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Category: my book reviews

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Monday, May 2nd, 2011

So, on Friday I wanted to blog a little about Elihu Katz & Daniel Dayan’s book Media Events – the live broadcasting of history, since that would have been something tied in perfectly with the royal wedding taking place in England. Instead, I found out that my copy of Media Events has gone missing from my media studies bookshelves, and a 30-minute investigation showed that it’s not simply been misfiled into a different subject area (yes, I sort my books by subject areas, rather than by authors – I am bad at remembering names, so it makes for a much better system than running an a-to-z [Hey, Mr. Atoz!] shelving system across two different rooms) but has, in fact, gone missing. I suspect I lent it to someone and forgot all about it (I often do).

Thankfully, at least part of it is available on google books, so I can offer you a (critical) reading recommendation peppered with some quotes (if maybe not the most central ones, filtered through my five colour marking system :-) ).

Katz & Dayan, Media Events – what is the book about?

Media Events concerns itself with what Katz and Dayan call “the festive viewing of television,” with “Contests, Conquests, and Coronations” (1), that are “live and remote, on the one hand, and interrupt[ive] but preplanned, on the other” (7).

Thus, live and remote excludes a) studio programs that might be broadcast live, but that are not happening in a location remote from the studio (news programs, chat shows, …), and b) remotely filmed but pre-recorded television series, documentaries and shows like Roots or The 10’000 Day War or … .

Thus, it is about the live broadcasting of remote (filmed outside the studio) events on television, but about premediated events instead of spontaneous events. Events that have been scheduled in advance and that interrupt the normal scheduling of television stations, rather than sudden occurrences. Thus, both the Olympic Games and the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton fall under the scope of Katz and Dayan’s definition, whereas a) the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia upon re-entry in 2003 does not (a sudden, not a preplanned event) or b) a weekly talk show taking place on top of a mountain (remote, preplanned, but not interruptive of the normal programming since it is a regular occurence) do not.

Kazt and Dayan themselves sum this up as: “our corpus is limited to ceremonial occassions,” and thus is follows that “these broadcast events are presented with reverence and ceremony” (7) and that “this book is an attempt to bring the anthropology of ceremony to bear on the process of mass communication.” (1f)

Why study media events? Katz and Dayan give a number of reasons, amongst which are the following: “media events […] create their own constituencies” (15) … “have the power to declare a holiday, thus to play a part in the civil religion” (16) … “certain events have an intrinsically liberating function, ideologically speaking; they serve a transformative function. However hegemonially sponsored, and however affirmatively read, they invite reexamiation of the status quo and are a reminder that reality falls short of society’s norm” (20) … “the rhetoric of media events is instructive, too, for what it reveals not only about the difference between democratic and totalitarian societies, but also about the difference between journalism and social science, and between popular and academic history” (21).

In their book, Katz and Dayan take a look at how these media events are created and negotiated, as well as at their meaning for a feeling of societal union and the conditions under which media persuasion might be effective (222), the “transformative functions” that media events have and that help shape public perceptions and political responses.

What I’m critical of:

For me, Katz and Dayan are a tad too uncritical and indescriminate in the theories of the relationship between ritual, culture and society that they use – the view that ceremonial performance is mainly used to express consensus and to accomplish social integration can (and ought) certainly to be questioned (in lieu of a view of society as structured by inequalities and power relations maybe), and viewing broadcasting institutions as independent from governments and political power is also a problematic point.

Why then read the book?

I first encountered Media Events early in my student days and for me, this has been one of the cornerstone readings of my introduction to media studies (we’re all shaped by the things we’re told to think about). It’s well written and precise, yet understandable, and while in-depth knowledge of media studies certainly helps one field references to Benjamin, Weber, Leví-Strauss, Fiske, Raymond Williams &c, it isn’t a prerequisite of reading – and enjoying – the book. And while there are points to view critically and while it has undoubledly aged a little – it was published in 1994, well before the internet-as-we-know it – it is still a fascinating insight into the creation – and effects – of media events, and something that might just make you watch television a little differently than you do right now, or ponder the television (and media studies) of the 1990s a little differently, at any rate. (We’ve come a way since then!)

Juggle says: “Analyzing such public spectacles as the Olympic games, the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, John F. Kennedy’s funeral, the moon landing, and Pope John Paul II’s visits to Poland, they offer an ethnography of how media events are scripted, negotiated, performed, celebrated, shamanized, and reviewed.” (Or, as the Luhmannista in me wants to add – while it does not tell you what people think about an issue, it might just tell you what issues people are thinking about, and why.)

If you want to know more:

Dayan, Daniel and Elihu Katz. Media Events. The Live Broadcasting of History. Harvard University Press. Harvard: 1994.

Excerpts on Google Books