Minimum Viable Cinema (Criticism)
Alexandra Juhasz / Brooklyn College, CUNY

ROOM H.264 sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image
ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 was sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image.

“Is cinema becoming a dead language — an art form which is already in decline?” (Wim Wenders, Room 666, 1982; Eric Hynes, Jeff Reichert, and Damon Smith, ROOM H.264, 2020)

On April 20, 2020, I was an “audience member” in ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020, an Online Premier & Live Event sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image. The “film” was cobbled together by way of Skype by its “filmmakers.” Given the constrictions of COVID 19, the three “directors” had generously invented a workaround to the already stripped-bare cinematic method that had organized three of their previous films. Their “interviewees” would answer the question above, in a new “cinematic” language: speaking alone in a room and into a 10-minute Skype screen. The responses were edited into their fourth “film” in the series, which premiered on Vimeo.

They call the project a “21st-century update on Wim Wenders’ feature-length documentary Room 666 … [where] filmmakers attending the Cannes Film Festival in 1982” also answer a single question related to the future of cinema. In CoronaWorld (CW, as opposed to BCW, Before CoronaWorld, as defined by my journalist boyfriend in his daily Plague Journal), the three artist/critics quickly modified their 21st-century process—BCW—to muster a bit of deserved attention for more than 20 international filmmakers, many of whom had lost film premiers to CW.

ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 and previous ROOM H.264 films are available on a dedicated Vimeo page
ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 and previous ROOM H.264 films are available on a dedicated Vimeo page.

A little on all my scare quotes, and the word generously, will set stage for my final (fast) reveal. Oh, plus an observation on “(fast).” For, this piece of “cinema” “criticism” will see none of my usual rigor, attention, or even humor because that seems hard to muster. (I wrote a more energetic critique of Wenders in 2011, “Men Shooting Films in Caves,” to which in other circumstances I might have referred.) In CW, for the “critic,” the “interviewees,” and “film” “directors,” time, energy, motivation have become absurd, unanchored, and unmeasurable. So I won’t wax on about how dusty, stubborn filmmakers are at long last being forced to become YouTubers; or how beautifully these “filmmakers” resist this putsch even so. I write this (fast) because my colleague Carol Vernallis asked me to. The effort at once enervates and enlivens. I’m happy to help. Be human. Last night I lay in bed and watched many respected “filmmakers” do pretty much the same: engage in a gutted form of and about a beloved enterprise; do what we can even so. Scare quotes everywhere because the once recognizable motivations, flourishes, roles, systems, technologies, and industries of cinema (albeit already in decline, again and again) are perverted, illegible, and reinvented in CW, to which so many of the “interviewees” and the “film” itself spoke. And this is all movingly, even hopefully, generous: each and every act of “cinema” in a moment of erasure.

The reveal.

On March 28, 2020, the FemTechNet collective published a white paper, Feminist Pedagogy in a Time of Coronavirus Pandemic. Working fast ourselves because we were motivated by or own fears that the roles, technologies, and industries of our beloved—teaching—were becoming a dead language, we offered insight from years of collective feminist work BCW. Our first 3:

  • We encourage “minimum viable courses.” By this we do not mean less; it’s an opportunity to rethink what a class is and could be. For now, simpler is better (see Dr. Feng-Mei Heberer on scaling down teaching at NYU Cinema Studies in CW).
  • Migrating a class into domestic space changes all interactions.
  • Foster skepticism about techno-solutionism and the visibility of corporations who are promising a new normal.

In this, my own short piece of Minimum Viable Cinema Criticism, I do my best, tipping my hat to those who are also engaging newly from our domestic spaces while staying skeptical and generous about and with the forms and tools at our disposal.

Image Credits:

  1. ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 was sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image. (author’s screengrab)
  2. ROOM H.264: Quarantine, April 2020 and previous ROOM H.264 films are available on a dedicated Vimeo page. (author’s screengrab)

Monetizing the Maze: How the Internet Covers Westworld
Myles McNutt / Old Dominion University

Westworld Podcasts

A selection of podcasts discussingWestworld

While a ratings and critical success, Westworld is perhaps most obviously a “hit” for HBO due to the sheer volume of “content” the series has generated. This includes a deluge of reviews and interviews from trade and enthusiast press outlets on Sunday nights when episodes finish airing, along with over forty podcasts (pictured above) devoted to analyzing each episode of the series. And while this type of coverage and analysis is common for “hit” television series like The Walking Dead or Game Of Thrones, both of those series were built around existing media franchises instead of a mostly-forgotten film from over forty years ago, making this a primarily self-starting phenomenon. At some point within the show’s first few weeks, Westworld became the type of series that floods social media with theories and reports about those theories and videos about those theories, and my question is this: Why?

Is Westworld designed as a giant puzzle? Did HBO use trailers or other promotional materials to frame it in these terms? Or is this a case where audience demand for specific forms of Westworld content is encouraging reporters to supply that content? Puzzling over the puzzling over of Westworld is not about finding a definitive answer to this question (the answer is some combination of the above), nor is it about trying to suggest there is one singular, correct way to read the series. Rather, it’s about thinking through how Westworld exemplifies shifts in how television is covered, reshaping the web of television, its audience, and the journalistic engines that serve as an intermediary.

Westworld YouTube Screenshot

This screenshot comes from Westworld | Theories! Different planet? Simulation?,” by YouTube user Mesh Flicks. As of November 2016, it has garnered over 42,000 views.

John Fiske argues in 1987’s Television Culture that there are three primary layers of television textuality. [ ((Television Culture, and other formative works by Fiske, were reprinted by Routledge in 2010. See John Fiske, Television Culture. 2nd edition. Routledge: 2010.))] The first, the primary text, is the series itself. The second, the secondary text, is what’s written about that series in magazines and newspapers, or through formal publicity. The third, the tertiary text, is how viewers respond to the series, whether in personal conversations or in letters to their local critic or favorite fan magazine.

There has always been a relationship between secondary and tertiary textuality: writing about polls creating a sense of community in fan magazines, Fiske argues that “these magazines do not create this activity, but they know it is there, encourage it, and give it a public status…in order to enhance the pleasures of the active viewer.” [ ((124.))] While textuality becomes more complicated in an online environment, we can see how critics and reporters embraced the emergence of forms of what Jason Mittell refers to as “forensic fandom” around shows like Lost, with writers like Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen emerging as key theorists in that show’s fan community. Critics writing episodic reviews also created spaces where fans could congregate and speculate, with a focus on activating—and monetizing—those communities within online environments.

However, in the context of social media proliferation, this relationship has shifted. Rather than generating content to create spaces for community, the outlets generating hundreds of articles about Westworld each week are attempting to tap into the existing communities on Reddit or Twitter or Tumblr. Content is created for an internet governed by logics of spreadability, and increased concerned over search engine optimization as ad blockers and shrinking ad revenue threaten online journalism writ large. [ ((For more on spreadability, see Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Josh Green’s Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture: NYU Press, 2013.))] They are also created in an environment where tertiary texts are increasingly shared as secondary texts, with formal reviews shared on Twitter alongside elaborate Reddit posts or detailed Tumblr theories, creating intense competition and blurring the lines between the two categories. If online users once looked to spaces like Entertainment Weekly or isolated message boards/wikis in order for their active viewership to be encouraged, social media has made such encouragement readily available, and reshaped the interplay between these agents of textuality.

The result is that Fiske’s notion that authors of secondary texts “don’t create this activity” has grown out-of-date. In the case of Westworld, the dictates of press coverage of the show were determined in advance of the show’s premiere: when it debuted on October 2nd, Vulture’s immediate coverage included both a traditional recap alongside “Our Biggest Questions After Westworld, Episode One.” published a slideshow—the peak of online journalism monetization—that structured their “recap” of the episode around “Top Theories and Explanations.” [ ((This coverage was posted immediately after the episode finished airing on the east coast, made possible by HBO posting online screeners to outlets. The first four episodes were made available in advance of the show’s debut.))] Such coverage is based on these writers’ reading of the text, but the framing is also predicting and hoping to shape audience reaction—by the next morning, outlets like The Huffington Post were mixing their own theories with aggregated content from Reddit, and by the end of the week sites like Slashfilm were collecting theories that were in part generated by fans, but also included posts from sites like Hitfix.

Google Trends chart tracking appearance of “Westworld Theories” after the show’s premier

These early secondary texts did not generate a theory-driven conversation around Westworld out of thin air, but Google Trends shows that the specific idea of Westworld theories” was not something that predated the show’s premiere, garnering little-to-no search activity in the weeks leading up to its debut. This discourse’s presence in pre-written coverage represents an effort by websites to turn Westworld into another consistent traffic-generating series in the vein of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Treating the show as a puzzle justifies not only weekly reviews and interviews when episodes air on Sunday, but also updates throughout the week aggregating fan theories from Reddit, responding to theories presented on other outlets, or generating new theories entirely. That the decision was made before the show premieres points to the role secondary texts played in shaping discourse around Westworld: while fans have embraced mysteries and theories as modes of reading the text, that market was in part generated by journalists prospecting for page view gold.

Screencap of Westworld Articles

Two articles connecting Westworld directly to Lost, from Vulture and Polygon

The forms of fan engagement emerging around Westworld are, as noted, familiar to fans of Lost, which makes sense given that both are produced by J.J. Abrams, noted lover of the “mystery box.” [ ((Westworld is developed by showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy—Nolan also has a propensity for puzzle narratives, as evidenced in his work on brother Christopher’s Memento and The Prestige.))] The forensic fandom that emerged around that show has now developed into a generalizable set of fan practices that can and have been applied to other texts aiming for a similar effect. This has been facilitated by the formalization of tertiary textuality through sites like Reddit, and through the shift in secondary textuality toward generating content that feeds that community.

However, are Westworld and Lost that similar? They are both what Mittell identifies as “drillable” texts, but whereas Lost creates very basic mysteries—what happened, where are we— to structure its narrative, Westworld is not as open in foregrounding these questions. Its pilot is much more interested in philosophical inquiries about humanity, and corporate culture—in my capacity as a critic, I watched the first four episodes of Westworld in isolation in advance of their premiere, and never saw them through the lens of mystery or theories, and was surprised to see the discourse shift so heavily toward those elements in the weeks that followed. I understand where the reading originates from, and the show’s subsequent twists and reveals further encourage such theorizing, but it reinforced how much these discourses were amplified in spaces beyond the show itself.

