Erasing the Pop-Culture Scholar, One Click at a Time

We’d be happy to offer the history and context — if only you’d ask

James Yang for The Chronicle Review

July 06, 2016

A cademics in the humanities — but particularly those who specialize in film, television, and comics — have come to view the pop-culture thinkpiece with dread. Invariably some new essay on, say, taste and television is published to great fanfare, at least from other writers of pop-culture thinkpieces. They proceed to treat as "new" or "innovative" some idea or trend that we in academe been writing about for years.

Decades of scholarship are erased by a single, viral essay that is presumed to be the first observation of some "new" phenomenon. Mainstream journalists don’t realize that the subjects they’re writing about, the patterns and shifts they’re noting for the first time, likely have numerous journal articles and possibly even full monographs devoted to them.

If it were just a question of crediting the work of scholars, most of us would lick our wounds and slink away. But it’s not just that. What pains us more than the absent citation is the unsupported claim, the anachronistic parallel, the apocryphal anecdote.

In other words, these thinkpieces almost always get it wrong. The writers, like many a college student, simply haven’t done the reading.

In the college classroom, students’ initial evaluation of art is often based (understandably) on ignorance. They misread, misinterpret, and misunderstand because they simply don’t know what they don’t know. For example, the first time students see Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film, Breathless, they often assume his jump cuts are sloppy editing mistakes, rather than a conscious strategy on the part of the director to subvert the polished style of the 1950s French "Cinema of Quality." In the classroom that is called a "teachable moment." Mistakes and misunderstandings offer professors platforms for engaging students in productive but also corrective discussions.

There are higher stakes in championing poorly researched pop-culture writing on the internet: It further devalues the humanities at a time when the humanities are under attack like never before.
The internet is not a classroom — however much we like to think it is. When writers for major news magazines misread, misunderstand, and mistake their objects of study, they are not synonymous with students and that situation is rarely a teachable moment. That’s because readers have been conditioned to expect that their news sources present them with accurate information.

But that is often not the case in the current online publishing landscape where speed, not accuracy, is valued, and clicks are king. The new culture of immediacy — based on anecdotal knowledge, individual experience, and the occasional nod toward what can be found in a quick Google search — is the lifeblood of this cultural moment.

We didn’t write this to knock anyone’s hustle; to the contrary, this essay is a request for reciprocity. We just want mainstream journalists to be aware: The thoughts and ideas that the news media spotlight as "original" aren’t actually all that original. Someone likely wrote something about that idea/era/film/TV show/music before, and it’s up to you to find out what’s been said and assimilate that knowledge with your initial argument. That write-up you’re planning on antiheroes, reality-television history, or the networks’ exploitation of black audiences? It has a scholarly antecedent just waiting to expand your knowledge of the subject.

In a recent article for The Chronicle, Noah Berlatsky offers a spirited defense of ignorance on the internet. Though Berlatsky is himself a dedicated pop-culture scholar, having published a monograph on Wonder Woman with a respected university press, he warns his fellow pop-culture scholars about getting too territorial: "The enshrinement of hard-won expertise — the insistence that value consists in being able to tell right from wrong — is exactly the mind-set that makes work in the humanities so easy to denigrate."

Instead, Berlatsky asks that we celebrate the fact that there are so many people on the internet excitedly writing about art, whether or not what they are writing is factually or historically sound. "Art’s value isn’t in objective expertise," he writes, "but in its ability to confound subjectivity and objectivity, to scramble the barriers between how one person thinks, how that other person thinks, and how everybody thinks. In art, a misinterpretation may be wrong, but it is always an opportunity."

In other words, if you truly love art and want more people to love it too, then it is necessary to welcome critics of all skill levels into the tent. Popular culture is the culture of the populace, after all. Therefore, everyone’s opinions on popular culture have value, right?

Not necessarily.

