In July 2016, a Masters student from the department, Walter Chan Mun Keet, attended the Bridging Gaps conference in Barcelona, organised by the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies. The conference, subtitled “What are the media, publicists, and celebrities selling?”, aims to discover solutions by investigating the link between celebrity status and activism. Here, taking on both roles of interviewer and interviewee, Walter interviews himself about his presentation and research interest areas.
What is your presentation about?
It’s basically about how we read media, in this case, social media. My focus is on finding alternative methods to read different sociologies of new media, through theory. On the one hand, I think social media has infiltrated our everyday activity to the point where we instinctively engage in the process without giving it much thought. And on the other hand, I think that social media has received flak (and rather unfairly so, in my opinion) for being a text too “shallow” or “banal” for analysis. Isn’t it the other way round? It’s this emergent technology at the forefront of our daily experience, and it keeps on changing at every single moment. In my opinion that qualifies it as an exciting new field of study, and I think we can all be enriched if we give it its due academic credit.
Okay, but if studying social media texts are as rewarding as you claim, how then would you analyse it? Give us one example of your method.
I think the one that really stuck with the people at the conference was the one about Kim Kardashian’s selfies. Yes, Kim Kardashian. The Queen of selfies. Anyway, if you think about why the selfie is such a common image on social media–doesn’t it have to do with the immediacy of the face? I think it performs a metonymic function–you instinctively recognise that there is another human being there, based on the face alone. And also, you can materially localise this sort of “instinct” within the brain–this particular portion in the fusiform gyrus is developed specially for facial perception.
So I try to read the selfie through one notable theory of the human face, by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. For him, the face-to-face encounter is, at its very core, ethical. And this sort of ethics, for Levinas at least, precedes ontology–that means it is already in play even before our mental conception of such an encounter. In other words, we are beckoned (i.e. we have no choice in this matter) into a contractual responsibility for the other. And I try to place this ethical demand into the context of the selfie, to rationalise why people have such strong emotional reactions (from awe to joy to hate) to selfies in general.
I see. So you’re very theory-driven, then?
Oh, definitely. I think one of the reasons why I love doing critical theory is because it’s not just a topic, but also a method. It’s crazy how many ways you can make sense of things.
Indeed. And besides Levinas, there’s another line of argument that theorises the female selfie as re-appropriating the male gaze.
Absolutely! There are also potential threads from film and aesthetic theory that one can choose to tug at, for alternative perspectives on theorising the selfie. I think it’s great. People are starting to take notice of the value of earlier critical thoughts in the domain of new media, and this illuminates different ways of thinking media and thinking through media. This is one #throwback that refreshes the old anew–both past and present can learn much from each other, through the exercise of critical theory.
Whoa whoa, was that a hashtag in your reply?
Yes. Am I cool now?
No. Do you have a favourite theorist? Or theory?
Hmm . . . . I don’t think I’d want to pick favourites, I think all of them are exciting in their own sort of way. For this conference presentation I tackle Levinas, Badiou and Derrida. And for my Honours thesis earlier this year, under A/P John Phillips, I did some Derrida and Jameson on the topic of the female superhero. And on and off I’ve worked on many others: Lacan, Deleuze, Barthes, Spivak, Bhabha, Bakhtin, Mulvey, Foucault, Butler, Irigaray, Althusser, Durkheim, Benjamin, McLuhan. All of them fascinate in their own way.
Hold up a second. Kim Kardashian, superheroes – you sure do pick some wacky examples for theoretical analysis.
Oh yes. Yes. Haha! I’m all about pop culture. I love watching films, I love graphic culture, I love listening to popular music, I love reading satirical social commentary. I guess that’s where my research interest lies–right smack at the intersection between pop culture and critical theory.