Medium essentialism is the idea that each artistic medium should exploit its essential properties, and that the best examples of work in any medium are those that best exploit these properties. This approach to artistic evaluation may be most famously exemplified by Clement Greenberg's writing on modernist painting, in which he argues that the greatness of Pollock and others is their exploration of medium-specific properties such as the flatness of a picture. In cinema, many of the seminal works of theory are medium-essentialist, including André Bazin's realist aesthetics, best expressed in "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema." Bazin was writing in an era in which cinema was still working to win a skeptical high-culture establishment over to the viewpoint that it is the worthy companion of music, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, etc., as a legitimate art form. A rhetoric of essentialism, based on the idea that cinema has formal properties that are specific to it, and which no other medium can exploit, was an important strategy of legitimation.
As a way of understanding media or as an approach to evaluation, few scholars today find medium essentialism to be of much use except as an object of criticism. The idea that a film is good only when it is "cinematic" hides the open question of what counts as cinematic. If only those things that cinema has that other media lack are to count as good, then an odd bunch of movies would win our acclaim as the best of the medium. Actually, although we might celebrate the way some filmmakers do things you can't do in a play or a novel (like tracking shots and off-screen sound), much of what people respond to in films (and other audiovisual, moving-image media) are things they share with other forms. Representation of faces is shared with photography and other visual arts. Representation of speech is shared with literary and dramatic arts. Representation of visual forms, lines, patterns, colors, etc., is shared with many media. Narrative transcends the specificity of any medium. And the audiovisual media make use of sound recording and of musical performance. Like the Wagnerian total work of art, films and videos and TV shows are combinatory, ravenously adopting whatever artistic possibilities may be on offer from other forms and media. Insisting on cinematic cinema or televisual television is an unfortunate kind of formalism, narrowly understanding the medium's appeals within a rarefied sphere of aesthetic appreciation and slighting much of what makes the experience of art so rich and varied.
In Treatment is a chamber drama. Every episode (of those I have seen and read about) takes place in a single time and place. Most of the takes are medium shots or close-ups of a person speaking or listening. There is almost no visual action. Occasionally a character stands up and takes a few paces, as if to acknowledge that the show lacks excitement and needs to break up the monotony. Many events are described by the characters, but few are represented onscreen. The show's language seems stilted and speechy, and in the episodes I have seen I can't stop thinking that these are actors reading an overwritten script rather than characters behaving as real people do. (I am especially fond of two of the actors I have seen so far, Blair Underwood and Gabriel Byrne, and eager to like them in this show, but so far I don't.)
In Treatment, like every HBO show, wants to be different from the ordinary TV program. Distinction is HBO's house style. But In Treatment's difference seems positively retrograde, eschewing the visual and dramaturgical approach of the typical TV show or movie today--the short scenes, fast-paced action, virtuosic cinematography, pop song soundtrack, jumbled timeframe, etc.--for something much more like a serious play, by which I mean much more pretentious and boring. I hate the show because it's like a play. Why make a TV show like a play? If I wanted to see a play (I usually don't), I would go see one.
This is the medium essentialist in me speaking. Theoretically I think I'm wrong. I don't want being "televisual" or "cinematic" to be the last word in judging a work. But I hope that by unfolding its story in a way that gets me to know and love its characters and care about what happens to them over a long term--i.e., by fulfilling an expectation I have of serialized television--it will win my affection. I think on some level I conceive of TV as essentially repetitive and that this balances my conception of TV as essentially visual. These are naïve opinions rather than reasoned, theoretical ones. Maybe the show will make up in repetition (with variation, of course) what it lacks in visual appeal.
I'm especially irritated with thinking this way because I know that much of the great television of the past has been stagey and speechy, though not often as pretentious as In Treatment. Some of my favorite shows of all time, like All in the Family and The Cosby Show, were much more stagey and speechy than any show on the air today. But today's television aesthetic has turned away from the theatrical style of All in the Family, with its proscenium space and long scenes punctuated by exits and entrances, and now the highest term of praise for television is to call it cinematic. I buy into this logic one some level--I'm part of the television culture that has produced this logic--even as I detest its ideological implications, as I have blogged previously.
Medium essentialism may be a poor way of understanding a medium because of what it leaves out, because of its inherent bias. The essentialist may identify an essence that others reject. It may be that a medium doesn't have an essence. (This, as I recall, is Noël Carroll's objection to essentialism in Theorizing the Moving Image--or perhaps it's that he thinks film isn't a medium but a number of different media, which I think is also true.) But as we watch and think about television (or whatever form of expression), we carry with us expectations about form. Some of these are essentialist expectations--for instance, expectations that good movies and TV will tell their story in vivid actions rather than wordy speeches, because this kind of storytelling exploits the possibilities of audiovisual media.