Writing in the New York Times, James Poniewozik draws a contrast between the two shows, arguing that while Lost “also developed an ensemble of characters with distinctive and rich personalities,” Westworld is by comparison “a story about stories, a puzzle about puzzles, a game about games.” And while this distinction between the shows rings true to a point, how differently might Lost have played out if it had been immediately subjected to the same type of theory-based scrutiny as met Westworld, instead of able to gradually grow into that fan community? While these theories reflect the perspective of a subsection of Westworld’s viewers, and the economic interests of websites generating secondary texts, their predominance in coverage of the show reveals how logics beyond the text itself shape the way Westworld and future shows of its ilk are experienced online.

Image Credits:

1. Podcasts, Author’s Screen Grab
2. Theories, Author’s Screen Grab
3. Google Trends, Author’s Screen Grab
4. News Articles, Author’s Screen Grab

Please feel free to comment.

Miniskirts and Wigs: The Gender Politics of Cross-Dressing on Lip Sync Battle
Britta Hanson / University of Texas at Austin

Channing Tatum breaks out his version of Beyoncé for his rendition of "Run the World (Girls)."

Channing Tatum breaks out his Beyoncé to perform “Run the World (Girls)” on Spike’s Lip Sync Battle.

On January 7, 2016, Channing Tatum blew up the internet. He strutted onto Lip Sync Battle’s stage wearing a voluminous blonde wig and a tight black mini-skirt to faux-sing “Run the World (Girls),” with Beyoncé herself joining in at the number’s end. The performance became a viral sensation, and the episode itself an all-time ratings high for Spike. (( Rick Kissell, “‘Lip Sync Battle’ Sets Spike Network Ratings Record,” Variety, January 12, 2016, )) This overwhelming popularity was not because of the excellence of Tatum’s dancing, but because of its gender-bending presentation.

Tatum’s performance is only one of many times that Lip Sync Battle has blurred traditional gender roles; in fact, the majority of LSB’s episodes contain some form of gender-bending, and the performers who do so almost always win. Judith Butler taught us years ago that gender is inherently performative, and that drag in its many forms has a powerful subversive potential. (( See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990). Granted, Lip Sync Battle does not embrace drag culture, only allowing cross-dressing in a comical way, but I argue that even the mild form of cross-dressing LSB hosts is still potentially subversive. )) Yet LSB presents an intriguing paradox: while it hosts a plethora of non-normative performances, the show ultimately reifies gender binaries, and places its stars squarely back in their “original” gender. (( Notably, the show’s attitude mirrors what Chris Straayer identifies as the “temporary transvestite” genre, which depicts constant transgression while constantly reminding the audience of the character’s “original” gender. See Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientation in Film and Video (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 46-50. ))

The show’s structure is simple. Two stars (usually of TV-based fame, but sometimes musicians or film actors) lip sync to two songs each, with the winner decided by the in-studio audience’s applause. Because the music is always a prerecorded, familiar pop hit, the star’s responsibilities are limited to mouthing the words and, more importantly, presenting the most outlandish physical display possible.

The measure of this outlandishness is directly related to the subversion of the star’s image. The sweet, demure Anne Hathaway won her battle by clamoring onto a life-size wrecking ball in her underwear to perform Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” Cross-dressing is treated as another method of going all the way for the competition. Justin Bieber, after performing Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” while affecting femininity, including comically swaying his hips and even stroking competitor Deion Sanders’ chin, explained afterward that “I just totally committed! Full commitment.” Occasionally stars embrace the subversive nature of their performance: former NFL player Terry Crews, after dancing to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” half-naked accompanied by baton twirlers, said he found inspiration in his wife and four daughters: “sometimes you just need to access your feminine side,” he exclaimed to wild cheers from the audience.

Terry Crews accessing his "feminine side" during his performance of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles."

Terry Crews accessing his “feminine side” during his performance of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.”

But LSB as a whole does not foster such open-mindedness: instead, the program carefully positions its performances as temporary aberrances in the stars’ lives. Stars must constantly reestablish their personas, as Richard Dyer explains, and LSB allows them to act out who they are, or are not. (( See Richard Dyer, Stars (London: BFI, 1979), 20. )) So while the most popular performances involve macho men – professional athletes, rappers, action movie stars – wearing dresses and wigs, the show works hard to show that the stars’ costume and dance choices have no bearing on their “real life,” which means demonstrating that the stars are irrefutably heterosexual and cis-gendered.

LSB employs several strategies to corroborate its stars’ straightness. Most simply, host LL Cool J will ask the star to discuss how unusual this was for them, such as when comedian Gabriel Iglesias told Cool J that dressing as Donna Summer required him to shave for the first time in five years. Other times, the spouse of the performer also appears on the show, with their shocked reaction to their partner’s gender-bent performance serving as an external guarantee of heteronormativity. (( For example, when Iggy Azalea performed Silk’s “Freak Me,” complete with grabbing her crotch and miming sexual intercourse, her then-fiancé Nick Young stated adamantly that “She don’t do that…she don’t do that to me!” )) Throughout, Cool J and color commentator Chrissy Teigen model the acceptable reaction to these antics. Cool J, a rapper, is often quietly disapproving, while Teigen, a model, spends most of her time evaluating how sexy (or more often unsexy) the performers are in their adopted garb. (( And that garb itself is often intentionally ridiculous, with Deion Sanders’ wig for “Like a Virgin” more closely resembling Einstein than Madonna. The few occasions when such costumes are not ridiculous, as in Jim Rash’s form-fitting P!nk costume, often leave the hosts unsure how to react. )) These strategies taken together are meant to signal that these performances cannot possibly be taken seriously. (( While the length of this piece restricts me from discussing male versus female cross-dressers in detail, female cross-dressers on LSB often work even harder than the men to reestablish their gender identity, with their second, non-drag number usually being hyper-feminine: see Jenna Dewan-Tatum’s “Pony” and “Cold-Hearted” or Kaley Cuoco’s “Move Bitch” and “I’m a Slave 4 U.” ))

Jim Rash's "seduction" of Joel McHale to "Something He Can Feel."

Jim Rash’s “seduction” of Joel McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel.”

When a performance breaks these careful restrictions, the show is thrown into chaos. One of LSB’s lowest-rated episodes featured three total gender-bent performances by competitors Jim Rash and Joe McHale. The most notable of these was Rash’s self-described “seduction” of McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel,” during which he straddled McHale’s chair and proceeded to caress and shimmy all around him, while McHale grimaced horribly. Despite his scowling, McHale commented afterward that “someone is going to need to wipe off” his seat, and that this sort of thing happens “all the time” on Community, the show both men act in. Cool J and Teigen seemed flabbergasted. Teigen asked Rash if he had ever done “all of that” before, to which Rash replied, “don’t worry about it.” In this way, Rash, who has refused to comment publicly on his sexuality, indirectly linked himself to homoerotic practices in his own life, and McHale, who is heterosexual, indicated that his active participation not only in their on-stage interaction, but in similar events in their professional lives. Thus both performers actively embraced a subversive gender position, although McHale, after his own performance in drag, acknowledged that their actions were outside the norm: “thank you for letting me shorten my career in front of you,” he shouted to the audience.

Group Shot

Chrissy Teigen, Jim Rash, LL Cool J, and Joel McHale pose after Rash and McHale’s final, cross-dressing performances.

What then, is the ultimate effect of all this gender confusion? For the stars, very little. As long as they carefully delineate their performance from their star persona, this exercise merely signals to casting directors that the star is capable of playing many (gender) roles outside of their normal type. The most immediate benefit is to the network. LSB airs on Spike, a channel which has recently attempted to expand viewership from an exclusively macho-male demographic to one that includes female viewers and attracts co-viewing as well. (( See the original description of their brand when the channel relaunched under that name in 2003: “TNN network can call itself Spike TV,” USA Today, July 7, 2003, )) Network president Kevin Kay commented that LSB was picked up because “it felt like the perfect show to help launch that rebrand.” (( L.A. Ross, How Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Lip Sync Battle’ Launched SpikeTV’s Rebrand: ‘Right Swing at Right Moment’,, April 16, 2015, )) For the network, too, LSB is meant to be a step outside of its box, but not a complete leap.

David Greven argues that our “new queerly-inflected mainstream movie practices” have the potential to open up “safe zones of polyvalent pleasures.” (( David Greven, Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 17. )) This is far too utopic a vision to extend to Lip Sync Battle. There is certainly potential for breaking the strict boundary between male and female in the show’s constant cross-dressing. But as we have seen, the show shuts down any subversive possibility as effectively as Tatum wore his wig.

Image Credits:
1. Promotional image for Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 1, originally aired January 7, 2016.
2. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 5, originally aired April 23, 2015.
3. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
4. Promotional image from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
Please feel free to comment.

Looking at Rock Stars Thomas Swiss / University of Minnesota and John Barner / University of Georgia

Psycho Shower 1

Psycho Shower 2

Fig. 1: Marianne Faithfull; Janet Leigh, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (Paramount Pictures, 1960)

I take photographs to see what something looks like as a photograph.
—Garry Winogrand, photographer

These days, people only know my name. They don’t know what I do. I’m just a name.
—Marianne Faithfull

In Part One of this Flow column, we discussed how the modern portrait can be many things—a commodity, a canvas, or a confession. Portraits reflect larger archetypes that progress through the ages and reveal themselves to us in similar poses and themes. In this part, we examine how these similarities present a unique mirror to the psyche and the myth-making that occurs in the iconography of popular culture and its objects: photographs of actors, models, politicians and rock stars. As in Part One, we have assembled photographs and their stylistic antecedents and examined them as if they were parts of a contiguous whole.


