Flowers Powers: Mars or Venus?

by: John Hartley/ Queensland University of Technology



It’s been interesting to read Flow lately. Much talk of “media reform.” But what really seems to have inspired “Flowers” (those who use Flow) to write is not so much the reform of media as of media studies. I’m referring to the flurry of columns and posts from Aniko Bodroghkozy, Horace Newcomb, Henry Jenkins, Toby Miller, Rick Maxwell and others, in the case of McChesney versus Fiske.

I suppose I ought to have something to say about this. In the USA my first name has long been “Fiskan” (as in Fiske & Hartley), because in 1978 I co-authored a little book with John. It claimed to be the first to study the medium from a textual and cultural perspective (and it’s still in print).[1]

But to be frank I don’t recognise any of myself, former or current, in the exchanges about Vilas Hall and its disputatious denizens. Instead, I found myself interpellated much more directly by Anna McCarthy’s column on Benny Hill, Little Britain and the transatlantic flow of TV sitcom, during the reading of which a wicked thought began to form in my brain. I can’t resist sharing it with you. It’s the thought of Robert Kagan.

Kagan coined that memorable line about Americans being from Mars and Europeans from Venus: “On the all-important question of power … American and European perspectives are diverging … On major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: they agree on little and understand one another less and less.”[2]

Of course, people crowded round to point out that this was a simplification, and few in my disciplinary neck of the woods took any public notice at all. After all this was about strategic rather than cultural power. And Kagan himself is a neo-conservative writer; not a dispassionate scholar to be quoted with approval by people interested in media reform.

But, nevertheless, I read his book and as Kagan himself remarked “the caricatures do capture an essential truth.” He draws attention to two divergent models of strategic policy: one based on hegemony and unconstrained power (Mars), the other on the arts of weakness: “negotiation, diplomacy, and commercial ties, on international law over the use of force, on seduction over coercion, on multilateralism over unilateralism” (Venus). Europe has embraced Venus; miraculously, the “German lion has lain down with the French lamb.” Meanwhile, since WW2, the USA has taken over the Martial mantle from imperial (“Old”) Europe.

Kagan’s own interest is confined to strategic power – military supremacy and the willingness to use it on the world stage. He does not expand his analysis to include other spheres in which the USA and Europe have diverged since the Cold War. But a parting of the ways has also occurred in the sphere of culture. Europeans persist in seeing culture in national terms (i.e. “French culture”) and therefore – perforce – also in the context of trans-national negotiation governed by law, to preserve and promote national cultures without overwhelming the national culture of others. This is the essence of the EU. On the other hand US policy (via the WTO, GATT, GATS) defines culture in market terms (as entertainment), and sees no reason why market forces shouldn’t prevail internationally. Market strength becomes a metaphor for military might. It follows a “Hobbesian” model of power where competition throws up winners and winner takes all.

Not surprisingly, economic globalization is seen as Americanization by another name; and American popular culture as the harbinger of neo-colonialism, the USA’s manifest destiny in trade, which should not be constrained by protectionist laws in other countries, especially the EU. US military power has increasingly broken free of the constraints of international law. Concomitantly, people around the world have come to see American consumerism as a global threat to their own freedom and democracy.[3]

So the Kaganite divergence – power versus law – divides US and European culture as well as military strategy. As a result, exported US culture, from Fox News to Hollywood fantasies, seems also to embody Martial values; and people around the world believe that the USA wants these values to prevail. From the US perspective it’s easy to see the powers of Venus as illusory; the weakness of Old Europe revealed in its citizens’ rejection of its own constitution and its leaders’ inability even to agree a budget.[4]

With such thoughts in the back of my head, I read Anna McCarthy’s piece on Benny Hill in Flow. I was struck by the extent to which European TV is hedged about when it gets to the USA. It must be contextualised, negotiated, explained, apologised for, before it can be put in front of American eyes (and then not on Network channels). European TV, even English-language light entertainment, comes to America weakly, under “Venusian” negotiation; the only question is whether or not Americans “get” it (see the posts following McCarthy’s article). This simply doesn’t apply the other way round. US sitcom is a TV staple across the planet, like it or lump it.

But then another thought occurred to me. Anna McCarthy’s considered tolerance for one of the most derided, least worthy products of British TV, especially among intellectuals, came as something of a shock. Brits don’t usually talk about Benny Hill that way. I grew up with The Benny Hill Show as she did, and I liked Hill’s talent for and obvious pleasure in sight gags, which are not that common in TV comedy despite its status as a visual medium. I was interested in McCarthy’s discussion of the politics of an upcoming biopic that promises to replay British attitudes towards Benny Hill – from the “spiteful” to the “aggrieved.” So the fact that she was able to rise above all that and say something serious about the show was quite a revelation.