Below is a snippet of Episode 2 with Blair Underwood as the patient, a Navy pilot, and Gabriel Byrne as the shrink.
I wrote to the editor the following email:
"You spoiled The Wire in your headline! Not cool!! Seriously, don't do this again. I'll stop reading Vulture. I'm trying to be nice. Imagine what I really want to say to you."
And I twittered:
"don't read NY mag's Vulture blog headlines in your RSS reader today if you are avoiding spoilers for The Wire [cursing them under my breath]"
An hour and twenty-five minutes later, Vulture ran another Wire item, with a second spoiler!
I wrote to them again:
"Twice in one day putting the plot summary in the post title! I just unsubscribed from your feed."
Karina Longworth, perhaps after reading my tweet, wrote:
"Vulture seems to be earning a reputation for putting spoilers in the headlines. If they keep doing it, it must be good for traffic, no?"
Then I received this email from the Vultures:
"Sorry to hear you're so upset. But we're an entertainment blog; we write about TV shows all the time. In the same way that sports Websites can't be worried about spoiling the scores of basketball games for people who Tivoed the game and plan to watch it later, we can't be worried about spoiling plot points of a show that has already aired at its normal viewing time."
I think this speaks for itself, but allow me to state the obvious. These people are Wrong and, you know, really really Wrong, and everyone should stop reading their blog.
My general theory of Reality TV is that it's all about tears and hugs. This week's Project Runway brought the tears and oh boy, we really knew the feelings behind them. Ricky, who seemed so sure to be a loser every time, won the challenge with his sophisticated denim corset dress and just couldn't hold it in. Triumph over adversity is such a basic trope of reality shows and this ep did it right, which that bitchy Christian talking trash about Ricky in an on-the-fly segment earlier on to make us wonder if Ricky really has what it takes to "make it work" (which as catchphrases go is sorta lame, Tim Gunn). It's always great to see at the end of an episode of reality TV how the producers included details to set up the ending that you can only appreciate in retrospect.
Simon has taken "not as good as you think you are" as a kind of catchphrase this season (so far) on Idol. I liked it once, it was ok the second time, and I really don't care to hear him say it again. This week's eps were only an hour each and produced few memorable moments.
I started teaching my big class and I feel like the mayor of a small town. I set policies, meet with underlings (i.e., my wonderful TAs) behind closed doors to talk strategy, satisfy requests from citizens when they're reasonable, and occasionally lay down the law. Nothing in my academic training has prepared me for this.
We are almost at the end of season 3 of The Wire and I'm still avoiding spoilers whenever possible [spoiler ahead]. I predicted the murder of Stringer Bell in the penultimate episode of the third season but did not anticipate my profound grief over his loss. It's been three days and I still can't shake it. This is one reason why those who say The Wire is more than just televisual high-fiber cereal are so right: the stories it tells are so masterful just as stories, before you consider any of the show's sociological and political lessons. But you knew that.
That's all for now. More later.
Randy still bellows, "Welcome to Hollywood!" even though they are not, in fact, in Hollywood, and he still calls bad singing "a little pitchy"--no matter how pitchy, Randy says "a little." Paula still admires pretty boys like she'd take them home to her boudoir if only, and boosts up girls who sing just ok by complementing their looks. Simon still surprises us with cogent, dead-on evaluations and lack of a fashion sense. The point of the early weeks is to combine some good singing--paired with inspirational, NBC Olympics-style backstory packages, the best of which this week was the one of the fresh-faced farmer pushing hay bales around with his tractor--with the requisite novelty and kicks and Simon zingers. The best of his lines in the opening week came on the second installment, when he told one pretty blond teenager with a big voice that she's not as good as she thinks she is. Delicious.
I'm not the only academic blogging the AI beat. Henry Jenkins compares Idol to its predecessors, TV variety shows. (Sanjaya Malakar and his attractive sister Shyamali apparently have just such a show in the works for MTV!) In an appreciation of the show's return, Bob Rehak manages to work in references to Althusser, Kracauer, Haeckel, along with Jordin Sparks and Ryan Seacrest, so click on over.
And you probably knew this already, but my wife (she of the aforementioned thumb) is Dr. Television. Every time a blog begins it's like a crisp new morning on the earth.
Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by the Canadian music critic Carl Wilson is an unlikely entry in the Continuum 33 1/3 series of monographs about influential and beloved albums. Unlike every other 33 1/3 book, this one is not an appreciation in any conventional sense. It's also not a work of anti-fandom, a screed against bad music. It is, rather, a reflection on taste as both an aesthetic and a social phenomenon. It is an analysis of one instance in which élite and mass tastes conflict, and of the context in which this occurs. Wilson doesn't like Céline Dion, and his task in this book is to figure out why, to give her music an honest listen, and to understand the ways in which Céline appeals or fails to appeal to various audiences.
This is not a book about guilty pleasures. Wilson doesn't have a secret passion for cheese that he is inviting us to share in a spirit of so-bad-it's-good or mischievous subversion of normative cultural distinction. Rather, for him, it is about guilty displeasures. He is basically apologizing for being a snob--he even calls himself an asshole--and trying to explain the roots and functions and larger implications of his snobbery. To do so he delves into the Céline back catalog, takes in a concert at Caesar's Palace, and gets to know some fans.
This is more than just an autobiographical journey, though. Wilson is a critic in the best sense: keenly inquisitive, wanting to understand how things work, and not content to offer up his own taste as the justification for anything beyond itself. This book is not a work of evaluation but a work about evaluation, a questioning of the basic assumptions that underlie the standard cultural criticism. He has none of the reflexive hostility for academic writing that many journalists exhibit, and his discussion of Bourdieu is as solid as anything a cultural studies prof might write. He clearly knows and cares a ton about the larger implications of his chosen field, music criticism, including the philosophical and sociological concepts that come into play when considering the nexus of art and society. There are also excellent passages describing Céline's background and influences in Québecois pop music, which help explain her emergence as a curious combination of global, national, and local personae, and on the history of schmaltz, which Wilson considers a topic deserving of more consideration (hear, hear).
It is unfortunate that Let's Talk has no notes or references. This is presumably a limitation of the 33 1/3 series, but it's a shame that the quotations and citations in the text aren't backed up by at least a bibliography or some notes for further reading. I also wish it would have given more consideration to gender as an element of cultural distinction. Dion is seen to appeal mainly to women and gay men, and this is undoubtedly a big part of the masculinist, hipsterish rejection of her music. The way gendered hierarchies play into larger taste hierarchies is a ripe subject for future research (and an interest of mine in relation to TV).
Wilson has a lesson here for anyone invested in an élite taste culture or subculture, whether in music of movies or whatever. It is to see your own taste not just as a reflection of your unique individuality, of your sensitive critical intelligence, but also of your social identities and your community memberships. I already believed this before I read Let's Talk, but I have never seen the idea expressed as succinctly and in such an engaging and clear and appealing package (those little 33 1/3 books are such fetish objects). I have been keeping it in mind as the indie tastemakers have been turning up the negative feelings on Juno, insisting that it's not really an independent film (whatever this is supposed to mean). They tend to do this whenever the mainstream audience latches onto something they might have seen as theirs or whenever mainstream institutions like Hollywood studios seem to be co-opting their sensibility. It is to disavow a taste they might have in common with too many others and to affirm their alternative identity. The point is not to question whether anyone in particular really likes or dislikes Juno (or Sideways, or Little Miss Sunshine--I like all three a lot, fwiw), but to try to understand in a broader sense what is at stake culturally in such matters of judgment.
Update 1/12: my brother responds with some thoughts on Juno and twee music. He likes the movie but not its soundtrack songs.
I decided several months ago to teach 101 without a standard textbook and instead to assign readings (and viewings and listenings) on electronic reserve and the interwebs. The book previously used in my department and many others, Media and Culture, by Campbell et al., is one I don't care to read myself from start to finish, so I can't justify making hundreds of strangers do so.* When I was an undergrad I would choose courses so as to avoid having to read textbooks (and take multiple choice exams, which I also still dislike, though I will use them to save my TAs' labor). This is one big reason why I majored in English lit as an undergrad, which offered courses where the only readings would be novels, poems, stories, and plays. Getting a B.A. in exchange for reading this pleasurable stuff seemed like a much better bargain than having to deal with textbooks, which often seem to have been written not for actual readers, people who care for language and ideas and stories and who often prefer reading to many other activities, but for the author's notion of what an undergraduate student is like. I know there is probably no better way of introducing undergrads to many topics and fields than assigning textbooks, but it usually pains me to read them, to encounter their didactic tone, their politically correct smattering of special topics in colorful boxes, their elevation of information over understanding and argument. (Yes, there are many good textbooks and this is a very broad negative generalization. Indeed, here are some I like.)
