Cultural Studies, TV Studies, & Empathy

December 3, 2012
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I believe the cultural studies project could benefit from a paradigm shift in its approach to television. Television studies is in the middle of what I would call a post-cultural-studies turn. The dramatic transformations of our object of study have redirected the attention of many scholars.  More work, for example, is being done on aesthetics and form as well as on production and certain types of audience analysis (e.g., aca-fandom).  Certainly many of these paths emerge out of cultural studies’ models and imperatives and some of the work being done in these areas are centrally motivated by a desire to engage with the unequal distribution of social power (for me, the heart of the cultural studies project). Others, however, seem differently invested.  If television studies is drifting away from the cultural studies project (and I would argue it is), what might we do to revive the connection between the two?

One recommendation: re-imagine the function of TV texts in the cultural studies project and in doing so revise our role as scholars/teachers and the foundation of our expertise. Approaches to the politics of TV representation (a central lynch pin in cultural studies models) have remained relatively stagnant. In many ways, they still reflect the ideological approaches central to the field at its birth in the 1970s. Despite evolving interest in contexts of production and the conceptualization of reception as a process of negotiation, a key function of the teacher/scholar has remained the same: to open readers’/students’ eyes to the unnoticed ideological assumptions in texts by offering sophisticated readings that marshal representational theories, close textual analysis, and historical perspective.  Because such work is usually invested in a political project (e.g., feminism, critical race theory, Marxism, queer theory), the process of understanding the ideological implications of representations are a matter of opening students’ eyes to the politically problematic nature of those representations.

I apologize for falling into the pitfall of making sweeping, unsupported characterizations.  However, I do so in order to identify the most taken-for-granted ways we operate as teacher/scholars and to historicize the utility of certain kinds of expertise.  We work hard to know more about how texts operate than students and assume that our job is to impart more sophisticated ways of understanding texts, power, and politics. That approach made sense at a time when television constructed a mythic mainstream through images and narratives shared by large percentages of the population.  But I don’t believe it is as productive for intervening in a society as profoundly marked by the fragmentation of cultural consumption as ours.  Texts are still ideologically complex and politically invested, of course, but they don’t function the way they used to sociologically which should lead us to change how we use them pedagogically. TV texts don’t seem to be well suited any more for the kind of cultural studies interventions we have traditionally used them for (i.e., to make students understand culture as a site where systems of power get reproduced and contested with the ultimate goal of producing a more just social world) because both TV and society have changed.

In response to such changes, I would like to suggest that we shift our role and the basis of our expertise.  What could cultural studies work on TV look like if we saw our function as facilitating conversations among our students (and ourselves) about social identity, privilege, and power centered on their and our differing engagements with and feelings about television programming? To many of us, that may sound like we already do, but I believe we can do that differently—more explicitly and wholeheartedly. Executing such an approach fully would require different skills (and different modes of scholarship) than the ones we are socialized in during graduate school; our expertise would not be based (at least solely) on providing the smart, theoretically sophisticated reading of a text, but rather on helping students talk to each other about their experiences with media. It might require us to be sociologists, mediators, or even therapists as much as or more than cultural theorists and textual and industry analysts.  Such an approach might offer benefits better suited to our current context in which cultural segregation and political polarization seem to be as much of a problem for social progress as the homogenizing dynamics of network television were in the 1970s.

The approach we’ve followed up to now develops students’ capacity for critical thinking; it is predicated upon the assumption that demystifying how media texts operate or how the media industries are structured are practical ways to give students the skills needed to become responsible, liberally educated citizens. Giving students more information about the dynamics of cultural production and developing their ability to think critically is vital. But I also believe that there are limits to the benefits of that approach; just because people know more, doesn’t mean they will do better (to paraphrase and challenge Maya Angelou).  The new approach I suggest here could develop students’ capacity for empathy.  As various academic traditions have long pointed out, empathy is a socio-political competency needed to translate knowing better into doing better. TV studies could serve as a tremendously valuable arena where students can develop those abilities; in doing so, Television Studies could once again become a valuable part of the cultural studies project.




