Lines in the Sand: Media Studies and the Neoliberal Academy
Hollis Griffin / Colby College


Scholarship in a Neoliberal Era?

At one point, Omar Little and I were Facebook friends. This is strange if only because I typically shun self-consciously “quality” television. That and it bothers me how The Wire, the program featuring this character, has become something of a fetish object in the academy. I’m suspicious of such programs, how obsessively they are watched and studied, and how often that leads to a frenzied championing. Yet Omar and The Wire spark something in me. This essay was supposed to be something longer, and was lined up for publication in an anthology. I even had a pithy title picked out: “Oh Shit, It’s Omar!” I wanted to play on the phrase uttered by background characters whenever Omar appears in the narrative. It’s also a frequent refrain on internet fanpages devoted to the character, where viewers quote Omar’s one-liners and, more generally, profess their affection for him. The title seemed catchy and apt because I wanted to think through some of the links between these phenomena.

Armed with a shotgun and a shitty attitude, Omar haunts the program. A police informant and vigilante, he weaves in and out of the narrative, appearing in episodes here and there as he strikes fear in the hearts of drug dealers. He also garners frustration and amusement from police officers as he operates in Baltimore’s narcotics trade on his own terms. The program itself details the seedy underbelly of privatization and deregulation in urban America: corrupt lawmakers and money-hungry development corporations push the already marginalized even further to the margins. The Wire gives voice to the undercurrent of desperation and neglect inherent in neoliberalism, where systemic injustices are imagined to be personal obstacles surmountable in the marketplace, and identity gets articulated as the culmination of an individual’s life choices. Many of the program’s African-American characters suffer from a profound deficit of such choices.


Omar’s Facebook page

But Omar’s different. A twenty or thirty-something black man, he is a neoliberal subject gone awry. Omar lives below the radar, takes wild chances, and profits handsomely—but the character is always cognizant that his entire world could come to an abrupt halt at any moment. Omar eschews most conventions; humdrum interpersonal relationships and a permanent residence would be suffocating and mundane for him. I think the character suggests many different things: the failures of the U.S. as a welfare state, the discursive limits of neoliberal rhetoric related to self-interestedness, as well as the depressing, all-too-common continuities between race and class in contemporary culture. Omar troubles easy connections between good and bad, empowered and subordinated. A charismatic antihero, he is mean and funny, calculating yet passionate. The fact that he has sex with men is little more than another of the innumerable ways that he defies easy categorization. It’s ironic that I’d be Facebook friends with Omar because I’d likely be terrified of him if we were ever to cross paths.

It’s not lost on me that Omar is an avatar for raced, classed fantasies of power and recklessness. He provides vicarious thrills to an affluent, taste-stratified audience. I’m not entirely proud that I find the character so fascinating. Several years after The Wire concluded its run on HBO, I felt silly receiving Facebook status updates from a fictional television character whose narrative had long since concluded. The social network’s re-design made de-friending him relatively simple. So I did.

As of this writing, Omar and I have eight Facebook friends in common. A year or two ago, he and I had something like 64 or 65 Facebook friends in common, many of whom were media academics. That’s about the time that the popular press devoted some attention to “the phenomenon” of The Wire as an object of analysis in university classrooms –as if serious interrogation of popular culture is itself a new phenomenon. It’s also when several monographs devoted to the program were published. I flipped through a lot of these books as I was starting my research. Most of the essays mentioned that Omar had sex with men, but none covered what I was most interested in: what’s at stake when viewers cathect to death a black male character who has sex with men. I wanted to interrogate how the program, the character, and his afterlife on the internet re-inscribe the future-orientation of the neoliberal project. By making Omar a martyr, it seems that The Wire allows for “safe” audience identification. When I started re-watching the series and writing, I thought again and again about de-friending Omar on Facebook. This little thing that I did without ever really thinking about it started to feel careless and malignant. It seemed to resonate with neoliberalism’s tendency to discard those at the margins. In that sense, I too rendered Omar expendable. It might sound stupid, but it was a terrible feeling.

