From Worst-Case Scenarios to Palliative Commodities: Mediating Risk in Popular Culture

Dr. Penelope Ironstone-Catterall
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Ulrich Beck's "Risk Society" thesis has been criticised for its conceptualization of news media as obsessed with the risk of accidents, natural disasters, epidemic and epizootic disease, technologies run amok, and so on. It is argued by some that this conceptualization in which news media play a crucial if problematic role in the social transformation in which risk becomes a central and defining concept of social, cultural and political life, fails to address the complexities of news production, dissemination and reception, giving it far too much pride of place in defining threats to public health and safety. New media are not, these critics argue, capable of bearing in any sustained way the demands of or responsibilities for risk communication. While it may be said that negotiations of risk are played out in news media, this is not the only domain in which the complex calculus of risk is played out. Beck's thesis must be supplemented through a sustained analysis of other cultural forms, forms that also play a significant role in the definition and dissemination of risk.

In this paper, I will explore the popular cultural mediation of risk by the "Worst-Case Scenarios" franchise, including its popular "survival handbooks", television program, and the more recent board game, in order to flesh out the significance of palliative commodities in addressing insecurity, risk and uncertainty. The handbooks, written by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht, cover topics such as "How to Survive a Fall onto Subway Tracks", "How to Escape from Killer Bees", "How to Deliver a Baby in a Taxicab", and "How to Control a Runaway Camel". The handbooks, television program, and board game all serve as alternative and popular modes of risk communication. They demonstrate how risk communication can and does take place in popular contexts and not only through "official" risk communicators in government, non-governmental organizations, and industry. Drawing on "worst-case scenarios" and "expert knowledges" of how to best be prepared for them, the franchise spectacularises risk while simultaneously showing how risk has been rendered quotidian, something that one can and must prepare for through means provided by commodity culture. It provides palliative commodities to address uncertainty. It highlights the suspicion cast on traditional risk communicators, while at the same time showing how the "consumer-citizen" is charged with responsibility for navigating in a world seemingly beset by risks.

Keywords: Risk Society; Risk Communication; Popular Culture; Commodity Culture; Worst-Case Scenarios; Survival Guides;
Stream: Media, Film Studies, Theatre, Communication
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Dr. Penelope Ironstone-Catterall

Assistant Professor, Department of Communication Studies Faculty of Arts, Wilfrid Laurier University

Dr Penelope Ironstone-Catterall is an interdisciplinary scholar with degrees in Directed Interdisciplinary Studies (B.A. Hons., Carleton University, 1991), Comparative Literary Studies (M.A., Carleton University, 1993), and Social and Political Thought (Ph.D., York University, 2001). Her central pedagogical and research interests concern the mechanisms deployed to resist difficult information – be it information regarding social difference or information concerning health and illness – and the social and political consequences of these resistances. More generally, her interests include health, medicine, and risk communication, queer theory and cultural production, identity and diversity, popular culture, cultural theory, cultural studies, and Canadian cultural identities and media. Dr Ironstone-Catterall is co-editing Wilderness and Storytelling: Indigenous Epic as North American Culture (forthcoming 2004/2005, Peter Lang) with Joe Sheridan of York University. This text draws together specialists in the fields of environmental studies, environmental education, and native studies to address questions of communication and education as they pertain to the environmental crisis. She has also edited a special issue of Space and Culture: An International Journal of Social Spaces (London: Sage, 2001) on "Love and Mourning" and published in the areas of social and cultural responses to HIV and AIDS, mourning and grief studies, feminist research methodology, and queer cultural production. Her current research focuses on risk communication in popular culture.

Ref: H05P0042