Response to the “Taste and Television” Panel

by: Leigh H. Edwards / Florida State University

In response to the “Taste and Television” panel at the recent FLOW conference, I wanted to say I found the position papers and discussion to be quite productive and illuminating. Jason Mittell has raised some vital issues, and the scholars gathered at the conference were obviously passionate about discussing the topic. In the position papers and discussions, many of us were interested in unpacking issues such as how taste relates to quality, how to think critically about evaluative criticism, and how Bourdieu on taste might be instructive here.

I found myself persuaded by the points Ronald Becker raised and his concern that a taste-based criticism focuses on the contingency of taste rather than on reifying evaluative claims. Becker, in arguing that the question of examining taste is not an either/or one, notes the value of being self-reflexive about our own aesthetic investments, but he also questions what the motivating goals of taste-based criticism would be. Mittell argues that his motivation would not be to assert hierarchy or elitism and instead to develop a model for addressing taste and aesthetics that would not suffer from the universalism one finds in many other humanistic disciplines historically founded in evaluative criticism.

I find Mittell's line of thinking potentially productive and am, like Becker, willing to listen. Obviously, one would want to hear more specifics about what a taste-based model of inquiry would look like in TV studies, and since Mittell has made some compelling calls for further discussion of this issue, I would imagine we'll start to hear some nuts and bolts arguments. I wanted to offer a few questions and concerns by way of contributing to that discussion of what taste study might look like here.

I come at the issue of evaluative criticism from a background in literary studies. Thus, I'm always a bit apprehensive about arguments in favor of aesthetic judgments as a ground of study. Even though literary studies has continuously questioned canons and canon boundaries, it has not, in my view, been able to escape the problems with hierarchy and elitism that have historically accompanied evaluative criticism in the discipline (a problem I think persists in more recent critical movements like new aestheticism). Mittell points out that since TV studies has a different history, not based in these aesthetic value judgments, it has a chance to avoid these problems. While I agree that the field is free of some baggage, it would still need to develop a full-fledged alternative method of inquiry here in order to avoid the kinds of problems literary scholars have faced even when they've done their best to avoid them. I don't think the difficulties literary studies has faced are only due to the foundational discourse problem. Thus, I'm urging that we look carefully at the cautionary tales in other disciplines.

Literary scholars have long noted how aesthetic taste is socially conditioned and contextual, yet even while observing that, many critics still fall into the trap of asserting the quality of one kind of literary aesthetic over the other without fully examining how they are, on one level, asserting the values of a particular class or social conditioning over another. An instructive example would be the continued dismissal of literary sentimentalism. Even though we know there are problematic gender politics at play in the slam on sentimentalism, we still see continuing examples of such dismissals that implicitly or explicitly favor modernist aesthetic values as more complex (by that definition) and therefore somehow necessarily more valuable or of higher quality. Likewise, in popular music studies, Simon Frith has called for the self-reflexive evaluation of scholarly taste, but some critics have used that call as an excuse for navel-gazing or as carte blanche to explain why they like what they like without doing enough to analyze that evaluative process critically or to place it in terms of socio-historical context. I would want to take great care to avoid such problems. More promisingly, however, some pop music scholars have tried to use this type of discussion of taste to take a more critical look at scholarly biases and investments that have shaped that field historically (witness the recent discussions of rockism).

In sum, I am open to hearing arguments about how to be self-reflexive about one's own tastes and value assumptions and prejudices, but the goal for me would be how to analyze and historicize them rather than reinforcing them. How can we go about analyzing evaluative discourses (which are inescapably marked by socio-historical contexts, class discourses, etc.) rather than reifying them or pitting them against each other. In conversation, Mittell talked about some possibilities for taste-based criticism, like trying to analyze how a show articulates its aesthetic investments, how to evaluate it in the aesthetic terms it sets out, how to address how it works within fluctuating genre conventions, etc. That kind of analysis seems the most promising route to me.

As a final note, I wanted to agree with some comments made during the discussion about the problems with simply affirming complexity as a value (which seems to be a claim made implicitly in order to try to legitimate TV). I don't know that it necessarily helps TV studies to claim TV is valuable because it is complex. While many scholars have done admirable work to trace narrative complexity, I would resist claiming that as the only value in TV, because to do so risks reifying aesthetic-class hierarchies. It strikes me as more helpful to argue that TV texts do a variety of productive kinds of cultural work, ranging from repetition to the pleasures of imagining and transgressing genre conventions.

Please feel free to comment.

One comment

  • “This is a good discussion”

    The subject of this comment is a value judgement that I feel comfortable making, and I thank Leigh for her thoughtful comments. I admit that what I’m proposing needs to be demonstrated in practice rather than simply talked about in “meta” terms. Also, my argument is neither new nor original, as Charlotte Brunsdon and Jason Jacobs (among others) have both published essays making similar claims for the usefulness of evaluation. As Henry Jenkins mentioned in the discussion, Alan McKee’s new anthology Beautiful Things in Popular Culture is an excellent model of how to write evaluative criticism and why it matters. I hope to publish some more examples in my future work asserting the value of value and why we need not simply be making canons.

    As for your final note, my own recent work is asserting the value of narrative complexity – not as an absolute universal mark of value over simplicity, but as a potential for something that television can do quite well (and perhaps in ways that other media cannot). TV is a multifaceted medium with a broad array of genres and potential pleasures – analyzing one such mode of expression is not to argue that it is the most important (or only) pleasure, but just that it is important & worth valuing.

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