About Armond R. Towns, Ph.D.: Armond R. Towns is Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. An influential scholar of the relationships between media, race, and culture, Dr. Towns’ work has been published in important communication journals like Women’s Studies in Communication and Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies, as well as in Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, and as chapters in a number of edited collections. His book, On Black Media Philosophy, was published in 2022 by the University of California Press.
Dr. Towns is also cofounder and inaugural editor of Communication and Race, the newest journal from the National Communication Association, which will premier in 2024. His public scholarship includes “Black Studies is For Everyone,” which was published by the Oxford University Press Blog. Prior to teaching at Carleton University, Dr. Towns was Assistant Professor at the University of Denver. He earned his Ph.D. from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his M.A. from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, both in communication studies. He received his B.A. at UNC Greensboro from the Department of Media Studies.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in bringing together media studies– and more specifically media philosophy — with cultural studies, and Black studies as ways of critically examining race, racism, and colonialism?
[Dr. Armond Towns] My scholarly interests are rooted in my training in British cultural studies, which has a long concern with the study of media and communication. This is part of my training from graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill. Being a student there, there’s a strong emphasis in the department on the areas of rhetoric, cultural studies, and media studies. I gravitated toward the cultural studies and media studies side of the department, but I always had a healthy respect for rhetoric as well.
There were benefits and drawbacks to that decision, where, on the one hand, I was well prepared in cultural studies thought, which led me to the media philosophy of people like Marshall McLuhan, who had connections to cultural studies through being a frequent target of scholars like Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, and also through his own studies at Cambridge. On the other hand, that training at Chapel Hill also limited my reading of the field’s discourse around media, rhetoric, and communication studies.
I really delved into the British cultural studies approach to media and communication studies, which meant I investigated questions of the development of the New Left in the UK, the development of which, in part, lay in response to the failures of Stalinism and the Frankfurt School and an attempt to theorize what you could call a more holistic and less nationalistic socialism. In North America around the same time, you also have the parallel and related movement to the New Left that we now call Black studies, which began to cohere as a discipline on college campuses in the late 1960s.
Going back to that earlier work, you start to see that Black studies scholarship will come from a similar concern as the New Left, which is basically how do we build a better world — one not reducible to the imperialism of the US or the USSR. Black people were saying we don’t need anyone to patronizingly teach us socialism. We know socialism, even if we don’t have that word to describe it. It would be a white world that would reduce Black studies to race studies. Black studies is, in part, an epistemological rupture [a rupture in dominant forms of knowledge] of Western academia and society, one that I would argue has economic, political, and social ramifications which could point us toward a better world. In that way Black studies and cultural studies meet in my work. They intervene in our present conjuncture to create a different kind of world at a large scale.
Some of this is my training, but much of it is my postgraduate learning and my postgraduate conversations with friends in cultural studies and Black studies. There’s only so much you can do in two or three years of graduate training. You have to keep going even beyond those graduate classes.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For those who might be less familiar with these intersecting areas of study, could you briefly introduce what “media philosophy” is, and how you understand its relationship to cultural studies and Black studies as expressed in your work? How do you view the importance of these fields of study within the communication discipline?
[Dr. Armond Towns] In part, I build my theory of media philosophy off a scholar I admire at the University of British Columbia named Richard Cavell, who helped me to really reframe my reading of [Marshall] McLuhan as a media philosopher. This, for Cavell, meant that McLuhan was interested in the way that media not merely represent things but also serve as stores of knowledge. They transform our conceptions of ourselves.
This framing from Cavell of McLuhan also opens up a lot more questions for me. Whose knowledge? Whose conception are we really talking about here? In general, when we talk about knowledge and self-conceptions are we assuming a lot?
The importance of these areas of study to communication studies is pretty simple. What Black studies and cultural studies have taught me is that Europe and North America have no monopoly on knowledge. They have no monopoly on how we conceive of ourselves. There are other knowledges and other self-conceptions that are overlooked in some of these dominant media philosophy readings informed by McLuhan.
Now, importantly, we’re talking at a level that I think our field of media and communication studies generally overlooked, especially when it comes to theorizing Blackness in the field. Rather than saying what forms of representation do we see of Black people in, for example, the Real Housewives of Atlanta, we’re talking about how the field itself comes to define knowledge and existence, and how those definitions cannot contain Blackness. This is not to frown on anybody who wants to study the Real Housewives of Atlanta or any television show, movie, or artifact. It’s instead to say that there are microlevels of analysis and I am, through Black studies and cultural studies, more interested in a macro level analysis.
