The Loss of Value (or the Value of Lost)

by: Jason Mittell / Middlebury College

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Flow offers a valuable space for exploratory writing, falling between the formal precision of traditional publishing and the casual off-hand remarks of an online discussion or blog. This format allows scholars to try out ideas which may not be quite ready for prime time. Likewise, it offers a forum for presenting controversial ideas and generating discussion, building a more collaborative model of scholarly community than typically found in print publishing.

In that spirit, I wish to make a claim that may be the most controversial position as yet argued in Flow‘s brief but vibrant first year:

Lost is the best show on American broadcast television.

Some readers might harrumph at my claim because they disagree. I invite such debate — offer up rationales as to why other programs may be better than Lost, positing the comparative value of Amazing Race, Arrested Development, Alias, or even shows further down the alphabet. I’ll offer my specific arguments for valuing Lost in my August column, as I am reluctant to articulate a position before seeing the season finale (which has yet to air as of this writing).

But the more dramatic disagreement I expect to provoke in this column stems from the assumption that television scholars are not supposed to write such evaluative statements. Somewhere in the short history of our discipline, evaluative claims have been nearly eradicated from scholarly discourse, marginalized to the function of television critics and scholars of questionable merit, noted by their lack of theoretical rigor or overtly celebratory tone. It is not as if we are completely banned from the act of judging in our scholarship — we regularly evaluate television programs on their political merits, their social impact, their economic motives, their effect on the television industry, or even their appeals to popular tastes. But while we may proclaim the various merits or flaws a show might offer on these grounds, it is seemingly off-limit to reflect on whether we think the program is ultimately any good or not.

Or at least not in explicit terms… We dare not acknowledge that we’re writing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Star Trek, or The Sopranos because we think these shows are great, but it’s not coincidental that the programs that seem to be most explored within television studies also seem to be the ones that television scholars most enjoy. Why not be honest about it? I’ll out myself here–I wrote about The Simpsons, Soap, and Dragnet in my book at least partly because I love these programs and wanted to immerse myself in studying great television that gives me pleasure.

Television scholars (or at least the circles I run in) value television quite a bit — recently at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in London, I spent a good deal of great times connecting with old comrades via discussions about our televisual tastes. Over hearty pints of bitters, we debated the comparative values of various seasons of Alias, the questionable merits of 24, and the generic pleasures of reality TV. These discussions might start with an observation of personal taste, but we quickly slipped into arguments about value, quality, and aesthetics, concepts that only appear in our scholarly writing as discourses, protected by the conceptual prophylactics of “quotation marks” or ‘inverted commas.’

Yet if we look deeper at our assumptions and foundations, are our own values of aesthetics and taste any more contingent than our political beliefs? Cultural scholars learn from Pierre Bourdieu and his followers to reject aesthetics as nothing more than a manifestation of class privilege, but don’t we find a way around this strict constructivism for political judgments? We can argue for or against textual representations of gender, race, or nationhood as grounded not in absolute transhistorical universals, but via our contingent and contextualized notions of justice and equality. Can’t we do the same for aesthetics, recognizing that while taste is not universal, it is more than egalitarian personal opinion?

Media studies, as growing out of the model of cultural studies, eschews the elitist impulse that has marked academic analyses of popular culture, from Matthew Arnold to Theodor Adorno and beyond. But is it any less “elitist” to impose ones political values via interpretive criticism (which is commonplace in TV studies) than offering aesthetic judgments via evaluative criticism (which is not)? In both instances, we assert a level of expertise that elevates the argumentative force of such evaluations, not necessarily based on appeals to absolute universals or rarified tastes, but hopefully via clearly laid out contextualized criteria, detailed close analyses, and both rational and emotional appeals.

After reading Susan Douglas’s Where the Girls Are, my students are usually swayed by her claims about the ambivalent gender politics of Charlie’s Angels — not because she’s intrinsically “right” but because she makes a good case. But after screening an episode, my students always comment about how “bad” the show is, with simplistic narratives, lack of suspense, wooden acting, and bland visual style. Per the unstated boundaries of media scholarship, the only acceptable responses are “well, we’re all entitled to our opinions,” or “what cultural hierarchies are you endorsing by valuing suspense, complex writing and acting, or visual vibrancy?”

