OCA Level 3: Body of Work/Contextual Studies

Category: CS Assignments

CS A3: Response to Tutor Feedback

After much wrestling and concern about my direction for CS, I finally seem to be hitting on something I can pursue. It was reassuring to hear in my tutorial that the process I have been going through, and concerns I have, are common for students at this point. It was also good to have confirmation that  focusing on bread as a commodity is an idea that has potential – arriving at this as the subject for my essay and as a conceit to explore the wider topic of consumerism is something that has suddenly given me a sense of purpose and direction. I thought the tutor notes summed this up effectively:

“Bread has long since shifted from a ‘food for the poor’ to something that is fetishised and overlaid with all kinds of class connotations, ones that seem to come through a haze of nostalgia for a pre-mass production era. Looking at how it is marketed, particularly in terms of its photographic representations, with references to the rustic and pastoral, could really help…open everything up.” (Conroy, 2022)

A key point made was that so far I had focused on theory and said very little about visual culture/photography – discussing this needs to be the focus of my essay and will also help with building my argument/thesis. As Andrew pointed out, photography, particularly in the digital age, is an essential tool in the representation of commodities, not only in terms of selling things through advertising and marketing, but also, as something that can challenge and critique.

In summary, a very motivating and focused tutorial that addressed my doubts helped me understand what I need to do to develop my dissertation and realise the ideas I have. It suddenly feels like things are coming together…

CS: A3 – Introduction and Chapter One (Draft)


Reflection:

Approach and process:

Writing an introduction and a single chapter for A3 is a practical way of making the tackling of the dissertation, but also flawed. I cannot help but consider I would have been better served trying to produce a full first draft rather than concentrate on these two sections, although I also concede that this would have been a daunting undertaking in itself.

My strategy for A3 has been to read, take notes and write in the hope that the position I want to take for this essay will reveal itself – something that has some success and many false starts/dead ends. The subject of consumerism is huge and unwieldy with a great deal of sources to potentially contend with (although many of these are dated which is frustrating.) I have identified three main areas that are potential jumping off points:

  • Commodity fetishism:

I find this idea originating from Marx compelling as it is a neat metaphor for the intangible power of commodities and leads into other concepts that I wish to discuss such as Debord’s Spectacle, Barthes’ notion of myth as well as semiotics, marketing, advertising, identity, ideology and everyday life. I chose to write about this subject first for precisely this reason – hoping it would organically develop onto the other subjects.

  • Semiotics/sign values of consumerism:

One of the comments made about A2 that has really stuck with me is how I will write an essay that incorporates and responds to the visual culture of consumerism rather than something that is a sociological study or has a ‘now for some visual stuff’ chapter. Increasingly I return to the thought that the visual language of consumerism is something that will be a significant cornerstone of my essay. 

For BoW I am currently interrogating various approaches, one of which is the way we encounter images of consumerism in the everyday world. I am interested in exploring the idea that we are both highly visually literate and unconsciously influenced by the huge amounts of visual culture that we are surrounded with and that this has the potential to shape our politics and world view in ways we not overtly aware of.

  • Identity, ideology and everyday life:

How the products we own shape our identities and telegraph this to others advances thoughts about commodity fetishism and has links to ideology and everyday life. These topics have the opportunity to challenge some of the simplistic interpretations of the consumer as mindless and manipulated. My position is that we have much more power as consumers than is commonly recognised while at the same time, one of the realities of late capitalism is that it is impossible to escape consumption as it is so entwined in our everyday life. 

Mark Fisher observed that “not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but…it is…impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (Fisher, 2009:2) This statement rings true because it strikes at the very heart of the issue that despite all that is wrong with the capitalist system, the promise of freedom and the potential for a better life combined with the fear that anything else would be worse is powerful.

Reading and Notetaking:

This is something I am still struggling with although I think I am starting to improve. The problem I have had is trying to be precise with my focus while still not fully understanding what I want to say in my essay which has meant I have needed to read widely and kept falling into the trap of spending time on sources that are interesting but not necessarily relevant. I am acutely aware that time is my greatest obstacle but I have as yet been unable to come up with a way to keep myself on track. It seems trite to mention, but I do so because it is a real obstacle for me, that it has been difficult to get in to the right ‘headspace’ to study. By their very nature, academic texts are often difficult and dare I say dry reads – the reality of life is that it is often difficult to switch off everything else and engage in study. Often I have found myself in the position of sitting down to read and finding my mind wandering and being distracted by external factors – I am not sure that there is a way around this, I simply note that it is a real impact.

