Notes on Pumping Up the Volume in Communications Studies

Mike McConkey

As Harry would have put it: consider the state of communications studies. Influential journals such as the Canadian Journal of Communication consistently, issue after issue, overwhelmingly publish articles addressing the state of mediational technics. Whether focusing on its institutions, its tools or its messages, the articles have almost exclusively examined the technics of mediation. Indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking that mediation was an inherent, defining characteristic of human communications. Or, that the two were in fact synonymous. And all this, we might add, in a journal that has not been a significant publishing site for post-structuralists--with their explicit hostility to subjectivity.

The point is not to hand-wring over the theoretical lacuna of communication studies. It is, instead, to raise the issue of whether or not--in the age of bureaucratic capitalism, with the very future of our species at issue, not to mention the systematic marginalization of vast portions of our populations--communications studies has become an accomplice to the architect of doom.

While the darkness continues to gather around us, communications scholarship is a mere description of the very events it should be struggling to change. As these dark ages approach, the mere delineating of the contours of domination is supposed to be radical scholarship. And autonomous popular struggle is reduced to the coordinates of some heteronomous system, where the elegance of theoretical closure is applauded over the ethical ideals, and painful sacrifices of human subjects. Amid this bleakness, a commercial American movie about alienated teenagers, of all things, implores us to address these issues in the terms that can posit empowerment and emancipation as the end of scholarship.

Pump Up the Volume (hereafter PUTV ) is that most intriguing of cases--simultaneously artifact and interrogation. Apparently, identified as another teenage angst escapade--and marketed no differently than to reinforce this image--its very narrative shifts beneath our feet. What starts as an obvious high school rock-and-roll genre, by the end, resembles more a pre-1989 East European political thriller. There are many things in this vein that are of interest in the film, but I want to concentrate upon its relevance to communications studies.

The fundamental message of the film is that meaning and expression are terrains of political contestation fought out within the tension between mediational technics and intersubjectivity. The narrative opens upon the story of a teenage pirate radio operator, Mark Hunter. At first it appears to be relatively harmless fun--notwithstanding the perturbation of the local school officials--as he amuses his audience with rude humour, and jabs at the school, the country, and the times in which teenagers today find themselves living. As he says early in the film: "All the great themes have been used up...and turned into theme parks." (Already, concern about the bureaucratic mentality of mediational technics is peeking through.)

However, when Mark misjudges the sincerity of one of his listeners over the telephone, the teenager commits suicide, and issues of journalistic ethics come to the fore. The treatment here is interesting in itself, while it also helps structure the larger issue at hand. Despite attempts by the authorities to portray Mark--known only to his listeners by the on-air pseudonym, Happy Harry Hard-on--as irresponsible, it is evident that in his broadcast the evening following the suicide that he is attempting to deal with the issues responsibly--authentically and unconventionally, but responsibly. In contrast, we have frequent glimpses of Shep Sheppard and the crew of Channel 6 television news--the professional journalists, on whose behalf ultimately the state will later intervene--cynically and ruthlessly exploiting the sensational aspects of the story in the interest of good footage.

This leads the narrative into the issue of free expression--and this, ostensibly, becomes the guiding theme for the second half of the film, as the authorities try by various counter-communication technologies to track down and arrest the radio pirate. Mark finds out from television, while sitting at family dinner, that he has been charged with criminal solicitation in the suicide.

All this, however, points toward the real issues that are at the heart of PUTV: the necessary tension within communication between mediational technics and intersubjectivity; and the power relations implicit in this tension as played out in hegemonic control of communications--its media and codes--and the means of popular resistance and emancipation through evasion, appropriation, and transformation.

In terms of form, the film-maker (Allan Moyle is credited with writing and directing) indicates an awareness of, and dedication to, the meaningful deployment of symbols upon a contested terrain by decisively breaking with the crude violence and sexuality so typical of teen exploitation films--even as he includes on the sound track the music of those who have been subjected to censorship for their explicit treatment of just these matters. PUTV involves a gun-inflicted suicide, an apparent child assault, and an intense love scene. Despite being made acutely aware of, and sensitive to, the former two, however, we are never exposed to the actual violence. We do not need to be, as Moyle perhaps understands, it is the fact of the act that is humanly gripping; its graphic depiction would be only desensitizing, and thus dehumanizing. Similarly with the love scene, it is one of the most erotic and intense seen in mainstream film for years--without either of the principals removing their pants. Again, more graphic depiction would only dissolve the characters into sexual beings. If they are to be maintained as distinctly human characters, in the context of a social relationship, the film is better served by restraint in its revealing. The one kiss that transpires out of the intense engagement, in its social--as well as its personal--significance, is more powerful than the naked groping that passes as love scenes in the vast majority of mainstream American films.

