Critical categories

02Mar10

Warning: meandering think piece ahead with minimal coherence or argumentation. Proceed at own risk.

One topic that has been on my mind lately is the role of criticism in a digital media environment. My open browser tabs have mimicked this mind set. Some are simply examples, especially in the ritual of reading weekly Lost reviews and conversations. Some are in preparation for my upcoming workshop presentation at SCMS on digital publishing, in which I will grapple with the question “why a book?”

But others are focused on the question of criticism and critics more directly. Like the rest of the internets, I was enthralled with the Esquire profile of Roger Ebert, as well as Will Leitch’s personal recount of his interactions with Ebert. These profiles highlight how Ebert, like all great critics, matters through both his written voice, even as Ebert’s physical voice has been taken from him, and his generous attitude toward their subject matter – Ebert wants to love movies, and wants to share that love with others.

In light of those thoughtful meditations on the life and influence of a critic who has traversed and transformed the multiple media of newspapers, books, television, blogs, and Twitter – as well as influencing the media object of his criticism, film itself – Thomas Doherty’s lamentation on the “death” of film criticism reads as so remarkably wrongheaded. Others have been piling on Doherty, whose published scholarship is generally solid media history but here has fallen into the dangerous trap of “it used to be better in the past”; I’d point to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s comments on Doherty’s post, and blog posts from Chuck Tryon and Jim Emerson for more thorough rebuttals.

What has stuck in my craw in Doherty’s piece concerns the line-drawing between the categories of academic criticism, press criticism, and blogging. Over the few past years, I have found those lines (which Doherty wants to reaffirm) becoming increasingly blurry, especially over my favored object of analysis, television. Television criticism has had a much less rich history than film and literature, in large part due to its lowbrow cultural valuation, but also due to the ongoing process of its textual form – if you write criticism of a television series, where do you start and where do you end? The episodic series resists the unified critical discussion that most art forms embrace, and the publishing environment made ongoing criticism unlikely to flourish – the daily newspaper lacks the space to publish weekly (or daily for soaps) criticism for a series, and the lag time on magazines and journals made it unfeasible beyond just the paragraph blurb in TV Guide or Entertainment Weekly. It’s not coincidental that the most celebrated television criticism stemmed from (and helped define) the so-called “Golden Age” of 1950s anthology dramas, with critical writings treating the individual episodes more like stand-alone plays – which, of course, they were.

We can think of a reductive but useful distinction between criticism and reviewing: reviews help us decide if we want to consume (i.e. read/view/purchase) something, while criticism helps us think about what we’ve already consumed. Before the internet, television reviews typically served to preview an upcoming show, or perhaps assess a recently launched one that viewers might want to consider. Actual television criticism of ongoing series was far more rare – perhaps an appraisal of a series upon its conclusion (series or season), or perhaps a critical account of a show long after the fact from a more academic source.

The internet has changed this scenario enormously. Now there are dozens of active blogs focusing on television criticism. Many are from journalists who write for traditional publications and extend their writings online via the publication’s official site (Maureen Ryan for the Chicago Tribune, James Poniewozik for Time), or on their own personal sites (Alan Sepinwall). Others are online-only publications that feature detailed television criticism on the episodic level, like The AV Club or HitFix. And a few are just dedicated amateurs self-publishing their thoughts, like Myles McNutt (more on Myles later…). The instant publishing environment of blogs allows such criticism to be published in short-order without space constraints, and fosters an engaged conversation in the comments field, making the critical discussion of television arguably more public and robust than ever before.

Alongside this robust online critical sphere, the academic television studies community has taken to the blogs with a different focus. Most academic blogs, including my own, are not focused on overt criticism – at times (especially at the end of the year/decade), we might write-up critical overviews of a number of series, or attempt to offer a critical perspective at the conclusion of a series. But few academics aim for the regular critical commentary of ongoing series or a range of programs with the breadth of the journalistic critics, in large part because of the time that it takes, but also because there is no real reward structure in academia for being an active blogger writing up regular commentary on ongoing series.

