Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television

Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television

Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television

Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television

Synopsis

"Holling is tormented by Koyaanisqatsi dreams until he goes out and does the wild thing with a young stag.... "--Synopsis from production company "Bible," Northern Exposure, March 30, 1992

The collision of auteurism and rap--couched by primetime producers in the Northern Exposure script--was actually rather commonplace by the early 1990s. Series, and even news broadcasts, regularly engineered their narratives around highly coded aesthetic and cultural fragments, with a kind of ensemble iconography. Televisuality interrogates the nature of such performances as an historical phenomenon, an aesthetic and industrial practice, and as a socially symbolic act. This book suggests that postmodernism does not fully explain television's stylistic exhibitionism and that a reexamination of "high theory" is in order. Caldwell's unique approach successfully integrates production practice with theory in a way that will enlighten both critical theory and cultural studies.

Excerpt

Holling is tormented by Koyaanisqatsi dreams until he goes out and does the wild thing with a young stag. . . . --Synopsis from production company "bible," Northern Exposure

The collision of cineastic taste and streetwise sexuality, auteurism and rap-- couched by primetime producers in this industrial document--was actually rather commonplace in television by the early 1990s. In fact, for at least a decade American television had exploited the programming potential of visual style in episodes like the one described above. Scripts, especially in prestige dramatic offerings like Northern Exposure, made a weekly practice of engineering their narratives around highly coded aesthetic and cultural fragments. This was no longer simply ensemble drama, a form with a long generic history in television. It was also a kind of ensemble iconography and a highly publicized ritual of aesthetic facility. This book aims to interrogate the nature of such performance, and to do so from three perspectives: as a historical phenomenon, as an aesthetic and industrial practice, and as a socially symbolic act. In ways that I hope to make clearer later, the self- conscious performance of style is not adequately posed nor fully explained by reference to postmodernism. Furthermore, the industrial practice of televisuality challenges several other dominant variants of academic media theory and suggests that a reexamination of high theory is in order. A coalition of very strange intellectual bedfellows--from across a wide range of theoretical and institutional commitments--now posit the very status of the image as a problem. The inability of this intellectual coalition to fully engage contemporary television suggests that a desegregation of theory and production practice is very much in order.

Interrogating the status of the image in recent American television brings with it several inevitable tasks: coming to grips with fundamental changes in the ways that television is made and addressing the ways that production practice problematizes theory. The route that I took to writing this book meant navigating both issues. I recall, for example, while working in on-line video postproduction suites in the early 1980s, that practitioners in this environment utilized theoretical frameworks that were utterly alien to the accounts of television dominant in academic film and television theory. Of course, I never expected practitioners to use the same lingo as academics, but the fundamental paradigms upon which the digital video effects (DVE) artists worked, sound designers mixed, and the editors cut bore no resemblance to the explanations about television spun out by theorists. Of course these practitioners might be "dupes," as radical critical theory always seemed to imply, ideologically enmeshed as they were in the dominant media. Yet, they were certainly not stupid about what they were doing. Far from it. There was a semiotic and stylistic capability here that had to be taken seriously. Working with cinematographers underscored the same lesson. Even those doing video industrials could bring to productions an aesthetic facility with film historical and lighting styles, a consciousness that provided clients a de facto menu of styles-on-demand. What had happened to the video production industry since . . .

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