Legitimating Television: An Unofficial Book Review
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
November 16, 2011 – 08:02
One of the great gifts of sabbatical is having the time to read books that are not immediately required for teaching or manuscript reviews. I’ve taken advantage of that by reading some fiction (and would highly recommend D.B. Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy if you’re into classic videogames and/or metafiction), as well as some scholarship. In the latter category, I want to both recommend and respond to Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine’s new book Legitimating Television: Media Convergence & Cultural Status. I agree with 90% of what they argue, and around half of their points were so good that I wish I had written them myself. I have no doubt that it will become a must-read book for contemporary television scholarship, and I hope their ideas and analyses are taken up and engaged with broadly. In short, if you’re reading my blog, you should read this book.
However… it’s the 10% where we disagree that I’ll focus on here. A few contextualizations are important first. The authors are good friends of mine from graduate school, and we remain in-touch online and always enjoy catching up at conferences. Thus knowing them and our relationship, I take the fact that they directly engage with and argue against some of my work in the book as a sign of respect (and hope they view this response in the same spirit, as I’ve invited them to continue the dialog here). Second, I will try to separate out my issues with the way they discuss my work and my take on their broader arguments. I’m sure an ungenerous reader could look at my response and write it off as sour grapes, but again, I highly recommend most of the book. Finally, this response will be part of a larger argument I’ll be making in a presentation next month at a the conference Cultural Distinctions Remediated at University of Hannover, so I will point toward larger arguments still to come, and welcome feedback to help me craft that talk.
Newman & Levine’s book is primarily a discursive analysis of how, over the last 20 years or so, American television has been culturally legitimated above its traditional “lowbrow” status, and a consideration of the cultural impacts of such discourses of legitimation. They do excellent historical work charting transformations in technology, critical discourses, programming strategies, and notions of authorship, mapping a compelling terrain of how we think about television today. I think their portrait of such discourses is quite strong, comprising the bulk of the book that I fully endorse, and they make a strong argument that we need to make such discursive formations visible in order to be aware of and counter underlying assumptions and implications that often remain hidden. My main quibble lies in what we’re supposed to do with this discursive history.
The book links the discourses of legitimation to structures of gender and class, highlighting how television has traditionally been feminized and stigmatized as lowbrow, arguing that recent legitimation practices work to masculinize and “class up” television. While I think this is correct, I do not see it as a self-evident problem to be avoided at all costs like Newman & Levine seem to, as suggested by the book’s final words: “We love television. But legitimizing that love at such a cost? Paying for the legitimation of the medium through a perpetuation of hierarchies of taste and cultural value and inequalities of class and gender? No” (171). Implied in this conclusion and their analysis throughout is a choice: we (as scholars, critics and viewers) can either embrace legitimation and its concomitant reinforcement of cultural hierarchies, or we can reject it, with the latter framed as the more politically progressive choice.
But that’s a false dichotomy. Rejecting legitimation discourse does not seem to me like a progressive move, as it simply reinforces other cultural hierarchies that still persist—their knock on legitimation seems to be in large part that it fails to counter, and subtly reinforces, pre-existing hierarchies of gender and class. But to me, rejecting legitimation doesn’t seem to challenge those assumptions as much as just leaving them in place; I’m in no way convinced that pre-legitimation was “better” than post-legitimation, so it ends up being a choice between two problems. The book spends its energy convincingly pointing out many of the embedded cultural assumptions present in legitimation discourse, but does not truly offer another option for how to engage with these issues except to point out their constructedness. Instead, we’re left with a can’t win scenario of either embracing a discourse they show to be built on regressive assumptions, or rely on previous cultural norms also built on regressive assumptions.
