Faves, 2011


Good grief! Not another year, another catalog of cool shit. Isn’t practically your whole life -- or the important, internet parts of your life at any rate -- an interminable sequence of people imploring you to look at this, look at that, be impressed by me and my taste!? Do we need quite so many tips and MUST READs (must I, really...really?), so much advice, so much performance of discernment and intelligence and habitus?

As in previous go-rounds, I have not done a very good job with keeping up with the newest of everything. I might like your favorite movies and TV shows of the year when I see them in 2012 or 2025 or 2041, God willing. I seem especially bad at even knowing what new music is around, and when I look at the year-end top 10s and top 100s, I feel gratified to recognize a few titles here and there. Although I spent half the year doing research on old video games, I have hardly played any new ones. I’m best at watching TV these days, but even then we have little more than an hour each evening between the kids’ bedtimes and our own. I guess I could try to squeeze another show in here and there while working out at the gym or at my desk eating lunch. But the pdfs and blog posts and newspaper or magazine stories on my screen need me then.

So here goes: my favorite things of 2011, the last year of the 12-inch extended dance mix version of my youth. I turn 40 in a few moments (ok in February) and am anticipating the narcissistic burdens of feeling middle-aged to drop on me like a lead blanket, so until then I am going to keep on feeling young. Young-ish.


The Silver Screen: Still Bigger and Louder than Most Television Sets, Still Can’t Fast-Forward the Boring Parts

Many of the handful of 2011 releases I saw at the cinema were kidpix I would not likely have seen but for my dadhood. The less said of The Smurfs the better, but The Muppets was a brilliant and clever romp, and I would gladly watch it a second and third time in the theater. “Travel by map” has become a familiar phrase for me and my 7 year-old, and we have taught the toddler (too young for trips to the cinema) to laugh at “Mahna Mahna.”

It’s gotten to the point that I don’t even read that much about movies and assume the word-of-mouth filter will help me figure out what I really need to see. Opportunities are fairly rare for Elana and me to see movies together, and I seldom go alone these days. Early this year we saw many of the Oscar-buzz films of 2010, including Winter’s Bone, True Grit, The King’s Speech, and The Black Swan. True Grit was my favorite film that I saw in 2011, but it belongs to last year. Seems odd to be comparing it to The Muppets, not just because of genre and audience. They don’t seem to belong to the same time, despite having been released within twelve months of each other.

Of the not-for-kids genres, I most highly recommend Tree of Life and The Descendants, both of which are about painful family ties. Tree of Life has some parts I would gladly have fast-forwarded past while watching on DVD, but the naturalistic scenes with the kids growing up and the hard father played by Brad Pitt, are gorgeous and evocative. The photography conveys an uncommon spiritual power, and the film, as someone on tumblr said, is as powerful as still images or as animated GIFs as it is unfolding in cinematic time.

tree of lifetree of life

The Descendants is just sad through and through, and funny in many places. I don’t know why, after years of thinking about it, I still don’t understand the pleasure I take in feeling sad at the movies. I’ve considered the usual explanations (catharsis, etc.) and they don’t satisfy me. I could say more in detail but I’m against spoilers, and one of my greatest pleasures in seeing this film was that everything about it was a surprise. All I knew was Alexander Payne and George Clooney. I didn’t even know to expect it to be set in Hawaii.

I’ll give an honorable mention to Bridesmaids for shooting a few exteriors in familiar spots in Milwaukee and offering a kind of feminist comedy for a broad audience. I like Rose Byrne as a comic actress though it’s hard for me to shake my associations with her dour character in Damages, and the Melissa McCarthy bits are a tad more outlandish than is my taste. However, I laughed quite a lot pretty much from the beginning to the end.

Word and Image

In describing favorite things I have read, I'm going to say as much about technology and interface as about content. This year, the way I have read has often seemed just as important as the words and pictures.

Although my scholarly work addresses media of the moving image, I still get much of my pleasure from media of the printed word, even as they are increasingly delivered through the same channels (screen devices) as the moving images of games, shows, and films. Increasingly I become frustrated by the constraints of the various formats of print, and not just of hard copies. One of the things I most want from reading materials is their ability to lay flat on a surface, like the reading ledge of an elliptical trainer or a table where I’m eating a meal. I also like them to be easy to read while laying on my back in bed or while standing around in the kitchen waiting for a slow stream of water to dispense from our fridge. For these uses, the tablet or iPod touch may be an ideal device. I also want numbered pages for teaching, which makes the Kindle device (for me an iPad) a bad option in some instances. But another thing I want is easy annotation, and PDFs beat Kindle books because they can be transferred easily from device to device. Even PDF annotation isn’t as good as writing in the margins of the page, though. I also want access to any digital form of media anywhere or anytime, but some reading requires internet connection, which I don’t always have. And electronic devices have batteries that run out, among other issues. As an author of books and other old-fashioned kinds of publications myself I would like to make my words available on whichever platforms, through whichever interfaces, the reader most desires. But constraints abound.

Three of my favorite ways to read, depending on the nature of contraints in any given situation, are the Kindle app, the GoodReader app, and Instapaper. Each of these is for a specific kind of publication. The Kindle app is for books or portions of books (more on this momentarily). The GoodReader app is for PDFs, which may be documents I have written myself and am revising, or magazine or journal articles, or book chapters, or books I downloaded from the web, perhaps legally. Instapaper is for anything published on the web, from news stories to blog posts. Using the website ifttt I automate certain tasks so that my Instapaper fills up with reading material over the course of the day, giving me material to read in the evening and the following morning, or when I have time to kill and my iPod handy, like when I’m sitting in the play area at the mall or waiting for the dentist. For instance, if I star a Google Reader item or favorite a tweet, it sends the content (including the material in the page linked from the tweet) to Instapaper, which I read later on my iPod or iPad.

Despite a widespread consternation I sometimes share with many others over the fate of book retailing, which makes it seem like it’s an important civic duty to patronize bookstores (though not Amazon), I still generally avoid paying for my reading materials. I won’t buy a book I can easily get out of the library, and I won’t buy a newspaper I can get for free online. I hate the pricing of Kindle books, which I think should come free when you buy a paper-and-paste book and should certainly be cheaper than paperbacks. I do buy them sometimes for convenience. But more often I read the free sample chapters.

During the summer, which is my genre-fiction season, I solicited recommendations for mystery novels and my Facebook friends came through with more than a dozen titles of books I wanted to read. The one I actually picked up was a Reacher novel by Lee Child (don’t remember the title but it was great), which my mother-in-law passed on to me when she was done with it. I read a large handful of the first chapters of the other books I was told to try, and I always started reading a new one waiting in my app rather than heading over to the Amazon.com to buy the rest of the one I had started. The free samples aren’t the same kind of immersive, suspenseful engagement as reading a whole book, but it gives you more of a smorgasbord kind of experience of tasting lots of different things, and I quite liked it. I probably read one kindle book for every ten I sample, though I sometimes get a book I have sampled this way out of the library if I decide I want to keep going. I wonder how much I’d change these habits if Kindle titles were cheaper. I doubt very much. I recommend the first chapters of Tana French’s In the Woods, Jo Nesbo’s The Red Breast, and Walter Mosley's White Butterfly (which I did read till the end, but the library's copy).

I also recommend all of Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes and Meg Wolitzer’s The Uncoupling, both 2011 titles. I have never disliked any writing by Baker, though, including his non-fiction, so take that into consideration. My favorite contemporary novel that I read this year was Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot, though not for the skewering of the culture of theory I was hoping to relish (it's much more minor a part than I anticipated) nearly as much as the bravura shifts in point of view, the depths of characterization, and the telling of a good love triangle story.

