Dispatch from the Inaugural Fan Studies Network – North America Conference
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

Dr. Paul Booth's popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference.

A departmental popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference at Depaul University.

“How can we find a way to make an academic conference more like fandom?” FSN-North America organizer Lesley Willard asks me. It is a rhetorical question, but I think the organizing committee have made a good start with their choice of premise. Fandom is infinite and iterative and overwhelming, and the eleventh floor of DePaul University mirrors this. It is organized in a circle (allegedly), yet there are so many doors leading in so many directions that the attendees—including myself, especially myself—are perpetually getting lost. It is so incomprehensible that by the end of the conference, people are still astonished to discover the books ‘n’ coffee room where I am set up. I require a lot of assistance from the organizer whose home university this is, Dr. Paul Booth. He’s a man with a plan—and a popcorn machine.

He tells me, while walking me around in a circle to show me how impossible I will find it to get lost, that he used $200 of refreshment money a few conferences back to buy a department popcorn maker instead. [ (( I am lost as soon as he leaves my side. ))] It is visibly his pride and joy. I conceal my intention to eat yellow bell peppers rather than popcorn while schmoozing with my fellow attendees at the opening reception. In the context of a fan studies conference, schmoozing consists of trying to discover what things one’s interlocutors are fans of—based on subtle context clues like TARDIS pins and Ravenclaw scarves—and then talking about those things noisily until one has to steal away for wine, more bell peppers, or the restroom.

FSN–North America is the brainchild of the scholarly interest group in Fan and Audience Studies at SCMS 2017. Dr. Paul Booth, Dr. Kristina Busse, Dr. Louisa Stein, Dr. Lori Morimoto, and Lesley Willard began talking about how to find a space for fan studies as its own discipline, rather than a minor offshoot of film studies or cultural studies (or any of the many other departments where fan studies scholars make their homes). Creating a North American chapter of the existing Fan Studies Network seemed like a no-brainer, and FSN–Mothership agreed. [ (( “FSN-Mothership” is a colloquial name for the international parent organization, Fan Studies Network.))]

A porg figurine

A porg figurine from the popular Star Wars film series.

The inaugural conference begins with a keynote speech from Abigail de Kosnik. As I settle into the basement room where the keynote is to be, I write a tweet that says “nothing is worth how early I must think thoughts today” and then delete it, because Abigail de Kosnik will inevitably be worth it. She opens by saying: “The current US political climate is a fan war. The show is the United States of America.”

Everyone is entranced as de Kosnik develops this metaphor; we keep waiting for it to collapse under its own weight, but of course it never does. We badly want her utopian view of “our” side of fandom to be real. When she says, “We’ve never seen a show like the one we want: A show of versioning, of variance, of infinite points of view,” your sleepy, under-caffeinated correspondent dabbed away tears. Despite any reservations the audience may have regarding the capacity of fan studies to reshape the political climate, it is a remarkably energizing start. Virtually nobody I speak to over the course of the conference opens the conversation with anything but “Oh my God, that keynote.”

The other constant is the attendees’s elation at getting to spend time with other fan studies scholars. Though most folks come from supportive departments, I hear a lot of stories about mentors who advised against pursuing fan studies. FSN-NA brought together all the people who decided to pursue it anyway, and they are delighted to be in a room together. Towards the end of the conference, someone suggests including fanfiction-style tags on papers and panels, to help each other find points of connection across subdisciplines. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations is the order of the day. [ ((I had to Google this because I couldn’t remember what the exact phrase was. Infinite variety? Infinite versions? Please nobody revoke my fan studies membership card.))]

The variety of panels is part of the conference’s design. From the very beginning, organizers knew they wanted to offer an expansive vision of the discipline. What began in 1992 with a few books about communities of fans of science fiction television has since grown to encompass everything from comics to sports, from politics to early modern literature.

“The fan studies group always crushes everyone else at live-tweeting SCMS panels,” I am told, not without pride. Which is no surprise; fannish people are old hands at finding ways to make the experience of watching a thing communal. The hashtag for the conference (#FSNNA18) is so active that it starts trending locally, and we acquire a spammer with opinions about recent political events. My schedule of meetings prevents me from attending most of the panels, but I am able to follow along handily. If I’m not sure of the point one tweet from a given panel is making, there is sure to be another one to fill in the gaps.

Fanfiction encouragement

The author encourages attendees to share their fanfiction (“fic”) recommendations.

On the second day, I make my own small foray into conference-as-fandom: I set up a bag of Halloween candy with an offer to trade candy for fanfiction recommendations. As a method of getting pooped-out introvert academics to chat with me, it is extremely effective. Someone writes down a fic that I later find out is the most-recommended fic for the fandom newsletter The Rec Center. Folks keep coming by my table and meekly suggesting that I may not want the fic recs they have to offer because maybe I don’t care about [insert fandom here]. I show them my iPad, where I have Archive of Our Own open in a browser tab so that I can easily bookmark all the recommendations I am receiving.

“What are you going to do with these?” someone asks me.

I say, “Read them.”

(Of course.)

Image Credits:
1. A departmental popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference at Depaul University. (author’s personal collection)
2. A porg figurine from the popular Star Wars film series. (author’s personal collection)
3. The author encourages attendees to share their fanfiction (“fic”) recommendations. (author’s personal collection)

Please feel free to comment.

El Inicio de la Investigación Científica de la Comunicación Social en América Latina

por: José Luis Ortiz Garza / Universidad Panamericana

(for English, click here)

Preparing Poll

Preparing poll

La Oficina de Asuntos Inter-Americanos

El 16 de agosto de 1940 el Presidente Roosevelt creó lo que más tarde se conocería como Office of Inter-American Affairs [OIAA])” y nombró Director a Nelson Rockefeller. Un año antes de que la OIAA iniciara formalmente sus operaciones, Rockefeller decidió obtener información confiable de América Latina sobre propaganda del Eje, actitudes hacia los Estados Unidos, y hábitos de consumo de comunicación. De inmediato contactó con el Dr. George Gallup y firmaron un contrato por 250 mil dólares mediante el cual Hadley Cantril, socio de Gallup y Director de la “Oficina de Princeton para Investigación de Opinión Pública”, se responsabilizaría del proyecto. Otros reconocidos científicos como Leonard Doob (de la Universidad de Yale), y Lloyd A. Free (Editor de la revista Public Opinion Quarterly) fueron incorporados a la compañía “American Social Surveys, Inc.[i].

Para evitar sospechas se constituyó la “Oficina de Información para las Exportaciones” de la “American Association of Advertising Agencies”, y se nombraron a sus “observadores” en América Latina. Tras una intensa capacitación en diversas metodologías y técnicas para el análisis de la comunicación, estos pioneros en comunicología partieron a sus destinos hacia principios de febrero de 1941[ii].

Lloyd A. Free: el pionero

Mientras los “observadores” preparaban maletas o se establecían, Lloyd A. Free, realizó en Brasil la primera encuesta de América Latina que pudiera “ser reputada como completa y confiable”. Free trabajó incansablemente de febrero a mayo de 1941: tomó una muestra de 2,342 personas, y contrató, capacitó, y supervisó a los encuestadores. Su reporte final describió los hábitos brasileños de consumo de medios de comunicación y sus opiniones sobre la colaboración con Estados Unidos[iii].

Radio survey

Radio survey

No obstante que Lloyd A. Free fue el pionero en la investigación científica de la comunicación social en Latinoamérica, muchos de los “observadores” merecen esa misma distinción. Fueron: George H. Landes, publicista de la J. Walter Thompson, establecido en Argentina, responsable también de Paraguay y Uruguay; el ex-ejecutivo de la “Standard Oil Co.” Harald Corson, destinado a México; Jack Fahy cofundador y editor de la revista The Hemisphere, destinado a Colombia y a Centroamérica Charles Lee ejecutivo en Brasil y Cuba de la “IT&T Corp”, encargado de Perú y Bolivia; Eugene Warner, quien dejó su trabajo como Editor de la Sección Dominical del Washington Times Herald, para irse a Chile; Roy Nash, autor del libro The Conquest of Brazil, destinado a este país [posible colaborador de Free en la protoencuesta], y George Massey, asignado a Cuba[iv].

Los comunicólogos de la OIAA desarrollaron múltiples funciones: recortes de las principales noticias y editoriales; uso de los materiales de la OIAA; informes de todos los medios, detallando audiencia, circulación, ingresos, posturas editoriales, etc. Conviene destacar las encuestas de opinión, que buscaron explorar las actitudes hacia los Estados Unidos y los beligerantes, reacciones a algunas batallas, expectativas sobre la posguerra, etc. La primera, realizada en junio de 1941, midió las actitudes y sentimientos suscitados por el ataque de Alemania a Rusia. Además de recabar los resultados locales, Hadley Cantril preparó el primer reporte panamericano de los sentimientos sobre un tema específico[v].

Los observadores sirvieron también como espías y usaron sus reportes para presionar a los medios Pro-Eje. En México, Corson contribuyó a un boicot de anunciantes aliados contra los periódicos Excélsior, y Últimas Noticias[vi], contra la revista Hoy y contra la radiodifusora XEW, precursora del imperio multimedia “Televisa”, acusada de permitir que los nazis la utilizaran para enviar mensajes en clave[vii].

Radio coverage report

Radio coverage report

Las oficinas de los observadores fueron cerradas el 3 de marzo de 1942, y muchos de ellos continuaron sus trabajos dentro de las Embajadas de los Estados Unidos[viii].

Para información biográfica de estos pioneros, véase: Everett M. Rogers, A History of Communication Study: A Biographical Approach (New York: The Free Press, 1997), p. 220, 267-271, 381; Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 26, 87, 130-131 and Brett Gary, “Communication Research, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Mobilization for the War on Words, 1938-1944,” Journal of Communication 46:3 (Summer 1996): 124-147, 125.
Donald W. Rowland, “History of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs”, Washington, U. S. Government Printing Office, 1947, pp 1-7, y 245-247.
National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, (NARA), Record Group (RG) 229 Box 135, 2. Surveys 9, “Lloyd Free’s Report (February-May 1941)”
NARA RG 229, Box 137, 2. de Cantril to Spaeth, Marzo 19, 1941. Massey, debido al Embajador Estadounidense George Messersmith, renunció en diciembre de 1941 y fue reemplazado John Corbin. Cfr. NARA, RG 229, Box 139, de McClintock a Corson, Febrero 3 de 1942. Una nueva lista producida pocos meses después contenía algunos cambios en Brasil, Chile, Bolivia y Ecuador: cfr. NARA, RG 229, Box 137,2: “Names and Addresses of Observers”.
Véase NARA, RG 229, Box 138, #13”, de Corson a Cantril, Julio 2 de 1941; NARA RG 229, Box 139, #21, “Reactions in Latin America”, de Cantril a Spaeth, et. al, agosto 12 de 1941.
Cfr. NAW, RG 59, 812.911/307, de Daniels a Secretario de Estado”, Abril 10, 1941; NAW, RG 59, 812.917/46, de Robbins a Duggan, Septiembre 22, 1941.
NARA, RG 229, Box 139, de Miller a Corson, octubre 17, 1941.
NARA, RG 229, Box 139, de Robbins a Rockefeller et al. Marzo 9, 1942, y Donald Rowland, op. cit., p. 252. Corson se incorporó a la Embajada Americana: Ibid, de McGurk a Secretario de Estado, circa Febrero 1942.

Haga clic para ver la Bibliografía

Las fotografías y el mapa de cobertura radiofónica están tomadas de: National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 229, OIAA Files.

José Luis Ortiz Garza es Profesor y Director de Investigación de la Escuela de Comunicación en la Universidad Panamericana. Autor de tres libros sobre historia de los medios de comunicación en México.