Strategies I have started to employ that I hope will help:

  • Subject focus:

As described above, I have tried to focus my research into specific areas/subjects although I suspect these are still too far ranging and require further refinement.

  • Note taking/writing:

Until recently, I have treated reading, note taking and writing as separate processes which I have recognised as a mistake that has cost me a great deal of time. When it has come to writing I have found myself having to reread great sections of work to refamiliarise myself which has frustrated me greatly. Most of the time I am snatching an hour here and there to study which makes keeping momentum an issue. 

To combat both of these issues I have started writing at the same time as I am reading and have found that has immediately helped me understand sources more thoroughly and also help me get to grips with there relevance to what I want to say. Most importantly, this is helping when I come to incorporate these thoughts into the essay.

Thoughts on A3:

I feel (and hope) I am on the cusp of understanding where I want to go with my essay, but not quite there yet. The process of writing A3 has told me more about what not to do rather than resulting in a successful output in itself. For much of the time I have been frustrated that the writing has not come together more cohesively, I wonder if I have been too naïve believing that my direction and central thesis would present itself in an organic way – even now I feel this is all very vague. Perhaps a change of approach is necessary? Maybe I should go back to the drawing board with my hypothesis/essay question in order to set myself stricter boundaries?

I suspect that little, if any, of the work that I am presenting for this assignment will make it into my final draft. This is not something that particularly worries me as I would fully expect the essay to develop extensively from this point. I do need some help/cajoling/strong direction from the assignment tutorial however to push me forward.

A new direction?

As I finish this submission, I have arrived at a potential new direction that could either be the breakthrough I am looking for or a distraction that could take me further off piste. For BoW I am currently exploring different ways I can explore consumer and commodity culture, and have started a project about bread – a ubiquitous, everyday commodity – deceptively simple and full of complex connotations. Bread can be a mass produced loaf from a supermarket or a handmade, artisan sourdough from a craft bakery – either cheap and accessible or expensive and exclusive. Affordability, accessibility and class are all symbolically represented by bread and this could be an effective conceit to explore the topics of consumerism I have already identified while providing a more structured framework for me. The images I am currently working on could also be used to illustrate the essay.

Talking about this idea with my BoW tutor I was pointed towards a short book by Scott Cutler Shershow about bread and since reading the idea keeps coming back to me. This quote demonstrates in ways more eloquent than my own why the concept could have potential:

“bread – which “appears at first sight to be an extremely obvious, trivial thing” – can be shown to be “a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” The reader who has noticed I make this point by repurposing the famous opening lines of Karl Marx’s chapter in Capital on “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret” may take this as a precaution. For of course it is finally because bread does present itself, quite literally, as the master of so many – the “staff of life,” the ultimate staple commodity, an object marking the very line of survival itself – that bread as either an object or an idea has accumulated such overwhelming symbolic power. This is obviously why the word and image “bread” often signifies value itself, and refers metaphorically either to food in general, or to something like “livelihood,” in expressions such as “breadwinner,” “taking the bread out of his mouth,” and so forth. Similarly, both “bread” and “dough” have been used as slang words for money. And no wonder, because it is precisely in societies like ours, societies radically divided along lines of wealth and poverty, the bread becomes (as Peter Camporesi writes), “a polyvalent object on which life, death and dreams depend…the culminating point and instrument, real and symbolic, of existence itself.” (Shershow, 2016: 3-4)

When I read this passage, it immediately resonated as something I wanted to express myself about consumerism, commodities and how these are entrenched in all of our everyday existence. On the face of it, bread is so simple consisting of flour, yeast, water and salt, and yet, in order to make it truly accessible, many more ingredients must be added so each loaf can achieve consistency through production on an industrial scale and retain freshness on supermarket shelves. To make a true, simple loaf requires time and skill – both of which cost money and drive up cost making these ‘artisan’ loaves only available to those who can afford them and putting them out of reach of many. 

