Saturday, 20 October 2007

More sale book purchases yesterday, this time from the Sydney Uni Union bookshop in Wentworth where several shelves'-worth of ex-library books are priced from one dollar to four.

I guess ex-library books are put on sale if nobody borrows them, so it's likely some of these will be boring. Two treat Milton and the Puritan revolution, when the British Commonwealth was established. Milton, a poet of astounding power and possessed of extraordinary visual sweep not dissimilar to modern computer graphics-generated landscapes, was also heavily invested in the reforming process, performing writing duties for the new regime. He died blind but used an amanuensis to complete later works.

Also here is an early book by Umberto Eco on semiotics (a field I would love to understand better). A curiously-titled tome by Barbara Harvey, Westminster Abbey and its Estates in the Middle Ages, and published by the venerable OUP, promises interesting reading. The chapter headings in another, The Liberation of American Literature, are: * The Colonial Complex, * The Puritan Myth, * The Southern Pattern, * From Revolution to Reaction, * The Frontier Force, * From Sectionalism to Nationalism, * Liberation. This promises good reading.

Further cogent ideas will surely be found in The Liberalization of American Protestantism, by Henry J. Pratt of Wayne State University (Detroit). Many of the books are dated in the sixties and seventies. Historiographical paradigms have shifted radically in the years since, so it's entirely possible that I will find those books irrelevant.

Following these purchases I went over to the Wooley Common Room for the launch of a new book by one of my lecturers (pic). Richard is unconventional and possibly very shy. He has worked as a journalist but now heads the public relations coursework program at Sydney Uni.

His thesis is that journalists do not treat international events correctly as they always aim to find a local 'angle' for any story. This, he holds, distorts the focus of most stories in the 'world news' section of newspapers because by imagining events through a local lens, the true nature of an overseas event loses its internal logic. Possibly the most accessible word would be 'trivialisation'.

Demonising non-Western countries as an oppositional 'other' is, he thinks, another result of this effect. Rather than focusing on what, in, say, Japan, is true and relevant for the Japanese, our media frames the issue using outmoded concepts. The method used, he avers, is at least three hundred years old and, thus, inadequate for our purposes. The implication is that this tendency is actually harmful because it corrupts relations between nation states.

I've started reading it and should finish by the end of the weekend. Richard is different from most media theorists in his use of accessible language and a propensity to give examples, so that even an unschooled reader can grasp the meaning. While canonical exponents such as Mayhew and Habermas provide me with tremendous satisfaction, I find it difficult to recycle the actual concepts they use, due to their lexical novelty and grammatical obtuseness.

Given the opportunity, I'd say that in Leon Mayhew's The New Public, the author seeks to characterise the modern public sphere as 'distorted' by the pervasive influence of professional public relations practitioners (aka 'spin doctors'). That's his thesis in a nutshell and Mayhew, though he died in 2000 in California, is a died-in-the-wool liberal.

Habermas' The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989, though published in German twenty years earlier), the primary point of reference for media theorists, grounds his ideas in an ideal vision of England in the 18th century. Especially toward the end of that period when individuals (the word would be applicable only at this time in its contemporary sense) congregated in coffee houses to discuss commerce and politics.

But Habermas' thesis breaks down under the most casual scrutiny. The franchise was extremely narrow (only men with a taxable income at a set level) and, in any case, women did not frequent coffee houses but would gather in social groups to do needlework together, or read aloud from a novel. I prefer a broad franchise even if the cost is the involvement of professional communicators.

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