Evaluative Scholarship

I highly recommend Jason Mittel's latest post on Lost. I'm pretty much on the other side of this debate - between post-semiotics, historical method, and Bourdieusian sociology of taste, I inhabit the very intellectual formation that Jason is attacking - but he pleads a good case.

For starters, I do have to concede that film studies is in a relative state of luxury - we can have our quasi-legitimate aesthetic theories and canons while pursuing scholarship and sometimes pedagogy that sets aside aesthetic judgment as a primary or even secondary mission. So, too, would I have to concede that a lot of film studies sneaks evaluation in the back door.

Mind you, this situation can lead to a couple of responses. The first might be to say that nonevaluative scholarship is an unattainable ideal, therefore not worth pursuing. The other might be to be extra-vigilant, to devise new ways of thinking around our own critical aporia. The unbiased sampling of my 1947 project, while not an original strategy, is at least one attempt to get around my own narrowness in conceiving my object of study.

Or one path might be some form of hermeneutics, which can understand legitimate (or legitimizing) aesthetic judgment but also bracket it as one particular reading formation.... in fact, Bourdieu is presenting a similar understanding of value judgment as much as he is taking down aesthetics (I don't think this is Jason's misrepresentation of Bourdieu , if it is a mispresentation- he adequate summarizes how media studies appropriates Bourdieu). Jason veers toward the hermeneutic when he asks, "Might we benefit from understanding why ‘the people’ discern between choices that might otherwise seem identically awful to outsiders?" I would answer his question in the affirmative, but I'm trying to square this project with the expertise (a good knowledge of television history plus an awareness of the formal elements of audio-visual expression?) that Jason touts as the basis of a new evaluative aesthetics. It's not that I'm taking the populist stance - it's that I wonder if two different scholarly goals are in place.

All that said, Jason's recourse to vernacular categories in trying to foster a popular aesthetics that's fundamentally different from cinema's popular aesthetics is a really interesting and potentially truly valuable project.

SIDE NOTE: If there's anything strange about academic blogging, it is the unsureness one feels in refering to another scholar: first or last name? The rule of thumb seems to be last if they are in print, first if they are another blogger, particularly one you have had contact with.


Jason Mittell said…
Chris - thanks for the comments. Like many scholarly arguments, I'm mixed myself about the claims I'm putting forward. I recognize the pitfalls of valuation and am committed to work that problematizes evaluative assumptions (like your 1947 project).

But we should consider the potential insights from evaluation - I'd say that my evaluation of Lost is influenced by my 'expertise' as a TV scholar and thus not typical of all fans. But based on reception research I've done, as well as observing fan board, I think it's not unique to a scholarly approach. Only by putting out evaluative claims like this can debates emerge about relative aesthetic norms and appeals.

-Jason (definitely a first-name type of guy...)

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