How do we turn our attention elsewhere, toward other epistemological frameworks [ways of knowing], to push the field toward a different conversation about what knowledge is and who we are as people. As it stands, I think we remain wedded to this post-Enlightenment liberal subject in our field concerned with representation, whether that’s political forms of representation or even media representations. This has implications for the way we think about knowledge. In many ways Black studies and cultural studies lay a different framework than what we find in discussions of Blackness in media and communication studies. They generally ask how we recognize the limits of the liberal, bourgeois, revolutionary subject and call for something else, call for something different. That’s how I bring all those areas together.
[MastersinCommunications.com] A key argument that spans many of your publications, for instance, “Toward a Black Media Philosophy,” and “Black ‘Matter’ Lives,” is that the Black body, as a construct of Western colonialism and white supremacy, ought to be understood as technological — as a medium or as matter. Could you unpack this argument for our readers?
[Dr. Armond Towns] This framework allows us to see the inability of many white scholars to let the Negro go, or let the Black body go. In other words, for the post-Enlightenment intellectual, there’s been a need for the Negro of white people’s imaginations, not of Black people’s own self-creations. If we take McLuhan as an example, he argues for a distinction between tribal media (or largely oral forms of media) and detribal media (or phoneticism, the Gutenberg printing press, and what he calls the mechanical).
When he makes these distinctions, he generally does so by building off the assumption that Africa is one general model of the tribal. This is an Africa that has nothing to do with the continent or even the continent’s people. It is an invention. The people of Africa are constructs, and what we find in that construct, historically, is what Europe has called nature: these untapped material resources, both human and otherwise, that can essentially be mobilized toward the bottom line of European and North American imperial, anthropocentric desires.
I hope that it’s evident that this way of thinking about Africa and its diverse inhabitants is a European way of thinking. It’s a generalized theorization by the colonial project, which actually exceeds Africa. It can be found in different European colonial contexts, in different ways to different effects. For my purposes, I focus on Euro-American approaches to Blackness, so Africa becomes a central location for me to study.
In this European imagination of Africa, due to the demands for a population to be enslaved in the New World, there is a population that could be defined as Christ deniers as Sylvia Wynter argues. The natural resources of Africa fully extend into the continent’s inhabitants. With the dying of religion as a major organizer of knowledge in the 18th and 19th century, all of a sudden these same Africans were no longer merely Christ deniers, but they were biologically designed to be slaves. This is something Wendy [Hui Kyong] Chun argues: in this post-Darwinian moment, those enslaved people were now nature, and through their enslavement they were turned into objects that we racially locate as the Negro.
In my book, [On Black Media Philosophy] and in my articles, I argue that this description of the Negro mirrors how people have defined media. If we look at scholars like Jussi Parikka, we see how the materials in our media devices are pulled from nature through labor and turned into media technologies that can go to the market at the whims, not of the technology itself or of the worker, but of the capitalist. We are not talking about people at this level, we’re talking about metaphors, or about media, as I would say.
The Negro is a medium that illustrates how far the detribal, to take McLuhan’s term back, has come out of tribalism – to see how far or how much more developed Europeans are in comparison to the rest of the world. What this means for me is that at the heart of the media philosophy argument lies the Negro even when the Negro is not talked about at all. My argument is that McLuhan had quite a bit to say about race even when he wasn’t talking about race or colonialism in any explicit way.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What does this reframing help us see and how does it lead us to see struggles against white supremacy and colonialism differently?
[Dr. Armond Towns] We could say that it helps us to understand that the Western world is not the only world. In order to get there, we have to understand what that world is and what it imagines people to be. In general, it imagines people of color especially as passive objects that can be mobilized toward its own bottom line. We can see this through the transformations in capital. The shift to neoliberalism, which then starts to expand the Black middle class in the US, is not designed to improve Black people’s lives. It is actually designed to maintain the political and economic power at the top. Now rich and middle-class Black people can be weaponized as examples that everyone has a fair shot. Through this process we can say that, generally, what we’re calling Europe and North America has viewed Black people as objects, what I’m calling media, that can be used to improve the bottom line of a very specific group of people.
If we understand that, we can also understand how such a description of Black people is irrelevant for Black people’s own lives, and irrelevant for understanding Black people’s knowledge and understandings of ourselves. From there, we have to ask what are those different types of knowledges, what are those different understandings and how can they be mobilized against the construction of the Negro and the Black body as a medium?
In many ways, this is the history of Black studies for me. This is the history of the Black freedom struggle. It works toward the rupture of the Black body as medium, a rupture of the Negro under the white self-conception of that word.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You recently published the book On Black Media Philosophy, which expounds on these ideas through an exploration of what you call the “technological Darwinism” underwriting the history of media philosophy and its role in sustaining a conception of the human as white, Western, male, and middle-classed. Could you explore this idea and the importance it holds for understanding both race and media, as discussed in your book?