I think this gap is due a mistaken framing about how discursive formations work: they are not balloons that pop when they are shown to be social constructions, but rather are the only way we make sense of the world. Throughout the book, Newman & Levine examine sites of legitimation discourse and conclude their analyses by highlighting how gender and class hierarchies are embedded in these cultural formations, using this insight as a pin to pop the discursive balloon. But just because a discourse is not “truth” does not mean that it is not “true,” or at least has useful explanatory power—yes, the celebration of single-camera sitcoms marginalizes the tradition of multi-camera comedy via an implicit class distinction, but we can’t simply invalidate such shows or critical appreciations of them because of such discursive framing. For me, there is no place outside of discourse, so analyzing and acknowledging the constructedness of a discourse does not mean we must reject it. Instead, we need to come up with reflexive critical methods that acknowledge such constructions and avoid totalizing claims, while still making arguments within the discursive frames we have to work with.
What I wanted from the book that I did not get was a third way to discuss television’s cultural legitimation, moving beyond either accepting legitimation discourses of quality television and progress, or rejecting them as illegitimate or ungrounded. (In my talk at Hannover, I hope to offer such a third approach, specifically concerning cultural evaluation.) In the book’s final pages, they gesture toward some scholarship that they think does this, but do not detail how such approaches truly differ from the examples they hold up as problematic—I know most of the work they reference, and don’t really see how such works “examine convergence-era television without echoing broader discourses of legitimation” while other work they critique falls prey to such pitfalls (170). I would have appreciated a conclusion that models the type of analysis they are calling for, rather than ending by rejecting a body of scholarship that they see as lacking; arguably the bulk of the book offers such a model, but since it is framed as a meta-analysis it seems to be an unlikely prototype for future work.
This leads to how my own work is addressed in the book, mostly through the book’s final chapter on “Television Scholarship And/As Legitimation.” Again, I take it as a sign of respect that they take time to engage with my ideas and writing (and note that many of their references to my work are supportive and laudatory), and am happy to continue the conversation. However, I was disappointed in some of the choices they made in what they quoted and how they framed some of my points – I don’t want to be defensive in nit-picking their use of my work, but I want to contextualize and counter some of their characterizations, as well as redirecting the discussion toward other works that they do not engage with directly.
I was happy that Newman & Levine discussed my writing about the relationships between primetime and daytime serials, as Levine is an expert on soap operas (and one of my valued informers I’ve consulted with when writing about the genre). While they critiqued the way I distinguish between primetime and daytime serials, suggesting that I am devaluing soaps by “den[ying] an abiding influence or affinity between them” (166), they themselves outline a number of ways that primetime serials differ from soap opera form and content, such as privileging endings or disavowing relationship melodrama. Elsewhere, I have written at length about the gaps between these two formats, based on hopefully analytic claims about formal strategies and generic norms, but rather than arguing with these claims of influence or similarity, Newman & Levine conflate my analytic argument with an evaluative one. Likewise, in a footnote they dismiss my claim that I have not seen any evidence suggesting that primetime producers are directly influenced by soap operas, but they do not offer any evidence to the contrary documenting such influence. I would love to discuss the claims we both make about issues of influence and formal distinctions between daytime and primetime, but was disappointed with the limited way they treated this topic in their final chapter – I’m not insisting that I’m correct in my analysis, but I’d like to engage the questions we both raise in more depth.
In discussing my work on narrative complexity, they write: “[Mittell] states that he is not making an ‘explicitly evaluative’ claim about the worth of narrative complexity over ‘conventional programming.’ Still, one suspects that Mittell wants to assert that ‘the pleasures potentially offered by complex narratives are richer and more multifaceted than conventional programming’ but refrains from doing so overtly in this context” (163). Here’s the full quote they draw from, in my essay on narrative complexity:
Arguably, the pleasures potentially offered by complex narratives are richer and more multifaceted than conventional programming, but value judgments should be tied to individual programs rather than claiming the superiority of an entire narrational mode or genre. Thus while we should not shy away from evaluative dimensions in narrative transformations, the goal of my analysis is not to argue that contemporary television is somehow better than it was in the 1970s but rather to explore how and why narrative strategies have changed and to consider the broader cultural implications of this shift. (30)
I see a crucial distinction here – I am suggesting that we avoid evaluations at the level of genre or mode, yet they suggest that I am arguing for such evaluations under the dubious implicative phrasing of “one suspects.”
