Monday, January 23, 2017

Core Response (Week 3)

I found Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch’s “Television as a Cultural Forum” quite compelling. In the article, the authors argue that far from being a mode of media which is created by the cultural producers that be to present and maintain "dominant ideological messages and meanings" (571), that television functions instead as cultural forum which, in addition to setting forth dominant ideology, responds to and addresses changing cultural needs, wants, and meanings. Newcomb and Hirsch point to a number of examples of television programs which, while could be argued are ultimately upholding the dominant ideology, present within their texts a range of alternate views leading up to the upholding of dominant ideology. If television functions as a communication medium which sets forth only the dominant ideology, they argue, how could their be so many different readings of shows?

While I tend to agree with Newcomb and Hirsch's assessment of television being a cultural forum, where I falter is in their rash reasoning that television is not only a medium of communication dominant ideology. In their article, among many other examples, the two authors point to the episode of Father Knows Best that we viewed in class. While the ending of the episode certainly upholds the dominant ideology of the time (in that, like all good female teenagers, gives up her dreams of becoming an engineer-- a man’s profession (gasp)-- when she is challenged and chooses instead to go out on a date), Newcomb and Hirsch point to the fact that the viewer sees Betty’s struggle to come to this ultimate decision as evidence that different readings and meanings can be taken from the episode as text. When looking at this episode of Father Knows Best in this light, it seems clear that Newcomb and Hirsch are right -- certainly television functions as a way to present more than just the main cultural ideology.

Where I locate the weakness in their article is in their idea of what cultural dominant ideology and, therefore, also what cultural producers really are. In each example given, the authors locate the one dominant ideology that is put forth, but then also show the various other ideologies and meanings that exist in the show (even if they aren’t the ones ultimately upholded). It seems to me that culture and its producers are much more complex than these authors are giving them credit for. That is, I think the cultural producers referred to here as those that imbue the forms of communication with dominant ideology operate on many different levels than just the most obvious one. Rather (and here perhaps I point more to Foucault than anyone else) culture exists on many different levels, and if we can agree that parts (if not all of) popular culture is created and influenced by these larger ideological (and, here, capitalist, patriarchal, etc.) producers, then part of what culture is therefore meant to do is to seemingly present a varied amount of meanings and ideas to give the viewer, the participant, and the individual the idea that alternate meanings exist (while these meanings were still put forth by these producers).

The meanings in this episode of Father Knows Best are certainly not hidden; instead they are on the surface, included as part of the narrative. How can Newcomb and Hirsch be so sure that these do not also function as part of the greater dominant ideology - that which gives the illusion of free thinking, but that which ultimately upholds the basic structures and meanings the cultural producers want?
While a bigger question here exists (that of: how, if at all, can we ever really escape?), I do think that within the television-as-a-cultural-forum argument that Newcomb and Hirsch have put forth, there does seem to be some hope. That truly subversive readings of texts exist - those that are not found on the surface of the show, but rather are drawn out. Here, I would point to fan fiction as an example of such. Even then, though, I question whether these meanings can ever be truly subversive or if they exist to just further solidify culture’s dominant ideology.

1 comment:

  1. I think your discussion here really breaks down Newcomb and Hirsh's argument nicely, giving us an easy to digest encapsulation of the argument and asking some smart questions. The proliferation and domestication of the sort of subversive or alternate readings that you gesture to at the end of the post seems to be exactly one of the the issues that Gitlin wrestles with in his piece. In the "solution" section of his article he discusses how show creators leave shows open enough to allow for and contain alternate readings which then only increase our engagement and consumption of the show.

    I really like your example of fan fiction as a kind of subversive kind of reading that ignores the hegemonic ideology of the show. While there are some fan fictions which focus on and participate in the original canon and its ideological bent. I think N&H might argue that in using the characters that the canon show has set forth, the fan fiction author is in some small part bound to the original ideologies of the work it is derivative of. However, where I think fan fiction makes sense is when thinking of fan fiction as a process of creation rather than a process of consumption. Within a forum that is about active rather than passive engagement with canon. I'm not sure whether this would mesh well with N&H's conception of the forum, but it is an interesting broadening or questioning of that theme.