Like many academic texts, Campbell has a breathtaking retail price: about $90. Textbooks have been getting much more expensive, doubling the rate of inflation. That $90 price tag doesn't make textbook prose any better; it goes toward magazine-style color layout, supplementary materials like powerpoint shows and test banks and online video clips and quizzes (protected as a walled garden, of course), and the salaries of the cheerful reps who drop by professors' offices to persuade them to assign their employer's product. I hate conservative nostalgia, but I find it hard to believe that in shifting from college textbooks that were basically just words on a page to textbooks that are multimedia extravaganzas we have improved our education of undergraduates.
Alternatives that I considered didn't seem all that different from Campbell in price or quality, to the extent that I could judge without actually reading them, which I don't care to do. Textbook publishing is not unlike big pharma in marketing products not to consumers but to professionals responsible for prescribing or assigning them to consumers who lack the agency to make their own choices. The doctor/professor doesn't need to care too much about the product's price or weigh this as a factor in comparing the product to competitors. Thus the "enhancements" the publishers offer, the online content and the PP slides, are things that make the prof's life easier (and maybe help teach better) and that make the text seem appealing to him or her. Who knows if the students want or need these things. And anyway, maybe it's the prof's job to create slides and online content. I'm not sure, I just don't think the students should be paying extra, and I suspect that the publishing house's profits are more important in making the decisions that create these enhancements than their commitment to higher education. I'm no economist, but it seems likely that if the consumer were more empowered in this scenario, the prices would be more reasonable. My decision not to use a textbook was in part a product of my hostility toward academic textbook publishing as a business, as was my decision to write about it here. (Some universities have started textbook rental programs to lessen the burden on students, but this may not be a practical option for many campuses--search "textbook rental" and you'll see what I mean.)
Just as significant as these issues in my case, though, the intro to mass media books don't approach their topic in a way I would want them to. Campbell and others organize their material by medium and format. There are chapters on film, television, the internet, newspapers, magazines, advertising, etc. I don't think the contemporary media should be taught as discrete topics in this way and would prefer not to have one week on cinema, one on television, etc. Media are converging in so many ways and this organization scheme doesn't reflect this reality
I've been collecting readings suitable for this kind of course and it's been a bit of a challenge. I prefer to assign readings I myself would like to read, but of course they also need to be appropriate for beginning undergrads at UW-Milwaukee. I wanted readings that would be accessible to readers with no background knowledge yet serious and rigorous enough to introduce ideas worth teaching. I have found a mix of scholarly and popular writings that I think do this pretty well. Some are challenging, and to really get them the students will need to read slowly, carefully, and more than once. But many are what I would consider easy, which I think is a good thing. I don't know if reading articles from Time and The New Yorker and New York Times will seem easy to the students; probably very few of them read these publications. My biggest challenge in teaching is to imagine myself in the role of the student, to understand what they understand and don't understand, and how understanding varies among them.
My new semester doesn't begin for three weeks, so I am pasting my syllabus-in-progress below. You will see if you keep reading that I have organized the course into five units corresponding to five affordances of media: to sell, to entertain, to document reality, to be civic culture, and to be art. I came up with these on my own; I'm sure others would come up with more or fewer or different ones. I am aware that these are in some ways redundant and overlapping, that many examples of media are artistic, commercial entertainments that document reality and promote civic culture. (I have been watching The Wire beginning with Season 1 in the past few weeks and I think it does all of these things pretty well, though I might add a sixth especially for it: to confuse. I'm collecting links about the show in my del.icio.us.) Ordering the course this way will allow us to revisit certain kinds of media from different perspectives. It will also allow me to spend more time on areas I know well and have an interest in (movies, TV, the internet, music) than I would be able to do if I were teaching from a standard textbook.
But teaching this way, compared with teaching from a textbook like Media and Culture, probably means that the students will encounter less information. Many of the readings will be more specifically about a single topic like The Walt Disney Company or 19th century American newspapers than the chapters in an intro textbook. The typical intro textbook has no shortage of facts and details. I hope that I will be able to impart greater understanding and knowledge, however, than I would using a textbook.
Any suggestions are welcome in the comments. In particular, I am still looking for readings that will introduce students to Hollywood as an institution and to movies as an art form (I left my own area of greatest expertise for last as I have been working on the syllabus), and readings that consider reality TV as something other than just trash.