As I continued writing, I found myself considering why media scholars tend to focus on particular television programs. I got angry about it. The devotion of whole conference panels and entire anthologies to The Wire started to seem like drinking the Kool-Aid. Reifying industry terms regarding what constitutes “quality” texts and, by extension, “quality” audiences can make for troubling pedagogy. Not that scholarship should always, in every instance be completely separate from industry concerns. But insofar as the medium’s shifting political economy has placed new emphasis on high-budget, high-concept programming, “quality” texts like The Wire have become objects of great scrutiny in university classrooms and press of all kinds. This attention frequently fails to question the terms of such object choices. When the “quality” and “narrative complexity” of The Wire are held up as reasons to study it, media studies’ imbrication in the neoliberal project comes to the fore in a pretty icky way.


One of the many academic interrogations of The Wire

Ultimately, my thinking and writing meandered too far from the anthology’s theme and I had to drop out. In other words, “the world outside the object” overwhelmed it for me. More than a throwaway anecdote, removing myself from the anthology demonstrates some of the difficulties inherent in troubling the frameworks used to analyze television and media culture in the academy. Academic silos result in more research and publication opportunities for entrenched modes of analysis. They clear paths for those willing to “play the game,” tacitly encouraging scholars to work within existing models and paradigms. Innovation of this ilk follows familiar, well-worn paths: “the brilliant young man,” “the sexy theory,” “the colorful commentary.” Undergirded by the neoliberal logic of American universities, media scholarship focused on the contemporary moment, undertaken via logics used in industry practice blurs an already fuzzy line between academic and popular media criticism. Insofar as this work is often focused on commercial media texts and practices, even the most diligent media scholarship participates in consumer capitalism in some way.

When an increasingly tight job market fetishizes publication and advancement, I worry that it can come at the cost of rigor and self-reflexivity. Weighing these circumstances and what they mean for media scholarship will necessarily generate uncomfortably charged exchanges. Worse yet, the scarcity of the neoliberal academy can marginalize scholars who take up political questions by privileging research that seems “more marketable” and granting more opportunities to scholars who can claim “universality.” Cloaked in the respectability afforded to that which goes unmarked, media scholarship that claims disinterestedness—in politics, in identity, in difference—is benign only in appearance.

At a historical moment when the ivory tower is at risk of being reduced to rubble, I’m wary of academic media criticism that doubles as industry gossip, aspires to talking-head punditry, or is simply drenched in the cheerful ridicule of snark. This claim shouldn’t signify as a call for a closing of the ranks, much less some kind of blanket statement as to what academic media criticism should do or say or look like. Rather, I want to openly worry about how accelerated professionalization, choices of object and method, and a push toward more frequent publication can foreclose on insightful inquiry. Simply because topics or questions are not fashionable or au courant or (God help me) are too “gay” or too “black” seem like awful reasons to scuttle them. But when I have these conversations with other academics, I see that it happens a lot—despite even the best intentions. Recently, I told a colleague that my essay on Omar and The Wire had morphed into something else. She told me it was probably for the best, saying: “you write about gay things a lot, your CV will look better if you write about something else.” Saddest part? I worry that she’s right.


Twitter-friendly scholarship?

An academy that molds media critics who are tempted to churn out quick, dirty, market-driven analysis in the form of Twitter-friendly aphorisms is a potentially dangerous apparatus. When there’s a line drawn in the sand? I want to be on the side that thinks about media in order to interrogate knowledge and power in their many, multivalent forms. On one hand, loving the object too often brackets what that object says about the world outside of itself. Here, the act of criticism quickly becomes a monument to the critic. On the other, the conflicted feelings endemic to media scholarship can make for some snide nihilism. The romance and rhetorical convenience of blunt anti-capitalist critique gives short shrift to the vexed connections between commodities and affective life. Omar might say, “Don’t hate the player, baby, hate the game.” Alas, it’s exceedingly difficult to disidentify with one and not feel shortchanged by the other.