Favor de comentar.

by: José Luis Ortiz Garza / Universidad Panamericana

The Office of Inter-American Affairs

In the summer of 1940, the American Government created what later on would be known as the “Office of Inter-American Affairs” [OIAA], and named Nelson A. Rockefeller as Coordinator. Around a year before the OIAA formally started, Rockefeller decided to obtain reliable information about the Axis propaganda, attitudes towards the USA, and communication habits in Latin America. He contacted George Gallup and signed a $250,000 contract under which Hadley Cantril, an associate of Gallup’s would be in charge of the project. Other well known communication scholars such as Leonard Doob, and Lloyd A. Free were hired by the “American Social Surveys, Inc.”[i]

In order to avoid suspicions, the operation was covered up by a contract with the “American Association of Advertising Agencies” through the “Research Division” of its “Export Information Bureau” that would have “observers” in Latin America. After being trained by the aforementioned scholars in communication methods and techniques, they set off in early 1941.[ii]

Lloyd A. Free: The Pioneer

It was Lloyd A. Free who performed in Brazil the first national survey in Latin America which could “make any claim of completeness and reliability.” Free worked tirelessly from February to May 1941: he construed a representative sample of 2,342 people, and hired, trained, transported and super-vised the interviewers. His final report described the Brazilians mass media consumption habits, and their opinions regarding the cooperation with the USA.[iii]

Notwithstanding the credit that Lloyd A. Free deserves as the trailblazer in scientific mass com-munications research in Latin America, most of the OIAA´s representatives get also that same distinction in their respective countries. They were: George Landes, an advertising executive assigned to Argentina, also in charge of Paraguay; Harald Corson, a former executive of Standard Oil Co., sent to Mexico; Jack Fahy, editor of the magazine The Hemisphere, sent to Colombia and Central America; Charles Todd Lee, who worked in Brazil and Cuba for the IT&T, sent to Peru, also in charge of Bolivia; Eugene Warner, former Sunday Editor of the Washington Times Herald assigned to Chile; Roy Nash, author of the book The Conquest of Brazil, in charge of this country [who probably worked in Free´s pioneering survey], and George Massey, posted to Cuba.[iv]

The observers performed functions such as a clipping service on local news, editorial opinion, and uses of OIAA´s materials; surveys on newspapers and radio stations, covering audience or circulation, editorial policies, etc. A special mention should be given to the public opinion surveys that explored the attitudes towards the USA and the belligerents, reactions to war battles, expectations about world in the post-war age, etc. The first one, made in June 1941, gauged the sentiments on the attack of Russia by Germany. Besides gathering the results for every country, Cantril prepared a Pan-American report, the first broad picture of the Latin American feelings about a single public issue.[v]

Some of the observer´s tasks were tied to espionage and served to exert pressure on pro-Axis media vehicles. In Mexico the reports of Corson led to an advertiser’s boycott to the important newspapers Excélsior and Ultimas Noticias,[vi] to Hoy, the most influential magazine, and to the radio station “XEW,” bedrock of the current multimedia empire Televisa, accused of helping the Nazis.[vii]

The offices of the observers were dismantled on March 3, 1942, and many of them continued their investigations on communication within the American Embassies.[viii]

For biographical references of the communication scholars, see: Everett M. Rogers, A History of Communication Study: A Biographical Approach (New York: The Free Press, 1997), p. 220, 267-271, 381; Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 26, 87, 130-131 and Brett Gary, “Communication Research, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Mobilization for the War on Words, 1938-1944,” Journal of Communication 46:3 (Summer 1996): 124-147, 125.
Its name was changed in 1941 and in March 1945, when it became “Office of Inter-American Affairs” (OIAA): Donald W. Rowland, History of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1947).
National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, (NARA), Record Group (RG) 229, Box 135, 2. Surveys 9, “Lloyd Free’s Report (February-May 1941).”
NARA, RG 229, Box 137, 2., From Cantril to Spaeth, March 19, 1941. Massey, because of Ambassador George Messersmith´s complaints, resigned in December 1941 and his assistant John Corbin stood in for him. Cfr. NARA, RG 229, Box 139, from McClintock to Corson, February 3, 1942. A new list produced few months later indicated some changes in Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador: cfr. NARA, RG 229, Box 137,2: “Names and Addresses of Observers.”
Cfr. NARA, RG 229, Box 138, Folder “American Social Surveys Export Information Bureau # 13”, from Corson to Cantril, July 2, 1941; NARA, RG 229, Box 139, # 21, from Cantril to Spaeth et al, August 12, 1941.
Cfr. NAW, RG 59, 812.911/307, From Daniels to Secretary of State, April 10, 1941; NAW, RG 59, 812.917/46. From Robbins to Duggan, September 22, 1941.
NARA, RG 59, 812.74/428; From Corson to Miller, October 17, 1941.
NARA, RG 229, Box 139, from Robbins to Rockefeller et al. March 9, 1942, and Donald W. Rowland, op. cit., p. 242. Harald J. Corson was hired by the American Embassy in Mexico City: Ibid, from McGurk to Secretary of State, circa February 1942.

Gary, Brett, “Communication Research, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Mobilization for the War on Words, 1938-1944,” Journal of Communication 46:3 (Summer 1996): 124-147.

National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, Record Group 229, “Records of the office of Inter-American Affairs [OIAA]”

Rogers, Everett M., A History of Communication Study: A Biographical Approach, New York: The Free Press, 1997.

Rowland, Donald W., History of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1947.

Simpson Christopher, Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
Images provided by author from the National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 229, OIAA Files.

Author: José Luis Ortiz Garza is Professor and Research Director of the School of Communications at Universidad Panamericana, Mexico City, and author of the three books on media history in Mexico.

Comics to Film (And Halfway Back Again): A DVD Essay

by: Drew Morton / UCLA




Being an avid reader of comic books and graphic novels and taking a closer look at cinematic adaptations of such materials, two aspects struck me like a good old Superman punch to the face. First, when and how had comic book adaptations began to take on the aesthetics of its source? Looking back at the 70s and 80s, most specifically Superman (1978) and Batman (1989), adaptations commonly took the source material (Bruce Wayne=Batman, rich millionaire, dark side, parents killed by criminal) while leaving the formal characteristics (panels, splash pages, spatial direction) at the wayside. Contrast these adaptations to films like Sin City (2005) and 300 (2007), both of which have been touted as being the cinematic equivalent to the original, both in terms of style and content.

Secondly, why had few scholars within cinema and media studies taken a closer look at comics? As Erwin Panofsky once wrote, “The comic strips–a most important root of cinematic art.” Regardless of this similarity, aside from pieces comparing comic books to storyboards and discussions of fan culture, critical study of the medium has almost exclusively come from workers within the industry: Art Spiegelman toured various college campuses on a lecture tour entitled “Comix 101,” graphic artist Scott McCloud published two books of theory between 1993 and 2000, and Chris Ware guest edited a volume of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern focusing solely on graphic art in 2004. Are comic books so similar to storyboards and film that they can be dismissed? Taking a cue from Art Spiegelman who quipped “Comics are not storyboards for movies at their best,” I would argue not.



I do not believe this oversight stems from an issue of high/low culture but rather the a lack of a theoretical vocabulary. After all, it’s not that comics have been ignored by those within the academy. Aside from the fan studies and comics as storyboards, Henry Jenkins has looked extensively at comic books as a form of trans-media storytelling and the last three annual Society of Cinema and Media Studies conferences have all featured panels regarding comic books. No, this isn’t an issue of high/low culture or complete ignorance but rather a redirection.

Taking these two thoughts, I began working on a paper for a seminar on media convergence I was enrolled in. During this time, I was also enrolled in a workshop with the end goal of producing a DVD essay. I had begun by segregating the two pieces. While I was working on the comic book adaptation paper for the convergence seminar, the DVD essay was going to be my visual crutch for my SCMS paper on American independent film and Steven Soderbergh.

However, this is not the path this project ended up on. My comic book paper was becoming far too visual to just throw a couple of still images into the blocks of text and, conversely, my indie film essay was perfectly fine on paper. Moreover, while I was researching the comic book project, I came across Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which I had been familiar with but never completely engulfed myself in. I found McCloud’s approach, to ground a working theory of comic books into the medium itself, the main source of inspiration, creating a large, explosive, thought bubble over my head.

As the project progressed, I realized that it would be ideal if the two projects would supplement one another. The visuals of the DVD could fully exemplify what I was attempting to describe, rather poorly, on paper while the analysis of the paper could elaborate on a utility belt full of topics that time and technological constraints had forced me to cast aside in favor of the viewer’s ability to audibly sort through much of the theory and quirks of the comic book medium (hence my attempt to make the visuals of the essay re-enforce the audio track). While both pieces function rather well on their own after extensive re-working, they both buckle to the constraints of their respective mediums, which one can only expect.

After the essay was completed, I had a lively discussion with my cohort (fellow Flow-ite Adam Fish included) regarding the reception of such pieces. While much of this discussion circled around issues of fair use, many of us shared the lament that, aside from an interactive conference paper, there lacks a venue for visual essays. While media studies publications often pride themselves at being ahead of the curve by diving into popular culture and new technologies, the only magazine to come out with a DVD of visual essays and short films (to my knowledge) has been Wholphin, the quarterly DVD magazine from Dave Eggers and the crew at McSweeney’s. However, if YouTube and the nickelodeons of the internet have shown us anything it is that there is a outlet for anything: be it Channel 101’s Yacht Rock or the video diaries from Iraqi soldiers. Why shouldn’t those within cinema and media studies throw their hats into the A/V ring as well?

While such a format may be dismissed on the grounds that only technophiles are able to grapple with the interfaces of programs like Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro, the technology, while frustrating at times, isn’t that fickle. Moreover, one could easily use iMovie or the standard Windows equivalent to cut together an essay. The only advantage to using a higher-end product lies in the bells and whistles and there volumes of “How-To” guides filling bookshelves at Borders that explain how to master these techniques much more eloquently than yours truly.

All aspects considered, perhaps the most beneficial is that by constructing visual essays, cinema and media studies scholars dip their hands into processes they think and write so much about. Why should theory and criticism be separate from filmmaking? As Sergi Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard have demonstrated, there is much to gain from the pairing of theory and praxis.

Useful Links:
1. Download Free Golden Age Comics
2. IGN: “300 in Film.”
3. IGN: “Best & Worst Comic Book Movies.”
4. IGN: “Building the Ultimate Bookshelf.”
5. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Comics Jump to the Screen.”
6. Scott McCloud’s Webpage
7. Time Magazine’s Comix
8. UWM Post: “High and Low.”
9. Wholphin
10. Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo” Short

Useful Image Links:
1. 300
2. American Splendor
3. Batman Animated
4. Hulk
5. Sin City
6. Superman Returns

Image Credits:
1. Superman
2. Catwoman

Please feel free to comment.

The Crying Game: Why Television Brings Us to Tears

by: David Lavery / Brunel University

August 21, 2005: the airing of the last episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under‘s five season run. At its end Claire, the youngest of the Fisher children, prepares to leave for New York, where a job in photography awaits. After tearful goodbyes on the porch of the Fisher and Diaz Funeral Home (even her dead brother Nate is there to bid her adieu), she drives away in her Toyota Prius and, with Sia’s “Breathe Me” playing on the mix CD boyfriend (and future husband) Ted has given her for the trip, heads east. As she drives, sobbing at times uncontrollably, we witness scenes from the future lives of each of SFU‘s principle characters and then, in turn, their deaths: Ruth passes away in bed with her surviving family at her side, Keith is killed in a robbery, David (at a picnic) and Federico (on a cruise ship) succumb to apparent heart attacks, Brenda dies as her brother Billy drones on. Though it is by no means clear whether all these culminations are to be taken as the driver’s own mindscreen imaginings or part of the official narrative itself, Claire herself is not spared: she dies in her bed, at the age of 102, in a room filled with her award-winning photographs. We linger for a moment on her cataract-scarred eyes and then, in a stunning match cut, return to her still fresh, beautiful, young eyes as they gaze out on the road ahead.

Screencap of Claire

Screencap of Claire

And I, sitting in my living room in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, have erupted into irrepressible crying. Though possibly my most intense mediated weeping, it was certainly not my first. The ending of To Kill a Mockingbird (“He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning”) has made me blubber since I was a teenage boy. At the age of forty, the ending of a matinee of Field of Dreams (“Hey Dad, do you want to have a catch?”) left me sitting alone in the theatre trying to gather myself before I took my salty eyes out into the afternoon sun.

Now that television is my scholar-fan obsession, the living room is my vale of tears. Northern Exposure, The Sopranos, NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars–these and other shows have often unmanned me. But no single television show has opened the tear ducts quite like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy being given the “Class Protector” award in “The Prom”; Anya’s poignant speech in “The Body”1; Buffy’s death (her second) in “The Gift”; the final conversation in “Chosen,” the series finale (“Yeah Buffy, what are we gonna to do now?”)–these and a score of other moments jerked my tears. The tears I shed were part of my bonding with the show–at least as important as the countless laughs it inspired.

Buffy and Class Protector Award

Buffy and Class Protector Award

Certain I was not alone in the regularity of my crying before the box, I sought the opinions of a number of colleagues, all television scholars, as I prepared to write this column, and though I make no claim to a systematic sampling, I found the responses of great interest. Here are some discoveries of note:

• A wide variety of television shows, from Champion the Wonder Horse to Neighbours, Roseanne, The West Wing, Desperate Housewives,2 and Grey’s Anatomy, have opened the flood gates.

Desperate Housewives

Desperate Housewives

• Several noted that endings–of episodes, seasons, series–often prove to be more tear-jerky.3

• One correspondent (Burkhead) observed that “The common cause of my tears is that in each case I was responding to a presentation of my ideals made manifest – love vanquishing evil, the good politician coming out on top, America putting aside its prejudices for the greater good. I suspect my tears were equally a result of joy and the sadness of knowing that I have to rely upon television to create goodness.”