Sometimes I tinker with a ranking of all of the social networks that I have used. It’s not that interesting, and I generally abandon such foolish diversions quickly. But no matter where flickr, tumblr, or Linked In might rank, Facebook is always last and Twitter is always first.

twitter > something > something > something > facebook

Twitter’s structure allows for other websites to use its content in interesting ways and one site that does so is stellar, a network aggregating favorited tweets (also flickr photos) in a kind of crowd-curated best of twitter. (These are my faves.) As far as I know the user base thus far is limited (I asked to join and was quickly let in a few months ago). It’s a nice supplement to twitter in which you can see what other users are collecting and what they are indicating as worthy of other people’s attention.

The year in hastags could be its own long essay. My favorite of the year has been #humblebrag, a form of discourse you have found annoying all along but never really recognized as its own thing until this name for it came along to put everything instantly into focus. I would give it the word of the year award if I were magically tasked with the important job of choosing it.

roller coaster

For me, tumblr is mainly for images. I skim or skip more than a couple of lines of text in my dashboard. Like twitter, I find tumblr works best when you follow a critical mass of others so that every time you check in, the flow is totally new. My favorite thing with tumblr is to flip fairly quickly through a whole day of posts in the TumbLiking app a few minutes before falling asleep. I don’t often remember my dreams but I would like to think the surrealistic juxtapositions of imagery I find in these (and many other) tumblrs is helping me keep the demons away from my slumbering subconscious mind. Here are some of the ones I like these days:

unhappy hipsters




i love old magazines

this isn't happiness

nick drake

life magazine

bookshelf porn

hipster animals

dear photograph

nails and burgers

rides a bike

fuck yeah 1980s

slaughterhouse 90210

old video game ads

As for the blogs, I will refrain this year from listing every one written by a person I have met in real life. At this point I’m not noticing many new blogs coming along each year, which makes sense but is still a little sad considering how many awesome people could be blogging. Here are a handful of new-ish ones that I always look at as soon as a new post appears, even if I have more important things to do:

The Late Age of Print, by Ted Striphas, about the fate of books in these digital days, among other things.

Casual Scholarship, about video games, by Carly Kocurek.

My grad school buddy Ethan de Seife’s blog on a sparkling miscellany of topics, including cartoons, Ice Cube, soda commercials, and rock lyrics.

Feminist Mom in a Postfeminist World, a personal blog by a film scholar, Pam Wojcik.

Miriam Posner’s blog, often concerned with tools of digital scholarship.

The History of Television’s Futures by Max Dawson, not updated lately though :(

Of the venerable older sites, I am generally moved to audible laughter by Ludic Despair. I never hesitate to recommend The Awl to anyone who doesn’t know about it. Media scholars cannot ignore News for TV Majors and the fortnightly link roundups at Antenna by Chris Becker. Allison McCracken’s essays on Glee (1, 2, 3) were my favorite posts on Antenna not written by Chris. xkcd is still my choice of web comics, but honorable mention goes to The Oatmeal, for “if you do this in an email i hate you.” l I used to like Gawker, then I hated it, now I like it again. I still read Metafilter but not religiously. My abiding "guilty pleasure" is Dlisted.

I like the content of The Language of Food, a scholarly site with infrequent posts in great depth on topics in the history of foods and the words used to describe them. Another thing I like about this site is how it offers a model of slow blogging. Only three posts this year! I aspire to such a careful and stingy routine. I wish for less but better blogging for us all in 2012.



My sense from twitter glimpses into the daily routines of others is that television is a much more frequent presence for them. If I can help it I never mix business and pleasure when it comes to TV (e.g., watching while grading or emailing), and lately I pay little attention to the stuff the kids watch now as the older one has taken a liking to violent Japanese cartoons and the little one is at the Wiggles and Teletubbies stage. I'll care more for his shows when he moves onto the Backyardigans-level fare. It’s a constant effort to watch enough TV. Recently I had the bittersweet father-son moment of breaking the hard truth to a 7 year-old that one often must choose between television and sleep, and that sleep is ultimately the smart priority. (This is what twitter people call a #firstworldproblem, but a problem is a problem!)

The show that makes me laugh the most is Curb Your Enthusiasm. The Jewish humor and the social commentary really just kill me. Larry David’s characterization as “social assassin” expresses so many of my own repressed desires. It often seems that the show was made especially for me. All those hip thirty and fortysomething women who think of Tina Fey as their imaginary best friend? That’s me and Larry David.

The show that made me cry was Friday Night Lights, the final several episodes one by one. If you haven’t made it to the end yet and have any tears to shed, prepare to be a sobbing mess.

The show that made me most eager for new episodes to air was Homeland. A couple of months ago we would prioritize The Good Wife over Homeland for fear of being spoiled by loose-lipped twitter reactions to The Good Wife, which seemed to inspire more chatter. Then the priorities flipped. A brilliant political thriller and character study. Less impressive to me as cultural commentary and meditation on the war, but still an engrossing show with actors I love.


My favorite prime-time drama of the old-fashioned network variety (actually the only one I watch unless you count Prime Suspect, which seems doomed) is The Good Wife. We binged on seasons one and two over the summer, so it feels like this was a Good Wife year, and I have trouble remembering which parts were from 2011 and which parts were from earlier. Smart stuff.

awesome sauce

I am also in awe of Louie and Parks and Recreation, for very different reasons. Louie’s seeming formlessness and crudity are bracing and inspiring. The show is clearly about something, but its absence of conventional narrative structure and its willingness to be disgusting and shamefully personal make it seem especially fresh. I’m not such a huge fan of Louie CK’s comedy, and I actually don’t like most standup at all, so I surprise myself by liking the show so much. And Parks and Rec has a warm heart and generous spirit, and a brilliantly witty style of writing outlandish but lovable characters.

Portlandia is spot-on satire of hipsterism and alternative cultural ethos. Nothing I have written about indie culture will ever be as good as Portlandia at conveying contradictions between countercultural opposition and self-congratulatory elitism.

I like moments and characters from other programs. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, the occasional scenes of The Big Bang Theory, contestants making Drew Carey grin on The Price is Right, hugs and tears on practically any reality show. The Idol finale still offers plenty of showbiz, and Jennifer and especially Steven (with his Chicos-esque wardrobe and Jewish grandmother demeanor) made the judging portions of the show occasionally watchable.

30 rock


I’m hesitant to name any music at all since I follow it so little, but I’d like to mention Lady Gaga, not just Born This Way but also her HBO and ABC specials. I like the music and listen to it a fair bit. But aside from a few sparkling pop classics like “Born this Way,” “Poker Face,” and “Bad Romance,” I find most of her songs forgettable, in the sense that I actually forget them. But I really do believe she is a force for good in the world, for preaching love and tolerance. I’m not a 100% fan of the “It Gets Better” campaign because of its failure to account for the shitty lives so many people lead as adults, and especially for its hegemonic middle-class presumptions, as if any gay person must be like the ones who grow up to work at Google or The Ellen DeGeneres Show or the State Department. I think “Born This Way” and the larger message of Lady Gaga’s appeal to her little monsters is doing similar work, and potentially more effectively.

I also listened to plenty of Adele, Fleet Foxes, and Gillian Welch. I like old music, which I think is what it’s often like to be old. When the Teenage Fanclub song came on in Young Adult, the movie basically had me in its pocket, and when the character rewound to play it a second and third time, well. I will always recognize every pop hit from around 1981 to 1988. For music from before and after that period my knowledge is spottier. I doubt this will ever change.

Favorite Thing

I cannot stop loving the animated GIF. It doesn't usually occur to me that an animated GIF is a short silent movie, though I have seen this pointed out in a number of appreciations of the form. Silence is part of its appeal, but surely what is most great about the GIF is its mixture of appreciation of a momentary, ephemeral pop culture pleasure, and the repetition of that significant moment potentially forever. Unfortunately, this neat formula misses some of what I love about many GIFs that are not captured from film or TV, that are not found footage or remix culture. GIFs are absurdly catchy, like the hook of a pop song. And they're like a spinning carousel set to the same snippet of circus music, circling back on the same spot again and again, an infinite loop of crazy fun.



