Contextual Studies Lectures

Katie Durkin
15 min readJan 6, 2021

This post includes all of my notes and thoughts on my Contextual Studies lectures. The topics discussed are consumerism, gender discussion, global discourse, psychoanalysis, designing for the anthropocene and the hyper-connected world.


The definition of capitalism is “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state”. The first question raised in the lecture was whether capitalism works for us. The general consensus was no however there are some pros and cons. One point raised was that women are at a disadvantage as capitalism is set up to benefit mostly men (this is to be discussed in an upcoming lecture).

Consumerism is a social and economic order, encouraging people to buy goods and services in increasing amounts. With this comes the discussion of what is good value and whether you get what you pay for. Ally explained the story of Christopher Columbus bringing King Charles II a pineapple from one of his travels. Columbus brought it back as a gift as he had never seen a pineapple before and was impressed with his findings. Through giving it to a king, the pineapple became a symbol of value and wealth. As large commercial plantations were producing pineapples in large quantities in the 1800s, the value of the pineapple decreased. This ties in with the industrial revolution, how things became cheaper because they were being mass produced.

The definition of value and what gives something value differs depending on the individual. For example, practical things hold value to me, as do family photographs and my art supplies that allow me to be creative. Value to me is not necessarily how expensive something is.

“Nothing can have value without being an object of utility” and “Labour is the substance and the immanent measure of value” are both quotes from Karl Marx in 1867 (a German philosopher). This can be shown in an example of someone valuing their iPhone because of the labour that went into it, such as the miners retrieving the metal and the workers in China putting it together. To Marx, human labour was value. In the late 1800s, William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger and Leon Walras created the opposing theory of the subject theory of value. This is the belief that the value of commodities differs depending on the person and the time/position they are in. For example, while I am at home working, I can access water whenever I want to so to me water is ‘free’, whereas if I were stranded on an island with no access to water it would be priceless.

Another question raised in the lecture was ‘Do children have a better sense of value than adults?’. The answer to this is yes. Children’s brains have not been filled with the world of consumerism, they are not aware of where things come from and how they are made. For example, if you gave a child the option to play in a puddle or have a piece of gold, they will more than likely choose the puddle. Thus, explaining that the price is a pointless guide to value.

Commodity Fetishism is the idea that items have ‘magical’ qualities, brands sell products giving the audience the idea that their products will be life changing. This was explained in the Macklemore x Ryan Lewis song ‘Wings’. The song explains that when Macklemore was young he had the idea that a pair of Nike shoes would made him a superstar. Of course, he later found that this was incorrect as they were just a pair of shoes but as a young child the brand made him believe that their product was magical.

The early 1700s were described as the ‘first consumer revolution’. Wages were increased allowing normal families to have some disposable income which could be spent on luxuries. The purchase of these luxuries and the amount that families spent meant that businesses were able to grow. As more workshops opened to manufacture goods, more people could be employed and allowed wages to go up and this began the virtuous circle of economic growth.

Consumerism — Discussion Lecture

This lecture explored branding and falling in love with a brand. Lovemark is a marketing concept, published in the book ‘Lovemarks’ by Kevin Roberts, the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi. Within this book Roberts created the Love/Respect Axis which illustrates that brands have low love and high respect from their audiences; commodities have low love and low respect; fads have high love and low respect; while lovemarks have high love and high respect. An example of this is when you love something, for example a franchise/TV show/celebrity, you will be likely to buy a product if they collaborate with a brand that you already love. For example, Anne-Marie and Mabel were in a 2019 advertising Christmas campaign for JD Sports which made me go onto the website to see what new clothes had been brought out. I don’t particularly shop at JD, however seeing Annie-Marie and Mabel in brands such as Nike (a brand which I like) I wanted to see what products were on offer.

That strategy of using celebrities in an ad campaign is similar to another topic discussed in the lecture about creating ‘hype’. JD Sports using celebrities and companies on social media getting influencers to advertise a product adds to the hype. Consumers get excited about the fact that one of their favourite ‘celebrities’ has a product that they’re happy with, making others buy it thinking that it will have the same effect on them.