• Others found a distinct difference between film and TV (and literary) tears. One (Byers) gave television pre-eminence:

I have cried over films, but the experience isn’t the same (even films I’ve watched over and over again, even ones I own and watch at home). I have cried over the beauty of films and over the narratives, but I think I cry with the characters on TV. The narratives may be sad or painful but I cry often from the connection I have to the ongoing story (I don’t think I’ve ever cried – except on occasion for tears of joy – at the end of a film), to the characters and so on … books have made me cry too, certainly. Sometimes when they were so good and came to an end before I was ready to be done with them. And there have been characters in books that I have loved deeply and cried with… so maybe, for me, TV is more like literature in that way. But with TV it’s more dramatic. It brings together so many things, the story, the visuals and the music and so on…

While another (Robson) ranked literature first in the crying game:

By far, for me, the most tear inducing is literature–I can say that across the board, romance or not, that literature has usually prompted the tear-swells. My favorite novel–Love in the Time of Cholera, makes me cry every time I read it–sometimes, I start crying before the parts that make me cry in the novel, in anticipation of that moment. And I’ve found that when re-watching Grey’s [Anatomy], the same thing happens–I’ll start crying before the moment, and when the moment comes, I’m downright sobbing–so Grey’s has been the most like literature for me. I guess that it’s because it takes you somewhere that you don’t quite expect. That these characters–usually the ones you hardly know–feel real and true to you, and it’s like you’re living through them (not unlike how I feel when reading a great piece of fiction).

• One commentator (Wilcox) remembers a strong childhood aversion to tear-jerking on the sofa: “My mom and sister enjoyed a good cry, but I hated feeling manipulated (I still do).” As an adult, nonetheless, television has brought her to tears (Buffy evoked again), especially depictions of sacrifice.

• Another (Turnbull) notes that her preference is to “cry alone.”

Crying is, of course, an age-old mystery. In a profound and poignant book from the middle of the last century, German phenomenological anthropologist Helmuth Plessner, writing a year after we had been to the moon, wondered how it could be that despite such an achievement we still have no valid, philosophically sophisticated theory of why we laugh and cry. How can it be, Plessner ponders, that we have barely begun to plumb the mystery of these dual, inextricably human manifestations? For the Greeks, the mystery was linked somehow to enantiodromia, the tendency of all things to turn into their opposite. Good and evil, light and dark, hot and cold, laughing and crying–all are united behind the scenes, each needing the other, in a “marriage of heaven and hell,” in order to achieve full existence. In our happiest/darkest moments we have all glimpsed enantiodromia in action, as crying becomes laughter and laughs tears–one form of hysteria morphing into another. What was dramatic theory, Aristotle to the 18th Century, thinking by insisting that each keep to its quarters? Shakespeare, and Buffy, knew better.

Helmuth Plessner

Helmuth Plessner

It would be arrogant, of course, for me to even suggest that this column might offer some unified field theory of crying. My ambition today is much more modest: to open and inspire discussion about the tears we shed before the tube. There are so many questions we need to ask.4 Do the Aristotelian rules of catharsis stll apply? How does gender affect crying at television? (Yes, all my correspondents are female.) Nationality? Are long-running series more likely to produce tears? We need to wipe away our tears and begin the work.

My thanks to Kim Akass (London-based independent scholar and editor), Michele Byers (Saint Mary’s University, Canada), Cynthia Burkhead (University of North Alabama, USA), Rhonda Wilcox (Gordon College, USA), Janet McCabe (Manchester Metropolitan University, UK), Hillary Robson (Middle Tennessee State University, USA), and Sue Turnbull (LaTrobe University, Australia) for sharing their thoughts on television and tears.

1 “I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.”
2 Interestingly, two of my respondents, Akass and McCabe respectively, close friends and writing partners, did and didn’t cry at the same Desperate Housewives episode. For McCabe, the explanation lay in household “flow”: her viewing of the pivotal Desperate scene, which she found moving and sad, came after dealing with a teething baby and cleaning up the dinner dishes. She “wasn’t in the TV zone” and had not achieved the “intense engagement” necessary to be moved by television.
3 For more on endings, see Lavery, “Apocalyptic Apocalypses.”
4 As in so many other ways, television is film’s poor stepchild when it comes to understanding the respective media’s generation of tears. Neale, Harper and Porter, and Turnbull, for example, have all offered excellent studies of movie crying.

Works Cited

Harper, Sue and Vincent Porter. “Moved to Tears: Weeping in the Cinema in Post-War Britain.” Screen 37.2 (Summer 1996): 152-73.

Lavery, David. “Apocalyptic Apocalypses: The Narrative Eschatology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies, Number 9 (2003).

Neale, Steve. “Melodrama and Tears.” Screen 27 (November-December 1986): 6-22.

Plessner, Helmuth. Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior. Trans. James Spencer Churchill and Marjorie Grene. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1970.

Turnbull, Sue. “Beyond Words: The Return of the King and the Pleasures of the Text” (forthcoming in The Cultural Reception of The Lord of the Rings. Ed. Martin Barker [New York: Peter Lang, 2007]).

Image Credits:
1. Screencap of Claire
2. Buffy and Class Protector Award
3. Desperate Housewives
4. Helmuth Plessner

Please feel free to comment.

“Big Man on Campus Ladies”

Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter

I once had a wonderful conversation with my introduction to feminism class. The mostly nineteen-year-olds in attendance seemed pretty content to validate women staying at home and raising families. I thought I could cause trouble by arguing that it was their moral imperative to find work that they found rewarding and engage in it. Given the historical banishment of women from working in the public space, it rested on their shoulders, I argued, to not let neo-conservatism decimate the profound social effects of the feminist movement. Whether or not they chose to have children in addition to that was external to the discussion.

Now a year later, I am not at all sure whether I did more good than harm. I of course see it as my central mission to encourage women students to excel, and allow them to see the sociological evidence for the continuing oppression of women in patriarchal culture. And, I certainly want to model for my students that my life — a world of reading books, watching movies, and writing about them — is exemplary of how being happy and productive is more deeply rewarding than the status quo messages they often receive from parents, churches, and other apparatuses of conformity. However, a recent episode of the Oxygen cable network’s sit-com, Campus Ladies, has me thinking about that day in my feminism class in particular, and more generally about the pitiful status of university pedagogy in this very sick culture of ours.

Campus Ladies is a wonderful — politically smart and often quite hilarious — improvisational comedy created by Christen Sussin and Carrie Aizley about two middle-aged women, Joan and Barri, who decide to enroll in college. The show is executive produced by Cheryl Hines, who plays Larry David’s beleaguered wife on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show is important for a number of reasons, one of which is the way in which it attests to the spread of HBO techniques to other television outlets, in this case a women-centered basic cable network.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a groundbreaking show, constructing hilarious comedy out of misanthropic behavior. For its New Year’s Eve programming, HBO offered a “cringe-athon,” airing all of the last season’s episodes back-to-back. When an emotional affect, the cringe, becomes the basis of an advertising scheme, we can be pretty confident a new narrative domain has been defined. However, Curb Your Enthusiasm is very much Larry David’s vanity show, building an axial narrative around his bad behavior. The women who surround him either suffer in a state of confusion (Cheryl) or are shrill and mean (Susie, his agent’s wife). The innovation of Campus Ladies is to apply the cringe-com method to female experience. What would the female equivalents of Larry David look like? What would they do?

The show gleans its social critique from outrageous gender reversals. In the series’ boldest episode, “No Means No,” Barri gives a Vicodin to the university’s star quarterback, Malcolm Rice. In a drug-induced state of freedom, Malcolm takes Barri into his fraternity house bedroom and confesses that he always wanted to be a star of musical theatre. He sings, in falsetto, “I can sing so high like Mandy Patinkin,” which creeps out even Barri. The scene resumes with them lying in bed, Barri in post-coital bliss, Malcolm in a state of confusion. Malcolm stumbles out of his room, screaming so all at the crowded party can hear him: “Barri Martin date raped me!” Barri and Joan suffer through the second act of the show, scorned by the entire campus community as the “raper” and her friend. However, things end happily when the Dean explains to Barri that she was Malcolm’s “moped,” “a woman whom a man wants to ride, but doesn’t want anyone to see riding.” Barri returns to the frat house with football-shaped cupcakes, hoping to apologize. When everyone continues to scorn her, Malcolm intervenes and announces to everyone that Barri did not rape him. Barri offers a hilarious counter-apology: “If mounting you saddle-style made you uncomfortable, I’m sorry too.” The show thus takes a very serious, and taboo, campus social problem, and renders it subject to comedic treatment by reversing the gender roles of the participants. Like all great comedy, the show sides with the outcasts — the Iranian Abdul; the overweight R.A., Guy; and Joan and Barri, the middle-aged women constantly harassed by perky teenage girls who make them feel as if they do not belong at college.

the cast of Campus Ladies

the cast of Campus Ladies

The episode that has me all aflutter, however, is entitled “All Nighter,” and features Joan and Barri immediately getting themselves into a cringe-worthy situation. They arrive late at the first meeting of their class, “Women in American History.” In a series of comic interruptions, they completely disrupt Prof. Fabre’s class. She finally kicks them out. However, it is Prof. Fabre’s outright discriminatory behavior that is remarkable. When Fabre refuses to believe that Joan and Barri are students, she quips, “Perhaps if you leave in time, you might get home and see a new episode of Oprah.” The students chuckle behind their backs, thus linking Fabre’s behavior to the perky blonde twins who torment Joan and Barri throughout the series. Later, when Joan and Barri go to Prof. Fabre’s office to try to apologize, Fabre again heaps on the feminist vitriol: “If the two of you have come to swap recipes, I’m not really in the mood.”

The show works to establish Joan and Barri’s victory over Fabre in the oddest political terms. Fabre demands that the women deliver an oral presentation on an important figure in feminism. Joan and Barri pull an all-nighter trying to decide on their topic. They finally choose Fabre herself. Joan and Barri out Prof. Fabre before the students, reporting on how she and her lover lived in Chile. After the presentation, they cross paths with Fabre and her lover, Ming, on the campus quad. While Fabre is outraged and humiliated, Ming is quite grateful: “You guys did us a favor.” Ming forces Fabre to apologize to our heroes, which she does. The episode ends as the twins walk by, trying again to terrorize Joan and Barri. However, Barri gets the last laugh, sticking a sign on one twin’s back that reads, “I’m farting.”

Of course, from Animal House (John Landis, 1978) onward, most American popular culture has been ignorant and insulting toward academic life. College is represented as a place where students party with wild abandon, and professors and deans are stuffed-shirts who try to ruin all of the fun. But the political contradictions in the “All-Nighter” episode of Campus Ladies are particularly confusing. Why would a show that wants to defend the marginalized (overweight, middle-aged women, and lesbians) equate vacuous, normative-obsessed teeny boppers with a feminism professor?

I worry that there is a particular vitriol reserved at this moment of American culture for professors. In very different circumstances, two films this past fall have demonstrated that professorial abuse is the new domestic violence. In The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005), Jeff Daniels plays a professor father who pelts his family with tennis balls as the film opens, and it only gets worse from there. In Bee Season (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 2005), Richard Gere plays a Jewish studies professor who so pressures his daughter into winning the national spelling bee that she judiciously chooses to lose the tournament on purpose rather than feed his megalomania. I wonder if in a culture where authority has so demeaned us (from Bush’s illegal wiretapping to Michael Brown’s mishandling of the New Orleans debacle to the Enron leadership’s thievery), these texts use academics as authority figures as the easiest target available to channel our rightful anger.

While I know plenty of arrogant professors — both men and women — who behave like Fabre, I also know many others who deserve more than caricature. I would love to believe that I am one of the latter, but I worry now that my rhetorical flourish in front of the feminism students was more Fabre than Rose Morgan, Barbara Streisand’s ebullient professor in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). Is it possible to critique a culture of housewifery without abusing housewives?

In the very same class, I took an equally critical — and again, rhetorical — position concerning having children. When I was explaining why I was a bit late for class, because my son was ill and I had to swap him with my wife on the way to class, a student rolled her eyes and told me to stop complaining because I “chose” to have children. I tried to calmly explain that “choice” is actually quite complicated: did my wife’s passionate desire to have kids leave me a “choice?” We proceeded to have a conversation about mixing the raising of children with an academic career. Again to be controversial, I asserted that it might be better to have professors with children dealing with college students.

Of course, immediately afterwards, I backtracked from this position: many of the single women professors I know are my role models for excellence in the professoriate, and gay men and lesbian professors do not have the same access to having children that I did. The contradiction between these two positions, advocating careerism and parenthood, indicates to me the value of, not radicalism, but instead centrism. Professors need to take reasoned positions that account for complexity. In our representations, we are going to find many mean, terrible professors like Fabre, and a few glorious ones like Streisand, but what we need, and what I would like to present in front of my students, is the real one, flawed yet functional, well-meaning yet sometimes wrong.

