Policy Aims

As part of the Nineteenth Century Reproductions Conference that Temple's humanities departments have been hosting, I saw a presentation by Victorianist Jay Clayton arguing for humanists' increased engagement with policy applications of their research. On one hand, he argued, humanists have something valuable to add to the public conversations that goes on in various . On the other hand, such venues can provide a funding stream that can elevate humanities scholarship in the eyes of increasingly corporatized administration. (I know "corporatized" is a slur that can be loosely tossed around - but I think most readers will know what I'm talking about.)

I had the feeling his suggestions were falling on polite but deaf ears. For my part, it's tough to parse out the extent that policy panels are formulated in good faith and the extent they render legitimacy to a reverse-engineered panel, say, of bio-ethicists chosen to match the impertives decided from the outset. More than lack of instrumentality of our disciplines keeps us marginalized from the public sphere. On top of this, it really takes imagination to fit humanities scholarship into a policy orientation. Perhaps we should have more imagination than we do; perhaps we should defend the value of non-instrumental scholarship.

At the very least, though, Clayton's paper made me wonder about a relative silence of film and media scholars in two policy issues that affect us profoundly: intellectual property and media regulation. True enough, scholars outside the humanities are weighing in on these topics, from the perspective of legal scholarship or social science. But we probably have something to contribute to the conversation. I can think of a couple of things stopping us from doing so.

First, as I mentioned, the policy "conversation" seems rigged. Intellectual property and media regulation in particular are seen as special interest political spoils. No one is going to listen to humanities academics for the same reason no one is going to listen to anyone not contributing campaign funds.

Second, our theories sometimes discount small-scale decisions in favor of a broad-brushstroke conception of ideological systems. Whereas individual scholars can be very engaged in particular political votes and decisionmaking, as a discipline we seem to have walled ourselves off from political science, law, and media economics. The big exception here is political economy approaches in television studies, but even here the tendency among humanists is to read political economy research as evidence that the media landscape is all doomed as corporate structure, rather than to imagine certain corporate practices as better than others, certain monopolistic configurations more beneficial than others.

Finally, as media scholars we need the good will of the culture industries. For all the times media companies' litigious nature hampers intellectual ferment (think of the difficulty of extracting and organizing media clips for pedagogical use), there are the many ways that private, profit-driven activity has its benefits, such as the creation of a home-video market with restored, digital versions of a wide selection of narrative films. It's hard to bite that hand that feeds your research.

For all the impediments, though, we could stand to reflect more thoroughly on what exactly our disciplinary knowledge - textual, theoretical, and historical - tells us about the two main policy battles over contemporary media culture.


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