In the next paragraph, they quote two more sources to indicate how I’m complicit with legitimation discourses: a parenthetical aside in a piece I wrote for Flow where I admit to teaching television “that I think is great” in part to cultivate and broaden students’ tastes, and a promotional video I did for Middlebury College’s Meet the Faculty series, in which I do use “Golden Age” rhetoric explicitly. I think the latter quote is a bit unfair, as such videos are clearly different from the formal scholarship I have published on the topic, or even the more casual realm of blog posts—in such a short soundbite-y video, I couldn’t really go into the way I view cultural evaluation as discursively constructed and contingent, and the video producer explicitly asked me to respond to the Golden Age question (and I have never published anything where I call contemporary television a “Golden Age”). Thus even though they used words I spoke or wrote, I feel like my work was framed highly selectively to cast me in a role that feels more simplistic than deserved.
Regardless of what quotations they use to paint me as an unselfconscious legitimator, my real disappointment was what they didn’t engage with from my work. Beyond the issues of soap opera form I referenced above, I had hoped they would tackle some of my arguments in defense of evaluative scholarship, which (I assume) would feed into their analysis of legitimation discourses. For instance, in “Lost in a Great Story” (an article in their bibliography, but not specifically discussed in the book), I wrote:
I don’t yearn for a day in which television studies publishes a definitive canonical list delineating the best of television once and for all, but I relish the opportunity to openly debate the value of programs without suggesting that all evaluations are equally justifiable as idiosyncratic personal taste or simple ideological manifestations. Just because aesthetics can be done in a way that disenfranchises some positions does not require the evacuation of evaluative claims altogether in the name of an egalitarian (and I believe ultimately dishonest) poetics of inclusion…. In offering my own evaluative criticism here, I am not trying to convince anyone that Lost is the essence of television, or the pinnacle of the medium’s artistic possibilities. But it is a great show, and I wish to explore why. I hope to model a mode of evaluative criticism that avoids the universalistic and canonistic tendencies that other fields have been fighting over for decades. I imagine an explicit awareness of the practices of evaluation in all spheres of television creation and consumption, including a discussion and defense of our own taste practices. Such a mode of evaluation would not seek to make taste judgments the final words of a debate, but openings of a discussion. What makes shows like Buffy and Lost so appealing to scholars? How do criteria of cultural politics and poetics intersect or conflict? How might we account for our own shifts in taste as tied to changing cultural contexts, textual exposures, formal education, and transformed aesthetics? What might a non-foundational aesthetics of television look like, and how might we use such contingent evaluations in our teaching and scholarship? Just because we want to avoid the flaws of traditional aesthetic criticism doesn’t mean we cannot imagine a more sophisticated, historically-aware—and yes, better—way to place evaluation on the agenda of television studies and proudly acknowledge and examine our own tastes. (129-131)
I’m pretty sure Newman & Levine would disagree with these ideas, but I hope it would be a better argument than quoting from a promotional video to reductively characterize my position—perhaps we can have such a discussion here.
So in the end, I found the book disappointing, not paying off the excellent work of the first seven chapters by resorting to some underwhelming & poorly (or at least only partially) substantiated claims about my and other scholar’s positions. More importantly, their conclusion doesn’t show us how to move forward with these topics, except to always be aware of potential implications of legitimating discourses and reject their totalizing tendencies (which I would claim I and others are already doing). It’s one of my pet peeves that scholars should offer more positive models rather than negative critiques of each others’ work, and thus I felt like the final chapter undermined some of the positive work of most of the book. As mentioned before, I hope to continue this conversation, both in my future work charting out a more productive approach to evaluative scholarship, and in the comment thread here where hopefully the book’s authors and readers can discuss these issues in depth.