Modern cities are awash in outdoor media. From billboards to towering TV screens to handmade protest signs, city-dwellers are constantly in the presence of social communication.
Joshua Neves spent a year exploring Beijing on foot, bike, and bus, immersing himself in these street-level media cultures. The experience shaped the project that would become his Ph.D. thesis and informs his approach to media studies. Neves joins the Brown faculty this fall as assistant professor of modern culture and media.
“China was where I first became interested in media and urbanism, the role that different media technologies play in shaping cities, and shaping how people think about development and globalization,” he said. “I became really interested in things like billboard culture, street piracy, and the growing use of non-domestic television — TVs on public transportation systems, railway platforms, or sidewalks. It became clear to me that there was important social communication going on in how these different technological forms and practices coexisted.”
Neves, who has a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the University of California–Santa Barbara, recently published an essay on his work in China in the journal Social Text, and he’s in the process of completing a book on development and political society in contemporary China, tentatively titled Faking Globalization.
He considers his work to merge the critical and textual foundations of film and media studies with more spatial and material approaches. He’s more interested in, as he puts it, the social lives of texts. “For me in terms of research, this has involved lots of things,” he said. “For example, one of the things I did in Beijing was work with a professional photographer just taking pictures of ambient screen culture in Beijing. We probably took about 10,000 photographs. What I learned has now become a key part of my research process.”
It’s more of an interpretive anthropology or what is sometimes called media ethnography, he says — a way of doing media studies using media. It’s an approach he plans to bring to the classroom. He’ll be teaching a class in the fall called “Outside Media.” “Students will explore various observational models and use cameras and sound recorders,” Neves said. “They’ll use this as a key part of their critical thinking and writing.”
The idea is to combine these observational approaches with the rich theoretical tradition for which Brown’s Department of Modern Culture and Media is known, Neves says. It’s a way of producing new datasets from which to create new theories. He notes that “the textures of our media landscape have changed a great deal in recent years. I think it is really important to engage these changing forms, spaces, and practices in site-specific ways.”
Neves plans to continue the international scope of his work. In addition to his book on China, he’s co-editing another book on Asian video culture. He hopes his work will help chart a course for media studies that does more than just compare media practices across cultures. He wants to globalize the theories applied to the discipline. “This means not simply thinking about how the non-West is ‘other’ to or a departure from the United States or the West, but how they can help us to rethink our theories in general.”