James Harvey, author of Nationalism in Contemporary Western European Cinema
The Humanities and Social Change
Humanities scholars exist at a time when the world appears to no longer want experts. This has in turn created the sense that it is not just scholars whose relevance is being questioned, but the discipline itself. As social media platforms continue to multiply the myriad ways of understanding images, the humanities disciplines demand a critical view of a world that is always being mediated with vested interests. To argue for the importance of the humanities today is to argue for no less than democracy; or, at least, democratic access to knowledge. For decades, Film and Media Studies has exemplified this commitment through its democratic ethos of interpretation and creativity. Its lessons are in urgent demand at times of social change. A Film or Media student is taught to doubt rhetoric and deconstruct how sounds and images are put together. Is this not a necessary skill at a time of post-truths, identity crises and social change?
Let’s take the Hollywood film industry, for instance – a routinely useful case for consideration. It is frequently assumed and propagated by many that Hollywood is, and always has been, corrupt and morally bankrupt. The level of depravity deemed tolerable has been reviewed in recent times, though, thanks to the escalation of social media campaigns. The hashtags #metoo and #oscarssowhite have penetrated the public consciousness to such an extent that the industry itself is being forced to change, in ways backed up by governments globally. These hashtags have themselves become subjected to harsh criticism. Backlashes using terms like “witch hunt” and “reverse racism” sprang quickly in opposition. Mainstream broadcast media and its social networking channels have promoted both lines of discourse, giving the sense of a broadly polarised debate, goading spectators into one of two camps. The urge to convene around a singular moral argument has the effect of classifying as treacherous anyone that strays from the party line. In time, the consensus rerouted, the hashtags ultimately become yet another sound in a cacophony of debates circulating on the web. This forestalling of dialogue has the effect of alienating those who might have otherwise engaged and leaves power in the hands of the few. In turn, who determines the meaning of these campaigns remains an elitist strategy. To the rest, the motivations are liquidised to the most simplistic moral messages and the energy for change dissipates.
Another useful example might be the reception for one of the most popular films of the past year, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Frances McDormand was critically praised for her portrayal of a fearless grieving mother, fighting for justice for her murdered daughter. The film also boasted a spectacular mise-en-scene, utilising the American Midwest in ways reminiscent of a Western classic. However, released amidst this furore, the film fell victim to a similar polarising rhetoric. The spotlight fell on Sam Rockwell’s violent and racist cop, Dixon, who survives a fire and subsequently changes his ways. The film has been seen to afford an indefensible “redemption narrative” to a racist cop that attacks women, at a time when such figures are still being protected by higher powers. An alternative perspective can be found in the wake of the Grenfell Tower atrocity. Campaigners drove their own three billboards around London in their own ongoing search for justice, appropriating the strategy for their own purposes. It is worth noting that those housed in the tower block were predominantly from ethnic minority backgrounds and, as such, have utilised the methods of a film that is supposedly ignorant of contemporary race politics, against a real racist social system.
Public responses are routinely in dialogue with (often divergent) media narratives. If we allow those restrictive narratives to lead the conversation, the conversation ends abruptly; allowing for some creative thinking has led to a form of public engagement in ways that could not have been foreseen by the film’s makers nor manufactured by state bodies. Such a conclusion is arrived at frequently in my edited collection, Nationalism in Contemporary Western European Cinema (2018). Contributors to this collection explore the many ways that national identity is being framed and reframed on screen today. At times of technological and social change, inquiry into cinema’s representations of nationalism has never been more urgent. In these times of mounting tensions and increasing hostilities to difference, we must consider the ways cultural artefacts and artistic texts feed into the wider social narrative.
These are just branches of a greater, historical knowledge project called the humanities. As sentiments towards knowing sour and funding cuts reflect wider apathy for education in many quarters, we are forced both to defend and develop our discipline. Challenging the way such social change is mediated is a good place to start.
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan
About the editor
James Harvey is Associate Lecturer in Film Studies at Anglia Ruskin University, UK. In addition to editing Nationalism in Contemporary Western European Cinema, he is also the author of Jacques Rancière and the Politics of Art Cinema (forthcoming).