Friday, September 23, 2011

Legitimating Television: Blogversation

This is cross-posted at zigzigger.

In this post, Michael Z. Newman and I aim to offer a look into the origins and purpose of our new book, Legitimating Televison: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. We include an abstract of our argument (which is also our back cover copy), and then engage in a “blogversation” about the project and its aims.

Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status explores how and why television is gaining a new level of cultural respectability in the twenty-first century. Once looked down upon as a “plug-in drug” offering little redeeming social or artistic value, television is now said to be in a creative renaissance, particularly as critics hail the rise of “cinematic,” Quality series such as Mad Men and 30 Rock. Likewise, DVDs and DVRs, web video, HDTV, and mobile devices have shifted the longstanding conception of television as a family-centered household appliance, offering a new understanding of TV as a sophisticated, high-tech gadget.

Newman and Levine argue that television’s newfound, growing prestige emerges in concert with the convergence of media at technological, industrial, and experiential levels. Television is permitted to rise in respectability once it is connected to more highly valued media--and more highly valued audiences. Legitimation works by denigrating “ordinary” television associated with the past, and thereby denies the continuities between past and present. It also distances the television of the present from the feminized and mass audiences assumed to be inherent to the “old” TV. It is no coincidence that the most validated programming and technologies of the convergence era are associated with viewers of elevated economic and cultural status. The legitimation of television articulates the medium with the masculine over the feminine, the elite over the mass. In so doing it reinforces cultural hierarchies that have long perpetuated inequalities of gender and class.

Legitimating Television urges readers to move beyond the taste question of whether television is simply “good” or “bad,” and to focus instead on the cultural, political, and economic issues at stake in television’s transformation in the digital age.

Why we wrote this book

EL: While we have been excited by much of the scholarship emerging that deals with the many changes television has been facing, and continues to face (economic, technological, experiential), we also noted some gaps in that scholarship. We kept noticing these discourses of distinction in popular, trade, and scholarly talk about TV, but no one seemed to be talking about it or acknowledging their implications. And once we started noticing it, it was everywhere! I, for one, worry about all of the “future-casting” that seems to be going into contemporary talk about TV (scholarly and popular) and wanted, in part, to do the historian’s work of noting both the continuities with and the disruptions to the past in contemporary developments. So we wanted to historicize a lot of the conversation about convergence-era TV, and specifically to do so around questions of cultural hierarchy and value. In addition, we wanted to inject more of a cultural studies-influenced sense of struggle over television’s status in the cultural hierarchy, something we don’t see a lot of attention being paid to these days.

MZN: We have now seen a fair number of attempts to grapple with how television has been changing during the digital age. Some say television has changed so much that it’s not even television any more (e.g., one book has the title Television after TV), which seems like such a radical break. We wanted to make an argument about the cultural implications of convergence as it works in relation to TV, and in particular how issues of social power underlie many of the shifts we observe in TV’s identity under convergence. We see the old concept of TV as crucial to the newly legitimated medium. A lot of people seem to be aware of some of the same things we observe, but I think our concept of the legitimation of television explains recent developments in a way that has not been done, and puts their meaning into focus. The gender and class implications of television’s legitimation have not been very well recognized.


MZN: Lynn Spigel’s Make Room for TV and William Boddy’s New Media and Popular Imagination are most foundational in my thinking about our work, as both are ultimately concerned with how people think about television as a medium, and what place television has in our everyday lives as a result. We are also building on essays by Derek Kompare and Matt Hills about TV on DVD, and by Dana Polan and Christopher Anderson on the cultural status of Quality TV, particularly around HBO and its series. More in terms of background knowledge and approach, I am always inspired by Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, which is a book I think everyone across the humanities should read. Bourdieu, of course.

EL: I come to the project with the same influences, although I would also add two other streams of work: British Cultural Studies approaches to television, especially John Fiske’s Bourdieuian takes on cultural hierarchies and appreciation of the tastes of “the people.” For me, the study of television has always been about seeking an understanding of and empathy with a culturally denigrated medium and the subordinated social positions of those who find in that medium their culture. The legitimation of the medium, as much as it is still struggling to achieve dominance, seems to me to dismiss all of that. And that feels like a betrayal of what both television and the cultural studies-influenced field of television studies mean to me. I’d additionally add feminist scholarship on TV melodrama/soaps, especially work by such scholars as Tania Modleski, Jane Feuer, and Lynne Joyrich. These scholars understand deeply the gendered nature of cultural hierarchies and attend to television’s feminized texts as a challenge to such easy dismissals.