Portraits partake of the artificial nature of masks because they always impersonate the subject with some degree of conviction. Personhood, strongly attached to names, faces, bodies, and roles, can be understood as a metaphor for a particular intersection of social relations. What is left to the individual or to the artist portraying them is a matter of choice, perhaps an attempt to foster the pleasing deception that either of them is free. This alerts us to a problem in how we understand a photograph; the shifting distinction between its function as an image and its assumed value. In many ways those photographs deemed to have the most value are the least functional, and vice-versa.

Photographs are placed in categories (or genres) that codify their terms of reference and status. An ‘art’ photograph involves an entirely different set of assumptions from a ‘documentary’ photograph; all part of the complex web of interrelationships within which any photograph is suspended. The extent to which so much photographic practice has been haunted in its development by what has been termed ‘the ghost of painting’ is crucial, for photography established, from the outset, genres and hierarchies of significance related to painting. It institutionalized the artistic and professional aspects of its meaning in terms of an academic tradition.

Someone for ‘Something’

To take someone for a ‘something’—a great artist, ‘beauty’, leader or scientist—is to place that person within categories established by consensus to locate members of a society in familiar roles by which they are presentable and knowable. The denotation of someone as ‘the person who is something’ adopts the meta-language of the social act in defining identity, equivalent in its value to the person’s name. Like all ‘portraits’, images remain framed within a context that asserts simultaneously individual significance and attendant myths. They promise access as they declare privilege. And consistently, the ‘portrait’ hovers between extremes: on one hand the passport image, an identity card which stamps itself as an authoritative image; and on the other the studio portrait, which is offered as the realization of the photographer’s definitive attempt to reveal an interior and enigmatic personality that exists solely within the imagination of the viewer.

The Imagined Subject

David Crosby

Fig. 2: David Crosby

The imagined subject in rock photography is displayed as caught up in narcissistic fascination with the mirror image that, with its connections to curiosity and desire, draws the viewer further in, placing themselves in the role of the musician-as-object. One example can be seen in Figure 2, a portrait of David Crosby, then with the Byrds. Crosby is looking over his shoulder into a mirror at his reflection. His eyes are fixed on the image of himself, dressed in the dandy-style clothing the band wore at the time, sporting a satisfied, confident expression. Since the angle obscures Crosby’s “real” face, the viewer is drawn into the reflected image to glean the details of the photograph. We can compare this with Caravaggio’s famous painting Narcissus (see Figure 3), illustrating the egotistic satisfaction and longing present in both the classical Greek myth and the myth of the ever-confident rock star “attitude.” In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the mirror’s reflection and its recognition are a metaphor for ego formation—considering not only the self as it is but also an ideal self—what we most want to be. The point of the ego ideal, for Lacan,


Fig. 3: Narcissus by Caravaggio (1597-1599), Image courtesy of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

is that “the subject will see himself, as one says, as others see him—which will enable him to support himself.” ((Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans., Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991., 268. Emphasis in original.))

Larry Rivers’s Double Portrait of Frank O’Hara (1955) presents a “doubled” portrait—a simultaneous self and ideal. Through subtle movements of the head and the visual angle of the painting, O’Hara is seen as placid and composed in the right hand panel (see Figure 4) and, with arched eyebrows and a penetrating gaze, much more sinister in the left hand panel. These differences in tone and mood continue in repeated viewings of the portraits, where one begins to show a hint of a smile, the other betrays a downturned countenance, almost a frown. Where the eyes of one are calm, the others seem to burn with inarticulate rage. These two images (which are facets of one image, one subject, one “self”) portray two disparate and irreconcilable aspects of the same personality, indicative of Lacan’s transformative anxiety of the uncanny double experience.

Frank OHara

Fig. 4: Double Portrait of Frank O’ Hara by Larry Rivers (1955)

We call the Rivers portrait “uncanny” in that it captures this dichotomy, whereas other exemplars of Pop Art style, such as Warhol’s duplicated portraits of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, seem to, by the very nature of their photorealistic duplicative process, create vacuous space, and rendered devoid of the vaguest possibility of viewer identification. ((Cf. Steven Shaviro, “The Life, After Death, of Postmodern Emotions” Criticism 46, (2004): 125-141.)) That their difference is so subtle, and may not even be evident upon every viewing, is precisely what makes the doubled image an uncanny image of binary opposition.

Often, the cultural industry of popular music exists to both beckon and keep apart divergent elements away from the “rock icon” ego ideal, as is seen by the dual portrait of Bob Dylan (see Figure 5). In the Dylan portrait, the difference between each is exaggerated and heightened where the previous double portrait of O’Hara is more subtle. Dylan is seen, on the right, as peaceful and calm, with softly closed eyes, with his head tilted slightly and lips puckered as if in a kiss. On the left, Dylan is seen as if in either orgasmic ecstasy or anguished pain, with mouth open, eyes tightly closed, head held

Bob Dylan

Fig. 5: Double Portrait of Bob Dylan

rigidly stiff. The viewer’s attention may seem unable to stay fixed on just one of the images, and indeed the viewer may not be able to reconcile the two images as one, thus increasing the anxiety and tension that are characteristic of the moment of displaced, uncanny identification. As Roland Barthes notes, the moment of identification with a photograph is always split and never reconciled, the moment frozen in time at a point of pivotal “catastrophe”—a catastrophe which has always, already occurred, and always will occur. ((Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981., 96.))

Image Credits:

1. Marianne Faithfull
2. Janet Leigh
3. David Crosby (1966), photograph by Philip Townsend, from author
4. Narcissus, by Carvaggio
5. Frank O’Hara
6. Bob Dylan (1976), photograph by Lynn Goldsmith, from author

Please feel free to comment.

It’s a Myth So Let’s Blow It Up: The Pleasures of Mythbusters
Janet Staiger / University of Texas at Austin

cast of Mythbusters

The cast of Mythbusters

Several issues ago in Flow, Ann Johnson provided an excellent analysis of the hypothesis-testing structures of Mythbusters (2003-). (( “Can Rational Thought Be Entertaining,” Flow 12, no. 1 (3 June 2010).)) I have seen nearly every episode of the program and agree. An episode starts with a “myth” (actually usually two which are presented through cross-cutting), a discussion of some of the science that might be involved, a building of an apparatus or set of procedures to test the myth, and then its confirmation–or not. While the production team certainly is counting on “a faith in a public appetite for reason” as Johnson phrases it, this is not quite the Watch Mr. Wizard (1951-65) of my childhood. Three characteristics beyond rational reasoning enhance the entertainment value: the use of the formulas of the detective genre, the narrator’s commentary, and, most of all, excess.

Puzzle-Solving: The Tropes of the Classical Detective Narrative

A Mythbusters narrative arc almost always begins with someone bringing a myth to the team to solve. From the start the “first” team has been Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage; over the series other teams have developed so that for the last several years the “second” team is Tori Belleci, Kari Byron, and Grant Imahara. A test dummy, Buster, assists.

Buster helps the investigations

Buster helps the investigations

Those bringing the myth are often viewers who send in suggestions; however, even President Obama asked Jamie and Adam to re-investigate the Ancient Death Ray myth which had been busted in an earlier episode. ((“President’s Challenge” (air date 8 December 2010). The myth remained busted.)) Just as clients or Inspector Lestrade or an important person from the royal family may initiate a case with Sherlock Holmes, most of the jobs come in from the outside. Drawing on their areas of expertise (both Jamie and Adam have been movie stunt men), the team considers the known facts and works out methods to solve the puzzle.

At times the team members can be put into danger, creating the pleasurable affect of suspense. In “Sinking Titanic” (air date 22 February 2004), Adam needs to sit on a boat to determine if he will be sucked down when it sinks, and Jamie is in murky San Francisco waters trying to attach cables to the boat to bring it back up for further tests. Our empathy is, as in the detective genre, with the investigators, and with the exception of a few minor scraps, everyone has been okay. For viewers, the detective-genre pleasures also involve using our own intelligence and knowledge of science to speculate in advance about the results, either being confirmed in our evolving hypotheses or surprised. One scholar of detective fiction states that the genre’s narrative trajectory involves “a battle of wits between the curious reader, who endeavors to beat the author . . . to the solution, and the author who does his utmost to mystify, misdirect, and baffle him.” ((Meir Sternberg, Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 180.)) Here, everyone–team and viewers–wonders about the outcome and is rewarded at the same moment.

The Personable Narrator

Although not always a pleasure for me, the producers of Mythbusters have used a voice-over narrator (Robert Lee in the U.S.) to explain, recap, and comment about the action. Many of his remarks are (to me, silly or gratuitous) jokes about the team members or puns about what is happening. Given that at least two myths are being pursued in parallel and that commercial breaks interrupt the action, recaps are useful as is explanation beyond the conversation among the team members. I imagine the comedy is pleasurable to many people. Its saucy tone does create some intimacy as the narrator reveals and reminds us about the personalities of the investigators. It also is quite at a distance from the hard-boiled detective genre’s objective narration. This easy, not-much-is-really-at-stake tone also supports the third pleasure.

We’ve Busted the Myth but . . . .: The Value of Excess

If an episode ended with “busted,” “plausible,” or “confirmed,” the program would probably be successful. However, I do not think that is what draws spectators to watch. It is not rational hypothesis-testing and puzzle-solving but the excess that happens after that. As Jamie remarks in “Salsa Escape” (air date 23 February 2005), “This has got nothing to do with the myth. It’s just a big boom.” Anyone who scans the episode descriptions will notice how many times explosions are featured. As the narrator remarks in another episode, “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” ((“Sinking Titanic” (air date 22 February 2004). The myth involved a firecracker in a trombone. Eventually the team and explosion experts packed it as fully as possible with explosives.)) Most narrative arcs–at least in terms of spectacle–end “too soon.” The team justifies this “going-on” by changing the question from whether the myth is true to what it would take to replicate the results the myth implied.

For example, in “Salsa Escape,” one myth being tested is whether people can clean out a cement truck using a stick of dynamite. After pouring out cement, a crust of one to two inches develops in the interior of the drum. So, rather than hand-chipping it out, can explosives do the job? Jamie, Adam, and explosive experts start small: a cherry bomb and then an M-80 (equivalent to 1/4 stick of dynamite). Nothing happens. As a team member says, and which will be said in many more episodes, they “need to step it way up.” They move to a one-pound black powder bomb. Only once they try explosives equal to a one-and-one-half sticks of dynamite does a result occur. In fact, it seems to clear off the cement crust, and the team labels the myth plausible.

