On Blogs, Lost, and Jag Studies…

For those of you interested in the blogosophere (and I have to assume you are or you wouldn’t be reading this blog), there are some fascinating statistics to be found on Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere report.

Technorati is now tracking 57 Million blogs — with a growth of 100,000 new blogs added each day throughout the last quarter. The number of blogs doubles every five to seven months.

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They publish an interesting chart which shows the peak moments in blog posting and their relationship to specific news events. On the one hand, this chart suggests how vital politics is to what motivates people to post and on the other, it suggests that the increased number of bloggers means that each major political event is likely to generate more traffic and discussion than the last. We can speculate whether all of this reaction to news is likely to be divisive as some critics have argued, leaving us more likely to read each new development through an ever narrower and more self righteous ideological frame or likely to enable real discussion and community building as others have argued because we have a greater understanding of how politics impacts the everyday lives of a diverse array of people.

Blogs remain a highly decentralized mode of expression, even though some blogs (topped by Endgadget and Boing Boing) are beginning to compete directly with the websites offered by the major media companies in terms of traffic. Only three blogs make it to the top fifty most trafficked news sites while another nine make it into the second 50 most trafficked sites.

The egotist in me was interested in their classification of blogs as influential based on the number of other blogs which link to them. By these criteria, Confessions of an Aca/Fan, which I launched in June, has already made its way into “the very high authority group,” thanks no doubt to the number of “thought leaders” and fellow bloggers who read this site, since our readership numbers are a good deal lower than many of the other blogs to make it to this status. You are an elite, dear readers, and you work hard to spread the word about some of the information posted here. For this, I thank you very very much.

Another Aca/Fan Takes Up Blogging

One of these new bloggers is none other than Jason Mittell, a regular reader and commentator here, an academic friend who teaches at Middlebury College and went to my Alma madder, UW-Madison and who is one of the academic advisors to the Convergence Culture Consortium. Mittell wrote Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture and is now working on a new book on complexity of American television. Here’s a link to an essay Mittell published recently which touches on many shows that are much beloved in the aca/fan community. I have added Mittell’s new blog, JustTV, to my blogroll and I suspect many of you will want to add it to their rss feeds.


The blog is only a few weeks old. So far, for my money, the most interesting post has dealt with the midseason finale of Lost. It is written from the perspective of a hardcore fan of the series as well as someone who is closely examining the growing complexity of American television:

One of Lost‘s strengths thus far has been a mastery of final acts, both of season and episode. Throughout season 2, fans complained that many episodes were 40 minutes of boring set-up for a great final 3-minute sequence. I was always fine with that, as I recognized that those set-ups were usually needed to deliver the final moments, and they served to deepen character and plot arcs in often subtle ways. And Lost has delivered in the season finales both years, albeit in different ways. Season 1 ended with some frustrating suspense, peering down the hatch, but the capture of Walt was an immensely satisfying twist. Season 2′s finale was simply perfect, answering tons of questions about Desmond & the hatch, while opening a great number of mysteries to keep us pondering all summer (cue Giant Foot).

Now Lost is going with a split-season model, delivering a 6-episode mini-season this fall before going on hiatus until February. Last night’s episode, “I Do,” seemed poised to deliver on wrapping up many of the issues raised this season, and creating enough momentum to sustain interest for three months. It failed at both tasks. What was wrapped up? The only thing I can see is the resolution of the Kate/Sawyer/Jack love triangle – Kate & Sawyer are the couple, as Kate doesn’t do taco night (and Jack’s all about taco night). For some fans, this is huge, but I’m not a “shipper,” nor do I think that’s the main draw for the majority of Lost viewers. We got nothing about the motivations, history, or plans of The Others (as a friend of mine says, they seem omnipotent simply for omnipotence sake), no clues into Desmond’s transformation or any other insights into the Swan’s implosion, and no better sense of the numerous dangling clues (giant foot, Eyepatch Man, Mrs. Klugh, Alex, Penny’s listening station, DHARMA/Hanso/numbers, Walt, Libby, shall I continue?).

What about narrative momentum? The cliffhanger seemed more out of 24 than Lost (which is not praise on my blog) – Jack holding Ben’s kidney hostage, Kate trying to escape from mini-island peril, Sawyer at gunpoint. None of these developments are surprising, and the suspense is pretty low as well, as we know all three characters will survive this, and probably Ben will too. Lost’s strength has been not in generating “what will happen?” suspense like typical thrillers, but creating “why are things happening?” intrigue. We know why Ben wants surgery, we know why Jack wants to save himself and Kate, we know why Kate & Sawyer want to get it on in a cage. I won’t spend 3 months wondering what will happen to these characters, but I’m still pondering many “whys.” The only dangling mystery we were given was Locke’s revelation on Eko’s Jesus Stick – but it’s a clue with no payoff and no immediate resonance. I’m sure it’ll matter in February, but who cares until then. [Plus as an added gripe, Kate's flashback completely wasted the glorious Nathan Fillion, only making me want to watch Firefly/em> again.]

More generally, Mittell has been responding to journalistic discussions which have suggested that there may be a backlash afoot against serialization and complexity this season as reflected by the lack of audience interest in many of the new dramas. Here’s some of what Mittell has to say about The Nine, a series about which I am still trying to make up my mind:

While there’s much I like about the show – strong cast, high production values, engaging characters, and a clever idea – something has bothered me from the beginning of the show. For those who haven’t watched it, the concept is that nine people are held hostage in a bank robbery, and the show traces the after-effects of the event on their lives and relationships. The show’s storytelling gimmick is that the 52 hours of the hostage situation is not revealed directly to the audience – each episode fills in a bit more of the events at the beginning of the show, and through flashbacks that characters have throughout the rest of the episode.