The newest platform for academic media criticism is Antenna, a product of my alma mater program in Media & Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin – Madison. Most of the posts there are short reaction pieces to recent news and/or programming in the world of television or other media, designed to provoke conversation and create community. I’ve tried to emulate the online critics by blogging a series, with my weekly Lost Wednesday posts. What I’m most struck by is how hard it is to crank out thoughtful critical commentary each week without feeling like I’m repeating what’s being said at other TV criticism sites. I don’t view such pieces as academic writing, although I try to inflect them with my knowledge of television history and scholarship – although this is by no means exclusive to “academic sites,” as demonstrated by Noel Murray’s excellent discussion of a classic Honeymooners episode at The AV Club.

The place where these various realms seem to come together is Twitter. As discussed in the comment thread of Max Dawson’s recent Antenna piece on TV & Twitter, the practice of TVittering (per Christine Becker) has created a robust real-time critical dialogue across these constituencies of fans, critics, and scholars. The brief 140-character missives of the TVitterati (per me) should not be misconstrued as actual criticism (as I imagine Doherty might rush in to castigate another straw man), but rather a conversation among active viewers with a critical bent, creating a virtual salon for debating and discussing contemporary (and classic) television.

This is not to say that the differences between academics, professional critics, and amateurs are meaningless. Obviously the crisis economics of both the academy and journalism is a good reminder that there are vast structural differences between people who can make a living through criticism and those who cannot. But I don’t see the distinctions between professional and amateur, print or online, or academic versus popular critic, as being tied to quality of insight or discourse – the best of breed in all realms consist of excellent writers offering meaningful insights.

Rather the distinctions seem more tied to questions of access and audience. I’ve been reminded of this in my attempts to secure some interviews with television producers while in Los Angeles for the SCMS conference next week. The few interviews I have been able to set-up have been secured through academic connections, other faculty who know producers and have been willing to help me network. My attempts to cold-contact producers have fallen flat, as I assume the allure of talking with a television academic is minimal. But if I were a journalist, the publicity machine would provide much more access to the industry. Similarly, even though this is a fairly well-read academic blog, my numbers of commenters and page views are minimal compared to the traffic of journalistic and many other critical bloggers.

But while many academics are envious of how journalists can engage with the industry and generate a large readership, many journalists and amateurs long for the comparative respect and potential stable employment open to academics (or at least us lucky few that are fortunate enough to land on the tenure-track). And this returns to the case of Myles, who is a grad student on the road to becoming a television scholar. What does it mean when a grad student has a much larger readership than his professors? How does the academy adapt to scholars who are also critics with a dedicated non-academic fan base? How does a blog like Myles’s function differently than highly-read scholarly blogs by established major academics like Henry Jenkins and David Bordwell?

Traditionally, the impulse would be to draw the line that Doherty and others do, suggesting that limited readership and long publishing delays are an asset rather than a liability. But in today’s media environment, that seems like such an antiquated and counter-intuitive position that will have to change. Alas, I have few insights as to what norms will be established in its place – any thoughts from my (limited but beloved) readership?

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12 Responses to “Critical categories”

  1. Unsurprisingly, considering my liminal position in this whole scenario, I don’t entirely know where to start either.

    First off, I want to stress how supportive both critics and scholars have been in regards to my efforts to sort of keep one foot in each community. However, it’s important to recognize that these are those critics that are involved in building online communities, and that the scholars in question are interested in the same. I may represent a point of convergence between online criticism and online scholarship, but it does not necessarily (or often) stretch into the more traditional realms of each area, which (as you point out) is sort of the problem in terms of figuring out just where this whole crazy train is heading.

    Just to be clear, I am neither under the illusion that I will be considered for membership into the Television Critics’ Association given the blog’s current form nor that my blog will some day be seen as equivalent to peer-reviewed publications in terms of applying for academic jobs. I am fine with remaining an outlier within both television criticism (as opposed to online television criticism) and academia, as my blog has been of great personal value to me as both a critical exercise and a form of personal expression.