But value is neither simply opinion nor just social oppression. Those of us who teach or engage in media production know these pitfalls well, as any form of creativity might be seen as having equal merit in the eyes of the young producer bucking for a good grade and/or personal validation. But creative choices are not all created equal, as we regularly teach our media production students to justify their formal choices and place them within a context of established norms and conventions. No choice is inherently better or worse on its own, but they must be justified (implicitly or explicitly) in the context of broader creative practices. Can we apply the same rationale to the act of consumption and criticism?

I believe we can, and a few voices in cultural studies are asking similar questions. Most notably, Simon Frith’s Performing Rites is a vital call for the value of evaluation in cultural scholarship of music — alas Frith’s approach has not been widely adopted within cultural studies since its publication almost a decade ago. When it has, like in Michael Bérubé’s recent collection The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies, television is not on the agenda as an object of evaluation (although Bérubé does tackle televisual evaluation on his fabulous blog) — perhaps a residue of the still prevalent devaluation of TV as a medium. The only exception I’m aware of within contemporary television studies is Charlotte Brunsdon, who regularly asks us to consider “quality” not just as a discursive construct, but also as something that matters and warrants discussion.

Why has television studies been arguably more lacking in evaluative scholarship than other media? Partly it’s a matter of academic history — as other popular forms like films or novels became integrated into the academy, they entered into an evaluative tradition through analytical modes like authorship and formalist criticism. Even as these methods were supplanted with other critical modes, the tradition of evaluation shapes film studies enough that nearly every class focuses on “quality” examples of the issues addressed, whether it be national cinemas or gender representations. How many of us who teach television studies acknowledge that one worthwhile goal of teaching media is cultivating appreciation, exposing students to examples that expand their horizons and tastes? (Again, I’ll out myself — I regularly show students television that I think is great, with the partial purpose of cultivating their tastes for shows like Alias, Six Feet Under, Arrested Development, and Homicide.)

Another reason for television studies’ disengagement with evaluation stems from a comparative thinness within the realm of popular critical analysis of television, with few sites of sophisticated evaluative critique as compared to the numerous publications and practices dedicated to evaluating film and popular music. Aside from the rare television critic whose voice rises past the space next to the TV listings in local papers, like Ken Tucker, Heather Havrilesky, or David Bianculli, the only long-standing influential model of evaluation that has been regularly applied to television is the outright dismissal common to Frankfurt School critique, mass communications research, and Postman-style medium theory. With little tradition of sympathetic evaluation to build upon, television scholars have yielded this terrain to journalists looking to move up the critical ladder and academics skeptical of the medium as a whole (although arguably online TV criticism is starting to fill this void). Thus film, literature, and music scholars can turn away from evaluative critique while still maintaining its place within the larger constellation of each discipline, but if television scholars don’t add evaluation to the mix of our writings on the medium, then there is little space for a positive assertion of the possibilities of the medium which I, for one, value.

The importance of asserting evaluation has been driven home to me recently in discussions surrounding the publication of Steven Johnson’s account of the cognitive value of popular culture, Everything Bad is Good For You. Johnson has been roundly critiqued in a range of sites, from Postman-ite hang-wringing on various blogs like StayFree! to Flow‘s own Allison McCracken questioning the cultural assumptions underlying Johnson’s claims. In all of these critiques, it seems that it is still viewed as suspect for an intellectual (especially on the left) to assert the positive value of television. While certainly I’m not suggesting that television scholars should neglect the cultural, institutional, political, and social questions that tend to motivate our teaching and research, we need to open the big tent of television studies to allow for aesthetically engaged evaluative arguments about the medium and its programming, positing the creative legitimacy of television which is seemingly forever under attack.

In August, I’ll attempt to model such analysis, arguing for the value of Lost (after I’ve spent sufficient time enjoying and reflecting on its powerful first season). In the meantime, I welcome your comments, debates… and evaluations.

Works Cited:
Michael Bérubé, Editor. The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies. Blackwell Books, 2005.
Charlotte Brunsdon. Screen Tastes: Soap Opera to Satellite Dishes. Routledge, 1997.
Simon Frith. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Harvard UP, 1996.