However, that was fairly boring. We’ve seen a few pops of smoke out the top of a cement mixer and the resultant small slabs of freed cement. But we can step it up. Earlier in the episode, the question arises, what happens if a truck is caught in traffic before it can reach its worksite? Cement will harden in about ninety minutes. So, what will it take to clean out a truck full of cement? During the experiments with the caked-on crust of cement, the team also had tried to loosen a half-load of cement that was accidentally left to set. None of the small explosions had any effect on that. So, the team decide to deal with the truck: they will “blow [up] that sucker . . . [a] bigger boom than we’ve ever done before.” They drive the truck to a deserted site, even shut down a nearby highway, move away over one mile from the site, and use 850 pounds of commercial explosives, one-thousand times larger than any previous Mythbuster explosion. As Jamie says, “This has got nothing to do with the myth.” They are just blowing up a truck, and we enjoy the excessive spectacle with them.

Before the explosion


During the explosion


After the explosion


Adam and Jamie

Adam (center) and Jamie (right) examine what little is left.

Mythbusters is a program that has “a premise based on reason,” and the average viewer learns lots of science along the way. I, for one, now know that I can escape bullets by diving into water. ((“Bulletproof Water” (air date 13 July 2005). )) I do watch it for the science, and, as Johnson notes, it may lessen “unnecessary fears.” However, other pleasures that make the program entertaining are likely the draws for most audiences: a certain gaming competition about predicting the outcome, the growing appearance of intimacy with the investigators, ((Hyneman and Savage are now well known celebrities. In their recent visit to the University of Texas, their event sold out within two hours of tickets being available so I could not obtain any.)) and the spectacles of excess. All of these extras do not come without caveats, of course, but stretching the mind in some ways is a very good outcome on the whole. As Johnson, asks, “can rational thought be entertaining?” Mark that one confirmed.

Image Credits:
1. Mythbusters website
2. Author’s Screencap
3. Author’s Screencap
4. Author’s Screencap
5. Author’s Screencap
6. Author’s Screencap

Please feel free to comment.

Satellite TV Smackdown: Viacom vs. DirecTV
Stephen Tropiano / Ithaca College

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Viacom channels

On Tuesday, July 10, 2012, at approximately 11:45pm (ET), something unexpected happened in 20 million living rooms across America. DirecTV customers (myself included) no longer had access to 17 Viacom channels, including such favorites as Comedy Central, MTV, and the #1 most watched cable channel on DirecTV, Nickelodeon. A single flick of a switch–and it was so long Stewart & Colbert, au revoir Spongebob & Dora, and good riddance Snooki and JWOWW.

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DirecTV’s notice to customers

The blackout was due to a financial dispute over an increase in the subscription fees Viacom was charging DirecTV to carry their channels, a list that also includes VH1, BET, TVLand, Spike and Nickelodeon’s siblings, NickToons, Nick Jr., and Teen Nick. According to an online video message from DirecTV CEO Mike White, Viacom was demanding DirecTV “pay over 30% more. That’s an extra billion dollars for the exact same channels you already receive.” ((“Mike White’s Message to Customers.” n.d. Web. 27 July 2012. Viacom accused DirecTV of misleading their customers and set the record straight: “Here’s the truth: Viacom is asking DirecTV for an increase of a couple of pennies per day per subscriber. That’s far less than DirecTV pays other programmers with fewer viewers than Viacom.” (( As quoted in Brian Anthony Hernandez, “DireTV Removes Viacom Channels Amid Battle on Social Media.” Mashable, 10 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012.

The phrase “a couple of pennies a day” makes me nervous. Exactly how many pennies are we talking about? Let’s do the math: $1 billion dollars (the additional cost per year) divided by 20 million subscribers = 5,000 pennies or $50 dollars per year per subscriber. In this economy, that’s a substantial increase, especially when, as White points out, we will be receiving the same channels.

Channel blackouts are no longer a rare occurrence. Over the past two years they have risen significantly in number, from 4 in 2010, to 15 in 2011, to 22 in the first half of 2012. According to the Associated Press, cable and satellite providers are less willing to pay higher fees because their profits have decreased due to the decline in the number new households in the current economic climate. At the same time, entertainment companies like Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, AMC, and Viacom “have kept expanding their profit share.” ((“TV Channel Blackouts Becoming More Common as Profits Stall.” USA Today, 16 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. On July 20, 2012, the same day DirecTV and Viacom reached an agreement, Time Warner Cable and the Hearst Corporation ended their financial standoff, restoring nearly half of Hearst’s twenty-nine local television stations. ((Chelsea Stevenson, “Time Warner Agrees to Restore 15 Local Hearst TV Stations.” Wall Street Journal, 20 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. A heated contract dispute over licensing fees between AMC Networks and the DISH Network resulted in the second-largest satellite TV provider eventually dropping American Movie Classics, WEtv, and Independent Film Channel (IFC) from its line-up on July 1, 2012. ((William Launder, “AMC in Deal to Keep Channels on AT&T.” Wall Street Journal, 1 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. Knowing DISH customers were outraged over missing the highly anticipated season premiere of Breaking Bad, AMC decided to live stream the episode (which they never do) in order to give Dish customers “an extra week to switch providers so they can enjoy the rest of the season.” ((Amanda Kondolojy, “AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ Season 5 Premiere is Most-Watched Episode Ever.” 16 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012.

In the case of DirecTV vs. Viacom, their seven-year contract was up on June 30th but Viacom allowed DirecTV to continue to air their channels until negotiations stalled. Then a mini-modern day Game of Thrones (minus the sexposition) erupted with both sides engaging in some very intense finger pointing via on-screen messages, TV commercials, and social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr). DirecTV’s campaign was more corporate and subdued compared to Viacom’s, which, like the programming on MTV and Nickelodeon, was overstated, in-your-face, and a tad cartoonish.

The more adult of the two companies, DirecTV appealed to their customers by presenting “the facts” (or at least their version of them). An on-screen message on the blacked out channels and on their website,, made it clear that Viacom is the guilty party. On their website, DirecTV also explained the correct number of blacked out channels is 17, not 26, the number Viacom was using in their campaign: “Viacom’s double-counting both high definition and standard definition versions of the same service to overly inflate its totals and add more unnecessary drama to what should have always remained private business discussions.” ((The 17 Viacom channels, 9 of which are available in HD (designated by an *asterisk): BET*, CMT* (Country Music Television), Centric, Comedy Central*, Logo, MTV*, MTV2, Nickelodeon*, Nick Jr., Nicktoons, Palladia, Spike*, Teen Nick, TR3s, TV Land, VH1*, VH1 Classic. ))

There was plenty of “unnecessary drama” in Viacom’s campaign urging customers to call DirecTV to stop them from “taking away 26 of your channels.” Their website,, featured a search engine DirecTV customers could use to find another cable or satellite service provider that carries Viacom’s channels and make the switch. DirecTV explained on their website that changing providers would not matter because “no TV provider is immune to unfair fee increases” (to prove their point they even provide a list of “current and recent industry disputes”). Still, DirecTV was no doubt concerned about losing customers (who would be charged a pro-rated early cancellation fee of up to $20 a month!) (( When a close friend called DirecTV while the blackout was going on to find out where to send an old box she had been holding on to, she inquired if they would be offering some credit since they were no longer carrying Comedy Central – she’s a Daily Show fan. Before she could say anything else they offered her 6 months of free Showtime, Starz and Encore and $10 off her bill for the next six months. )).

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Viacom’s notice to DirecTV customers

Team Viacom also encouraged customers to participate in the fun via Twitter (, which also sent tweets from MTV and reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi encouraging their fans to call DirecTV and demand their channels back. DirecTV also had their own Twitter account that encouraged customers to express their support, though some chose to express their anger at both sides, accusing them of caring more about profits than their customers.

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Twitter message from Nicole Polizzi “Snooki”

Viacom even attempted to scare DirecTV customers with a shameless video montage that incorporated clips from popular shows on Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon shows that give the impression that Jersey Shore‘s The Situation, Stephen Colbert, Daniel Tosh, iCarly‘s Miranda Cosgrove, the South Park kids, and Spongebob Squarepants are reacting to DirecTV’s decision to get rid of “26 of your favorite channels” (Viacom’s name is, of course, never mentioned). The final image is a definite low point: Dora the Explorer saying, “We need your help!” (a request she often makes to her young fans). DirecTV was no doubt aware that the loss of Nickelodeon was devastating for many kids, so they added Disney Junior to their line-up.   ((Andrew Wallenstein, “DirecTV Adds Channel Amid Viacom Dispute.” Variety, 13 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. In fact, the Disney Channel’s viewership rose during the blackout while Nickelodeon’s steadily dropped. ((Brian Stelter, “Denied Nickelodeon, DirecTV’s Youngest Clients Find Substitutes.” New York Times, 18 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012.

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Viacom’s video message to DirecTV customers

Viacom also tried to show whose boss by stopping the online streaming of complete episodes of popular shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Viacom restored the public’s access within a week after being lambasted by critics, including their own Jon Stewart, who asked, “Viacom, where are you, China?”

On July 10, 2012, an agreement was reached and order was restored in ViacomLand. A seven-year agreement was reached to the tune of $5 billion (a 20% increase instead of the initial 30% Viacom was demanding). ((Andrew Wallenstein, “DirecTV, Viacom Reach Agreement.” Variety, 20 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012.

As for DirecTV’s subscribers, it’s still not clear what if anything we got out of this deal. Viacom and DirecTV had no qualms about sending their customers into battle, yet it is only a matter of time before we will be footing the bill for their war. In the meantime, all I know is I had access to 17 (or 26) Viacom channels, suddenly I didn’t, and then I got them back. And I am not expecting to get a rebate anytime soon from DirecTV for those Snooki-less summer days of 2012.