They can also be subtle or creepy, even minimalist. Some of my favorite GIFs are perfect loops of a repeated action appearing to be an endless back and forth, round and round. This is one thing a GIF can do that lends itself, for instance, to use in porn sites (totally fucking NSFW!) where the in/out of straight sex is made to appear like efficient factory mechanics. But a GIF can also seem to capture a single moment rather than a repeated action. Or it can offer a sequence of moments without a sense of repetition. There's no one best kind and the form is actually fairly versatile. I also noticed sometime in 2011 the growth of GIFs displayed in grids of multiple panels (2x3, 2x4, 3x4, 3x5, etc.) and GIFs incorporating captions and subtitles. I guess I'll expect to see new trends in GIF creativity in 2012, can't wait.

Another thing to love about the GIF is that for now at least, making and sharing them occur in an amateur province of a web culture in which increasingly the corporate voice is enmeshed with the ordinary person's. As far as I know, NBC is not yet offering its own GIFs of last night's Community for the fans to post on tumblr. Our own appropriation and sharing economy still define the GIF's life online.

Finally, the GIF is a critical tool. It's the amateur scholar's most ideal form of quotation of the moving image. The fans are showing us the way we might illustrate our more serious-minded efforts to support our words with images in scholarly discourse.


My new year's resolution last year was to make animated GIFs. I spent a bit of time trying it out, and I need to devote more effort before I know what I'm doing and can share GIFs with the world. I was glad to learn, however, that like anything worth making, it's not always easy to produce something that looks simple but actually has depth and meaning.

GIF links of note:

Uproxx lists the 20 most important GIFs of 2011.

If We Don't, Remember Me. is a tumblr of subtle, often poetic "living movie stills" GIFs. Like theses ones from Belle de Jour and Ghost World.

belle de jour
ghost world

Similar: tiny cinema.

Anil Dash celebrates the form, including an appreciation of the Animated GIF Museum

Other Cinema celebrates the GIF as an example of nostalgic cultural revivalism, and as evidence of a move away from realism and toward artifice in contemporary online and digital culture.

Kelli Marshall appreciates the GIF in terms of its recreation of early cinema aesthetics and technologies.

Design Modo offers a page of "3D animated photo" GIFs, images staged and shot to be animated GIFs rather the the more common repurposed scenes.

Change the Thought's GIF tag is a rich source of
trippy and mind-bending and graphically experimental GIFs including the spinning circle image at the very end of this post.

My Fucking GIF Blog is self-explanatory.

The Gifzette is a snarky, critical daily news site ("All the News That's Fit to Gif") illustrated by a big animation.

A page of GIFs of Kirsten Dunst's anguished reactions sitting next to Lars von Trier at Cannes is a nice demonstration of the power of multiple frames of GIFs presented together.

And gifgifgifgifgif is the best. I took many of the images in this post from them.

If you have a cocktail handy, please drink with me to more crazy, funny, sad, stupid, smart, and favorite things in 2012.

the end



Laugh Track

I have a post up at antenna called Notes on the Laugh Track, which is a blog version of some thoughts I presented last month in Madison at a conference on TV comedy. Some of the ideas in it may be familiar to long-time readers; for more, see these old posts:

-Hating on Jezebel James: The Laugh Track as Bad Object

-Upgrading the Situation Comedy

-Tween Comedies and the Evolution of a Genre (this one is from In Media Res)



The International Journal of Communication has just published a new section of essays on academic labor edited by Jonathan Sterne, and I'm really excited to have my work included in it. The essay is one I co-wrote with a friend I made at a Zionist summer camp in Canada in 1987, Ira Wagman. It's called "PowerPoint and Labor in the Mediated Classroom" (pdf). It draws on various sources, including my experience teaching a large lecture course (Intro to Media Studies) for many semesters and feeling like the PowerPoint component was taking up too much of my time and energy, even as I was always unsure I was using the slideware well enough. We tried to write our essay as both an assessment of PowerPoint, its functions and its value, and a set of practical suggestions not so much for how to use the software, but how to think about using it.

Gchat Status, an Appreciation

It is possible to do something special with a Gchat status, though the number of authors doing it thus far might be in the low double digits. The Gchat status, like much of what we do online these days, is a form of verbal communication, and the status is an art of language like poetry or rhetoric. Tweets and blog posts and Amazon reviews and comments on a Facebook photo can likewise be places for good writing, but I have chosen the Gchat status for this appreciation because it strikes me as a functionally unique instance in this particular moment, and because I happen to have been noticing Gchat statuses that I really like lately.

Gchat, the IM service of Gmail, lives in the sidebar of your inbox, though you might not have noticed it. It’s the only IM experience I’ve ever had. While I’m probably on the young enough end of Gen X to have been introduced to AOL and ICQ and other formative experiences of my Millennial friends and family, I was strictly an email person before my Gchatting began. At first I only ever Gchatted with one or two people -- my younger sister whose IM chops were developed in her teen years and an old friend living in another country where phone calls would be more expensive than IMs. Over time I have kept up with eight or ten friends and students (and students who became friends) with regular Gchats, and in my immediate family (mother, sister, wife) we use it as much or more than the phone. There are also contacts in my chat window with whom I have never or very seldom chatted, but whose statuses I regularly see and enjoy.

Gmail’s chat sidebar offers a narrow space for a status, which like a tweet or Facebook posting can take a variety of forms: a word, a phrase, a question, a quotation (with or without quotes), the title of what you’re reading (or writing), a report, an observation, an exclamation, a curse or blessing, a call to action, a cryptic reference, a fragmentary image, or a link to your new blog post or to a video you think is cute of pets or babies. On Wisconsin! Office job. This is what I do. Now 20% smarter! When is 112:30? Just chillin’. Snowdrift. feministmusicgeek.com. And you are? It is definitely too soon to be writing Interim Reports. Home. Asleep (how did I type that while I was asleep??!?).
I’m going to eat my feelings for dinner. Most of my contacts either have no status or have one that they update very infrequently -- effectively never. Some write a new one every few days or even more often.

The characters in a Gchat status are limited to around 500, but anything longer than around 20 characters (it depends on how wide your letters are -- you’ll run out of room for big A’s faster than little l’s) is truncated at that point and finished off with ellipses. When you mouseover the name in your chat list, a window appears with the contact’s picture, the full status, their gmail address, and a few buttons offering options to chat, email, and change settings. Thus approximately 20 is not exactly a character limit, but it is functionally important: most of the time people will only see that much. I’m more likely to mouseover a new status, or a status that hooks me in the first 20. I’m less likely to mouseover a link without description, because the likelihood of my following a link is always lower than of just reading a status. If you think 140 characters makes tweets into the most exemplary form of contemporary web brevity, Gchat statuses offer us even less room for expressing ourselves. But as in any form, constraints can be opportunities.

There are a number of things I find especially pleasurable about Gchat statuses. Unlike most of the things you can write nowadays on the internet, the Gchat status offers no direct feedback mechanism. You can’t like or favorite a status, you can’t share or retweet it, you can’t start a comments thread under it, you can’t give it thumbs up or down, digg it or bury it, or give it between one and five stars. You can’t mark it as spam or as inappropriate content, and you can’t recommend it to your friends with one click. Just try to share it on Facebook -- try it! I love how self-contained the Gchat status is, content to be its own thing and not a come-on inviting your participation.

On the other hand, there is one way of finding out more about a status or expressing your admiration for it: starting a Gchat. The absence of likes and retweets is actually an incentive to use Gchat for the central purpose of IM: person-to-person communication. Sometimes I have had others begin chats with me by asking more about my status, which works especially well with quotations of my one year-old son. (E.g., NO, Dada! got quick chat responses from his grandmother and aunt). One time a friend liked a link to a video and told me as much in a chat message. I have no real issue with the depersonalized nature of likes and faves and thumbsups, but I have noticed that sometimes they seem to offer a substitute for more interactive and substantive communication.

