Thursday, 22 December 2011

Archives, libraries, television and television studies

Screen 52.4 (Winter 2011) was recently published, and contains an excellent debate strand, 'Mourning television', with articles by Jeremy G Butler, Jason Jacobs and Helen Piper, plus a report by Lauren Jade Thompson about the recent workshop 'Histories of the digital future: archives of the audio-visual'. It just so happened that I read these pieces at the same time that I was sorting through my own film and television studies 'archive' - not of films or TV programmes, but of photocopies of articles and chapters from books. I had an ugly pile of such copies on my filing cabinet, which had mounted up over the course of the term. At the same time that I catalogued and filed these items, I also decided to sort through my module folders from my days as an undergraduate, and work the photocopies from those folders into my main collection. Towards the end of last term I also became the custodian of the department's collection of old issues of Screen and Screen Education, so I was sorting through and shelving those lovely old objects too.

Only connect
Fears of distortion and the distancing of the archival researcher from the object of study [...] dominate current debates about the relationship between the physical and the digital archive [...]. The sense that digitisation, despite its utopian discourse, is not a loss-free project pervades such discussions. (Thompson in Screen 52.4, p524)
Towards the end of her workshop report, Lauren Jade Thompson notes a moment from a presentation given by Charles Barr (entitled 'Archival trial and error') where he recounted his 'reconstruction of Churchill's wartime film-viewing through thank-you notes written by his private secretary to film distributors' (p526). Thompson describes Barr's paper as 'demonstrating the necessity of travelling back to the original source wherever possible and warning against approaching the archive with set expectations'. We might add that there is a danger of constructing an archive with set expectations, taking us back to Thompson's point above. One can imagine material appended to physical copies of, say, a film or television programme, which would allow one to reconstruct a history like Barr's of Churchill's wartime viewing, being discarded in the process of digitisation. Leafing through the old copies of Screen and Screen Education that have found their way into my office, at the same time that I simply enjoyed the weight of the objects, and holding these things that had been in the world longer than me in my hands, I absorbed material and made connections that I do not think I would have if I had been accessing Screen's digital archive (a resource which, I must hasten to add, I am extremely grateful for!). I saw an advert for a newly created Film Studies post at a university - something which would come in handy for any discussion of the institutional history of UK Film Studies. I also saw a collection of short pieces written by the people who held some early university film studies posts funded by the BFI - Richard Dyer, Robin Wood and (I think) Peter Wollen. I was not looking for these things - which takes us back to Barr's point about set expectations. Of course, an exhaustive click through Screen's digital holdings would uncover most of this material (though possibly not the job ad, and certainly not the loose subscription form that fluttered to my feet when I opened one edition), but it is in fact easier to nimbly move between articles when they're there at the flick of a thumb rather than the click of a mouse - as part of the 'flow', might one say, of a publication, to evoke a figure of speech derived from Television Studies. Digitisation subdivides a journal into its separate articles more decisively than a print version.

And there are of course other matters of how one engages with 'the text'. A visitor to an archive would not, I hope, dream of adding their own annotations. And making direct annotations upon the copies of film or TV texts that I own is still beyond my technological capabilities. But when it comes to one's own personal print 'archive' - of books, or photocopies - it is a different matter. I have some .pdf articles stored on my hard drive and memory stick. But I can't engage with them in the way I can paper copies. I overheard a scholar-friend of mine announce with some revenance that his copy of Cavell's The World Viewed bore the stains of his life, having been his constant companion for so long. When I use some of my photocopies now, some of them ten years old, I can also revisit, through my annotations, my own earlier reactions. Many of my photocopies are stapled or paper-clipped to a second piece that is in some way related. I particularly treasure some of the pieces that also bear the annotations of the person who copied them for me.
The specificity of the archival object in the digitization process is [...] important [...], as indicated by the discussion of the process of digitizing VHS tapes - a task currently being undertaken by many film and television departments and archival institutions, as well as by individual researchers. As Richard Wallace asked, is our object in this case the isolated television programme that the VHS was set up to record, or is it the physical VHS tape in its entirety, complete with advertisements, interruptions and analogue 'defects' of the tape? (Thompson, p524/5)
'Archive' versus 'library'

I placed quotation marks around one of my uses of 'archive' above - when I was referring to 'one's own personal "archive"' - because I do not think of my collections of DVDs and books and photocopies as archives, at least not exclusively. I think of them predominantly as libraries. Obviously there is no clean distinction here, but I think the difference in emphasis is sufficiently significant to be registered. An archive implies, for me at least, a collection of documents (and I don't just mean written ones, of course) to be consulted for the purposes of reconstructing a history. A library seems like a less historically-oriented thing than an archive. Might it imply a collection of resources that are of ongoing concern? A formulation is harder to arrive at, but I hope the distinction I am suggesting is sufficiently clear, and I think it relates to matters explored by Jason Jacobs in his intervention in 'The Mourning Television debate'.

