week 7

I really appreciated the articulations of cultural capital, habitus, and practices in this week’s readings and lectures — these are all concepts that I had felt in some way or another in my life, though I didn’t always know exactly how to articulate them. The timing seemed perfect too: while finishing the readings I selected for the midterm essay, I found two different ones that mentioned concepts from Bordieusian theory. 

One of the books I found on reality television as a genre mentioned cultural capital as interpreted by reality show audiences, who might judge reality show participants if they’re perceived to not have good taste; or who might negotiate their own viewing and enjoyment of the show as a “guilty pleasure,” indicating they know the show is culturally “bad,” to avoid being judged as having bad taste themselves. This also reminded me of a comment from Cameron’s lecture that resonated with me: the idea that “taste has a cruelty to it,” which I think is particularly visible in reality shows with a voyeuristic streak. Taking Hoarders as an example, there are ways to watch it solely based on neutral curiosity and empathy; maybe if you are a psychologist who might encounter people with hoarding disorders and want to learn how to best handle their needs. But in my own experience, I can’t help but think that the show is framed to elicit disgust and even a grotesque sense of relief (“thank god I’m not like that“), which in the end is cruel and demeaning to the people suffering from these conditions. There are other ways to portray these disorders without making the subjects so vulnerable to scorn — but maybe then the show would not be so entertaining, falling more towards a “proper” documentary than a “guilty pleasure” reality show and potentially losing both viewers and money in the process. On a similar note, the mention of habitus I found was in a book discussing a totally unrelated topic: immigration. It touched on the journalistic habitus in order to make a point about how media narratives about immigrants can be constructed through certain practices. From camera angles and color grading in photojournalism to the language used in headlines or laws (“alien” and “illegal” used as nouns particularly jump to mind), it’s easy to see how efficiently human beings can be dehumanized simply because they are not where they are supposed, or allowed, to be. As with the reality shows, these are deliberate choices — there are other words to describe people than “alien” — that are made for specific reasons (economic, political, and so on).

The idea of user personas as Bordieusian profiles was also interesting to me as a starting point of discussion on the practice. I understand the criticism of personas, but I find it hard to characterize them as inherently good or inherently bad. It’s definitely possible — and very easy — to create badly thought-out personas that serve little use other than shallow stereotypes retrofitted to your product. But to me, adding nuance and quirks that still let you recognize this person as part of larger groups (not just one single group, most importantly; people have dimensions to them, and what might appeal to them as part of one group might turn them off as part of another) can be a really important exercise in empathy. Of course, they’ll never be a universal, foolproof method; just one of many tools that have their time and place. 

Finally, the parts of Cameron’s lecture that focused on concepts like the teleo-affective quality of practice, as well as the felt sense of words, also spoke to me in their power to describe things that feel so hard to articulate. It’s impressive to think of our ability to sense what is a “good lunch” or to recognize a poster is “too blocky” without necessarily thinking about the details and characteristics that make up those definitions, and which ones are present in those specific lunch/poster instances. These are things that do come with practice, by seeing people use those words in certain context, by trying to apply them ourselves, and also by seeing how others react to our use of those words (I can definitely think of many times I’ve used jargon or slang wrong, and the embarrassment that followed helped me learn when and how to use them properly). Thinking about these concepts makes me more cognizant of jargon, and how I can communicate more effectively with audiences who may not have that specific background knowledge.