What next?

I feel like I am on the edge of making a breakthrough for CS, but need some help to be pushed in the right direction. Do I start again with the conceit of exploring bread as a way of discussing the wider concerns about consumerism that I am interested in pursuing? Is this an idea that has potential or a distraction? Is it acceptable to produce some visual work myself to illustrate the essay? If I don’t change direction, then how do I proceed from here? How do I bring the aspects of consumerism I have researched so far together as a cohesive argument? What is the question I want to answer?

Finishing this reflection has made me realise more than ever that I have reached a critical point in the course and that I need some help to make sense of where I need to go next. I am frustrated by the many false starts I have had so far while pragmatic that they have been a necessary part of the process and concerned that time to experiment is now at an end. Despite this, I feel a sense of enthusiasm for the bread concept that has been lacking so far and an intuition that this could be the stimulus that helps drive me forward.

Tutorial discussion points:

  • Reading:
    • Any further resource recommendations?
  • How can I refine my research question?
  • Notetaking:
    • Any tips?
  • Bread concept:
    • Does this have potential?

Bibliography:

Fisher, Mark. (2009) Capitalist Realism. Winchester: Zero Books.

Shershow, S.C. (2016) Bread. New York: Bloomsbury Academic. 

CS A2: Response to Tutor Feedback

Completing and moving on from the literature review is a huge relief and weight off my mind. I feel encouraged that I am on the right track and relieved that the assignment was well received despite my misgivings. It really feels now that CS is gaining momentum and that I am starting not only to get to grip with my topic of consumerism, but also beginning to understand how the dissertation will develop.

Here are a few further thoughts:

What is the ‘big moment’ that captures consumerism now?

Andrew has pointed me towards John Darwell’s work on Meadowhall, describing it as “a big ‘moment’ in the shift from a ‘heavy’ form of capitalism to one that is ostensibly lighter and more mobile and based on ‘information’ and consumption.” Reading this I was immediately struck that it is the uncertainty of the current economic position that interests me – where is the next shift? What will it be? The heavy industry that is described is long in the past and we are now in a position where the ‘temples of consumption’ such as Meadowhall and the Metro Centre seem threatened. The changes from shopping as a physical activity to one focused on leisure and entertainment has been challenged for some time by internet commerce, and this change has been accelerated by the Covid pandemic.

Use of visual examples:

I like the advice that I should reference “how art, culture and photography have documented/critiqued/responded to what [I] am looking at” throughout the essay rather than as a separate chapter. In ‘Capitalist Realism’, Mark Fisher uses cultural references brilliantly throughout to illustrate his points. This is a book I have come back to a number of times and while it may not be something I directly reference, Fisher’s style is something that I am sure will influence me.

The semiotics of consumption is also something that could be a major theme for both my essay and BoW.

CS A2: Literature Review


Reflection:

I have found the producing the literature review for A2 much more difficult than I should have. Ultimately I have produced an essay that I am not happy with, however, in the final process of completion I hope to have stumbled on a strategy about the way forward for my dissertation. 

Initially I intended to write about theories of everyday life – this was a subject that resonated with me during my early reading for CS in texts I was directed to by my tutor. After struggling trying to write A2 on this subject for some time, I eventually realised that I needed to refine my focus as the subject was simply too large to tackle within the confines of the course. (My thoughts about this are here.) Adapting my subject to consumerism/consumption came about organically as this was a theme I was starting to explore in BoW – I was excited that my contextual and practical work were starting to come together. I formulated a structure and plan and decided to concentrate on some key texts so I would not become side tracked. Unfortunately, without a clear idea of what I wanted to focus on in my extended essay, I struggled to keep to my plan – almost everything I read seemed to point me to another source that could be the key text for my research. This is perhaps the most important consideration point for me as I move to A3 and the dissertation proper – how to stop becoming side tracked and remain disciplined about what is important.