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3 Responses to “ Cultural Studies, TV Studies, & Empathy ”

  1. Evan Elkins on December 3, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    Thanks so much for this thought-provoking piece, Ron. By invoking empathy and responsibility, it seems as if you’re suggesting that media scholarship and pedagogy should not *just* be political per se, but ethical as well. In that light, it reminds me of some strands of media scholarship produced in the last decade or so by scholars like Nick Couldry, Lilie Chouliaraki, and the late Roger Silverstone. Some of this work (and I’m thinking in particular of Silverstone’s final book, Media and Morality) focuses on the ways global media represent difference and otherness, and how media viewers, scholars, and practitioners might approach the media with eyes trained simultaneously toward cultural difference and common humanity. Similarly, I wonder how adopting an empathetic approach in our work requires engaging with the ethical or moral elements of the political goals that underly cultural studies.

  2. Kyle Conway on December 3, 2012 at 9:52 PM

    I agree about the need to encourage empathy, but I’m curious how you envision going about doing that. I teach in a communication program where many students see education in instrumental terms, a way to learn a set of technical skills to get a job doing PR, etc. They resist criticism and synthesis as approaches to media, and they frequently resist readings that deal in abstractions, as many cultural studies texts do. One approach I’ve taken to helping them through difficult texts has been to find concrete examples in their own lives of things scholars discuss, in the hope that they’ll make the leap from their concrete experience to others’ experience. I must remain vigilant, however, so the class doesn’t devolve into a discussion of how we *feel* about a critical text, rather than what it *says*. (Of course, not every student is like this — I have some who are sharp, empathetic, and genuinely exciting people. But they’re not the ones I’m trying to reach!)

    I’m afraid that if I tried to put what you suggest into practice, instead of ending up at a point of empathy, we’d end up at a point where students adopt a free-floating, relativist position where 1) everyone’s “opinions” are “right” and 2) consequently, there’s no need to understand how someone else might experience the world. But I’m eager for suggestions and I hope you’ll follow up with another post.

  3. Ron Becker on December 21, 2012 at 7:36 AM

    Thanks for the responses and sorry for the long delay in responding. Evan, I think the distinction you draw between political and ethical is an interesting one. I would say, yes, I do think those interested in media/tv from a cultural studies perspective do need to engage more with questions of ethics. For me, I realize that the poststructural turn made me feel less comfortable with asserting opinions on ethics while allowing me to analyze the political. I have come to feel that it is dangerous to separate them–that cultural studies scholars need to assert ethical positions, even if acknowledging their contingency. I look forward to engaging with the work you mention.

    Kyle, sadly, I have not developed these ideas much further than feeling that I need to do more. And I agree completely with you about the danger of falling into a narcissistic pluralism where inequality, power, and structure can too easily get marginalized. One assignment that has worked well for me: In a big Intro to Media lecture course, I give a lecture on taste cultures and hierarchies of taste. This provides concepts of social structure and power. Then I have them write a reflection paper in which they identify their guiltiest media pleasure. They have to analyze the source of their guilty (i.e., what taste culture and hierarchy of taste does their media text not conform to) and then analyze the source of their pleasure (what do they enjoy about the text despite of/in the face of such social sanctions). I encourage them to think about the various subcultural taste cultures they are part of. Then in break out sessions with 10-12 people, I have them share their guilty pleasures. I have found the discussions have consistently produced the kinds of conversations and engagements that open students to their positions within structures of power and they ways their peers might be operating within different contexts or power relationships. I then have them write a small reflection essay in which they reflect on the ways their guilty media pleasure experience was similar and different from 2 of their peers. This is a good start, but if anyone has ideas for other projects, I would love to hear about them.

    One additional idea I might suggest here would be for cultural studies/TV studies scholars to think about writing different kinds of articles. Collaborating on pieces in ways that demonstrate the kind of empathy-focused conversations could provide springboards for students.