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Zombies. Megachurches. Soap Operas. Not your typical academic conference topics – unless, that is, you’re considering the broad field of cultural studies and critical media literacy. In this post I’d like to present a quick intro to critical media studies and then summarize two outstanding sessions from the Critical Media Literacy Conference I attended in Savannah, GA on March 26, 2016.

What is Critical Media Studies?

Critical media studies began in the late 1970’s as an – ahem – critical response to the dominant technology-delivery focused field of media studies. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall is generally considered the founder (and his research the foundation) of this critical subset of media theory. In general, critical media studies is concerned with the power effects of media/cultural products and producers on audiences and the ways that audiences accept, resist, and react to media. Importantly, critical media studies holds that there is no value difference between “high” and “low” culture. In fact, low culture may have more pervasive effects (both positive and negative) due to its ostensibly throw away nature and, thus, lack of serious critical concern.  More recently the field has focused on the dual subversive and corporate potential of social media.

Session 1: Sentimental Education: Intimate Citizenships and Pedagogies of Melodrama in U.S. Daytime TV, Mark Helmsing, University of Wyoming

According to Helmsing, soap operas use intimacy as pedagogy and offer 4 civic lessons in how to be a feeling person by providing models of how:

  • to pursue a less fragile form of living 
  • to seek a liberating truth and participate in a sense of civic belonging through the intensity of private feelings and public vulnerabilities
  • pain and suffering are universal, thus offering civic minded ideals of compassion while valorizing the private in public 
  • the political may be flattened in favor of the civic, thereby showing how change comes from within a person

Session 2: Neoliberalism, The Mega-Church, and the Individual, Diane F. Bishop, Cobb County Schools

Bishop conducted ethnographic research inside of one Atlanta-area megachurch. Based on her experience she argues that these organizations have nothing to do with religion but are neoliberal spaces that focus on the consumerist pursuit of happiness, entertainment, and value instead of truth.  The megachurch enacts this consumerism by:

  • constructing massive structures
  • targeting rich, white, middle class locations for better return on investment
  • building near consumer environments like shopping malls
  • using consumerist cues in architecture, decor, and marketing
  • erasing Christian imagery
  • reinforcing individual importance through consumables
  • creating an intense physical experience via spatial manipulation
  • creating fantasy spaces for kids and teens
  • designing upscale and efficient internet/social media spaces
  • reinforcing attendance through snacks and Starbucks gift cards
  • partnering with sister-church franchisees
  • hosting short term mission trips that reinforce colonialism and do very little for the “missionized”

Inside of Lakewood Megachurch : Auditorium

If you’re interested in this type of research I suggest checking out Cultural/Media Studies: Critical Approaches. GSU also offers critical media studies courses in several disciplines including Education and Film.