Image Credits:

1. Piggybank
2. Author’s screen shot
3. Book cover
4. Twitter

Please feel free to comment.


  • This was outstanding, and voiced many of the concerns that I’ve begun to have (yet struggled mightily to articulate) in the past year, particularly concerning “quality television” and the blurred lines between popular media criticism and academic scholarship. Bravo, Hollis.

  • This interesting essay brings two things to mind.

    One is that I think people are drawn to writing about The Wire because it is complex on many levels, addressing sex, gender, class, and race all at once and through a variety of characters who themselves change and develop. So: both addressing serious contemporary issues and showing character psychological and moral complexity, and with a fairly elegant visual and narrative style. As various people have pointed out, the serial TV drama can approach the complexity of the 19th century social novel: something that is pretty difficult for the feature length narrative drama film. This is exactly what academics are by training prepared to think and write about. In contrast, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to say about most sitcoms or reality contest shows once you’ve pinned down the basic tropes and gimmicks.

    Second, I think there’s always been a pressure in media studies of all kinds to go with the already received, the conventional, the easily understood. This was certainly the case when I got started in film studies in the 1970s. My then colleague, Jack Ellis, told me that his idea, in editing Cinema Journal was to only accept articles based in conventional historical scholarship (continuing the policy from the first editor, Richard Dyer McCann) because that was how the field would be able to get respect in the university. From this view, new theory and cultural studies were excluded from the get go. Of course people doing that kind of work founded creative alternatives. I think the spirit of DIY can serve us very well: Flow TV and the conferences are a good example.

    As Hollis worries, there’s a price to pay for breaking from the safe and conventional and commonplace: it can slow your career trajectory in the short run. And if you have kids or other dependents, I’m not telling you that you don’t have to consider that. But it is possible to make your own path, and you meet a lot of really clever, creative, and fun people doing so. Chuck Kleinhans

  • This “quick, dirty, market-driven analysis” sets up so many vague straw men with the effect of sounding incredibly self-aggrandizing and patronizing.

  • Since I’m cited – by concept if not by name – in this piece, I thought it would be useful to link to the “pre-buttal” that I wrote last year in response to similar complaints. The takeaway from that post: it’s much more useful to dedicate your energy modeling the type of scholarship that you think is important, rather than spending time saying that what some other people have written about doesn’t interest you.

  • Heather Hendershot

    I agree with Jason on one level–yes, it is generally better to model good scholarship than gripe about stuff you don’t care for–but I also think this stance has some limitations. Certainly, as scholars we should all be interested in thinking critically about both the the potential and the limits of certain methods. I do think there is a strain of industrial analysis that speaks so completely within the industry’s own terms that it can’t step back and ask interesting questions that come from an anti-industry/industry critical perspective. I’d be the last person on earth to tell those people to stop what they are doing, though: I feel like I can learn a lot from scholarship that I agree with and from scholarship that I disagree with. Further, every method has its limitations, and we all live in glass houses where our research is concerned.

    As for setting up straw-men and being patronizing, I don’t think that this what Hollis was going for. Chuck speaks of making “your own path” in academia, and it seems to me that this is what Hollis is working through here–how (particularly as an emerging scholar) one finds one’s place in the field, contends with the pressure to “balance” a CV, and avoids both excessive celebration of a text and the perils of flipping to the other side (“snide nihilism”).

