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Media/Mundania: Call and Response

Dear reader of this mundane journal,

As you hunch over your computer avoiding the glare off the monitor, you must be aware that your experience is occurring in a mundane place: in your home, your room, in your office. You are a human being in some sort of social and physical situation reading this material. I hope that you are comfortable and want to chat with me through this fantastic medium of computer communication. I know you are thinking this is a one-way process. You are receiving my thoughts but I’m not receiving yours. Trust me; I am hoping to learn at some point what’s going on with you.

You see, this is our first special issue devoted to a theme. This is our first time we’ve asked you to be an integral part of our public forum. We don’t just want readers; we want participants in a collective effort to address our theme: how our mundane world interacts with media. Perhaps right now the purpose of your involvement is not quite apparent. But let’s look at the central idea and see how we can relate.

We, the editors of JMB, believe that how you live your daily life profoundly affects how you connect to the communication media in our society. Moreover, the content of media are themselves rooted in the ordinary lives of the people. Abstract points? Sure, but consider your activity at this moment as you read my essay here. Consider the place where you are reading this. Does that place impact how you are feeling about what we’re trying to accomplish here? This talky style I am using, which is so unlike me the obscure professor, might be annoying you. I find it kind of annoying but as I sit here clicking it out, I am thinking I can use this approach to entice people to look at the issues of the media in relation to the mundane and get their help.

I am hoping you will provide the substance, the illustrations, and the applications of my general thinking. I’m pretty good on ideas, but I have this terrible memory for details. I’m good at suggestions, at asking questions, but my follow-through is frequently lacking. The essays contained in this issue of our journal address many of these areas, but I’d like to encourage your participation in the discussion by responding to my calls on any of the topics that I will raise in my writing below. How?

I entitle this introduction ‘Call and Response’ after the practice common in some church services where the pastor ‘calls’ his inspirations out and his congregation responds, giving the whole thing the feel of a conversation. I am asking you to join our free discussion forum, MundaneTalk and affirm (or decry) the claims I will offer in this essay. If you haven’t already, you can subscribe at http://mundanetalk.listbot.com. In this essay I hope to strike some ‘responsive chords’ in you, hit on a phenomenon that has some meaning for you and provoke you to chime in with your own comments. Give it a chance and see what happens. Amen!

Media as Life Context

Did you ever find yourself judging the value of something in relation to media depictions? Well, consider that I have been teaching my students the study of the mundane for what seems like centuries. Many have been interested, some amused, but few seemed to feel that the endeavor was significant or useful. As it happened, the publication of Journal of Mundane Behavior was met with a great deal of media attention. When my students saw me being interviewed on television, all of a sudden they seemed to feel the importance and worth of their assignments to study everyday life situations. Value and expectations may well be assessed in terms of their representations in media.

Assessments related to media can well be demonstrated by the significance of a place in a movie or TV program. The Maryland town where The Runaway Bride (1999) was filmed seems to have runaway real estate values, and I understand that the actual town where Northern Exposure (1990-1995) was filmed has become an attraction. But I can’t think of other examples. Moreover, I can’t quite think of the significance of this. Could it indicate how life on the silver or blue screen magnifies mundane meanings of places? Also, I’m not sure how the production of a program or film affects a locale, although I remember seeing a film that touched on this, Sweet Liberty (1986). I wonder how the town this was filmed in was affected by the movie that depicted how a town was affected by making a movie. State and Main (2000) is the latest appearance of this, in which the locals thwart a crew filming in a Maine town.

When I see places familiar to me through the media depictions, I respond strongly. Recently, I visited the Gettysburg memorial site. Of course, I had read Shaara’s Killer Angels (1974) and had seen Turner’s film Gettysburg (1993) numerous times. As I viewed the hallowed grounds, I felt linked to the many who sacrificed their lives; I ‘saw’ their struggle in my mind’s eye, and admired their incredible heroism. Or was I rewinding the mediated depictions in my mind? I was confused as to the nature of my experience since that actual scene held meaning for me only through historical books, movies and place markings. Certainly, my thinking was not clarified by all the mediated versions of the battle adjacent to the battlefield including massive paintings, replicas, mediated reenactments, etc. Are emotional responses related to the historical events or to their mediated versions?

