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February 1995, Week 2


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Henry Jenkins <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 10 Feb 1995 16:53:53 CST
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----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Marvin Smith asks about the use of the word, "elitism" in the PBS debates. As
I see it, elitism is surfacing in at least three different senses which as
is often the case in such debates, keep getting wraped around each other.
First, the original conservative critics of PBS have charged its programing
with "elitism." What they seem to mean is that it speaks to and for the
so-called "elite liberal establishment." In some senses, it is an ideological
term there, which pits elite liberals against down-to-earth conservative
populists (like, we suppose, Mr. Jarvik and Mr. Gingrich.) It seems bound
up with the ideological critique of programs like TONGUES UNTIED or Bill
Moyers or TALES OF THE CITY, as using tax payers money to speak to "narrow
special interests." Second, liberal proponents of PBS charge that the
conservatives are themselves being elitists in a more economic sense. When some
one argues that we don't need PBS because the same kinds of programs are
shown on cable or when they suggest that people CHOOSE not to subscribe to
cable, etc., then they are ignoring some pretty basic economic realities. They
seem to operate in a world where everyone is basically middle class or higher
and therefore don't face economic challenges, or they make the assumption that
intellectual capital (i.e. the interest in programs on PBS) is somehow
magically linked to economic capital (i.e. the ability to pay for cable) so that
 those without money couldn't or wouldn't like/understand/benefit from those
programs anyway. Third, as a cultural studies scholar, I see a different
kind of elitism entering into the debate, one with a long history in struggles
over taste hierarchies. Proponents of PBS present themselves as producing
"better television," "quality television," etc., as conveyers of Matthew
Arnold's conception of culture as enlightenment and sweetness and light.
Arnold's model assumed that the higher classes are the best arbiters of
taste and cultural value and that they benefited society by spreeding their
particular conception of culture outward to the less refined masses, who
by definition had no culture of their own. This rhetoric surrounds PBS in
ways that I consistently find offensive and insuportable. It isn't as if
PBS was a center for the artistic avant garde, which was on the cutting
edge of cultural development. They are most often presenting "middlebrow
culture," important because it is a literary adaptation or presented with
a british accent or offered in a slow, lushly scoreds style without much
spectacle or emotional excess. Frankly, I don't think it is very creative
in its use of television as a medium, offering works which soothe rather
than challenge or entertain their viewers. If I ask my MIT students what
programs excited them about science, they don't cite NOVA or READING RAINBOW
or MR. WIZARD, they cite STAR TREK. PBS too often makes Charley the Tuna's
classic mistake: we don't want tuna with good taste; we want tuna that tastes
good. The PBS rhetoric, on the other hand, assumes that popular taste is
necessarily banal and vulgar, that what the people want isn't what they
should have, that commercialism invariably spoils art, and that there is some
arcane moral distinction to be drawn between the merchandising and
 commodification of SESAME STREET and that offered up by HEMAN, MASTERS OF THE
NINJA TURTLES etc. (I would argue that they are all "program-length"
commercials which should be judged on the basis of their contents and not
their economic funding.)
   How do we teach a sense of excellence in our students without engaging in
elitism of any of the three flavors I cite above? We do it best by being
open-minded, and teaching them to respect and value a range of different
aesthetics and cultural traditions, popular as well as elite, and teaching them
to think creatively about how different programs relate to the aesthetic
traditions from which they emerge. When we talk about painting, we are
quite good about recognizing the different evaluative standards one would
apply in looking at Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Renassaince, German Expressionist,
French Impressionist, Pop, Indian, Native American, etc. art.  Why, then, do
we judge television with a one-size fits all set of criteria. The pursuit of
excellence does not require elite or rigid standards; it requires creative
and open-minded evaluations of works within the aesthetic terms that produced
them. I think we can best teach evaluative judgement to our students by
taking seriously their own tastes and the evaluative criteria they are already
employing. And what really bugs me about having to defend PBS is that I
see such a level of arogance from PBS about this whole issue of taste and
what consitutes quality television! Sorry, Charlie, but I do want tuna that
tastes good, when push comes to shove.
--Henry Jenkins