Contemporary Television Criticism: State of the Art or Stuck in the Past?
by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University
The launch of FLOW — an innovative project designed to engage scholars, students, and citizens in conversation about television and media culture — provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the current state of television criticism. Thus, in this essay, I pose the critical question, “Is contemporary television criticism state of the art or stuck in the past?” My bias is probably already evident. The wording of the question supposes an affirmation of the latter, otherwise why pose the question? If I thought contemporary TV criticism was state of the art, then this would be a very short essay. In fact, I’d be done. Everything is wonderful, and you should go back to whatever you were doing. But, as the question suggests, I am at least concerned that the “state” of the art may not be so “state of the art.” So, posing the question was just a thinly veiled attempt to appear “objective” as I highlight some growing concerns I have about contemporary television criticism. Specifically, I examine what I take to be two questionable practices and assumptions that widely (though certainly not universally) animate contemporary television studies.
Practice 1: The analysis of individual television programs in isolation. Much of the academic and popular TV criticism generated today concerns itself with individual programs. Indeed, entire scholarly books are published about individual television programs. I find this practice flawed on two counts. It both ignores the specific character of television today and the specific practices of viewers today. To analyze a single TV program (in isolation) is to tear it from the very fabric of its context! I take the decision to name this forum FLOW as evidence that the editors and creators of this site recognize that contemporary television and media culture is a powerful, unending torrent of images and information (see Gitlin, 2001). It is a steady stream, in which particulates swirl and mix indiscriminately without beginning and end. There was a time, of course, in television’s history when “programming” entailed providing a limited menu of predetermined (and some would say, predigested) options. One watched television like dining out at a restaurant. Choose something off the menu (no substitutions please!), consume it, and leave when the restaurant closes, or in the case of television, go to bed when the networks stop broadcasting. But that was the now bygone era of broadcast television, three dominant networks, and limited programming.
In the information-saturated culture of cable and digital television, multiple networks and content providers, 24-hour programming, technological convergence, interactivity, and Internet fandom, television critics ought probably remove the term “program” from their vocabularies. Programs no longer exist. Rather, as “the postmodern medium par excellence” (Sim, 1999, p. 112), “Television’s regular daily and night-time flows of images and information, bring together bits and pieces from elsewhere, constructing its sequences … on the basis of collage techniques and surface simulations” (Strinati, 1995, p. 231). Television’s already fragmented flow of images is further enhanced by ancillary technologies such as the VCR, TiVo, and remote control, which allow for time-shifting, channel surfing, and even watching several shows simultaneously (see Connor 1989, p. 168; Fiske, 1992, pp. 58-60; Flitterman-Lewis, 1992, p. 217). Television viewers no longer consume programs; they produce Texts. Reading, in the traditional sense, is about consumption, about following the path prescribed by an author. One does not regularly pick up a book, turn to a random page and begin reading backwards. But many television viewers think nothing of tuning into a so-called “program” already in progress, and then channel surfing (in either direction) as they continue to watch. Television criticism needs to attend more carefully to both televisual flow and the culture of fragmentation. How precisely do viewers construct meaningful experiences out of the shards of televisual flow? What difference does it make to claim that television viewers produce or write Texts (in the Barthesian sense of intertextuality), rather than consume or read products? As critics take up these questions, I would urge them to stop treating the “Author” as the privileged site of meaning. Like web surfers, television viewers increasingly furnish the “form” — the start, movement, pace, direction, and end point — of their own viewing experiences.
Practice 2: The obsessive ideological critique of television and the assumption that it will make television “better.” Ok, I’m likely to ruffle some feathers here, but I take up this subject because I’m concerned by what I see as the increasing (ideological) homogeneity of television criticism. Since the interpretive turn in the 1970s, TV critics have produced a massive (and some would say, obese) body of scholarship on the hegemonic ideology conveyed by television. My concern is not over whether or not television is hegemonic. Of course it is! My concern is over whether or not the obsessive repetition of ideological critique has done anything to make television less hegemonic and more democratic? After nearly 40 years of ideological critique, we get The Man Show (1999-2004)? How can this be? Why has the production of oppositional codes not transformed television and, more importantly, can it? I want to propose that ideological criticism, as it currently is practiced, is ill equipped to bring about progressive social change for two reasons. First, ideological criticism rooted in oppositional codes destroys the dominant pleasures of television viewing — what Barthes (1975) terms plaisir — without providing a language for the pleasure that derives from breaking with culture — what Barthes terms jouissance. Without developing an alternative pleasure, viewers have a powerful disincentive to read oppositionally (at least after they earn a grade in our classrooms), particularly since oppositional reading destroys the only type of pleasure (plaisir) they know (see Mulvey, 1988, p. 59). We need to begin to develop modes of criticism rooted in pleasure, what Susan Sontag (2001) calls an “erotics of art” (p. 14), so that viewers have an incentive and desire to read transgressively. We’ve also got to teach students to generate their own codes for viewing television, rather than simply urging them to adopt the oppositional codes developed by critics. Oppositional codes have become so identified with a Leftist ideology that they risk shifting the site of ideological domination from television to teachers. Replacing one ideology with another is still hegemony. We need to fragment ideology, to break up it.
Second, ideological criticism rooted in oppositional reading does little to alter the underlying relations of production. As Walter Benjamin (1986) noted in 1934, the way to change social conditions is not simply to critique the attitudes or ideologies of messages, it is to alter their position within relations of production (pp. 142-143). The problem with ideological criticism and oppositional reading in particular is that it protects and preserves the existing conditions of production by both treating television as a set of unified, holistic products (e.g., programs) and treating viewers as consumers. We need a critical practice that helps transform consumers into producers. Ironically, the very technologies associated with television are poised to assist in this practice. For Benjamin, a progressive intelligentsia is not defined by its opinions, attitudes, or dispositions, and its mission is not merely to “report” ideological domination. Rather, a progressive intelligentsia is interventionist; it seeks to disrupt, to transform the forms and instruments of production by dissolving the conventional distinction between author and reader (Benjamin, 1986, pp. 223, 225, 228). I offer these observations because only by regularly examining and interrogating our current practices and assumptions can television criticism become and remain state of the art.
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Benjamin, W. (1986). “The author as producer.” In W. Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings (E. Jephcott, Trans., pp. 220-238). New York: Schocken Books. (Original work published 1966).
Conner, S. (1989). Postmodern culture: An introduction to theories of the contemporary. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
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