Challenges of writing about the present

MZN: When you write about the present, you aim at a moving target. You can think you have figured out what to say about something, and just as you are saying it, the subject changes or new developments complicate your points. You lack historical distance and risk seeing change as more important than it is. We tend to think of our present moment as a break from the past, and to see ourselves as somehow special. Actually I think part of our book’s contribution is in questioning this very tendency toward misapprehending the present, and failing to recognize historical continuities. We call it a history of the present and a polemic, and I wonder if a history of the present can avoid being a polemic in some sense, as our concerns are so immediate and so present in discourses we encounter day by day.

EL: Yeah, I worry about the “ranty” nature of the book at points, but I also feel so strongly about the ideas that I’m kind of proud of the rants, too. My worry is not so much that we come off sounding cranky, but that that crankiness will soon be seen as short-sighted, in that it misses a development that is about to come. Still, we’ve been studying these discourses for a number of years and, if anything, see them increasing rather than decreasing or changing.

What do we hope will come of Legitimating Television?

EL: I hope that readers of our book will think about contemporary TV and the discourses surrounding it in new ways, that they will start to notice the discourses of legitimation all around us and the ways in which these discourses operate in tension with those of denigration. I hope that scholarship that focuses on the economic and technological convergence of TV and other media will not reproduce the classed and gendered hierarchies of so much legitimating discourse--or will at least be more self-conscious about it. I hope that the critics and other journalists talking about contemporary TV will avoid the either/or dichotomy of trash or art that pervades discourses of legitimation and delegitimation and consider the ways their words shape the way we all think about TV. Mostly, I just want to see thoughtful, socially and politically engaged work on TV that has an historical sensibility and that tries not to reproduce damaging cultural hierarchies.

MZN: I’m eager to see more scholarly engagement with television texts in aesthetic terms, and some of this book indeed works in this area, e.g., the discussions of sitcom and drama forms. My previous work on TV storytelling is also an effort in this area. But I’d like to see aesthetic considerations of television proceed in full consciousness of the power of aesthetic discourses, and to the extent possible without the naive appreciation of “good TV” or denigration of “bad TV” that reinforces the cultural hierarchies central to legitimation and delegitimation. This is a challenge to be sure, but one that I think must be undertaken if TV studies is to maintain a critical perspective. Similarly, with new technologies and audience practices, we ought to be wary of endorsing the so-called control and activity of new ways of watching without recognizing drawbacks and their ideological implications.

What you should know before you read

MZN: I wonder if some people might see the book and infer that we’re rooting for TV to be legitimated. Sometimes when I tell people that the book is about the idea that TV has gotten better, they seem excited by the thought and eager to endorse it. (Others are more cranky and say things like, “I disagree!” or “I don’t watch television.”) Our purpose is to document and analyze legitimation as the emergent common sense, but also to argue that it’s not ultimately a force for good.

EL: You put that so democratically. We say legitimation is bad! But, at the same time, it’s important that readers know: 1) We love TV. 2) We know there are some benefits to the legitimation of television, but think the discourse as it now stands does too much damage to television writ large and to classed and gendered conceptions of cultural and social worth. 3) That is not our living room on the cover.


Juan Ramos said...

Hi Elana and Michael

I am interested in the study of a TV genre that is hardly considered 'Quality TV': the telenovela. Globally, the telenovela is one of the most popular TV genres, and in many countries (like the USA) its popularity is growing. Your book would no doubt be of much interest to those who are interested in studying television, particularly its most popular genres. I find it extremely pertinent and look forward to reading it soon.

Elana Levine said...

Thanks, Juan! I hope you will find the book useful in your own work.

Derio Sebastian said...

Review article about a very interesting medium of television, sharp and very extensive analysis ... impressive..greeting, ty