Buying happiness was also a topic of discussion. This was quite harrowing for me as it gave me a different perspective on advertisements I see all the time on the television. Advertising often play on our anxieties and fears, an example of this is cleaning products. These adverts usually involve a child playing on the floor, putting toys in their mouths or playing outside in the dirt; they then remind us of the bacteria that children are being exposed to and that their products can protect them from that.

This lecture gave me an insight into consumerism, I feel this topic is particularly interesting as I am fascinated in what makes people spend their money, particularly on branded products. I find it interesting how marketing works in terms of getting celebrities to entice different audiences, also how advertisements almost scaremonger people into buying their products.

Gender Discussion

This lecture gave an insight into the inequality that still exists in genders; this being with the pay gap, politics, the creative industry and more. In politics, women make up 20–25% of positions and in the creative industry women make up 36–37% of positions.

Although I believe the phrase “this is a man’s world” is still relevant, changes are being made. In 2017 in Saudi Arabia, women were allowed into football stadiums for the first time. They were previously seen as a man’s posession, they were not allowed into the football stadiums on their own. Facebook are also doing their part in the deconstruction of gender binary, offering 74 gender options from 2014 onwards and allowing users to choose their pronoun preference.

Negativity has been directed at women for thousands of years. Titian’s 1550 painting ‘The Fall of Man’ shows Eve persuading Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, women have been blamed for sin ever since. Even in today’s world words such as “sissy” has female connotations and is associated with “being a girl”, meaning you are weak. Whereas words such as “buddy” have male connotations and is generally said in a friendly manner. The same applies with men who are promiscuous, it is worn as a badge of honour and they are applauded for their actions of objectifying women. However if a woman were to behave in the same way she’d be called a “slut” and almost be made out as if she’s dirty.

This is where feminism comes into play. Feminism aims for equality of both sexes in a political, economic and social sense. It was organised on behalf of women’s rights and came in four waves. Firstly, the late 1800s/early 1900s in the UK, USA and Canada where women fought for their right to vote. Secondly, in the 1960/70s where feminist art was created, workplace inequality and sexism were identified, the movement of fighting for equal rights became stronger. The third wave of feminism was in the 1990s, where individualism was embraced and feminism was defined. This movement was led by those born in 1960/1970s (Generation X) as they were brought up in a world that fought for their rights. The fourth wave of feminism is happening right now, with the internet being the primary form of communication.

Casey Jenkins created a controversial piece of work in 2013 with ‘Casting off my womb’. In this piece she inserted wool into her vagina and knitted from it, blood would appear when she had been menstruating. Although I believe the intentions of this piece was good, I feel it is a step too far in terms of putting femininity in the spotlight. I am a stop believer in removing the taboo around periods but I don’t think putting your period blood into a piece of artwork is necessary to get this message across.

Global Discourse

Global Discourse discussed race, culture and displacement. The world we are living in is culturally diverse and complex, with 79.5 million living as refugees. Photographers such as Daniel Etter and Yannis Behrakis have captured the Refugee Crisis of 2016, capturing both the horror and relief.

Diaspora — the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland OR people who have spread or been dispersed from their homeland. Thousands of people flee their home countries to avoid war and conflict. However these people then have to rebuild their lives in a country with a different culture and lifestyle. Navi Kaur’s 2015 photograph ‘Budimom at the Supermarket’ captures this perfectly. Once removed from their homeland, people have a part of their life reduced to an aisle in the supermarket. This was especially thought-provoking for me as it is something that I have never thought about before. In a sense it proves the diversity of the world we live in, supermarkets know that the demand is there for a ‘world food aisle’ so they created them to target a wider market.

Institutional racism is racism that exists within political and social institutions. The Grenfell Tower Fire in June 2017 was included in the lecture. There were 72 victims in this horrific event yet no arrests were made, brushing off the situation as if it were not traumatising for everyone involved. It feels there is no coincidence that the building was filled with working-class families, with all victims being from a minority group and the lack of inquiry into their deaths.

This led onto discussing white privilege which I feel is a topic that I am widely aware of. Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, 1988. The essay discusses that as a white person, your race is widely represented in newspapers and on television, your body odour and shape is not associated to your face and choosing a “flesh” coloured plaster automatically includes your skin colour.