Far more interesting than all this, though, is the actual content of the film. It touches upon an astonishing spectrum of important communications issues--all geared to emphasizing the importance of power relations within communicational practices. And, it accomplishes this, not in a discreet, fragmentary way, but in presenting these issues as cogent, coherent aspects of the narrative. The self-conscious awareness of the film-maker in this project is evident from the opening credits, as the camera scans across a radio console, and room it is in, providing the viewer with a semiotic orgy of symbols--instantly personal and social.

The publicity poster for PUTV also hints at these issues, even as it reflects a warranted reticence about the title. With the exception of the word "volume," the title is printed, at the bottom, in exactly the same type as two other phrases spaced out over the poster. The first, at the top, and second, in the middle, are respectively "Talk Hard," and "Steal the Air." While one might imagine good marketing reasons for avoiding these as potential titles, either would make more sense textually, and both give a better sense of the film's inherent emancipatory subversiveness.

"Hard" is how Mark talks on the air, as Harry; "talk" is what he is incapable of doing effectively in person, as Mark; "steal the air" is what Mark does as compensation for his inability, and what he will finally advocate all alienated teenagers do. Indeed, Mark is a person with much to say, but only capable of self-revealing expression in mediated forms. This is most decisively demonstrated in a crucial scene with Nora when, incapable of talking to her face-to-face, he turns to the radio console and goes on the air--where he can speak to her indirectly, in the context that allows him oral effectivity. The scene had been an intense discussion about his refusal to go on the air again. In addition to his radio pirating, we learn that Mark has also a talent for writing. Again mediated communication: the classic model in which the intersubjective defective seeks invisible expression through a disembodied voice, mimicking the very forces that cultivate the alienation at the root of the intersubjective inadequacy.

Mark's condition, however, is never presented as a merely personal disability. The same alienation that renders him interpersonally ineffective is also seen to afflict many of the other teenagers, though some others deal with it in different ways: through repression and various forms of compensation. The interesting thing is that, while on the air, Mark explicitly identifies mediational technics--institutional and technological--and its hegemonic codes as being central determinants in causing this pervasive sense of alienation.

The examples in the film of hegemonic encoding, threatening to disempower the teenagers through the re-interpretating-cum-disvaluing of their experience is effective, and often touching. One of the strongest examples occurs as Mark is talking on-air to a gay boy who is recounting the story of how a desired lover deceived and abused him. It is obvious, as the camera cuts to various teenagers listening-in, that the lesson being appreciated here is--as Mark expresses it at the time--that we all have the same vulnerabilities and needs. However, toward the end of the conversation, the camera cuts to one of the school officials, also listening-in, who says he is going to call the police because of this, what he calls, "pornography."

Later in the film, another student who, inspired by Mark, has made an obviously painful break with her parents' authority, shows up at an emergency PTA meeting to deny the radio pirate's complicity in inciting behaviour such as her own: The problems already existed; Harry only gave expression to them. On her way back out into the street she is accosted by a scrum of journalists and the first image on the screen is the face of Shep Sheppard, holding out his microphone, asking,"Are you prepared to do anything he says?" She has, obviously, just been re-encoded as a a cultist, and Happy Harry Hard-on might just as well be Charles Manson or Jimmy Jones.

It is this dominant power of hegemonic communications--delegitimizing their experience and thus silencing their voice--that is recognized as being at the root of the teenagers' alienation, and more particularly Mark's inability to talk. In seeing this tension so clearly acknowledged, the communication scholar's reflection is drawn to that stream of thought running through John Dewey, Harold Innis, and James Carey, emphasizing the capacity of spatially-binding communications to suffocate the public space in which oral discourse is nurtured, and out of which grows ethical and democratic sensibilities. (When Arthur Watts, from the FCC, explains to Shep Sheppard that unregulated radio would be the demise of democracy, anyone familiar with Innis's analysis of how the U.S. constitutional guarantee of a free press destroyed freedom of expression in the press cannot help a maudlin smile.) Without harping or preaching, PUTV expresses this tension wonderfully, as its central sub-plot.

Nowhere is this sub-plot evoked more poignantly than in Mark's initial impulse in responding to the suicide. Just before going on the air the next evening, he plays to himself Leonard Cohen's song "If it be your will," offering to capitulate in silence:

If it be your will, that I speak no more. And my voice be still, as it was before. I will speak no more. I shall abide until, I am spoken for, if it be your will.

And once going on-air, after a brief apology to the dead teenager, he appears to be saying he is going off the air permanently. In a sphere in which public discourse is out of the hands of the public, once confronted with danger or tragedy, the impulsive response is to turn to the one safe strategy: silence.

