Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Everybody Loves the Negative

I recently happened across a short critique of my reality TV book by Mark Poster (as I was trying to track down my 2009 publications at the behest of the University of Queensland). It was a familiar write off of arguments influenced by first generation Frankfurt School. Poster paraphrased the book's argument as follows: "Reality TV is merely one more sham perpetrated by the culture industry on a society that now must conform to the dictates of an 'interactive economy.'" And then the familiar rejoinder: "Although he credits himself a "critic," the rhetorical effect of his denunciation of reality TV is not an impetus to struggle but paralysis: nothing can be done that the reigning powers cannot co-opt." Then he closes with the final smackdown: "Academic cultural studies at the hands of such scholars betray a tendency to refuse any hint of a negative dialectic in popular culture."
In effect, the unkindest reflexive cut, the rhetorical Jiu-Jitsu move of turning what he imagined to be my own argument against itself: 'I know Adorno, and you're no Adorno.'

OK, granted. But the summation and the implicit definition of negative dialectics remind me of what I both like and dislike about media studies these days: there is such a wide range of theoretical influences, and such a shallow depth of philosophical history, that it's possible to get away with quite a lot. Like pretending you know what "a negative dialectic in popular culture" is without having to explain. This frees people up, but it runs the danger of reducing media studies to the facile pretentious gibberish that certain elements of the right and of assorted sciences and social sciences have suspected it of being all along. So, for the record, a few points. First, thanks to Poster for reading the book and giving it some play. But no thanks for accusing me of arguing that, "nothing can be done." Nowhere in the book is anything along those lines argued. Indeed, if such were the case, I'd be crazy not to drop the whole thing and start writing about how much I enjoy TV, or, better yet, go back to that gig on Wall Street and CASH IN. Poster seems to have read or at least skimmed some parts of the book, so I'm guessing he'd probably concede that I never actually argue what he accuses me of, but perhaps he sees paralysis as the unstated import of my argument. I think it would be more accurate to argue that the book's message is that within the horizon of capital nothing can be done -- without shattering the horizon.

But he seems to have something else in mind with the notion of "a negative dialectic in popular culture": something that I'm tempted to describe as the positive negativity of "popular culture" -- perhaps something he takes from the famous "two torn halves of an integral freedom" quote in Adorno's letter to Benjamin. Since Poster just throws the term out without explaining it, the reader is left to interpret what Poster imagines he means by the notion. My guess is this: that there is some emancipatory potential in "popular culture" in the sense that "it's not all bad": there is room to move, there are purchase points for critique, perhaps a covert but direct revolutionary impetus. This is what he takes away from his reading of Sue Murray and Laurie Ouellette on reality TV: "The genre thus opens to the audience the possibility of resistance to the broadcast." That may be so, but it is decidedly not what Adorno described by the term "negative dialectics." The automatic postmodern read of a "negative dialectic" (the one I suspect Poster of harboring) is that of some kind of open-ended unfolding: there's always a surplus or a lack, always something that overflows closure, always room to deconstruct, undo, reconfigure. Again, this may be true, but this is not Adorno's version. For Adorno dialectics (and all dialectics are, in the end, either negative or not truly dialectical) is a symptom of a wrong and damaged state of affairs, not a simple description of how things are once you cure yourself of metaphysics.

Negative dialectics is not some kind of precursor to the endless slippage of "differance," and so on. Yes, there is a gesture toward what might be described "room for resistance" but it is much fainter than Poster suggests with his invocation of Murray and Ouellette's description of reality TV as "Far from being the mind-numbing deceitful and simplistic genre that some critics claim it to be" because it provides a "multi-layered viewing experience that hinges on culturally and politically complex notions of what is real and what is not."

Again, while this may be true, it is not the same space as that defined by a "negative dialectic." A negative dialectic reveals the wrong state of affairs for what it is; it highlights the irrationality of what counts as rational, the administered character of freedom -- and even of the multiple layers of meaning that seem to constitute an opening. Moreover, "negative dialectics" is not an ahistorical description of how things are, but, as Adorno argues, the expression of a damaged world. They do not align with the metaphysical thrust of postmodern claims to perpetual openness, the impossibility of closure, and so on. A negative dialectic of popular culture does not so much open up the "complexities" of popular culture to the impetus of resistance, as display the barrenness of the wreckage for what it is. It is not quite as soothing as the familiar message of deconstruction: that arbitrary closures can always be undone to free things up. Negative dialectics are a bit more austere: they gesture only negatively at the possibility that things could be different by highlighting the irrationality of how they are. They even highlight the irrationality of the notion that freedom is nothing more than perpetual deconstruction.

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