Intro to Mass Media
Day 1: Course Introduction (W 1/23)
unit i: media to sell
Day 2: Today's Media Companies and their Strategies (M 1/28) Read David Croteau & William Hoynes, "Introduction" and "Chapter 4: Strategies of the New Media Giants"
Day 3: Media Company: Disney (W 1/30) Read Janet Wasko, "The Disney Empire"
Day 4: Media Franchise: Batman (M 2/4) Read Eileen Meehan, "'Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!': The Political Economy of a Commercial Intertext"
Day 5: Advertising (W 2/6) Read Inger L. Stole, "Advertising"
Day 6: MTV (M 2/11) View "MTV 1983 (Part 1 of 2)" (85 min.) and please don't ignore the commercials, promos, and VJs; Read Ed Levine, "TV Rocks With Music" and Janet Maslin, "TV View; A Song is No Longer Strictly a Song, Now It's a 'Video'"
unit ii: media to entertain
Day 7: Entertainment (W 2/13) Read Neal Gabler, "The Republic of Entertainment"
Day 8: Hollywood I (M 2/18) View Singin' in the Rain; Read Douglas Gomery, "The Triumph of Hollywood"
Day 9: Hollywood II (W 2/20)
Day 10: Television Drama (M 2/25) View TBA (a 1-hr television show); Read Michael Z. Newman, "From Beats to Arcs"
Day 11: Videogames (W 2/27) Read Steven R. Poole, "The Origin of Species" and "The Player of Games"
unit iii: media to document reality
Day 13: Representing Experience (M 3/10) Read Anthony Lane, "Candid Camera: The Cult of Leica"
Day 15: Sound Recording and Music (M 3/24) Read Michael Chanan, "Record Culture"
Day 17: Reality TV (M 3/31) View TBA (a 1-hr television show)
unit iv: media as civic culture
Day 18: Media for Citizens (W 4/2) Read Peter Dahlgren, "Media, Citizenship and Civic Culture"
Day 19: Newspapers and their Public (M 4/7) Read Michael Schudson, "The Revolution in American Journalism in the Age of Egalitarianism: The Penny Press"
Day 20: News Culture and New Technologies (W 4/9) Read Michael Schudson, "National News Culture and the Informational Citizen"
Day 21: Digital Publics (M 4/14) Read Howard Rheingold, "A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community"
Day 22: Media by Citizens (W 4/16) Read Wikipedia, "Citizen Journalism"; Steve Outing, "The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism"; Jay Rosen, "The People Formerly Known as the Audience" and "Citizen Journalism Wants You!"; Jeff Jarvis, "Networked Journalism"
unit v: media as art
Day 23: Art and New Technologies (M 4/21) Read Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"
Day 24: Movies as the "Seventh Art" (M 4/28) Read Hugo Münsterberg, "The Function of the Photoplay"; maybe view Chaplin clips online and Léger & Murphy's Ballet mecanique?
Day 26: Music Sampling (W 4/23) Read Mark Katz, "Music in 1s and 0s"; Listen to Paul Lansky, "notjustmoreidlechatter"; Camille Yarbrough, "Take Yo' Praise"; Fatboy Slim, "Praise You"; Public Enemy, "Fight the Power" (for some of these to play in their entirety, you need to sign up for an account at imeem, which is easy and fast)
Day 27: Remix Culture (M 5/5) Read articles from Wired 13.07 in the section "remix planet" (yeah, all of them--they're short!)
Day 28: Course Summary (W 5/7)
Lawrence Alloway, "The Arts and the Mass Media," Architectural Design & Construction (February 1958).
Erik Barnow, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (New York: Oxford UP, 1974).
Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Illuminations (trans. Hannah Arendt)
Michael Chanan, "Record Culture," Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music (London: Verso, 1995).
"Citizen Journalism," Wikipedia.
David Croteau and William Hoynes, The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest (Pine Forge, 2005).
Peter Dahlgren, "Media, Citizenship, and Civic Culture," in James Curran and Michael Gurevitch, eds., Mass Media and Society 3rd ed. (London: Arnold, 2000), 310-328.
Mia Fineman, "Say Cheese!: A History of the American Snapshot," Slate (17 October 2007).
Neal Gabler, "The Republic of Entertainment," Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (New York: Vintage, 2000).
Douglas Gomery, "The Triumph of Hollywood," Movie History: A Survey (Wadsworth, 1991).
Jeff Jarvis, "Networked Journalism," BuzzMachine (5 July 2006).