Over 40 years ago, the French philosopher Louis Althusser, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, offered one of the best defenses of the humanities. He argued that the way we understand the world and our role in it is shaped by our schoolteachers, our politicians, our priests and rabbis and imams — and by television and movies. Althusser warns that the ideas that appear to be natural or "just the way things are" are in reality, wholly constructed. In academe we call that an "ideology." Those who toss expertise aside and argue that art — even popular art made for a mass audience — needs no context, are willfully sticking their heads in the sand. They are saying that ideology does not need to be examined.

Of course art has interpretive and subjective qualities. You want to argue for the excellence of an artistic work based on its form and quality and the way it makes you feel? Have at it. But remember: Without the building blocks of context, specifics, and history as a foundation, you won’t have much to stand on.

And that’s where media-studies scholars come in. See, we’re thrilled that our former students/future students/aficionados want to grapple with topics to which we’ve dedicated our lives (and for which we’ve incurred considerable debt). Those of us who study television have witnessed its evolution — from the early days when it was perceived as a low-form "vast wasteland" to the present "peak TV" moment in which it has been legitimated as art. It’s wonderful and enriching to see rich conversations happening about television on public platforms — in the comments sections of articles and on social media.

And, yes, we know that our work is often hidden behind pay walls and university libraries (not our fault!). However if we are sharing the same social-media platforms as you, that means we can also assist in locating our work for mainstream pop-culture writers.

So ask around. Want a book but don’t have access to a university library? Academics love sharing our work. Just ask. You think you’re the first to consider … whatever? It’s likely you’re just the first to consider it today. Reading primary and secondary sources won’t make your idea less valuable, meaningful, or innovative. To the contrary, it makes your ideas and argumentation nuanced and holistic.

Beyond a desire for accuracy and historical specificity, there are even higher stakes in championing poorly researched pop-culture writing on the internet: It further devalues the humanities at a time when the humanities are under attack like never before. Humanities majors have dropped from a peak of 17 percent in 1967 to about 8 percent today. Federal support for the humanities has also dropped significantly and steadily since the Reagan administration.

And if you are a faculty member in a state where public higher education is being systematically dismantled with an eye to privatization (see North Carolina and Wisconsin to start), then you know firsthand that when big budget cuts strike, they strike the humanities first.

That’s because in the neoliberal university, a premium is placed on disciplines that appear (and appear is the operative word there) to produce quantifiable results through grants won (the hard sciences) or worker salaries (business and medicine). Disciplines like English, foreign languages, and gender or race studies are seen as indulgences because their value is far more difficult to quantify. Those disciplines teach students to think critically — about the world and our role in it, about the construction of knowledge, about art, and about the status quo. But how do you measure any of that in a spreadsheet?

When we accept as commonplace the idea that the study of art, especially art that appeals to the masses — television, video games, comics — is less important than the study of much-fetishized STEM subjects, when we claim that the objective and the concrete requires expertise but the subjective and the abstract do not, then we are making a dangerous assumption. We are assuming that because something is made for everyone, and accessible to everyone, that its existence is somehow simple and straightforward — a vehicle for testing out theories without an aura of its own. But, art, especially art that seems to require the least amount of scholarly attention — reality TV, video games, comics — is precisely the art that most needs history, context, and deep study. Media matters and media has consequences.

Is it a coincidence that at the very moment our world is saturated in visual media — a recent study found that children gaze at screens on their TVs, computers, and mobile devices an average of six or more hours a day — we are also seeing a devaluing of the expertise needed to understand the intricacies of that media? Is it coincidence that the gig economy arrived at a time when we champion how the internet has given everyone a voice and a platform, an internet filled with millions of content-creators — like that lovely woman and her Chewbacca mask — all working for free? Is it coincidence or the result of decades of micro-erosions of a labor force and the creation of a hope economy?

It might be. And it might not. If only someone with expertise in the subject could weigh in …

Amanda Ann Klein is an associate professor of film studies at East Carolina University and Kristen Warner is an associate professor of media studies at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.