All this, however, actually sets up the most intriguing aspect of the film: an exploration of how even the banal location of a suburban high school in Arizona can become a site of communications resistance and emancipation. Mark begins by merely trying to transcend his intersubjective disability by appropriating the dominant means of communication--their media and symbols--as a channel for him to find a voice. The appropriation of the dominant media is obvious in his pirating of the air waves. More interesting, and apparently not obvious to everyone upon first viewing, is Mark's appropriation of the authority's own symbol.

The local high school--which is somewhat more tyrannical than average, and does turn out to be the site of a genuine scandal--is named after Hubert H. Humphrey. Humphrey, let us recall, was on of the more despicable characters in recent U.S. political history. He rose to power as the archetype of cold war liberalism, and while Vice-President under Lyndon Johnson he was a main apologist for the escalation of the U.S. war against the peasant societies of Vietnam. For many, though, including myself, Humphrey will be best remembered as the leading candidate at the Democratic Party Presidential Convention, in 1968, who did not raise a single word in protest as Chicago's police went on the rampage, in an assault-riot against the peace activists in the streets around the convention, submitting them to breathtaking acts of casual brutality. (This, incidentally, is a movie haunted by the 1960s.)

This view of Humphrey, of course, is not one held by mainstream America, where anyone who achieves relative success in the electoral game--without getting arrested--is deemed to be a person of great esteem. The naming of the school after him would seem to be simultaneously a celebration of his career, and an attempt to grace the school with some of that esteem. Drawn from this name is the school's logo: three H's--often, though not always--overlapping. It appears proudly displayed, most obviously on the school walls, and the back of the school jackets that some of the students wear.

However, by taking the on-air pseudonym, Happy Harry Hard-on, Mark appropriates the initials and re-encodes it as symbol. So that even as the school officials work furiously to eradicate the increasing evidence of the radio pirate's effect on the school population--from illicit cassette tapes to pervasive graffiti--the school's own logo has been re-encoded as a constant reminder of the very thing that is supposed to be eliminated. The triple H's as hegemonic symbol is appropriated as popular resistance.

If the focus of the film had been adolescent hero-worship, as one Toronto film reviewer has suggested, the forementioned developments, along with Mark's personal struggle to meet Nora would have been adequate to make a nevertheless intelligent movie. But PUTV certainly goes beyond this, exploring the spontaneity and creativity of the teenagers, as they transform the struggle over the radio pirate into a contestation of power in the school generally. As already suggested, graffiti emblematic of Happy Harry appears everywhere throughout the school, and frequently tapes of his broadcasts are suddenly playing in place of acceptable dance music in the alcove at lunch. And the bulletin board in the alcove, formerly a location for commodity exchange advertisements, soon becomes a virtual Chinese-style "Democracy Wall," as various forms of political expression begin to adorn it--soon overwhelming it. And while it was Mark who chose the on-air pseudonym that facilitated appropriation of the school's logo, he never explicitly acknowledges this correspondence. It is the students at Humphrey who turn the hegemonic symbol on its head: printing sheets of paper with the triple H's on it; wearing the sheets stuck to their backs; and by the final climax have spread the sheets out over just about every vehicle in sight.

Perhaps, though, the most interesting--if the most subtle--expression of the teenagers' appropriation of the radio pirate in their own self-empowerment is what they do not use. Early on in the film, Mark concludes one of his broadcasts on the state of teenage life generally with the claim, "Who cares, that's my motto." And yet, despite his explicit claiming of this as his motto--whether or not it truly reflects his feelings--the other teenagers never appropriate this as a slogan. Rather, it is statements he makes, phrases he uses, in passing that are appropriated--and even altered to serve--as emblem and slogan. "So be it," "the truth is a virus," and "talk hard," set in their context, are all subversive and empowering, as opposed to the inherently quietistic "who cares."

The relationship of the other teenagers to Happy Harry is not that of hero worship, but strategic appropriation--taking from him what they need to advance their own empowerment and emancipation. There are several instances of this increasing sense of empowerment in individual cases. Perhaps the most moving is Mazz Mazzilli's response to Principal Crestwood's rhetorical question, who'd believe anything you say?: after a painful pause, "Maybe Harry might." In this, Harry is becoming a place and a time--a force for change--more than a person, notwithstanding everyone's awareness of the forces that are aligning against him.

This is most clearly seen in the evening gatherings in front of the school. Initially, just a couple cars of teenagers are here, taking advantage of what is supposed to be the best reception of the pirate station's signal. As the nights elapse, and the plot thickens, the numbers of those present grow rapidly. By the final climatic night there is a massive gathering. The camera shifts quickly from image to image, revealing the intensity on the faces of so many people whose stories we have come to appreciate during the film: Mazz, Page, Luis, Donald, Cheryl.