    However, there are many times that I can’t help but be frustrated by the idea that my position as an outlier is based primarily on where I write versus how I write, where I say things instead of what I say. I don’t expect this will change anytime soon, and I certainly understand and value the logic behind concerns relating to journalistic ethics or the value of peer review, but there are nonetheless points in time where I can’t help but wish that we could tear down the walls and categories and engage in a broad and all-encompassing discussion between intelligent critics regardless of where they write, who they work for, and what their title might be.

    In short, there are days where I wish the whole world was like Twitter, a terrifying thought that nonetheless reflects the most enjoyable discussions of television that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. I wish that the established orders were more open to that sort of dialogue, but in the meantime I’m having a lot of fun, meeting a lot of great people, and discussing a lot of great television: for now, at least, I’m content with being the monkey in the middle.

  2. 2 Tausif Khan

    I am a graduate students getting my degree in Politics at The New School. As an undergraduate at Penn State University I wrote a section of my thesis on the cultural impact of Chappelle’s Show so I am very interested in this topic.

    I feel that your piece evokes one topic that I believe requires further discussion. This an idea I feel that was tangentially broached by Tim Minear in his interview with The Write Environment: http://www.strike.tv/show/the-write-environment/tim-minear/ . Minear mentions in this interview that now television now has a second life because of the DVD. Meaning that shows like Firefly can inspire people who have never seen the show its original run on the air.

    The implication I drew from this is that television can now be viewed for the sake of posterity or as a collector’s item which was position previously relegated only to movies. I feel that this opens up space for academic criticism in the hopes that the television industry will start to make shows that deal with more complex issues (as we are starting to see as Emily Nussbaum noted in her piece for New York Magazine: http://nymag.com/arts/all/aughts/62513/) which can be analyzed and discovered as a result of a second or third viewing. This is what I see as the legacy of shows like Firefly, Lost and the shows which Nussbaum is referencing. I feel this would only be possible for academics who have an interest in the long term history of an art form and are not beholden to day to day publishing of journalism. I hope this is the direction that television is taking.

  3. As the husband of an academic, I’m madly pro-academy, and as you note, a little envious too. Not so much of the job security — I’m one of those much-hated freelancers who’s making it hard for critics to keep staff positions, and I don’t see the well drying up for me any time soon — but of the permanence of your work. I write new pieces nearly every day, which run nearly every day, but there’s little time to hone or reflect, and while all this work is available to interested parties, it’s getting increasingly unlikely that I’m ever going to be able to turn it all into one compact, publishable magnum opus. (Unless I *do* lose my job, that is.) I’m lucky to do most of my work at a place that’s willing to indulge my aspirations to write something as indelible as a Robert Warshow or Dave Hickey essay, but though I have an appreciative audience, I don’t know how many of them would dig through the archives to find my equivalent of “The Little Church Of Perry Mason” or “The Gangster As Tragic Hero” if I ever did write something that profound. I’m in a very “what do you have for me today?” kind of business.

    And yet I’m hopeful. I know the news on the critic front seems to be getting more dire every day, with more layoffs and bankruptcies, but on the ground I’m seeing a kind of leveling off. For a time, critics were losing their cachet because of the explosion of blogs and social media, but the faddish bloggers seem to be falling away, leaving people who are more devoted, and social media seems to be driving people *to* those devoted few, via links and recommendations. I think when the whole new media revolution shakes out, we’re going to continue to see the old brands surviving (albeit in a leaner fashion), but with the added benefit of easier access for talented newcomers. At least that’s my hope.

    I am curious about what becomes of academic publishing though. My wife’s a big proponent of new media tech, and has her students writing blogs instead of hand-writing journal entries, and participating in on-line forums to keep class discussion going all week. She also does her paper-grading on a tablet PC instead of on printouts, and she prefers that students download readings electronically instead of photocopying. But a lot of her peers resist moving in this direction: they insist on books and paper, and think computers facilitate lazy shortcuts rather than freeing up time to do more thinking. I have to think that my wife’s way is the future, and that academic publishing will become less about books and journals and more about papers that can be downloaded for a fee (with their success predicated on recommendation by the academic community), but until the bulk of academia is willing to participate meaningfully in the great social media experiment, it’s going to be a bumpy transition.

