Hearing ordinary voices: cultural studies, vernacular creativity and digital stortelling

Categories: Field analysis, Theory
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Published on: 10/02/2011

Jean Burgess, Hearing ordinary voices: cultural studies, vernacular creativity and digital stortelling, Journal of Media & Culture Studies, vol. 20, No. 2, 2006.

Cultural Studies and Participatory Media

The paper starts with the mentioning the growth of interest in consumer participation in media culture.  A sub genre that has developed within this discourse is the democratization of technology discourse. The later is converging with economic discourses because of the upcoming of what Leadbaeater has coined ‘productive leisure’. Jean argues that cultural studies should pick up this development. The question is where to direct ‘our critical attention’ (p. 202).

Fandom is introduced as an (old) example of the growth of ‘textual productivity’ compared to ordinary (mass) media audience. Nowadays cultural value is more and more determined by cultural consumers then the cultural elite. Moreover, their cultural products are being fed back into the source media (p. 203).

Something like this also happens in the memory websites I am studying with one big difference: the source media as a whole body  is also determined by the cultural consumers (I also noticed this in this post). I do not think that Burgess elaborates on this in this paper (or is it her whole argument? see below*); something to pay attention to writing my article. It is often said that the old media is still needed to become famous by getting attention by new media (Mike).

(Mike) One of the important questions that comes up in both mass media-controlled and citizens-controlled popular media is in- and exclusion. I made a note that DIY-practices like my cases are also prone to this powers, because of the natural (?) dynamics of groups involved (who produces is also heard by certain people and they might produce themselves etc.). I asked myself: how to intervene in DIY-practices – how to keep the self-fulfilling excluding process out? – as a teasing question in order to remember this topic. This is related to ‘who is heard, and to what end?’ low on page 203.

Everyday creativity or the creativity of everyday life is introduced next with help of a quote of Certeau. He states that in the official imaginary creativity is only an exceptional event, but in reality is happens all the time ‘invisible’ to our eyes. Burgess writes that this distinction between ‘the official’ and and ‘the everyday’ is becoming unclear nowadays. First, because ‘the everyday is now ubiquitously part of the production logics of the ‘creative industries”. Second, ‘cultural production is now increasingly part of the logics of every day life, as in blogging or photosharing’. Third, there is a tendency of ‘the ‘radical subversion’ position (…) resistance to the alienating and deadening effects of passive consumerism’. (p. 204)

We should be aware of choosing the ‘radical subversion’ groups as our territory ‘in which we can look for the spaces where ‘ordinary’ people van exercise meaningful agency’ (p. 205). That what starts as a anti-passive consumerism can easily become elitist and in the worst case ‘the stuff of consumerism itself’ and get involved with advertisements and commercial media culture. Moreover, with the Lomography-community example Burgess shows that ‘the resistance’ is directed towards dominant photography professionalism, but the participants are no amateurs or participants in the periphery of photography. They are ‘too professional’ to be ‘ordinary people’ in this field.

Vernacular Creativity and New Media

In the cases of the memory websites in Amsterdam there is no question of resistance as far as I know. When it comes to professionalism, I am not sure. There is one participant who is a history teacher, so he gets close. But I think on the whole the involved people are ‘amateur enough’.

Burgess introduces the phrase ‘a politics of ‘ordinary’ cultural participation’ and how it might articulate with ‘democratization of technologies’. She quotes Atton (2001) [READ] who explores ‘some aspects of popular media production and its intersection with everyday life’ with respect to personal homepages. Atton uses the term ‘everyday cultural production’ which according to Burgess draws our attention towards ‘access, self-representation and literacy, rather than resistance or aesthetic innovation’ (see above) (p. 206). The dignity of everyday lives can thus be expressed by using ‘vernacular communicative means’.

‘Vernacular creativity’ defines as follows. First, the word ‘vernacular‘ is used nowadays to

‘distinguish ‘everyday’ language from institutional or official modes of expression’ (p. 206).

Burgess calls McLaughlin’s theory of vernacular theory the bedrock of her study of vernacular creativity. The researcher needs to be committed to empathy and respect for the ordinary cultural formations, but also towards the research participants. This is an important topic that crossed my mind, thinking about myself as a researcher conducting participative observations. I was afraid to have to pretend to be like this (which is impossible), but I admire the participants for their empathy among themselves, which makes me empathetic to them. Maybe I should check out McLaughlin when I think and write about my data collection methods and the role of the researcher.

