Amelie Hastie / Amherst College

tv classroom

TV Classroom.

In the third chapter of Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary opens with a discussion of Goethe’s description of a room. Initially pointing to that perception engendered by a camera obscura, Goethe instead turns, Crary writes, to describe “the corporeal subjectivity of the observer.” [ (( Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1990. 69. ))] He continues, drawing on the work of Francois-Pierre Maine de Biran, to note: “the body becomes a stubborn physical fact.” [ (( Crary, 72. ))] Of course, the very sensations of the body of the observer remain grounded in the very room in which she or he sits. For me, this is a provocative — and extraordinarily appropriate — way to think not only about television spectatorship but also those other spaces that enable our sense of perception to take hold.

techniques of the observer

Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer.

I want to begin, then, by contextualizing my own pedagogical practices through a consideration of the critical and institutional spaces that have inevitably informed me as a teacher, scholar, and colleague. My graduate training was at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I earned my PhD in the Modern Studies program of the English Department. During the period of my study, Modern Studies was the program where both Film and Media Studies and Critical Theory were lodged. But it was just one of five programs at the time, which also included Literary Studies and Composition (as well as Creative Writing and Linguistics). Thus the context for our study and research was inevitably an interdisciplinary one (along with courses in Film, Television, and Critical Theory, for instance, I also took classes in nineteenth-century US literature, as well as interdisciplinary topical courses). I was therefore steeped in disciplinary studies — film and media, composition, literature — that together were set within an interdisciplinary model for research and teaching.

From UWM, I took a job at the University of California-Santa Cruz in the Film and Digital Media department, where I worked for almost a dozen years. Here my teaching became immersed in the discipline of Film and Media Studies, yet in the context of a program that included, equally, Production and Critical Studies. Our philosophy was that these two arms of “theory” and “practice” must be in conversation (or, at the very least, that students take courses in each). But while my teaching here was more “disciplinary” than “interdisciplinary,” my scholarship and my collegial practice were both informed by working with artists. From UCSC, I moved to Amherst College, a small liberal arts in New England, to start a program in Film and Media Studies. And here I was able to capitalize on resources to develop a major for students that thrives on an integrated practice between artistic and scholarly production in moving-image media. Moreover, being simultaneously housed also in an English department, my courses have again taken on an interdisciplinary thrust and, in some cases, a renewed attention to writing (especially at the “introductory” level). This institutional move has been, then, a return to some of my interdisciplinary roots as both a student and a teacher, but it has always carried with it the insistence on the complementary, if also “disciplined,” work of artists and scholars, which together create an inherently interdisciplinary practice.

classroom space

The “space” of the classroom is shaped by the disciplinarity of institutional sites and programs and in turn influences teachers’ and students’ interactions with their objects of study..

These three institutional sites, and my own place within them, have inevitably shaped my primary pedagogical site as well — that is, the “space” of the classroom. The classroom, after all, is that space where we continuously practice our own changing ideas, which are themselves in turn transformed by the students in the room with us. In my case, I encourage a creative critical practice as viewers, researchers, and writers in my classroom. And in both film and television courses, I try to integrate the following concerns: the materiality of viewing experiences, medium specificity, changing modes of viewing practices, and an expansion of what counts as “theoretical” material. These elements culminate in some of the writing assignments I offer students (and which I also attempt to complete myself, whenever possible). And they also, inevitably, recognize the body who watches and writes as a “stubborn physical fact.”

In the past few years, in what might seem a strange revenge scenario against all those non-specialists who integrate film and television into their syllabi (sometimes as a “break” from more serious study, sometimes as a “fun” addition, sometimes as a form of representation of a particular idea – but rarely as a medium- and culturally-specific form), I have increasingly added works outside of the discipline of Film and Media Studies into my own syllabi: poetry, novels, memoirs, personal essays, etc. And I’ve also been teaching a first-year seminar called “Things Matter” — an introduction to studies of Material Culture without the theoretical readings of the field — which includes a unit on various media forms. The latter class has, in many ways, shaped my approach to my upper-division courses in Film and Television Studies. Throughout “Things Matter,” I assign a series of “Object Lessons,” in which I implore students to “write in the form that the thing demands.” Ultimately my goal is not to have them produce, say, essays in the shape of a pair of socks or a candy bar, but rather to consider what shape their writing might take in response to particular objects. How, for instance, would they approach a discussion of a television series in relation to the device on which they watch it? How does the one inform the other, and how does that relationship inform their own writing?

