Seven New Questions Today About Cultural Farming

                          -- Answered in 2013 --

1.  Why doesn’t this project look like Ethnography?

       Critical (Media) Ethnography is a particular methodology for ‘writing culture’.  It is the application of critical theory in qualitative anthropological research, which focuses particular topics at the centre of ethnographic interest: power and inequality, the political economy of symbols and actions in contemporary culture, and the social and ethical relationships between the interpreter and the one interpreted.

       For me, with Cultural Farming, I purposely chose the U.S. television industry to be my exotic (primative?) tribe of ethnographic study.  Indeed, I intimately lived and worked inside this tribe for 20 years.  Then, I lived amongst a neighboring village of ethnographers for another 10 years.  As I moved within their ranks, I gained the trust of both tribes, which granted unique first-hand observational perspectives into their practices, rituals and mythologies.  Returning home, I chose to write the material I collected using methods similar to the specific languages of these two tribes.  I am attempting to ethically report even minute cultural details using the very same voices and techniques germane to their own communicational craft. 

      My longitudinal methods attempt to illuminate and re-leverage hegemonic consensus.  I would wager Malinowski, Boaz, Mead, Bateson, Levi-Strauss, Turner, Conquergood, Geertz, Marcus, Denzin, Madison, et al. would agree that this is a recipe for a good scientific cultural story.   If that doesn’t answer your question, I’d be happy to insert a laugh-track?

2.  Why do you keep saying “cameras are guns”?  Wouldn’t you rather be shot by a camera?

       I wonder... and so should you.   When cameras became guns, the first casualties were subjects that ‘happened’ before the cross-hairs.  Shortly thereafter, everything became fair game as visual-reality battle-lines were redrawn ob-jectively between what was in front of and what was behind the lens.  This too lasted only a short while, as gun-against-gun equalized into camera-against-camera -- each now easily concealable inside every pocket.  Oddly today we remain largely unaware to a world where most all media shoot-and-kill like guns, and vice versa (caution: a heavy thought). 

      Moreover, it’s not simply the endless unleashing of these new weapons into an unprepared world, it is also the increasing speed of their bullets.  For example, from our media to our military, from pharmaceuticals to equities trading, everything --EVERYTHING-- is happening at bullet speed, increasingly accelerated by technology’s advance.  Don’t get me wrong here, I can be a strong proponent of innovative technology.  But until we insist that our new technologies launch with suitable governances (harnesses, steering wheels, rules of the road), along with their promises of benefit, we will continue to find ourselves ‘behind the eight-ball’. 

      Theory and critical proficiency must not always be a digital day late and a dollar short.  Hence, the biggest (deadliest) problem we face today is the seemingly ungovernable speed of new technology.  Cultural Farming is but one mechanism for  s l o w i n g   d o w n  this reckless, seductive advance.

3.  Who are your most influential theorists?

       If you look around Cultural Farming projects, names like Walter Benjamin, Sergei Eisenstein, Bertolt Brecht and Jean Baudrillard should almost fall off the screen and onto your lap for reasons clearly articulated throughout.  But many other ‘interlocutors’ have deeply influenced my work as well.  These names run a gamut from Susan Sontag to Norm Denzin to Sigfried Kracaur.  In (visual) anthropology, it’s people like: Jean Rouch, David MacDougall, George Marcus.  In TV/media: James Carey, John Fiske, Robert McChesney.  In media-art-education: Paulo Freire, William James, Henry Giroux, John Dewey, Robert Stam, James Elkins.  In performance ethnography: Sonya Madison, Victor Turner, Dwight Conquergood, Richard Schechner.  In theatre: Robert Edmond Jones, Donald Oenslager, Bel Geddes, Craig and Appia continue to top my list.  

       But a few longtime academic ‘whipping-posts’ like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman have also been influential.  Neil was very kind and encouraging to me in the 1990’s.  Back then I knew nothing about critical-anything.  His writings were extremely accessible, clear, noble, sharp-witted.  Today, much of academia sniffs at Postman’s body of work; too quick to compartmentalize his oeuvre into a kind of convenient foil of simplistic “determinism”.  Postman deserves to be re-read, historically, in light of the enormous changes within both media and education today.  He has a lot of good, controversial things to say and remains an excellent ‘entry point’ for autodidacts like me.  Likewise, the more I continually read McLuhan the easier it is to circumvent his larger-than-life persona.

4.  It’s hard to watch all the fast-paced violence, anger, nudity, and stupidity in your videos; can’t you make them another way?