Another constraint of the Gchat is its total ephemerality. Unlike so much of our web lives, the status does not become part of an archive or timeline or profile. It doesn’t turn up in web searches, and doesn’t ever appear in roundups of tweets or comments. There is no way to link to a status, no way to easily save them for posterity. Aside from myself, I don’t know of anyone who collects them. I don’t believe the Library of Congress is on the case, and I don’t imagine we will ever see publication of the Gchat statuses of tomorrow’s great novelists or presidents, though you never know.

The beauty of a nice Gchat status is in part a function of it having appeared in a place you weren't expecting something so good. It is also a function of being an artifact of so little practical value, addressing an audience of perhaps a few dozen people, probably fewer, who are unlikely to respond in any way, and whose reception is untraceable. Unlike a blog, you can't keep track of user data. Unlike twitter there is no count of chat status followers. The status doesn't occupy a point in the web reputation ecology. It barely matters, isn't meant to last, and can hardly ever hope to make more than a gentle ripple in a great sea. It is approaching the purest mode of creativity, a gift. Sometimes I wonder if the chat statuses that I like are meant to please only the writer, and the public performance of this private expression is almost accidental. But of course these are appearances only. Communication ordinarily serves more than one function. A status is always, among other things, an expression of status. It just does a nice job of not always seeming so.



images by me and dorywithserifs (used under a Creative Commons license)


Legitimating Television: Blogversation

This is cross-posted at Dr. Television.

In this post, Elana Levine and I aim to offer a look into the origins and purpose of our new book, Legitimating Televison: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. We include an abstract of our argument (which is also our back cover copy), and then engage in a “blogversation” about the project and its aims.

Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status explores how and why television is gaining a new level of cultural respectability in the twenty-first century. Once looked down upon as a “plug-in drug” offering little redeeming social or artistic value, television is now said to be in a creative renaissance, particularly as critics hail the rise of “cinematic,” Quality series such as Mad Men and 30 Rock. Likewise, DVDs and DVRs, web video, HDTV, and mobile devices have shifted the longstanding conception of television as a family-centered household appliance, offering a new understanding of TV as a sophisticated, high-tech gadget.

Newman and Levine argue that television’s newfound, growing prestige emerges in concert with the convergence of media at technological, industrial, and experiential levels. Television is permitted to rise in respectability once it is connected to more highly valued media--and more highly valued audiences. Legitimation works by denigrating “ordinary” television associated with the past, and thereby denies the continuities between past and present. It also distances the television of the present from the feminized and mass audiences assumed to be inherent to the “old” TV. It is no coincidence that the most validated programming and technologies of the convergence era are associated with viewers of elevated economic and cultural status. The legitimation of television articulates the medium with the masculine over the feminine, the elite over the mass. In so doing it reinforces cultural hierarchies that have long perpetuated inequalities of gender and class.

Legitimating Television urges readers to move beyond the taste question of whether television is simply “good” or “bad,” and to focus instead on the cultural, political, and economic issues at stake in television’s transformation in the digital age.

Why we wrote this book

EL: While we have been excited by much of the scholarship emerging that deals with the many changes television has been facing, and continues to face (economic, technological, experiential), we also noted some gaps in that scholarship. We kept noticing these discourses of distinction in popular, trade, and scholarly talk about TV, but no one seemed to be talking about it or acknowledging their implications. And once we started noticing it, it was everywhere! I, for one, worry about all of the “future-casting” that seems to be going into contemporary talk about TV (scholarly and popular) and wanted, in part, to do the historian’s work of noting both the continuities with and the disruptions to the past in contemporary developments. So we wanted to historicize a lot of the conversation about convergence-era TV, and specifically to do so around questions of cultural hierarchy and value. In addition, we wanted to inject more of a cultural studies-influenced sense of struggle over television’s status in the cultural hierarchy, something we don’t see a lot of attention being paid to these days.

MZN: We have now seen a fair number of attempts to grapple with how television has been changing during the digital age. Some say television has changed so much that it’s not even television any more (e.g., one book has the title Television after TV), which seems like such a radical break. We wanted to make an argument about the cultural implications of convergence as it works in relation to TV, and in particular how issues of social power underlie many of the shifts we observe in TV’s identity under convergence. We see the old concept of TV as crucial to the newly legitimated medium. A lot of people seem to be aware of some of the same things we observe, but I think our concept of the legitimation of television explains recent developments in a way that has not been done, and puts their meaning into focus. The gender and class implications of television’s legitimation have not been very well recognized.


MZN: Lynn Spigel’s Make Room for TV and William Boddy’s New Media and Popular Imagination are most foundational in my thinking about our work, as both are ultimately concerned with how people think about television as a medium, and what place television has in our everyday lives as a result. We are also building on essays by Derek Kompare and Matt Hills about TV on DVD, and by Dana Polan and Christopher Anderson on the cultural status of Quality TV, particularly around HBO and its series. More in terms of background knowledge and approach, I am always inspired by Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, which is a book I think everyone across the humanities should read. Bourdieu, of course.

EL: I come to the project with the same influences, although I would also add two other streams of work: British Cultural Studies approaches to television, especially John Fiske’s Bourdieuian takes on cultural hierarchies and appreciation of the tastes of “the people.” For me, the study of television has always been about seeking an understanding of and empathy with a culturally denigrated medium and the subordinated social positions of those who find in that medium their culture. The legitimation of the medium, as much as it is still struggling to achieve dominance, seems to me to dismiss all of that. And that feels like a betrayal of what both television and the cultural studies-influenced field of television studies mean to me. I’d additionally add feminist scholarship on TV melodrama/soaps, especially work by such scholars as Tania Modleski, Jane Feuer, and Lynne Joyrich. These scholars understand deeply the gendered nature of cultural hierarchies and attend to television’s feminized texts as a challenge to such easy dismissals.

Challenges of writing about the present

MZN: When you write about the present, you aim at a moving target. You can think you have figured out what to say about something, and just as you are saying it, the subject changes or new developments complicate your points. You lack historical distance and risk seeing change as more important than it is. We tend to think of our present moment as a break from the past, and to see ourselves as somehow special. Actually I think part of our book’s contribution is in questioning this very tendency toward misapprehending the present, and failing to recognize historical continuities. We call it a history of the present and a polemic, and I wonder if a history of the present can avoid being a polemic in some sense, as our concerns are so immediate and so present in discourses we encounter day by day.

EL: Yeah, I worry about the “ranty” nature of the book at points, but I also feel so strongly about the ideas that I’m kind of proud of the rants, too. My worry is not so much that we come off sounding cranky, but that that crankiness will soon be seen as short-sighted, in that it misses a development that is about to come. Still, we’ve been studying these discourses for a number of years and, if anything, see them increasing rather than decreasing or changing.

What do we hope will come of Legitimating Television?

EL: I hope that readers of our book will think about contemporary TV and the discourses surrounding it in new ways, that they will start to notice the discourses of legitimation all around us and the ways in which these discourses operate in tension with those of denigration. I hope that scholarship that focuses on the economic and technological convergence of TV and other media will not reproduce the classed and gendered hierarchies of so much legitimating discourse--or will at least be more self-conscious about it. I hope that the critics and other journalists talking about contemporary TV will avoid the either/or dichotomy of trash or art that pervades discourses of legitimation and delegitimation and consider the ways their words shape the way we all think about TV. Mostly, I just want to see thoughtful, socially and politically engaged work on TV that has an historical sensibility and that tries not to reproduce damaging cultural hierarchies.

MZN: I’m eager to see more scholarly engagement with television texts in aesthetic terms, and some of this book indeed works in this area, e.g., the discussions of sitcom and drama forms. My previous work on TV storytelling is also an effort in this area. But I’d like to see aesthetic considerations of television proceed in full consciousness of the power of aesthetic discourses, and to the extent possible without the naive appreciation of “good TV” or denigration of “bad TV” that reinforces the cultural hierarchies central to legitimation and delegitimation. This is a challenge to be sure, but one that I think must be undertaken if TV studies is to maintain a critical perspective. Similarly, with new technologies and audience practices, we ought to be wary of endorsing the so-called control and activity of new ways of watching without recognizing drawbacks and their ideological implications.

