Cult Television

Sara Gwenllian-Jones & Roberta Pearson (eds),
Cult Television.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
ISBN: 0 8166 3831 4
US$22.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

Some years ago, the Times Higher Education Supplement published a cartoon which derided the growing study of popular culture in the U.K. In the corner of an oak-panelled University staffroom sat a tweedy figure with pipe, an imaginary “Head of Elvis Presley Studies”. In Britain as elsewhere, Media and Cultural Studies continue to have an uneasy relationship with popular culture. Rightly, academics adjudge engagement with popular cultural forms to be an essential of socially-responsive study; at the same time, layers of discourse are placed between writer and text in ways which imply a need for self-validation and an attendant fear of contamination. Such is the case generally with Cult Television. The orthodoxies of Fan Studies are applied, but in ways which decline in the end to throw great light on the actual objects of study – television cultists and their objects of desire.

Fan Studies may be seen as the sequel to old-style Audience Studies. Writers of the Screen generation extolled the “active gaze” of the consumers of denigrated cultural products (such as soap operas and film melodramas). The creators of Fan Studies – Henry Jenkins, Constance Penley, John Tulloch and others – have echoed this line, but in ways which suggest a greater variety in audiences and their forms of approach to their preferred cultural products. The “preferred” here is important. As Cult Television rightly insists, fans – as opposed to general audiences – are abnormally active in their relationships with their cherished TV shows.

It’s a shame that Cult Television doesn’t reflect the vigour of its objects/subjects of study. There are some good things: Gwenllian-Jones expresses herself beautifully; Eva Vieth offers a fresh perspective on American cultural imperialism; Mark Jancovich, Nathan Hunt and Toby Miller provide some welcome moments of iconoclasm. Nonetheless, Cult Television ultimately falls short of its ambitions. The collection is disabled by its inherent traditionalism. At the same time, Cult Television suffers from a lack of genuine purpose.

I see traditionalism as a prevalent attitude within Media Studies academe; an attitude which insists that the ideas of the current work must fall into line with the dominant critical orthodoxies. Cult Television is hamstrung in this regard. The method, as established in the introduction, of dividing the work into three areas (Cult, Fictions and Fans) appears to offer the possibility of a well-rounded, eclectic survey of the Cult TV phenomenon; one that would take into account the full range of institutional and audience determinants of the text. However, this aim is disabled by the theoretical preoccupations of the writers. Most seem compelled by the need to make their articles tally with the thoughts of the leading lights in the field. Thus Roberta Pearson’s piece is weighed down by her keenness to extemporise on John Ellis. By the same token, Eva Vieth’s fascinating analysis of the German nautical drama Raumpatroille Orion is spoiled by the perceived need to have it conform to a five-point model from Abercrombie and Longhurst.

The traditionalist urge is also noted in the slight revisions made to theory in some of the pieces. David Black’s notion of “charactor” (sic, meaning where an actor’s identity is determined by character) seems a plausible addition to the lexicon of Fan/Screen Studies. Likewise, Gwenllian-Jones immediately looks like she’s onto something with her neo-postmodernist extension of participating fan ship into the realm of virtual reality. But these and the other doodads of Cult Television ultimately translate as academic conceits, which serve mainly to substantiate the unquestioned traditions of Media analysis.

Of course, these points feed into the expressed purpose of Fan Studies. By the evidence of Cult Television there doesn’t appear to be much. The early admission that the book will “not provide full answers” to all of the issues that accrue to Cult TV’s circuit of communication says it all: this is a superstructural text, which has little to say about the determination of culture, with its differential access to areas of power and definition. Toby Miller implores the philosophers of fan studies to quit their academic “trainspotting”. Otherwise, Vieth provides a good description of the socio-economic factors surrounding her chosen programme and Jancovich and Hunt offer a little evidence of the ways in which TV cultists are positioned. But the circuit of culture remains incomplete within Cult Television, rendered obsolete by the weight of platitudes and well-dressed truisms concerning “fan power”.

On reflection, I’m inclined to think that the key moment in Cult Television occurs at Page 167. Here, Alan McKee reminds us of Marx’s batty notion that the pianist is superstructure, in contrast to the productive labourers who make and distribute pianos. McKee’s fervour to square that circle is matched by the other contributors. Most struggle to justify their theoretical models, with the result that the actual programmes themselves (ergot their fans) are forgotten. In the end, the writers here remind me of Bruce Dern’s character, in the bespoke cult film Silent Running (US, 1972). Like Lowell, Gwenllian-Jones, Pearson and their crew of intellectuals seem doomed to orbit the material world.

Laurie N.Ede,
University of Portsmouth.

Created on: Monday, 6 December 2004 | Last Updated: 30-Nov-04

About the Author

Laurie N. Ede

About the Author

Laurie N. Ede

Laurie N. Ede is a Principal Lecturer in Film, Media and Applied Writing at the University of Portsmouth.View all posts by Laurie N. Ede →