  • Thanks for commenting, everyone. Even the critical ones. My aim here was to point out that academic media criticism is itself an enterprise imbricated in capital and fraught with power. I was hoping to underscore the need for at least some reflexivity in scholarship on media culture. I read and teach widely and hungrily, and I encourage my students to do the same. My concern is that the functioning of the academy delimits the terms of the debate in ways that masks their collusion with capital and power. It can be really hard, especially now, to think outside the proverbial box. My goal in connecting “The Wire”, television scholarship, and neoliberalism was to highlight how hard it can be do to that, how uncomfortable it can be even under the best of circumstances, how alienating it can feel to think obliquely. And, more broadly, I wanted to point to the fact that various strains of criticism participate in political discourses even if the critics themselves don’t necessarily intend to do that Which is to say — “you do you, I’ll do me,” as seems to be the criticism of my position here — is itself indicative of a strain of neoliberal thought. Being critical of what media scholarship is, means, and does can and should involve, even momentarily, a collective temperature-taking.

  • Thanks for this provocative piece Hollis. I read this piece not so much as a criticism of the work of individual scholars, but as a critique of the ways that an increasingly neoliberal academy constructs certain research as sexy and marketable. Many of us PhD students are well aware of what topics “sell” in the marketplace of the university (to adopt the dominant discourse of the institution!) and it’s important for media scholars to be critical, without getting defensive, of the complex ways in which scholarship is entangled with issues of economy, industry, and ideology. So thanks for starting the conversation!

  • I agree with Jessalynn. I read this piece as a provocative concern about emerging trends (or the contemporary manifestation of historical trends) in the academy rather than an attack on any individual or any particular mode of scholarship.

    It’s easy (and, yes, important) to encourage all of us to model the scholarship we find most productive, but we also would do well to remember how different scholars are differentially positioned in relation to the academy. As such, we need to remain reflexive about the institutions and structures which shape the boundaries of legitimate knowledge.

    Perhaps this anxiety is more pronounced for those of us who are in more vulnerable positions–students, junior faculty, and/or minorities–and those of us with research interests that are less directly amenable to the industry discourses both Hollis and Heather reference.With that in mind, I think the most important conclusion to take away from what Hollis writes is the urgent rallying cry for all of us–but especially for those of us in positions of power–to safeguard a space in the academy for multiplicity and diversity regardless of how un/fashionable it is to do so right now.

  • It certainly must be one of the virtues of the polemic as a form that one needn’t be particularly coherent or focused in his attack — or ‘expression of anxiety’ — and still enjoy the benefit of charitable readings from sympathetic or similarly aggrieved readers. If the piece was particularly reflexive about institutions or structures, I don’t think anyone’s reaction would’ve been that the piece is ‘self-aggrandizing and patronizing’ straw-manning. That that opportunity was missed is a shame.

  • I don’t really see the neoliberal academy systematically rewarding the types of scholarship that you’re criticizing here, though, Hollis. A lot of the “better”, bigger name presses (and hence those that prestigious universities demand one publishes with for tenure) are leery of books on single programs to begin with, and thus a lot of the “XXX and Philosophy” kind of collections may sell on Amazon, but don’t at all look that hot on the CV, and aren’t likely to impress tenure committees at too many places. A deeply critical piece in Television and New Media, Feminist Media Studies, Media, Culture and Society, or so forth is still way more likely to open doors for one within the academy than a particularly witty set of Tweets or blog post. And while I have no beef with blogging or Tweeting, I struggle to think of a single person whose job or promotion came on the back of such things; they may help to create an audience, to communicate to a larger public, and/or to build expectations for a given person’s longer-form scholarship, but “quick and dirty” media scholarship only plays into many tenure committees’ worst fears about the silliness of our object of study, and so if anything, I’ve often seen a hypersensitivity within media studies to making it “slower and cleaner” so that our colleagues in the academy at large give us our due respect.

    Thus I think we should be very careful not to equate visibility of topics with the importance and value accorded to them by the academy. If I italicize “visibility” there, it’s not just to show off my most basic html tagging skills ;-) but also because I think that some of what we’re talking about is what scholarship is seen to be rewarded, versus what hiring and tenure committees are actually demanding and rewarding.

