Thursday, September 21, 2006


This blog of mine has not dealt very much with 'media criticism' as of yet, and it's time to change that. I just got TiVo a couple weeks ago, and it has given me an opportunity to catch up on my television. This is, I think, a very good thing. Television is a "most wondrous" thing, to warp a quote from Dewey. To try to explain (to myself and others) why I enjoy the shows I do presents a challenge to my writing ability.

Much of my television viewing time is spent watching old movies. TiVo picks these up like crazy, and I love them. But talking about how I use TiVo to record old movies is only slightly less irritating than hearing others (especially academics) explain how (or, even worse, why) they don't watch tv.

So, let me address two programs that I truly love: The Venture Brothers and Korgoth of Barbaria. Both are featured shows in the Cartoon Network's famed 'Adult Swim' showcase. Both are clearly geared toward male audiences. Both take a spoofy nonchalance in their tweaking of the formulaic pop culture of an earlier time. Venture Brothers is, quite clearly, an updated Johnny Quest. Korgoth of Barbaria is a Frank Frazetta painting, put into motion, with a lot of Mobius-inspired art thrown in for good measure. There is a familiar (boring?) postmodern twiddling of the knobs to be found here. The Venture Brothers involves a more blatantly sexual, more blatantly violent, more blatantly stupid version of Johnny Quest. Jokes move quickly as Dr. Venture and his two sons (Dean and Hank), with the help of their bodyguard (Brock Samson), face the dangers inherent in the life of a super-scientist. Korgoth involves somewhat less of an alteration of the subject, with storylines that actually could have come right from the pages of Heavy Metal, or from EC comics in the late 1950s.

The thing is this: why would anyone (myself included) enjoy a parody of Johnny Quest or of Heavy Metal magazine? Why so many belly-laughs from a satire of two pop culture phenomena that almost no one remembers anyway? I think it all has to do with the enjoyment we get out of fluency in cultural codes. This is nothing too complicated. Both shows (correctly or not) interpellate the viewer as someone who can speak the language of Johnny Quest and Heavy Metal. References to these minor cultural touchstones ooze out of every second of each show. From the clothes that Dean and Hank Venture wear, to the design of the jet they use to cruise from adventure to adventure, to art design, to the (Jim Thirwell-composed) music that scores the show, The Venture Brothers invites us to recognize the authors' (and our own) fluency in the cultural codes of 'adventure' cartoon of the 1960s. Korgoth is equally-studied in its particular references to Heavy Metal. Sunsets and sunrises are blood-red. Women are all ridiculously curvy and they do not speak. The battle axe is the weapon of choice. Magicians keep a tight grip over their castles. And so on. Korgoth's creators' attention to detail demands to be respected.

What are we to make of this? I don't think I've ever convinced anyone that either of these shows is funny. I don't think I'm every likely to. When popular culture involves this much reference to pre-existing codes, it's unlikely to get much more praise than a Quentin Tarantino movie. Still, it's fun to see the play in all these cliches, even if, before long, it all becomes more like a game of cards than the kind of trmendously meaningful experience someone like Adorno would have preferred. The utterly pre-fabricated has a spontaneousness all its own.

In the near future, along with two other bloggers, I will be writing on Adorno's Aesthetic Theory. That oughta be something. Stay tuned, web-slingers.

Friday, September 15, 2006


A couple posts ago, I promised I'd say something about Sari Thomas' piece in the critical forum section of Critical Studies in Media Communication 23(2). Here goes:

Thomas addresses Matt Carlson's piece on journalists KIA in Iraq. She critiques what she seems to see as a broader theme in communication research. Working from Robert Merton's ideas regarding the attractiveness of 'middle range' propositions/theories, Thomas suggests that media scholars pay more attention to how theory is generated in the field. As Thomas puts it: "If theory is as important as we write and teach, it is ironic that it is the least overtly regulated aspect of scholarly inquiry--that it is the one activity in which everything seems to cleave to authorial and/or editorial choices."

I'm ready to stop right here and point out that I don't think "ironic" is the word for this. Indeed, it is the autonomy of the profession that encourages us to find new interpretations, to seek out theoretical approaches that do not line up so closely with what has already been established. Already, Thomas seems to be asserting a classic hypothesis-driven approach to comm research.