[Dr. Armond Towns] If we return to McLuhan’s discussion of tribal and detribal media, McLuhan adds to that “retribal media,” which for McLuhan is the electronic media environment of the late 19th and 20th centuries. This movement, from the tribal, to detribal, to retribal, suggests a social Darwinian logic. This makes sense, because McLuhan has a personally stated admiration for the British-Kenyan psychiatrist, J.C. Carothers, who in the early 20th century wrote about both Kenyans and Black people in the United States and said, essentially, that we [Black people] were inherently tribal. We were always kind of stuck in a tribal state, as opposed to Europeans who were detribal.
Carothers’s basic argument was that, even if you give the African the tools of European detribalization, there will always be a kind of tribalism inside of them. This is where McLuhan gets the idea of tribal, detribal, and retribal – from an actual colonizer, from a social scientist who is influenced by the early 20th-century normalization of social Darwinian thought. This fits into the European and North American idea that white people were once tribal and, through their own will and determination, were able to move out of that tribalism and become detribalized. The Kenyans, and also the African Americans, reflect that EuroAmerican past, in this point of view. The Black people are tribal and they show “us” where we once were.
You see this in the linear temporal logic of development which would be at the heart of the social Darwinian concept of race. This is the idea that some social groups are essentially just behind Europeans or North Americans and those groups provide us with insights into where white Americans and Europeans were in the distant past. I argue that this makes a direct link between McLuhan’s media philosophy and social Darwinian thought.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In 2020, you published a blog post entitled “Black Studies is for Everyone,” in which you argue for the institutionalization of Black studies, such that it becomes “as commonplace as our Mathematics Departments.” Could you reflect on how you view the importance of this piece now, in the context of political opposition to teaching “critical race theory” and ongoing movements for Black life?
[Dr. Armond Towns] Let me answer that in two parts. First, we’ll make a distinction between Black studies and critical race theory (CRT) as different projects. CRT would largely come out of law and legal studies as well as education and a lot of other social scientific approaches. It’s not really a discipline, which is to say there aren’t nationwide CRT departments, it’s more so an important theory that’s been deployed by a variety of academic disciplines.
Now, because of these foundations, especially coming out of law, much of critical race theory has concerned itself with liberal representations, with the law at both state and federal levels. So CRT may ask, “How are Black people discriminated against in the legal system?” As we know, and as CRT has taught us, Black people are generally prevented from having our rights protected under state and federal laws. These are important concerns given the society we live in, but I think we require the specificity to say that Black studies is something different.
Black studies is an academic discipline, or a field depending on whom you talk to, which has a variety of theories under its own umbrella. Unlike the liberal question of critical race theory, Black studies might ask, “What is a society? What is a state? What laws and rights exist under such a state? Who legitimized those laws and for what purposes? If they are made legitimate at some point, can they be delegitimized? How can new conceptions of the world be mobilized to materially benefit African peoples around the globe?”
What I see as the distinction between critical race theory and Black studies is really a question of intervention. Where CRT describes a legal system, Black studies is historically concerned with the political rupture of that system in its entirety. This makes sense given the emergence of Black studies during the 1960s and the 1970s at the heart of “third-world revolt.” Greg Carr says Black studies is the intellectual arm of the Black freedom struggle. CRT, of course, would build off that moment but it’s not the exact same lineage. The clarification of their distinctions is very important. I like both of them, but they’re different projects.
When I wrote “Black Studies is For Everyone,” it was this 1960s and 1970s moment and context that I thought would be important for all of us to understand in our classrooms today, because that moment transformed higher education as we know it. So, rather than viewing the university as this kind of unstoppable machine of neoliberalism that can’t be challenged, as I think a lot of my colleagues in communication and media studies do today, I want to know how to build a better world with the tools that we have in ways those in power may not even consider.
I have a lot of trouble believing that the university of the 1960s that Black studies scholars were working in is somehow less oppressive than where we currently are. I think it was harder for them and they were still able to build a lot, despite massive resistance. Is it impossible for us to build something new? I don’t think so. I believe the history of Black studies is built on questions like these, questions that would lay an important groundwork for scholars like Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw to do what they did.
Now, importantly, having said all that, in today’s context I should make another statement very clear. For those who are pushing against CRT, they do not care about the distinctions I just laid out. For them, we are all CRT because CRT is a metaphor for any and all forms of left leaning education. This is why they are trying so hard to connect the critical in critical race theory to critical theory and critique – to the Frankfurt School and Immanuel Kant, who would likely hate CRT.
