Blogs > Liberty and Power > Book Reviews ≠ Trend Pieces

Jun 23, 2006 3:55 pm

Book Reviews ≠ Trend Pieces

Reviewing Seinfeld, Master of Its Domain, edited by David Lavery and Sara Lewis Dunne, in June 19th’s The Weekly Standard, Max Watman (this link may not work)notes the lameness of some of the pomo essays, then concludes of scholars: “They have become sadly inured to the tedium of television, and with their minds dulled by it, have taken up the only topic they grasp. But since they have only television, they aren't bright enough to illuminate anything. And it dawns on the reader that the existence of this book is proof that they ought not to teach television at our universities.” Where I come from, we call that “the fallacy of hasty generalization.” I haven’t read this book. It’s possible that every essay is, in fact, terrible. I doubt it, but let’s just stipulate arguendo that they are: It would still be groundless to jump from the weakness of one particular book to the bankruptcy of an entire field.
First of all, the fact that a professor writes an essay about Seinfeld, or even makes a reference to Seinfeld in class, isn’t the same thing as “teaching Seinfeld.” Now I realize that there are college courses on TV – typically in mass comm., or lit, and even sometimes in philosophy, but I think what’s more prevalent is the incorporation of popular culture reference points into otherwise-standard courses. For instance, if I were teaching a straightforward intro-to-ethics class, using Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and the other usual suspects, I might nevertheless illuminate a particular point by referring to a Seinfeld episode. (Yes, I’ve written on this.)
Second of all, it’s not necessarily bad to teach a course involving a TV show, provided that it’s done responsibly – e.g., by using an analysis of the show as means to hook into the same universal themes and ideas that any fiction does. I myself do this infrequently, but I know folks who do it more regularly, and I can tell from their syllabi that they’re doing real work. Any particular prof could, of course, be an idiot, but that’s not an indictment of an entire methodology. Watman might have been more justified showing how pomo silliness trivializes all literary studies, but it’s not just pomo studies of TV which do this, pomo studies of any art form have this effect. In other words, the proper objection to nihilistic pomo TV studies isn’t that it’s about TV, it’s that it’s nihilistic pomo omphaloskepsis.
Even if Watman is right about this book, why should that mean that college professors should, as a rule, not discuss popular culture in the classroom or write essays about it? Often, the essays on popular culture subjects can be used to introducereaderstomoresubstantiveareasofinquiry. Other times, the popular culture item can be an excellent subject for a particular exploration. Not to get all tu quoque or anything, but Watman’s claim to fame is a book on horse racing – why is there something potentially profound and interesting about horse racing, but not TV?
Again, I haven’t read this book – maybe it’s as bad as Watman says. In that case, he would have done better to pan the book for its own flaws, rather than try to score trendspotting points by lumping together all the recent work on popular culture.
An afterthought – since he’s writing for a conservative magazine, he might have been hoping to hook into some generalized “we don’t like left-wing academics” meme among the readership, but as it happens, many of the people writing on the intersection of their disciplines with popular culture are conservatives or libertarians. So the moral of the story is: review the book you were assigned to review, and don’t think it’s necessarily part of some trend.

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Aeon J. Skoble - 6/28/2006

Because he doesn't have blog, I neglected to acknowledge my source on this -- my friend and colleague Steven M. Sanders brought it to my attention. You can read some of his excellent work in Reason Papers, BTW.