Month: April 2017

Bourdieu’s ‘On Television’ and its relevance to Singapore in 2017

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Image credit: Culture on the edge

[This essay is based off my interpretations of Priscilla Ferguson’s translations of Bourdieu’s lectures on journalism and television. I have spent a few days studying the text to the best of my ability but apologise in advance for any potential misinterpretations I may have made.]

This short essay will reference Pierre Bourdieu’s (1998) On Television, involving his lectures on journalism and specifically, television. I will summarise some of his points before offering my thoughts on it. In response, I will pose some general questions and further thoughts on the text. I will also question if his ideas are still relevant today in 2017, and situate it in the Singapore context – Does it support what he’s saying? How relevant are his ideas?

On Television suggests that the role of journalism (and television) imposes lower levels of social and political discourse on the citizen. He reveals the irony of democratic legitimacy derived from audience ratings (i.e. media for the people, defending their interests and functioning as a watchdog of power) by illuminating the structural constraints embedded in the world of journalism.

TV hides by showing – it can show something else, or show something in a particular way. The news has become a banal stream of images, and events are reduced to mere anecdote or spectacle –sex, blood and scandal. As a stream of unrelated images on separate issues, events become depoliticised. They seem detached from the individual – constructing the perception that politics is inaccessible. Bourdieu chooses to focus on TV because of its huge role in news dissemination but I believe that his points can be generalised to journalism as a whole.

Bourdieu’s concern is with the structural constraints and pressures: Journalism is situated in structures of competition (between agencies), market forces and market share over information dissemination. These are interrelated factors. Who is saying what they’re saying and how they’re saying it is influenced by what others are reporting (‘the circular circulation of information’) and their individual context in the world of journalism. As such, reports have nothing to do with an enlightened mass opinion or public rationality. What drives and constrains are these structures, and such is the irony of democratic legitimacy of the Fourth Estate. Where do The People reside in this picture?

When a broadcast agency circulates its information on topics that interest ‘everybody’, they get the views and boost their audience ratings. As Bourdieu pointed out, the news is reduced to political rituals, descriptions and things that the viewer already knows. It is constructed in accordance with the same mental categories of the receiver – It does not disrupt, inspire, nor raise problems. He cautions us that simplistic analyses that upset nothing result in lenses that see the world divided up in simplistic categories e.g. xenophobia, ethnic tension or religious divides. This is precisely because the news fails to unravel mental categories, properly educate the democratic citizen and inspire action. In his words, it inspires “vague humanitarian interest at best”.

What Bourdieu suggests as a remedy (but does not get into at length) is a form of collaborative journalism. It is a kind of journalism that does away with ratings and sensational-isations to work towards productive discourse. For instance, he gives the example of collaboration instead of a race for the scoop, and contesting the ratings system in the name of democracy. Therefore, what is emphasised is the importance for fighting for optimum conditions of diffusion where individuals can be educated. He is aware that this is utopian, but claims that morality works insofar as its structures support it and there are mechanisms which give people interest in that particular kind of morality. He then tells us that awareness of the mechanisms at work provides a measure of freedom to those manipulated by mechanisms (either journalist or viewer). One can be mindful of social demands and actively contest structural pressures.

Firstly, Bourdieu tells us that the news is reduced to simplistic criticisms that offer no analysis. How much analysis and nuance can we realistically have in the coverage of every event? Or rather, a more pertinent question is: How much is enough? Enough to educate the citizen? Often, people reject the unfamiliar and different. In that case, how do we go about educating an uninformed viewer who has no interest in ‘undoing’ their mental categories? More importantly to the journalistic body, how are they supposed to reconcile the need to satisfy these (market?) demands with these loftier goals of democratic or even moral education? Perhaps I am giving Bourdieu insufficient credit and we can attribute the vagueness of his solutions to the fact that it was outside of his purview to discuss them in detail. However, if Bourdieu is right, these questions are still important ones.

