Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Reading Readers Reading

I want to spend a bit of time musing on something academics talk a lot about but do little systematic analysis of, namely how people “read” films, TV programmes, or books. Academics typically inscribe themselves into the “text” they are reading as the “common reader”. But the question has to be asked as to whether they really are ideologically, economically, politically, and culturally "common" readers?

As I have taught classes on TV and read the online posts of individuals commenting on TV programmes I have long been struck about how theological most TV (and film and literary) “criticism” is. Most online or criticism begins and ends with things generally repressed in prose, “I like it”, “I don’t like it”, or it’s “cheesy”. There is no critical and systematic analysis of the programme itself just “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”. There is usually no attempt to define, systematically and analytically terms of criticism such as what “cheesy” is or whether aesthetics are universal or social and cultural,in the eye of the social and cultural beholder. In fact, most individuals who engage in pop theological readings of a text, and that is what most of them are, often seem to mistake their particular “reading” of a text for a “gods” or universal or transcendental reading of a text. They, in other words, write in authoritative tones, universalist tones, dogmatic tones, theological tones, fetishistic tones.

One often gets the sense that theological readers (like it, dislike it) approach a “text” from a perspective of a budding filmmaker themselves. One gets the sense, or at least I get the sense, from reading such “criticism”, that the critic (who is seeking his or her their five minutes of fame?), if given a chance would have done something (visually, narratively, ideologically) different from the way the craftspeople who actually made the film or TV programme did it. There is, in other words, a practise dimension to this theological approach to “reading” and "reviewing" texts.

I find this practise dimension rather ironic because it sometimes seems to me that so many who take this approach write as though making a film or TV programme was done in a vacuum, a monetary vacuum, a technology vacuum, an institutional vacuum. For me the inability of so many to systematically analyse “texts” in their broader empirical contexts says something not very positive about what passes for intellectual life in the twentieth and twenty-first century West. So much for the notion that education will create an educated and rational populace.

There is another and more clichéd aspect to this theological and practice criticism of TV “texts” that troubles me. If the ideas, particularly the practical ideas, of so many “I like it, I don’t like it” school are so good why aren’t they making films and TV programmes? Why aren’t they writing books? I realise, of course, that it is not easy to get a foot in the Hollywood door. Someone like Paris Hilton can become a celubutante, can get an acting gig in Veronica Mars or make an album while I and others cannot because she is Paris Hilton and we are not. Paris got her celebrity, acting, and record gigs, of course, at least initially and it at least predominately, not because of her inherent talents at being a celebrity, an actor, or a musician but because her daddy is a Hilton, the Hilton, the Hilton with big money.

The same criticisms can be leveled at those who criticise film and TV acting in the webverse, the blogosphere, and in intellectual and academic culture. I suspect, though I don't know this for a fact since I haven’t done the necessary empirical research here, that most of those of claim that acting in films and TV series is awful have either limited acting experience (in high school) or no acting experience at all. I also suspect that most commentators know little about the history of acting, how acting has varied across time and space, how acting varies between film, TV, and theatre, how acting has and continues to vary by genre (and within genre), how acting is impacted by genre blending, and so on. All of this is a long way of saying that most of those who condemn acting as "bad", "horrible", or "wooden" have little in the way of critical or practical legs to stand on.

What bugs me about this is that I was taught to begin all analysis with when I analysed a text, analysed a text empirically, plot, its characters, its character development (if any), its visuals, and so on. Only, I was taught, after I did this could I move on to hermeneutic or interpretive analyse and than homiletic, aesthetic, or ideological analysis. I am fond of this more systematic and analytic approach. I wish others would get historical and interpretive before they go all homiletical on us by telling us how they would remake the TV show object of their gaze before they systematically and empirically analysed a TV show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But hey, that’s just me. I apparently fetishise.

Of course, there is a broader issue here, an issue I mentioned in passing earlier: is "beauty" and "value" universal or is it in the eye of the beholder, the binary that aesthetic philosophers have usually framed aesthetic issues? To me one can't escape empirical "reality" here. Some, to use the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like Buffy, others don't, even more probably have no interest in Buffy whatsoever. One thing critical discourse in the blogosphere, in the webverse, and in intellectual and academic culture shows is that what some commentators on acting in a film or TV show find "wooden" others find "superb". Aesthetic perception, in other words, varies and is thus in the social and cultural eyes of beholders. Case closed.

Granted some commentators have tried to construct "canons" of great films, great TV programmes, and great acting performances and granted intellectuals and academics who have tried to construct canons of greatest films, greatest TV programes, and greatest acting performances ever often have degrees of expertise in film, TV, and acting. But the question remains whether these greatest of lists escape the hermeneutic circle, escape social and cultural bound time and space. As Jonathan Rosenbaum, one commentator who still believes that constructing best of lists is still worthwhile, says about his own lists, and I paraphrase, I recognise that my preferences are often of the moment. He recognises, in other words, that his aesthetic, his taste, preferences vary in time and space. If Rosenbaum is right then analysts of reader response or audience tastes must recognize that intellectual and academic discourse about film, television, literature, and so on is a form of reader response that doesn’t escape history.

Moving beyond the ivy halls of the academy and intellectual culture and into how real people read real texts, I have two acquaintances who responded to Buffy in interesting and different ways when I introduced them to the show. One, a female, called her ex-husband after Dark Willow flayed Warren and berated him for how he treated her during their marriage and was treating her after their divorce. Another acquaintance, a male, often commented on Buffy’s women in sexual terms. He saw Buffy sometimes as sexy, sometimes as not. He saw Cordelia and Darla as sexy. He found Tara too womanly. He often commented on what the female characters were wearing, the amount of make-up they had on, and on occasion yelled for more girl on girl action toward the screen. On the other hand, he also commented that he wasn’t sure if he could forgive Angel for how he treated Buffy and the Scoobies in season two and condemned, as did the show, the misogyny of some of the male characters. The moral of this story: More real consumption studies of a variety of consumers, as opposed to academic readings of film and television texts, are needed in order to understand how a variety of “readers” “read” “texts” like Buffy and Angel.

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