My foundations course in Television Studies, “Knowing Television,” centrally inquires, as the name implies, how we know television — as a medium, a textual system, a cultural object. And how, I continually ask (if only to inform my assignments), do we write in the form that this particular “thing” demands? First and foremost, I think, we must recognize television as always an intertextual system and, as one that incorporates many kinds of material devices. In this way, writing about television always demands an ability to move between, whether that’s between texts, between devices and images, or between the spectatorial experience of perception and that thing or image that we perceive. Let me here offer a response of my own design to return to that image with which I began via Crary and Goethe: the room where we sit and how it might open and close depending on our visual focus.

classroom space

New screens and interfaces activate not only engage time-shifting but also space-shifting in television viewing and viewership..

Time-shifting has undeniably eliminated certain elements of television viewing. But space-shifting — transferring the interface to an extension of our bodies or something very near to it — has altered other aspects as well. At least in terms of our physical proximity to it, the hand-held screenic device makes television viewing more like reading. But of course the television set was not originally designed as a replacement for the novel. Rather than isolate readers in space from one another, as novels do, and, in a sense, from the very rooms where they sit, the television sought to unify members of a room (as members of a family) in a shared space. This architecture of space enabled particular kinds of viewing practices, coterminous with the structure of content of commercial broadcast television in particular. So, while television’s form invited a distracted viewer, one whose distraction was born of the “interruptions” that make up commercial broadcast television, its spatial structure similarly allowed for a sense of distraction. That spatial distance meant one could look across the room at another viewer, shift one’s line of vision to another part of the larger space of which the viewing room was a part, or simply take in a broader point of view around the set itself. In this form, the viewer watches the set and the texts it screened in the context of the space in which it was/is situated. What happens, then, when the viewing device produces a more immediate proximity to what we see, particularly as our interfaces are, in essence, these very same objects we hold in our hands? How do our bodies adapt to what we see through how we see it? And what role does spatial proximity or distance, as enabled by those things we control, play in relation to our narrative, perceptual and affective experiences?

Simply put, television study — and the writing about it that I encourage my students to practice — must be contextualized in time and space, particularly as “time” and “space” continuously shift. Knowing television demands a consciousness of the experience of perception and of the physical body who both perceives and exists in material space oneself. Entering into these coterminous spaces invokes a learning and writing practice that, I hope, allows the “I” of the student to maintain a critical, creative, and embodied response to what might otherwise seem to be ephemeral images moving on the screens before us.

Image Credits:
1. TV Classroom.
2. Techniques of the Observer.
3. Classroom space.
4. TV on our phone.

Please feel free to comment.

Amelie Hastie / Amherst College


TNT: We know drama

In “The Wall and the Books,” a short essay about tales of the building of the Great Wall of China and the concomitant banning of books, Jorge Luis Borges writes of the permanence and impermanence of history. At the end of the essay he makes what seems a sudden detour: “Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.” I am quite convinced this passage speaks also to how we know and feel television. For it is a phenomenon and a thing which produces both a state of knowing and of being. Television itself – its very structure constituted by breaks, by a schedule that produces ellipses and interstices no matter what channel you are watching or even how you are watching – is always on the cusp of something. This structure moves us towards a continuous state of imminent revelation. Of course most television texts – no matter what genre – move us towards the revelation of some piece of knowledge: what will solve our sleeping problems, who killed the weekly victim, what team will win the game. But Borges is describing a different sort of imminence and a different sort of revelation. And, though more ineffable, this, too, is relevant to television, particularly if we begin to imagine the possible states of feeling it generates in us.

I want to begin to think through these states of feeling here. Other columnists have ended contributions with questions concerning television and affect (most recently, Sasha Torres, who imagined television as part of a depressive state, just published last month and, in 2007, David Lavery, who described experiences of crying in response to television narratives). I, too, sometimes cry in front of my TV, and often I watch with my own dog, though, thankfully, he tends to lie at my feet. Torres and Lavery offer significant states to explore. But I also want to try to articulate that sense of imminence that Borges describes by beginning to ask what it means to respond emotionally and viscerally before a seemingly mundane machine.

I’m not talking about the waffling of emotions that I imagine almost everyone feels while watching – the sense of comfort comingling with a sense of shame for experiencing that comfort in the first place. Rather, I think we might imbue the mechanical and the mundane with its own affect of sorts, one that can be felt not just in us as viewers but between us and the machine. This also means, I suppose, to think and write about television affectively, from an experience of viewing that is neither pure pleasure nor pure displeasure (with oneself or the television), nor even pure ambivalence. The state of imminence that television allows and produces, after all, hinges, as Borges suggests, on a kind of expectation. What does television do but produce that sense of expectation, via commercial breaks, the week between appointments with particular shows, the ellipsis between seasons of programming? Such rhythms constitute a sensation that provides a possibility of connection. These connections occur within and across series in a narrative and structural framework, but they also exist in a mode of feeling.


