New Directions in Media Studies: The Aesthetic Turn
A year ago, Neil Verma and I assembled a panel for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference titled, “The Aesthetic Turn in Radio Studies,” aimed at mapping renewed engagement by radio scholars with concerns traditionally classified under the heading of “aesthetics”: among them, analysis of narrative structure and broadcast genres, methods of spatial and temporal representation, styles of vocal performance, and experiential qualities of radio listening. This turn to questions of aesthetics has also swept the field of television studies, with a proliferation of work on narrative complexity, TV genres, visual style and sound style, performance studies, and viewing experiences engendered by television’s changing technological interfaces. Yet, despite its prominence in contemporary media research, few efforts have been made to trace the origins of this aesthetic agenda or assess its current methods and goals. A genealogy of the aesthetic turn, I suggest, in fact reveals a return to and affirmation of core concerns extending back to the founding moments of American media studies. While recognizing this rich history, in assessing directions for future work on media aesthetics, I wish to argue the value of a specifically production-oriented approach, as an updated project of “historical poetics” that blends traditional tools of textual analysis with methods derived from current work in production studies.
An aesthetic agenda has, to some degree, been a part of the media studies project from the start, even in the “effects” tradition to which subsequent humanities-oriented approaches are commonly contrasted. Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport’s founding 1935 study, Psychology of Radio, for instance, pursued a detailed investigation of radio’s distinctive modes of affective engagement (its “psychological novelty”) and the presentational styles needed to “conform to the requirements of the medium” (182). In their 1955 Personal Influence, Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld lauded this attention to the experiential qualities of different media, while reminding researchers that the “content analysis” on which effects research relied also required close attention to “form,” or the presentational techniques used to render content via particular delivery channels (22). Lazarsfeld championed this same approach during his tenure at the Rockefeller-funded Office of Radio Research, warning against exclusive reliance on quantitative studies and courting figures such as Rudolf Arnheim to develop what Rockefeller staff described as a “positive aesthetics of mass communication” that employed humanistic methods to illuminate the communicative properties and possibilities of mass media.† A fully developed program of mass communication research, as Lazarsfeld understood it, would demand strategic forays into the field of aesthetics.
Despite this early dalliance with humanities-oriented research methods, concerted development in this area was delayed until the television era. Beyond the initial flowering of more literary modes of narrative and genre study in the 1960s-1970s (see, for instance, Lynn Spigel’s discussion of this period), few movements did more to advance the aesthetic agenda than the cultural turn that followed in the wake of work by Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. As Jonathan Gray and Amanda Lotz note in elaborating the foundations of their own multimodal “television studies approach,” the cultural turn brought not only new methods for analyzing audience “decodings,” but also valuable tools for studying institutional contexts and the “encoding” strategies pursued by media producers. From John Fiske and John Hartley’s work on semiotics, to new models of genre study by Julie D’Acci, Robert Allen, and Jason Mittell, cultural studies scholars have encouraged close reading and critical interpretation of media texts, while working to situate these texts within their larger industrial and cultural contexts. Importantly, then, concerns with questions of aesthetics in contemporary media studies represent not a radical correction and repudiation of the cultural turn, but rather a strategic renewal and intensification of founding tendencies within this movement.
The rise of production studies in recent years has offered further opportunities for enriched modes of aesthetic analysis. From John Caldwell’s seminal work on production culture, to Havens, Lotz, and Tinic’s influential “mid-level” approach, production studies scholars have argued the need to supplement structural analyses of media ownership and regulation with detailed studies of craft practices – moving industry studies, in effect, from the corporate boardroom to the studio floor. When coupled with methods of close textual analysis, consideration of struggles on the set and the “self-theorizing talk” (Caldwell) of producers in interviews and trade journals offers valuable tools for understanding, as Havens et al put it, “in an aesthetic sense . . . how particular media texts arise” and achieve dominance (237) – illuminating, in other words, the processes through which particular sets of programming forms and production styles are consolidated, and connecting them to the larger modes of production of which they are a part.
While most production studies work has remained focused on contemporary media and has yet to fully cultivate the aesthetic component of its research agenda, a production-oriented approach to media aesthetics holds great promise and may be of particular value for historical work. As an updated project of historical poetics, this approach combines close analysis of surface-level textual phenomena (the “what” of media programming) with critical study of the production techniques and institutional logics behind them (their “how” and “why”), isolating privileged formal properties and possibilities of media while recognizing these as historically contingent products of industrial sense-making and consent-winning. However, such an approach remains every bit as much “aesthetics” as “industry studies.” In a field increasingly occupied with an aesthetic agenda, why not call this certain tendency by name and begin serious discussion of its nature and future?
† John Marshall, “Postwar Work in Film and Radio,” Memo to David H. Stevens, December 16, 1943, and “Interview with Rudolf Arnheim, January 3, 1944, Series 200R, RG 1.1, Rockefeller Foundation Archives. Thanks to Josh Shepperd for his assistance in procuring these documents.