Points to note moving to A3:

  • Reading
    • It feels like I have amassed a pile of material/texts so far – most of which I have not been able to include in A2. I now need to be more disciplined to decide which ones will be of value for the dissertation, revisit these and discard any that are not of use. I need to be careful about becoming side tracked into potential areas that are interesting but not necessarily relevant – rereading with focus will help with this.
  • Note taking
    • I have been inconsistent with note taking so far and need to work harder on this, using note taking as a way of interrogating ideas through the process of writing about them. Better notes will also aid with writing the essay.
  • Write, review, rework, edit
    • This was advice from the CS tutorials with Ariadne Xenou I have been attending (see notes here and here.) There is a definite benefit to doing this and I need to be more disciplined to follow this through.
  • Take a position/have a focus
    • The main reason I have struggled with A2 is that I have not had a position to work from or question to ask. This is the main area of advice I want from my A2 tutorial, I still do not have a question or title for my essay, but going back to my sources with a stronger focus (my initial idea is to look at the tension between large chain businesses and small sole traders.) Throughout working on A2 I have looked back on other students literature reviews for inspiration and worried about the clarity they displayed and the fact that I have struggled to achieve this. With hindsight I now realise that this is because they have been very clear about the terms of reference they are investigating – something I have failed to set for myself.

Tutorial discussion points:

  • What texts are missing? Are there any recommendations?
  • Discussion about taking a position and essay title – any advice?
  • Thoughts on how to structure the essay.
  • Feedback on formatting and presentation of literature review – font, size, spacing, refencing etc.
  • Any useful resources to share?
  • Any examples of strong dissertations that can be shared?

CS A2 – A False Start?

In this post I want to reflect on the problems I have faced completing my literature review, but most importantly, to work out a way to put these to bed and move forward. It is worth looking back at the strategy I set out for A2 following my feedback for A1:

"Thinking towards the literature review for A2 my approach needs to be - read, think, re-read and refine - by doing this I am sure that the themes I wish to explore in my extended project will come into focus. It is also important to note that the literature review is only a stepping stone towards the final piece and that I can still change direction afterwards and add further sources as I identify them."

The statements here still seem sound and relevant – simply what has gone wrong is that I have failed to refine my subject enough and this has left me tied in knots as I have tried to start writing the essay. 

The subject I chose for my literature review was the everyday/everyday life. In my reading, this is something that struck a chord with me – that everyday experience can be simultaneously banal and extraordinary is a fascinating contradiction. Photographically, my work is very much based in the real world and looking at the unusual in everyday life, so pursuing this as a theme seemed to fit well. 

When I came to begin writing, things quickly became unstuck however. I had collected a number of sources to write about, thought about my essay structure, decided on key areas I would focus so I could attain the word count, and yet, I found it extremely difficult to get going and the harder I tried the more I felt blocked. 

After a couple of weeks of using all my spare time to focus on the essay I realised that I was faced with a choice – either plough on as I had been to put something (anything) together to hit the deadline I had agreed with my tutor, or, miss the deadline, take a step back and evaluate. Although I was initially hesitant to stop, as soon as I had I felt a release of tension that immediately convinced me it was the right decision. The main problem I realised was that I had failed to refine the subject of everyday life which meant I was writing without focus. Also, the subject for my BoW was finally starting to come into view (shopping/retail) I realised that changing the subject of my literature review to consumerism/consumption was the right course of action. This subject was something that featured in my research for the everyday so I would not be starting from scratch, however, I still needed to do a great deal of work to get back on track. So, here is the plan:

  • Agree the main texts I am going to look at
    • Keep to these and (try) not to be too distracted
    • Make better notes as I go
  • Start working on my draft essay straight away
    • Use the process of writing to try and make sense of the subject
  • Don’t try to cover everything
    • Signpost areas/texts that could be of further interest but don’t get bogged down with these
  • Set a timeline of no more than 4-6 weeks for completion

CS A1 – Response to Tutor Feedback

It was good to catch up with Andrew for this tutorial, and my mind is put at ease that it is the process of getting the work for CS underway by completing this assignment that has been the most important outcome. Despite this, I still feel frustrated that I have spent so much time on an essay that will not inform my dissertation, although I need to rationalise this train of thought and move on. The most surprising aspect of starting work on level 3 is how I have found having a blank canvas of opportunity to pursue has been quite paralysing – Andrew’s advice of ‘widen the research, narrow the focus’ is a key mantra to remember here. I am starting to feel more confident about where my research could be heading and themes to pursue are beginning to become apparent which is encouraging progress.

