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Contemporary Television Criticism: State of the Art or Stuck in the Past?

Contemporary Television Criticism: State of the Art or Stuck in the Past?
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  Contemporary Television Criticism: State of the Art or Stuck in the Past? – Flow[6/2/2017 9:00:22 AM] ฀ SIDEBAR ฀ MENU CONTEMPORARY TELEVISION CRITICISM: STATE OF THE ARTOR STUCK IN THE PAST? October 22, 2004 Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University   8 comments 0Shareby: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University The launch of FLOW — an innovative project designed to engage scholars, students, and citizens inconversation about television and media culture — provides a unique opportunity to reflect on thecurrent state of television criticism. Thus, in this essay, I pose the critical question, “Is contemporarytelevision criticism state of the art or stuck in the past?” My bias is probably already evident. Thewording of the question supposes an affirmation of the latter, otherwise why pose the question? If Ithought contemporary TV criticism was state of the art, then this would be a very short essay. In fact,I’d be done. Everything is wonderful, and you should go back to whatever you were doing. But, asthe question suggests, I am at least concerned that the “state” of the art may not be so “state of theart.” So, posing the question was just a thinly veiled attempt to appear “objective” as I highlight somegrowing concerns I have about contemporary television criticism. Specifically, I examine what I taketo be two questionable practices and assumptions that widely (though certainly not universally)animate contemporary television studies. Practice 1: The analysis of individual television programs in isolation.  Much of the academic andpopular TV criticism generated today concerns itself with individual programs. Indeed, entirescholarly books are published about individual television programs. I find this practice flawed on twocounts. It both ignores the specific character of television today   and the specific practices of viewers today  . To analyze a single TV program (in isolation) is to tear it from the very fabric of its context! Itake the decision to name this forum FLOW as evidence that the editors and creators of this siterecognize that contemporary television and media culture is a powerful, unending torrent of imagesand information (see Gitlin, 2001). It is a steady stream, in which particulates swirl and mixindiscriminately without beginning and end. There was a time, of course, in television’s history when“programming” entailed providing a limited menu of predetermined (and some would say,   Sidebar Menu  Contemporary Television Criticism: State of the Art or Stuck in the Past? – Flow[6/2/2017 9:00:22 AM] predigested) options. One watched television like dining out at a restaurant. Choose something offthe menu (no substitutions please!), consume it, and leave when the restaurant closes, or in the caseof television, go to bed when the networks stop broadcasting. But that was the now bygone era ofbroadcast television, three dominant networks, and limited programming.In the information-saturated culture of cable and digital television, multiple networks and contentproviders, 24-hour programming, technological convergence, interactivity, and Internet fandom,television critics ought probably remove the term “program” from their vocabularies. Programs no longer exist  . Rather, as “the postmodern medium par excellence  ” (Sim, 1999, p. 112), “Television’sregular daily and night-time flows of images and information, bring together bits and pieces fromelsewhere, constructing its sequences … on the basis of collage techniques and surface simulations”(Strinati, 1995, p. 231). Television’s already fragmented flow of images is further enhanced byancillary technologies such as the VCR, TiVo, and remote control, which allow for time-shifting,channel surfing, and even watching several shows simultaneously (see Connor 1989, p. 168; Fiske,1992, pp. 58-60; Flitterman-Lewis, 1992, p. 217). Television viewers no longer consume programs;they produce Texts. Reading, in the traditional sense, is about consumption, about following the pathprescribed by an author. One does not regularly pick up a book, turn to a random page and beginreading backwards. But many television viewers think nothing of tuning into a so-called “program”already in progress, and then channel surfing (in either direction) as they continue to watch.Television criticism needs to attend more carefully to both televisual flow and the culture offragmentation. How precisely do viewers construct meaningful experiences out of the shards oftelevisual flow? What difference does it make to claim that television viewers produce or write Texts(in the Barthesian sense of intertextuality), rather than consume or read products? As critics take upthese questions, I would urge them to stop treating the “Author” as the privileged site of meaning.Like web surfers, television viewers increasingly   furnish the “form” — the start, movement, pace,direction, and end point — of their own viewing experiences. Practice 2: The obsessive ideological critique of television and the assumption that it will make television “better.”   