The psychoanalysis lecture discussed the theory and therapy that aims to treat mental disorders.

A key character is Sigmund Freud, a psychologist who had troubling and controversial theories but at the time spoke a lot of sense. Seeing his theories through a contemporary eye is rather uncomfortable and somewhat disturbing but his work is still spoke of today due to how influential it was at the time. He believed that we only do things for our pleasure but we must control how often we do this as it will otherwise lead to danger.

Freud broke down his theory into three parts, with the ID, the ego and the super ego. The ID is our basic ‘animal instincts’ which has principles of pleasure, meaning we do things purely to get pleasure out of them. The ego is the part of the brain that thinks as ‘I’/an individual. This makes us assess our actions, fighting between our animal instincts (the ID) and reality and knowing that our actions have consequences. The super ego is the conscience which interprets societal pressures and morals. For example, with a chocolate bar the id would eat as much chocolate until a person is fulfilled, the ego would eat maybe just a small bit of chocolate, while the super ego could think not to eat any chocolate if the person in question was on a diet. This theory I believe makes sense, most people using their ego and super ego to make decisions throughout their life.

Freud’s theories cover what society now calls ‘mommy/daddy issues’. Frued believed that adults who lacked a mother figure in the younger stages of their lives will want to fill that hole in their adult life, feeling the need to be ‘babied’ and protected (this being ‘mommy issues). The same would be with ‘daddy issues’ but for people who lacked a male role model in their younger years, someone who would protect and look after them; they then want to find someone that does that as an adult.

The above theories I believe are valid. However where Freud’s theories become disturbing is where he discusses children’s psychosexual stages, these being oral, anal, phallic, latency and genetical stages. Criticisms of this theory are that it is offensive and damaging for some groups of people as Freud believed that homosexuals were people who never got over the ‘anal’ phase of their psychosexual development.

The next stage of the lecture discussed John Bowlby’s Separation Anxiety theory, 1959. He believed that abandonment issues due to poor relationships in childhood can affect adult relationships. For example, needing a lot of attention or constantly living in fear of being left. This was broken down into three stages: secure attachment, anxious attachment and avoidant attachment.

Jacques Lacan was a psychoanalyst and philosopher (1901–1981), being most known for his ‘the mirror phase’ theory. As humans the only way we can communicate our ideas is through words, but often words are not enough. We are a bundle of thoughts and feelings and as adults we long for others to understand us in a deep and meaningful way. The idea of the mirror is that what we see does not always reflect how we are, what we’re thinking and how we are feeling as words are not enough for us to describe all of these things. Therefore we will quite often misunderstand people as their words may not be accurately representing what they are thinking and feeling.

Designing for the Anthropocene

This lecture was led by Fred Hubble.

The Anthropocene is the geological epoch (time at which an event occured that began a new time period or development) at which humans began to impact the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. This time period is an estimate/proposal as there is no known date at which this occurred. Also, the Anthropocene includes climate change but there are many others ways in which humans have impacted the Earth.

Anthropos = human
Cene = geological epoch

Photographs of animals wrapped up in litter are not an uncommon sight, but Justin Hofman’s 2017 photograph of a seahorse holding a cotton bud was particularly shocking for me. To think that such a small, innocent creature is being impacted by human actions is heartbreaking.

Brands began creating products made from recycled materials, for example, Home of Millican created bags that contain plastic bottles and supermarkets now sell bags made of recyclable materials that last longer than plastic ones.

Towards the end of the lecture games such as FarmVille and Pokemon Go were discussed. I feel FarmVille is an ironic game, the fact that humans destroy land to make way for crop farming, creating a new environment from an environment that had its own ecosystem. The world is in a cycle of destroying the natrual world to create land for foods that can naturally grow in the environments which we ruin. Also, the fact that FarmVille allows people to digitally participate in farming but few people would happily go and farm — creating a disconnection between humans and where their food comes from. Pokemon Go encourages people to go on adventures, looking for different Pokemon. Upon release its popularity was unreal, even as someone who didn’t particularly watch Pokemon when they were younger even I downloaded it to see what the hype was about. However, it encourages people to be seeing the natural world through a phone as the game involves walking around finding Pokemon nearby. Although it gets people outside, is it counter-productive in the sense that it gets people outside while attached to their mobile devices?

