Paper #3: Media Self-Portrait


As commodities, functioning within a system of exchange, mass-media arts serve social functions. They encode, then dramatize, the conflicts (personal and collective) that animate our lives. They provide pleasure by representing and defining--reinforcing or resisting--the underlying assumptions, the basic myths, of our culture. Ideological or symptomatic analysis--by unpacking and laying bare the conflicts that motivate mass-media texts--becomes one way of making cultural studies do sociological work. We learn to think more clearly about our culture by carefully and creatively theorizing (analyzing and critiquing) its art.

But however well and good, this sort of analysis borrows its methods from science and, often, leads analysts (especially inexperienced ones) to pontificate. In order to create the effect of objectivity, they declare this or that about an artist, a tv or radio show, a movie, or a recording. They act disinterested (sometimes even uninterested), and their insights seem directly proportional to the distance created between observer and observed. The catch is, this way of working frequently yields magnificent results. The methods of science work. They create knowledge; they create truth. The cost is subjectivity.

This assignment entertains the dream that we might be able to have our cake and eat it too. We might be able to dispense with objectivity and not abandon truth and knowledge effects, the results of analysis and critique.


We start with the assumption that, in an arts course, any distance between you--the "subject"--and your "object of study" is either an illusion or a mistake. Write only about something--an artist, an artform, or a particular work of mass-media art--that you are deeply involved with. And, whatever you do, don't mask this involvement: your love, hate, or love-hate relationship with your object of study. You're not playing the role of scientist. You're asking, "What might it mean to write about something while playing the role of artist?" Write to a general audience of peers that has not taken this course. (Length, 5+ pp.)

Write a self-portrait in words and pictures. It should have the generic features of a "mystory"--Gregory Ulmer's term for the autobiographical documentary we saw modeled by Ross McElwee's Sherman's March. Take, as your departure point, the pleasure evoked by a tv or radio show, a movie, a media star, or a recording.

Your task in creating this self-portrait is twofold. (1) Bring your experience of your "object of study" into relation with four levels of discourse:

Shuttling between these levels of discourse (a real challenge) will make your work simultaneously objective and subjective, a hybrid text.

(2) Create an "essay" (in the broadest sense of the word) that is itself an artwork. Which is to say, you should strive to create a paper that is every bit as interesting as your object of study. Because this assignment requires you to perform mythology, to explore your relationship with a mass-media art, your "essay" will function as both story and critique.

Gather data for your media self-portrait as you would gather material for any research paper. Include photocopied graphics and sound bites or, more precisely, include directions for interpolating graphic and audio information. The goal here is to create a document on paper and saved to disk that we could easily convert into hypertext and post on the W3.


To successfully complete this assignment, you need, first of all, to study the model--Sherman's March--with great care, outlining its basic characteristics, then, replicating these characteristics in your own work. Although it is possible to get the assignment wrong--construct a paper that doesn't generate artistic and knowledge effects by juxtaposing autobiographical and analytical materials--your primary concern shouldn't be to "get it right." If you say to me, "I'm not really sure what you want on this paper," then you've missed the whole point of the assignment. What I want from your paper is what I want from all mass-media art. I want to be simultaneously entertained and informed. Make something that fulfills the assignment in a surprising or creative sort of way; show readers what mass-media art (or more specifically the thing you love) has to teach us about writing wonderful papers.

Okay, but let's say that, whether I like it or not, you're still confused. Check out the media self-portrait that Professor Gregory Ulmer assigned his students at the University of Florida. It's not exactly like mine, but it's pretty similar. Read Ulmer's instructions and, also, view the work his students exhibited on the W3.

Want even more information? Here's a recipe for writing a mystory.

Throughout your paper, as you rely on the work of others, you should make attributions. For instructions on this topic, click here.