seen as
the highest form, like Watergate. There is an interesting similarity to
tabloid reporting on the private lives of celibrities. Both forms can
serve the community well. When I used to work inside parliament as a
journalist, I was struck by how stories were put together there, very much
like gossip. There would be a rumor, you would call someone to confirm it,
they would deny it, but talk to you off the record, thereby adding gossip
to gossip. Mostly it is about who likes who. Still, this information is
regarded as very important. If you would use the same techniques to bring
news about Pamela Anderson's marriage breakdown, it would be seen as the
worst form of reporting. The distinctions between high and lowbrow are
artificial. They have more in common than recognized. There is a gendered
split between trivial and important and what matters to people.

GL: Would you be in favor of unrevealing the edutainment industry,
reversing the infotainment paradigm, into serious information on the one,
and true entertainment on the other hand? Or should we further intensify,
radicalize concepts like reality TV?

CL: The latter. You can't pull anything back in this rapidly changing
environment. It is much more interesting to radicalize media concepts. We
are still in a transitional period. Television and even radio have been
influenced by the model of printing press. Maybe I am too much of an
optimist. I think we heading somewhere much more interesting with
multi-channeling and the collusion of the professional and the amateur,
the public and the private, information and entertainment.

GL: Media and communication studies have become the largest departments
inside universities. How do you think all these students should be
equipped, knowledge wise?

CL: Critical thinking. I am not teaching them what to think. Instead they
should be encouraged to want to think., helping them to discover their own
curiosity. To recognize that knowledge within universities is just one
discourse. There are many points of access to information and ideas. Learn
them how to navigate certain discourses and how to speak to different
audiences. That's a question of genre and rhetoric. This should be based
on a broad humanities education. And perhaps a familiarity with sciences
too. You want to equip people for lifelong learning. The information
revolution and the intellectual flexibility which is demanded of people is
increasing exponentially. Rather than training people vocationally to deal
with one piece of equipment or another, you want to give them access to
broad skills so that they can think visually, able to manipulate words as
well as image and sound. Training only for print or television is old
media thinking.

GL: How would the new media critic look like? The concept of criticism
itself has come under pressure. It has been declared dead by post
modernism. It has been associated with cultural pessimism.

CL: If critical thinking is posed from a position of authority, from which
to judge, that's very problematic. There is no outside. You hope people
will be skeptical, which in the best sense means to question everything,
including your speaking position. Being suspicious about everything you
see and read. An ungoing skepticism.

GL: Your new research is dealing with youth culture and youth policies.

CL: I am particularly interested in teenage girls. They are a category of
people about whom a lot is being said. There is a lot of protective
anxiety around them. There is so much said on their behalf but you never
hear from them. We hear that they are anorexic, caused by super models and
magazines, that they are sexually vulnerable because people want to prey.
They are closely monitored in the ways they dress. Despite all this
fascination there is this denial that this group has any agency. What is
they relationship to this protective discourse and where would we hear the
voices of teenage girls? If you simply go out as a media researcher, put
them in focus groups and ask them questions, you are replicating the thing
you try to get away from. They will tell you want adult researchers want
to hear. I don't really buy the idea that any group is voiceless, or

Catharine Lumby, Bad Girls, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, 1997
Catharine Lumby. Gotcha, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, 1999

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