Image Credits
1. Collage by author.
2. Screen shot by author
3., screen shot by author
4. Screen shot by author
5. Screen shot by author

Children Playing in Hollywood

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

Little Children movie poster

Little Children movie poster

Todd Field’s Oscar nominated feature, Little Children, received rave reviews in 2006 for its careful depiction of the hopes and fears that nestle beneath the surface in suburban heterosexual America. In the film, a veneer of serene family life quickly gives way to reveal a shadow world replete with sexual menace and fascinating perversity. In fact, the promise of Little Children lies in its apparent commitment to exposing the hypocrisy of bourgeois suburban Christian morality. And, pedophilia serves, at the beginning of the film, as a marker for the witch-hunting propensities of white “neighborhood watch” societies and lets the viewer believe that the film’s narrative thrust involves a hard and long look at the inadequacies of heterosexual marriage and the lengths to which suburban heteros will go to find scapegoats for their own deep wells of loneliness.Little Children tells three interlocking stories: in the first, Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslett) sits apart from the other suburban mums at the local playground and marks her distance from their parochial and repressive enforcement of social norms. Pierce, as her name implies, can see through the judgmental stance of the mothers and unlike them, she is not afraid to admit to her dissatisfaction with marriage and motherhood. When an attractive stay at home dad, Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) appears at the playground, her interest is piqued. Sarah is unhappily married to an older man, Richard (Greg Edelman), who spends his spare time absorbed in internet porn. Again, as his name implies, Richard is purely and simply a dick and we are at a loss to understand why Sarah has married him. Brad Adamson, on the other hand, also carrying an allegorical name implying some kind of oedipalized masculinity, is a law student married to a cold and driven wife, and he is struggling to hold on to some fragment of his youth before disappearing into the career she has fantasized for him. Finally, in this suburban Greek drama, enter Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), an odd looking and shy middle-aged man, newly released from jail for pedophilia. Ronnie (notice the childish name) lives with his mother in a dark house full of childhood dolls and miniatures and he is persecuted by a neighborhood cop who retired under suspicious circumstances and who now makes it his duty to spy on McGorvey and warn the neighborhood against him.

Critics like A.O. Scott in the NYT and Carina Chocano in the LA Times were wild about this film and praised it for the beautiful camera work, the melding of menace to coziness in its sunny settings and the subtle and intelligent dissection of suburban dysfunction. The film, however, is actually a strangely crude and ultimately hateful confirmation of the very same moral structures that it seems at first to be critiquing. To my mind this weird cycle by which the very conditions of unhappiness at the start of the film become the resolution at the end, the diagnosis becomes the cure, is representative of the narrative code of many liberal Hollywood films, like American Beauty for example, and it allows very conservative cultural texts about sexuality and domesticity to pose as radical and alternative ones.

Let’s see how Little Children manages to sneak normativity into the plot as resolution for the problem of the community enforcement of …normativity! The schema of the film works almost off a blueprint for psychoanalytic family structure: Sarah does not want to be a mother to her daughter and her husband does not want to be a husband to his wife. She fails to be mother, he fails to be father and in fact, in their first encounter in the film, she catches him masturbating in his study setting her up as the castrating mother to the naughty auto-erotic son. Brad does not want to be a father to his son but would rather remain a son (Adamson) and he watches teenage boys skateboarding in the evening when he should be studying, longing for the freedom implied by their flights through space and time. Ronnie cannot transition from being son to his mother to being a husband to an adult woman (as we witness in a painful date scene) and he regresses into boyhood as soon as he re-enters his mother’s house. Seemingly, the problem here is heterosexuality writ large with its imprisoning structures of normative gender and its suffocating modes of domesticity. People get married for all the wrong reasons, the film implies, and the society insists that they replace their parents by becoming them.

Brad and Sarah at the pool

Brad and Sarah at the pool

And the first half of the film does indeed begin to unravel the social compulsion to conform, externally enforced and internally incorporated, that produces judgment, anxiety, fear and desire as its monstrous byproducts. The scene at the neighborhood pool, where Sarah and Brad are bathing in the sunlight of their newly ignited desire and where poor Ronnie is pegged as a predatory pervert and treated like a shark in the water, dramatizes the collision between fear and normativity that produces both the pervert and the conditions of his desire. But all of the tension of that scene, all of the criticism that it directs at the moralistic parents who use the notion of protecting their children as an alibi for outrageous behavior, disappears instantly when the cautious sympathy that the viewer has developed for Ronnie is erased by the revelation that he is not a suspected pedophile who is being unfairly treated but a real pedophile who also hates adult women and deserves our contempt and the violence of his neighbors.

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie’s descent from wronged innocent to hideous pervert is matched in the film by the shift of sympathies away from the adulterous duo, Sarah and Brad, and towards the happy families that these infidels have disrupted. The porno obsessed Dick and the frigid Kathy suddenly seem like tragic victims of the selfishness and greed of their dysfunctional and adulterous spouses. While Sarah and Brad were the victims of their marriages when the film began, at its denouement the film refuses to make them the heroes of their adultery. So, if adultery is not the escape and the cure for a bad marriage, what is? Apparently, returning to the bad marriage is the only answer that the film can offer, oh and “grow up.”In the film’s crazed resolution, Sarah and Brad have decided to run away together. Sarah goes to wait for Brad in the playground and we see her willfully say goodbye to her daughter, choosing sex over family, desire over nurturing, her own happiness over the child’s. Brad leaves his home too but stops on the way to the playground to watch the skateboarders. In the meantime, who should enter the playground but our abject third, the perpetual outsider, the inhuman pervert against whose desires, Sarah and Brad and their spouses all seem pure, of course, Ronnie. Ronnie, we think, wants to hurt Sarah and a tragedy seems to be in the making. But no, goodness and truth, thank God, win out over perversity and evil and so while Brad hurts himself in the skateboard park trying a stunt for which he is too old, Sarah witnesses the self-castration of Ronnie. He looks up at her from the bench upon which he sits, lifts his hands from his crotch and reveals a bloody mess and a knife. Could anything be more blatantly Freudian than this diagnostic manual ending? The man who still thinks he is a boy falls off his skateboard and hits his head, when he comes to he realizes he loves his wife and in that moment he becomes a man. The woman who wants to be a daughter rather than a mother sees in Ronnie the disasterous results of poor parenting and rushes home to her child and her porno husband. The poor pervert who cannot become a man and wants to harm children serves as a warning to all who stray even a little way from the domestic lair in suburbia: if you cannot grow up and reproduce a replica of your parents’ home, his character implies, you will do horrible things to innocent people. And if you cannot control your impulses, you must be castrated.

Sarah and her child

Sarah and her child

The plot summary I have given here surely does not sound like the same film that critics hailed as “quietly devastating” (Peter Travers) and “intelligent” (A.O. Scott). And yet, I have not embellished the plot, its conceits or its imagined solutions to the problems introduced by each character. Why would critics see this sophomoric understanding of desire and domesticity as complex, intricate and subtle? And why raise the topic of pedophilia as a way of discussing suburban witch hunts only to transform it into a trope for what is wrong with suburban heteronormativity? In the end, we are asked to believe, there is nothing wrong with the family, nothing faulty about hetero marriage, the only problem in suburbia is indeed the lurking pervert who wants to harm you and your children. In a security age, perhaps, we cater to existing fears and we are complicit in creating new ones all so that, apparently, in the end all we can ask is that the state protect us from the very thing that it has manufactured as the cause of our alarm.

Image Credits:
1. Little Children movie poster
2. Brad and Sarah at the pool
3. Ronnie and his mother
4. Sarah and her child

Please feel free to comment.

Watching TV Without Pity

by: Mark Andrejevic / University of Iowa


Despite their threats and invective, it’s hard to take the folks at Fox seriously when they badmouth, the Website that champions the underdogs on American Idol – not out of pity, but in order to have them to kick around a bit longer. Fox has reportedly slapped the site with cease-and-desist orders and dispatched its spokespeople to call it “hateful” and “mean-spirited,” but as is so often the case with Murdoch-style outrage, this reeks of a certain gleeful hypocrisy – as when the network turned suddenly penitent after Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, and trumpeted its remorse all the way to the bank ( is merely one more self-stoking symptom of American Idol’s daunting success. As the site’s founder put it, Fox needs to lighten up: “All we’re doing is getting people to watch their show…We’re [earning] you money for the sponsors!” (Elfman, 2007).

If it’s not already quietly negotiating a deal to buy the site, Fox should learn from Bravo, which recently purchased the well established, rip-on-your-favorite-show site, (TWoP for short) (Peterson, 2007). For those who have been following its snarky antics since it changed its name from Mighty Big TV and attracted a loyal following of some 50,000 registered users with lots more visitors and lurkers, the sale might be somewhat bittersweet: the site that gleefully ripped on The Powers That Be (TPTB, in TWoPspeak) has officially been deputized by them (Kapica, 2006). All of which might threaten to take some of the satisfaction out of the snark…or not.

A few years ago, I posted an advertisement on the site (which was strapped for cash at the time, before its deal with Yahoo and its purchase by Bravo) inviting visitors to participate in an online survey. In keeping with the general tenor of the site, I received lots (almost 1,800, within a matter of days) of articulate, thoughtful, and highly self-reflexive answers to questions about how TWoPpers envisioned their role in the media food chain. Despite the interactive hype that has inundated the media environment since the start of the millennium, the people who wrote me were, in keeping with the upbeat cynicism that characterizes all but the most unabashedly fannish forums on the site, quite cautious about making any broad claims regarding audience empowerment or subversive consumption. As one respondent put it, “the producers are such prostitutes to advertisers and whatever other show may be popular that giving advice would be pointless. It is all about the Benjamins.”

This response was typical. Most of those who wrote me took pains to suggest that they didn’t have any illusions about transforming or improving the culture industry. The recurring theme in the responses was that contributors post primarily for one another, and that if producers feel like paying attention, so much the better. Some respondents cautioned against the dangers of TWoPpers believing their own press coverage, which included accounts of show runners scurrying back to their computers to see how the boards were treating their shows. As one respondent put it, “Although the artistic personnel of some shows probably read TWOP, I think the posters on the forums think they have more influence than they probably do. If they write posts for the series creators, they are deluded as to their influence.”



