TV Studies and The Barricades

A recent Cinema Journal (v. 45, no.1) turned its forum to the state of television studies. By far the most engaging essay, partly because of the force of his writing, was Toby Miller's "Turn Off TV Studies!" - a polemic against separating out a text-based humanities-defined TV studies discipline. It's worth reading alone for a nice pithy summary of the major currents in TV studies, as well as an interesting argument about the American misreading of British cultural studies. (What forms in response to state-run oligopoly does not apply to a private broadcast system.) What I might take issue with are harsh words for cinema studies and the implication that a studies of television freed of discipline will necessarily be progressive and meaningful:

I think that U.S. and British television studies are in danger of making the same mistake that has condemned cinema studies to irrelevancy in the public sphere of popular criticism, state and private policy, social-movement critique and union issues. That mistake was to set up a series of nostra early on about what counted as knowledge and then to police the borders. This is a standard disciplinary tactic.

The particular cinema studies donnees barely need rehearsal: psychoanalysis good, psychology bad. Spectatorship fascinating, audience boring. Archive good, laboratory bad. Criticism good, ethnography bad. Author interesting, wonk dull. Textual analysis good, content analysis bad...

In the United States today, literally millions of people are petitioning the Federal Communications Commission about TV ownership, control, access, and content and their impact on democracy. When I attend events run by our vibrant media-reform and media-justice movements, I see virtually no one from U.S. TV studies and can discern no influence from U.S. TV studies in these deliberations.

Urm, how many straw men can we fit into a single paragraph? Let me start with the digs on film studies. Yes, scholars close off avenues of inquiry they shouldn't. But over the last two decades, film scholars have opened up their area of concerns. Industrial and social history, political economy, cognitive studies. Yes, there's still resistance for this approach or that (I've read content analysis of film with an open mind and have been flatly unimpressed), but give some credit where it's due.

More to the point, you can fault scholars for not trying to be relevant, but you can't fault them for irrelevance itself. It takes someone listening and persuadable for policy studies to have an impact. Even social science scholars with the greatest policy influence imaginable - economists - probably aren't going to have much of a dent with their signed statement in support of immigration.

For those interested in a contrasting perspective, I highly recommend Aniko Bodrokhozy's reflections on Robert McChesney in Flow. Bodrokhozy is grappling with some of the same issues that Miller is, only from the other angle:

But the 1990s was the time when McChesney's voice cried out in the wilderness that we cultural studies/Postmodernist scholars of television and media were blind--bewitched by carnivalesque trifles and simulacral silliness. Most media scholars are ready to concede, of course, the intellectual shallowness and "banality" (in Meaghan Morris's terminology) of the mania for finding "resistive" or "oppositional" activity everywhere in the pop culture environment. That moment does seem to be "oh so 90s" and over. The 1990s also saw the entrenchment of media deregulation that has ushered in the frighteningly concentrated industry we find ourselves with today....

I am struggling to find an answer. I'm not ready to junk my own approach to television study (which has always tried to account for lines of power, dialogue, resistance, and incorporation across industry, text, and audience formations within specific historical contexts). On the other hand, to analyze contemporary television and media and not take account of the massive concentration of ownership of all
sectors of media into a small handful of conglomerate behemoths with more power
than many nation-states seems intellectually decadent.

The point is an excellent one: Fiske is waning, McChesney is ascending, and humanities television studies is doing some of what Miller wants them to. They are engaging with political economy as much as with textuality.

I, too, have misgivings. We all want our work to be important, and those of us trained to think of the political nature of the mass media, including the cinema, would be thrilled to think of having some larger political efficacy than talking to a closed audience of fellow academics. But humanities scholarship will never work well as policy study. And, in a country lacking the strong intellectual orientation of a grand bourgeoisie (as in France), we'll even have a hard time fashioning influential public intellectuals out of our humanists. On one hand, I'm sympathetic to Miller's rallying cry: we can push cinema and media studies in new, interdisciplinary directions. On the other hand, humanities scholarship has value whether it mans the barricades or not. It's worth solving the piece of the puzzle a few pieces at a time - contributing knowledge about the racial politics of early cinema or the structure of the French film industry in the 1930s or the technological determinants of film projection - regardless of whether it impacts the grand political battles of the day. Perhaps that's self-important or narcissistic of me, but the alternative seems anti-intellectual at heart.

But, say I'm wrong and cinema studies could have been, should be manning the barricades. What would that look like? It's a sincere question.

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