Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 16, July 2003



John Corner


Keeping a Distance:

A Response to Rosemary White



Rosemary White

'Television at a Distance: Corner's _Critical Ideas in Television Studies_'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 15, July 2003


I was generally very pleased with Rosemary White's review of my book _Critical Ideas in Television Studies_. Her early recognition of the 'distant view' that I adopt had the potential to become a serious criticism. However, it ends up being an endorsement of an approach that tries to refresh our sense of what is at issue in studying television, while holding on to a degree of general clarity, and without claiming, in a manner that has become rather tedious in the literature (because of widespread fraud), possession of some big new insight. I was particularly taken by her idea that (in a way that she occasionally finds a little frustrating) there is a kind of alienation effect at work in some of the accounts, throwing the reader into a productive re-assessment of things that dominant strands of scholarship might have suggested we can now take for granted. How to write, for whom, and for what purpose are, of course, a set of questions that could be pondered in the Academy a good deal more than they are. How to write about television introduces, as White points out, a quite distinctive set of hazards to do with value. Even the very idea of serious academic consideration of television can still produce a snigger in many circles, while parts of Film Studies still regard consideration of the small screen for purposes other than an 'off duty' essay rather idiosyncratic and just possibly suspect (best left to those who have found their intellect has failed to match up to the demands of cinema!).


My plan for the book began to seem increasingly quixotic as I moved through to the final draft. I wanted to touch on key issues affecting our ideas about television across almost all of its dimensions. Ideas and issues were central, there was to be no attempt at a synopsis of the full range of published studies. So no time for detailed examples that form a central part of my earlier books like _Television Form and Public Address_, and not much for the kind of detailed citations of the literature that pass for 'discussion' in many textbooks. I also wanted to avoid the kind of dense theoreticist language than cannot see the wood for the trees, and then even loses focus of the trees. Ideally, it was going to be a bit demanding but useful for the more advanced student, while having something to say for those involved in teaching and research too. It certainly wouldn't be a textbook and so would not adopt what has now become a conventional pedagogic mode of presentation and address (what we can call the 'dutiful plod' model at its worst, with its pragmatic variant, the 'tips for the essay' guide. A really Good Tips And Trick). Hopefully it would be a bit more readable and more widely useful than a specialist monograph too. The word limit started to make the 11 chapter scheme seem very pushed and, indeed, there is some unfortunate truncation at points, but the idea of the 'sketch', the brief trip round the main points as I saw them, was part of the plan. The word 'breezy' springs to mind, with just a touch of the 'spiky' to give the further thinking a good prod. 'Critical' got into the title because I liked the way it played across the three meanings of aesthetic appreciation, negative judgment, and central significance -- all featuring in my account with various degrees of alignment or tension. 'Ideas' seemed a good temporary substitute for 'theory' given the abuse and pretension to which that latter term had been subjected.


All this sounds a bit self-satisfied but actually I was a bit unhappy when it got to reading the proofs and more resigned than pleased when it finally came out, despite having had very supportive revision advice from John Caughie and Charlotte Brunsdon. Somehow, the grand plan of a perky, suggestive trip around almost everything seemed a good deal riskier. So the fact that, with all its oddities (some planned 'strangeness' and some unplanned), quite a few readers and reviewers liked it, was really a relief. I'd had a few bad moments waiting for first reactions.


I take White's point about the downside of too much 'even-handedness'. That could have been managed better perhaps. But most of it is the result of entirely genuine uncertainty and ongoing reflection on my part, together with a wish to avoid the kind of banal, over-polemicized commitment which has distorted so much work in this area and substituted the striking of attitudes for the understanding of the real complexities of use and value.


Where I do disagree with White is her suggestion that the book 'works hard to assert the specificity of television studies'. It does nothing of the kind, keeping close to a plural and, as White notes approvingly, 'messy' sense of the term as 'studies of television' rather than a unified field. While engaged by the specificities of television itself I take the non-specificity of television studies to be essential. 'Television Studies' as a unified bit of academic terrain is almost certain to be grossly curtailed in its resources of scholarship and to have far too much contrived coherence and self-referential complacency for its own good. Students beware! (_Teleparody_, also reviewed here at _Film-Philosophy_, picks up on some of these symptoms with comic zest, as well as, I imagine, displaying a few of them itself).


I also feel that I might value some kinds of journalistic writing about television, particularly reviews, more than White seems to do. In teaching I have always found the use of this material productive, including asking for imitations and parodies as well as serious attempts at popular writing, although I take her point about the need to raise the issues that this material often conveniently masks over.


A last point. The cover design. Well, in a book series this is largely out of the hands of authors, as White concedes. It might have been more attractive, but I don't know about 'creaky'. Within my semiotics, that rather austere, oblique look, a touch schoolbook, a touch arty, altogether a bit angular, is not at all bad alongside the examples of busy, multicoloured photo-literalism alongside it on the media studies shelves. But that's taste for you.


University of Liverpool, England



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



John Corner, 'Keeping a Distance: A Response to Rosemary White', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 16, July 2003 <>.


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