  4. Just fascinating. Two points stand out:

    First, you write that few of us “aim for critical commentary [...] because of the time that it takes, but also because there is no real reward structure in academia.” This is the main reason I didn’t begin blogging consistently until the end of last year. I enjoy doing it, but I also feel that the only reward is personal satisfaction, which sometimes is honestly enough. It would be nice, however, for some of the writing to be recognized as scholarship. I have a feeling this will change, hopefully sooner than later.

    Second, you asks, “What does it mean when a grad student has a much larger readership than his professors?” Wow, that is something I hadn’t thought about before — and it is an excellent point to make. (Way to go @memles!)

    PS. I like your WWJLD picture.

  5. Thanks to all for the comments! I hope to organize a roundtable around these issues for the next Flow Conference (9/30 – 10/2 in Austin) – perhaps some of you can join me?

    @Myles: I hope you can continue to straddle the boundaries. As with most things, change requires precedents, so having a scholar also be a really popular blogger (rather than writing a “scholarly blog”, if you get my distinction) is part of that process of change. I do know that there are many old-school academics (of many ages) who bristle at anything that seems like a “distraction” to formal academic studies (be it a blog or a personal life!) – hopefully you’ll continue to dodge those types in your studies. But I do think it’s important to learn how to write to a range of audiences in a variety of genres, and I’m optimistic that the academy is learning to be open to ideas being expressed in various media and forms.

    @Tausif: There’s no doubt that the transformation of TV from a mostly ephemeral to an easily collected & archived cultural object (which I’ve written about as well) has a direct impact on criticism. A DVD release is a clear occasion for critical reflection, and the ability to rewatch at ease enables longer-term engagement like the bound forms of 19th century serial novels and the graphic novel collecting serialized comics.

    @Noel: The permanence question is batting about in my brain as well. There is a debate as to whether it’s better to have thousands of readers in the first week of publication or dozens of readers scattered over decades. Alas, few can achieve both. But this intersects with the future of academic publishing that you raise – I’m convinced that the academic book is bound to be less prominent in the next decade, with digital formats becoming more prevalent. So while a digital monograph might be more accessible in the short term, I wonder whether future computers will be able to access them (see the cool Voyager CD-ROMs sitting on my bookshelf).

    Another circular irony is that the press criticism of today becomes the fodder for academic research of tomorrow – in my TV history research, I draw upon many journalistic critics as a window into a show’s reception context. So you can become permanent through the backdoor!

    @Kelli: It’s probably a topic for another post, but the professional cultural capital gained by blogging is huge in terms of connecting people and establishing name recognition. It’s unlikely I would have crossed your scholarly path (or you mine) without blogs & Twitter. But because of this more accessible & timely platform, I’d be much more likely to stop and read an essay by someone whose blog I like, or cite a blog post as an influence on my own thinking. And I am optimistic that this mode of scholarly circulation will become more overtly valued as a means of academic discussion and dissemination, which might even “count” on a CV.

  6. As an academic-in-training (grad student at Yale), I’m very aware of the wide gap in my discipline (philosophy) between the old publishing media (books, journals) and the new (blogs, et al). Even more than the broader academy, philosophy as a discipline has a reputation for distance from new technologies and a disdain for “popularizing” works.

    Some in my discipline have adapted to the new technologies. There is a new journal called Philosophy Compass that is on-line only. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is on-line, top-notch, and completely free. But those are still the exceptions. There is a strong perception that if you run a blog, the goal is to get refereed papers out of it. So the good blogs tend to be by-academics and for-academics. And until administrators begin to count differently for hiring/tenure decisions, I don’t see that changing.

