Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture


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Is popular culture really popular?

For example, let us consider the soap opera. The many virtues of this narrative form make it particularly serviceable for the social purposes I have been discussing, of providing diverse usable stories for wide audiences. The soap opera consists of an endless string of events surrounded by conversational reaction, characters, commentary and what one might call processing explaining, predicting, working out consequences, i.

The soap opera is a regime of endless discursive processing of more or less ordinary events of the fictional everyday world.

Communication, Cultural and Media Studies

That this work is endless is emphasised by two other specific virtues of soap operas, that their stories are open-ended and that the conversational processing is performed by many characters none of whom is a final arbiter. In contrast to the conventional novel, in the soap opera the whole machinery of plot does not manipulate a story to a final conclusion. There is no closure, no point at which all the meanings become clear and all the various events are tidied into one intelligible pattern.

In the soap opera, the work of interpretation and decision is endless. This lack of closure is according to John Ellis Visible Fictions, p. Not only is the work endless, it is conducted from endlessly and rapidl y changing points of view. There is no narrative centre. Although each of us does of course come to trust some characters more than others there is no room in the soap opera for the absolutely reliable witness or narrator. Everyone gets things wrong sometimes, misunderstands what is going on, makes the wrong decisions, gets caught in confusion and conflict.

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Everyone moves from being central protagonist to being quite marginal, and even, if we wait long enough, to disappearing altogether. Soap opera can remind us that everyone is both central and vital and yet also marginal and dispensable to the ongoing surge of interminably interweaving mini-stories of family and community life.

John Hartley (academic)

The chatter circulates through different points of view and this generates vast amounts of talk. Ellis, p. They can, at their best, produce a stream of puzzles relating to the morals and tactics of everyday affairs and offer to the viewer a range of possible solutions which can be mulled over, assessed, assimilated or rejected. Of course, they can only achieve these things well if they are of high quality. In fact that, in relation to this particular kind of example, is what high quality amounts to.

It is quality contingent on, relative to, audience and context. For particular audiences, with particular needs, excellence has sometimes been achieved I would say by Brookside, Grange Hill, Neighbours, EastEnders, London Burning and Casualty, for example. It is the very ordinariness, even apparent triviality, which is the great virtue of these fictions from the point of view of this social purpose that I am discussing, of providing usable stories.

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This virtue can be enhanced in practice if it is combined, as it is in the best of television fictions, by other virtues which might include a variety of things such as aesthetic quality, narrative excitement, humour, and so on. In other words, there is no reason why high quality television on my conception should not also be entertaining or aesthetically pleasing or intellectually intriguing.

Some programmes put entertainment values very high on their list of priorities and it is not always easy to see what other uses they might be put to. But it is not easy to judge. Blind Date, for example, which may be said to involve fictions because half the fun for the viewers seems to lie in making up stories about what goes on when the participants are away together, could very well have quite important uses for young people as a source of imaginative knowledge about dating and relating to members of the opposite sex what do boys find attractive?

It is perhaps not a major laboratory for imaginative research and on my conception But it would only be condemned if it could be shown that the stories which it provides for its audience were open to serious charges of distortion. Do they encourage a way of thinking about what happens in relationships which is seriously misleading in some way?

My conception of quality does not answer the question, it only provides the terms of debate, the measures that we have to learn how to apply. However, different forms will require different critiques. For each it is a matter of discovering or arguing just how they serve their social purpose, how they could be used in personal or social inquiry, and how well they measure up to their own specific aims. For each form, and for each example of it, the conception of quality needs to be re-thought and developed and never simply mechanically applied. The conception, even when it is spelled out in many details and even when it is clarified by the addition of the ethical rule of truth-telling, is not meant to serve as a numerical measure.

There is no arithmetic of quality. Quality is, from a logical point of view, undecidable. This, however, is a virtue.


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Questions of quality are decided not by logic but, provisionally, by people bringing to bear their interpretations and their values in particular cases. For these reasons, it should not be a task of a conception of quality to place all programmes into a unique rank order. I propose that there is a general framework within which all this unravelling and testing takes place, and that is the ethical rule of truth-telling. Not every fiction is as good as every other, given certain aims and audiences. That is why a rule of diversity is not by itself enough, for the proliferation of fictions without constraint would not serve the social purpose of providing usable stories.

We develop methods and tests which help us to assess quality. Each practice or tradition of truth-telling fiction evolves its own rules and guidelines, its own emphases and critical vocabularies. These themselves change. People argue for new ways of doing things, put forward different views about how to create and interpret usable fictions. TV fiction of the highest quality extends the meaning and possibilities for truth-telling. There is always room for innovation, for argument, for challenge. The important thing is that the ethical rule settles the most general terms of debate, the purposes and values that the whole exercise is to serve, namely to render, in whatever form or genre is suitable for particular audiences and whatever technical means, some aspect of possible human lives and so to work in ways which avoid the known pitfalls and dangers, the known forms and varieties of mediocrity and men-.

