Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 41, November 2003



Joke Hermes


On Behalf of the Audience:

A Critique of Janet Staiger's Notion of the Practice of Reception



Janet Staiger

_Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception_

New York and London: New York University Press, 2000

ISBN 0-8147-8139-X

242 pp.


The title of Janet Staiger's book _Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception_ (2000) immediately caught my attention. While doing audience research from a cultural studies perspective, film from time to time came up in interviews. Because I was interested in comparing findings, I have tried to find audience work done by film theoreticians, but never had much luck apart from Jackey Stacey's excellent book _Star Gazing_, and Helen Taylor's study of _Gone with the Wind_ fans. Staiger's title seemed to promise a more general theoretical take on the practices of film viewing. More fool me to read 'reception' as audience practice. Staiger's book is far removed from the type of well-theorized empirical audience studies that I take an interest in. That is not to say that it is uninteresting. It is meant to warn the reader that I was disappointed. In itself that does not warrant writing this review, nor do I assume that readers will be that interested in my deceptions. However, underlying my own disappointment, I find three more general themes that I do think are important to discuss. Last but not least, in the first (and to me least interesting) part of the book, Staiger appears to argue that cultural studies has not understood the basics of poststructuralist reception theory because it has limited possible readings to preferred, negotiated, and oppositional readings. This refers to the much debated encoding-decoding model that is suggested to be the hottest thing in audience research studies today. I would therefore like to counter that Staiger's work would be more convincing if she were to keep to analyses of the concrete instances of reception that she deconstructs and describes in interesting ways, rather than make highfalutin claims that go over the heads of many of her readers.


I suspect that I am a revisionist rather than a critical scholar, and remain unsure whether this is good or bad. My hesitation stems from the chapter 'The Romance of the _Blonde Venus_', which describes movie censors versus movie fans. I think that us revisionists have failed to understand that the fans are also manipulated by the capitalist system (via the magazines in which their version of the meaning of Dietrich's film _Blonde Venus_ were publicised). But then it is in this chapter too that reviewers are put down as pandering to what the average viewer will think a film is about. In a later chapter reviewers are credited with being source material for Staiger's reconstruction of the meanings of another film (_Silence of the Lambs_). Maybe I am not just a revisionist but also incapable of recognising historical change, for instance in the practice of film reviewing. From my limited knowledge and quite possibly uncritical revisionist perspective, I still doubt that Staiger's claims will be that shocking to the film scholars who have long engaged with contextual readings of filmic texts, which in the end is what the entire book boils down to.


More generally then, reading Staiger's _Perverse Spectators_ opens up three areas of inquiry -- apart from the noteworthy rift between film and television studies that is not as easily bridged as we would hope (mostly due to the lasting influence of psychoanalysis and the individualistic, apolitical reading that psychoanalytic insight gives rise to; and the attention to singular texts which so ill-fits the study of a medium such as television). The three areas I wish to discuss are 1, the conceit of reception theory; 2, the return of the text in poststructuralist attempts to endlessly defer it in favour of contexts (which, once defined, are as closed an interpretive circuit as the original text was); and 3, the values of empirical audience research, even in a context of theorisation and reconstruction of the (contextual) meanings of texts.


The type of reception theory that Staiger wishes to construct is a top-down type of cultural criticism. It consists of going beyond the singular filmic text (as point of departure) by finding key moments that have defined the way the text became meaningful. These key moments also have their key spokespersons. Staiger quotes exhibitors and reviewers whose attempts to frame reception of individual films apparently have chained down its many possible meanings. Of course, in historical reception research, it is difficult enough to find sources that will help to historically correctly interpret the width of meaning accorded to a film or a particular star. Generally, I therefore sympathise with Staiger's attempt to not pay too much attention to the film itself but to reconstruct the context in which it was embedded. However, I can hardly sympathise with her closed style of reading these contexts -- which becomes all the more objectionable the more we approach the present.


The chapter on _The Silence of the Lambs_, for example, is partly a rereading of the reviews of this particular film, and partly a reading of one of the discursive contexts in which the reception of the film was molded: the outing of the actress playing the lead character Jodie Foster. The underlying structure of what kept the reviewers busy is read back into the filmic text. The value of this reading and rereading is undoubtedly that Staiger is a very clever critic who draws together different strands in the critical appraisal of this particular film. But it also leaves me wondering. Much of the central argument is directly derived from Carol Clover's entertaining and thought-provoking analysis of horror movies (also motivated by the experience of witnessing the audience of the horror movie), and so hardly new. Other (newspaper) critical texts are read by means of Freud's thinking on totems and taboo. Interesting, but hardly a likely theoretical direction that much of the reception by 'ordinary audience members' (dare I say it) will have taken.


