The Dynasty Years
- Side: 179-183
- DOI: https://doi.org/10.18261/ISSN0805-9535-1995-02-22
- Publisert på Idunn: 2018-12-15
- Publisert: 1995-10-01
- Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Jostein Gripsrud (1995) The Dynasty Years. Hollywood Television and Critical Media Studies, London: Routledge
At last, Jostein Griprud’s long-awaited book on Dynasty has appeared. I have long been curious as to what he would come up with, especially as I had come to know Jostein as an ascerbic critic of my own work on Dallas, published (in English) precisely ten years ago, which he considered too populist, apologetic, in short, not ‘critical’ enough. But we have never had the opportunity to discuss our (dis)agreements at any serious length, so I thought writing this review might perhaps address this lack. And sure enough, Jostein does manage, in his typical, willfully polemical style, to throw in some quite biting lines in my direction (e.g. p 123) as well as in the direction of a whole range of other authors but actually, I am relieved to say, it’s not that bad. Once we get used to Gripsrud’s style of enunciation through critical distantiation, a rather aggressive personal style of writing which he obviously masters eloquently but which he also, rather unselfconsciously, elevates to the status of preferred style for cultural criticism in general. The Dynasty Years can be appreciated as a solid, sensible and intelligent piece of work which should be read by anyone interested in the development of ‘critical media studies’ in the past fifteen years or so.
The Dynasty Years is in many respects a modernist book. It aims to cover a comprehensive, if not totalising understanding of Dynasty (as a TV text produced in Hollywood and as a cultural event in Nonway), but in doing so Gripsrud also wants to offer ‘a critical discussion of central theoretical and methodological positions in recent media and cultural studies’ (p 1). Thus, what we have here is a wideranging book which includes reflections on the use of quantitative methodology as well as a critique of the notion of polysemy, a statement on the importance of TV production as site of power as well as the role of television criticism. With so much on these dense, 300 plus pages, it was impossible for this reviewer to read all of them with sustained interest and attention. In that sense, I am definitely not a ‘comprehensive reader’, much like most TV viewers who, I would think, are increasingly compelled to watch TV texts in fragments rather than in wholes, due to abundance of provision and other, related forms of ‘postmodernization’ of television, culture and everyday life.
So what I would like to focus on here is what I think is the most interesting analytical thread of The Dynasty Years: Its discussion of Dynasty as a ‘sign of the times’, ‘a ‘symptom’ or ‘discursive intersection’ of fundamental changes in both international and national structures of media and culture’(p 17). These changes all took place, according to Gripsrud, in the early 1980s when the success of US prime time soap operas such as Dallas and Dynasty was at its height and pertain to a radical internationalization of culture and media, especially television; an increasing commercialization of the media; changing relations between high and low/popular culture; and a relative weakening of the traditions and institutions of popular enlightenment, e.g. public service broadcasting. Incidentally, all these changes can very aptly and succinctly be characterized as cultural postmodernization, and Gripsrud’s book can be read as a reflection on how one should respond to this complex process of social and cultural change. His answer to this question is itself a moderately modernist one: The Dynasty Years, he says, offers ‘a conditional, negotiated defence of ‘traditional’ critical positions’ (p 18). That is, what Gripsrud’s project seems to be is providing the critical resources to put a brake to what might be called ‘rampant postmodernization’, the spectre of which haunts contemporary critical intellectuals such as Gripsrud. He recognizes the structural importance of the changes involved, but doesn’t want to give in to their consequences completely. This is why I call his book ‘sensible’.
Gripsrud argues convincingly that Dynasty was an important cultural event in Norway because it was both a sign of a historical shift in Norwegian broadcasting and (…) also an instrument for change’ (p 105). As in many other countries in Western Europe where nationalist, centralist institutions of public service broadcasting were thrown into crisis by the advent and the competition of more commercial, more popular/populist, more ‘Americanized’ television, the NRK had to transform itself in the wake of Dynasty’s extraordinary success among Norwegian audiences: It became more entertainment oriented and more sensitive to audience demand, and introduced, for the first time in its history, a permanent ratings measurement system.