This storytelling device is clearly inspired from Lost, where flashbacks reveal a character’s back-story that illuminate their “current” situation on the island, as well as other programs that have used flashbacks & flash-forward (temporal manipulations called anachrony in the narratology jargon) in creative ways, like Jack & Bobby and Boomtown. But my problem with The Nine is that there is no clear motivation either for withholding the events in the bank from the audience, or the way in which they are revealed. In fact, the viewers seem to be the only ones who don’t know what has happened inside the bank — whereas in other programs using temporal complexity, a character’s discovery process or the act of retelling to another character motivates narrative revelations. More than any other show using such innovative storytelling strategies, The Nine seems to use its devices only as an externally-imposed gimmick without a clear motivation emerging from the story world itself.

For my money, Mittell is one of the best writers about contemporary television, one who regularly combines astute perspectives on the industrial context as well as a solid understanding of the formal construction of individual series and specific episodes. He watches television closely and isn’t afraid to tell us what he thinks matters there.

Developing a Taste for JAG

Mittell was one of the many interesting people who I got to interact with at the recent Flow conference which was hosted by the University of Texas-Austin. I often mention Flow here because I see it as an important experiment in making academic criticism of television and new media more accessible to a general audience. Many of you might be interested to check out some of the short position papers issued by the conference participants around a range of topics.

Mittell participated on a session, for example, which centers around issues of taste and opened up a far reaching discussion of the role of evaluation in contemporary television studies. One of the most provocative statements came from my long time friend, Greg Smith, who currently teaches at Georgia State University, and who is finishing up a book on Ally McBeal. Smith asked conference participants to reflect on what does and doesn’t receive academic attention and how this is bound up with academia as a particular taste culture. He ended up framing what became known as the “JAG question.”:

TV studies, like all subcultures, was born out of a particular set of historical relations to the larger culture, and so we emerged out of film studies (by way of cultural studies) by tending to distance ourselves from the sometimes elite interests of our “parent discipline.” From this pioneering work we gained a particular understanding of the popular as potentially unruly, a Rabelaisian source of energy that propels texts/viewers across social space. While we have grown to nuance our understanding of the politics of texts, this particular understanding of the popular still colors the choices we tend to make in examining texts. The more clearly a TV text fits this concept of the popular, the more likely we are to study it. I’ll pick on Buffy here (a show I love) because its rise as one of the most explored texts in academic television studies has much to do the fact that it fits this specific notion of the popular. Its irreverent play with social categories, its sense of the grotesque as populist metaphor, its ardent following among an interpretive community: all these things place Buffy squarely within the center of our notion of the popular.

We need to recognize that this particular understanding of the popular is a value of our academic subculture, one that leads us to privilege certain text/viewer relations over others. In contrast, where is the analysis of JAG, a popular show that flew under the critical radar for 10 seasons? This has something to do with JAG‘s creators being less visible and less adept than Joss Whedon, but I also suspect that this is because JAG does not fit our primary notion of the popular. JAG is far too square to be interesting to television studies.

And thus the blind spot that I call “hipness.” I initially considered discussing this distinction in terms of a preference toward the lowbrow and against the middlebrow, but the terms lowbrow/middlebrow feel too much like properties of the text to me. I prefer the term “hip” (and its opposite, “square”) because it more clearly places the interpretive community into the mix. A text is hip or square to a particular community, and what’s hip to one subculture may not be hip to another. And so Star Trek may be considered unhip by broader society while being the granddaddy of hip for TV studies. But what of texts that are squarer and yet immensely popular by the standards of broad viewership? Where’s the field of Raymond studies? My suspicion is that (in spite of – or perhaps because of — the fact that everybody loves him), Raymond studies would just not be as much fun (another taste category).

About this point in the discussion, Will Brooker, a British scholar who has written books on Alice in Wonderland, Batman, and Bladerunner (themselves hip or fannish shows), stood up and jokingly accused me of being responsible of misdirecting the entire field down the Aca/fan path, suggesting that every young academic is now a fan writing about the object of their own fandom. I am not sure I am ready to take the blame or the responsibility for this redirection of the field. But if I am responsible, let me suggest that to me, being an aca/fan involves being honest about one’s relationship to their object of study and not necessarily simply writing about television shows one loves. For me, you don’t really begin to understand the nature of popular culture unless one can engage with the emotional impact it has on the viewer and as such, we can not write about it without examining more closely our own emotional investments.

One of my first television studies teachers said to her class that they should always study television programs they hated because that was the only way to get enough emotional distance from them to examine them critically. I have always resisted that impulse to see hate as somehow objective or objectivity as the preferred stance for writing about television. It has never been a requirement that a Shakespeare scholar hate their object of study for example in a way that it used to be routine for television scholars to express their disdain for the medium.

Part of the problem may simply be that there is so little real ideological and cultural diversity within television studies per se. I would argue that our inability as a field to write intelligently about shows like JAG has something to do with our sense of cultural isolation from those people who live in Red States. One challenge may be to broaden our object of study. An even bigger challenge may be to expand who studies television and what kinds of perspectives are welcome at our conference. Very few folks at the Flow conference rose to defend JAG as a worthy object of study. My bet though is that there are people out there reading this blog who regularly watch JAG. Indeed, it was one of my late father’s favorite programs and I found watching the program with him helped me to understand how his generation saw the world.

Comments

  1. Henry – thanks for the plug & kind words! Just a quick correction to my blog’s URL, which migrated to http://mt.middlebury.edu/middblogs/jmittell/JustTV for anyone looking to read it. And I agree with Greg’s call for looking at the shows that fall outside the typical academic taste culture, but doing so runs the danger of treating such ‘foreign’ texts as problems to be solved, rather than phenomena to be understood. Watching JAG (or the like) as an outsider can be productive, but not if tinged with hostility toward its pleasures.