Saturday, 4 August 2007

"Come in Mr Wark, your time is up"

"Philosophy, even when taught as badly as this, is a recognisable discipline; we know more or less what to complain about when it doesn't do what it says on the label. Media and cultural studies, on the other hand, is a mindless agglomerate, like the Portuguese man-o'-war, with tentacles spiralling off in all directions, propelled by the action of wind on the bag of inert gas at its centre."

So argues Eric Griffiths, a fellow in English at Trinity College, Cambridge, in his review of 2 academic studies of "South Park", as featured in the 6th July edition of The Australian Financial Review. Of course, practitioners of cultural studies could reply, with some justification, that to claim the title of "English", rather than "comparative literature", after many years of postcolonial criticism, hints at the incapability of Griffiths to penetrate to the true heart of the cultural studies enterprise. While sympathetic in part to such a critical rejoinder, I nevertheless wish to make the point here that there are aspects of of contemporary media studies deserving of such a characterisation. James Carey offers an even more acute critique though when he cautions against those who equate pretentious speculation and interpretation with theory, have a selective approach to evidence, and have abandoned, or have no interest in or understanding of systematic approaches to knowledge. In other words, moral and ideological posturing should not be substituted for an understanding of history, economics, organisations, power, social relationships etc.

I raise these issues because I've come across Ken Wark's recent work on gaming culture, and wanted to put my finger on what I found disturbing and lacking in comparison to the complex approach adopted by Cybermarx, which I've foregrounded in my earlier posting on "Virtual War Games". Certainly I've also wondered if Wark could be the incarnation of the mobile disciplinary rangers mentioned in the other posting on "The Conservative Revolt Against Bourgeoisie Society". An analysis of Wark in these terms would amount to a sociology of knowledge, perhaps even extending, in moment's of wildly untenable theoretical fantasy, to a critical understanding of this once self-described, "lapsed Marxist in the pay of Rupert Murdoch" (i.e. when he had a film review column in The Australian), espousing a libertarian philosophy, be it either on the documentary "Bohemian Rhapsody", or scattered references to thinking of Raymond Williams's concept of "structures of feeling" on his way to a fisting party in New York, picking up students in GlebeBooks, or complaints in "Sex in Public" that the Mardi Gras was insufficiently attentive to his bisexuality.

But no, my primary critical interest in Wark is less how he typifies how so many Sydney intellectuals re-enact the tendencies of The Push per se, than in how his writings mark out a kind of non-critical hyper-realist position, wherein media culture becomes, as Jim McGuigan so aptly puts it, "an objective correlative for certain themes of both poststructuralist and postmodernist thought".

"Those who like me call me Ken, those who don't call me postmodern". And now they can even read about his activities on! The greatest impression it seems has to do with presentation, surface is everything you see for a postmodern text, and so I've included a link below to Wark's earlier stunt foregrounding his gaming book, which consists of him conducting an interview within the gamespace of "Halo". I also wonder if Wark, (the "lapsed Marxist"), can really see any irony in how "useful" an open book source on the internet, prior to publication, was to both his and the publisher's bottom line, as capital did not have to be expended on proofreading etc. I wonder if he or anyone else agrees with me that a more uncharitable comparison would be the phoney audition [the aptly named band] Limp Bizkit held, where fledgling guitarists were offered a spot in the band and a slice of pizza, as an incentive to come in and play their best, original riffs. What ended up happening though was that pizza was in short supply at the venue, there was no spot in the band available, and the riffs were simply recorded, without the protection of intellectual property rights, and incorporated, for uncredited use, on future Limp Bizkit recordings.

Would such instances fit into Wark's hyper generalisation, that life is becoming more "like a game"? Should we cheer when, at the end of the "Halo", interview, Wark's avatar is vaporised? Or should we rather bemoan the overall dominance of "effects" based research in media studies, witness the other links on the Macquarie University website [below]?

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