Profit and Form, Objects, Media


Dear John,

Ok, I’ll write about profit, but first I need to figure out what this paragraph means:

Some objects wear their mediation more lightly than others. But we cannot imagine that this variance resides anywhere except in the way that media have been institutionalized, can we? I take the (Bazinian?, not exclusively surely) point that there are properties of these objects that affect their mediation, but for our argument those properties must be significant largely for how they shape institutionalization and discipline.

I’m finding it difficult to reconcile the mental picture of films and novels strutting about in mediation suits with that of a 3D chess match involving  objects, institutions, and disciplines in which Bazin squares off against Marshall McLuhan (they are both wearing Star Trek uniforms).

My imagination wants to bulldoze all of this in favor of some straightforward propositions:

  • Objects don’t define practices. Practices define objects.
  • Academic disciplines and media industries are best though of as institutionalized practices.

For both sorts of institutionalized practice it matters that pictures aren’t words (even though, like with the 70s and 80s treatment of everything as “text,” there are often disavowals). You seem reluctant to agree. Why?

We might want to devote some other posts to explaining what it means for a practice to be institutionalized.  It may be worth pointing out that since Robert Merton’s 1940 classic “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality” it has been clear that institutions cannot be adequately thought of as Weberian rationalizing machines, because they also train people to over-conform to their rules. Merton discovers that bureaucratic inefficiency is an effect of the very rules supposed to make institutions hyper-efficent.

This knee-jerk anti-profit attitude is case of humanist over-conformity. Paul Jay and Gerald Graff say as much in the “Fear of Being Useful” piece we cite. Christopher Newfield, in Ivy and Industry, observes that this particular institutional structure has early 20th century roots in the (bad) bargain that founded the modern American University: administrators would attend to money matters; scholars would be “free” to think and write. I think it is fairly obvious that the terms of this bargain are shifting under the pressure of a much broader argument about what universities should do and how they should be funded. Over conforming to old habits will not serve us well. We want our students to get jobs; we’d like to keep ours; we’d like ours to make a difference. These are not exclusively “profit” propositions, but profit’s sure in ’em.

I’m not sure what to do with a couple of ideas in your last paragraph. There’s this one:

Film and new media scholars will doubtless feel closer to this problem of whether they should work with and within the culture industries than scholars of literature. Literature scholars should not feel so securely distanced from it, however.

I want to embrace the flattening gesture that puts us all in the market, while also registering that major differences of opinion exist within film and media studies on the question of “whether [we] should work with and within the culture industries.” Projects dedicated to using “new media” to promote participatory culture, like those of Sharon Daniel, have a different orientation than those working to bridge industry and academe under that banner of the Convergence Culture Consortium.

Then there’s this sentence:

The zealous engagement with Hollywood that we found so compelling in Grieveson, Wasson, Polan, and Decherney’s work on early film and film study can only appear as anathema today.

I think Grieveson, Wasson, Polan, Decherney et al. describe institution building arguments that configure still extant relationships among academic and industrial practices. (Although these relationships may be changing.) We should not lose sight of the fact that in the 20s and 30s “zealous engagement” with Hollywood often meant strident opposition to it. What I think we aim to describe is how culture industries and universities developed together as institutional fields that collaborated, competed, and often mirrored one another. It’s not for nothing that we talk about an academic “star system.”




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