What you should know before you read

MZN: I wonder if some people might see the book and infer that we’re rooting for TV to be legitimated. Sometimes when I tell people that the book is about the idea that TV has gotten better, they seem excited by the thought and eager to endorse it. (Others are more cranky and say things like, “I disagree!” or “I don’t watch television.”) Our purpose is to document and analyze legitimation as the emergent common sense, but also to argue that it’s not ultimately a force for good.

EL: You put that so democratically. We say legitimation is bad! But, at the same time, it’s important that readers know: 1) We love TV. 2) We know there are some benefits to the legitimation of television, but think the discourse as it now stands does too much damage to television writ large and to classed and gendered conceptions of cultural and social worth. 3) That is not our living room on the cover.


Legitimating Television, Process

This is the first of two planned posts about Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status, the book I have written with Elana Levine (Amazon). In this entry I reflect on collaboration as a scholarly endeavor, and elaborate a bit more about the processes of academic work, picking up where I left off in my last post on the academic summertime. A subsequent post will discuss the book’s ideas.

Like most academic works, ours is the product of years of research. My computer files tell me that I began to take notes on the topic of legitimation of TV about four years ago, fall 2007. But our project began at least a year or two before that moment, which is just the time that legitimation became a concept bringing our thinking about television’s changing cultural status into sharper focus.

We began by collecting research on TV on DVD and what I was thinking of as the cinematization of television in terms of audiovisual style and storytelling, but also in terms of distribution (as on DVD). I’m not sure when this was exactly but it was likely around the time that so much popular press attention was being given to the significance of discs for television’s business model, story forms, and cultural circulation. For instance, between 2004 and 2007 we saw a steady stream of articles in newspapers and magazines singing the praises of DVD as a solution to some of television’s enduring problems, such as:

-James Poniewozik, “Show Business: It's Not TV. It's TV on DVD,” Time, April 19, 2004.

-Scott Collins, “Some Television Reruns Hit Their Prime on DVD,” Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2005.

-Toni Ruberto, “DVDs offer viewer freedom,” The Buffalo News, September 17, 2006.

-Claire Atkinson, “What to Watch? How About a ‘Simpsons’ Episode From 1999?” New York Times, September 24, 2007.

DVDs (as well as DVRs) were also central to the discussion of television in Steven Johnson’s 2005 book Everything Bad is Good For You, key to his brief in favor of contemporary popular culture as a kind of cognitive pencil sharpener. The repeatability of television made possible by the digital revolution was supposed to have improved television and pushed its place in the cultural hierarchy from disreputable trash to a more elevated level.

Television scholars were remarkably quick to assess the implications of this new development. Derek Kompare and Matt Hills wrote important articles on the topic -- both highly recommended to anyone interested in how TV has changed in the past decade -- just as the popular press was also grappling with the same developments:

-Derek Kompare, “Publishing Flow: DVD Box Sets and the Reconception of Television,” Television & New Media 7:4 (November 2006), 335-360. (pdf)

-Matt Hills, “From the Box in the Corner to the Box Set on the Shelf: 'TVIII' and the cultural/textual valorisations of DVD,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 5.1 (April 2007), 41-60.

But the moment I most vividly remember as having made an impression on me, an impression that would remain as we worked through our ideas and towards the book, was even before these popular press discussions became commonplace. One day in January, 2003, we were wandering around a Tower-records-type retailer (this was in Paris, which is why I remember the date but not the name of the store), and were quite overwhelmed by the television section of the DVDs. It had not been that long since shows were first appearing in season and series box sets, and to see the number of American Quality TV series packaged so lavishly and appealing to our sensibilities so strongly was really shocking, as was, in my recollection, the typical price tag. I remember the HBO titles like The Sopranos, and I’m sure there were cult shows like Buffy. I recall that store’s TV on DVD section was quite large at a time when TV on DVD was still pretty new and exciting.

Season box sets of highly regarded programs produce such a different identity for TV shows as objects of intense consumer desire and significant commodity value, especially compared with the earlier reputation of television as disposable and ephemeral mere entertainment. In this new figuration, television was clearly attaining a newly high value that was quite the contrast against its historical identity as mass culture, as a vast wasteland, as the idiot box or boob tube. Over the span of time between 2002 and 2007, then, Elana and I began to collect research materials and to talk about how we might write something that would engage with this shift (individually or together, I’m not sure when we decided this was something to do together). A lot of our thinking coalesced in a series of conference papers we gave, which developed our project and provided an initial base of evidence and concepts on which the book would build. At the same time, both of us were busy with other things and this work was rarely if ever on the front burner for long (for starters, I had another book to write), which is partly why is took a long time to come to fruition.

In general I believe it’s beter to avoid working up new material for a conference presentation, and to try to present material that’s more or less publication-ready. This way you don’t stress out for three weeks before the conference figuring out what you are going to say, you don’t end up deciding you don’t like your topic after all and trying to give a different paper under the published title, and you don’t give a really rough draft that makes you look sloppy and abuses the audience’s attention. Perhaps more importantly, if you are working up new material, you might end up writing something 12 pages long that never goes anywhere, which seems to me, despite what I’ve said earlier about reconsidering what it means to be productive, like a squandered opportunity.It’s unusual that 12 pages of work all by itself is publishable as is in a journal or book in today’s academic publishing world, though maybe that’s too bad.

In working on Legitimating Television, though, we did a lot of our initial writing for conferences, and these presentations were a great value to our process. Elana and I both gave conference papers that became book material at Console-ing Passions 2008 in Santa Barbara, and 2010 in Eugene. We both gave papers at the one-day Unthinking Television conference in Fairfax, Virginia, in 2009, that found their way into the book. Of the book’s eight chapters, four were to a great extent built around those six conference papers, cutting and pasting parts here and there and integrating different papers together. My 2008 CP paper ended up partly in chapter 4 and partly in chapter 7 (see the book’s table of contents below). Elana’s 2008 CP paper gave chapter 6 its main ideas and some of its examples. Her 2010 CP paper was the basis for chapter 5, while mine was mostly integrated into chapter 4. The book also includes work here and there that first appeared on Zigzigger (this post on widescreen TV lives on in chapter 7), though with much modification. We also included a few bits and pieces from an unsubmitted column I wrote for Flow when I was a columnist (2008-2009). I decided not to submit it because it seemed too much like the introduction to a book and not enough like a column for a web publication. Chapters 2, 3, and 8 are just about all new, but the rest of the book is a patchwork integrating material previously shared in some way with an audience as work in progress.

Some people have asked us how we went about co-authoring a book. It’s not that unusual to see original research monographs have more than one author, but in the humanities it’s still something a bit out of the ordinary, and people seem to wonder how the process unfolds. Our training in graduate school, especially in the humanities, assumes single authorship and offers little guidance in producing collaborative research. Editing a book or writing a textbook might lend themselves more to collaboration than this kind of work, though I haven’t done either of those things so I can’t speak to their finer points.

We might think of collaboration as having greater or lesser degrees of intellectual integration. There may be some projects where work can be divided among collaborators in a way that doesn’t require them to share all of the same ideas and expectations, and to work out arguments and evidence together. Ours is the kind of book that does require that kind of collaboration. We conducted research separately and wrote separately, but we did not divide up the work into discrete sections and each keep to our side of a line. We wrote the chapters one at a time (you work on this one, I’ll work on that one) but they are all still products of our collaboration. Sometimes the ideas of a section come more from one person but the words are composed mostly by the other. I wrote most of chapter 6’s first draft, but the conceptual work was mostly Elana’s. There are parts where the research was done by one of us and the other wove it into an argument. In chapter 2, for instance, I wrote a section of a couple thousand words to be integrated into a longer discussion written mainly by Elana, but she revised my part to make it fit, and I revised hers after that. And in revision, there was never any sense of the words being proprietary. Some parts of the book were revised so many times by us both that they really were written by two people. Having said all of this, there are passages of the book only I could have written, and passages only Elana could have. I would rather preserve the veneer of total collaboration than reveal which parts these are, but people who know us will be able to figure them out. There are also phrases I’m especially happy with that I wrote, and quotes that express a thought especially nicely that I found, and I feel pleased about these. There are similar passages that Elana wrote or quoted, and I admire these no less, but in the way you admire someone else’s good job.