The Hyper-Connected World

The hyper-connected world is a world where there are more devices, more data and more interaction than ever before. Nicholas Mirzoeff describes it as “not just another form of mass media. This is the first universal medium”.

The hyper-connectivity of the world matters to visual communicators because it changes the way in which we communicate, it means that there are now more ways than every to communicate our designs and ideas. In 2015, every 2 minutes more photographs are taken than in the entire 1800s.

The creation of the internet differs from other forms of media as it offers active communication. Before the internet, to get a message across the world it could be printed and sent by mail. Today I can post something and within seconds it can be seen by people across the globe.

“This new revolution is arguable more profound than the previous ones… the digital media revolution affects all stages of communication (acquisition, storage, manipulation, distribution) and it affects all types of media — texts, images, moving images, sound and spatial constructions” Lev Manovich, 2001

Within the lecture we were introduced to the work of Marshall McLuhan who is believed to have predicted the internet. In the early 1960s when he came to light, televisions were a new part of every day life. The centre of his thinking was focused on how information is shared and communicated. We were shown an interview in which McLuhan was discussing this matter and he told a story of a filing cabinet. The story was of a person who was obsessed with the information within this filing cabinet, so much so they would drive back into town continuously to see the contents. McLuhan discussed how much easier it would be if this filing cabinet was accessible at home. This idea of a filing cabinet is the internet, constantly going back to see more except now we are able to access it from home at any time of the day, as much as we like.

The internet and advancing technology was given connotations of euphoria, as if a world full of technology would bring us a peace and happiness. Of course the digital age brought it’s own problems. Privacy is defined as “a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people” and became an issue as more people had access to the online world. The eBlaster was a monitoring software that recorded emails, web searches, instant chats and emailed all of this information to a set email address. The aim of this software was to protect children, from this perspective I understand the need to monitor these things but as an adult I feel you should have the freedoms to search for whatever you want and chat to who you want knowing the dangers of the internet. As someone who has grown up using the internet, the dangers of online chats are known and understood.

A problem with having access to the internet is the obsession with being on it constantly, especially social media and when working having the ability to have over 30 tabs open at one time. It can become overwhelming and distracting, your brain constantly jumping from one thing to the next. The Tabagotchi Chrome extension by Breather aims to reduce ‘Tab Anxiety’ by giving users a Tamagotchi (a pet) to look after while online. The Tamagotchi create gets upset when you have too many tabs open and is happy when there are few open. This can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed while also stopping people from getting too drawn into the internet and having too many things going on at one time.

Telepresence is existing in two places at once, this being enabled by communication technology or virtual reality. Ritzo ten Cate created a series of photographs in 2017 called ‘Caught in the App’. People were photographed as they were walking along the street looking at their phones. The purpose of the photographs was to highlight the addiction people have to their phones, not looking at what’s ahead of them, rather what is on the phone.

I believe that the hyper-connected world has its negatives and positives. I feel it successfully unites people and allows you to discover things that you would otherwise know nothing about. For example, I use Instagram to see work from designers all over the world whether they be less or more established, I use Facebook to connect with friends and family and I use Twitter to look at artwork, people’s opinions and political views. However, through bad experiences with the internet and my addiction to my phone I now know how and when to distance myself from it; I know my limits and when I need more time in the ‘real world’. I believe that as long as people are able to disconnect from the internet and not be sucked into the false Instagram life of lip fillers, travelling constantly and feeling the need for validation from strangers 24/7, the internet is not such a bad place. When looking at the right things you can become more educated and aware of world news which I never see as a bad thing, as long as it’s in small doses and not consuming everything you do.

“Individuals empowered to screen out material that does not conform to their existing preferences may form virtual cliques, insulate themselves from opposing points of view, and reinforce their biases. Internet users can seek out interactions with like-minded individuals who have similar values, and thus become less likely to trust important decisions to people whose values differ from their own” Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson, 1996