Which is not to say TWoPpers were entirely without hope: the site’s snark is motivated in no small part by disappointment in the persistent inanity and unfulfilled potential of a medium for which contributors and founders alike maintain a perverse affection. As one of the site’s co-founders, Sarah Bunting put it, “We love television, and we want it to be better than it is. Because most of the time — 85 percent of the time — it’s crap” (Vogel, 2006). But improving TV via fan participation is not something they’re counting on: “If TV is watching us, that’s great,” Bunting said, “but it’s not what we set out to do” (Kapica, 2006).

TWoPpers are using a new medium – the Internet – to make an older one more entertaining for themselves and anyone else who wants to tag along or chip in. As one of the respondents to my survey put it, “I would like my TV to be smarter, better written, more intellectually stimulating, and more emotionally engaging. With TWoP, at least my watching of TV can be those things.”

This is the beauty of interactivity from the producers’ perspective: not only does it allow for the spontaneous formation of instant focus groups, but it also allows them to benefit from the free labor of smart people trying to make bad TV more entertaining.

I first noticed this phenomenon when I was spending a fair amount of time in the official chat rooms for the first US version of Big Brother. Despite much hype, the show was often mind-numbingly boring, as were the round-the-clock live Internet video feeds. The chat rooms became, for at least some viewers, the only way to make the show interesting. While watching the cast members’ attempts to entertain themselves in a drab, media-free ranch house on a lot in studio city, online viewers similarly took upon themselves the task of amusing themselves by speculating on plot twists that might make the show more interesting, by sharing information about the various contestants, and by starting online debates.

TWoP has elevated the attempt to make bad TV more entertaining to a popular art form. In the TWoP world, the show is no longer the final product, but rather the raw material to which value is added by the labor – some paid, some free – of recappers and forum contributors. While TWoPpers benefit from the wit and wisdom of their fellow posters and their shared project, so do producers. Not only did roughly one-third of the respondents to my survey indicate that they watched more TV because of TWoP but a similar number indicated that there were shows that they would not have watched without the TWoP recaps.

All of which suggests that it might be worth revisiting the Jenkinsian appropriation of de Certeau’s observation that, “ readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves” (as quoted in Jenkins, 1988; 86). The romantic appeal of this formulation is unmistakable: it refigures fans of all stripes as latter day Robin Hoods, bandits, and rebels – pirating the wealth of the Hollywood heavies. In the interactive era, the metaphor breaks down in the transition from fields to texts. As economists might put it, the consumption of crops is rival: if I make off in the night with the wheat you worked all season tending, you’ve been despoiled, stripped of your goods. If however, I devote my lunch hour and down time at work honing my wit on the grindstone of American Idol, my enjoyment only enhances the wealth of Century City.

It turns out that the despoilers aren’t tearing their way across the media landscape like rapacious rebels, but perhaps more like unpaid nomadic laborers, turning the soil and enriching it as they go. Fox needs to wake up and smell the fertilizer that’s being lavished on its fields for free.


Elfman, Doug. 2007. “Enjoying Their Worst: Suburban Web Site says Idol is ‘Giant Karaoke Contest.’” Chicago Sun Times, March 26.

Jenkins, Henry. 1988. “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 5: 85-107.

Kapica, Jack. 2006. Serious TV Web Forum Getting Serious Notice. The Globe and Mail (Canada), April 13, p. B11.

Peterson, Karla. 2007. “With TWoP in Bravo’s Pocket, Does This Mean the Party’s Over?” The San-Diego Union-Tribune, March 16, p. E9.

Vogel, Charity. 2006. “Living in TV Land.” The Buffalo News, December 10, p. G3.

Image Credits:
2. Tubey

Please feel free to comment.

Prime Time Bullies

by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford

You Are What You Eat

You Are What You Eat‘s Dr. Keith

Lifestyle television is that space where identity is most openly discussed. In programmes ranging from Extreme Makeover to Ten Years Younger our flexible selves are seen to be empowered by experts striving to bring forth ‘the real you.’ This hidden entity is called forth in a range of media including websites, newspapers and countless magazines. Indeed one recent import to the UK is Psychologies, a French magazine whose launch cover invites readers to ‘Rediscover the real you.’

Given that the real you is commonly believed to be in there somewhere it seems reasonable to discuss what methods television recommends for bringing it out.

Two recent television programmes have aggressively sought to strip beyond the surface to find the real you within. In the UK one of Channel Four’s biggest hits is Gillian McKeith’s You Are What You Eat. In the US, NBCs third season of The Biggest Loser was such a ratings winner it disloged prime-time sitcom hours for a week. In both shows the object for treatment is the body. Indeed the shared diagnosis is that within all overweight people a real you can be released by the forces of shame and discipline.

While the transformative device is hardly new to television the sort of rapid physical changes demanded by these programmes are shocking and very possibly not healthy. Each format requires the contestants to make themselves completely obedient because changes have to be quite literally seen to be believed. Thus contestants are chosen partly because of their size and partly because they have the dramatic personalities necessary to make their obedience a difficult but involving struggle. If they can come through this then we can, can’t we? A range of products and web-services help strengthen our conviction to transform and bring out the real you out of recalcitrant misshapen us.

In the UK Dr Gilllian McKeith’s PhD is the subject of much heated debate. But at the core of these discussions are not what McKeith does but her qualifications to do it. It seems that the lessons and indeed the methods of shame are fine as long as one has the correct medical qualifications. This is not merely a moral issue. Since the first series, McKeith has developed a very profitable sideline in Health Foods. Those who believe in the powers of television and have seen her transformations wrought on willing victims may be more willing to pay £5 for the restorative powers of her snacks.

In the US the project is more ambitious. The Biggest Loserhas gone from being a mere television programme to full blown cultural phenomenon. The format has had the distinction of be adapted in Britain, Australia and Israel. The website develops, indeed, makes perpetual the project by inviting a collective effort at slimming down to find the real you via The Biggest Loser clubs. The third series implicated the whole nation by choosing representatives from each state and then photographing ‘before and afters’ (still on the website). This seems to represent an unofficial extension of Bush’s ‘Get Fit’ program designed to energise the nation by getting citizens to ‘take greater responsibility for their future health and welfare.’ This fits into a wider range of new measures described as…

Biggest Loser

Biggest Loser “Before and After”

‘the “tough love” of compassionate conservatism’ through a proliferating network of private and personal trainers (e.g financial planners, home-security experts, smart cars, the Web as customized reference-guide for do-it-youself-ers, professional life-organizers’ on TV, and of course Dr. Phil (Hay and Andrejevic, 2006: 338).

In both programmes the aim is to teach people to become managed, responsibilized selves. And what better, more validated space could there be for this process than television where all dreams come true?

One crucial new factor is this search for the ‘you’ within is the use of Science. Before its treatments can be recommended television has to prove that it is responsible and so it provides the facts about being overweight which cannot be called into question. And so we hear that anyone slightly overweight has a higher risk of heart disease, anyone with more than 25% body fat is close to obese etc. These statistics are presented as if they were indisputable and indeed they are not disputed: science is facts! With a series of scientifically-validated methods outlined for our approval subjects have no choice but to obey. Because science has ‘proved’ what needs to be done (and is validated every week through televised success stories) all manner of punishments, shames and indignities can be visited on
the individuals.

A second allied justification can be found in how ‘fat’ is made to mean in western culture. As responsibilized selves we have a duty to keep in shape. To be big is not only aesthetically displeasing but it’s also cheating the nation. These days the overweight are most often seen in programming such as talk shows which feature the working class as bodies in need of treatment. An association is made between being overweight and a relaxed attitude to sexual morality and employment. Those who become overweight are defective creatures snubbing the project we should all be involved in–making ourselves streamlined engines for leaner fitter nations.

The work of these prime-time bullies validated by science, endorsed by the new common sense and promoted through every possible channel may yet spawn myriad psychological dangers.

‘Identification with the aggressor and privatization can combine to create an insecure psyche that, in attempts to bolster itself, leans on clichés and common sense to the extent that reflection is impossible and…finding security n closing off dialogue with self and other basic needs’ (Sloan, 1999).

Rose has written of the ‘specialists of psy (who) have emmeshed themselves inextricably with our experience of ourselves.’ The pseudo-science inspiring this breed of programming promote health-through-normalization–another example of the spread of governmentality…

Looking for the real you? Just say no.

Biggest Loser Season 3

Biggest Loser Season 3

Image Credits:
1. You Are What You Eat’s Dr. Keith
2. Biggest Loser “Before and After”
3. Biggest Loser Season 3

Please feel free to comment.

Speaking to Each Other at Last? The Ghost of TV Past, Present and To Come…

This is my fifth and last Flow column, all of which I have enjoyed writing – I hope you have caught one or two of them. If by some oversight you’ve missed them, they are archived here:

1. Disappointment and Disgust, or Teaching?
2. Flowers Powers: Mars or Venus?
3. To Have and Have Not (You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone)
4. Laughs and Legends, or the Furniture that Glows? Television as History

There’s not that much space for pleasurable discourse among peers these days. So it was instantly appealing when co-founder Avi Santo (along with Christopher Lucas) offered me a chance not only to write about my own specialist field again, but to engage with the comments of others. The Flow journal wanted us to ‘engage with television at the pace of the medium,’ he said.

Horace Newcomb

Horace Newcomb

It was then that I began to hear the rustle of the Ghost of TV Past. Actually it wasn’t a ghost, it was the Spirit of Horace Newcomb. Here he was, large-as-life, not exactly rustling in those Texan boots, taking me back to 1984 or thereabouts.

I see a big drill-hall of a conference venue somewhere in Michigan, or is it Illinois, where it seems Horace has invited me and another British guy to join with himself and plenty of others – American media academics and a sprinkling of media professionals – to talk about TV.

