I recently came across Sudeep Dasgupta’s article ‘Policing the people: Television studies and the problem of “quality”’ and liked it a great deal. Thoughtfully-argued and well-theorised, the piece worries about a critical enterprise that would presume to defend ‘the people’ from an elitist discourse on ‘quality’ television. I agree with Dasgupta insofar as it seems silly to generalise how ‘the people’ understand, use, and/or identify with various forms of popular culture without complicating what is meant by the category ‘the people’ or taking into account the multivalent and multidirectional nature of power vis-a-vis ‘popular culture’. I applaud his use of Stuart Hall’s notion of ‘the double movement of containment and resistance’ in popular culture to complicate discourses on ‘quality’ media. It is a useful rejoinder to modes of criticism that would close down multiplicities of meaning in popular culture forms.
Even so, it seems that the piece uses my brief article ‘Lines in the Sand: Media Studies and the Neoliberal Academy’ (Flow, April 2011) in a way that misstates my argument. In the spirit of collegiality and dialogue I want to elaborate on my opinion and suggest that Dasgupta and I are not at odds in our thoughts about the relationship between aesthetics and politics. I will also freely admit that my position in ‘Lines in the Sand’ is, at times, inelegantly articulated. It was written from a place of anxiety and concern about the potential linkage between two different phenomena in the academy at present: attention to aesthetic questions in media analysis and the increasingly corporatised nature of colleges and universities. I was worried (and continue to be worried) about how well attention to media aesthetics can dovetail with the increasingly bottom line orientation of many universities. I do not think that attention to aesthetics has to be or is always inherently depoliticised – quite the contrary. A lot of political commentary on media forms uses aesthetics as evidentiary. It is more that I worry about how attention to aesthetics can be willfully apolitical. It seems to me that if developments in higher education continue apace they could vastly depoliticise what are always, inevitably political questions.
How the people understand, use, and/or identify with particular forms of popular culture was not at the forefront for me in writing ‘Lines in the Sand’. Like Dasgupta, I see the hodgepodge of production sites, distribution methods, and modes of reception that characterise contemporary media culture as mitigating easy correlations between consumer taste and cultural status. Also like Dasgupta, I am wary of treating television as an object that is ontologically different from film or the internet. To use the example of The Wire, the show is/was popular among audiences of all kinds. The program’s re-circulation on the United States cable network BET (Black Entertainment Television) supports the notion that many different viewing publics liked it. To that end, my interpretation of one mode of reception was not aimed at rescuing any public as much as I was trying to point out how that viewing pleasure could rely on a race-specific voyeurism. I did not intend to close down the possibility that many different kinds of viewers found pleasures of all sorts in that particular show. Eliminating the mere possibility that one reading position opened by The Wire hinges on a class-specific, racialised voyeurism is not just less than generous, it is dangerous. If anything it underscores my point that in raising questions of aesthetics some political criticisms are deemed ‘facile’ or ‘uninteresting’, to use Dasgupta’s terms.
My concerns in writing ‘Lines in the Sand’ reside in the propagation of an academic discourse on aesthetics that would reify market determinations of value. In that sense it seems that an academic discourse on aesthetics might very well be complicit with an industry discourse on quality. Such collusion, however unforeseen and unintentional, can help create an environment in which some research questions become othered in a scholarly discourse on media. The connection I draw between a taste-stratified audience for The Wire as imagined by HBO and critical attention to aesthetics is to worry about a scholarly project that would attempt to bracket political questions as it interrogates aesthetic ones. This connection is rooted in conjecture and possibility more than anything else. In retrospect, I wish I had stated this more clearly in my article. Again, like Dasgupta, I am suspicious of critical gestures that bracket the aesthetic from the social. I understand his wariness of a scholarship that creates designations regarding ‘quality’ and ‘the popular’ only to then treat them as categories that do not overlap.
It seems to me that the process of bracketing ‘the aesthetic’ and ‘the social’, which Dasgupta and I both see happening in discourses on quality, creates hierarchies that can place aesthetics outside of ideology. I also see aesthetic questions as always being bound up in social relations. When he writes ‘to analyse the aesthetics of a test is thus hardly elitist, apolitical, or simply a strategy for amassing capital’, I only partially agree. I do not think that analysing aesthetics is always, inherently operating along those lines. I do, however, think that it can do just that. Problematically, it seems that universities have become so focused on training future workers that they are increasingly minimising the importance of educating discerning consumers and self-reflexive citizens. It seems as though a media studies that would purposefully take up questions of aesthetics and reify market determinations in coding value can rather easily bracket social relations in doing so. In that sense a scholarly criticism invested in questions of aesthetics would very much be complicit with attempts to, as Dasgupta writes, ‘amass capital’.
As I have said, ‘Lines in the Sand’ was written from a place of anxiety and concern about how much and how quickly academic and market pursuits are becoming discourses in search of a common object: capital. I am not naive enough to think that scholarly endeavors are ever outside of market ones but I am troubled by a mode of criticism that would, however unintentionally, treat aesthetics as a way to generate revenue. I am even more troubled by a mode of criticism that would treat aesthetics as a product of social relations that are somehow outside of the politics of race and class. Alas, my experience in the academy these days makes me worry that this is not as much of a paranoid fever dream as I would like it to be. Scholarship on aesthetics is not devilish and those who do it are not terrible people. However, scholarship on aesthetics can be mobilised to link the marketplace and the academy in ways that minimise the political ramifications of such questions.
I worry a lot about the future of the field amidst an increasing imbrication of industry frameworks with scholarly lenses. Again, I am not so naive as to think these were ever wholly separate but I am committed to being vigilant in keeping them at least somewhat distinct. I realise that this is idealistic but it seems important that those of us who do this kind of work try our best to ensure that academic discourses on media never veer too close to becoming market research. I will close with a thank you to Dasgupta. ‘Policing the people’ makes a provocative contribution to an ongoing debate in the field. I sincerely hope this conversation does not end here.
Hollis Griffin (Denison University)