I am very grateful to Hollis Griffin for his courteous, thought-provoking, and sustained response to my article ‘Policing the people’ and my reference to his essay in particular. Griffin’s response continues and extends the concerns which animate both of our essays in specific ways. My counter-response will be structured along two main points: academics/disciplinarity; the potentials and problems of aesthetics.
The academy and/or disciplinarity?
Both Griffin’s and my essay were situation-specific. In my case the essay was offered from within the perspective of television studies for the premiere issue of NECSUS (whose approach is specifically cross-medial) with the special theme of ‘Crisis’. In this context I was writing from the confines of a discipline yet seeking to question in a very specific way how a discipline might both further and hinder research. Here is where the first crucial difference between Griffin’s and my location arises, which Griffin clearly re-articulates by bringing up the neo-liberal academy rather than television studies as his focus. In this sense my reference to his article was not entirely appropriate (his focus was broader than mine) and yet potentially productive (what is the relation between the academy, the industry and a discipline?). This is why Griffin’s response is more than welcome because this exchange might help to further analyse this triple relationship. I stress the difference of location since part of my critique of Griffin’s essay was a function of my location within television studies rather than as an academic in a broad sense of inhabiting the academy. This nuanced distinction has a theoretical, political, and disciplinary point.
The discussion of quality in television studies is often used to draw distinctions between disciplines in the academy. It is precisely this academic practice that I critique and which I locate not just in the academy generally but also within the discipline of television studies specifically. This is where I would share Griffin’s critique of the academy but rotate it towards the rich work being done in television studies. Once the speaking location of a disciplinary critique is located (in this case from within a discipline to and across it) the broader theoretical point consists of an understanding of culture more generally. I would repeat Ackbar Abbas’ insistence (very much in the vein of Hall, which Griffin commends) that culture is where value is disrupted rather than lending itself easily to distinctions such as high and low. Thus, here I share Griffin’s critique of suspect valuations of quality and insist again that cultural critique located in specific fields (such as television studies) must break down such distinctions both within the discipline as well as beyond it (‘the neo-liberal academy’).
By repeating the disciplinary divisions through recourse to the theoretical concept of ‘quality’, the point I would make here in extension of the one in my article is that just as television studies sometimes mimics the television industry discourse it also runs the risk of mimicking the academy’s discourse of disciplinary divisions based on the quality of the object (film, television, literature, etc.). Theory, discipline, and politics converge here. I agree that Griffin is right in suspecting the academy might value quality distinctions by aestheticising politics. What puzzles me is where this rightful suspicion (which indicates a sense of futurity – ‘this might happen’) grounds itself. For example, I do not see research on popular (so-called ‘non-quality’ TV) television shows dissipating in television studies. Neither do I see research on audiences and their agency disappearing. In other words, I do not see any tendency toward the institutionalised suppression of research and teaching on the established and almost traditional concerns of television studies around the popular, the people, and agency. Even a cursory glance at journals in the field would confirm this. Indeed, some have argued that precisely this tendency of finding political resistance everywhere is worrisome, with Meaghan Morris’ critique being a canonical example. The well-known critiques of post-structuralist feminism, queer theory, and the political-economy/cultural studies debate in media studies all are precedents for the kind of fear Griffin articulates. While Griffin’s concerns are very understandable as potentialities I do not see any evidence of television studies being policed against research on popular television programming and its empowered audiences. Indeed, the anxieties provoked against ‘quality’ TV in television studies can be seen as precisely seeking to shore up the disciplinary demarcation against such potential tendencies not yet materialised.
I would again emphasise, as I did in my article, that all the critiques I have encountered against ‘quality TV’ targeted the industry rather than the academy or the discipline of television studies. Rotating Griffin’s critique around toward another field then, I would argue that the suspect term ‘quality’ has little to do with the deployment of the term as a value strategy in television studies. By this I mean that, as I stated in my article, I have not yet encountered a television studies scholar who was gagged from researching television until ‘quality TV’ emerged as an alibi for finally being able to take the medium seriously. The danger lies less in the aestheticisation of politics within television studies and, paradoxically, more in the discipline mimicking the discourse of quality distinctions within the industry by repeating and then defensively inverting it. It is as if ‘It’s not TV: It’s HBO’ is accepted by some in television studies and then inverted to ‘HBO is not TV: We study TV’. The central argument of my article was precisely to refuse what Griffin rightly calls ‘the market determination of value’ in this discourse. I argue that this refusal is served precisely by breaking the link between object-text-audience which critiques of ‘quality TV’ reproduce.