Burgess uses ‘creativity‘ as defined by:

‘the process by which available cultural resources  (including both ‘material’ resources—content, and immaterial resources—genre conventions, shared knowledges) are recombined in novel ways, so that they are both recognizable because of their familiar elements, and create affective impact through the innovative process of this recombination.’ (p. 206)

I am not sure what to think of stories within this definition yet….

Vernacular creativity‘ than becomes:

‘a productive articulation of consumer practices and knowledges (of, say, television genre codes) with older popular traditions and communicative practices (storytelling, family photography, scrapbooking, collecting).’

And the vernacular includes the experience of commercial popular culture. In the neighborhood story communities this would mean:

  1. consumer = neighborhood resident
  2. practice = living in the neighborhood
  3. knowledge = know stuff about people, things and events in the neighborhood
  4. popular traditions  = photography, collecting news paper articles and images,  writing diaries, …
  5. communicative practices = storytelling, reminiscence, …

Burgess adds that the

‘term [vernacular creativity] signifies what Chris Atton calls ‘the capacity to reduce cultural distance’ between the conditions of cultural production and the everyday experiences from which they are derived and to which they return (Atton, 2001).’ (p. 207)

This last remark makes me suspicious (again, see above*) that commercial popular culture is expected to play a (minor) role here. I do not see how that fits in with the neighborhood communities I am studying, unless the neighborhood is defined as ‘popular culture’. Maybe I have to read Atton and I surely have to read on to find out how the Sharing Stories (also about the neighborhood) fit in this definition. Maybe I should also check possible synonyms to ‘vernacular creativity’, like ‘everyday cultural production’, ‘everyday creativity’, etc.

Digital Storytelling as Vernacular Creativity

What is digital storytelling?

Although digital storytelling is sometimes used generically, here it is defined more narrow as follows:

Digital storytelling is a workshop-based process by which ‘ordinary people’ create their own short autobiographical films that can be streamed on the Web or broadcast on television. (p. 207)

In this sense it can be understood as:

  1. A media form.
  2. A cultural practice with the following characteristics:
    1. relations between textual arrangements  and symbolic conventions;
    2. technologies for production and conventions for  their use;
    3. collaborative social interaction in local and specific contexts.
  3. A movement designed to amplify the ordinary voice, by:
    1. remediating vernacular creativity;
    2. legitimating it ‘as a relatively autonomous and worthwhile contribution to public culture’. (p. 207)

Furthermore digital storytelling combines:

  1. Ethic values by offering people ‘on the wrong side of the digital divide’ democratic access to new media technologies with …
  2. an aesthetic that aims to maximize relevance and impact by applying some formal constraints: maximum 2 minutes, script maximum of 250 words as voice-over and about a dozen images. The voice-over in the storytellers unique voice (personal narrative) offers ‘narrative accessibility, warmth and presence’, which gets priority over other aspects of the digital story.

How to look at digital stories (as a genre)?

Next, Burgess goes into the content of the stories and the meaning for the tellers and for society, first by introducing her work with the Youth Internet Radio Network. Among the themes of the digital stories were feelings of boredom, lack of opportunities, isolation, but also ‘aspirational’ ambitions for the future as well as ‘a strong sense of place-based cultural identity’. Some examples follow of which ‘Gift’ (Jenny’s early pregnancy) lingers longest.

Looking from a textual analysis (= synonym to qualitative content analysis, I assume) perspective to Jenny’s story would probably, among other things, yield:

  1. Jenny is constructing her identity,
  2. it is a strong narrative of self-actualization,
  3. it relies on the clichés representative for dominant discourse of femininity, family, etc.

But Burgess warns us that this approach is disrespectful for Jenny and also mis-recognizes the nature of text itself. I would paraphrase Burgess as follows. When we [I believe as researcher] look at a digital story, we do not really ‘know’ what we are looking at and, thus, how to look at it. That is, because we have build up a repertoire of tools to celebrate or critique popular culture based on years of input and processing of ‘standard’ popular culture. And ‘Digital stories are a very different kind of popular culture’ than we are used to, because they:

  1. are not part of ‘commercial’ culture and
  2. are not part of a discourse of a dominant institutions.