They’re calling me Fiskan; Fiskan Hartley I was in those days.1 There was a deep chime. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was the very ‘moment’ of High Theory. A shudder went through me, as if from a Ferment in the Field. Everyone began speaking in tongues: I spoke Althusserian, Fiske was babbling away in Certeauvian, young Docrock2 was there too I think, talking in a Birmingham accent. Two giant but shadowy figures – Charlie and Percy – lurked in the background as they Measured our Meanings, muttering:

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

Then the Genial Spirit politely rounded us up, I think there was some embarrassed hanging back and a general feeling that we were stepping out of our comfort zones. He wants us to do what? To sit up on the podium; to watch a pilot episode of an as-yet-unseen TV sitcom called 227; and he wants us to review it? There and then, in public, no rehearsals … oh and 227‘s proud producers are sitting there too in the drill hall, waiting with the usual grad-student crowd to hear what Media Academics had to say.

Hell, this vision is turning into a nightmare, surely? But no – it was Horace Newcomb, quietly trying to do what he has never stopped attempting, which is to get the worlds of professional media production and criticism to talk to each other. It has proved to be an uphill struggle.

We got through our ordeal-by-criticism on that night, but I wasn’t very impressed with us. There was just not enough common understanding of what TV criticism in an academic context might be for. So as each of us took our turn on the podium, what came out of our mouths told the audience much more about us than it did about the hapless 227 – which however survived our critique and went on to five successful seasons.

227 was an ordinary product of the network dream factory, with no particular critical, avant garde or oppositional merits to recommend it to the assembled Young (well, mostly older) Turks. Its merits were that it was funny in a sitcommy way, and it proposed to put a predominantly African-American cast, playing working-class characters, in front of Americans each Saturday night. Everyone could think about neighbourliness while they laughed at the vicissitudes of apartment-block life. Check it out.

But someone on the podium thought it was too much like the Cosby Show; someone else thought it had its class analysis all wrong; a third (it might’ve been me) thought it reeked of network values rather than those of the culture it purported to portray.

This was the last time I ever heard media academics doing ‘live’ TV criticism, in sync with the rhythm of TV itself. In fact criticism itself became a nearly forgotten art after that painful night in the wilds of East Lansing (or Urbana-Champaign).

During the long slog through Ideological Critique and the posts- (structuralism, modernism, colonialism etc.), it was hard to get a judgement in edgeways. It seemed that criticism had had its day. It was either an oppressive discourse imposing DWEM [dead white European male] values, or it was self-deluding infantile wish-fulfilment universalising the self of the critic, or both. Just then the Bennett & Miller gang, the tough guys of Cultural Policy Studies, rode into town, shot the place up with their Foucault-45s and declared the unattached universal intellectual dead.

Criticism became the love that dare not speak its name. Those of us trained (as unattached universal intellectuals) to make skilled judgements, both aesthetic and moral, about texts, in order to provide expert guidance in matters of culture and value to the public at large, with due understanding of the context of class, you know, like Richard Hoggart, learnt to keep our big mouths shut.

Until Flow. And suddenly all the memories came flooding back, because Flow has Horace Newcomb written all over it. It is tolerant, open, polite, passionately interested in connecting the industry with the academy and both with the audience, and of course it comes from Austin-Texas.

TV Present

Dead Like Me

Dead Like Me

And all of a sudden I hear an eerie clanking again. This time it’s none other than Toby Miller … oh and I can make out other figures in the modernist gloom … Anna McCarthy, Michael Curtin, Mimi White, Tom Streeter, Sharon Ross, Henry Jenkins … no wonder there’s a big noise.

These are collectively the Ghost of TV Present, and there’s a hell of a lot more of them crowded around. Their ghostly words surround you now, as you read this. Go on, check the archive (it’s one of Flow‘s attractions); read their stuff, it’s terrific.

Indeed this is the other thing that appeals to me about Flow. I like the idea of an interactive but asynchronous and global medium – a useful conversational tool for those of us living and working in Australia.

I especially like the idea of the comments that can be pasted under each column. This had been my own introduction to the site – I’d posted an irreverent comment on a piece by Michael Curtin.

Flow‘s comments are by an interesting mix of senior figures and grad-students, and they often bring some entirely new insight to the column in question, or else they race off at a tangent on some new line of thought entirely, forgetting the poor columnist altogether.

According to Avi Santo, each issue gets about 8000 hits, although as yet there’s no way to tell which columns they’re reading.

But as time has gone on on, it has been interesting to observe how many comments a given column attracted – a sort of beauty contest or instant poll that might tell us who or what topic was hot. Eventually Henry Jenkins won, with a column on the humour of Sarah Silverman that at last count had attracted 58 comments.

The fact that Henry is one of the best and most thought-provoking writers in our field has a lot to do with that. But so, it seems, do extra credits. Someone had had the bright idea of getting a class to post comments as part of a class assignment. Not a bad idea: it made the students think, write, and communicate in public about sexism and racism on TV; a good outcome for everyone and an absorbing read for any educator.

But there is a whiff of ‘insider trading’ about this particular manifestation of conversational democracy. Was it true, as Horace Newcomb had claimed in his own column, that the audience for Flow is ‘predetermined’? Perhaps. Despite the global reach of the Internet we still live in tight little demographic villages, and judging by the traffic on Flow, one type of community simply doesn’t interact with another.

So I thought I’d try to write a column that would speak directly to TV audience-members, about the experience of watching a show that I really liked, which was Dead Like Me. Imagine my delight when comments starting appearing from actual fans. They do read Flow! Posts are still trickling in, five months later. To date there are 22 of them. Not a patch on Henry’s score and of course nothing like what you can find on the comments pages of IMDb,, and myriad fansites. But here they are – and every one of them shares my feelings about DLM. Welcome, TV fans!

The only fly in the ointment, or clank in the chain, is that there was not a single post from a ‘Flower’ (regular contributor to Flow), or even from another media academic (apart from the obligatory editor’s comment). There were posts from Australia, the USA, Croatia and four from Canada. But from my peers, silence.

So it remained true – we don’t really interact across the demographic boundaries. Academics and audiences can appear on the same site, but academics talk about one thing; audiences another. Professionals are nowhere to be seen (and students are seen but not heard).

Now I see again the lowering bulk of the Ghost of TV Present. I hear the doom-laden voice … of Toby Miller:

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’ …

Things are even worse on TV itself, he intones:

There is minimal room for intellection on network television, as the still-extant mass audience is the target, and is assumed to despise universities.

Hell’s bells! What are we going to do about that?

TV To Come

TV Future

Is the promise of Flow – for technologically and critically enabled steps towards an interactive consumer co-created ‘conversational democracy’ – a mere illusion?

Well maybe; certainly the symptoms diagnosed by Miller suggest that the ‘imagined community’ of modernity is in a pretty sick condition, if broadcast news in the USA is the thermometer.

And maybe that’s true – maybe we are nearing the end of the modernist paradigm when public intellectuals, whether critical or universal, could aspire to speak to entire nations. Maybe nations themselves, or big ones like the USA, are evolving past the point where even network broadcasters can hope to address them as a unified whole – the ‘unum’ has gone out of the ‘pluribus.’

And so perhaps we’re reaching the end of the paradigm in which anyone thinks television itself is targeted at ‘the still-extant mass audience,’ whether they despise universities or not.

There’s a whispering breeze at the window; a trail of indeterminate smokey haze slides into the room, across the computer terminal … it’s the Ghost of TV to Come.

I can’t tell you what it looks like, since I have never met Jason Mittell, who in any case keeps morphing into Jonathan Gray … now it’s John McMurria, now Avi Santo … these guys, oh dear, are they really all early-adopter boy-toy guys? … no, here’s Tara McPherson … these guys seem to have got this thing licked.

They reckon TV will evolve from universal broadcasting to customised consumption. Jason Mittell writes:

A sizable, motivated, and demographically desirable audience … awaits the advertisers and distributors who are willing to buck the centrality of ratings as determinant of television’s hits and misses. … By only investing in the traditional currency of ratings, networks ignore the multitude of ways that viewers are already actively engaging with their programs, and forego the option for people to actually participate in the selection of television programming that they want to see.

If they’re right, we no longer have to assume that all television needs to be directed towards something as wide (and anti-critical) as ‘Americans.’ It just won’t matter whether or not ‘most people’ despise intellectuals or foolishly refuse to recognise the things that we like. Good TV shows – such as Dead Like Me, Veronica Mars, Arrested Development – won’t have to be cancelled if they ‘fail’ in the Neilsen lottery.

This new generation of scholars is putting together the case for a television ecology that can exploit the Internet (‘Web2’ McMurria calls it), BitTorrent, TiVo, video-iPods and DVD. It is becoming possible for passionate fans to support their favourite shows directly, without relying on network providers.

Not only that, but fans can use digital equipment and software to make their own TV. In fact I’ve done it myself with ‘digital storytelling.’ Out there now are tribute versions of sci-fi shows, local documentaries, digital storytelling, or even full-length feature films. Some of these will attract their own audiences, driving new distribution options.

And so, alongside, underneath and (at least as far as IP goes) in defiance of the closed expert system of broadcast television, will develop a new open innovation network. You can already inhabit it. Actually Flow already does.

This brave new world does have a couple of dystopian elements. One is that no-one knows how to fund non-universal TV production. Another is that any future ‘imagined community’ will have to get used to the fact that most people aren’t inside it. There will no longer be one technology of communication that combines broadcast television’s universal access, affordability and appeal with content that – at least in principle – addresses everyone from time to time; from the top of society to the bottom.

Instead, different groups can just ignore each other. Television will become more like publishing, and as is already the case in that medium, no-one will be able to claim any longer that their particular audience equates with a universal subject or with ‘the nation.’

Mind you, it does seem – if Miller is right about the fate of the critical intellectual on American TV news – that the broadcast era hasn’t got much to shout about in this regard anyway. Entire demographics co-exist but ignore or bad-mouth each other.

TV claims a universal subject but viewers increasingly resent that. Flow columnists like Mittell and Jonathan Gray are rebelling against the Neilsen ratings, the ‘representative’ apparatus that levels out national taste.

Back to the Future?

Conversational democracy still seems a long way off. But in fact we do need to recognise that the apparently simple act of ‘speaking to each other’ is quite hard work – it’s not a natural outcome of any technology or ideology.

Luckily, the future-facing folks at Flow are onto this simple truth, and they’re doing something about it. Avi Santo tells me they’re planning a Flow conference later this year (2006).

