OCA Level 3: Body of Work/Contextual Studies

Category: CS A3: Introduction and Chapter One (Draft)

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. 

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