    But that leaves a big gap between what academic philosophers today do (which is highly specified, technical, and inaccessible without a lot of background) and what many philosophers have historically done (which is of broad interest, explains new terms, and eschews compiling epicycles upon epicycles of references). Open Court Publishers (and now, mimicking its success and even stealing its editor-in-chief, Blackwell) have attempted to use the old media (books) to bridge the gap with their Seinfeld/Buffy/Running/Etc. and Philosophy series. While I did use the Simpsons volume in a class I taught on American philosophy, I’ve found these volumes to be generally disappointing. Other academic philosophers are even more critical, with one professor saying his department would never hire anyone who had published in one of these books. (But this perhaps says more about the poor quality of the articles in these books than the fact that they were intended for a wide audience.)

    What I find disappointing about the articles in these X & Philosophy books are three things:
    1. They are not generally recognizable as works of philosophy. (Just because you are a philosopher, it doesn’t follow that everything you write is philosophy.)
    2. They are generally ignorant of the various ways that a philosopher can interact with aspects of popular culture. (Usually, they use pop culture references to illustrate something in philosophy, rather than explore the ways that a film or television show can actually do philosophy.)
    3. They would be very successful as blog entries, in which the fans of House or Harry Potter or Hip-Hop could respond to these author’s articles, rather than promoting the one-way street of traditional book publishing.

    I am trying to make some progress myself in applying my training as an analytic philosopher and historian of philosophy to what I consume in popular culture, because I think that philosophy can provide a different set of questions than those asked in media studies, women’s studies, comp lit, journalism, and the other fields that traditionally engage television, films, and music. But I have few illusions that this will be of interest to my colleagues beyond a polite smile that suggests I not spend too much time on things other than my dissertation. Like Myles, I’m hopeful for a place in multiple communities, even if those communities continue to eye one another suspiciously.

    • Timothy – I’ve had a long-term grudge against the X & Philosophy books, although my objections are inverse to yours. These books, and their popularity, make it seem that the only academic use of pop culture is as an illustration of philosophy, completely ignoring media & cultural studies as independent disciplines with legit methodologies and ways of looking at cultural objects as more than just windows into the writings of philosophers. There are philosophers who grapple with pop culture (typically in areas of aesthetics), but they don’t have the cross-over appeal as making puns about Homer and Homer.

      • I share your complaint that a central problem with the X & Philosophy books is that they primarily use pop culture as an illustration for something else they want to talk about. (Which is occasionally fine; it’s something we all do. But even in teaching I find this is too often a cultural object’s *only* use, which is disappointing.) I do think there is a place for the sort of work that the best articles in these volumes attempt to do, when they seriously and reflectively engage a piece of pop culture while asking the sorts of questions that philosophers ask. I think there is room at the table for both this and media studies (and other disciplines). We’re better when there are more voices. But those voices are also stronger when they’ve taken the time to learn from the others at the table; yet another shortcoming of X & Philosophy is there ignorance of anything happening in media studies. There’s an arrogance implicit in doing something that looks like media studies but is utterly ignorant of it.

  7. 9 alex

    Thanks to Jason and commentors for an excellent, comprehensive conversation. I’d like to be short, adding a few reflections from my recent work attempting to publish a scholarly project about writing scholary prose on a silly subject (YouTube) and via a non-traditional platform (YouTube). The questions of translation and rhetoric seem key to me. As scholars speak to changing audiences in appropriate vernaculars and using flexible forms, we are stretched to give names to, and define for ourselves, what are otherwise handed to us as givens when we publish in traditional venues. While this stretch may never be rewarded via the vitae (and what counts for hiring and promotion), it certainly trains us to be better writers, and allows us to participate in the slow adaptation of our own vernaculars (i.e. the on-line peer-reviewed publications mentioned above). While many of these remain are currently on-line places where people plop an academic paper, it is my belief that that will change as authors and publishers see the writing on the wall: once you’re on-line, images, sounds, design, duration, and rhetoric actually function differently.


  1. 1 The Chutry Experiment » Monday Links: Alice, Box Office, Green Zone
  2. 2 Fiske-ian Learnings: Reflections on Fiske Matters « Cultural Learnings
  3. 3 Cultural Conferencing: “The New Criticism?” at Flow 2010 « Cultural Learnings

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