I experienced the same dilemma upon seeing Normandy Beach. I found myself explaining the site to my children in terms of the film and book, The Longest Day (1962). I kept seeing the actors perform their heroics as I scrutinized the scene. (I just couldn’t get Red Buttons hanging from the church steeple out of my mind.) Just a few days after our return from France in early July of 1998, we saw the just-opened film Saving Private Ryan as site experts. We sat there in the theater evaluating the accuracy of the depiction based on our ‘firsthand’ experience. Thank goodness professional historians are immune to this.

Sometimes the easiest way to make someone understand what’s going on is to refer to a mediated image. Decades ago, when you wanted to tell a friend about your roommates, you might have to refer to Three’s Company (1977-1984). Perhaps a few gay people gained courage to reveal their orientations when Ellen came out as, well, Ellen (1994-1998). Surely, we have numerous examples of how certain human characteristics lost their stigma because of made-for-TV movies or films.

Self-referentiality

I must admit that I’ve learned everything I ever needed to know from media, not from kindergarten. I know how to greet different sorts of people, talk in styles, identify someone as being attractive, walk and look cool, choose and wear my clothing, kiss and so forth, all from watching. Chauncey Gardner and I both ‘like to watch.’ I may not read T. S. Eliot intelligently, but I can understand just about everything Dennis Miller refers to. I feel that he’s not talking in a vacuum. He’s talking about mediated worlds where our prime knowledge is of those worlds and not those represented by the media. Like quiz shows that challenge contestants’ knowledge of programs and media personalities, or films that refer to films, these products assume a media-generated common culture.

The popularity of the Scream series of horror films (1996, 1997, 2000) speaks to the acceptance of self-conscious movie making. These movies posit their own rules openly, especially the sequels in which performers expect certain events to occur because that is what happens in teen horror flicks. Speaking to the audiences directly is not all that uncommon in movies. But what I find most intriguing are the war movies where a character says at the height of filmic tension, ‘This ain’t no war movie; this is for real!’

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) cruelly distinguished between guy and gal flicks, juxtaposing cynical male appreciation of Jim Brown’s heroism in Dirty Dozen (1967) vs. sincere female emotion regarding An Affair to Remember (1957). Movies are increasingly based on movies mining the audiences’ common knowledge of media-based culture. Our mundane lives are evidently so intertwined with filmic imagery that the paradigms we use to understand film are themselves significantly derived from media experiences.

The crossover of media is such an overwhelming phenomenon that I am almost reluctant to broach the topic. The source of far too many of our movies is TV programs that might have originated from other media. This process reverses as well, with movies becoming TV programs and other media products. The penchant to recycle media contents has proceeded unabated. Was not The Last of the Mohicans (1992) a re-make of the 1936 film version rather than a rendering of Cooper’s book or an effort toward historical reconstruction? It would seem that media is becoming its own world; however, the self-referencing, re-visioning and re-making of media reflects the interest of audiences in renewing the mundane moments of the initial experience, a kind of nostalgia for the feelings and responses initially experienced, a desire to resurrect the time and place of viewing. How else could Spielberg’s success with the Indiana Jones series (1981, 1984, 1989) be fully understood except as baby boomer yearning for the feelings and experiences associated with Saturday morning serials?

Performance Reality

Some movies acknowledge that they are movies, while most deny that they are movies. Depending on the director’s style, we, the audience, see the movie as if in a collective dream state, asked to suspend our disbelief or, on some occasions, to retain our disbelief. Mike Myers, particularly in Wayne’s World (1992, 1993) tells us that his movies are just that. We pay rapt attention to the filmic world and detect their logics, become expert predictors of events and outcomes, and come to know the actors as if they were personal acquaintances.

Most performers want to convince us that the image they portray is a reality to absorb us. And then there is Kevin Spacey. I think that this fellow is telling us at each and every moment that he is an actor portraying a role for our entertainment, encouraging us to retain our grasp on personal reality. His charm rests on his distance from his portrayals, never appearing to take his own performances quite seriously. Perhaps the James Garner ‘let’s not take me for real’ style of acting foreshadowed this.

