- Classroom Encounters:Dislocation, Globalization, and Cultural Knowledge
With so much media circulating internationally, along with the notion that we are all becoming "global citizens," it is easy to overestimate cultural transparency. Television program formats and franchises are traded and licensed for numerous and diverse markets. Where difference is notable, practices of localization aim to overcome the culturally specific markers of origination. Commercial media in a global marketplace strive for mobility, while individuals live in specific places, cultures, classes, and bodies. It is when we experience dislocation, move outside of our familiar context, that we most readily recognize the limits of cultural knowledge.
In 1999 I relocated from Los Angeles to Adelaide, South Australia, for a tenure-track position. The decision was not an easy one because, despite the "small planet" rhetoric, distance is more than a measure of length. But I had an idea what I was getting into, and I spoke the language, or so I thought. It took me several months before I understood all that was said by the guests on TV talk shows, and I remember the joy I felt when I realized that I got all the jokes and laughed at the appropriate time (rather than after a delay). In that first year, while prepping my television course, I began to recognize the gaps in my knowledge. My questions soon became research opportunities. Being displaced, dislocated, relocated—a migrant—has been intellectually productive and has brought together my research and teaching in ways that I could not have anticipated.
As a result of my first viewing of the annual Australian television awards show, "the Logies," I have developed a writing partnership with [End Page 91] my colleague John McConchie. Like the Emmys, the Logies seek to recognize and honor achievement in the TV industry, but the presentation has a history of doing so in a self-deprecating fashion. I was surprised that the show would make fun of what it was meant to celebrate, and so I began a dialogue with John which quickly became an essay. We demonstrated how the Logie Awards Show "articulates a series of tensions and contradictions that exist in the Australian broadcasting environment and which shape the ways in which television is able to contribute to a sense of national identity," particularly with respect to the relative size of Australia's market in the global context and the narration of national memory that TV produces.1
That project was driven by my need to better understand Australian television culture so that I could teach Australian Television rather than an "American" course that pretended cultural neutrality. Ten years later, developing a new first-year class in Media Histories, I looked across this gap from the perspective of my undergraduate students. In developing this new course I had to establish a flexible framework that would work efficiently for different combinations of staff and teaching teams. Working with John, I approached the subject as a series of key moments, movements, and manifestos. I thought synchronized-sound film was a worthy topic and decided to show The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927), because it has an iconic status and I like the film. As I tried to identify a reading that would suit the entry-level class, I found that most of the recent scholarship was engaged with the thesis of Michael Rogin's Blackface, White Noise.2 The problem here is that first-year Australian university students do not possess the depth of knowledge on either cultural or historical terms to take on Rogin's argument. Despite the common idea that the world knows America through its media, the history of US race policy, politics, and relations are not universally understood.
The more I read, the less convinced I was of Rogin's thesis and the more I wanted to write something that my students could access. My current project is an essay on The Jazz Singer that challenges what I see as essentialist foundations in Rogin's argument. I argue that the film utilizes key moments in the religious calendar and life cycle, which are acoustically marked in Judaic observance by song and musicality, to tell a story...