The glimpses vary from the blunt burning of Crestwood in effigy, to the subtle glances between friends. Each instance speaks of individual stories, now embedded in a sense of collective belonging and meaning. The elation that errupts when Happy Harry finally takes the air for the last time is not the mindless joy of worshippers, but the exquisite sense of collective empowerment against the forces of domination. This is a community in the making--every glance and gesture reveals it. And, if its physical location is initially determined by radio reception--its symbolic significance is lost on no one. This might as well be Tiananmen Square.

In the end, though, as it began, this is Mark's story. His harmonizer damaged amid a chase to elude FCC trackers, in a rigged-up jeep, Mark is moved to go on the air without the protection of voice disguise when he sees the extent of the gathering in front of the school from high up on a hill. His final eloquent monologue is a stirring evocation of the values of the very '60s he had so disparaged just a couple of evenings earlier: "It begins with us. Not the politicians, the experts or the teachers. But with you and me--the ones who need it most."

What he is speaking of is the need for healing. This is a healing that, he acknowledges, he desperately needed and now feels "has finally begun," while still speaking in the microphone we see him turn to look at Nora--his recruited driver--as he says, "with you." We know he is speaking to Nora with the word "you," and yet it is not a deception that those listening below should interpret the "you" as referring to them. It was precisely the bold display of their emerging community that had inspired him to go on the air without his harmonizer, and offering the FCC trackers a signal from a perilous location in which escape was impossible.

In this sublime moment, the "you" brings together both the personal and the social dimensions of the story--returning us again to the tension between the alienation-breeding hegemony of mediational technics and the intersubjective regeneration of a space for authentic human relatedness. But, while the capacity to achieve romantic engagement is an important beginning, it is finally inadequate. This is revealed in the closing moments of the film.

Chased by police down the hill into the gathering in front of the school, Mark calls urgently for "every kid" to seize the air, to set up their own pirate stations and "keep the air alive." Right up to the final moment, even as he stands in the jeep--now immobile--fully exposed to the very people he couldn't talk to just hours before, he rants on imploring them to steal the air. Until, finally, his transmitter is disconnected. With his microphone powerless, so too is Mark's voice. As the camera shifts into slow motion, Mark falls into sullen silence, as the police take him and Nora down from the jeep and lead them away toward the paddy wagon.

Even as the surrounding teenagers shout out encouragements, it is painfully obvious that appropriation of the dominant media is no substitute for effective intersubjectivity, and romantic engagement--beginning though it is--falls tragically short. As Mark approaches and mounts the steps of the wagon, the slow motion accentuates the silence that engulfs him. Just as he almost embraced this silence following the suicide, capitulating to the hegemony of mediational technics, so the authorities seem to have the final victory, marching him away in silence. "It'll be interesting to see how hard he is then," said Arthur Watts, as he sent the FCC trackers off to catch the pirate, when Harry went on the air earlier that evening. Silence is the fate of those who defy the dominant order's communicational hegemony.

This movie, though, has not brought us this far along to end in rank cynicism, and upon such a disempowering note. Small gesture though it is, in the final instance, just as he is about to disappear into the wagon, the camera shifts to regular speed, Mark looks out over the crowd, and declares,"talk hard!" They will not have him in silence.

And with those words he shatters the spell, even as the police shove him in the wagon. The very sound of his voice is the embryotic act of self-assertion. Though it was the circumstances of Mark's response to his own problems that fed the growth of the teenagers' emergent community, it took those words to make him a genuine member and agent of that community.

This is the bottom-line message of PUTV, defying the domination of mediational technics, including even the clever appropriation of hegemonic symbols, may be valuable means of resistance in an oppressive environment. The means of emancipation, though, that allow the emergence of ethical world views, democratic political cultures, and self-empowered communities, lies not in these acts of resistance, but in the intersubjective creation of an authentic and vital public sphere of oral discourse.

Pump Up The Volume is a movie for our age. Amid all the PR chatter about our glorious communications revolution, it is a sober voice--reminding us not only about the nature of power relations in any communicational practice, but much more importantly, about the destructive potential in these ritually celebrated mediational technics for the intersubjective roots of human communication. Who would have ever thought we might have found such an articulate ally in mainstream American cinema. It is a shame that we are so woefully inadequately prepared to participate in this alliance.

It is past time that communications scholarship grasped, and came to terms with, the elementary and essential truths that this film illustrates. For, in this alone lies the capacity for scholarship to achieve a voice with which to speak about the disappearance of the human world in the hands of bureaucratic capitalism, and all the "information" and "communication" ideologies that envelop it. And it is only this voice--steeped in reasoning, but bolstered by feeling--that may yet pierce the silence of the gathering darkness.



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