Campus Ladies
IMDB: The Mirror Has Two Faces

Image Credits:

1. Rosie the Riveter

2. the cast of Campus Ladies

Please feel free to comment.

The Allusions of Television

My colleagues (I teach in an English Department), convinced television is a sinister force destined to destroy literacy and dumb down culture and appalled at my traitorous introduction of its study into hallowed halls that once echoed with the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Conrad, and Faulkner, were not amused when I suggested we tout our rich-in-popular culture course offerings in new promos, updating the old curricular formula, inviting study of “Beowulf to Buffy (and Virginia Woolf, Too).” Not convinced by recent arguments to the contrary like Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, television’s antagonists, in their ignorance, would have us believe the “vast wasteland” offers nothing (with the exception of an occasional Masterpiece Theatre) to the literary minded.

Though I am under no illusion they will listen, allow me to survey contemporary television in search of but one manifestation of the literariness the rabid book-loving-TV-haters imagine absent from the medium: the allusion. Allusions, of course, are direct or indirect references in a work of art, usually “without explicit identification, to a person, place or event” or to another work (Abrams 8). Wherever they appear, allusions are, of course, part of that vast and intricate system of intertextuality carefully examined in Jonathan Gray’s recent book. Allusions are not, of course, limited to the literary, even though they carry with them, because of their bookish past, a kind of literary cache.

It would, of course, be easy to find in the wasteland allusions to other inhabitants of the wasteland. When Ed Hurley and Agent Cooper visit One-Eyed Jacks in Twin Peaks using the aliases of Barney and Fred, the teleliterate (Bianculli) picking up on a reference to The Flintstones is much easier than understanding the series’ vatic mysteries. When, on Lost, a British businessman buys the Slough branch of the Wernham Hogg paper company, we may not immediately recognize the momentary diegetic intersection with the BBC’s The Office, but the allusionary crossing is there to follow nonetheless. I want to examine here not television’s incestuous televisual allusions but its literary ones. For with surprising regularity, the wasteland invokes not just Eliot’s “Wasteland” (Wilcox) but the whole world of literature to which it remains a seldom respected heir.

First, consider series like Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998), Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1992), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997-2001; UPN, 2001-2003)–all series famous for being rife with popular culture references. “It’s so sad. All of your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny Cartoons,” Elaine laments to Jerry in the Season Four Seinfeld episode “The Opera,” but the series itself exhibits more than a cartoony awareness of the literary, giving us references to Death of a Salesman (Jerry repeatedly refers to George as “Biff”), The Great Gatsby, Moby-Dick, Salman Rushdie, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, and Tolstoy and War and Peace.

Twin Peaks hardly limited itself to movie, television, and music references, though full of them. Remember that discussion of the Heisenberg indeterminancy principle at the Double R Diner? By the series’ premature end, the attentive Peaker had no doubt noticed that Edmond Spenser’s Fairie Queene (Windom Earle and Leo Johnson’s “verdant bower”), the Arthurian legends (Glastonbury Grove, King Arthur’s burial site, is home to the Black Lodge as well), and Knut Hamsun (the Nobel-Prize winning Norwegian novelist and fascist, much admired by Ben Horne), have all set up housekeeping in Twin Peaks.

In seven seasons under the creative control of fanboy/comic book geek/pop culture genius Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was crammed with references to television, comics, film, music, and literature. The poetry of Robert Frost, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson; a plethora of books and writers–Alice in Wonderland, The Call of the Wild, Brave New World, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, William Burroughs, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Of Human Bondage, Heart of Darkness, C. S. Forester, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Vanity Fair, The Open Road, Where the Wild Things Are, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ann Rice; and a variety of plays–Oedipus Rex (hilariously performed in a talent show in Season One), The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Waiting for Godot, Death of a Salesman (a dream version with a cowboy and a vampire), all these and more put in cameo appearances in Sunnydale. In Buffy’s most extraordinary allusional moment, in the astonishing “Restless,” an episode made of four dream sequences, Willow inscribes Sappho’s lesbian poem “Mighty Aphrodite” on her lover Tara’s naked back.

Not surprisingly, the Buffy spinoff Angel makes abundant use of literary allusions as well. I will limit myself here to only one. In a Season One episode the series’ titular hero, an over-two-centuries-old vampire, is forced to briefly masquerade as a docent in an art museum. Luckily he has personal knowledge of the painting before which he stands

The cast of Angel

The Cast of Angel

[Angel speaking] “And this brings us to Manet’s incomparable La Musique Aux Tuileries, first exhibited in 1863. On the left one spies the painter himself. In the middle distance is the French poet and critic Baudelaire, a friend of the artist. Now, Baudelaire…interesting fellow. In his poem ‘Le Vampyre’ he wrote: ‘Thou who abruptly as a knife didst come into my heart.’ He, ah, strongly believed that evil forces surrounded mankind. And some even speculated that the poem was about a real vampire. (He laughs). Oh and, ah, Baudelaire’s actually a little taller and a lot drunker than he’s depicted here.”

Perhaps the first mention on television of the French symbolist poet and drug enthusiast, but then again Angel may well have been the first television character who knew Baudelaire personally.

Flann O\'Brien Novel

Third Policeman

Literary allusions crashed on mystery island along with the survivors of Oceanic 815 in ABC’s huge international hit Lost. Not only are well known philosophers–England’s John Locke and France’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau–evoked by character names, several books become images in the frame, including Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Richard Adams’ Watership Down, and still others–Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon,and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe–are clearly brought to mind.

Since, until recently, television routinely kept its episode titles to itself, it has been easy to miss the many literary references to be found there, then and now. Consider, for example, the final episode of the short-lived but watershed ABC series My So Called Life (1994) entitled “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”–a somewhat obscure allusion to a book of the same name by the American poet and writer Delmore Schwartz; or the Steinbeck-evoking pun in the title of an upcoming Veronica Mars episode “The Rapes of Graff” (compare to The Simpsons‘ “The Crepes of Wrath”); or The Gilmore Girls‘ “Say Goodbye to Daisy Miller,” with its reference to the Henry James novella (one of a score of literary show titles in the series); or “The Betrayal,” Seinfeld‘s famous “backward” episode, which takes its title from Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter’s similarly-themed (though opposite in tone) play of the same name.

Taking great pride, and capitalizing on a great branding opportunity, in being “not TV,” HBO programs are just as rich in literary allusions as in nudity and vulgarity. Not surprisingly, Deadwood, created by former Yale University English professor David Milch and written in a language indebted to both Shakespeare and the Victorian novel, offers many a literary reference (did Alma Garrett just compare Miss Isringhausen to Cotton Mather?).

But it is on HBO’s flagship series The Sopranos, where the literary allusions by far outnumber the whacks, the wiretaps, and the lapdances, that the not-TV allusions find their true home. (The following catalog is limited to Seasons Four and Five only.) Mr. Wexler explains to Carmela that A. J. has turned in a “surprisingly cogent” draft on George Orwell’s fable Animal Farm. With Rosie Aprile’s depression in mind, Janice laments “Ah, Bartleby. Ah, humanity,” quoting the final lines of Melville’s novella. Another Melville novella puts in an appearance when A. J. has to write a paper on “Billy Budd,” an assignment which leads to a later discussion (evoking the iconoclastic critic Leslie Fiedler) about its possible gay subtext. (His next reading assignment is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.) Meadow tells her mother she read “half the canon” while lying by the pool. Tony B. confesses to Christopher that “some very sorry people” once called him Ichabod Crane (the main character in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). New York underboss Johnny Sack cites Shakespeare’s Macbeth–“creeps in this petty pace”–in complaining about his long wait for the overboss to die. In after-extra-marital sex pillow talk, Mr. Wexler tells Carmela Soprano about Heloise and Abelard, after she finds their letters as reading material in the English teacher’s bathroom. One of Tony’s captains speaks enviously of the earning potential of the Harry Potter books. Ready to embark on a trip to Europe, Meadow recommends her parents read Henry James in order to learn more about “the restorative nature of travel.” A. J. buys a paper on Lord of the Flies on the Internet. Carmela reads Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Melfi quotes Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” to an uncomprehending Tony. A fifth season episode takes its title from Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education.

From Northern Exposure

From Northern Exposure

And of course we cannot neglect CBS’ Northern Exposure (1900-1995), which might well have been the most literary program in the history of medium (Lavery, “Deconstruction at Bat”). On Northern Exposure, Franz Kafka once paid a visit to Cicely, Alaska, an elderly store owner reads Dante, an entire episode replicates Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the overflowing-with-literary allusions local DJ reads Walt Whitman and War and Peace on the morning show and infuses his banter with references to Kierkegaard, Kant, Nietzsche, de Tocqueville, and Jung (to name only a few) like they’re old friends. The episode “The Graduate,” in which Chris must defend his M.A. thesis, a deconstructionist reading of “Casey at the Bat,” even gives us a spirited debate over post-structuralist literary theory.

Allusions, the great literary scholar M. H. Abrams observes, “imply a fund of knowledge that is shared by an author and an audience. Most literary allusions are intended to be recognized by the generally educated readers of the author’s time,” though some have always been “aimed at a special coterie” and, in modernist literature, may be so specialized that only scholarly annotators will be able to decipher them (8-9). TV’s allusions likewise imply a mutual “fund of knowledge.” When they are merely to the rest of the vast cosmos of television, as they often are, they presume nothing more than the commonality of many hours before the small screen. But television’s proliferating literary references stand as a testimony to the medium’s increasing sophistication as its begins to partake in “the conversation of mankind” (Rorty), to the wider, deeper repertoire of its writers, and to new, much more flattering, assumptions about the intellectual qualities of the Quality TV audience. If some of the allusions of television are now so arcane only English professors can elucidate them, well do we not need new challenges, new work to do?

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 5th ed. NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.

Bianculli, David. Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously. The Television Series. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000.

Gray, Jonathan. Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Interextuality. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Johnson, Steven. Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead, 2005.

Lavery, David. “Appendix B: Intertextual Moments and Allusions in Seasons Four and Five.” Reading The Sopranos: Hit TV from HBO. London: I. B. Tauris, 2006. 217-32.

—. “Appendix C: Intertextual Moments and Allusions in The Sopranos.” This Thing of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos. Ed. David Lavery. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. 235-53.

—. “Deconstruction at Bat: Baseball vs. Critical Theory in Northern Exposure’s ‘The Graduate.'” Forthcoming in Critical Studies in Television, Vol. 1, No. 2.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Wilcox, Rhonda V. “T. S. Eliot Comes to Television: ‘Restless.'” Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. London: I. B. Tauris, 2005. 162-73.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Angel

2. Third Policeman

3. From Northern Exposure

Please feel free to comment.

The Open University, Media Studies and New Times


The Open University

The Open University

I’ve spent much of the last three years putting together with colleagues a new undergraduate media course for The Open University. Many US readers of Flow will be familiar with this British institution. Its mission is to provide part-time higher education for anyone who wants to pursue it in the form of supported distance learning. Yes, anyone. Thought up in the heyday of European social democracy by Harold Wilson’s Labour government, it goes without saying that this mission was enormously unpopular with Britain’s famously inegalitarian press when the university started up in 1970. Yet somehow the OU has survived newspaper scandal, Thatcherism and even, so far, the galloping onset of marketisation and audit culture in British universities. And it’s a non-profit, state-funded, public institution.

Why’s all this relevant to Flow? Well, the OU has had quite a role to play in the development of media studies. Even in the USA, it quite often gets a mention alongside the usual and now-tedious invocations of Birmingham cultural studies. The OU’s Mass Communication and Society (1977-1982) and Popular Culture (1981-7) courses were hugely important in Britain. Many well-known media-studies names authored teaching materials: Tony Bennett, James Curran, Stuart Hall, John Hartley and Janet Woollacott, to name some contrasting examples. Dozens more cut their media studies teeth teaching the courses at the OU’s summer schools and local centres in the 1970s and 1980s. Literally thousands of students took the courses as part of social science, humanities and other programmes. And hundreds of thousands watched the OU’s television programmes on the BBC. Communication, film and television studies barely existed in Britain before the early 1980s so these courses filled a huge hole for many who wanted to engage with the media and popular culture.

The most recent OU contribution to undergraduate media and cultural studies was Culture, Media and Identities, launched in 1997 and chaired by Stuart Hall. By the 1990s, the Open University was producing some of its teaching materials with publishers such as Sage, Routledge and Blackwell. The ‘Walkman book’ which introduces Culture, Media and Identities, and Hall’s own edited collection on Representation, have become well-known beyond the OU, along with other books in the associated series. The course also introduced the much-cited ‘Circuit of Culture’ really a development of Hall’s earlier encoding/decoding model.

The Open University system

People often ask how the OU system works. The short answer is: painstakingly. Courses (which usually form one-sixth of an honours degree programme) are produced by teams of dozens of people, including OU and external academics, local tutors from around the UK, professional editors, TV producers, website designers, technicians and others. This course team system of production is very intensive and the fact that it’s survived decades of managerialist drives for greater efficiency in the UK public sector is a minor miracle of academic autonomy.