In other words, the authors are no consumers nor victims of documentary or reality television. They are relatively autonomous citizen-producers.

Putting the research perspective on hold and letting the stories come in as they would for any other viewer, the stories themselves ‘tend to be deeply felt, poignant and gently humorous’. There is no luxury to play with self-representation; the stories ‘are in general marked by their sincerity, warmth and humanity’ (p. 209). No tricks of ellipsis, wit and irony. I wrote down the word ‘authenticity’ as well, as a characteristic for the stories. The researcher should be warned: do not make the mundane cool and do not reduce the ordinary people to categories that fit in with his or her researchers interest [based on the scientific subculture or imagery?].

[Mike: The culture in traditional popular culture is made by a commercial party to become popular and, more important profitable. The higher the popularity, the higher the revenues. The word popular is, among others, used for:

  1. widely liked or appreciated.*
  2. fit for, adapted to, or reflecting the taste of the people at large.*
  3. favoured by an individual or limited group.**

*popular. (n.d.) The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved February 23 2011 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/popular

**popular. (n.d.) Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged. (1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003). Retrieved February 23 2011 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/popular

Regarding the remarks about digital stories above, the first and second definition are not applicable. The third definition (from the UK Dictionary), though,  is the one that we can use for stories like that of Jenny (interestingly enough the American Dictionary does not contain the third definition).

The word popular thus has a collective and a individual dimension. In the former, networks and the peers within it surely play an important role, but in the later not necessarily. Through the authenticity of a story a viewer can (identify with the teller and) be affected and say something like ‘I am a fan of this story’ [possible in my cases]. Conversely, the story in question is popular to this particular viewer.  This could be called ‘popularity by authenticity’, as opposed to popularity by fantasy (tricks) and peer pressure (networks).

Maybe I should have a look at the word culture too, but first I want to finish this summary.]

Where to put digital storytelling in the field of access to media power?

Digital storytelling is not the holy grail when it comes to unequal access to media power. Burgess mentions two drawbacks:

  1. The distribution channels are limited and often remain under the control of the institutions that provided the workshops and
  2. The combination of the constraints of the institutional setting and the sociality of the workshops process, shape the cultural practice in such a way that the range of ways to represent the self becomes predictable. [is there information/ research on this range?]

Burgess notes that despite these drawbacks the participants (‘often on the wrong side of the digital divide’) do get acquainted with computers and participatory media. They are not likely to become participants in the other new media cultures like (the ‘loudly celebrated’) blogging, computer games and fandom. In the context of the question of engagement digital storytelling becomes something worth considering.

[This is where I made a note about a niche (or a bridge) between digital storytelling (as a practitioners method) and ‘the other new media cultures’ (with no guidance at all). For now I coined it ‘digital life writing*’ (scholared it; only had 2 hits, 1 interesting**) to emphasize the fact that it is about text and not about film. I am not sure whether this term is a good idea, but, if I look at the characteristics of digital storytelling given above, there are (only) the following differences:

  1. It is not a film, but a text with one or more photo’s and because of that:
  2. It does not have to be a workshop; it can also be one person interviewing another or a individual.
  3. Institutions play a minor role; only as a start up. Volunteers (residents) give the helping hand.
  4. The collective (as opposed to blogging) platform is more or less owned by the community (volunteers are responsible), it clusters and it invites.

* As a cultural collaborative practice and – in the cases I am studying – with the neighborhood as context.

** Had a look at the dissertation of Ronald Tully: An Exhibitionist’s Paradise: Digital Transformations of the Autobiographical Impulse (2010):

“Yet, autobiography as “an intricate social network” is far removed from the Greek origins of the term autobiography. Translated literally from Greek, autobiography means “self-life-writing” or auto (self) + bios (life) + graphe (writing). At the core of this translation and definition is the notion of one person who writes to present an individual self. “

Based on this quote, I realize that ‘life writing’ is not such a good term after all. The residents in the cases I am interested in are not only writing about ‘the self’, but often about others in the neighborhood or about the neighborhood.

What are the skills and competencies involved?

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  1. […] the summary of Jean Burgess, Hearing ordinary voices: cultural studies, vernacular creativity and digital […]

  2. […] “Analyzing a story kills it”. That makes me think of what Burgess writes here about taking the researchers perspective on stories (too much). So “Narrative analysis is a […]

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