Celebrity encounters are another fascinating expression of intermixing media realities and mundane realities. We may say, ‘Hi Mr. Hanks’ or at least nod in his direction. Maybe we have an uncontrollable smirk on our face and elevated blood pressure. Or we blurt, ‘Are you Sharon Stone?’ as our gooney question. I do not know these people, but I do know that their roles are not them, even though I do think that Tom is a nice guy and that Sharon Stone is hot.

It is truly difficult to accept an out-of-character performance, but we have seen some persuasive acting, such as from Burt Lancaster who played a Nazi in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). We all ‘know’ that Burt was actually a hero. Perhaps in our mundane lives we might even think of him and other performers or celebrities as ‘role models,’ wanting to be as happily sturdy as Burt was in his early films. I think that performers and their media images are to us metaphors for our own persona in everyday life settings, in which we may feel one way but act as the tacit script and unseen directors indicate regardless of our sentiments. Some of us may reject the notion that we are who we appear to be and claim a distinct private self, not unlike celebrities who, seeking privacy, shun the limelight except when their next film opens. How paradoxical! Celebrities striving for privacy.

The Arts and Entertainment channel slogan ‘Escape the Ordinary’ captures the conventional notion that places media content in sharp contrast to the mundane. Is it not that the exciting, the scary, the sexy are in a realm of otherness to our boring routine lives? Surely, much of our media fare are so far fetched from experience that they bear no relation to the mundane. But it is more likely that quality entertainment (if this can be distinguished) is related to everyday life and possibility. I believe that decent art and culture is a layering upon the mundane. Plausible premises have served as the underpinnings for the truly provocative and genuinely absorbing media experiences many of us have had. I enjoyed A Simple Plan (1998) because of its credible roots in ordinary life.

Audience contexts

Authentic audience emotion is generated through media depictions that resonate within everyday life contexts. These contexts are the sites of audience responsiveness. The social and physical circumstances in which we experience media strongly impact the nature of that experience. The family, the couple, the friends, and the individual provide the human aspect of these circumstances, while the physical setting constitutes the other dimension. Does this explain in part what’s going on in the movie theatre industry?

For example, the trust that is required to share with unknown others the dream images on screen in a darkened theatre is of considerable concern to some moviemakers. The THX certification process represents a concern for the audio quality of film presentation, but other conditions are significant as well such as print quality, cleanliness of theatres, audience noise, seating arrangements, and so forth. More importantly, most movie theatres chains have failed to create audiences as communities of viewers sharing collectivized media experience. Film viewing thus remains essentially an individualized experience even though others are co-present. Are there ways to rebuild movie theatre audiences as communities of trust and feeling in this era of post-narcissism? Would live music, lectures and discussions add to a communalized media experience?

Individualized and perhaps isolating media experience may be increasing with the new technologies. Home theatres can be interpreted as a retreat from the public domain of shared media. Home theatre design is surely a consumer goods specialty of note as regular folks are increasingly aware of the importance of setting up appropriate ordinary contexts for viewing media fare. Is the home theatre generally an individual, couple or family experience? A frequently ignored context of TV viewing is the public place. Going out for a night may well just relocate the site of TV viewing nowadays. Pay-per-view sports may be the biggest draw, but any sports will do in most places. Televisions are frequently turned on in lounges, bars, lobbies, schools, airport waiting areas etc., so we cannot think of TV as solely home-based. It’s possible though that this wide distribution of TV viewing opportunity may further isolate people in assembled settings.

Car audio is another consumer products area that has clearly identified physical setting as critical for maximal appreciation. Car audio surely produces a personal relationship to music and other forms of radio entertainment. However, we may ask whether music listening outside of concerts has become purely a solo activity. We generally assume that computer activity is also isolating and individualizing. Does it actually happen that you spend most of your time at the computer alone or do you do frequently compute with others present? Do you share your computing activity directly with others? Does reading our online journal sap you of your interest in actively conducting your mundane life or substitute for live relationships? We would expect not and hope not, but do let us know.