In order to ensure that the distance learning materials are clear, cogent and academically rigorous, members of course teams read each other’s work in a number of different drafts — at least three – and make comments on these drafts at a series of meetings. And often in writing too. I remember with particular agony email exchanges of many hundreds of words about one sentence. (In defence of those of us involved, it did happen to be a sentence about Adorno and Horkheimer). To sit listening while a number of very bright people make detailed criticisms of your work is a process that is probably best described as character-building. If I said that no-one ever fell out and that each meeting began and ended with a group hug you wouldn’t believe me, and you’d be right. The process is wonderfully stimulating but unless you have a vast and impermeable ego, at times it’s also pretty terrifying.

Changing politics, changing media pedagogy

For those of us charged with the responsibility of developing a new Open University media course, its earlier achievements in media and cultural studies were hard acts to follow. One of the most interesting aspects of working on the course (which, typically for the OU, has a less-than-thrilling title: Understanding Media) has been to observe the ways in which it has ended up reflecting shifts in the field of media analysis and shifts in the big wide world beyond it.

The mandate of the Understanding Media course team was to provide a secure foundation in media analysis for a new generation of OU students – and for others reading our published textbooks. One of the major dilemmas we faced was whether, in an introductory course, to stick with the production-texts-audiences trio which is at the heart of most ways in which the field is pedagogically carved up — including Hall et al.’s circuit of culture — or whether to try to innovate beyond it, as, say, Simon Frith does in his essay on ‘Entertainment’ in Curran and Gurevitch’s Mass Media and Society. With some trepidation – we were worried that it was becoming stale through familiarity — we played safe and opted for the trio as the basis of the structure of the course.

But in other respects, we have departed significantly from what a media studies course in the 1990s would have looked like. For many years, well-rehearsed tensions between political economy and cultural studies have divided the field; and, for better or for worse, to say that this division is ‘boring’ will not make it go away. Equally important in my view have been fissures deriving from the troubled legacy of post-structuralism. All this has led to real difficulties on some undergraduate media courses in bringing these various approaches and positions into dialogue with each other. In many universities, at least in the UK, the compromise has generally been that particular modules would be taught by critical realist/political economists; others by post-structuralists and constructionists; and others by popular culture academics. Or, worse, entire courses or programmes would in effect pursue one approach, with only tokenistic recognition of competing lines of thought.

For many amongst a new generation, whatever their own preferences, an adequate grounding in media critique needs to take serious account of cultural studies, post-structuralism and of the Marxian approaches that were sometimes portrayed as a thing of the past in the 1990s. Rather than advocating a particular approach, the Understanding Media team encouraged its authors to put different critical perspectives on particular topics into dialogue. In the fourth book in the Understanding Media book series, for example, the constructionist approaches that have tended to dominate textual analysis are rubbed up against critical realist positions. Across the course, our goal was to avoid caricature and un-necessary simplification so that students gain a real understanding of the different approaches on offer. This does not, however, mean a bland relativism: the preferences of individual authors shine through in their presentation of competing perspectives.

The course reflects changed political priorities too. For all kinds of understandable historical reasons, many cultural and media studies teachers in the 1990s, like much of the left, were overwhelmingly concerned with the politics of difference and identity. The political role of ‘culture’ itself, arguably sidelined for so many decades, became central – and indeed in some accounts the realm of culture in effect came to be equated with the social, or with politics. This was the aftermath of 1989, the period where political debate was dominated by conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and by the continuing struggle for gender and ethnic recognition.

To put it another way, though, this was the world before the WTO protests, before 9-11 and Afghanistan, before the second Gulf War. The politics of identity and difference remain key in the new course, but I suspect there is much greater attention to issues of social inequality, class and imperialism than there would have been if we had been producing the course ten years earlier. And the issue of market liberalism keeps coming back like a chorus in a pop song – especially in the book on Media Production, but not just there. For many years, consumption was where the action was felt to be in cultural and media studies, and was often understood as the privileged site of cultural creativity. Understanding Media’s book on audiences has a different inflection, and is centrally concerned with the experience of living in nations penetrated by transnational media flows. Here too, neo-liberalism, in its many guises, is a spectre haunting the teaching material.

In trying to create a media studies course for the first decade of the twenty-first century, we’ve tried to draw upon the widest possible range of critical media scholarship. Readings from over 70 authors are integrated into the textbooks, hundreds more are cited. And now that we’ve finished it seems to me that there is actually a tremendous body of critical media work to draw upon in meeting the challenge of teaching the media to new audiences. As for whether the Understanding Media course team has drawn upon this work successfully – that’s for others to judge.

Image Credits:

1. The Open University

Please feel free to comment.


Edward R. Murrow

“I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of culture and our defense.” –Edward R Murrow (1958)

“It is all in the grand tradition of American anti-intellectualism: the suspicion of thought, of words. And it very much serves the purposes of the present administration. Hiding behind the humbug that the attack of last 11 September was too horrible, too devastating, too painful, too tragic for words — that words could not possibly do justice to our grief and indignation — our leaders have a perfect excuse to drape themselves in borrowed words of contempt.” –Susan Sontag (2002)

Outside the pedagogical tasks of babysitting (high school), transitioning (college), re-infantilizing (graduate school), and hegemonizing (professional training for business, the law, and medicine), intellectuals have two roles in US public life. The first is to be technocrats, providing solutions to problems that will make money or allow governments to achieve policy targets. The second is to offer cultural critique and political intelligence to the élite, both inside and outside the state. Sometimes it appears as though critical public intellectuals in the US are, in the words of the Economist, ‘a tiny, struggling species, whose habitat is confined to a few uptown apartments in New York and the faculties of certain universities’ (“Susan” 2005).

Neoliberals and conservatives utilize the media spectacularly. Policy proposals are left up to their corporate masters, because right-wing media discourse does not undertake rational analyses aimed at technocratic outcomes. Instead, it works via a blend of grass-roots religious superstition and public outreach that stresses column inches and shouted seconds, not professional expertise (Kallick 2002). Funded by some of the wealthiest US foundations and families, such as Olin, Scaife, Koch, Castle Rock, and Smith Richardson, there are over three hundred right-wing ‘coin-operated’ think-tanks in Washington, dealing with topics from sexuality to foreign policy. They hire ghost-writers to make their resident intellectuals’ prose attractive — a project to market opinion, rather than to conduct research. Each “study” they fund is essentially the alibi for an op-ed piece. The corollary numbers for media coverage are striking. Progressive think-tanks had a sixth share of media quotation compared to reactionary institutions during the 1990s. In the decade to 2005, reactionaries averaged 51% of citations and progressives 14%; journalists even call the supposedly independent Heritage Foundation when the White House has no-one available. If we believe in market-based rhetoric, then the people who appear on the major three TV networks’ newscasts as experts should be indices of consumer desire; in which case, the public “wants” 92% of these mavens to be white, 90% born between 1945 and 1960, 85% male, and 75% Republican. That might expose us to the cohort that is responsible for our troubles, but not to disinterested critique (Karr 2005; Alterman 2003: 85; Dolny 2003 and 2005; Hart 2005: 52; Claussen 2004: 56; Love 2003: 246; Cohen 2005).

Media attention does not correlate with scholarly esteem or achievement, and the academics most likely to be interviewed have worked in government. These public intellectuals are general rather than specific in their remarks, and disdainful of both theory and fact — an unusual combination. They have displaced expertise and journalism with position-taking. It can be no accident that Fox News Channel, which employs few journalists and foreign bureaux, has the most pundits on its payroll of any US network — over fifty in 2003 (Tugend 2003). Margaret Carlson, a correspondent for Time and one of CNN’s vocalists, explained the key qualifications for her television work in these damning words: ‘The less you know about something, the better off you are … sound learned without confusing the matter with too much knowledge’ (quoted in Alterman 2003: 32).

The system bespeaks the right’s success at culture capture. This taps into a rich vein of anti-intellectualism that derives from creepy Christianity, populism, and instrumentalism. It dates back to newspaper assaults on John Quincy Adams for ‘book learning’ and Adlai Stevenson as effeminate (Claussen 2004: 18-21, 40-41). There is minimal room for intellection on network television, as the still-extant mass audience is the target, and is assumed to despise universities. So few if any professional academicians appear on air to explain the history of US foreign policy, despite the country’s relationships with oil interests, arms manufacturers, and despots to keep oil prices low; its complex twists and turns supporting and undermining various brands of Islam and Arab rule; and its bizarre insistence on an ethical reputation, while essentially rejecting international law other than over copyright. Nor do we see consistently competent contextualization of the hypocrisies and horrors of its opponents. Instead, a jingoistic and spiritual message comes through, juxtaposing freedom and decency with repression and fanaticism in a way that always seems to break down the binary rather disturbingly, and heightens a sense of risk without explaining it other than via the clash twins. E pluribus unum is part of the networks’ discourse, but it is applied as a loyalty test, where talking in a way that is counter to the Administration is equated with lack of professional objectivity, and the unity of the nation is embodied in military action, seemingly the last legitimate government arena.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi was unusual — a critical Arab intellectual able to enter the lists of such discussions. He was ushered in because his work had been plagiarized by a British intelligence dossier that Colin Powell formally presented to the Security Council in 2003. Al-Marashi (2004) hoped to use this as a platform to differentiate himself from on-air Iraqi-Americans, who were calling for invasion and destruction. But of the hundreds of interviews he gave, virtually none presented the opportunity for commentary on the war. He was restricted to the discourse of secreted weaponry. Not surprisingly, my search through Lexis-Nexis found that Edward Said’s by-line did not appear in any US newspaper in the 18 months after September 11, finally reemerging in July 2003 (Said 2003). By contrast, subscribers to the Independent, El País, the Guardian, the Observer, Rebelión.org, and the Weekend Australian had the opportunity to read him during this period.

Academics are sometimes excluded through direct political action rather than deregulatory pressures, popular-cultural obsessions, ignorance, or jingoism. For example, the right-wing think-tanks that dominate Washington policy on the Middle East have sought to discredit area studies across US universities, especially Middle-Eastern programs. The Washington Institute for Near East Studies is the key front organization for the Republican Party, while institutions like the American Jewish Congress, Campus Watch, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (run by the Vice-President’s wife) warn against ‘Middle Eastern Arabs’ in universities, and place conservatives in vital opinion-making fora that feed into TV current affairs, such as the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times (Beinin 2003 135; Whitaker 2002; Brynen 2002; Davidson 2002; Abrahamian 2003; Merriman 2004).

Away from the live media, the Arab world has been chided for being closed to ideas from the outside, as measured by the fact that only 330 books are translated from foreign languages annually. But the US, with an almost equal population and a vastly bigger book trade, translates the same number! The comparison of these two regions with the rest of the world is highly unflattering on this score. Still, with books can come knowledge, and something must be done about that. Attorney-General John Ashcroft recognized their importance when he interpreted the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act) to permit FBI scrutiny of book-buying and borrowing — but not fire-arm purchase (Dilday 2003; Grieve 2003).

Meanwhile, the government establishes front organizations to select, train, and promote apparently independent figures. The State Department financed the Iraq Public Diplomacy Group, which coached Iraqis to appear on US television in support of positions prepared for them, on the grounds that they would be more effective than Yanquis. The Iraqi National Congress was the creation and creature of the CIA, via the Agency’s public-relations consultant, the Rendon Group, whose motto reads ‘information as an element of power.’ Its advertised services run the gamut from generating ‘a favorable environment before privatization begins’ to providing alibis for state violence. It coordinated propaganda for the 1989 invasion of Panama and the 1991 Gulf War, and has received more than US$100 million from the CIA (Alterman 2003: 82-83; Rampton and Stauber 2003: 55, 43; Downing and Husband 2005: 73; Chatterjee, 2004).

The press should be interviewing intellectuals trained in area studies, military strategy, international law, business ethics, and battlefield medicine. But that would provide media coverage that was multi-perspectival. Instead, the paranoid form of reporting favored by US networks militates against journalistic autonomy, other than when the information comes directly from battlefields and is a “soldier’s story” — or derives from the Pentagon or the Israeli government (Fisk, 2003). The prevailing doctrines of regulation favor a small number of large entities that appeal to anti-intellectualism, regardless of their niches. Scott Adams’ comic-strip Dilbert (Los Angeles Times, August 21 2005) parodies this beautifully via the fictitious ‘Dogbert Easy News Channel.’ Easy News provides ‘all the news that’s easy to gather’ and features ‘a debate between two middle-aged white guys’ about why ‘[p]eople in other countries want to kill us.’ One of the guests says it’s because ‘we are so wonderful.’ The other warns ‘[b]uy my book or you will all die.’