Documents versus artworks

In his 'The medium in crisis: Caughie, Brunsdon and the problem of US television' (Screen 52.4), Jacobs begins by engaging with Caughie's 'Mourning television: the other screen' (Screen 51.4) and Brunsdon's 'Problems with quality' (Screen 31.1). Jacobs's article also needs to be understood as a further development of arguments he has elaborated elsewhere (principally, in his 'Issues of Judgment and Value in Television Studies', in the International Journal of Cultural Studies 4.4, and 'Television Aesthetics: An Infantile Disorder', in the Journal of British Cinema and Television 3.1). Here is one culminatory passage from 'The medium in crisis', which needs to be quoted at some length:
What seems to me to be particularly worthy of further investigation is the way that [...] US dramas from the early 1990s onwards have incorporated a nationally specific kind of anxiety, a deep introspection. [...] It is the kind of achievement that, as we know from other cultural forms, tends to give the work a life beyond the time and place of its making. And this is the essence of cultural value. It is its distinction; the way in which, unlike other forms of value, artworks may accrue it precisely through their persistence beyond the time and place of their making and their continuing relevance to audiences distant from their immediate concerns. In earlier times we might have called this 'absorption into a tradition'; instead I suspect we are seeing the establishment of one. This is what the past fifteen years or so of US dramas have offered us: a serious engagement with cultural, historical and political matters beyond the 'relentless spectacle of the present'. Some, like Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire, adopt the mode of costume drama, while others appear beneath the canopy of contemporary relevance but, like Rebel Without a Cause offer shadow narratives which point to far deeper, cosmic concerns. [At this point a footnote cites George M Wilson's reading of Ray's film in his book Narration in Light.] Breaking Bad appears to be a recession narrative about a teacher who chooses to manufacture drugs in order to pay for his medical costs, but it regularly exposes the moral tension between the cost and rewards of individual enterprise on the society under erosion by a corporate narcotics industry that provides its central stimulating energy. Like The Wire, it explores the implacable shredding of human subjectivity by modernity not by rejecting the commercial or mercantile instinct but by exploring its deepest foundation in the desire to nurture, thrive and adapt. (p509/10)
(Before I enagage with the argument advanced in the above, it seems useful to make clear what Jacobs is, in part at least, reacting against. In a footnote on an earlier page (I say footnote but I mean 'sidenote' - one of the felicities of Screen's particular layout), Jacobs states 'Though this is not the place, in order to truly open up the debate about television and value it is necessary to challenge the territoriality of the insistence on the everydayness of the medium, to moderate claims for "specificity", and to highlight the ways in which its boundaries have been regularly policed by the repeated hygienic exclusion of approaches from the wider critical repertoire of screen studies, as well as humanities as a whole' (p506). I see Jacobs's point, but (like him, in fact) I am also sympathetic to the intellectual tradition he identifies.)

Jacobs is surely correct to suggest that artworks 'accrue [cultural value] precisely through their persistence beyond the time and place of their making and their continuing relevance to audiences distant from their immediate concerns'. I would want to add, just because I think it's probably useful to spell it out, that what I think we're talking about here is a canon that is cosmopolitan rather than national. (Robin Wood touches upon this issue in the introduction to Personal Views. The idea and the prospect of a television canon is one raised by Jacobs in his 'Television Aesthetics: An Infantile Disorder', and responded to by Matt Hills in his 'Television Aesthetics: A Prestructuralist Danger', Journal of British Cinema and Television 8.1.) Jacobs makes a similar point from a different perspective when he states at the end of a paragraph in which he is discussing Brunsdon and Caughie's work that 'one cost of [framing the issue of aesthetics and value as anchored to national and cultural policy] is that the universalizing opportunities of thinking about aesthetics, those that offer the general rather than the specific as points of comparison, tend to be throttled back in favour of the particular, the national and the local. We get a very municipal sense of the medium' (p506). This takes us to what I really want to talk about: the relationship of the general to the specific in aesthetics and evaluation.

Reading the long passage quoted above uncharitably, one might construe it as suggesting that 'the general' should automatically be valued more highly than 'the specific' (or even more uncharitably, that allegory is the highest form of artistic achievement). For an artwork to ascend to the status of 'culturally valuable' it must transcend its context. I recognise that an artwork's attainment of a life 'beyond the time and place of its making' necessarily entails some such transcendence, but we have to be very careful about how we develop this idea. I have not seen Breaking Bad so I am not in a position to comment upon it, but it does seem to me that there is a mismatch between the structure of Jacobs' sentence on the show, which suggests that we must choose between something that it 'appears to be' and something that it 'is', and the content of that sentence, which seems to me to offer two very closely-related descriptions.

Artworks are susceptible to being described at varying levels of generality. I agree with Jacobs (via Wilson) that Rebel Without a Cause offers its more 'metaphysical' (my word) themes as existing on a 'deeper' (Jacobs's word) plane than its ostensible subject matter. However, in the case of The Wire, my strong sense is that it is wholly committed to the specific thing it is representing, and the general points we can extrapolate from this (about human subjectivity and modernity) are not being offered to us as a superior meaning, the thing we should really be looking for, but rather exist as something in the manner of a paraphrase or summary, unavoidably available to us as a description, but not what the programme wants us to experience.

'Persistence beyond the time and place of [...] making' might be thought to entail 'continuing relevance to audiences distant from their immediate concerns'. But again, we have to be careful about what exactly this means. The Wire has taught me a lot about my own environment, and is in that sense 'relevant' to me. But more than this, I believe I value it because it has vividly opened up a realm of experience that was closed to me before I watched it (which we can cash out in 'realist' terms, or in terms of art's capacity to 'renew perception'). Perhaps we should be talking about art's ability to communicate (foreign) experiences ('to speak to us across time', as Jacobs puts it in the sentence after I leave off above) as well as be relevant to the beholder's existing experiences. I value The Wire for the fine-grained way that it articulates the complex operations of and connections between a series of institutions. I can think of no better example of a programme that achieves its widespread (general) and deep appeal through a commitment to a thoroughgoing specificity. Such things are hard to articulate, and I am not saying that I disagree entirely with Jacobs - just that there is more to be said on these matters.