Bourdieu briefly discusses the banality and frivolity of news as spectacle. We may examine this point with other forms of journalism, including citizen journalism in the twenty first century. One might respond to this objection by saying: If no one heard you say it, did you really say it at all? Hence, one must first capture market share by attracting a wide audience first and get heard. Once they have a voice and presence, they can work to contest the system. The point is one needs to first understand and play the game before one can change its rules. This operates on the premise that there is great difficulty in contesting the journalistic milieu from the outside. This premise is a defensible one, but leads us back to the question of how we can reconcile market pressures with contesting the ratings system and aspiring toward education.

Back to the case of Singapore in 2017 – television and journalism is always inextricably tied to government control and censorship. While various online news sources have proliferated (and are fast gaining traction), SPH and Mediacorp still has a monopoly over information dissemination. In Singapore, the press is a means for the government to communicate certain kinds of information and perspectives. Whether or not this degree of control and censorship is desirable is not what I am concerned with in this essay. More importantly, news agencies in Singapore do not purport to espouse democratic values or legitimacy unlike in Western countries. Bourdieu reveals the irony of ‘free press’ not really being free. ‘Free press’ depends on your definition – what are you free from? There are degrees of freedom from government interests, but more importantly, Bourdieu’s lectures point out structural constraints (e.g. market forces and advertisements, internal pressures etc.)

On that note, the Singapore case is completely different from the context that Bourdieu himself was situated in. Singapore, unlike France, is not a liberal democracy and has never been steeped in a liberal tradition. Hence, news agencies in Singapore cannot and does not claim democratic legitimacy. Bourdieu’s lecture shows the irony of the press’s democratic legitimacy in France, but this irony is not relevant to Singapore. However, I would argue that the Singapore case is still subject to structural pressures. They face pragmatic concerns such as pressures from audience ratings and market forces.

Bourdieu writes that the news should contribute to educating a citizen of his/her rights and how one may flourish in a democratic society. Looking at the Singapore case, how else might we justify the importance of education of citizens without invoking any notion of democratic legitimacy? What would be the role of the media for Singapore? Perhaps we may find our answer in some kind of morality and value system, but that is a subject for another essay.

In conclusion, I have attempted to draw links between Bourdieu’s arguments and the Singapore context. Bourdieu’s diagnosis and of the problem (banality and depoliticisation of the news) is very real in Singapore, but his arguments are illuminating insofar as we consider market forces as structural pressures rather than the irony of the press’s democratic legitimacy. His lecture also opens up more difficult questions about what should be done and how media should be used more responsibly to play an active role in education.

 

References:
Pierre Bourdieu. On Television. Translated by Priscilla Ferguson. New York: New Press. 1998.

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Dumplings

Image may contain: 1 person
Image credit: Clemens Krauss via Berlinartparasites

It killed my grandmother.

That morning, my grandmother woke up early as usual. She made breakfast for the family and brewed some coffee. She put two sugars in my father’s, and that was when I realised something was wrong.

“Ah ma, this kopi is for Pa?”

“Yes dear, bring it to him.”

 “Ah ma, daddy doesn’t take sugar in his coffee.”

My grandmother did not move. She froze with the cup of coffee still in her hands, and slowly, she smiled back at me, showing her yellowed teeth. Something was very wrong. This woman looked the same –kind brown eyes, thin lips, and curly white hair. She had the same wrinkled hands that had time etched on them. The same slight limp in her walk. But I knew she was not my grandmother.

“Ah ma is getting old. I forget some things.” She took the cup back into the kitchen as she poured its contents into the sink. After a brief pause, she said, “You were always the smart one, Grace.”

I whispered softly, “No, you never forget,” as I ran to my grandmother’s room.

I opened the door and on the bed was the mangled body of my grandmother. She lay skinless on the bed – pure muscle, flesh and bone. All the skin had gone and her eyeballs were exposed. I stared in mute horror as her dead eyes peered back at me.

That day, my father chased it out of the house. The Creature hid in the stairwell, but my father tracked it down. Using a special knife, my father killed it. It shrieked as he drove the knife through its heart. The Creature’s black mass shot out of the eye sockets and slithered away. My grandmother’s skin collapsed to a pile on the steps.

I hugged my dad and we sobbed violently.

That was half a year ago.

