- The Professor as Critic: William O'Barr Interviews Sut Jhally
William M. O’Barr (Editor of A&SR) interviews Sut Jhally (Professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst). Professor Jhally has become one of advertising’s most outspoken critics through his web-site (www.sutjhally.com), his role as founder and executive director of The Media Educational Foundation (www.mediaed.org), and his teaching and public lectures about advertising. In this interview, Jhally explains how his role of professor and critic are interlinked and discusses his views about advertising and its role contemporary society. Jhally’s criticism is directed toward both the advertising industry (for the claims it makes) and the public (for not taking advertising seriously enough). Jhally discusses a wide variety of themes in contemporary advertising and the effects it has on consumers as well as his visions for social change and the future.
What do you hope to accomplish through your role as a cultural critic?
I really don’t see myself as a cultural critic. That’s not the way I normally define myself. I define myself as a teacher. Everything I do, everything I’ve done with the Medial Educational Foundation, and with my publishing, I see as an extension of my teaching role.
Then let me ask what you are trying to accomplish through your role as a teacher.
I believe that the role of teachers is to give students the tools they need to be able to negotiate a complex world and to give them the tools that they need to be in charge of that world — and to be active participants rather than passive recipients of other people’s actions. So what I always want to stress in teaching is that the world that we live in is a created world, that it’s been constructed by someone, and that there is no such thing as a “natural” version of the world. The world we live in did not fall fully-formed from heaven. It is always created by someone, and therefore the issue of power is what is central to how we analyze the world.
So how do you explain the construction of the world, that is, how it came to be how it is today, to your students?
That why I always insist on bring history into the discussion. History’s absolutely essential to understanding this. It helps us to see that the world in which we live — the world that seems normal to us — wasn’t always like that. It was created by specific institutions for specific ends. It was created with the motivations of specific individuals who had very specific things in mind.
Where does that history begin for you?
When I first started teaching, I used to go all the way back to the Stone Age in terms of looking at communication. If communication is always about power, if communication is always about constructing the world, and if communication is always about symbolic communication, then we have to look at the social and material conditions that are the determining aspect of that.
What is it that students need to know about communication in the Stone Age?
They need to know how language first started: Why do we have language? Language wasn’t always a part of the communication “vocabulary” of what we consider to be the ancestors of the human species. If language is the key element of the development of the human species from apes (and I think it is), and if the content of language is always arbitary, that is the result of social process and not given by nature, then the issue of power and communication is there right from our origins. And it’s locating communication in very concrete, everyday circumstances. Let’s not forget that humans developed language as a survival mechanism when we were driven out of the thinning forests of Africa and onto the flat savannas.
How do you get from there to now? What do you need to look at?
You do it by understanding that...