The purpose of a rule of truth-telling is therefore a way of placing emphasis on a familiar array of virtues and vices, as they apply to the practice of producing fictional worlds. It is to propose that a familiar language of criticism is relevant to the estimation of quality — a language which is open-ended and contestable and which does not aim to provide any simple criterion of evaluation it does not propose some truth to which any fiction has to measure up. This reminds us of the danger of settling for amusement, with all its comfort and familiarity and complacency, as a goal. If television were to operate with social self-knowledge and truth-telling as goals, then it would need to adopt some rule against narrowness and blandness.

It would have to be able to refuse all the pressures that inevitably arise to restrict voices and exclude stories. It would need to counteract all the mechanisms whereby groups are marginalised or even presented as pathologi-. It is sometimes assumed that the principle of diversity, which is justified by the fact that there is not and could not be any single, uniquely authoritative Truth, no one right way of reading the world, is incompatible with an ethic of truth-telling.

But this, I think, is not so. From the fact that there is no uniquely correct interpretation of events, it does not follow that any interpretation is as good as any other, or that any evaluation of competing interpretations is no more than a matter of taste. This point can be clarified by thinking about scientific research. There is no guarantee that any scientific theory is true. It is most probable that every theory, however strong the evidence and wide-ranging the application, will be shown eventually to be deficient in some way, will fail in some respect, and will need modification or rejection.

Medical science, culture, and truth

Yet this does not lead us to suppose that any theory is as good as any other, that anything goes, that we have no methods of research or tests of the quality of scientific theories. Conscientious application of these methods and tests, and their constant adaptation to new developments in the sciences, constitutes the rule of truth-telling in scientific research. It is precisely because there is no Truth, no guaranteed foundation of true principles which could act as a criterion of truth, no certainty derivedfrom access to reality independently of our research and its instruments, that an ethic of truth-telling is essential.

It would have to positively seek out ways of recording and investigating areas of social experience which are rarely represented and social groups that are otherwise silenced or ignored. It would foster curiosity and tolerance. It would resist parochialism and chauvinism. That the rule of the market excludes, restricts, narrows down what is represented, is clearly demonstrated by American TV fictions though some recent improvement in this respect may be visible in such programmes as Roseanne.

With very few exceptions the entire working class of the USA is almost totally invisible. A visiting Martian would think that the population ofthe USA consists entirely of multimillionaires Dallas , the professional middle class The Cosby Show and practically every other sit com including Thirty Something and cops and robbers. The rule of high quality should counteract blandness, the pressure to go for the comfortable middle ground. The following comments refer to the period to January It has fled from representing people as employees or unemployed, and set them all up in businesses, some legal and some not.

It is a triumph of the enterprise culture.

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Sharon no longer works for a travel agent but is, with Wicksy, in pub management. A gang of self-employed builders and a businesswoman hairdresser have become prominent. Ian and Cindy ran a cafe. Almost everyone else is a street trader. Even Dot Cotton has been promoted to exercising management functions.

With the exception of Carmel and she is portrayed more or less solely in her private life and Dr Legge, the entire public sector has been almost completely eliminated. In short, the proletariat, unemployment, the public sector of the economy and homosexuality have all been abolished. I now want to add one final consideration. This in effect spells out a social purpose for these fictions, and indeed of television as a whole, which I have not yet brought into the account.

This is the power of truth-telling on television, whether in fiction or nonfiction, to increase the capacity for truth-telling in its audience. You in the West have a problem. You are unsure when you are being lied to, when you are being tricked. We do not suffer from this; and unlike you, we have acquired the skill of reading between the lines.

That skill, of knowing how not to take messages at face value, of being sceptical and inventive in distinguishing honesty from dishonesty, was well cultivated in East European societies in which governments had an unambiguously cynical disregard for truth, combined with a claim to have a monopoly on it. It is far harder to distinguish truth-telling from its opposites in societies like ours inBritain or the USA in which so many people are professionally dishonest and yet are in competition with one another, thus producing the illusion of a free market of ideas and information.

It is almost a definition of the post-modem nightmare — a world overwhelmed by the endless flow of simulacra to such an extent that the distinction between fantasy and reality no longer has any purchase. But it is not inherent to television as such that it undermines truth-telling in our culture.

Whether or not it does so is in part a. What are the prerequisites for truth-telling, the conditions without which it is impossible, and how can television promote or sustain them? What makes it possible for people to tell when they are being lied to, to detect when they are being tricked, to read between the lines? It is not enough to be armed with a certain ethical attitude, a commitment to honesty, a rejection of cynicism though these too are essential.

It is also necessary to have a fund of cultural resources, a material base of skills and capacities dispensed throughout civil society. Without these resources the values and ethical attitudes attached to truth-telling would be abstract and ineffective. High quality television requires, but also helps to reproduce, a high quality audience, and this is among its most vital social purposes.

The French psychoanalyst thus points out that a part of the unconscious is preserved in great shared narratives - in epos , epic poems, and in gesta , heroic deeds; in other words, in the mythical formulations - which command subjectivation. Myths work, therefore, as an enunciator of what happens behind the scenes, to use the metaphor of Ana Vicentini de Azevedo However, the author warns that mythological content should not be interpreted as an archetype that is, as if it bears a crystallized and uniform sense , since myths themselves are defined by the multiplicity of meanings: the relations between the signifiers present in the myth, both in its intratextuality and in its intertextuality, that reveal the fabric that constitutes it.

Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture
Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture
Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture
Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture
Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture
Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture

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