I have some limited experience of these tendencies. I worked for many years in Australian radio, and later as an academic commentator on popular culture. On coming to the US, I was interviewed fairly regularly across the media, I suppose because I was at NYU and had a plausibly English accent. Just days before September 11, I appeared on CNN International to talk about a crisis involving Afghan refugees in peril off the Australian coast. At the time, CNN had 23 satellites, 42 bureaux, and 150 foreign correspondents. But you’d never know it from watching the network’s parochial domestic stations, with their blinking, winking, walking-dead presenters, for all the world propped up by formaldehyde and dedicated to eastern-seaboard storms, missing white children, and entertainment news. The day I was interviewed, most of the workers at CNN in New York were tuned to CNN International, which actually covers news stories, as opposed to the network’s laughable domestic programs. Even so, during the interview, the anchorman looked at me disbelievingly as I listed the history of racialization by successive Australian administrations. He asked incredulously ‘So are you telling us that the Australian Government is racist?’ — another sign of the deluded faith in official sources that dogs contemporary Yanqui journalism’s ‘stenographic reporting’ (Moeller 2004: 71).

When I appeared on New York 1, a local cable news channel, shortly after the attacks on the US, I was asked to comment on the psychology of terrorists in a trans-historical way: What makes people do these things? Are they maladjusted? I endeavored to direct the conversation towards US foreign policy and its support of totalitarian regimes in the Middle East that restricted access to politics, hence turning religion into a zone of resistance. And I spoke of US TV journalists’ sparse and prejudicial narrative frames and background knowledge. The production staff later told me that the board lit up with supportive reaction when the program accepted phone calls from the public, and those I spoke with thanked me for saying the non dit. The staff said I would be invited back (but they may say that to all the boys). I was not. Station management eventually acknowledged that most of its coverage at the height of the crisis had not been ‘analytical,’ because the attack was ‘an open, gaping wound’ (quoted in Boehlert, 2002). By contrast, when Radio Scotland came to town and interviewed a stand-up-comedy venue owner, a media consultant, and myself about cultural reactions to these events, we were not dealing with overdetermined presuppositions from our questioners. There was time for me to draw on theory and history to complement their approaches. The same thing happened when I was interviewed on All-India Radio in Delhi. But when CBS News contacted me in 2005 to discuss George Bush Minor’s admission that he had instructed the National Security Agency to spy on US citizens sans judicial review, contra the law, something quite different occurred. The producer first asked me if I could contextualize this in terms of the history of the media during wartime. I replied that I could. He then asked me about the limits to publicizing information, and I indicated that whilst most critics would agree that the precise timing and location of an event such as D-Day could legitimately be kept secret, extra-juridical contravention of civil liberties would generally be considered another matter. The producer thanked me for my time, and noted that my services would not be required. He already had a lawyer to support the revelation, and needed someone who would attack the New York Times for having broken the story and forced Bush to tell the truth. He had not wanted the history of the media during wartime. He had wanted a nationalist, opposed to civil liberties.


Abrahamian, Ervand. (2003). “The US Media, Huntington and September 11.” Third World Quarterly 24, no. 3: 529-44.

Al-Marashi, Ibrahim. (2004). “An Insider’s Assessment of Media Punditry and “Operation Iraqi Freedom”.” Transnational Broadcasting Studies 12.

Alterman, Eric. (2003). What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: Basic Books.

Beinin, Joel. (2003). “The Israelization of American Middle East Policy Discourse.” Social Text 75: 125-39.

Boehlert, Eric. (2002, August 26). “Too Hot to Handle.” AlterNet.org.

Brynen, Rex. (2002). “Cluster-Bombs and Sandcastles: Kramer on the Future of Middle East Studies in America.” Middle East Journal 56, no. 2: 323-28.

Chatterjee, Pratap. (2004, August 4). “Information Warriors.” Corpwatch.org.

Claussen, Dane S. (2004). Anti-Intellectualism in American Media: Magazines & Higher Education. New York: Peter Lang.

Cohen, Mark Francis. (2005, April/May). “The Quote Machines.” American Journalism Review.

Davidson, Lawrence. (2002). “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America.” Middle East Policy 9, no. 3: 148-52.

Dilday, K. A. (2003, May 1). “Lost in Translation: The Narrowing of the American Mind.” openDemocracy.net.

Dolny, Michael. (2003, July/August). “Spectrum Narrows Further in 2002: Progressive, Domestic Think Tanks see Drop.” EXTRA!Update.

Dolny, Michael. (2005, May/June). “Right, Center Think Tanks Still Most Quoted.” EXTRA!: 28-29.

Downing, John and Charles Husband. (2005). Representing ‘Race’: Racisms, Ethnicities and Media. London: Sage.

Fisk, Robert. (2003, February 25). “How the News will be Censored in the War.” Independent.

Grieve, Tim. (2003, March 25). “”Shut your Mouth”.” Salon.com.

Hart, Peter. (2005, February 4). “Struggling MSNBC Attempts to Out-Fox Fox.” EXTRA!Update.

Kallick, David Dyssegaard. (2002). Progressive Think Tanks: What Exists, What’s Missing? Report for the Program on Governance and Public Policy. Open Society Institute.

Karr, Timothy. (2005, April 12). “Is Cheap Broadband Un-American?” Media Citizen.

Love, Maryann Cusimano. (2003). “Global Media and Foreign Policy.” Media Power, Media Politics. Ed. Mark J. Rozell. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 235-64.

Merriman, Rima. (2004, March 11). “Middle Eastern Studies Seen as Against American Interests.” Jordan Times.

Moeller, Susan D. (2004). “A Moral Imagination: The Media’s Response to the War on Terrorism.” Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime. Ed. Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer. London: Routledge. 59-76.

Murrow, Edward R. (1958, October 15). Speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Chicago.

Rampton, Sheldon and John Stauber. (2003). Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq. New York: Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin.

Said, Edward. (2003, July 20). “Blind Imperial Arrogance: Vile Stereotyping of Arabs by the U. S. Ensures Years of Turmoil.” Los Angeles Times.

Sontag, Susan. (2002, September 16). “How Grief Turned into Humbug.” New Statesman.

“Susan Sontag.” (2005, January 8). Economist: 77.

Tugend, Alina. (2003, May). “Pundits for Hire.” American Journalism Review.

Whitaker, Brian. (2002, August 19). “US Thinktanks Give Lessons in Foreign Policy.” Guardian.

Image Credits:

1. Edward R. Murrow

Please feel free to comment.

What Color Is Your Scholarship?

A friend of mine has been testing out a major technology company’s new e-book, a sleek little package that aims to reinvent the ways in which we read. It’s not the first sexy, silver object of its kind, but it hopes to be a successful one. Several earlier pioneers have pretty soundly failed, crippled by a lack of available content, by technological snafus and copyright issues, and by an ongoing fondness for that ‘old’ technology, the book. After all, the book works pretty well. It’s an interface we’ve naturalized and grown very comfortable with. As folks are wont to point out, it’s easy to take to bed or bath, it never needs a power source, and it almost never crashes. And, like many other academics, I like the very materiality of my books: their smells, their inscriptions, their covers (especially those from Duke Press.)

But I have to admit to being seduced by the promise and idea of the digital book, particularly its portability and its usability. Every time I find myself lugging forty pounds of books along while on vacation or visiting an archive, I realize I’d give up the physical pleasures of ‘book-ness’ for easy mobility. Sure, I might have to forego reading in the tub or in bright sunlight, but there are gains to be had here, even beyond portability. I’ve become so accustomed to working with digital documents that I find myself stymied by the inadequate indexes of many books I read. I want to search the print book of my own accord and have it capitulate to my desires the way the reams of digital data on my desktop appear to obey my epistemophilic desires. Sometimes I want to read a book cover to cover, in full savor mode, but, increasingly, I want to cut, paste, and remix them.

the Sony LIBRIe

the Sony LIBRIe

Honestly, I guess my TiVo is partially to blame. I can’t remember the last time I watched live TV. Even during the media circus that followed the devastation of Katrina, I had my TiVo working overtime, taping hours of coverage I’d peruse later, while I logged time at my keyboard searching interactive maps (courtesy of Google mash-ups), video snippets, and blog feeds. In her now-canonical essay on television’s temporality circa 1988, Mary Anne Doane argued that information on TV “inhabits a moment of time and is then lost to memory. Television thrives on its own forgettability.” Of course, Doane wrote just as the simultaneous double whammy of the cable explosion and VCR time-shifting began to take full hold. We might read our current investments in DVRs and 500 gig hard drives as our attempt to stave off television’s insistence that we immediately forget. Today, memory is cheap.

My desktop now sports a new folder labeled “Katrina clips,” a small, DYI database of moments I want to remember, culled both from the internet and my own TiVo hard drive. These clips share memory with talks and articles I’ve written about Katrina, with emails I’ve saved from families and friends along the Gulf, and with various news stories and blog postings I’ve catalogued for future reference. While Katrina and its aftermath provoked this particular deployment of memory, the hundreds of folders on my PC catalogue more banal aspects of daily life, from family photos to tax receipts. I move this data about at will, mixing media and matching files, orchestrating new collisions of space and time.

It’s a feeling of control that impacts my interactions with both word and image, returning me to my opening thoughts about e-books. In less than 20 years (I got my first PC and VCR in 1987, shiny new tools for starting grad school), I guess I’ve succumbed pretty fully to the lure of information machines and the control they seem to promise. No matter that this control is more ideology than ontology, to repurpose Jane Feuer’s prescient analysis of television. As fond as I am of my many, many books, I feel primed for new modes of reading and of writing, for information mixes that might open up new ways of knowing and of feeling, new circuits of exchange. New media artists have been pushing the boundaries of digital expression for at least a decade, and the electronic literature crowd has an even longer track record of pushing the boundaries of linear narrative. Still, the scholarly crowd has been slow to respond. Even those of us who study electronic media for a living still largely write and publish the ‘old-fashioned’ way even as academic presses struggle to stay afloat. What might electronic scholarship (rather than scholarship about the electronic) look like?

Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

Flow already begins to point the way. It closes the feedback loop between publication and reply, between academic call and response, by knitting the ‘comments’ function integrally into each article it publishes. Other online publications like the Electronic Book Review , Kairos , and the now-defunct Horizon Zero have also explored how multimedia or networked scholarship might take shape. The Labyrinth Project at USC pushes even further, exploring the power of cinematic language for the database documentary and public scholarship. Vectors , a new electronic scholarly journal, only publishes pieces that can’t exist in print. (In the interest of full disclosure, I edit the last one.)

Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

Such experiments aim to explore modes of scholarship more fully responsive to the remix possibilities of digital culture and to the visual cultures of film, TV, and the everyday. One goal of Vectors is to investigate the potential of the different affective and sensory registers of scholarship. Can scholarship look and feel differently, requiring new modes of engagement from the reader/user. What happens to argument when scholarship goes fully networked and multimedia? How do you ‘experience’ argument in a more immersive and sensory-rich space? Can you play an article? What color is your scholarship? While these questions may seem trivial or even alien to scholarship as we now know it, I, for one, am game to explore a world where the outputs of media studies participate more fully in the emergent forms and practices of the media we study and populate new devices. I’m not getting rid of my books just yet, but I wouldn’t mind putting Flow on my iPod.

Doane, Mary Anne, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” in Logics of Television, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1990).

Feuer, Jane. “The Concept of Live Television: Ontology and
Ideology,” in Regarding Television, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Los Angeles, CA.: AFI, 1983).

Image Credits:

1. the Sony LIBRIe

2. Horizon Zero, a publication of the Banff Centre

3. Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular

Please feel free to comment.

“You Got to Know When to Hold Em”: Notes Against the Academicization of Television

by: Walter Metz / University of Montana-Bozeman

November 28, 2005 From a sociological point of view, the most remarkable thing that happened to me, upon returning from living in Germany for a year, experiencing so-called “reverse culture shock,” was not the expected panic at grocery stores the size of football fields, but the discovery of how little I knew about poker. When I left the United States in September 2003, I knew how to play five card draw, and vaguely knew there was a version with seven cards, with the salacious moniker, “stud.”

When I returned in August 2004, my television was awash with every basic cable outlet branding its own version of “Texas Hold ’em.” Because you only get dealt two cards, hold ’em is a game of statistical simplicity, making its prospects as a televisual event seems unlikely indeed. However, within a few weeks, I was completely hooked on this odd sports reality programming. My TiVo is now loaded with its permutations: ESPN’s World Series of Poker, The Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown, and Game Show Network’s “Battle Royale,” whose various short series typically pit celebrities (example: the James Woods “gang”) againstpoker professionals (like Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber, so named because he hides his face behind a hooded sweatshirt after he makes an aggressive bet).

James Woods

James Woods

The aesthetic conventions of television coverage of hold ’em are remarkable. The presentation of the game allows you to see every player’s “hole cards,” the two cards that are dealt face down. Players then make five-card poker hands out of these cards, combined with five cards dealt face up in a community row. Next to each player’s hole cards, the monitor indicates the statistical probability that his or her hand will win. This practice constructs the television viewer as an omniscient guru who is encouraged to treat each gambler’s misstep with utter contempt. The viewer is almost never reminded by the off-camera analysts that the gamblers’ bets and folds are made in the dark, without benefit of knowing the other players’ cards.