Sometimes I infer that the subtext of the co-authorship question is that for a married couple it might be a special challenge to write a book together. This would depend on the couple, but for us it was undoubtedly easier to co-author a book with each other than it would have been with anyone else. We talk about TV all the time anyway, and our “work” and “life” are continuous. The ideas benefited from the continual hashing out during car rides and over lunches at home, and we could discuss progress bit by bit as each of us worked on separate parts. I think it helps to live with your co-author, though I can see that in other situations it might be preferable to be separated by some physical distance. I like collaboration for many reasons: it solves the problem of scholarly loneliness and isolation, it makes possible synergistic productivity, and it might lead to a multi-dimensionality that one person’s work can never have. I also believe it provides some of the same rewards as solitary scholarship at a reduced rate of labor (though certainly not reduced by half). I like collaborative writing and I want to collaborate more in the future, though a collaboration I might have with people other than Elana will have obviously different dynamics. (I have co-authored one other publication, a journal article soon to appear that I look forward to linking to when it’s out. That experience, writing with someone other than my wife, has also made me eager to collaborate more.)

Most of the book’s research had been accumulated by the time we signed a contract with Routledge in fall 2009, and the writing was done in a sustained effort between the spring of 2010 and the early winter of 2011. It’s definitely easier to write a book quickly with two authors, though having an infant child (born in late 2009) whose care both authors are responsible for providing can add more than a bit of difficulty. It also, however, provided us time away from teaching, which was technically family leave but (now I speak mainly for myself) actually freed up some extra writing time. We wrote the book mostly
one chapter at a time and passed them back and forth through cycles of editing and revision. In the final weeks, once all eight chapters had been drafted, we often worked across a coffee shop table to facilitate discussion of revisions. When the page proofs arrived a few months ago we returned there to pass them back and forth marked up in different colors of ink. We still go to that coffee shop sometimes and sit across the table from each other. Of course we’re pleased that the book is done, but we also miss those days.

Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status
1. Legitimating Television
2. Another Golden Age?
3. The Showrunner as Auteur
4. Upgrading the Situation Comedy
5. Not a Soap Opera
6. The Television Image and the Image of the Television
7. Technologies of Agency
8. Television Scholarship and/as Legitimation


What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Fall is practically here. The public schools are back in business and a fresh crop of freshmen have appeared at UWM, wandering the campus in packs and wearing those lanyards they must give out with room keys and ID badges, but which no one seems to need once classes start. We don’t begin the semester until after Labor Day but my course syllabus has been ready to go for a few weeks. I’m starting now to think more clearly about what the course will actually be like. It’s an advanced new media course which I am adapting from a graduate seminar I taught last fall. I have just begun a year-long fellowship at the Center for 21st Century Studies, which is the reason I’m teaching only one course each semester in 2011-12, and on Monday I claimed the keys to a new office with a view of the city and the lake.

I love (ok, enjoy and get various rewards from) teaching, but I also love the annual summer break from teaching. From May to September I have been granted 122 happily classroom-free days. Academics get irritated when civilians think we have the summer off, but this kind of conversation is so familiar and in my experience well-meaning. Actually, I say when feeling like talking about myself, I’m kind of busier during the summer. Graduate students are hurrying to finish MA theses, sending me work to read chapter by chapter and thesis by thesis. Service is supposed to pause but it doesn’t. I worked this summer on an assessment for the large lecture course I taught for many semesters. If teaching a new course or even a modification of an old one in fall, books and articles need to be collected and ordered and requested from the reserves at the library, but only after a process of deciding which to assign. Peer-reviewing manuscripts is an all-season task, though I am still not asked to do very much of it. Research has the biggest claim on my time, and I have spent much of this summer reading, taking notes, writing and rewriting, editing, revising, looking up dates and names on Wikipedia and IMDb and Google Books, corresponding with coauthors and editors, planning future research, and more generally managing a number of ongoing projects. Since May I have been juggling work on a couple of journal articles, a couple of book chapters, a co-authored book soon to be published, and two large projects in the early stages of research. I’ve been making conference plans for fall and spring. I also spent some of my time researching a project that I decided to abandon despite having spent a lot of time thinking about it and shlepping to the library to claim ILL books (maybe it will linger in the deep archive of my mind, some day to be integrated into another project or brought back to life on its own).

Summer is also a time of leisure, though, and I always feel a tension between the need to “be productive” as an untenured prof, and the desire to enjoy the season, the welcome visits from friends and family, the outings and trips and times of recreation and fun. This makes the summer not only busy but unfortunately stressful. I know this is a “white whine” and I don’t really work for a living like the vast majority of people who toil at jobs that really feel like work all day, all week, all year. But time is finite and an afternoon at the beach sometimes, perversely, looks like a missed opportunity to “be productive.” An afternoon of “being productive” can also seem like a missed opportunity to have fun, which is after all why God gave us summer. Even supposedly multi-functional fun+productive time, like a weekday afternoon at the movies (privilege of the film scholar!), can seem like a decadent indulgence. One day in early August I was going to spend an afternoon writing an essay while my sister and brother-in-law, visiting from out of town, took our 7 year-old son to a water park. After waffling briefly I opted for the water park and was pretty glad. But at the change of seasons I always feel frustrated by the incompleteness of the summer’s work, by the inevitability of goals unmet (even if I knew they were unrealistic all along).

Despite the prevailing cultural mandate of summer exuberance, my favorite time of year lately is actually the first few weeks of January. Our campus wedges a three-week winterim session in between fall and spring, and if you don’t teach winterim (I haven’t and will avoid it until we feel like we need the money) you have a nice month-long break from the classroom. The Christmas-New Year’s week is a wash as school and daycare are closed, but the first three weeks of the year are almost perfect. The kids are occupied all day, the weather is shitty, there is no sense that January ought to include leisure, and the weekdays are free for reading and writing, which is how I prefer to spend them most of the time. But the afternoon at the movies or the long lunch can be that much more pleasurable in winterim, when the rest of the world is really at work, the grind of teaching isn’t making every week into a struggle just to get to Friday, and there is so little expectation of fun. When I say that I wish the summer would be more like the winter it’s not just that I like indoors better than outdoors and sweaters better than shorts.

The problem with the academic summertime is a problem of how to think about academic work. Academic time (at least in my experience) has to be seen as fluid and multidimensional. The interest lately in promoting “work/life” or “work/family balance” is misguided, for a number of reasons, one of which is that work and life, business and pleasure, aren't separate. (Another reason is that it depends on a gendered conception of both life/family and of work, requiring women to shoulder an unfair share of the burden of an inequitable system of academic labor, childcare, and domestic responsibility). The idea that time is spent either on business or on pleasure, and that time spent on one is stolen from the other, is deeply ideological, rooted in an ethos of productive labor and industry that ultimately serves the interests of capitalism and class stratification. It is the right-wing politicians and neoliberal culture that sees the individual academic's productivity in terms of quantifiable return on investment, and questions the value of teaching and study as an end in itself. This is the same culture that makes academics eager to demonstrate their long working hours and quantify their productivity to answer the call that higher education pay, that it be economically accountable rather than an institution worthy of pubic investment. But even putting the deep ideological problem aside, it's also wrong to think of productivity in terms of the typical quantifiable metrics of an academic worker in hours of labor or courses taught or scholarly output.