But it won’t be the usual academic thing. There’ll be no papers, panels or plenaries. Instead, there’ll be conversation. Why?

  • There are too few television and media conferences.
  • Traditional conferences provide too little time for discussion.
  • Wider conversation and the circulation of ideas can promote collegiality, a less polarized discipline, and the promise of engaging real publics with our ideas.
  • Critical media studies will be more effective if it grapples openly with the immediacy and breadth of its object of study.

Says Santo:
The roundtable would be open to the public. … In this manner, we hope to ensure a lively conversation … Our goal is to spark a conversation that is both immediate and consequential.

Presumably it’ll be at Austin-Texas, a place whose drill halls I’ve never had the happiness to visit. But I would love to go – if only to search for the spirit of Horace, for clearly he stalks the corridors still.

It is to their credit that ‘the Flowers’ are looking for more effective means by which we can continue ‘speaking to each other.’ But it is right to recall that this is exactly where cultural studies first came in. ‘Speaking to each other’ is the title of two books by ‘our founder,’ Richard Hoggart.

1 Fiskan Hartley is a reference to Reading Television (1978) by John Fiske and John Hartley,which enjoyed a moment of academic celebrity in the 1980s.

2 Docrock is Larry Grossberg. Docrock is his email alias.
3 Charlie and Percy are (were) Charles Osgood, inventor of the sematic differential, and Percy Tannenbaum (who co-authored a book called, from memory, The Measurement of Meaning, with Osgood, in about 1967). Both were still around when cultural studies hit America, and neither of them approved!

Image Credits:

1. Horace Newcomb

2. Dead Like Me

3. TV Future

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, Rebelió, 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.”

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Image Credits:

1. Edward R. Murrow

Please feel free to comment.

What a Long, Bad Trip It’s Been

Temptation Island

Temptation Island

When the giant data-mining company ChoicePoint announced its plans to sell background-check software at Sam’s Club, private investigators complained the company was threatening their livelihood by making the tools of the trade available to the masses. They may have been bucking a trend: ChoicePoint’s open invitation to the public to become amateur P.I.’s represented just part of the proliferation of technologies, products, and services for do-it-yourself spies, ranging from background check Websites to keystroke monitoring software, home spycams, and even downloadable voice-stress analyzers. This multitude of peer monitoring tools, many of which piggy-back on new communication technologies, caters to a reflexive savviness about the staged character of our public personae and offers a default strategy for getting behind the façade.

The omnivorous trend-digesting genre of reality TV has picked up on the theme of peer investigation, spawning a variety of shows that feature friends, family members, and significant others spying on, investigating, and videotaping one another – all in the name of extracting a moment of authenticity, even if that moment merely highlights the inevitability of artifice. Such shows add one more reflexive twist to reality TV, insofar as they stage the search for behind-the-scenes reality, sometimes in the guise of a reality-show-within-a-show. Temptation Island, Average Joe, Room Raiders, and One Bad Trip, all feature segments in which cast members watch “backstage” footage of one another, sometimes with the added element of forensic searches, hidden cameras, and disguises. We, the viewers, watch a second audience engaged in practices of investigation and verification.

The point of lining up examples of what might be called techniques for peer investigation alongside their representation in reality TV is not to suggest that TV encourages viewers or trains them in the pursuit of such practices (nor is it to rule out this possibility). Rather it is to propose an angle of approach to the critical interpretation of media texts that sidelines the effects question construed in the broadest sense. My own recent experience of reality TV discussions has been that the tendency is to yoke together interpretation and effect. An interpretation of what takes place on a show – its portrayal, for example, of surveillance strategies for minimizing relationship risks – can be readily assimilated to an “effects” question: are audience practices and/or attitudes affected by exposure to such shows? Anna McCarthy invoked such questions in her FLOW article on TV and governance when she asked whether “the pedagogical voice of reality TV [is] actually persuasive or effective as a program of rule.” Similar questions of effects, again, in the broadest sense, propel a familiar merry-go-round of debates in media studies (at least in some quarters; in others they’ve largely been settled, albeit in opposing ways). Their persistence derives not just from the depth of their roots in the field – and in ongoing popular and political debates – but also, it seems, from persistent concerns about the purpose of critical interpretation. Why bother studying texts, if not to consider issues of broader social import? How else to avoid the pathology of Rorschach interpretation, which exhausts itself in the repeated discovery in texts of the theories we bring to them?

Perhaps one useful alternative critical approach for an analysis that focuses on textual content is what might be described as a symptomatic analysis. From such a perspective, the split between media and culture or society remains solely one of interpretive convenience. The point wouldn’t be to ask how culture affects itself, still less to ask what media texts do to audiences, or what audiences do with (and to) texts, but rather what such texts, viewed hologrammatically through the lens of theory, can tell us about the society from which they emerge. The test of such an approach would lie in its fruitfulness – the extent to which it illuminates hitherto un-remarked patterns and connections and extends the analysis not solely of media texts, but of the society within which they emerge.

By way of a brief and underdeveloped example, I’m going to focus on MTV’s One Bad Trip – and in particular the changes undergone by the format once cast members figured out the show’s gimmick. One Bad Trip is a parasitic show: producers tell cast members they’re going to be on an episode of something called MTV’s Ultimate Party Show, which documents the hijinks of the young and judgment-impaired at play in well-known party destinations. The twist is that, unbeknownst to the partiers, producers bring along their family members or significant others to spy on them as they let it all hang out for the cameras. The show’s gimmick is that it stages the scene of surveillance: a behind-the-scenes look at people peering behind the scenes. We are presented, for example, with the spectacle of two fathers spying on their college-aged daughters as they frolic on Lake Havasu, drinking, making out with one another, flashing the crowd, and so on. “This might be too much information,” says one father peering through binoculars from a nearby boat, “I don’t think she’s going to end up being a school teacher.”

The show invokes the anxiety catered to by the promise of peer-to-peer monitoring technologies: that since self-presentation is always a performance, it can double as a form of deception – one to be thwarted (along with its attendant risks) by adopting the techniques of the do-it-yourself private investigator. If, as the background-check Website puts it, “most people lie a minimum of 25 times in a single day,” we are invited to wonder along with the promotional blurb for the reality show Fake Out, which teaches lie detection techniques, “Is your teenager being untruthful? Is your spouse not telling you the whole story? Is your employee late to work again the fifth time because of a car accident on the road? Can you spot a lie?” A savvy mistrust of representation – what Slavoj Zizek (1999) has described as the erosion of symbolic efficacy – coincides with a default to empirical investigation: don’t trust what people say, see what really goes on when you’re not there. Protect yourself. Order a spy-cam. Sign up for One Bad Trip … or not. The point is not to suggest (or deny) that TV trains us but to consider what we might learn from representations of peer-to-peer surveillance about an era that witnessed the transformation of Google from proper noun to verb.

From MTVs One Bad Trip

From MTVs One Bad Trip

By staging the scene of surveillance, One Bad Trip foregrounds not only the façade of self-presentation, but also the use of reflexive strategies for getting “behind” the façade. After its first season, the show’s producers found that the kids they recruited had figured out the gimmick: they’d seen the ads for the show and had read about it on MTV’s Web site, and they suspected they were no longer on the Ultimate Party Show. In response, the producers “flipped the script” as they put it, adding one more twist. They let the partiers in on the fact that their family members or significant others were spying on them, and then helped set up the spies by staging outrageous scenarios for them to react to. So, for example, a young lady whose parents had signed up to spy on her Las Vegas trip pretended that she was eloping and marrying her boyfriend in a Vegas wedding chapel.

The “script flip” resulted in wholesale role reversal: the investigated became the investigators, the spies were on display. And it is this reflexive reversal that suggests two aspects of contemporary peer-monitoring practices. The first is the default of the voyeur/spy to exhibitionist: the watcher engaging in the process of verification with an eye to the gaze of an imagined audience to which s/he strives to avoid appearing as a dupe. It suggests, in short, the internalization of the discipline of surveillance not just by the watched, but – in an era of reflexive savviness and generalized risk – by the watchers. Perhaps the reality on offer in a show like One Bad Trip is that it stages the redoubling in the figure of the do-it-yourself spy of the imperative to watch and of submission to a monitoring gaze: the default of voyeurism to a desire to be seen as not being fooled.

The second suggestive aspect of the show, which might be described as the George W. Bush moment, is its portrayal of the default of savvy skepticism to a point of fixation that ostensibly bypasses the pitfalls of mediation – the resuscitation of gut instinct as the obverse of generalized savviness. If representation is not to be trusted, we need direct access to presence via cultivation of the kind of x-ray soul vision that Bush famously invoked to gauge Putin’s character (and that his supporters repeatedly invoke to gauge his own). The same faith-based access to authenticity is invoked in the debriefing sessions of One Bad Trip‘s post-flip season. In the first season the spies were exposed to behind-the-scenes realities portrayed as both surprising and troubling (the conservative father who saw his daughter pouring hot wax on S&M entertainers in a Miami bar; the woman who saw her boyfriend hitting on other women). The final debriefing portrayed the impact of this reality upon the watchers – how would they absorb the shocking truth behind the façade?

By contrast, finales in the post-“flip” season revealed this shocking truth as just one more façade. The result was not the universalization of skepticism, but rather an incitation to declarations of trust that bypassed the debunked realm of representation. We see a man explaining to his girlfriend that the very fact that the scene of his infidelity was staged should prove that he would never cheat on her. Those who engaged in outrageous activity used the fact that it was all a set-up to suggest that they would never really engage in such acts. In this respect the show staged a second aspect of contemporary savviness – its correspondence with the promise of direct access to the real: the default of the mistrust of mediation to a desire for the immediate. This staging reflects and perhaps reflects upon its cultural context – a society in which savvy debunkery of media representations, political deliberation, and scientific discourse coincides with the rise of Intelligent Design and the popularity of The Da Vinci Code. One bad trip for the rest of us.

Image Credits:

1. Temptation Island

2. From MTVs One Bad Trip

Citations: (2005) Psychological and personality profiles. Web site. Retreived 2 November at:

Zizek, S. (1999) The Ticklish Subject. London: Verso.

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