Cultural Conferencing: “The New Criticism?” at Flow 2010

“The New Criticism?” at Flow 2010

September 30th, 2010

I am currently awaiting the arrival of a late night bus which shall take me to Chicago and to a plane which will deliver me to Austin, Texas (my first time in the city/state) for the 2010 Flow Conference at the University of Texas – Austin.

This is exciting for a few reasons. First of all, Flow is unique in that it is about conversation more than presentation: instead of having attendees present formal papers, each panel member submits a short response to the panel’s prompt which then form the basis of a discussion which includes participation from the collected scholars in attendance. Conferences are usually all about conversation anyways, with the time before and after panels often more beneficial and interesting than the panels themselves, and Flow formalizes that process within its topics, and I am very much looking forward to witnessing some fantastic discussion over the weekend.

However, I will also be presenting myself as part of a panel convened by Jason Mittell (who I often link to) on “The New Criticism? Academia, Journalism, and Digital Critics.” It’s spun-off from a blog post Jason wrote back in March, which focused on the blurring of critical categories, and admittedly discusses my own position within the erosion of traditional boundaries. As a result, I was very interesting in continuing this conversation, and am excited to continue the conversation with others who come at the question from different perspectives – along with Jason and myself, the conversation will include The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray, The New School’s Laura Crestohl, and UCLA’s Sudeep Sharma, and I am extremely excited to expand on Jason’s post (and my own writings on the topic) this weekend and perhaps into the future as well.

It’s going to be an extremely exciting weekend, and I look forward to plenty of discussion, debate, and analysis in the days ahead. In the meantime, though, readers can join in the conversation: the panel is at 9:45 on Saturday (October 2nd), and if you’re on Twitter you can follow the #Flow10 hashtag where members of the audience of this and other panels will be tweeting. You can also head to the Flow Conference site, where you can read the position papers from each of the panelists which will be used to spark conversation. In the short term, however, you can check out my own position paper below the fold.

I’ll preface this by saying that this is not so much my opinion and more my observations regarding the current state of television criticism within the blogosphere: I do not personally view television criticism as hierarchical, but I do think that the way in which blogs operate brings these sorts of distinctions to the surface in a way that Twitter does not, which is the point I was trying to make here. I see this sort of environment as diverse more than divisive, but I think it can be read either way and does occasionally lean towards the latter.

However, without further adieu, my position paper.

Self-Definition = Critical Division:

Legitimacy and Community in the TV Criticism Blogosphere

Myles McNutt

University of Wisconsin – Madison

In the world of television criticism, Twitter is generally accepted as the great equalizer, a common language spoken by journalists, scholars, students, and fans which places them on the same level and encourages interaction between them. However, before Twitter’s popularity, blogs would have likely occupied its space in this conversation: as more journalists took to blogs to expand on their critical observations, so too did academics and individuals who wanted to expand their involvement within this community, which made the “blogosphere” a shared space of television criticism.

That being said, I think that the conversation would have been quite different: while blogs and Twitter may be similar in terms of the various groups who utilize them, I would argue that blogs emphasize the divisions between these groups more than they unite them under a common purpose.

While we tend to stress the openness of Twitter, in many ways it is a rigid structure: with only 140 characters per tweet, the site forces you to represent your personality within the briefest of statements. It asks you to express yourself, but the limitations make defining yourself all but impossible: while a Twitter feed is an extension of an individual, it does not – or, more accurately, cannot – define that individual. As a result, communication between students and scholars, or critics and fans, becomes comfortable because there exists a common understanding that what happens in Twitter is a limited – if not limiting – discourse.

However, by comparison blogs are a tremendously open discourse, a blank canvas waiting for each individual to make their own mark. Even when there is a common subject of discussion like television, there is an expectation that a blog will be a reflection of an individual’s point of view, and the most agonizing part of the blogging process is deciding who you are in relation to your chosen subject.

This process of self-definition is quite easy for those with established professions: they become critics with blogs, or scholars with blogs, carefully positioning their blogging as an extension of a pre-existing career. Where this self-definition becomes problematic is for those who lack such a clear claim to legitimacy: this includes students (‘wannabe scholars’), amateur reviewers (‘wannabe critics’) and television bloggers (‘wannabe journalists’), groups whom are often seen as aspiring towards the work of their professional brethren. I want to make clear that is not problematic from the perspective of personal development. While some may view blogging as a means to an end, it is just as often a process of self-discovery, and can help amateurs get closer to becoming professionals through experience gained and lessons learned.

The problems start to emerge when this personal development does not match up with professional-oriented definitions of legitimacy. While not as prominent as within film, where the battle between critics and bloggers frequently brings forth claims regarding the death of film criticism, there remains some pushback (see: Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle) against amateurs infringing on professional territory within television criticism: as bloggers gain access to the same screener materials and set visits as critics, for example, some question whether they deserve that access when they lack the credentials of established journalists. While the medium may be the same, and in some cases the content is fairly similar, these similarities only serve to heighten the tension between these different groups. What does it mean if amateur reviewers become part of the critical conversation, or if ‘bloggers’ sit alongside critics at a press event, or if students are more active in critical communities than their professors?

There is no clear answer to these questions, which is precisely the problem: with no accepted definition of legitimacy, the intermingling of these critical forces within the self-definition expected within blogging serves to emphasize, rather than erase, the differences between these groups. Blogs offer the promise of community, uniting various groups within the same environment and potentially bringing them together through with blog comments or pingbacks, but that community is more meritocracy than democracy, and with no clear definition of what constitutes legitimacy it heightens the same tensions which Twitter makes disappear on the surface.

This is not to say that television criticism is not better off for the rise of blogs (and the post-air analysis they help facilitate), or that there are no critics or other professionals who are open to the democracy of the blogosphere, but rather that a shared form of communication does not necessarily break down pre-existing definitions within this critical community. In fact, I’m skeptical that Twitter’s inclusiveness will last: as it becomes more widely adopted, I suspect that who you follow, and how many people follow you, could become defining characteristics for members of this community.

And with definition comes complication.

[Feel free to start the discussion before the conference starts in the comments below – I’ll likely take any response here and take it into account heading into the discussion!]

1 Comment

Filed under TV Criticism

One response to “Cultural Conferencing: “The New Criticism?” at Flow 2010

  1. Esteban

    Very interesting. Great to meet you.

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