Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dissing the Donut Hole: Why I Have a Problem With Crystal Ball Textualism

My problem with a lot of what comes out of English Studies and Film and Television Studies programmes is that the crystal ball textualism that dominates those programmes and the writing that comes out of it is not grounded in little h historical analysis. It is not grounded in archival analysis. It is not grounded in interviews with those who "created" literary works, films, or television programmes. To paraphrase the title of a book by noted cultural anthropologist and historian Eric Wolf it is the product people of literature, film, and television without a sense of history.

I suppose this historical amnesia in literary, film, and television wouldn't be a problem if, contra the crystal ball textualists, historical analysis on how a text was produced, including its authorship, wasn't essential and central to the understanding of literary, film, and television texts, their sociology, their authorship, their economics, their politics, their cultural contexts, their demographics, and their geography. History, little h history, history as a method, is and has to be, I would argue, the first step toward an understanding of any text, literary, film, television, or national and a first step before textual hermeneutics and aethetics takes place.

One fundamental problem with much literary, film, and television analysis is that the ahistorical if not antihistorical analysis the crystal ball textualists are producing is actually a type or types of reader response. Unfortunately, most crystal ball don't realise this simple fact. Crystal ball textualist readings of texts, which generally stand in for real reader response analysis--surveys, ethnography, and interviews with a random group of readers of literary, film, or television texts--is not a akin to Chomsky's notion that you can learn all you need to learn about language through one language speaker. You cannot learn all you need to know about a literary, film, or television text from one academic or even a group of academics ahistorical readings of literary, film, or television texts because the practise and the knowledge of academics, and particularly crystal ball academics, is constructed in specific social and cultural contexts and bear the cultural and ideological traces of those social and cultural contexts.

The only way, I would argue, to get beyond the tautological and fetishistic tendencies of crystal ball textualism is to tie textual readings to the empirical, to textual production, to empirical analysis that necessitates archival research, ethnographic research, surveys, interviews, and so on, and which, as a result can be verified or not falsified in an empirical rather than an ideological way and which can serve as an empirical check on readings of literary, film, and television texts.

This doesn't mean that I think that cultural analysis be it Geertzian--speaking of Clifford Geertz it is worth remembering that Geertz came of intellectual age, in part, in Talcott Parsons Harvard interdisciplinary social science Social Relations programme, that he was deeply influenced by the comparative history of Max Weber, that he deeply understood the history of colonialism and how it impacted culture, that his approach, before becoming skeptical of grand theorising, bears some if not many of the hallmarks of Parsonian structural functionalism, and that he was involved in studies funded by the US government on the Soviet Union--Turnerian (Victor Turnerian), or whatever is not possible. It just has to be grounded in history and it has to be grounded in a realisation that some symbolic culture is central to national cultures--American civil religion and American football, for instance--some is central to local cultures--eternal progression in Mormon culture, for example. We need to be cognizant of the fact that not all symbols are key symbols, in other words. And we need to be aware that all symbols develop historically and in historical sociological, cultural, geographic, and biological contexts.

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