Media Talk

‘Where’s the beef?’ ”…your final answer?’ ‘Frankly, my dear’. And so forth and so on, we have a kind of media lingo that creates more than just a sense of unity. I would go so far as to say that such colloquialism produces a common cultural heritage that transcends particularist sentiments of ethnicity, race, class and status. Not so long ago, when I was in another country, a would-be robber threatened me with a rock and demanded money. As he menaced me, I thought, ‘I’m thinking, I’m thinking.’ In a life-endangering situation, I was conjuring up an old Jack Benny joke from the immortal line, ‘Your money or your life’. Ridiculous! (The thief must have gotten bored waiting, because he and his confederates left in disgust and broke.) When deep philosophy, powerful theology or animal fear failed to infuse my being, a joke I heard many times on TV in my childhood cropped up in my head. That’s what I mean by a common cultural heritage, a reservoir of meanings and strategies of adapting to circumstances that just seem to come to you. Since I was in another culture at the time, I didn’t actually say the words, but that is how I internally responded to the terror of that moment.

Often media-derived phrasings, when spoken, lighten a situation, establish a common bond, open up possibilities for further conversation, and, as I tell my students, avow our cultural membership. I’m surely an OK fellow if I can appropriately employ the ritual expressions of media’you can trust me.

Of course, we all recognize that these very recognizable expressions themselves derive from everyday conversations. And it is beyond obvious to suggest that almost all scripted dialogue seeks to emulate common modes of discourse. However, it is only the rare filmmaker who even attempts to or succeeds in capturing the naturalistic talk of mundane life. Woody Allen comes to mind as one of those few who makes movies that include common speaking errors, talking over, disjunctive talk, etc. Mostly, movies and TV portray speakers as quite articulate and present talk as well-orchestrated. That’s not the way I hear conversation in my circles. So, I tend to think of scripted dialogue and the culling of phrases from the mundane as a refractive or distortive process that misleads few but sometimes entertains and, even more rarely, elevates. And, as I have suggested, such selective word gleaning can fuel the extension of popular culture terminology.

The Mundane Invades Media

There are so very many places in media that the actual mundanity crops up and pulls us out of the reverie of otherworldness in that realm known as ‘continuity editing,’ where people actually work to make sure that background elements of a scene don’t interrupt (through their incorrectness) the drama on the screen. What about products in the wrong settings? Did you ever see a west coast bag of potato chips in a scene supposedly situated in New York? I am haunted by a bag of Laura Scudders in The Owl and the Pussycat (1970). Shame on the filmmaker if my perception and memory serve correctly! Those of us who saw the wristwatches on the USC student-extras portraying Roman soldiers in Spartacus (1960) have been forever scarred.

I am fond of picking out the relatives of filmmakers or stars in films, or identifying people playing themselves, or spotting nonprofessional performers, or most satisfyingly, finding Hitchcock (or any director in a vignette). Wasn’t that Rob Reiner’s mother crying out something like, ‘I’ll have whatever she’s having,’ in the restaurant orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally (1989)? How many Scorsese films has his mother been in? The judge in Erin Brockovich (2000) must have been the genuine article. The director of Glory (1989), Edward Zwick, was first a trash-talking union soldier and then a supportive presence in the climactic battle scene.

Television Reality Programming

Portraying itself as challenging everyday people to adapt to extraordinary situations, reality programming has suddenly cropped up to fulfill Howard Beale’s worst nightmare from Network (1976). Foreshadowed by films such as EdTV (1999) and The Truman Show (1998) among others, such programs have garnered incredible ratings and have become a major topic of popular conversation. Since I’ve never seen Survivor (2000, 2001) or any other of this genre, I must leave it to readers to offer informed interpretations of the significance for the mundane on our public forum. Kindly help this culturally deprived editor!

My ‘Friends’

In closing the general part of this introduction, I want to share with readers about a battle that I lost. In my editors’ note for JMB 1.3, I indicated that I felt that I needed to ‘compete with TV’s Friends for the affection of my 14-year-old daughter.’ Well, needless to say, Friends (1994-present) won, and rather than bellyache, I consented to escort my daughter and two of her friends to see a taping of her favorite program. An instructive experience for media/mundania it was.

