Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture. John Hartley. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 290 pp.
John Hartley’s name has been on the short list of influential television studies scholars for over thirty years. He has held numerous academic posts and is now distinguished professor, Australian Research Council Federation Fellow, and research director of the Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. He has earned the right to use a similarly authoritative and profound primary title for his most recent book.
What is “truth” with regard to a medium? In Television Truths, Hartley addresses the TV via lenses of epistemology, ethics/politics, aesthetics, and metaphysics. He does so by dividing the book into four parts, each headed by a question: Is TV true? Is TV a polity? Is TV beautiful? What can TV be? While perhaps not entirely or definitively answered, they are the types of questions that cut to the very core of television’s being. Hartley covers both the breadth and depth in an eminently portable book.
By turns Hartley teaches, theorizes, and muses. He provides, for example, a mini-primer on TV ratings systems and useful definitions of “globalization” and “mediasphere,” as well as an analytical passage on the movement of social identity from the political arena to the cultural arena, often within the same page. Using specific details from programs in the United States, Australia, China, and the United Kingdom, he expounds on his bailiwick of the interplay between television and the public, and its effect on the collective—or what’s left of it in today’s fragmented media world. Most of what Hartley wrestles with in some way touches upon the consumer-citizen binary. After all, he coined “democratainment” in his 1999 Uses of Television, and it has proven to be perhaps the foundation of his work and a succinct description of at least one school of thought. In this book he spends abundant time on “plebiscitary” formats (those constructed by or around public opinion sampling). He discusses the use of entertainment to reach the popular voter, the popularity of voting for pleasure, DIY participation in reality TV, and connections between voting skepticism in American Idol and in U.S. elections. With regard to news, he observes that today’s media content is shaped by editorial practices rather than authorship, and consequently our most trusted sources are organizations as opposed to individuals (which I interpret as CNN: 1, Walter Cronkite: 0).
Hartley also makes important statements about the mediated environment as a whole, of which television is only an element. He reveals some optimism about the current mediasphere in pointing out its positive attributes. For instance, “People are responding to different speeds of public communication, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of democracy. It’s not dumbing down but speeding up.”
While he may not directly answer his four questions, he nonchalantly embeds small truths throughout the text. For example, “[TV] doesn’t have an essence [and] is defined by its context”; “[TV] communicated difference across demographic groups, but simultaneously gathered populations together rather than splitting them into their constituent groups”; and “’Art’ is never an input into any creative endeavor; it is sometimes an output (received as art by an observer or a later age) and always contextual.”
The book is grounded in philosophy and as such can be dense in spots. Hartley does not seem concerned with a uniform tone, be it witty or earnest, jargon-y or informal. A representative excerpt, wherein he is discussing the idea of “liveness” in TV, illustrates his mash-up style: “Through this effect of immediacy, an effect that belonged to broadcast television as an institution rather than of any particular image on screen, all sorts of heterogeneous material could be ordered into a ‘present continuous’ sequence. ‘Liveness’ infected, as it were, the whole shebang.” While the inconsistent style and tone could be seen as a downside to his writing, it’s not. His description of the “patchy and informal historiography of television” could just as well describe his own method in this book, and accurately reflects what and where television is now.
The book’s weakness, however, is that it contains a bit too much recycled text. At the outset, he acknowledges the previous works from which he draws, but because some sections are almost verbatim (e.g., “Democratainment—Why It’s Like Irish Dancing,” from a 2004 essay), it begs the question, why not a John Hartley reader? His theories bear repeating and citing himself is justifiable, but readers might do better to head to the original works where his ideas are more clearly delineated. One example: his 1999 Uses of Television.
Hartley does not just rehash his own ideas, however. Drawing on the work of other media scholars, including quite a bit from Italian reading and writing scholar Armando Petrucci, he places television in its rightful historical and cultural context. In some ways it is as if Hartley is visiting from the future and sharing his observations of what TV means now, what American Idol and Dancing with the Stars and America’s Next Top Model mean about us as a society. He has a long view of television content and deftly connects reality TV to Shakespeare, and conjures the somewhat disheartening conclusion that the difference between, say, Big Brother and The Taming of the Shrew, is that the meaning of the work now resides with the consumer.
Television Truths ends with a perspective on the state of television studies and its need to find ways to innovate to continue to pursue truth. It has been argued that TV watchers don’t read (a ridiculous myth that I can personally refute), but that people who really look at TV do read, and they read people like John Hartley.
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