Armed with this televisually-constructed superiority, I went to my local Target store and bought myself the paraphernalia necessary for my own hold ’em game. Despite watching some hundreds of hours of the game on television, in real life my seven-year old son proceeded to decimate my chip stacks with alarming regularity. He then went on to beat all of his friends at daycare in their own hold ’em tournament. I will leave the discussion of the morality of children playing poker at their daycare center for another occasion. I think it is wonderful, and would defend this against the inanities of the Montessori system to my dying day, but some other time.

Arrogantly assuming that my son was just some sort of hold ’em prodigy, I proceeded to buy the various hand-held and video game versions of hold ’em. My favorite is the World Series of Poker game for the X-Box because you get to play against (and lose to) the famous poker players (Chris Ferguson, Johnny Chan, etc.) that you see on the television coverage. Alas, I will not be selling my house and moving to Vegas any time soon: in the game, you are given $10,000 for the entry fee to the “Main Event” of the World Series of Poker, and I have never made it beyond the first table, leaving the tournament in 3,000th place or below (and thus not winning any money) each and every time I have played.

Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber

Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber

I belabor this story of my television poker viewing because it indicates something crucial about spectatorship and academic life. I have learned absolutely nothing from watching television poker. I do not even remember the episodes that I have watched, such that I will watch some five or ten hands before it dawns on me that I have already seen this tournament, and know who is going to win. My wife leaves the room when I watch poker, finding it the most boring thing about me.

My wife and I have had this argument before. Before DVD sets of television shows were available, I would fill 8 hour VHS tapes with 20 episodes of The Simpsons and watch them again and again. She would berate me for watching the same thing ten times, but I would explain that sitting with the Simpsons all night was much better than crying myself to sleep. However, in the back of my mind was always the academic justification of my television viewing: somewhere down the line, I would be ready to write that great Simpsons essay, armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the exact episode locations of all of the smart stuff. After all, this obsessive, compulsive textual analysis of The Simpsons at night was remarkably similar to my day job, where I use the same skills to teach students about the novels of Herman Melville and the films of Fritz Lang.

However, I can see no such defense for my watching the World Series of Poker. Even if there are academic articles to be written about hold ’em (a sociological understanding of the rise in popularity of the game and its televisual presence at this historical moment seems important), I certainly have no interest in writing them. And it would be incorrect to say that I am a “fan” of television poker. It is clear that there are fans (they come to the tournaments, both as players and as spectators in droves), and that television poker has a star system of professional players like any other sport, but this is not why I watch. In fact, I find most of these players, like the ill-behaved Phil Helmuth, just the sort of regressive, infantile character that I urge my students not to be like when they grow up.

Instead, I believe I am using poker in the classic sense which sees television as a piece of household furniture. The little statistical battles in television poker are soothing to look in on, and yet are fully disposable. Whether Robert Williamson III wins the hand that he is “all in” on or not, my life will continue, and in fact when I encounter this very same hand three months from now, I will not remember whether he won, and the five minutes of drama it provides will give me just as much pleasure then as it does now.

Calling television disposable is a cardinal sin in academic television studies. We fight to have our study of this medium respected by those who study William Faulkner professionally. I am not arguing that we should not wage this battle–I was just recently told that I did not get a university research stipend because my project was on Bewitched, and therefore self-evidently not serious–but I wonder if it is not time to write more honestly about the many facets of television. One such facet is absolutely academically defensible; for example, Lost is as important to the early 21st century as its equivalent, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, was to the 15th century. However, another facet is that we watch television to relax.

Relaxation is a crucial human emotion that is pretty far afield from academic life. When we relax, we feel guilty because we are not getting the writing done that we are supposed to, even when we are at home. So instead, we are encouraged to relax more productively than “just” watching television; I feel less guilty when I am at the health club exercising because that is productive. It turns out that such productivity–keeping my body healthy–is pretty annoying and not at all relaxing.

When I was a kid, my Aunt Eleanore used to refer to watching television as “looking at” television. I always thought that was a strange way of putting it, but now I think it completely appropriate. Academic television studies have tried to shift “watching television” toward connotations of “analyzing” and “thinking.” That is good, because it focuses attention on the active, intellectual engagements we make with television. However, I sometimes also just “look at” The Simpsons and the World Series of Poker, and that is just as important to who I am as is my analytical book on Bewitched. Here’s looking at you, Phil Gordon!

ESPN Poker
Travel channel World Poker Tour
Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown
Game Show Network

Image Credits:

1. James Woods

2. Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber

Please feel free to comment.

Laughs and Legends, or the Furniture that Glows?: Television as History

1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

2006 marks the fiftieth anniversary of broadcast television in Australia. It was launched just in time for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

The anniversary has provoked a flurry of events in this country. Among them is a national conference to be held in Sydney on the history of TV in Australia.

With colleagues Joshua Green and Jean Burgess I’ve been preparing a paper for this event. There will be plenty of contributions on the development of the industry, programming and audiences, so the idea we’re working on is not to trace the history of something on TV, but instead to look at television as history in Australia.

No origin; no “it”
One trouble with “television as history” is that it’s not a coherent object of study. TV is one of those things that isn’t really an “it” at all. It doesn’t have an essence, either technically or as a broadcast system, so “it” was improvised, emerging as the work of many hands, individual, corporate and governmental, over a lengthy period.

TV history was and remains strongly national. There’s even a whiff of competitiveness that plays itself out through the public record. For instance Wikipedia plays up the US contribution. There is no doubt that the most influential and widespread forms of broadcast programming and formats, from news to sitcom, originated in the USA in the 1950s. But TV was up and running as a scalable broadcasting system in Europe well before then. Key inventions came from Germany and Britain, while TV as we know it today; i.e. a corporately-owned variety medium playing for leisure consumption in the early evenings to families at home, was launched in Britain by the BBC on November 2, 1936. The US system launched in 1941 (when Europe was at war but the USA wasn’t).

Such national differences mean that any anniversary is pretty arbitrary, even if you concentrate on the launch of broadcast systems as opposed to technical inventions. Thus, 2006 is the 70th anniversary of broadcasting for the Brits; 69th for the Germans, 65th for the USA; 54th for Canada; and so on up to Bhutan, where TV is six years old.

Each of the pioneer countries developed different standards, including internally competing ones. Television was invented twice in various countries, like the USSR, which established electromechanical TV as early as 1931, but then re-started with imported cathode ray tubes in 1938-9.

The context of viewing was also not uniform. The BBC targeted a domestic audience in order to boost receiver sales, which meant in effect that the very first broadcast TV audience was confined pretty much to electrical retailers. The BBC scheduled programming specifically for them during the afternoons, so that they might demonstrate the sets. Meanwhile television was launched in Nazi Germany as a public medium, projected in TV viewing halls.

Australia sat this history out, importing existing technology, system and product. TV was launched in New South Wales and Victoria in 1956. But it didn’t reach the other mainland states until 1959. Tasmania and Canberra waited until the early 1960s and the Northern Territory did without it until 1971.

Academic history
Academic histories of television are less common than you might think, especially histories of programming as opposed to broadcasting systems (Alan McKee has made this point). With few exceptions the academic study of television is stuck in the endless present tense of scientific or policy discourse, pondering questions of effect, behaviour, technology, power and profit.

There are histories, of course, and excellent scholarship, but such work is rarely at the cutting edge of the discipline. Indeed, that is why media scholar Liz Jacka organised the upcoming conference in the first place, because the neglect of television history is especially pronounced in Australia.

Cultural Institutions
Academia is not alone in this regard. Given that watching TV is the most popular pastime in the world and in all history, it is surprising how little the major institutions of cultural memory have taken any notice of it. Museums, galleries and archives that pretend to national status have almost completely ignored it. Television as cultural history is strangely elusive.

On the whole, where they’ve noticed it at all, cultural institutions have not been kind to television. After all these years there is still too much of what Roland Barthes once called “either/or-ism”: Either Cultural Institutions, or the dreaded Tube, viz.:

Cultural Institutions TV
institutions of collection medium of diffusion
public commercial
memorialise art and culture memorialise schlock, dreck, kitsch
city and civic experience suburban and domestic experience
extraordinary ordinary
art behaviour

You know the script.

While the national institutions are a cultural wasteland if you’re interested in popular media, there are specialist museums, archives and cultural institutions. In Australia the National Film and Sound Archive (ScreenSound) has a permanent collection of “representative” TV programming. Its premises in Canberra also feature walk-through exhibitions which include sections on the history of TV.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, host of the conference we’re attending in December, is planning a major exhibition in 2006 called On the Box. They’re billing it as “a spectacular exhibition examining the impact of television on the lives of Australians.” We’ll see “The largest collection of television costumes, props and memorabilia ever displayed in Australia!” “Landmark programs and key personalities, as well as studio technology and behind-the-scenes production!” Thought-provoking displays will explore the role of television in the community. Classic Australian clips will show how TV has kept us entertained for five decades”.

Even though such exhibitions are quite rare, they already conform to what Raymond Williams once called “the culture of the selective tradition.” Some aspects of a cultural form are selected over others, such that “the history of television” — where it is noticed at all — is so standardized that it has itself become a genre.

In the process, television usually becomes a symptom of something else. Part criminal, part fool, it stands for our collective fears, desires and follies. If you’re in a serious mood, it’s the history of social and cultural impact (read: negative) or cultural imperialism (read: Americanisation). But meanwhile let’s wallow in nostalgia and see the ads, comedy shows, kids’ TV and sport from, well, yesteryear. Let’s laugh at those hairstyles, cringe at those clothes, wince at how our favourite celebs used to look (pretty bloody awful if the truth be known — why did we put up with them at the time?).

Such topics also correspond to various target demographics: nostalgia and “the history of me” for the oldies; arch critique and knowing kitsch for the urban sophisticates; celebrities and games for the kids.

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne is also planning to mark the anniversary. I’ve been working with a group of researchers from QUT to assist ACMI with their plans for this exhibition. It has been fascinating to be involved in the very practical problems associated with trying to make television into history.

Not the least of the issues is a familiar conundrum for any curator or artistic director interested in popular culture — what will persuade people to switch off the TV and come in here to watch TV? It all seems counterintuitive. Immersed as everyone is in popular culture, why would anyone bother to invest time in visiting more of it?

It is really hard — so much so that I haven’t discovered an instance of it yet — to find an exhibition on television that takes the medium and its practitioners just as seriously as artists, photographers and filmmakers are taken in galleries. What would television history look like if it were curated for the Tate modern or MOMA? (If anyone knows an example please tell me.)

1956 Television

1956 Television

The closest thing I’ve seen was the inaugural exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1991, to celebrate 35 years of Australian TV. TV Times was curated by David Watson and Denise Corrigan, and one of its exhibits was a large black box with peepholes through which visitors could spy — as if through an open fridge door and other vantage points — on a suburban couple (played by actors) who sat there watching television (and looking bored leafing through magazines etc.). Very Foucauldian, and an artwork in its own right.

But the MCA collapsed financially soon afterwards and had to be re-launched with a different business plan. Memorialising the popular arts in a serious way seems not to be part of it.

Television on television
There’s an odd but equally standardised genre of TV show that celebrates the history of television.

The very first broadcast in Australia (September 16, 1959) started with announcer Bruce Gyngell (who went on to head up TVam in the UK) saying “Good evening and welcome to television.” He actually did do this. However, the familiar footage that is endlessly re-shown was recorded a year later — to celebrate the first anniversary of Sydney TV station TCN9.

I’m sure Derrida would have something to say about that, but in any case the die was cast. This was how you did television history on television. By faking it. It was simply a matter of promoting the station in question, and if you didn’t have the appropriate materials you just “recreated” them. And on no account did you celebrate the stars, shows or scoops of the opposition.

TV marked its 20th and 21st birthdays with back-slapping gala events in ballrooms packed with personalities. As TV matured and budgets for junketing fell, somewhat, TV history shows moved out of the ballroom and into the archive. The 30th and 40th anniversaries were studio-based affairs, less about the live experience of making television and more about the content screened and the magical moments that television has provided for the delighted viewer. The emphasis was on genre divisions and viewer nostalgia, leavened by celebrity presenters making painful scripted jokes.

In 1991 Channel Nine’s 35 Years of Television made history of its own. It claimed to be the first show that covered commercial TV as a whole, not just one channel. It was presented by stars and personalities from the three commercial networks (although it complained that “the other networks” were reluctant to share their material).

Celebrations for the 50th are already well under way. For instance Kerry Packer’s Nine Network has recently aired a “special” called Five Decades of Laughs and Legends, on the curious grounds that we are now inside the year of the anniversary (tell that to someone who’s 49 and one month!).