Ok, I’m likely to ruffle some feathers here, but I take up this subject because I’mconcerned by what I see as the increasing (ideological) homogeneity of television criticism. Since theinterpretive turn in the 1970s, TV critics have produced a massive (and some would say, obese)body of scholarship on the hegemonic ideology conveyed by television. My concern is not overwhether or not television is hegemonic. Of course it is! My concern is over whether or not the obsessive repetition   of ideological critique has done anything to make television less hegemonic andmore democratic? After nearly 40 years of ideological critique, we get The Man Show   (1999-2004)?How can this be? Why has the production of oppositional codes not transformed television and, moreimportantly, can it? I want to propose that ideological criticism, as it currently is practiced, is illequipped to bring about progressive social change for two reasons. First, ideological criticism rootedin oppositional codes destroys the dominant pleasures of television viewing — what Barthes (1975)terms plaisir   — without providing a language for the pleasure that derives from breaking with culture — what Barthes terms  jouissance  . Without developing an alternative pleasure, viewers have apowerful disincentive to read oppositionally (at least after they earn a grade in our classrooms),  Contemporary Television Criticism: State of the Art or Stuck in the Past? – Flow[6/2/2017 9:00:22 AM] particularly since oppositional reading destroys the only type of pleasure ( plaisir  ) they know (seeMulvey, 1988, p. 59). We need to begin to develop modes of criticism rooted in pleasure, whatSusan Sontag (2001) calls an “erotics of art” (p. 14), so that viewers have an incentive and desire toread transgressively. We’ve also got to teach students to generate their own codes   for viewingtelevision, rather than simply urging them to adopt   the oppositional codes developed by critics.Oppositional codes have become so identified with a Leftist ideology that they risk shifting the site ofideological domination from television to teachers. Replacing   one ideology with another is stillhegemony. We need to fragment ideology, to break up it.Second, ideological criticism rooted in oppositional reading does little to alter the underlying relationsof production. As Walter Benjamin (1986) noted in 1934, the way to change   social conditions is notsimply to critique the attitudes   or ideologies of messages, it is to alter their position   within relations ofproduction (pp. 142-143). The problem with ideological criticism and oppositional reading inparticular is that it protects   and preserves   the existing conditions of production by both treatingtelevision as a set of unified, holistic products (e.g., programs) and treating viewers as consumers.We need a critical practice that helps transform consumers into producers. Ironically, the verytechnologies associated with television are poised to assist in this practice. For Benjamin, aprogressive intelligentsia is not defined by its opinions, attitudes, or dispositions, and its mission isnot merely to “report” ideological domination. Rather, a progressive intelligentsia is interventionist; itseeks to disrupt, to transform the forms and instruments of production by dissolving the conventionaldistinction between author and reader (Benjamin, 1986, pp. 223, 225, 228). I offer theseobservations because only by regularly examining and interrogating our current practices andassumptions can television criticism become and remain state of the art. References Barthes, R. (1975). The pleasure of the text   (R. Miller, Trans.). New York: Hill and Wang. (Originalwork published 1973).Benjamin, W. (1986). “The author as producer.” In W. Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, aphorisms,autobiographical writings   (E. Jephcott, Trans., pp. 220-238). New York: Schocken Books. (Originalwork published 1966).Conner, S. (1989). Postmodern culture: An introduction to theories of the contemporary  . Cambridge,MA: Blackwell Publishers.Fiske, J. (1992). “Postmodernism and television.” In J. Curran & M. Gurevitch (Eds.), Mass media and society   (pp. 55-67). New York: Edward Arnold.Flitterman-Lewis, S. (1992). “Psychoanalysis, film, and television.” In R. Allen (Ed.), Channels of discourse, reassembled: Television and contemporary criticism   (2nd ed., pp. 203-246). Chapel Hill,NC: University of North Carolina Press.Gitlin, T. (2001). Media unlimited: How the torrent of images and sounds overwhelms our lives  . NewYork: Metropolitan Books.  Contemporary Television Criticism: State of the Art or Stuck in the Past? – Flow[6/2/2017 9:00:22 AM] Mulvey, L. (1988). “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” In C. Penley (Ed.), Feminism and film theory   (pp. 57-68). New York: Routledge.Sim, S. (1999). The Routledge critical dictionary of postmodern thought  . New York: Routledge.Sontag, S. (2001). Against interpretation and other essays  . New York: Picador USA.Strinati, D. (1995). Introduction to theories of popular culture  . New York: Routledge. Links The PoMo PageWhat TV Ratings Really MeanAre National Television Systems Obsolete?Todd Gitlin’s Media Unlimited Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” Please feel free to comment. tagged with Criticism, Television
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