Thinking towards the literature review for A2 my approach needs to be – read, think, re-read and refine – by doing this I am sure that the themes I wish to explore in my extended project will come into focus. It is also important to note that the literature review is only a stepping stone towards the final piece and that I can still change direction afterwards and add further sources as I identify them.

The formative feedback from the tutorial (above) gives a good summary of both where I am and what actions I need to take going forward, so I will leave thoughts about this first assignment here and focus on the positive aspects that have come out of it rather than bemoan what could have been done differently.

CS A1

Self Reflection

The process of researching and writing this first essay has been much more difficult than anticipated, although I have quickly been able to reflect on why this is the case which will hopefully support my development through the course. The first obstacle I had to contend with is that I am still in the process of deciding what my Body of Work will be about so I am unable to base the essay on this. It is likely however, that my work will be centred in the real world, probably influenced by documentary, so I decided to focus my essay on the subject of photography and reality. My immediate concern was how I would be able to confine this subject within the small word count of 1000 words. I was conscious that I wanted to be able to choose a subject that fell under the umbrella of photography and reality, while being focused enough to be contained with the essay wordcount.

Approach:

Initial ideas I had as subjects for the essay were quite broad such as power relationships within photography, representations of the Other (particularly in terms of class) and the ethics of photography. I decided to approach research in an informal fashion, hoping that through reading a theme would emerge. I revisited some essays and books that had influenced me through my studies with OCA and began rereading and making notes. This was an enjoyable but fruitless approach which has resulted in the majority of material I have encountered being unused for the essay. The main issue here has been not having a working title or clear subject matter for the essay. As I started writing the essay, I had to spend some time rereading passages as the notes I had made were not necessarily relevant to what I had highlighted. This is something that could potentially be a major issue when I begin my dissertation, and looking forward, the literature review and question setting are going to be critical to my success in this area. 

Subject matter:

The choice of the FSA as the subject matter came as something of a surprise to me – I had envisaged discussing something much more contemporary. The decision was driven by pragmatism – I was not getting anywhere fast and needed to make progress. This assignment is about getting to grips with study and academic writing and I recognised it was important not to spend too much time procrastinating in order to move on with the course. Once I had decided on the frame of the subject matter I began to make much quicker progress reinforcing my view that understanding my research subjects will be critical as I work through the course. 

The essay:

For the essay I tried to keep my frame of reference tight, pairing down to a few key resources. Rereading, this is definitely a first draft that requires much work to improve. I suspect it is insufficiently academic in tone and although I have tried to give the essay a clear structure, my argument is unclear. I conclude the essay with an extended quote from John Tagg that seemed a fitting way to bring my discussion to an end, however, I am now  unconvinced that this is an appropriate way to finish. In the conclusion I also allude to themes of power, representation and ideology that were initially on my mind when I considered themes for the essay. There are other areas that I considered including such as theories of the gaze and semiotics but decided that bringing these in would complicate matters too much. I am going to have to become more comfortable in tackling these complex theoretical ideas while balancing this with including ideas that are relevant rather than attempting to show I have read difficult texts. On a technical level I hope that I have fulfilled the criteria required in terms of referencing and layout but recognise that this is an opportunity to gain feedback about this and amend accordingly.

Learnings:

Approaching level 3 the idea of being able to completely control my study was something I looked forward to. Having spent some time grappling with the course I recognise that this freedom is quite daunting and difficult to contend with. I feel I have been working hard but not really getting anywhere. I have tried to be disciplined and not focus on course exercises that are of interest but not going to advance my progress. Perhaps I should have been more focused on these however as a way of building up some momentum. How closely my Contextual Studies work needs to be aligned to my Body of Work is on my mind, perhaps too much. I am still in the process of experimenting with my BoW and I doubt the work I have done so far will form my final project, so again, this feels unformed and untethered. 

Despite the difficulty I have encountered with this first assignment, and my lack of satisfaction in what I have produced, this has still been a valuable exercise that I hope will help me gain some clearer and more efficient working practices going forward. 

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