Media studies is a canary in the international coal mine of higher education. We learn about the health and toxicity of the humanities, the knowledge economy, vocationalism and cultural value. For the Daily Mail, media studies is a Mickey Mouse degree, demonstrating the consequences of widening participation and allowing all those non-posh cities to house universities and confer degrees. In Australia, the arts establishment remains mortified that commercialised culture is taught as equivalent to the fine arts, drama and creative writing.
Instead of revelling in its Taylor Swift status, media studies’ popularity with undergraduates has resulted in a dumbing down of its theoretical and political rigour. With a lack of porous theorisation, and the substitution of discussion for analysis, innovations in media platforms are substituted for innovations in media studies.
Karin van Es’ The Future of Live carries and captures this troubling present for media studies. This short book, structured into six chapters, takes a minor concept – “liveness” – and considers how it operates through “new” media. Exploring how social and broadcast media align, the book’s aim is to probe how the word “live” is used ontologically, phenomenologically and rhetorically. Liveness is more than a mode of technological delivery. It is a form of interactivity and a way to engage an audience. Van Es’ references redirect the analysis to the past, through Henry Jenkins, Paddy Scannell and Pierre Bourdieu. The focus is the symbolic not the simulacra. Similarly, the key examples chosen are Livestream, eJamming, Facebook and, in chapter 5, The Voice. The attention to this television talent-show franchise dates The Future of Live. It also reduces the analytical level, retelling the synopsis of the programme.
Who is the audience for this straightforward book? Van Es confirms that it “should be of interest to upper-level students and researchers in media studies. It touches upon topics debated by radio, theater, film, television, and new media scholars”. Such a statement is more appropriate in a book proposal for a publisher than directed at the readership of the book itself. Aspiration is not a substitute for analysis.
The book dances around “the real”. The relationship between liveness and realness remains understated and under-researched. This disconnection is caused through a focus on individual media platforms.
To understand liveness requires a rigorous exploration of time, and how digitisation shapes mediated experience and globalised event television. There is no mention, for example, of “spoilers” – how Twitter reveals key plot twists to programmes such as Doctor Who that are yet to screen in other time zones. There is no theorisation of deterritorialisation or disintermediation. Instead, “geo-filtering” is mentioned only once, in relation to non-US residents not being able to access the American iTunes store.
The medium-based studies – television studies, radio studies, popular music studies and internet studies – are not only dated but under-theorised. Platform studies and interface studies propel space, time, medium and meaning into a grittier frame. The Future of Live does not probe these innovations.
Media studies – like cultural studies – is the Rolling Stones of higher education: tired, unfashionable and banal. The Stones have become their own karaoke band, summoning riffs that are (baby baby baby you’re) out of time, rather than timeless. Media studies – to pinch an ironic, popular cultural phrase in a way that media studies scholars rarely manage – moves like Jagger. It is awkward, angular and just a little bit embarrassing.
Tara Brabazon is dean of graduate research and professor of cultural studies, Flinders University, Australia. Her most recent book is Play: A Theory of Learning and Change (2016).
The Future of Live
By Karin van Es
Polity, 180pp, £50.00, £16.99 and £11.99
ISBN 9781509502639, 2646 and 2677 (e-book)
Published 28 October 2016