CRT essentially becomes a metaphor of humanistic and social scientific inquiry here, a metaphor for any questioning of ideology. Nuance is irrelevant under “the great moving right show,” as Stuart Hall would note. What matters, however, is the unification of the right around one cause, which is the return to the anti-liberal aristocracy, oftentimes based on race but not always or solely. This is the moment that Black studies has been theorizing since the 1970s, and my purpose with “Black Studies is for Everyone” is to urge us to get a grasp on moments like this from the past, to have a better understanding of the context we’re in, and to better understand our terrain so we can begin to work around it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] This year, you co-founded and became inaugural editor of the newest journal for the National Communication Association, Communication and Race. Could you provide us some background on how this journal came to be, your goals in founding it, and how you hope to bring those goals to life as editor of the journal?
[Dr. Armond Towns] Historically, the journal’s beginnings can be traced back to Winter 2020, just as the pandemic was really starting, maybe 8 months into the pandemic. At that time, I reached out to seven important communication studies scholars of race, and I pitched this journal to them. They all agreed it was a worthy endeavor and they agreed to sign on. I wrote a draft proposal that I sent to all seven of them, and we took maybe three or four months to edit the proposal and then to submit it officially to NCA, probably in spring of 2021.
In general, my goals behind this journal are to change the discourse of race in our field. I believe that, as of late, the question of race has become of increasing importance in our field, even for scholars who do not actually study race, and in part I think this can be linked back to the rise of the Movement for Black Lives over the last decade or so, though there are of course other important things that helped spur the study of race; we can point back to the 1980s and 1990s as foundational for a lot of the ideas we’re building on today.
I felt that the study of race has been limited in our field in part because much of it is based on a moment in which something racist happens. During Obama’s presidency, we have the Obama papers — articles about Obama and postracism, where we learn that Obama’s election doesn’t bring about the post-racial society. You also have the Eric Garner or Michael Brown papers, all linking these forms of racial violence back to earlier eras of racial violence. The point is that race becomes important to study because a racist thing just happened at this moment, and they’re published in some of the field’s top journals. However, no matter how good the journal is, I believe this is faulty thinking because race is important to study because it structures our frames of knowledge in the field of communication studies. It’s important beyond the blatantly racist moment.
This goes back to what I was saying about McLuhan and the tribal and detribal; race structures some of the field’s most important theorizations, even if race goes unacknowledged in those theorizations. If we zoom out even further to the foundations of the field, we can see it is inseparable from Cold War resources designed to stop socialism. We find race even more prevalent, because the anticolonial movement was a movement that was inseparable from socialism. So, the foundation of the field and its original sources of funding were in these antisocialist realms that are predicated on racism and colonialism even if we don’t often admit it.
Race structures the field. It’s embedded in the field. It’s not only race, of course, but that’s what I thought would be important to point to in this journal in order to understand the limitations and possibilities of our field. I felt a journal like this could be a good place to start making that acknowledgement more visible.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice you might give to those interested in the intersections of media studies, Black studies, and cultural studies, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Armond Towns] Your education doesn’t stop in the classroom. It may begin there but there’s more to do beyond that. I would challenge any students who are interested in questions of Black studies, and cultural studies, and communication and media studies, to essentially reject the idea that they should not read Western scholars and Western thought.
When you’re reading canonical texts, you should read them for what they are saying and what they’re not saying, so you can use those thoughts and ideas against the canonical texts. I have a fear that if we just abandon the canonical texts then we won’t understand the world that we currently live in because a lot of political structures are built on those canonical texts.
The United States, for example, is inseparable from the political ideas of John Locke. Whether you like John Locke or not, you’re going to have a difficult time understanding the politics of the country if you don’t understand the liberalism the country is talking about. Locke is, of course, invested in colonialism and slavery, even as he was promoting ideas of freedom and democracy. We need to understand why those were not contradictions for liberals like John Locke and then consider where such thought continues to lie even to this day. I think to do so we have to read those canonical texts, but we can’t stop there. We have to read those texts in relation to their readings in Black studies and cultural studies so we can see the limitations of the canon, so that we can decide to refuse those limits and intervene against them.
It’s important that when you read Black studies scholars or early cultural studies scholars like Stuart Hall, you notice that they read everything, there was nothing off limits to what they read. They did this so they could really learn how to undermine the current political and economic structure, so I think that’s the most valuable thing a student can do.
Thank you, Dr. Towns, for discussing your work on media theory, race and colonialism, Black studies, the history of communication studies, and more!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.