In effect, she is teaching media studies to show respect for TV history, and media reformists to acknowledge the place and achievement of those with whom they may share little sympathy at the level of taste or personal politics. She “relocates Hill in history, placing him in a lineage of knowing, ironic comedy stance that does not currently acknowledge him.”

It is this gesture of tolerance for positions towards which one might be expected to be hostile that really caught my attention. It reminded me of what Henry Jenkins said about John Fiske: “He was a gracious mentor who never demanded that we enlist in his cause… He greeted healthy and civilized debate with a twinkle in his eye. Fiske was always far more generous with his critics than they were to him.” (Flow V2:6)

In contrast, Jenkins characterises Robert McChesney’s world as “all or nothing. Either you are the most powerful force in the room or what you do has no real consequences. Fiske’s theories allowed for partial victories and contradictory outcomes.”

In other words, Fiske was a Euro-Venusian; McChesney a standard Martial American. Their mode of critique follows the map of strategic culture. I am very tempted to make something of that distinction. How about this: American media studies – and “media reform” – is from Mars (it’s about power); European from Venus (it’s about tolerance)?

At once I know that this is not true at the individual level – indeed many of the respondents to the Flow debate call for cordialization and multi-perspectival work. Rick Maxwell catches the mood: “I’m happy to say that Aniko [Bodroghkozy]’s dualism isn’t really relevant anymore. So here’s my point: The time for feuding is over. Let’s get together and rock the system in all the ways we’ve learned how to do it.” (post to Jenkins, Flow, V2:6)

Yes, of course. However, saying “the time for feuding is over” requires a change of strategic culture from Mars to Venus. Has that happened? A strong strand of academic criticism of the work of other academics still only goes as far as Martial foe-creation. Is it American? Or perhaps disciplinary? It identifies the ideological parameters within which approval may be expressed and then shows the extent to which other people’s work fails to measure up. Authors are divided and marshalled: approved positions stand to the Left; disapproved to the Right (turning politics into science). While individuals may escape such dualism I fear that there is still an institutional imperative and perhaps also a disciplinary culture that promotes it. Whether it is also a geographical distinction, dividing Europe from America, is a matter for Flowers to debate.

If “media reform” is to mean anything culturally then we must pay attention to what’s on TV and what citizen-consumers do with it. Horace Newcomb has been advocating engaged criticism of TV since the 1970s. Such criticism (unlike ideology critique) is founded upon the skill of reading things that one may not like, or watching what one would not have chosen to watch. It’s an art of Venus. Newcomb has lately extended the idea to media studies as a whole: “In one sense, ‘television studies,’ as an intellectual accomplishment in itself, should best exercise a form of modesty.”[5]

Is it possible to be modest – i.e. to recognise the limits of one’s own position and to remain open to others without barging in and throwing insults – while asserting a strongly argued position of one’s own? I certainly hope so, as that is what I do. I’m not trying to impose unity on the field but I am keen to defend my corner of it. For instance I have no desire to see textual or cultural analysis prevail over political economy; only to co-exist with and be taken seriously by it. Newcomb says I’m “the resident provocateur” who “goes around (or simply crashes through) many conventional modes of understanding” television (Flow). What he describes here is the art of negotiating the borderlands between often incommensurate disciplines, politics, regions, methods. It’s a robust but still Venusian practice, dedicated to finding compromise among domains that remain distinct.

But even as the field ignored the importance of TV criticism in favour of adversarial critique, TV criticism as a social practice was changing. The responsibility for identifying “excellence” (the Peabody criterion) and for building up a true, knowing literate sensibility about TV content has been privatised, as it were. It is no longer the responsibility of professional critics, but of audiences themselves. TV itself is changing, from broadcast Network TV to downloadable, hyperdistributed, post-broadcast, user-curated choice, citizen-journalism and the blogosphere. More than ever it is the heavy responsibility of viewers themselves to choose stuff that may surprise them. More than ever a good public discourse of TV criticism is needed to assist in that process, because citizens can now avoid everything that deviates from their narrowest self-image. The only person they can rely on to make good aesthetic and moral judgements about what they ought to see is themselves.