We sat at the dining table – Pa, Anna, and I, wrapping dumplings diligently. I taught them how to roll the skin to the perfect thickness, the amount of filling to use, and how to fold the sides. “The skin of the dumpling is very important,” I said. “If it’s too thin, it disintegrates easily after boiling. If it’s too thick, the dumpling becomes floury.”

I paused thoughtfully before saying, “Delicious fillings are nothing without well-crafted skin.”

Anna said, “This skin is perfect, Grace.”

Pa said, “Ah ma would have been so proud to see you make them.”

I didn’t respond.

My hands worked diligently, wrapping each dumpling meticulously. When the last of the fillings had been wrapped, I admired the rows of dumplings on the tray. They would turn out to be the most beautiful creations, I told myself.

I belong to a race that can never walk the earth in our natural form. We were genetically coded to loathe our fluid, black exterior. If the world was a vast blue ocean, we were a massive oil spill. We craved a body that did not resemble our own. Discrete boundaries with limbs, unlike the formless dark slime that we were. Beautiful velvety skin, unlike our wet oily texture.

Do we have to kill them? I asked. I was taught that there is no other way. We were wired with the DNA of hate and born innately despising our skin.

Those that could not bring themselves to kill or could not find hosts perished. For the sake of self-preservation, my people encouraged me to find a stable host and blend in. Stealing their identities was the only way we could live. And so we lived on borrowed skin, slithering from body to body, building our homes using other people’s faces.

The old woman was my first. And then her granddaughter, my second. They call me The Creature, but I have no name. I take the name of the person I kill.

Her name was Grace.

Right before her father stabbed me, I escaped out of the woman’s skin. I hid and I waited. And then I killed the daughter. I was more careful with the body this time.

I tapped into her memory to teach her family how to wrap dumplings. My new family.

I made a mistake once with the sugar. Now I have learnt. I am careful with memories and details. I adapt with time. I fit in.

Anna tells me that the skin is perfect. I don’t disagree.

Marine terrace

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Image credit: Instagram post by @hueyxhuey 


NEIGHBOURHOOD OF THE LONELY.

Leong sat at the kopitiam and sipped on the piping hot black coffee. It was thick, exactly how Lily would have liked it.

During the weekends, Leong and Lily would go for coffee in the afternoon together. Kopi-c for Leong, kopi-o for his wife. They would sit at the kopitiam for an hour or two, talking about anything under the sun.

That was before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Multiple chemotherapy sessions and medications drained Lily of her strength. The kopitiam sessions became increasingly infrequent. Leong would reassure her, “You’ll be back home in no time and we can go for kopi together in the afternoons, just like we used to!”

One morning, she was rushed to the hospital and never returned home for good.

It had been a month since her passing and Leong sat at the same kopitiam for the first time since she was gone. They had always been inseparable but today, he was alone. He could picture her sitting next to him, smiling. Leong could almost feel the wisps of her hair against his cheek – She would sometimes rest her head on his shoulder as they people-watched… But Lily was gone, and the vacant seat next to him was a painful reminder of his loss. Waves of grief and loneliness crashed against him. Leong would no longer order kopi-c. It would forever be kopi-o, in loving memory of his wife.

There was a hole in his heart in the shape of Lily, and Leong desperately tried to fill it with the shape of kopi-o.

Christine greeted her neighbour.

“Eh, did you see Leong at the kopitiam last weekend? I see him sitting by himself and I feel so sad. He must be so lonely without his wife – did you know she passed away?”

Christine was not one for frivolous small talk. She nodded politely, and hurried home. Her neighbour was always eager to engage in trivial conversations, passing on gossip about others that Christine had no wish to know about.

She opened her front gate and was greeted by the sight of her fifteen year old son lying on the sofa, his eyes glued to the screen of his iPad. “Is daddy back yet?” Christine asked.

He did not respond. As her son played his game, the only noise that filled the living room was the sound of the laser beams shooting at zombies on his screen. Pew pew pew pew.

“Alex Lim, I’m talking to you. Did daddy come home?”

Without looking up, he said, “He went out.”

“Did he say when he will be back?” Christine asked.

“No, but he said he didn’t want to see your jibai face.”