The trouble here then is twofold. Nowhere does Staiger take the trouble to explain how or why particular reviews were selected. We will simply have to trust her on this. Nor is it clear how these reviews came to determine a reading or reception of the film, apart from certain circles of viewers. Personally I saw _The Silence of the Lambs_ while visiting with family in Sweden (after trying to find an engaging film that would be subtitled because my Swedish is not so fluent that I could understand a film spoken or dubbed in that language). I had little knowledge of Foster's outing until I read _Perverse Spectators_. I felt it was a chilling account of how a woman survives in male-dominated jobs; with the problems she must face projected onto horrible crimes. I read it in terms of what television has been offering since _Widows_ (ITV, 1983-1985), a British series featuring 4 widows of bank robbers who decide to embark on a life of crime themselves: women operating in a men's world. The widows were only unusual in that they operated on the 'other side' of the law. In many a police series since we have had women detectives as lead characters who have been as easy to read in feminist terms. Staiger suggests a type of reception theory that speaks, so it seems to me, on behalf of people like me -- without paying the slightest attention to the possibility of a wider range of readings being possible despite all the discursive staging of a particular kind of 'preferred meaning'.


The problem I have with this kind of approach has to do with Staiger's notion of poststructuralism. She is very critical of approaches that are exclusively text-centred and mistake the text as the original locus of meaning. But is it not the case that, in her own search for critical discursive moments that define the reception and meaning of a text, the finality of that process of meaning production is not endlessly deferred but simply re-instated by now simply choosing a slightly different moment of closure? Staiger's recipe for contextualisation only goes so far. Of course, Stuart Hall has remarked that we always need to accept temporary closure because we cannot endlessly defer our interpretations and criticism in favour of a theoretical correctness. There are however ways and means of bringing in the self-reflexivity that I myself value poststructuralism for, which may mark the temporariness of our conclusions. Foucault used the means of the interview as a personal moment of reflection alongside his historical and philosophical work, in which we find little trace of the author and how he came to be engaged with the subject: the choices he made, the limits he set for his research. Others have used introductions and conclusions to ground and localize their work. It may be that I am not doing justice to Staiger here, but I have not found such instances in her text. On the contrary all that I found was a didactic tone that dictates how we should study practices of reception. Although this may be written in the vein of poststructuralism, it is a poststructuralism that has its wings (indeed its 'post') clipped. Which is a pity.


Of course, I am simply pleading the case of a certain type of audience analysis, and a certain interpretation of what poststructuralism and postmodernism are like. But since I happen to believe in their merits, let me point out how concrete audience analysis may enrich reception theory rather than lead to uninteresting generalisations. The type of audience research I am thinking of has as its central strong quality the fact that it may surprise the researcher. Starting from Staiger's position: to interpret a text via key moments in how the meaning of the text is pre-structured and given meanings even before we see it, suggests a possible map of meaning. The whole point is then to keep an open mind for further readings. However strong we are as intellectuals (in which category I include film critics), the affective properties of many a film, book, or television programme may well elude us. Non-comprehension of some parts of a media text may lead to productive misreadings which are nonetheless as interesting in what they tell us about the constellation of cultural knowledge. To be aware of how differently audience groups may 'read' any text should allow us to re-examine its critical contexts, and where and how it impacted audience interpretations. Audience interpretations in themselves can be read much as Staiger reads reviews and reports from those within the film industry: that is, for structuring metaphors and absences, and for how certain meanings are foregrounded and layered back into the filmic text. However, it is highly possible that processes of meaning production cannot be reduced to the immediate text, critical reception, and viewing context of a single film. I am thinking here of the more general pleasures and displeasures of cinema going; of the overriding strength of star texts already in place and the biographies of those watching the film.


This book remains stuck in that old structuralist interest in 'the spectator', defined by Annette Kuhn as a textually inscribed position and the opposite of social audiencehood. That, of course, is a legitimate choice, as long as this type of reception theory is not read as a form of 'decoding analysis', criticised by Staiger as the mistake of cultural studies. What Staiger does is arguably part of the process of encoding -- if we would still want to use the encoding-decoding model at all. Staiger is interested in those moments where the preferred meaning is produced -- and in those who produce it. I doubt whether she is truly interested in the really perverse practices of spectators. For me, _Perverse Spectators_ doesn't have the guts to engage with the real world (I know, an unforgivable term to use), or to tackle what people do with film outside of the cerebral domain cornered by clever film analysts and the interpretive games they play.


In all four sections of _Perverse Spectators_ -- 'Historical Theory and Reception Theory', 'Interpretation and Hollywood Film History'; 'Interpretation and Identity Theory' and 'Interpretation and the Representation of the Real' -- audiences are only present via the work (theoretical and historical) of others. They are not the ones to replace the authority of the text, so advocated by Staiger. Nor are we allowed to unseat her own authority, since we are not given any means to dispute Staiger's final words. This is not a book for those like me who suffer from empiricist small-mindedness, and who fear that intellectuals easily get smug if they do not allow for others to impinge on their thoughts and reconstructions. Nor is it a book for those like myself who are overly feminist, in the sense that they feel that respect to audiences and audience practices can only be shown by allowing audience members space in the academic text. Those interested in historical reception processes, in specific filmic texts, or who wish to challenge, just a bit, their structuralist point of departure, will have an enjoyable read.


University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



Joke Hermes, 'On Behalf of the Audience: A Critique of Janet Staiger's Notion of the Practice of Reception', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 41, November 2003 <>.


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