Monday, June 22, 2015

Louie Juxtaposes High & Low Brow Performance Inspiring Perspective on Each

Why are we watching sitcoms and reading comics in class? Am I really learning something important by talking about movies and memes? Students can be just as confused about the prospect of studying popular culture as teachers committed to the canon of great literature in a given discipline.

Rather than arguing the case or justifying pop through analysis, I suggest jumping into the confusion with a clip from Louis CK's show that puts the pleasures of high art in sharp relief against a backdrop of grotesque burlesque. Use the clip below from Louie to discuss the following important questions for media literacy (that can apply in any media analysis):
  • How and why do different people find pleasure (or revulsion) in this media text?
  • What does pleasure from this media text afford the individual (do for you or for other people)--personally, socially and culturally?
  • How might this media text appeal differently to members of different taste cultures or discourse communities (groups with identities built around common ways of thinking, appearing and communicating; e.g., fans of Louie, art aficionados, homeless advocates, high school teachers, media literacy educators, etc.)? Why?

Now that is a way to kick off a discussion about taste cultures! Asking these sorts of questions lead to discussion of how culture constructs identities and the role our tastes play in the friends we make, the jobs we pursue, and the parts of the world we explore or avoid. In addition to using the questions above to examine the contrast between each of the performances in the clip, the violin player's and the homeless man's, it's also worth exploring how each comments on the other through their juxtaposition. For me, the classical beauty of the violin piece creates an almost operatic, tragic quality to the homeless man's bath, and gives me ethical pangs about how we can enjoy and spend money on such high art while people we pass everyday on the street continue to suffer such indignity. The homeless bath also has its own beauty and honesty, and absurdity that is as hard for me to turn away from as it is to look at. It makes me think of all the ways we find pleasure in watching others suffer, especially in online video, and the presence of the violinist makes me wish I could overcome or transcend those impulses--but the honesty and brazen display of vulgar and debased humanity in the homeless man's public shower makes me marvel at his resilience and value his display as somehow noble, and I begin to re-imagine my sickened guffaw as a new kind of laughter, rather than laughing at him, laughing with the homeless man at the absurdities of elevated culture and taste itself. Anyhow, you can see how articulating responses to the clip might get interesting and lead to some discovery about your own and others' tastes.

[AFTER THE JUMP, I suggest having learners create their own high/low culture video mashups, and discuss moving beyond historical tension in media education]

If you wanted to engage learners as media makers in further exploration of pleasures in high vs. low culture, I suggest having them create their own juxtaposition through cross-cutting video and/or soundtracking [Mozilla's popcornmaker is a cool tool for this job]. Learners can choose their own clips to represent high and low brow entertainment, and play with editing to try to make each comment on the other through juxtaposition. Then, students could share their new videos (on Vialogues, for instance), encouraging discussion of the questions above.

Tension between high and low culture is a central theme in media education historically, and one that we should address with learners as such rather than just choose our sides or alternate a mish mash and pretend all's well behind the scenes. While most contemporary media education works against earlier forms of transmitting taste (training discrimination by telling learners what is good or bad in a text) in favor of practicing inquiry for making one's own judgments, it is just as important to ask questions about the uses of pleasure and taste for understanding intersections of culture, social groups and identity. Taste seems so personal, yet is so obviously tied to friends and colleagues as well as wider categories of culture like class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, politics, age, ability and so on. I always try to encourage curiosity about taste in addition to the traditional training in critique supporting one's discrimination with argument and evidence. Curiosity about taste can lead to discovering new ways to connect with others, to new pleasures and favorites, and even to new aspects of our identities. Instead of inflecting the following in a tone of dismissal and disgust, I think media literacy educators should inspire learners to genuinely ask and explore the question: "How can anyone possibly like that?"

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