The idea that producing articles, chapters, talks, books, blog posts — and more generally work to be lines on a vita or entries in an annual report — is "being productive" is a consequence of a flawed system for qualifying academics and establishing reputation and value. We can't easily change the system, but we can change how we think about our work. It's true that publishing is a sine qua non of academic success today, and that it is unfortunately more likely than teaching to lead to many people's professional fulfillment. But quantity isn't quality, and sometimes it's more productive to spend your time taking a walk or watching TV than forcing words out of your miserably typing fingers. One really good paper should be a more impressive accomplishment than half a dozen mediocre ones. My summer’s aborted research project, which was going to be a series of brief essays on Billy Joel songs (maybe blogged, maybe to become a short book), led me to a number of really good articles and videos, and inspired me to listen to the entire catalog of a recording artist I have felt strongly (positively) about (well, until An Innocent Man, after that I can’t really take that much of him) for almost thirty years. It helped me clarify in my own mind what I find so interesting about Billy Joel (this must wait for another time), which was satisfying in itself. Another of my big new projects, a book about taste in popular culture, might accommodate some of my ideas on this topic, so this research could prove "productive" down the road. But if it isn't, I don't really care. I liked reading and listening and thinking about Billy Joel these past few months, and I refuse to see it as a waste. I refuse to force myself to write an article or chapter on this when I don't know what shape it would take, who would read it, what scholarly conversation it enters into, and whether I have enough expertise to analyze the material as I might want to and interest to see it through to completion.

Sometimes I find the most useful and rewarding scholarly experiences are these kinds of meanderings, readings in topics that I decide are wrong turns, obsessions that come and go. Some inform my work in some way, eventually, and some turn out to be diversions, hard to know. Sometimes as a media scholar you can get into something seriously for months or years, and figure out what to do with it later. This seems to be my habit. I've watched cooking shows fairly avidly for ten years, sometimes more avidly than others. This summer I wrote an essay about a Food Network show, Everyday Italian with Giada de Laurentiis, for an edited book. I didn't realize six or seven years ago when I started watching Giada that this time was ultimately to be "productive," except maybe in practical culinary ways.

My other big new project, the one I proposed in my application for a Center fellowship, is research on the early history of video games in the home and the connection between games and television especially in the 1970s and early 1980s. I have been reading up on this for almost a year, trying to discover scholarly literature on this topic (it's scant) and assessing what primary sources could prove useful in a social and cultural history of games. To the extent that my childhood experience playing Atari and Intellivision in friends' basement rec rooms informs this work, that time was also "productive." But I see this project as something I intend to spend years doing. I don't know if I will write anything this year, as I collect, read, and make notes on popular and industry press and try to get my hands on the games themselves. That’s why I also have the taste project, which is more writing-ready. Scholarship can be like slow food. I'm not just cooking a dish all day, I'm growing the vegetables, raising the hog, waiting for the wine to get to be a better age. The payoff will come much later. But even thinking of the reading and note-taking as productive is too limiting. Time I spend thinking about it while driving kids to lessons and practices and half-watching youth soccer games, while walking across campus or riding my bike to a coffee shop, or while telling friends about my work are also part of the process. And sometimes it’s more productive to take a nap or watch a baseball game or bake a cake and come back to work later.

Some of the most tedious labor of the summer was the work Elana and I did on proofs of our book Legitimating Television, which is supposed to be coming out in a couple of weeks. Some of our standard academic practices, like conforming to Chicago style, insisting on knowing the place of publication of books we cite (who needs to know?), determining the dates of film releases (you weren’t sure which North by Northwest I was talking about?), are actually counterproductive. They suck our time and energy and divert our attention from more worthwhile activities. But when you do them you’re “being productive.” The proofs required long and careful attention to small details, and this took effort and put other pursuits on hold. But we’re happy the book is coming out and eager for people to read it. It’s the product of years of “being productive” in the usual various ways, and our process in writing it will — I hope — be the toping of another blog post soon to come.

Other things I did on my summer vacation:

-Watched 2 seasons of The Good Wife, and a fair bit of thirtysomething and Parks and Rec.
-Read A Visit from the Goon Squad and House of Holes.
-Listened to Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest.
-Went to see Tree of Life at 2pm on a Thursday, and watched The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou on DVD one sunny morning.
-Read Walter Everett, "The Learned vs. the Vernacular in the Songs of Billy Joel," Contemporary Music Review 18.4 (2000): 105-129.

photos from recent summer vacations are by .michael.newman. published under CC attribution, noncommercial, no derivative works license


The Television Image and the Image of the Television

Next weekend I will be at the Media in Transition 7 conference at MIT, where I am giving a paper called "The Television Image and the Image of the Television" (pdf) about flat-panel HDTV sets. This work is part of the book I have been writing with Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status, which we are told will be published in September (though the copyright will be 2012). The full paper has been posted as a pdf at the conference website. If you come hear me present at the conference, you will get to see lots of pretty pictures of HD television sets, like the one above from the March 2011 issue of Dwell. My paper identifies the switch from 4:3 CRT sets to 16:9 flat-panels as one facet of the wider cultural legitimation of television during the era of media convergence. It addresses the upscale and masculinized sophistication of the new sets, and their significance for TV's convergence with cinema and gaming.


Mad Men Class

In the past few weeks I have begun to teach an independent study with Lynn Reed, a student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Skidmore College. The topic is Mad Men: Serialized Television Narrative and Depictions of Social History in the Early 1960s (link is to the class blog). This program allows students to do courses with faculty they approach who have some expertise and interest in topics they want to study, and I'm really grateful to Lynn for getting in touch with me because I have been finding the experience rewarding and (if I can speak for her) I think she has too.

I wanted to mention this here not just to share the syllabus, which I think will be of interest to serious Mad Men viewers, but also to link to Lynn's writings on the show and related readings, and to publicize her good work. Thus far she has written about character motivation in serialized narrative, character goals in the episode "Nixon vs. Kennedy", the dislocation that comes with cultural change, Reisman's ideas about conformity as applied to Don Draper, and "cool" in the 1960s, among other topics.

The course description to follow is Lynn's. The readings and viewings were put together collaboratively.

Mad Men: Serialized Television Narrative and Depictions of Social History in the Early 1960s

The acclaimed cable television drama Mad Men depicts the process of cultural change in early 1960s America through narratives of the personal and professional lives of men and women in a New York City advertising agency.

The series two most central protagonists, creative director Don Draper and secretary-turned-writer Peggy Olson, are attempting to:
-re-make themselves and re-tell their own stories,
-while working in an advertising industry that defines desires and creates narratives to sell products,
-at a time in which the country is re-making itself, re-telling the story of what it means to be an American and who can participate in the telling of that story

In this independent study, we will examine both the social history of the early 1960’s, and the ways in which this serialized television narrative tells the story of cultural change in this period (1960 – 1965).

From that examination, we will also look at larger questions. Contemporary politics and popular culture debate the meaning of “the sixties” through broad symbols and shorthand references. Does this study of Mad Men and the social history of the early 1960s tell us something about the current cultural fault lines that are seen as resulting from “the sixties”? Can it tell us something about which cultural changes have been accepted and absorbed by American culture and which are still up for debate?

Reading and Viewing Assignments:

The book Mad Men: Dream Come True TV, a collection of scholarly essays on Mad Men edited by Gary R. Edgerton, will be published April 26, 2011. The essays will be assigned reading and integrated with the syllabus as appropriate. (MN note: this is the language as we drafted it in the syllabus; this book has now been published and I just got my copy this week.)