We were not the only ones interested in attending. Evidently, for many people, it is entertaining to see entertainment produced. Not only that, but also the large number of people in this and many other studio audiences who significantly inconvenienced themselves to see these performances must feel that these are important events in their lives. I heard of long pilgrimages from other cities, sacrifices of time, and great enthusiasm in talking to others queuing up.

After nearly six hours of waiting, chatting, walking and snacking, we were finally allowed entrance to the studio. The kids were very excited seeing their favorite performers, and so were most of the others in the audience. It was an enthusiastic audience entertained by an energetic comic, fed with complimentary pizza, stretching to see as much as possible while remaining seated. They laughed without cuing and applauded appreciatively, even off-camera. It would appear that their ‘spontaneous’ reactions were used in final editing. The live audience participated representing all potential viewers and providing their ‘valuable’ input.

I was cool, even when I saw Susan Sarandon as a guest star for this episode, but there was Tim Robbins surveying the scene with clear approval. OK, my celebrity smirk took over my face, that is, I flushed and tried to appear normal but stared at them as best I could. Sarandon, a wonderfully dignified presence, plays a soap opera performer ousted from her role and now prepping Matt LeBlanc to replace her. Off-camera she was joking and chatting with him. In her role she falls for the guy and sleeps with him. There is Robbins laughing and enjoying his wife’s performance as a performer making love to another man with whom she seemed quite friendly. Of course, all the friends on Friends are friends and this is a friendly program, not to mention how friendly the staff, audience and everyone else surrounding the event appeared to be. This confused scholar had to consult with his sage daughter for help in deciphering these complexities.

In any case, this observation captured for me the theme of this introduction: we clearly live some portion of our mundane lives in relation to media and our realities partially derive from media. The media creates itself from pieces of the mundane, from itself and from the ‘anti-mundane.’

* * * *

This Issue

This is our first special issue and we organized it around the theme of the reflexivity between media and mundanity. Most scholarly treatments of the media as well as public discussions about the media tend to focus on the unusual and exotic aspects of our visual and aural entertainment experiences. How it is that the mundane foundations of media in everyday life have been relatively neglected as a central topic of discussion? We contend that the mundane serves as the basis for the creation of media contents, provides the groundwork by which the products of media are understood and appreciated, and that, in turn, the mundane is crucially shaped by these media products.

The essays in this issue are devoted to the exploration of the reciprocal relationships between the media and the mundane world. We called for papers that would examine how consumers in their everyday lives use the various products of the media and how particular features of ordinary society are envisioned by media. We have a set of important and exciting essays for your delectation. The methods used by the writers are indeed varied, as are the specific topics and settings in which they were examined. The writers are from diverse intellectual and cultural backgrounds and the perspectives and methodologies they apply reflect their divergences while the thematic interplay of their pieces provides an opportunity for the reader to gain a sense of the fullness and significance of mundane research.

Gerard J DeGroot challenges our faith in documentaries that convey to us an image of history as filled with drama and excitement. This highly accomplished historian emphasizes that the past was shaped more by the commonplace activities of ordinary people such as doing the laundry and coping with monotony than by great heroes or catastrophic events such as wars that are frequently viewed as driving forces in history. Will we ever view PBS documentaries with the same confidence or interest?

J. Alison Bryant and Jennings Bryant present data and analyses derived from their current edited book Television and the American Family (2nd edition, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001) to tell us what it is like ‘Living with an Invisible Family Medium.’ Their impressive accumulation of research findings reveals that television is an integral component of family systems. The Bryants dissect the everyday interactions of families and TV revealing the significance of such phenomena as the remote control, recording-playback devices, parental involvement in children’s TV viewing, and unrealistic portrayals of families on TV. Now kiss your TV goodnight, dear.

Using a small sample survey, Andrea McCourt and Jacki Fitzpatrick generate important discoveries about audience interest in particular types of media contents. Their research explores how viewers’ life situations influence their preferences for television programming. More specifically, they investigate why we tend to form certain kinds of social relationships with television characters. McCourt’s and Fitzpatrick’s work helps us to understand how television imagery interacts with our ordinary lives.