  • Thanks for the continued responses, however critical. My point here is that the decisions made by individuals as they navigate the larger structures of academic life (job market, advancement) are increasingly frenetic. I worry that there’s a series of disconnects between what younger scholars often associate with advancement and what’s productive intellectually. Which is to say the blogging, tweeting, and the like can — emphasis on “can” — become far too adjacent to actually sitting down, wrestling with questions, re-considering arguments over time, and so on. I’m more concerned with what will become of my generation — the ABDs, the recently finished, the untenured. The anxiety of job scarcity makes people quick to try to “brand” themselves — a term that inspires no small amount revulsion in me. One doesn’t come fully formed as an intellectual but reads, learns, grows. I worry that as tenure and peer review get re-assessed — very much in the air right now throughout the academy — there will be too much attention placed on “volume”, broadly construed. And when that happens, the louder one is might trump everything else, the quality of the ideas, especially. I this is terrifying.

    My use of Omar and “The Wire” was, admittedly, purposeful. Though this is NOT because of any one scholar, single book, particular essay. Rather, the really, deeply troubling political developments that the character points to — privatization, deregulation, “shrinking” government, too-cheap labor, urban decay — are intimately bound to the very practice of media scholarship in many different ways. I’m not lying when I said I “defriended” him because the status updates got annoying. I shared that because I don’t want to acquit myself — it’s seems that this trivial little thing is attended by implications that are far more fraught than they are at first glance.

    In the single volume books about certain programs, the ones that “don’t count” as much, there can be really really good work. This shouldn’t go unspoken. If the prestige of a book’s binding could serve as a conclusive indication of the quality and utility of the work it holds, academic publishing would be a wholly different enterprise. Alas. The diamonds in the rough are the reason why so many (all?) of us have libraries heavy enough to take down a cruise ship.

  • Lots of interesting ideas in the column and the comments, so thanks to all for those. It seems to me that the trends Hollis is identifying, including the interest in a show like The Wire, is also specific to a changing discourse about television that is present in scholarship but is also much broader. Here I’m referring to the increasing cultural legitimation of certain kinds of television (that is often made to stand in for television as whole), at least in the US. Michael Newman and I have just finished up a book ms that deals with these questions and the ways that the legitimation of television privileges already empowered positions (particularly classed and gendered ones). With premium and basic cable programming becoming the darlings of critics and cultural elites, and with new technologies like HD sets and mobile viewing options elevating the medium’s techno-cred, what it means to watch television–and even to study it–is changing. Scholarship is hardly leading the way on this; it is part of a much broader cultural phenomenon, but it is nonetheless crucial to think about the ways that our practices as TV scholars contribute to such hierarchizing discourses. That these processes of legitimation may also serve neoliberal interests is an even broader concern, of course. Just wanted to point out that there are multiple forces at work in the phenomena Hollis identifies.

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  • I might have read your insight in a haste, so I apologize if my commentary sounds perfunctory but I am not sure how (or if) you propose to unanchor/problematize the continuities between media research/scholarship from consumer culture. We all know that television studies, as any other academic endeavor, is structural to the maintainment and, indeed, growth of neoliberal capitalism, so much so today since networks discovered the benefits of narrative complexity, spectacular aesthetics and general good “quality” and incorporated them in their productions. I believe Stuart Hall alone must have written a hundred essays on how to counteract the pulls and pushes of an interested and openly capitalist-oriented institution as The University and that many are following in his path. This is not least because, since the poststructural turn of his research on popular culture, he has grappled more and more with Foucault’s notion of power struggle as a strategy of “action upon action” taking place in a discoursive system that has no outside.

    It seems to me that, in spite of the unquestionable obtrusiveness of neoliberal interests in scholarship matters, self-reflexivity and rigour on our part are hardly at risk and that the only way to counteract this system is to turn the complicity of digital media studies and consumer culture on its head, as I believe the majority of television scholars is already doing. I could be naming, but I don’t for PR reasons (:-P), some good-selling Amazon monographies on tv shows that indeed are really just commercial magnets rather than pieces of insightful criticism, but they are a minority and are not representive of media studies as a category.