Week 1-2 -- Overview of Television Storytelling & Serialized Narrative

“From Beats to Arcs: Towards a Poetics of Television Narrative”, Michael Z. Newman
Storytelling in Film and Television, Kristin Thompson
Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, Glen Creeber

Mad Men episodes:
1.6 “Babylon”
2.7 “The Gold Violin”
2.12 “The Mountain King”
3.6 “Guy Walks in to an Advertising Agency”
3.11 “The Gypsy and the Hobo”
4.4 “The Rejected”

Week 3-4 -- The “Crisis of Conformity” in the late ‘50s

The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank, chapters 1-3
The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman
“The White Negro”, Norman Mailer
The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, Barbara Ehrenreich

Mad Men episodes:
1.1 “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
1.8 “The Hobo Code”
2.11 “The Jet Set”
3.7 “Seven Twenty Three”
4.7 “The Suitcase”

Week 5-6 – Changes in Advertising and American Culture

Conquest of Cool, chapters 4 – 8
The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard
A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, Lizabeth Cohen
The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida, chapters 1-2

Mad Men episodes:
3.2 “Love Among the Ruins”
3.13 “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”
4.5 “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”
4.7 “The Suitcase”
4.11 “Chinese Wall”

Week 7-9 – Feminine Mystique and the early Women’s Movement

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Stephanie Coontz
Sex and the Single Girl, Helen Gurley Brown
Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, Jennifer Scanlon
Shaky Ground: The Sixties and Its Aftershocks, Alice Echols, chapters 1-4

Mad Men Episodes:
1.3 “Ladies’ Room”
1.13 “The Wheel”
2.6 “Maidenform”
3.8 “Souvenir”
4.9 “The Beautiful Girls”

Week 10-12 – Political Change and Social Change / Re-telling the American Story in the Early 1960s

Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Todd Gitlin, chapters 1-7
Port Huron Statement
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, Taylor Branch

Mad Men Episodes:
1.12 “Nixon vs. Kennedy”
2.13 “Meditations in an Emergency”
3.3 “My Old Kentucky Home”
3.12 “The Grown-Ups”
4.13 “Tomorrowland”


Indie Promotion

The Columbia University Press website has published some of my work online, and I just wanted to alert those of you not following my every thought and link on twitter to these two items:

1. Indie's introduction has been posted for all to see. It begins:

Like so many cultural categories, indie cinema is slippery. The same term refers not only to a diverse body of films spanning more than two decades, from Stranger Than Paradise (1984) to Synecdoche, New York (2008) and beyond, but also a cultural network that sustains them. This book is about American indie cinema as a film culture that comprises not only movies but also institutions—distributors, exhibitors, festivals, and critical media—within which movies are circulated and experienced, and wherein an indie community shares expectations about their forms and meanings.

To read the rest, click on over.

2. The CUP blog has posted an interview with me. It starts off like this:

Question: Why “indie” rather than “independent”?

Michael Newman: At some point, maybe in the 1990s, indie became a kind of catch-all for describing edgy, youthful, subcultural, or alternative culture...

The rest is on the CUP blog.


Indie: An American Film Culture

My book has been published! Woo hoo! It was on the table of the book room at the recent Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in New Orleans, where at least eight people got to take a copy home. I'm told the date retailers can sell the thing is April 12, though they are taking orders. If you want to buy it directly from CUP, follow the link above and use the promo code INDNE for a 30% discount.

Columbia UP's publicist emailed me to see if I can help promote the book by posting to listservs, alerting my social networks, etc. Yes I can do that!

This post is going to take you BEHIND THE SCENES of the thrilling production process of an ACADEMIC MONOGRAPH!!! I have been saving some of these tidbits for years, carefully guarding them until this day.

-The idea for the book was suggested to me circa 2002 by my graduate school advisor, David Bordwell at a restaurant in Madison called The Saz that no longer exists. I wanted to write a dissertation about narrative theory and in particular about character, and he thought independent cinema would offer a good body of work within which to explore my ideas. These things take time. The dissertation was completed in 2005, and in the meantime I had a child and found my interests expanding into television and new media and taste and cultural studies. I have found that parenthood is a great motivator. I waste much less time when someone else is looking after my kid while I'm supposed to be working. People think having a baby around must kill your productivity, and maybe it's my male privilege speaking, but I have found it to be the opposite.

-The title changed a few times. When I proposed the book to CUP it was to be called Indiewood: Storytelling in American Independent Cinema. I changed it when I saw storytelling becoming only one aspect of the work rather than a singular central focus. I also didn't want the book to have the same title as Geoff King's Indiewood, USA, and I saw "Indiewood" as too specific a term, leaving out what some see as the "true" indies. My wife, Elana, suggested the title Indie. I'm pretty sure the An American Film Culture part was mine. At one point I wanted to rename the book Home is Where the Art Is, which is the title of a chapter about film festivals and art house theaters and a headline from a NYT article about independent cinema from 1989. My editor at the press thought it was a bad idea, and I think she was right.

-As in any long-simmering project, this book is the product of an abiding personal interest and a connection with many events in my life. In some ways this is the ultimate expression of my youthful cinephilia, which in most ways I have outgrown. When I was in my late teens and early twenties I was eager to be initiated into the world of serious film passion. The first film I ever saw at a film festival was Jarmusch's Mystery Train, at the 1989 Toronto festival with the director and Screamin' Jay Hawkins in attendance. I worked managing the candy counter of the Carleton Cinema around that time, where Do the Right Thing and sex, lies, and videotape were playing (along with Jesus of Montreal, 36 Filette, The Little Thief, as well as some more popular titles like When Harry Met Sally...). After moving to New York in 1994 I became a pretty passionate follower of independent film, regularly spending weekend afternoons at the Angelika. In some ways the book is an effort to make sense of one kind of cinema that was part of what made me want to become a film -- later media -- scholar. I have never thought of myself as a fan of independent films per se, and I have probably been a bigger fan of studio-era Hollywood and some foreign cinema (at times, Godard, Bergman, Antonioni, Ozu, Kiarostami, 1980s Hong Kong action films). But having seen so many of the canonical indie films, the ones like sex, lies and Pulp Fiction, at an impressionable age, the centrality of this form of cinema to my conception of artistic film practice was pretty important. Later I would see this in a context of a film culture producing distinction for its elite audience, but having a critical perspective on indie's social functions hardly diminishes my feeling for some of these films.

-Maybe some processes are quicker and easier, but my revision process was slow and painful. Between proposal and proofs stages, there were at least four readers who wrote reports. The shape of the project shifted as my interests developed toward more of a concern with social issues and less with narrative. I like how it turned out, but it took a long time to get there. One thing I'm especially pleased with is how Indie balances two senses of culture: as works to be analyzed, and as social ways of knowing and experiencing. A film culture functions in both of these senses, and I try to combine an analysis of indie's value as a cultural category, and its coherence as a body of films calling on a coherent set of expectations about form and meaning. When I say film culture, I always mean both of these things.

-I am pretty pleased by the cover. I suggested images from Lost in Translation and Juno, and for various reasons the press preferred Juno. One reason I like seeing her on the cover is that Juno is both a film I liked a lot, and a great example of the contentiousness of indie as a cultural category. As I discuss in the final chapter, Juno is an example of a movie that some members of the indie community sought to de-authenticate, to remove from consideration as indie because of its heavy marketing by Fox Searchlight, its mainstream appeal, its lack of indie bona fides. One of my central claims about indie cinema is that it's a slippery, contested category, and that it can only be understood as it is used within indie film culture. I would not exclude it because it is so widely thought to belong, but the efforts of some critics and bloggers to distance themselves from Juno (and of many people I have talked to personally) reveals much about the values sustaining independent cinema. I suggested handwritten for the type but the designer did it better than that, and gave it more of a DIY scissors cut-out look.

This is the Lost in Translation image I had suggested. Pretty but not really fun. Related: I use the term bokeh in the chapter where I discuss Lost in Translation to describe the effect of out-of-focus abstract shapes of lights like we see in this image. That's one of my favorite words in the book, just cuz.

-Some people have asked how it feels to have a book published. It's kind of like asking how it feels to be 39 years old. I knew it was coming for a long time, and it's not that different from before. But publish means to make public, so now I have this sense that what I have done is out there and outside of my control, and I like that. It means my work is done. It belongs to you now.