What is particularly interesting about the Norwegian case is that these ‘adjustments’ in public service broadcasting happened so late. As I have described in my own work (cf. Desparately Seeking the Audience), similar developments took place in the Netherlands as well but over a much longer period: Commercial ‘contamination’ of the public service broadcasting system began in the late sixties (with the admission of an avowedly populist broadcaster within the system and the introduction of ratings as early as 1965), resulting in the inevitable dilution of the popular enlightenment mission of the system as a whole. In this context, Dallas played a significant role as a culmination of the crisis of Dutch public service broadcasting which had already set in a decade earlier. In Norway, however, the whole crisis (and its provisional resolution) seemed to have been condensed in the Dynasty event. In this sense, the Norwegian experience offers a much ‘purer’ case of what is at stake in the transition from ‘modem’ to ‘postmodern’ in the world of (Northwestern) European television than the Dutch case.
The Dynasty Years, then, is a very European book, describing a cultural transformation which is distinctively European and eleborating an intellectual response to that transformation which is also peculiarly European. The kinds of critical positions he puts forward (e.g. anti-relativism, anti-populism but also anti-elitism, in favour of explicating criteria for textual ‘quality’, in short, against rampant postmodernization) only make full sense, I would argue, precisely in the specific transitional European cultural time-space in which Gripsrud aims to intervene. For complex historical reasons not yet quite clear to me, Scandinavia has been the most ‘pure’ site for these transitions.
Seen this way, we can begin to understand something which has preoccupied me for a long, long time. Why is it, I have often wondered, that the brand of media studies called ‘reception analysis’ has been particularly vigorous and influential in Nordic countries? I am thinking here of work by researchers such as Kim Schroder in Denmark, Pertti Alatusaari in Finland, Peter Dahlgren in Sweden and, of course, Jostein Gripsrud himself in Norway. There is a common thread to all this work which makes it different from the cultural populism of Anglo-American celebratory audience studies such as John Fiske’s or Dorothy Hobson’s, which present themselves explicitly and unapologetically as documents of ‘the power of the popular’. I think that this work which has been the object of so much derision and criticism of late, and not always fairly can be read as a redemptive discourse which is in effect an acknowledgment of the irrevocable institutional hegemony of the forces of capitalism and commercialism in the cultural industries, a hegemony which can only marginally subverted through ‘recalcitrant’ readings. The Nordic work, on the other hand, is informed by a different relation to the institutional dominant: It is the assumptions of the classic public service institutions, not those of commercialism, which Nordic reception analyses were questioning by emphasizing the ‘activeness’ and variety of audience readings and pleasures. In other words, reception analysis in Northern Europe had a much more ‘progressive’ significance than elsewhere, in that it contributed to, as much as it signified, an opening up of the realm of taste and aesthetic value to popular perspectives. As Gripsrud puts it, ‘the 1980s brought a new awareness and validation of cultural difference which is essential to democratic cultural policies’ (p 19). It should be added, however, that such awareness and validation (even if only cynically or reluctantly) was nothing new in many other places in the world where aesthetic value was never so centrally organised (e.g. in the form of an officially validated national ‘high culture’s by institutions such as the NRK) as in a country such as Norway.
What is also distinctive about the Nordic work is its concern with the question of ‘quality’ with the aim of influencing institutional reform. Gripsrud speaks here of the need for a ‘productive dialogue’ between academic critics and TV production people. The eventual outcome of that dialogue, if I understand Gripsrud rightly, should be some shared and sophisticated judgement of ‘good’ and not so good TV texts. It is here that I want to take issue with Gripsrud’s modernist idealism. For example, he says provocatively (and I agree) that ‘much television is actually a lot more more boring than criticism has normally admitted’ (p 260). But then he goes on to suggest that TV shouldn’t be boring, and that critics should work towards lessening the insignificance of television for its audiences by way of public debate and direct contact with broadcasting institutions. All well and good, but I think this is to underestimate the structural factors at the sites of both production and consumption which produce the boringness of and boredom with contemporary television in the first place. The very ubiquity of TV in everyday life a centrality which both has been forced upon us and is completely naturalized is one such factor. In other words, what Gripsrud seems not to be taking into account is the extent to which aspects of cultural postmodemization (which are related to the incremental universalization of capitalism in all areas of life) produce structural constraints beyond the control of cultural policy.
