The Challenges (and Rewards) of Teaching Media Infrastructures through Popular Culture 

Joshua Synenko introduces the papers featured in the inaugural issue of the Student Voices section. In it, he explains the context for his course, Contemporary Topics in Media Studies, where he had his students focus on the relationships between media and urban geography with a particular focus on urban infrastructures and geomedia. He provides brief overviews of the student work featured in the section.

I am very pleased to be part of an initiative to showcase undergraduate student research through Mediapolis, and I’m equally pleased to offer readers a sampling of the undergraduate scholarship that we encourage at Trent University’s Department of Cultural Studies, which is home to a cross-disciplinary program in Media Studies. Each year, professors such as myself are invited to deliver a special topics course at the fourth-year level within the broad ambit of Media Studies. In my 2016 version, I offered a course exploring how popular culture can be used to examine critical infrastructures of the media city.

Convincing a room of undergraduates that they should care about, let alone be interested in learning about, infrastructures is challenging, to say the least. This is particularly the case since many of these students have grown accustomed to approaching media studies for their own purposes, if not as makers, then as hopeful employees of the media industries. Despite these circumstances—and to my own delight—my decision to foreground examples from popular culture proved to be indispensable for generating the level of interest I was seeking. It also turned out to be helpful for students who may have been struggling to digest the mysterious concoction of diverse histories, regional practices and schools of thought that “the popular” evokes.

Not surprisingly, urban infrastructures are a persistent but often unspoken theme throughout a wide range of popular cultural texts. In addressing this overt absence, my course sought to examine the proliferation of references to architecture and city streets within a breadth of (predominantly) Western literatures, the implied navigational themes that appear within genres of film (cf. film noir), the ongoing obsession with infrastructure in contemporary political discourse, the aestheticization of urban ruins and urban reconstruction projects, and, finally, the expressions of fortune and fear that tend to accompany new media technologies.

The course drew from novels and films in addition to both canonical and eclectic pairings of theoretical texts. Though we did have occasion to briefly explore classics in urban sociology (i.e. de Certeau, Lefebvre, Simmel, etc.), the first half of the course mainly focused on case studies within a broadly chronological framework. These included: Paris (1800s), Los Angeles (1940s), New York City (1970s), and Tokyo (1990s). Corresponding to these site-specific engagements, I invited students to explore a number of theoretical and historical debates. For instance, I asked students to consider whether the Benjaminian “dialectical image”1Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. was suitable for analyses of contemporary cities, whether development projects led to the construction of urban imaginaries as opposed to the other way around,2Mark Shiel. Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles. London: Reaktion Books, 2012. and whether terms like “cognitive mapping”3Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle. Cartographies of the Absolute. Alresford: Zero Books, 2015. and “the virtual”4Brian Massumi. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. can still be applied, as they were intended, in new and inventive ways.

Of course, infrastructures are also an integral part of geomedia, which I often describe to my students as a growing preoccupation aimed at reinventing (and critiquing) how contemporary cities take shape among architects, urban planners, engineers, sociologists and media scholars. Instead of developing an exhaustive plan of study that would be appropriate for graduate study, I geared the second half of my course by taking a thematic approach to geomedia scholarship, inviting students to become familiar with smart cities initiatives,5Rob Kitchin and County Kildare, “Data-driven, networked urbanism.” The Programmable City Working Paper 14 (2015): 1-26. GIS mapping,6Sébastien Caquard & William Cartwright. “Narrative Cartography: From Mapping Stories to the Narrative of Maps and Mapping.” The Cartographic Journal 51.2 (2014): 101-105. deep mapping,7Shannon Mattern. Deep Mapping the Media City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. studies into geolocation and urban behavior,8Jason Farman. Embodied Space and Locative Media. New York: Routledge, 2012. public assembly and urban screens,9Scott McQuire. Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016. infrastructure space,10Keller Easterling. Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, London: Verso, 2014. and the widening practice of geomediated cultural heritage.

My ultimate (and, I think, rather modest) hope for this seminar was to pique student interest in the diverse interactions between critical media scholarship and questions of urban geography, and to begin to think critically and constructively about the actors, motives and patterns that tend to be wrapped up in various urban development projects. Finally, my hope was to blend new topics and questions with existing knowledge and the approaches students have previously learned during their time at university.

By that criteria, the partnership with Mediapolis has taken up a slightly different mandate. By participating in this forum, students gained first-hand experience of the joys (and occasional bouts of ambivalence) that accompany the academic publishing process. I received seven submissions from a class of twenty-one. Four papers remain from the six that went through the peer review cycle. Anecdotally, the contributors have met this initiative with great enthusiasm, with several expressing their excitement at the prospect of gaining a wider audience for their work. On balance, this project has also resulted in creating a small collection of very strong undergraduate research papers:

In “Ruins, Representation and the Right to the City,” Spencer Cunningham provides a deft summary of the ongoing discussion surrounding the redevelopment of the City of Detroit, exploring the aesthetics (or, rather, the aestheticization) of the city’s urban ruins, and the contradictory forces of gentrification that continue into the present day.

In “Infrastructural Inequality and Digital Divides,” Kortnee Tilson navigates through the dense theoretical content of Manuel Castells’ work on networked societies, and provides an evaluation of his insights for questions of power, inequality and access in connection with digital infrastructures.

In “‘Familiar Strangers’ in the Age of Urban Computing,” Kendra Thompson returns to pioneering work by Eric Paolos as a way to evaluate how geolocative devices can help to mete out relationships between architecture and urban planning in an age of urban computing, and to raise specific question around intimacy, sociality and the sense of belonging to a city.

In “Urban Topographies of Global Imagination,” Josh White investigates the geographical dimensions of global governance and its disjunction from the imaginaries of global communion that appear in contemporary popular culture, including the Netflix series, Sense8. White’s analysis includes a critical examination of Michel Foucault’s “heterotopias.”


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