The ‘A word’ and disciplinary breakdown
How could both refusal and faithfulness be strategies to address the danger of aestheticisation? Like Griffin states, a refusal of the market determination of value is crucial, though as I argued above the debates around ‘quality TV’ do not seem to be doing this. I would suggest (and here I depart from the ‘traditional’ theoretical history of television studies) that the rich history of aesthetic analyses of culture provides what Walter Benjamin called the ever-changing tradition which one could be faithful to. Refuse the market determination of value and stay faithful to the integral link between political critique and aesthetic strategies (I already mentioned modernism as one such changing tradition, though I think a modernist canon is hardly adequate [if it ever was] for guaranteeing political critique).
Rather, keeping in mind Terry Eagleton’s Aesthetic Ideology, one could argue that the ordering of the human sensorium through forms of culture has always been a political tactic. The long history of rhetoric (the Greeks onwards, at least in the West) testifies to the recognition that aesthetics as the sensorial experience of the world and the self’s relation to the world has always been the battleground for politics. Aesthetics in this sense is very much like ‘culture’ in Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony. Rather than being a bad word – aesthetics as the depoliticisation of the world and theory – the ‘A word’ was a crucial agent in dissolving quality distinctions of bourgeois or aristocratic ‘good taste’ and inserting into aesthetic theory the central questions of political power (in fact, sequestering aesthetics as some esoteric, abstract, and tasteful game of connoisseurship is precisely an indication of the political character of aesthetics).
The ‘A word’ then is an invitation to construct, develop, and set in motion concepts that address the specificity of cultural forms while moving them across disciplines. This movement of ‘the aesthetic’ across disciplines deranges concepts and hopefully also disrupts disciplinary boundaries. I am enough of a materialist to insist that the specificity of objects of study will not guarantee the validity and stability of concepts that move – there is always a dialectic between theory and object. Concepts such as ‘narrative’, ‘affect’, ‘seriality’, ‘audience’, ‘spectatorship’ and the like are examples which when analysed through the perspective of aesthetics (Christine Geraghty, Charlotte Brunsdon, John Caldwell, John Corner, John Ellis, Jeremy Butler, Jason Jacobs, Jane Feuer, and numerous others) could become anti-disciplinary tools through which the market and academy-determination of value can be refused. To the extent that they disrespectfully borrow perspectives from across disciplines without making value distinctions or ontologically simplistic claims of the uniqueness of objects (‘this is TV, that is not!’), such work furthers anti-disciplinary and specifically political understandings of aesthetics.
The long history of aesthetic critique including Aby Warburg, Georg Lukács, T.W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, T.J. Clark, Jacques Rancière, Miriam Hansen, Susan Buck-Morss, Jonathan Crary, and Svetlana Alpers are just some of the thinkers whose work has both provided crucial concepts for thinking the politics of aesthetics and for thinking across disciplines. In other words, the fit between theories and objects has been broken by many of the theorists mentioned. If one thinks from within but ventures beyond the discipline and takes culture in its ordinariness and messiness as the determining object of analysis then the danger of aesthetic study becoming apolitical is much less. The rich tradition of disparate voices have all in their own way centralised aesthetic analyses as one way of undermining the spurious distinctions between the arts based on distinctions of value. The television scholars I listed above, in their own way, do something similar.
Painting, literature, photography, television, and cinema do not line up with their ‘appropriate’ theories, but aesthetics as a point of departure allows me to ask political questions about form across cultural practices. The ‘A word’, I would argue, should be seen as an irritant that aids breaking through the cellular membranes of disciplines and establishes communication – hopefully disruptive – between them.
One could refuse the de-politicising tendency of aesthetics through aestheticisation as the dominant framing of ‘aesthetics’ (a parallel to the television industry’s ‘market determination of value’). This refusal can be accompanied by remaining faithful to the long history of the politicisation of aesthetics (itself a tricky term, since my argument has shown politics was always integral to aesthetics). The aesthetic perspective on texts, audiences, and the ordering of the human sensorium has been one way in which the politics of culture can be studied – indeed must be studied, if we are to combat both disciplinary chauvinism and the ‘neo-liberal academy’. I thank Hollis Griffin for providing this opportunity to think his concerns around the academy and link them integrally to a rethinking of disciplinarity and the potential for aesthetic critique within television studies.
Sudeep Dasgupta (University of Amsterdam)