Links:
An Unofficial Lost Fansite
I Like To Watch
Michael Berube
StayFree!
Television Without Pity
Teevee.org – We Watch So You Don’t Have To
Wanderlist – Favorite Television Shows

Image Credits:
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14 comments

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  • First of all, I’ll bite/disagree and say that Lost is not the best show on broadcast television. Arrested Development is! (Or at least I thought it was until I saw Robot Chicken; yes, RC is on cable, but it still rocks.) AD gets my kudos for its smart implosion of the sitcom format and the hilarious ways it rewards continued viewing; I love how it takes the ‘inside joke’ to an entirely new level. However, I must give Lost props for causing me to physically jump in my chair during the finale.

    Mittell’s article offers some very nutritious food for thought about the state of television studies. The larger “TV studies” project thus far seems to me to have been consumed with the primary goal of proving that the medium is one simply worthy of academic critique. Now that this goal has been achieved (to some extent at least), is it not indeed time for us to use our analytic talents to declare what is good about TV, to finally work to overtly debunk the persistent cultural myth that TV is a vast wasteland, a narcotizing drug, an entirely unredeemable medium?

    One thing’s for sure – it is long past time for television scholars to reclaim our own fandoms, to talk frankly about what we love (and hate) about TV, and to create more spaces where we can do so. Taking a cue from bell hooks, perhaps we can use theory to liberate our hidden must-see choices and still-guilty pleasures. I think there’s a potentially huge audience for this kind of work. Let’s get to it!

  • Evaluation v. aesthetics

    Speaking as a film scholar who nonetheless has a great deal of interest in TV and TV studies, I found this to be a persuasive piece. Not just in the claim that Lost is the best show being produced for American broadcast TV at the moment, though this is true. Rather, I am persuaded firstly by the argument that aesthetic evaluation is often implicit in media (and film) scholarship- those who explicitly reject arguments based on aesthetics nonetheless frequently betray aesthetic criteria in their choice of objects of study. This can be seen all over film pedagogy: the same scholars who argue for a poststructuralist rejection of film authorship often choose to study gender, race, and class through the films of Ford, Hitchcock, Lynch, et. al. Likewise, studies of ideology and resistance in TV programming often amount to proclamations that the author’s favorite shows are resistant in some way. Having pulled off this maneuver, one can almost hear the writer breathe a sigh of relief: since their favorite show can be cast as “progressive,” watching it is ideologically justified (or at least defensible)! Whew!

    “Why not be honest,” indeed?

    I also think he’s right to ask, Why is it OK to offer certain kinds of evaluation (chiefly ideological) and not others (eg., aesthetics)? And of course, the aggressiveness with which aesthetic evaluation is avoided in TV scholarship has a lot to do with the history of the discipline, as well as the persistent disdain for the medium in popular critical discourse as well as a great deal of academic work. But for me, there is a more important issue here than the lack of evaluative commentary in TV studies, and that is the paucity of work on aesthetics, period.

    Granted, the lines between aesthetics and evaluation can be blurred. Of course students want to talk evaluatively about their screenings, but in my intro to film course I spend quite a lot of time discouraging this, getting them to focus on understanding the aesthetics of film, rather than simply offering good/bad opinions (which might otherwise be where many of them would stop). My screenings are chosen in part because they are films I like (and thus can stand talking about semester after semester), but I am not above screening the work of directors I dislike, like Antonioni or Fellini, to illustrate the concept of art cinema, say. That said, I admit that I find myself venturing further and further into evaluation to “sell” students on films they might disdain (black and white, eww!) so as to encourage some level of engagement from which understanding might flow.

    But it is a mistake to confuse aesthetics and evaluation. They are not the same; discussion of aesthetics need not be evaluative, let alone elitist or hierarchical. Aesthetics and evaluation might be conjoined in many ways in TV studies; the reasons why evaluation is avoided are often the same reasons aesthetic scholarship is underdeveloped. But the lack of scholarship on televisual form and style is a bigger issue than the lack of evaluation in TV scholarship per se. Some basic evaluative claims might constitute a necessary condition here: TV can be artistically interesting, and so it is worth studying TV form. But if one were to call for opening the “big tent of television studies” to include work on aesthetics in a broad sense (stylistic techniques, their effects and uses; formal modes and strategies; genre and authorship; etc., etc.), evaluation might be a useful starting point, which may then need to be bracketed off from formal analysis as such.

