Monday, November 23, 2009

Oprah retiring the talk show

Last Friday, I was asked to comment on the Australian national ABC radio program PM on the recent announcement that Oprah Winfrey is going to end her talk show after 25 years. It was an interesting non-event in terms of timing. Oprah does not plan to retire the show until September 2011, but it was big enough news to dominate the twitterverse and fill radio and newspaper space and time.

Given that I have written a few things on Oprah ( one chapter of Celebrity and Power and an entry in the Encyclopedia of Television), it was useful to think through what her contribution was to television, political and popular culture - and pass these vignettes on to the radio program. And because they only used a few seconds of these thoughts, I thought I would expand on them here:

  • Oprah played with how television can make the personal public. Her talk show was an interesting blend of personal exposure for more public causes. And she worked her persona into a form of connected representation of her audience. So, instead of the personal being exposed and revealed by others such as gossip magazines, Oprah predated those efforts by exposing and revealing her own weaknesses. Early on, her program dealt with her own issues of incest, child abuse, beauty and weight gain/loss. The program then provided permutations of how the personal becomes an object of talk and discussion. It was an incredible form of public therapy

  • Oprah articulated an audience into her persona. She worked very hard at making the display of an audience on a talk show a sign of a wider connection to the mass television audience. Along with Phil Donahue and then many others, Oprah moved with microphone into the audience to field questions and commentaries in a ritualitistic performance of connection and empathy.

The interesting development is that this kind of public therapy which predates the exposures and revelations that continuously occur via online social network sites, has lost its mass cathartic value. Its connection to the private and the personal was indeed extraordinary and in some ways has provided a kind of pedagogy of public exposure for people using social network sites.

Different connections are emerging between public personalities and their audiences and this decision by Oprah Winfrey underlines the shifting landscape of cultural forms and commodities. Oprah is planning on launching her own television network in 2011 and this will no doubt allow the proliferation of Oprah in a manner that allows it to permeate more fluidly into the way that ideas now move through the culture in online and offline patterns of interconnection and intercommunication.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Power and the Passion - Peter Garrett, National Press Club, and the breakdown in representational media

Part of attending the Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Canberra (CHASS) was the lunch at the National Press Club where Peter Garrett, Minister for the Environment and the Arts was set to speak. Apart from the pop star status of Peter Garrett, this kind of talk is a normal occurrence in Canberra.

Nonetheless, it was an interesting experience in seeing the decline of the representational regime which Canberra as well as other democratic political regimes are structurally wedded. ABC Television was there to make the event part of their program and this meant that the structure of address was towards the television camerai. It also led to other restrictions on how long Peter Garrett spoke and who and how many questions were asked. All of these elements were fit into the structure of its delivery to television.

What was truly bizarre about the event was the lack of engagement with the Council for Humanities and Social Sciences. All the questions asked at the end of the talk were monitored and delivered by journalists who consistently asked questions about the environment and very little about the talk on cultural policy and the arts. As an audience member I felt quite used. We were the crowd that made the process legitimate and fullsome in its connection to an audience. In actual fact, we were legitimizers of a representational system which structures politicians and journalists in a co-feeding model of mutual though apparently combative support.

But as an audience you are drawn into the aura of the political celebrity or the pop music icon who has become a politician.. And of course when I had a chance I took a picture and it is of dubious quality, but nonetheless a record of a moment in the decline of representational culture despite the allure of celebrity....

Friday, November 6, 2009

Proto-avatars: advertising characters of the 20th century

I was wondering through the Olde Lolly Shop in Margaret River, Western Australia a couple of weeks ago and I stumbled on some interesting and nicely framed commercial images. On their own, they were lovely collectibles if you are into that sort of thing; but for me a picture of some of them was enough. What it made me think about was a pattern of identification that one can see in the development of twentieth century advertising. The relationship to an iconic image implies a more "representative" structure and relationship in a kind of triangulation between the product, the character that somehow embodies the spirit of the product, and the consumer or viewer. So, in the late 19th/ early 20th century, you can see the effort to produce some romanticised iconic scene with the Nestle image. It is idealized, perhaps overly cute which may intersect with the contemporary Japanese aesthetic; but there is no attempt to focus the attention on how the scene could be replicated – even simplified – into a consistent character of identification.

But if you look at this image, also retrieved from the same Olde Lolly Shoppe in Margaret River, one begins to see by the mid- 1940s stronger efforts at establishing associations and efforts to make the character embody the product and its spirit.

By association, the character, in this case Popeye, is designed to produce a representative relationship to the consumer: Tops is individualised through the avatar of Popeye = I Yam what I Yam and I Yam Tops.

But then I saw this third and very sophisticated advertisement related to World War 2 I would imagine. And here you can see the movement from ambient mood (Nestle) to deployment of a character that iconically embodies an affirming relationship to their consumer choices( Tops via Popeye), to something individualised:

The soldier is in every way quite beautiful, but he is significant in his personality and it is a personal but celebratory relationship to his product of choice. There is the iconic embodiment where the soldier represents a relationship to the will of a nation in this case.

All of this points to the development of the avatar in contemporary culture and perhaps how it intersects with its integration into gaming and online worlds. It is a long trajectory of public identification and the personalisation of consumption that allows for the organization of entertainment and pleasure in personal models. The transformation also articulates the post-Fordist relationship to everyday life that one can see in commercial art. The avatar has a longer history and these images made me think of the periods of the different kinds of avatars that have operated over more than a century of trying to engage a public. So, perhaps these are proto-avatars, where the avatar describes a further level of affective investment in the image and representation of the self....