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Television and Politics

Against Abstraction

For some time I have tried to avoid further consideration of “Television as a Cultural Forum: Implications for Research.” The primary reason for avoidance is the expansion of whatever we can define as “television,” the implications of that expansion for ideas presented in the essay, and the consequent implications for “Implications for Research,” a feature of the essay often ignored. But it is primarily in that essay that any thoughts I might have had of “Television and Politics” were expressed. The only other sites for considering that pair of concepts are in autobiographical writing about my personal experiences with television, and there’s no need to consider those as central to the topic for this venue.

So my comments at the Ann Arbor meeting will begin by acknowledging problems with the Forum essay. The most common and frequent critiques of the ideas put forward there are that the essay takes too little notice of “power” and/or “ideology.” That’s true. The critiques are significant, correct and useful up to a point, a good point for thinking with. I’ll spend little time on “power,” preferring Hartley’s question, paraphrased here as “What if power isn’t the first question?” I will spend most of my time suggesting distinctions between “ideology” and “politics.”

Briefly, and I hope provocatively (the assigned rhetorical mode), I have little interest in ideology, finding it generally useless as a specific analytical or explanatory concept. Ideology is smooth, subtle, coherent (at least in the “last instance”), abstract, yet deemed powerful precisely because it is in some ways “invisible.” Once announced as a top-down, all-encompassing, generalizable, structuring concept, it is, as I’ve said of “hegemony,” impossible to deny, alter, escape or argue against. It’s there. Get used to it. Thus, ideology critique is repetitive, predictable and boring.

Politics are dirty, in every sense of the cliché. Politics are rough, uncertain, locatable, visible, partial, limited. Politics “explain” little more than specific “cases.” Politics exist primarily in the first “instances,” the ones that refuse generalizability. As found and explored in cases, politics are often surprising, unexpected and fun.

I’ll try to demonstrate these distinctions with a few television narratives. I probably won’t be convinced by attempts to show how examples of dirty politics are rendered meaningless if we “understand” how they can exist only within “ideological boundaries.” These comments are not intended as a “defense” of the Forum essay. It’s flawed, old and self-interested. Rather, I’m concerned with how and why we study a television that was hardly imagined in 1983.

 

Horace Newcomb
University of Georgia
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