  • broadcast

    As someone who wrote on Bugs Bunny for the Berube anthology, and who experienced Bugs via television, I’d like to note that some of us in that book did have TV on our agenda.

    While I very much like the emphasis on “outing” our personal tastes, it’s uncertain, at least as presented above, why Mittell adds the modifier “broadcast” to his controversial statement. I am the best soccer player in my household, but that’s not particularly meaningful, since none of us in our house are actually any good at the sport. Lost is much more than the television equivalent of my non-existent soccer skills, but the comparison holds: Lost might be the best show on American broadcast television, and still be only the tenth best show on American television without the “broadcast” modifier.

    Ramaeker’s comments are also intriguing. A show like 24, which can be simutaneously effectively and hilariously screwed up, works for many of us even though we fret about its representations of torture or bemoan the holes in logic, narrative, character and geography which litter every episode. Teaching 24, though, would have to incorporate some of what Ramaeker suggests: getting past the “I love/hate it” stage without ignoring that stage completely. Students WANT to offer their evaluative positions; what they need to understand is that these are “useful starting points” to a more comprehensive analysis. Most often, students want to stop with the evaluative, and this understandably leads many of us as teachers to try to leapfrog over evaluation and go straight to the “more” fruitful aesthetic critique. But evaluation can be useful, and is just plain fun besides. Perhaps the best starting point would be “I like 24 even if it is problematic, and we’re going to examine both the pleasure and the problem.”

    (I’d also add Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle as an exemplar of smart and entertaining writing about television, even if he is stuck next to the TV listings.)

  • TV aesthetics and reception

    In that they seem to be part of the reception process, and that they affect whether or not the ideological message gets through (as Mittell’s ‘Charlie’s Angels’ example shows),aesthetics matter. Writing off aethetic judgment as “in the eye of the beholder” seems like a huge mistake when its clear that there are recurring correlations between what people like and certain aesthetic attributes (e.g. narrative complexity). Could we perhaps say that connecting w/ an audience (no matter what the make-up of that audience) is preferable to not connecting w/ any audience? Is there a way to talk about how TV shows effectively communicate to their audience without using the words “good/bad”?Evaluative snobbery seems to me to come from valuing the preferences of one audience over another. I could see some complication in conceptualizing “good” though – if a show provokes me to throw my remote across the room in anger, is it “better” than a show that sedated me? But there’s no reason to value one reaction over the other. Better to describe both reactions and look for the aethetics that motivated them.

    I think Steven Rubio makes a great point about recognizing the contradictory nature of a viewer’s feelings towards a program. If we stay away from the issue of TV aesthetics altogether, then it seems much more monolithic and simple than audience studies show it to be. One may be engaged by certain aesthetic aspects of Charlie’s Angels and left cold by others.

    Still, I’d bet that this view will meet with plenty of opposition. Many scholars do not treat their “notions of justice and equality” as “contingent and contextualized,” and see any suggestion that they are as problematically apolitical. I, for one, will be very interested to see Mittell’s implementation of these ideas, and appreciate the suggestion of a new model.

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  • Validity of Evaluations

    I agree that TV Scholars should be able to give their critical aesthetic evaluations. But the validity of those evaluations is limited to cultural contexts and personal tastes that have no clear cut objectivity. So as long as those evalutions are within the clear confinement of contexts, they will be very useful also for the learning process of general public.

  • Here Here!

    I don’t find anything wrong with television schollars offering up their personal opinions, especially if they lay down the groundwork behind their claim. Lost is a great show that offers interesting characters, great drama, and new and interesting takes on old used up plot lines. Lost offers up something different than most shows on television today, and because of this I don’t think there is any problem with stating the opinion that it is a great show. It offers up a variety of interesting characters including strong women and African-American characters who are self sufficient and can stand on their own two feet. It is because of this that I too believe that Lost is one of the best shows on TV and I find that saying it, no matter who you are, will simply be taken as a personal opinion based on the weath of criteria that Lost has to offer.

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