Gripsrud’s is a rather optimistic and idealist conception of the role of the critical intellectual, a conception which, again, should be put in the context of the largely social democratic public sphere of Northern Europe. Social democracy, of course, is an intellectual formation which is based on the idea of cultural management and social inclusion led by a benevolent national political elite. But in a time of globalization, transnationalization and fragmentation the organic world-view of social democracy (with its invocation of a unified and harmonious national-popular) may no longer be sustainable. Thus, I am just not as confident as Gripsrud is about the effective possibilities of critical intervention in the construction of television culture. In this sense, I tend to share Negt and Kluge’s position, which Gripsrud’s sees as too pessimistic (p 261). This doesn’t mean that intellectuals should no longer engage in television criticism; it does mean, in my view, that their self-conception should shift, in Zygmunt Bauman’s terms, from that of modernist legislators to that of postmodernist interpreters, a much more modest and less universalist conception of what it means to do critical intellectual work.
The intellectual as postmodernist interpreter is much more aware of her/his own limit(ation)s as producer of discourse, given her/his inescapable entanglement with the social system in which s/he works. Ironically, The Dynasty Years is proof of just this, in that the thrust of Gripsrud’s work makes most sense if it is read against the background of his Norwegian context. But in my view the positionality and partiality of any critical stance should be made explicit in a much more specific sense than Gripsrud does. Gripsrud still hangs on to, and tends to romantize, an old, universalist, and modernist definition of the intellectual. He defines himself pure and simply, and unproblematically, as ‘intellectual ‘, as if this can be an encompassing identity not intersected by ‘embodied’ subject positions related to for example gender and ethnicity. Thus, the distinctive feature of ‘intellectuals’, for Gripsrud, is their ‘cultural capital’, which always separates them from ‘the people’. But I would argue that this is far too totalizing a perspective. Isn’t Gripsrud also a man and doesn’t this affect his subjectivity as well, making him share things with other, not necessarily intellectual, men and separating him, in important respects, from women, both intellectual and non-intellectual? I do not want to be socially determinist here, but what I do want to point to is the need to be much more self-reflexive about the situatedness of our intellectual speaking positions.
For example, Jostein only in passing gives us a glimpse of his own subjective relation to Dynasty, on page 100, where he discloses that an ironic and playful attitude is ‘definitely closer to my own personal feelings about the serial’. What I would like to know is how this position is not only informed by Gripsrud's intellectual being, but also, say, that of gendered being. After all, it has been established in much research (including Gripsrud’s own) that soap operas (including irreverent ones such as Dynasty) are watched mostly by women, for whom the playful and ironic attitude is often far from preferred, many of them are drawn to soap opera’s ‘emotional realism’ instead, which, as I have argued in Watching Dallas, is often the object of ridicule by those who have access to the power of irony.
Not surprisingly, the attitude of ‘ironic acceptance' also emerged as the dominant one in Norwegian public discourse throughout the 1980s, so much so that Gripsrud could conclude that Dynasty served as ‘a training in ‘camp’ attitudes to television, particularly in the educated middle classes’ (p 101). What this exemplifies is how the intellectual’s personal attitude can actually be complicit with a dominant cultural formation. In this sense, the ‘social marginality’ Gripsrud’s claims for his disembodied intellectuals should be doubted, or at least bracketed. If ‘camp’ has become the dominant European mode of appreciating American popular culture, and I believe it has, from which most ‘ordinary people’ are excluded, then it is time to submit precisely this emerging cultural dominant (and the positions of power it sustains or produces) to critical scrutiny. This must involve a heightened critical self-reflection on the inescapable ‘personal’ politics of the critical intellectual himself.