Within media studies we’re not teaching toleration for other perspectives; we don’t make it a “law” that those who seek “media reform” should emphasise Kagan’s Venusian values of “negotiation, diplomacy, commerce, law over force, seduction over coercion, multilateralism over unilateralism.” Instead, we teach critique that seems designed to produce winners over losers. Academics get used to knowing in advance what they think. Scholars and shows alike are approved or not for positional reasons, not for their internal quality. We learn to deploy our views on particular TV programs as a kind of ideological heat-shield: right-on views defend us from critical attack; admit to liking the wrong thing and. … Zap! Are we sending graduates out into the world who believe that the only TV they can watch with approval is “TV-like-me”? That the only critical positions that need to be acknowledged are the ones already on our side? And that arguments from other traditions or positions need to be defeated?

In the broadcast era everyone watched a lot of stuff without choosing to. Now, it’s excellent not to have offensive opinions rammed down our throats if we can choose an alternative. But might our generations-long enforced exposure to the others of our world have been producing a level of diplomatic sophistication, a Venusian skill in negotiating “partial” and “compromised” meanings in situations where you’re not “the most powerful force in the room”?

Here’s where Kagan comes in handy; not to justify American power but just the opposite. Viewers and “media reformists” alike need to be Venusians. They need to be tolerant of and guided by regimes that are not their own. They may find that what looks like weakness from the perspective of power is the basis of relationships built on toleration. And they may learn to tolerate really strange people like Benny Hill. If the Venusian strategy prevails, then what we need is respect for a “law” of interdependent toleration of positions with which we don’t agree, which are held by people we don’t like. The usual name for this remarkable achievement is – “TV comedy.”

[1] John Fiske and John Hartley. Reading Television. 25th Anniv. ed. London: Routledge, 2003. Amazon page.
[2] Robert Kagan. Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. London: Atlantic; New York: Knopf, 2003. 3.; see also: Kagan online article; and see Robert Cooper, ‘Why we still need empires.’ 2002.
[3] Toby Miller. Anti-Americanism and Popular Culture. Budapest: Center for Policy Studies Working Papers, 2005. 38 pp. Miller paper.
[4] On the recent EU summit see EU summit news; There was much talk of ‘grave crisis,’ chaos and even warfare – commentators were not slow to point out that the EU summit collapsed on the 190th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, a previous Franco-British stand-off that determined the future shape of Europe (standoff). American response to this has been couched in the same terms: (American response).
[5] Horace Newcomb. ‘The Development of Television Studies’. A Companion to Television, ed. Janet Wasko. Blackwell, 2005. 15-28. Newcomb book page; see sample.

Robert McChesney’s website
Benny Hill information
More Benny Hill information

Image Credits:
1. Mars-Venus

Please feel free to comment.


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  • Towards an interplanetary TV studies

    Hi John, thanks for sharing an appreciation for british comedy, and also for making a plea for tolerance. The enthusiastic revival of free will vs. determinism debates in the halls of FLOW has been frustrating. I hope that we’ll move on to more interesting topics soon.

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  • The US is a culture of debate, not discussion. Debates assume that all topics can be reduced to a right and a wrong way of understanding the problem. They also assume that there is an imaginary judging audience who will embrace only one position or the other.

    I think John has raised a very difficult point amongst media scholars – in a profession still maligned by outsiders as frivolous (particularly in the US), we are faced with added pressure to not only legitimate our field, but also to prove how right we are – whether it is about the dasterdly effects of media or their uses within cultural and political struggles. We are always talking to that imaginary judging audience and rarely with them or even ourselves. How unfortunate, since my love of this field really emerged out of dozens of drunken discussions about why media matters and where pleasure and power intersect. I won’t lie. Some of those discussions were pretty raucous and I’ve been known to raise my voice in order to assert my “knowing” authority, but inevitably, I learned far more than I taught, just by listening to the diversity of ideas around the table, and my passions for developing my own media literacy skills (textual, historical, institutional, contextual, etc) developed out of being encouraged to talk about TV experiences rather than being lectured to.

    I have always said that one of my fantasies in life would be that after watching a movie or a television series, viewers all sat down in a circle (or a hexigon) and discussed their viewing experiences. I truly believe that conversation is the only means of acheiving media reform, and while there is always the claim that one side (industry, policy makers, political economists) isn’t listening, I wonder to what extent we, as scholars, shy away from those very conversations that do recognize diversity of opinion and complexity of meaning precisely because we feel that our legitimacy might be (further) questioned by doing so?

    Then again, I typically want my students to share their ideas and interpretations only so long as I can then set them straight on how things “really are” (even if my reality emphasizes complexity and contradiction, it is still a position offered by the person giving them a grade), so perhaps my thoughts about conversation aren’t as tolerant as I first imagined them to be…

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