Christine did not flinch at her son’s use of a Hokkien expletive. She calmly set the food down on the table that she had bought from the kopitiam downstairs. It was her son’s favourite Hokkien mee, with extra pork lard. “Come eat dinner.”

“I eat already.” He said, and went to his room, slamming the door behind him.

Christine sat down, opened up her packet of noodles, and began to eat. With every mouthful of food that she shovelled into her mouth, she became increasingly aware that the emptiness within her was not something that could be filled by food.

Lonely because his wife died? She thought to herself, recalling what her neighbour told her. She wished that her husband was dead. That way, neither of them could have him. If he could not be hers, then at least he wouldn’t be the Other Woman’s. She trembled with anger. She couldn’t understand why her son blamed her. I’m not the one who’s tearing us apart. She wished that the laser beams from her son’s iPad game would slice her into a thousand pieces. Pew pew pew pew.

Christine sat alone at the dining table made for four and sobbed quietly. Each empty seat served as a stark reminder of her family that could never exist in the same physical space simultaneously.

Claudia tugged at the leash. “Time to go, Toby.”

Toby licked Alex’s face and jumped around him excitedly. “Bye Toby.” Alex petted the Japanese spitz’s white fur for one final time before he got up to leave. The fifteen year old boy was Toby’s favourite person to meet while on his walk because Alex would give him a few dog treats from his backpack. “Bye Auntie Claudia, thanks for stopping.”

“No problem, you can come visit Toby anytime.”

Toby was an energetic dog with soft, white fur. He was easily excited – he would dash to the corners of the room whenever he wanted to play. Toby adored Claudia, and he would experience separation anxiety when they were apart. He would follow her around the house. When she showered, he would wait outside the bathroom. When she slept, he would curl up at the foot of her bed.

The story of Claudia and Toby began when Claudia’s daughter went to a pet store and bought her a dog.

Claudia was divorced, and her only child was a successful lawyer who married an equally successful lawyer. Once, Claudia had casually asked if they were intending to have children. I could take care of them for you, she offered. The next week, a Japanese spitz showed up at her flat. “Now you have something to keep you company.” She told her mother.

She would tell relatives proudly, “You know my gal – she’s a lawyer at Baker & Mackenzie now.” When they asked about why she wasn’t at the family gathering, Claudia would tell him, “She’s busy working so she can’t come. But she’s a very good girl, you know. Pays for everything for me.”

Claudia made a large pot of lotus root soup and gave a pork rib bone to Toby. She waited for her daughter to call. When are you coming to drink soup and visit me? Wednesday, ma. I’ll call when I’m coming over.

It was already ten. She dialled her daughter’s personal mobile number, but no one picked up. She tried her son-in-law. “Mother? What’s wrong?”

Oh nothing, just wondering if you all ended work yet? It’s Wednesday. I made soup. I’m sorry, I have a big case tomorrow to prepare for so I can’t come over. Did Rachel call you? No, she didn’t. It’s OK. I understand. She’s busy.

Claudia hung up.

Toby lay stretched out on her lap. She hugged him and he licked her face enthusiastically.

The deep end


Source: Pinterest

The tropical heat made the swimming pool a favourite spot for many during the summer holiday. Every weekend, Mei would go swimming with a good friend.

It was a particularly warm day and Mei slathered sunscreen on her arms and shoulders. She noticed a man in his sixties watching her. Mei self-consciously tugged at her new bright orange swimming costume, trying to avoid the man’s gaze. He did not look away. Instead, with his gaze fixed on Mei, his eyes began to water.

“Ignore him. Sometimes there are crazy people here.” Her friend warned her as she pulled Mei away. “Come on!” She said, diving in to the pool.

Mei stood at the edge of the water as it lapped at her toes.

Her friend started to talk about some boy she had just met. “And then he told me about-”

Mei took a deep breath, and plunged in. The water rushed against her body and greeted her skin with its cool temperature. The world around her was silent for a few seconds. Tentatively, Mei surfaced.

She smiled. The pool was no longer the same. The old tiles were in place, and the Jacuzzi at the edge of the main pool was gone.

“Mei!”

She recognised the voice.