    Finally, I take the current situation of publishing and the reformulation of job-admission criteria at colleges and university as a challenge. And I must specify here that I have received my Ph.D one year ago and have been unemployed ever since, so I am far from privildged. Knowing that one must comply to a set of certain expectations and fit into a specific model of immaterial production does not mean that rules can’t be bent and arguments be subtly made that would counteract the premises on which this knowledge system is being re-built as a brutish assembly-line kind of endeavour. I guess, in the end, we just need to find a way to adjust, rather than accept things as they are and get hyperfrustrated even before we actually grab a decently paid-job, virtually-rewarding job in the academia.

  • Griffin asserts,”When the “quality” and “narrative complexity” of The Wire are held up as reasons to study it, media studies’ imbrication in the neoliberal project comes to the fore in a pretty icky way.”

    The use of the passive voice makes it hard to tell who Griffin thinks is guilty of this, so I’m wondering if we could have some examples. Since my essay on narrative complexity in The Wire appears in the book below this quote, I’m guessing that I’m a target. If so, my position is misrepresented here.

    In the introduction to my essay, I specifically write that I am attempting to offer preliminary analysis of The Wire’s innovation vis-a-vis other contemporary American television in three areas: narrative complexity, character development, and social commentary.

    In addition, if I did take the position that The Wire is *only* worth studying because of its narrative complexity–which I do *not*–it’s unclear how I would be abetting the “neoliberal project” in “a pretty icky way.” But perhaps I just feel that way because I don’t know what Griffin means by “neo-liberal project” and “pretty icky way.” Maybe he could tell us more explicitly.

    There is a delicious irony to the fact that I wrote an essay on The Wire to take a break from career-oriented work and as an excuse to reflect upon a TV show that I really enjoyed. Everyone knows that book chapters aren’t perceived to be as valuable as journal articles!

  • Neoliberalism = the application of economic thought and principles to non-academic questions and settings. I take this definition from Foucault. It’s necessarily a vein of thought that involves contradictions and the like. It is made material in current settings by way of “bottom line logic” — as in, “it’s only important if it makes money.” I think there’s grave danger of media studies operating via this logic. I think the reasons why come through in the thread rather clearly.

    When one is uncomfortable with ideas, it’s easy to lob potshots about the manner in which they’re presented. For a refresher:

  • I don’t know what you think the potshot was. On the contrary, I think my response was pretty reasonable.

    Your argument was unclear–specifically with regard to the particular conception of neoliberalism you had in mind since you didn’t tell us. Should the reader have just been able to guess it was Foucault’s? In any case, it matters to the argument and is in no way a trivial issue.

    It also matters to the argument that some academic work on The Wire is actually guilty of what you claim–otherwise, you’ve just set up a straw man. And if the implication is that I am one of the offending parties (I still don’t know because you haven’t answered my question directly), then you should say as much so I can defend myself. And I’m entitled to defend myself because my essay doesn’t “hold up” quality and narrative complexity as reasons to study The Wire, much less abet the neoliberal project.

    Finally, your link was broken so I don’t know what point you wanted to make with it. But what entitles you to the assumption that I’m uncomfortable with the ideas you present? The fact that I find them unclear and unconvincing? And if you do suspect that people are uncomfortable with these ideas and you actually want to convince those people of their plausibility, why not strive for conceptual clarity?

    In any case, contrary to your insinuation, I don’t have a problem debating your ideas. My own take is that the rapid corporatization of higher education in the US and the UK is pretty obviously afoot and is already having some clearly deleterious consequences. I actually thought this was common knowledge. But this doesn’t mean I have to find your argument about scholarship on The Wire abetting neoliberalism plausible. I don’t. And even if I did, it would still strike me that there are more apt targets for your general criticism.

  • Really fascinating article, Hollis. I think you have hit on a lot of key points regarding something that will have an ever increasing impact on our lives.

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