As Graeme Blundell (a.k.a. “Alvin Purple”) commented in The Australian, “Five Decades smacks of a grab for ratings desperately — and cheaply — fashioned from the junk pile and the banal hysteria of TV’s supermarket. But despite the less than lofty motives of the networks, the history of TV can’t help being compelling viewing.”

Junk? Banal? Hysteria? Supermarket? Hey — that’s my life! Blundell conceded, however, that “it does illustrate just how far we’ve come since 1956.” Well, yes and no.

To fill the void left by “official culture” and television itself there are the amateurs, fans, and the retired technicians and announcers from the heyday of broadcasting. They maintain museums in barns and sheds. They have migrated enthusiastically to the net. They are the “pro-am” consumer co-creators of television history (e.g. the Australian Museum of Modern Media).

The pro-ams tend to fall into two broad groups, organized around technologies on the one hand and programming on the other.

Those interested in programming tend to be the fans and cult followers (to sample, see facts and trivia about iconic Aussie soapie Neighbours).

The techies divide between “pros” and “ams.” Professionals are those who have worked in the industry and can discuss details down to the question of whether the electron beam in early cathode ray tubes swept right-to-left or left-to-right. Amateurs are those who love the furniture that glows (Television History: The First 75 Years”).

The pro-ams are proving to be much more interesting and useful to the cause of television as history than the great cultural institutions of memory that soak up the tax dollar. Like eBay their websites make accessible curios that would have been impossible to find before. And unlike “official” curators they’re really interested in TV history, in which many of them have played an active role, on both sides of the screen.

Some of them even seem to be working for broadcasters now. The BBC especially seems drawn to the possibilities .

The future of history
It’s clear that television history is not the work of one agency or even one “discursive regime” (as we used to say). The work of producing it is shared among academics, cultural institutions, pro-ams (including fans and TV professionals), and the history that emerges is different in each case, and in each country.

TV history overall still seems to be mostly “folklore” or “ideology” rather than “discipline” or “science.” Legends are spun that serve the interests of the teller, and these stories tell us more about the source of the narrative — whether a national, cultural, academic, commercial or consumerist speaking position — than they do about television as such.

But as we’ve investigated the cultural memorialisation of television it has also become clear that something new is afoot. The internet offers entirely new possibilities for TV as history, and the number of potential participants in the work of piecing it together has dramatically increased with the inclusion of the “pro-ams.” At the moment the various parties to this work have little in common and less mutual contact. But the future of television history looks a lot more interesting than its past. As they used to say; we have the technology.

Links to more “pro-am” sites:
Early television (treasure island)
Radio history (check out the recommended reading)
House of broadcasting (weird enough for you?)
Museum Victoria (an official site, but nerdily it boasts possessing the “first cathode ray tube television in the southern hemisphere”!)
Vintage Electronics Museum (a guy from Hove with a lot of TV sets)
Birth-Of-TV (a European project)

Image Credits:

1. 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

2. 1956 Television

Please feel free to comment.

The Los Angeles Misanthrope

A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

In my book, Engaging Film Criticism, I argue for the importance of academic critics intervening into the reception of films while they are still being attended to by the general population. One of the terrific things about on-line publication is that it allows for such interventions, since the normal channels of refereed academic publication are simply too slow to allow for it. Of course, popular film reviewing has the benefit of such contemporaneous intervention, but its function is to serve taste culture — will Roger Ebert’s readership find spending money on a particular film worthwhile — rather than to generate knowledge and understanding.

Of course, when it comes to television, there is not nearly so well developed a critical apparatus. Popular film reviews are ubiquitous, while television reviewing is limited to a few newspapers. Entertainment Weekly is really the only major popular publication that treats television as thoroughly as film. However, the same problems with academic interventions into the critical landscape of television exist as they do with scholarly film reviewing. Academic journal articles and books on television take far too long to intervene into discussions about the potential meanings of shows while people are watching them with enthusiasm. While there are websites, like Television Without Pity, which analyze each new episode of favorite shows, such as The Simpsons, the discourse on these sites is not necessarily bound by the rigor of scholarly analysis. This is not to say that the reception of shows on these web sites is without value; on the contrary, these sites provide tremendously valuable data about the reception of television, data which any film reception studies scholar would drool over were it available for, say, the 1930s films of Frank Capra.

As with film reviewing, we need a middle-ground institutional space where today’s television shows are discussed using the historical and theoretical tools of academic media studies. I think the success of FLOW will lie in its ability to produce such middle-ground criticism about shows that are usually too new to be engaged by academics at the time when such interventions would actually matter. The extensive thread that has developed in response to Jason Mitell’s two articles about Lost is, I think, a very encouraging sign about the success FLOW is having. I have been sharing these discussions with my friends outside of the academic circuit, people who love to watch and talk about Lost with me. If I were to have these conversations with these friends three years from now, when the academic articles on Lost will finally start circulating beyond the ephemerality of academic conference papers, these interventions would be far too late.

It strikes me that one of the repercussions of the academic delay in writing about television is an emphasis on the overall structure of the show rather than the individual episodes through which we actually encounter it, and about which the internet fans predominantly write. I think we’ll see a number of academic studies of Six Feet Under, for example, now that the series finale has aired, and that its entirety can be assessed. At the very least, the academic will wait for the end of a season in order to speculate on the structure of the show beyond the individual episode. For example, Mittell’s articles about Lost come after the season one finale, anticipating the premiere of season two. I am not arguing against either seeing the entire series as a complete text, nor the segmentation of television into seasons. However, I think there is another aspect of television’s segmentation and flow that can be attended to if we take our reception of television shows at their most discrete level, that of the individual episode. In order to pursue what can be gained by doing so, I want to do a close textual reading of the most recent episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, “The Bowtie,” which aired this past Sunday, October 2, 2005. I think Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of the most important sitcoms ever on television. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld created in Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998) a highly literate version of George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676), a comic critique of “civilized” social relations. In his new show on HBO, David strips his earlier work of its network-induced hedges, producing the boldest examination of social dysfunction since Moliere’s The Misanthrope (1666). If I were to write the typical academic analysis of the show, that is, do what I am trained to, I would select out some of my favorite episodes and piece together an argument about the show’s overarching meaning. For example, I think the show is boldest when it tackles religion in contemporary American social life. This would lead me to the analysis of an episode like “The Baptism” (aired 11/ 18/2001) where Larry stops the conversion from Judaism to Christianity of his potential brother-in-law, much to the chagrin of his wife Cheryl’s Christian family.

Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Academics always cheat in this way, stacking their argument with the best possible textual evidence of their position. Instead, I propose that we put our money where our mouth is and see if our methods can be brought to bear on more randomly selected material. When I teach film criticism, for example, I have students select the film that they want to see at the movie theatre over the weekend. My challenge is to then go to the film cold, select academic reading material to illuminate it, and teach that material to the students the next week. I intend my analysis of “The Bowtie” in this “put up or shut up” spirit.

“The Bowtie” begins with Larry sitting in the office of Omar Jones (played by Mekhi Phifer), a private investigator. In the season opener, “The Larry David Sandwich” (aired 9/25/05), Larry thinks he heard his father, while lying sedated in the hospital, whisper that Larry was adopted. Larry desperately wants to know if this is true, so that, as in Freud’s “Family Romance” fantasy, he can disavow his dysfunctional parents. However, Omar is a Black Muslim, and only works for “his community.” Larry comically suggests that he could volunteer calling out bingo numbers for this community, but Omar is unconvinced: “Bingo is a distraction.”

Larry then borrows Omar’s key to the restroom in his building. There, Larry has an encounter with a man in a wheelchair. Like the best of Seinfeld episodes, Larry’s encounters will all build nuance around this theme of “community,” finally culminating in an ending scene which clearly states the show’s liberal political position. In the bathroom, the man in the wheelchair chides Larry for using “his stall,” the larger one equipped with accessibility railings. Larry tries to defend himself, arguing that “I haven’t seen a handicapped person in the bathroom, maybe ever.” After a fight about the politically correct term for the man’s condition, “handicapped or disabled,” the man wheels himself into the stall, muttering that Larry is “a douche bag.”

In yet another encounter with members of a “community,” Larry and his agent, Jeff, walk through a parking lot where they discover a man walking away from his car, parked in a handicapped spot. Larry confronts the man, “What’s with the walking?” to which the man replies, stuttering, arguing that his disability makes it appropriate for him to park in the handicapped spot. Larry loses this encounter as badly as with the man in the wheelchair: this man stutters that Larry is a “fucking prick.”

Once Larry and Jeff arrive at the restaurant, Jodi Funkhouser (played by Blossom’s Mayim Bialik), treats him very nicely, rudely ignoring Jeff. When Jeff asks Larry the reason for the differential treatment, Larry explains that “The word got out that I am a friend o’ lesbians,” that they love him “moreso than any other community, including Jews.” However, Larry soon spoils this goodwill, when Jodi’s father, Marty, explains that she is now engaged to a man. Larry responds too enthusiastically to this news, causing the lesbians of Los Angeles to scorn him publicly.

In the meantime, Larry has picked out a dog at the pound. Cheryl’s African-American friend, Wanda, comes over to their apartment to see the dog. When the dog barks aggressively at Wanda and a black workman, but not at Cheryl, Larry, or the white workman, Wanda tells Larry that he owns a racist dog. Wanda hilariously observes that Larry has chosen a perfect name, Sheriff, for “a Klan dog.”

Things continue to deteriorate for Larry’s reputation with the episode’s various “communities.” At a dinner party, a table of African-American people is being boisterous. When Larry asks them to be quiet so that he can order his food, he is ignored and ridiculed. One of the men at the table accuses Larry of being a racist because of his dog. When Larry inquires as to how the man knows about the dog, he responds, “Because we talk, Larry.” Here the episode sets up its comic critique of identity politics, building a paranoid sense of Otherness in which the members of these “communities” really are in direct contact, conspiring against Larry. A bit later, Omar calls Larry, chiding him for his behavior at the banquet, having gained a direct report from the people at the table because: “We talk, Mr. David, we talk.”

However, in a pastiche of a Seinfeld episode, the narrative of “The Bowtie” redeems Larry in the eyes of the “communities.” As Larry is talking to Jodi’s new fiance Dan, he prattles on about not understanding women’s “equipment,” arguing how brave Dan is for not being intimidated by Jodi having had sex with women. “That whole area is mysterious to me,” Larry argues, directly replicating a famous conversation between Jerry and George on the earlier show. When Larry meets Jeff the next day for lunch at a restaurant apparently staffed and attended by the lesbian community, Larry is offered dessert “on the house.” Jeff observes, “You, my friend, are back in the lesbian busom.” Larry meets his friend Rosie O’Donnell on the street, who stood up for him “at the meeting” of Los Angeles lesbians. Rosie informs Larry that now “all lesbians love you” because he caused Jodi to be “back on the team,” again replicating the sports metaphor used by Jerry and George on Seinfeld to absurdly describe heterosexuality and homosexuality as opposing sides on a baseball field.

The rest of the episode is devoted to Larry’s victory over the communities’ conspiracies against him. Larry enters the bathroom again in Omar’s office building. Having learned his lesson, he waits to use the regular stall, even though the handicapped one is free. However, when the same man in the wheelchair emerges from the regular stall, Larry takes the moral upper-hand and chides him. When the man explains that the “normal” stall was free, so he used it, Larry turns the tables on his politically correct language use: “We don’t like to be referred to as normal. We’re able-bodied.”

The show ends with a bravura statement of its liberal political position and its critique of radical identity politics. After having agreed to take Larry’s adoption case, Omar emerges out of his building to retrieve his bathroom key, which Larry keeps forgetting to return. When Larry sees Omar rushing toward his dog, he is petrified that the racist canine will ruin his goodwill with the Muslim private detective. However, Omar pets Sheriff, who is gentle. The episode ends with the dog attacking Rosie O’Donnell instead! The scene itself has already made its point against the atomization of social life into a set of restrictive communities by emphasizing that the assumption of the dog’s ability to replicate human racism was built on circumstantial evidence. But even more interesting is that this entire ending scene takes place in front of what film scholar Tom Conley, invoking Derrida, calls a written rebus, a piece of writing inside the image which provides the allegorical key to its meaning. In this case, the rebus is the name of a food vending cart in the background of the image, “Selma’s.” Here the show invokes the liberal Civil Rights movement; the fight in Selma, Alabama being one of its greatest struggles-against the bowtie-wearing black Muslim, Louis Farrakhan, whom Omar clearly parodies. The show argues for the value of liberalism over the radical and false separation of people into monotheistic identity categories. The dog, alas, has more sense than the people. Whatever Sheriff’s behavior at Larry’s apartment, on the street, he has the good sense to bark at Rosie O’Donnell, the giver of craptacularly bad talk shows, over Mekhi Phifer, a wonderful actor; as acerbic, and correct, a comment as Curb Your Enthusiasm has ever made.

Image Credits:

1. A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

2. Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Please feel free to comment.