Mark Katz, "Music in 1s and 0s," Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (Berkeley: U of California P, 2004).
Anthony Lane, "Candid Camera: The Cult of Leica," The New Yorker (24 September 2007).
Ed Levine, "TV Rocks With Music," New York Times (8 May 1983).
Janet Maslin, "TV View; A Song is No Longer Strictly a Song, Now It's a 'Video,'" New York Times (23 January 1983).
Eileen Meehan, "Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!" in Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, eds., The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media (New York: Routledge, 1991).
Hugo Münsterberg, "The Function of the Photoplay," in Philip Lopate, ed., American Movie Critics (New York: Library of America, 2006), 10-17.
Michael Z. Newman, "From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative," The Velvet Light Trap 58 (Fall 2006), 16-28.
Steve Outing, "The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism," Poynter Online (15 June 2005).
Stephen R. Poole, Trigger Happy (Fourth Estate, 2001).
"Pop Art - Cult of the Commonplace," Time (3 May 1963).
Howard Rheingold, "A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community," The Virtual Community: Homesteading On The Electronic Fronier (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993).
Jay Rosen, "Citizen Journalism Wants You," Wired online (14 March 2007).
Jay Rosen, "The People Formerly Known as the Audience," PressThink (27 June 2006).
Michael Schudson, "The Revolution in American Journalism in the Age of Egalitarianism: The Penny Press," Discovering The News: A Social History of American Newspapers (Basic Books, 1980).
Michael Schudson, "National News Culture and the Informational Citizen," The Power of News (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996).
Inger L. Stole, "Advertising," in Richard Maxwell, Ed., Culture Works: The Political Economy of Culture (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001).
John Szarkowski, The Photographer's Eye (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966/2007).
Janet Wasko, Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy (Polity, 2001).
Alex Williams, "Here I Am Taking My Own Picture," New York Times (19 February 2006).
*Every time I open Media and Culture to a random page, something irks me. For instance, the first thing that caught my notice the first time I flipped through was the skyscraper of culture on p. 16 (the Chrysler building of culture, to be precise) describing which cultural texts are high (Hamlet, Aïda), which are middle (Harry Potter, John Coltrane), and which are low (Rolling Stones, Gawker.com). The accompanying text reads, "Throughout the twentieth century we tended to think of culture not as a social process but as a set of products sorted into high, low, or middle positions on a cultural skyscraper." [Really? Who is "we"? Who is it that "thinks of culture" at all? And who would think of it as a skyscraper?] "Look at this highly arbitrary arrangement and see if you agree or disagree. Write in some of your own examples. Why do people view culture this way? Who controls this process? Is control of making cultural categories important--why or why not?"
Why would I want to reinforce this idea, even if only to criticize it? Many students find it hard to grasp the attribution of an idea to others which you will question, so whatever you say gets copied down like it's what you want them to know. I don't avoid attributing ideas, but I'm careful about when I do so and choose important ideas that I really want them to consider. Here they are being asked not just to consider a perhaps unfamiliar idea, but to revise the authors' highly arbitrary attempt to illustrate it. For real. I find this whole idea shallow and reductionist; I hardly dismiss the notions of cultural hierarchy and distinction, but why would you want to represent it as such an orderly and straightforward array of items? And this particular hierarchy is so problematic, given that Hamlet and Aïda are not so simply high, that Coltrane and Harry Potter are such bad examples of middle, that the Stones are as good as it gets to many people who think of themselves having good taste, that the typical reader of this book will never have heard of Gawker and that it's a bad example of a "low" blog anyway (here are some alternatives: Drunken Stepfather, Perez, Double Viking). This list seems to have been written by someone who doesn't really know and care about literature, drama, jazz, rock, and blogs. (The authors call their hierarchy "highly arbitrary" but it's clearly not really all that arbitrary except to the extent that any such thing is arbitrary, and they must have chosen these particular items in this particular order for a reason.)
Most important: sociologists and culture critics have been saying for years that such hierarchies are collapsing toward a "nobrow" culture, and that elites are now much more likely to be culturally omnivorous than they were in the old days. On this point, see James B. Twitchell's chapter "Adcult and the Collapse of Cultural Hierarchy" in Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture; John Seabrook's book Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture; and Richard A. Peterson and Roger M. Kern, "Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore" American Sociological Review 61.5 (Oct., 1996), 900-907.
(This entry was edited on 1/10 to clarify that my hostility is toward academic textbook publishing as a business rather than academic publishing in general.)