This idea that Thomas is doing battle for a hypothesis-driven approach is given further support by Thomas' next point, that 'progressiveness', as found in the sciences (Thomas provides the example of Kepler --> Galileo --> Newton --> Einstein), could be generated/mimicked/attempted in media scholarship by making sure that "contextualization includes all reasonable work challenging one's position." Thomas stops short of saying that media research should be as progressive as physics. But she wants an approach to the media that can at least establish what it is NOT saying. Makes sense to me.

Thomas' other rationale here is 'administrative'. She argues that media researchers would become stronger in academe if it could "develop whatever intrinsic strengths they can to remain as competitive as possible in the academic corporation." As she puts it, "the development of methodology for theory could be part of this process--if only because, again, it is something we can do. It has the potential to enhance our disciplinary oeuvre, in general. Moreover, extending our work to, or integrating it with, more established theory might help our literal 'corporate' extension." The point here is that we'll become an academic juggernaut if we bake our cookies the old fashioned way: with the kind of elbow grease the other disciplines will respect.

Thomas then goes on to show how Carlson's piece on KIA journalists lacks some of the things that might make media research more of a success. The criticism is measured, intelligent, and mostly persuasive.

Still, I challenge Thomas' critical standpoint. My first critique deals with Thomas' preference for more 'progressiveness' in media research. I will warn you: my critique will be weak, because I largely agree with her. However, it is a telling moment when she says that enhanced progressiveness in media research will "[throw] theorizing off the endless cycle of paradigm repetition." Here we see Thomas subtly asserting a social science identity for media research. In essence, the humanities would favor the kind of endless cycle (i.e. hermeneutic circle) Thomas describes. That's what humanities do well. In this sense, Thomas is subtly claiming all media research for the social sciences. Not an indefensible point of view, but let's keep in mind that this critical forum is printed in a publication of the National Communication Association, which has frequently been run/edited by rhetoricians. This is significant. Would all humanities-based media scholarship fail to advance media research? I'm not so sure.

My other critique addresses Thomas' peculiar belief that a more rule-oriented kind of theorizing would make media research a stronger discipline/field/whatever. I'm not sure about this. Thomas herself makes clear that the current predicament of media studies is what it is largely because of factors outside of the control of the field. Exogenous factors have been terrifically important to the contours of media research, and they will continue to be. More rule-directed theorizing will not change that. Additionally, I'm reminded of John Durham Peters' comments regarding the state of communication research when I read of Thomas' concerns for media research. Peters laments that communication is populated by so many priests, and so few prophets. Might not the prominence and autonomy of media scholarship be assisted employing BOTH a bunch of scholars who take Thomas' suggested careful approach to theorizing AND a bunch of more free-wheeling grand theorists who give 'em hell? I'm going to end on this not-very-controversial note.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Some of you know that I am currently putting together a volume concerning the history of mass communication research. In this arena, I think I do pretty well. However, nobody has anything on (my co-editor for this forthcoming volume) Jeff Pooley. Pooley's a sharp guy, and he has done the field of communication a huge favor by creating an online resource dedicated to the history of mass communication research.

This resource, called, is exactly what anyone looking into these histories would dare to hope for. It's a database, with an extensive bibliography of research on the history of the field. It's searchable. It's not ridiculously big, so you don't get the mere illusion of a helpful website. You get the complete (compleat?) list of the research on the history of the field.

I suppose the first question on my mind is the question that always occurs to engineers when they are presented with some new bit of physics or math: WHAT CAN I DO WITH THIS?

The first thing I've done with Jeff's invaluable resource is to see what I've missed by such luminaries in the field of the history of mass comm, including David Morrison, Bill Buxton, and J. Michael Sproule. In the future, this will serve as a guide to understand what parts of the history of communication studies have not been covered yet. It will also be an important tool for anyone hoping to assemble a lit review on any part of this field. Look no further for a starting place, young (and old) historians of the field.

Jeff has helpfully made the site RSS-enabled, so you can subscribe to it, and find out when he enters still more citations into this wealth of bibliographical work.

Thanks, Jeff. Keep up the good work.