The routine challenges of working as a psychiatrist are made more difficult by distorted media portrayals according to Ronald Pies, himself a psychiatrist. Prospective patients applying ‘cinematic stereotypes’ may expect penetrating insight that unravels the mystery of their pain and instantly relieves them. They may pre-diagnose themselves or typecast their psychiatrist based on distorted depictions of mental phenomena and caregivers seen on the screen. They may well not appreciate the utter mundanity of the actual work of psychiatrists toiling mightily with patients to achieve small gains. Dr. Pies avows that he does not eat his patients.

Tatyana Kotzeva tells us why Bulgarian women enjoy watching Latin-American soap operas. According to Kotzeva, Bulgarian women appreciate the Latin-American soap operas as tools to help them construct a privatized life in the new social order. She discusses how the entranced viewers strive to understand newly experienced forms of femininity in relation to these soaps. The soaps encourage an emancipatory and self-assertive orientation among viewers filling the void left in their lives by the dissolution of statism. And, anyway, these programs are steamy.

We all love the Beatles. James MacFarlane Williams shows us why. The genius of the Beatles, he claims, is that they created music and lyrics that magnify our insight into and appreciation of mundane life. Lovers of Beatles music are comforted and sustained in their ordinary lives. Through their music, Williams tells us, we are able to conduct our lives with greater grace and dignity. ‘Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about.’

The power of media to promote a certain kind of mundane lifestyle associated with a fashion is explored by Kinga Talarowska-Kacprzak. She demonstrates how Japanese media created a fashion — ganguro — that became a major social trend affecting the everyday lives of many young people. She suggests that audiences of ganguro adherents, supporters and opponents created a dynamic that drove media to adopt a particular programming agenda that has impacted the broader Japanese cultural landscape. Although based on marketing strategy, media content related to the ordinary lives and concerns of ganguro youth and their families fill airtime and provide magazine copy.

Roland Seim thinks that censorship is a self-negating process. He shows how efforts by the German government to censor media products stimulated an active market for the banned material. Seim examines how censorship attracts some audiences by the very act of restriction. He suggests that the tedium of mundane living may provoke interest in banned material but that the search itself and the viewing of such material become routine, indicating the inescapability of the mundane.

As our ‘mundane manifesto’ for this issue, Chris Atton studies various forms of alternative media as mundane activities and clarifies implicitly how this journal itself is embedded in the mundane. (And I thought that our work was so extraordinary!) Atton explores how these alternative media operate within and through the everydayness of their creators arguing that they, in particular ‘perzines’, personal homepages , provide avenues for social participation in the creation, production and dissemination of the creators’ own banal experience, a topic worthy of close scrutiny on its own merit distinct from any notion of resistance or opposition.

Finally, with JMB 2.1, we announce our new section, Outburst, and issue our first ‘call for rants’. This section will feature shorter, timely essays about mundane affairs in the world today. We plan to publish one piece per month or so. I encourage you to check out the Outburst Submission Guidelines – it will be a fun section.

As editor of this special issue, I want to express my deepest gratitude to the group of anonymous reviewers who toiled assiduously over the many fine submissions offering insightful suggestions and culling the most appropriate pieces for inclusion in JMB 2.1, Media/Mundania. I want to single out by name Jamie O’Halloran for her wonderful work as proofreader, but if any errors remain, surely they are my responsibility. I surely cannot neglect my former student, Mark Kostabi, the extraordinary artist whose images have graced the cover pages of our last three issues. He has adroitly applied the essence of my lectures in introductory sociology to his art even though he never appeared to be listening in class. Mark always seemed preoccupied with his damned doodling! My fullest appreciation above all goes to the splendid contributors who uniformly showed patience and tolerance for this neophyte issue editor. It was certainly a pleasurable challenge to work with them to select and organize a coherent set of essays for your edification and enjoyment. I do hope that you are pleased with these results.

Editor’s Note: I have been working on nothing but this issue of JMB for the last few months, so I have no other scholarly accomplishments or activities to report. I have even had precious little time to see TV or movies and you might note that my media references above are out-of-date. When this issue is finally uploaded, I will definitely make up for lost time in front of a screen. Notice how fatigued I appear in the photo.

Author: Myron Orleans

Published inIssue 2.1Issues
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