       Trust me, I would if I could.  I don’t like it either, nor does my wife.  It is much harder to make these videos than it is to watch them.  But, in order to accurately retell TV’s techniques ethnographically, and to receive the lessons they offer, there is simply no way to avoid ‘ugly’ representation.  And that exacts an emotional and physical toll on me too.  But then, if I unethically chose to ignore my actual collectings (empirical data), I could just translate my findings into some language other than TV-speak... like writing yet another omissive book or academic article about television, like everyone else does.  I write TV’s story using its own language and technique.

5.  How can you say your videos are somehow “representative” when each clip is just more fake news?

       We should remember that our notions of contextualization are also socially constructed.  Moreover, we have come to accept many forms of extreme and illogical video discombobulation as simply part of our everyday communicational processes.  My videos provoke this normative.  All TV, whether news or advertisements, comes to us in endless streams of dis-contextualization.  Importantly, these unintentional surreal practices lay both at the heart of TV’s inability to helpfully communicate, as well as offering unique intellectual opportunities to re-function these same surreal practices toward their original purposes: as lenses for deeper reflection.

6.  How does Cultural Farming help understanding?

       It helps me to understand that most communication technologies today are made and used by people who neither know or care about communication.  Most folks trying to communicate, including our so-called smartest professionals and academicians, truly believe their machines enable then to accurately speak, and that others truly receive their intended meanings.  This fallacy is so utterly pervasive and dangerous, I doubt the world can recover from 7 billion people collectively screaming to get heard in exactly the same way.  We are building Earth into a Tower of Babel.   You should take time to read how some ancient books predict its conclusion.

       Cultural Farming helps me to understand that every benefit accrued from a new technology is paralleled by an opposite misfortune...and too often by even worse unknowns.  Massive dire consequences from our blind embrace of technological ideologies lie waiting just around the corner.  We haven’t seen anything yet.  And that worries me.  Indeed, we are lustfully jockeying for front row seats to ‘witness’ the final images of our own spectacular destruction.  In a jingo: Must-See-TV.

       Cultural Farming helps me to understand how much educational media literacy has utterly failed us all.  Every American today learns how to perfectly ‘interpret’ media messages well before high school age.  Everyone believes they can see through media, to the truth.  We wink at the tricks and laugh at the gimmicks; we know what and how to ‘believe’.  Alas, we’ve been trained too well.  We are too clever x2.  Cultural Farming, however, argues we are dangerously media ill-literate. 

       Cultural Farming helps me to understand that continuous entertainment for profit is the ugly pox-mark of media totalitarianism.

     Cultural Farming helps me to understand that we are witnessing a new turn towards anti-intellectualism.  And that technological communication only exacerbates this dangerous turn.

       Cultural Farming helps me to understand that whomever uses the useless term “the media” inside of any argument is signaling they don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground.  Media is plural.  “The media” is not only bad english, it is generalizing to the point of ignorance.

       Cultural Farming helps me to understand that anytime I hear the words SHOCKING or CHILLING or WARNING or BREAKING NEWS, I know a TV lie is about to happen.   

       Cultural Farming helps me to understand that the only taboo images on U.S. television are those of dead white Americans.  Everyone and everything else is fair game, and the closer to the lens the better the profit.  Blood helps.

       Cultural Farming helps me to understand that U.S. national newscasts are produced in exactly the same way ISIS produces its media propaganda.  And that this similarity should worry us all...particularly for those who continue to ignore “media effects” and “technological determinism”.

      Cultural Farming helps me to understand that North America desperately needs one ‘official news source’.  Not to stifle debate, but to offer one factually accurate staring point for collective discussion and argumentation.  We need Walter Cronkites, and educational public TV stations, and global repositories like ‘Statistics Canada’ to provide facts truthfully.  Utter cacophony is lethal.

       Cultural Farming helps me to understand that most people on Earth are drowning fast into an ecstasy of communication, and that ‘cultural farming’ could be an important antidote against the onslaught of mendacious mechanical communication.

     Cultural Farming helps me to understand that we probably wouldn’t be in half of the shit we are in today if we were still playing audio cassettes and VHS tapes.

      Cultural Farming helps me to understand: Cameras are Guns.  No one is carrying an empty holster during this rapid weaponization of communication technology.  And this notion should literally make all forms of life on Earth shake in their boots.

7.  Do you really think that practicing ‘cultural farming’ can significantly change media or social conditions?

       I wouldn’t hold my breath.  However, it has inoculated me, and I have personally been deeply embedded inside media production, practice, education and theory as much as anyone I have ever met over these last 30 years...from analog to digital.  And so I am a beginning example that cultural farming is a small but very potent beginning to true personal media emancipation.   One down, 7 billion people to go!


An American

resident of Canada, experimenting with new forms of critical media ethnography in Cultural Farming