Five weeks ago, Mei realised that she would be transported back in time if she dived into the water head-first at the pool. The first time it happened, she met Hock. He found her, confused, crying and crouched at the corner.

She learnt that it was 1982, and the deep end of the pool was a portal where she could travel between two points in time. For every weekend after that, she would go swimming and take a trip back in time to meet Hock. Yet, she never knew how to tell him about her secret.

“I’ve not seen you wear this before.” He said with some surprise.

“Is it nice?” Mei asked. “Too orange perhaps?” She felt her cheeks growing red.

He paused, and then he laughed. “You look great.”

They swam for the whole afternoon and the sun was beginning to set. At the edge of the pool, they kicked the water lazily. Hock leaned in closer to Mei.

“Can I …” Hock began nervously. “Can I call you after this?”

Reality hit Mei in the face as soon as those words left his mouth. There was no way he could contact her as long as they existed on different timelines.

She turned away. “Hock, I… I can’t. I have to go.” She got out of the water, and Hock panicked. “Mei, did I do something wrong? I’m sorry.”

“No. You did nothing wrong.”

She waited until she was safely out of sight before she plunged back in to the deep end, returning to 2017. Five hours had passed with Hock, but time froze in 2017 for as long as she was in 1982. The sun was still burning in the 2pm sky, and she could hear her friend’s voice as she surfaced.

“–that time he went to climb a mountain, he’s so cool!”

——

The next weekend, Hock was waiting for her.  “I didn’t know if you were even coming today – I…”

Mei threw her arms around him and caught him by surprise. “Hock, I’m sorry about last week,” She said softly.

She was afraid that he would disintegrate if she touched him. What if he was a distant dream tucked away in Mei’s mind, ready to evaporate like the beads of water on her skin? But Hock did not disappear. Instead, Mei felt his arms wrap around her tightly. He was warm, solid, and she could feel his heart beat against her chest.

Hock felt real. Hock was real.

Mei was the first to break the embrace. “I have something to tell you, but you have to promise to believe me.”

He promised, and she told him about the first time she discovered 1982. When Hock recovered from his initial shock, he said, “Mei, stay here with me.”

Mei did not know how the portal worked. Currently, she could move freely between the two years, but what if she found herself somehow trapped in 1982? What would happen in 2017 if she stayed in 1982? Would her body sink to the bottom of the swimming pool? Would she disappear without a trace underwater? More importantly, was she prepared to leave everything behind for Hock?

Mei told Hock that it was something that she had to think about, and he promised to wait.

“I’ll wait for you on Saturdays until you no longer wish to see me.” Hock promised.

—-

The next week, there was a problem with the drainage system and the pool was closed for repairs. Mei had to wait another week for the pool to reopen.

She had made her decision. A weekend later, she plunged in to the deep end. She stayed underwater for a while, and when she was ready for her new life, Mei surfaced for air.

Children were running toward the Jacuzzi. There were no metal ladders by the pool.  Mei blinked and looked at the tiles she was standing on.

It was still 2017.

During the repairs, something had changed. The portal no longer worked.

Her heart shattered as she remembered Hock’s voice, “I’ll wait for you here on Saturdays.” She thought about Hock spending his subsequent weekends waiting for a girl who would never show up. Tears began to well up in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.

Suddenly, a recent memory came to mind – Mei recalled seeing a man tearing up by the pool a few weeks ago. It was the day when she wore her orange swimsuit for the first time. Could it be -?

—-

Initially, Hock would go to the pool every weekend, hoping that Mei would come. As the years wore on, the frequency of his visits also declined. At the end of 35 long years, Hock was no longer waiting for Mei, but found comfort in clinging to the memory of a place. On balmy afternoons, he would find himself sitting by the pool for old times’ sake.

And then it happened.

Mei finally showed up, albeit in a way he did not expect. Hock looked on as the girl in the orange swimsuit plunged into the deep end of the water. He watched as his past flooded the present. Yet, a gulf of years still separated them – Hock was no longer a young man.

He wiped the tears from his face. It was time to stop chasing the past.

He was ready to never return to the pool again.

—–

Mei scanned the pool area for the mysterious man, but she was four weeks (35 years) too late.