Rizzoli and Isles

To think through this idea here, I’m now going to take a network – TNT, particularly its late-day line-up – as my (brief) textual object of study. This is a cable network that thrives on syndication, drawing on a practice developed in the 1950s and based on the notion that viewers find comfort in seeing something that they have seen before — i.e., the safety of the familiar. ((See Derek Kompare, “Familiarity Breeds Content” in Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television. NY: Routledge, 2005.)) The network whose tagline is “we know drama,” TNT’s syndicated programming is primarily made up of series about investigation and the law. The first half of the day currently includes multiple episodes of series about supernatural investigations and investigators: Angel, Charmed, Supernatural, and Smallville. A break in that programming, which leads into the afternoon and evening fare, gives us two episodes of Las Vegas, followed by an episode of a TNT original, The Closer, in syndication at this time slot. And thus begins the afternoon and night-time programming: multiple episodes, depending on the day of the week, of Law & Order, Bones, The Mentalist, and, most recently, CSI: New York, with guest appearances of more original programming such as The Closer, Rizzoli and Isles, or Southland. I could say much about discrete details within and across the range of these series, along with advertising (including ads for one series while we’re watching another or for the network as a whole), to point to the myriad sorts of connections TNT as a wider text invites. However, in the space remaining I want to tease out some broader connections in relation to particular series (especially Law & Order, Bones, and Rizzoli and Isles) and to the particular themes of love and war.

Seeley Booth

Special Agent Seeley Booth

In its nearly-primetime set of slots, TNT showcases episodes of Law & Order primarily from the past ten years (the series completed a run of twenty seasons in 2010) – in other words, from those episodes that aired since September 11, 2001. As one of the first, and for many years only, series to highlight the United States’s invasion of Iraq, Law & Order frequently placed the war itself on trial. In TNT’s schedule of episodes, moving from one year of the series to another, back and forth in time, we may recognize a challenge in its programming to the “laws” of history – thus ensuring that an “imminent revelation” will not occur if we expect it through linear time or historical resolution. Rather, we see patterns through that narrative history which exhibit and refuse a resolution, at least of the on-going war and the nation’s ultimate culpability in regard to it. Interestingly, often set along side of these narratives is Bones, currently in its seventh season and airing in multiple episodes on Tuesday nights. This series features a main character, Special Agent Seeley Booth, as a former military sniper active in the war in Iraq, returning for a year of duty between seasons five and six – an ellipsis that we don’t witness. As this ellipsis most markedly demonstrates, in Bones‘ case the war serves as a backdrop, but often as that which can’t be spoken: it is only teased out at significant moments to mark the traumatic nature of Booth’s experience.

Instead, what we get amidst the dead and decaying bodies that are the weekly objects of investigation on Bones is a labyrinth of intimacies between all of the characters. This is a show with deep affection and the knowledge about one another that springs from such feeling, revealed, usually, in very fleeting moments: a quip from Angela to Temperance “Bones” Brennan or a lingering, if unnoticed, look from Bones to Booth. Such affection lingers longer on Rizzoli and Isles (another series which has recently featured stories linked to the current war), enabled by the fact that the show has a smaller cast and therefore a clearer primary relationship (that between the two eponymous heroines). This kind of knowing affection bleeds into my own sense of the sometimes tentative friendship between my favorite Law & Order cops, Lennie Briscoe and Ed Green, but it also spills into the way I understand each of these series’ attempts to acknowledge and even take stock of the nearly decade-long war the US has waged in the Middle East. Strung together on TNT’s schedule, these series produce a burgeoning understanding of the war, whether “on trial” or something a character like Booth carries with him everyday, and this understanding incites in me a feeling – some affection, some gratitude, some anger – that engages me with the machine in the room with me. Thus while the individual episodes produce narrative closure (the solution to a crime), the imminence of feeling lingers.

Briscoe and Green

Detectives Briscoe and Green

The revelation that I may be awaiting yet doesn’t quite occur might disappear into the scheduled breaks between narratives or episodes or series; it might be lost in the distance between me and the set across the room; or it might not occur because, in the case of this “aesthetic phenomenon,” I am still only watching. But I believe I do see across these series a sense of possibility as well – that the impenetrability of a space or a belief is not as powerful as we might be led to believe.

With thanks to my Research Assistant Alison Fornell for her keen editorial eye.

Image Credits:
1. TNT ensemble
2. Money for Nothing Review
3. Seeley Booth
4. Briscoe and Green

Please feel free to comment.