Monday, November 14, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“RULING PASSIONS” Nick Perry (Otago University Press, $45)

An Open Letter to Professor Nick Perry,
Professor in Film, TV and Media Studies
University of Auckland

Dear Nick Perry,
As a reviewer I don’t often break into direct address to authors like this, but your collection of thirteen essays so interests and intrigues me that I want to argue with it. In my book, that is a sign of its high quality. Only good essays are worth arguing with. If I agreed with everything a book of essays had to offer, it would probably be a very bad book.

Let me clear the ground first before I start arguing.

I read with unalloyed pleasure the first six essays in the book.

I loved the essay about how rugby has been hyped, framed and mythologised in various New Zealand  representations. Ditto the one where you examine shopping as social activity and convention, and take us through the different signifiers of the corner dairy, the department store, the supermarket and the mall.

When you write about the way gambling has been depicted on film, I quickly connected with you, having seen all the films you discuss from The Hustler to Casino. Incidentally, I’m happy to say I saw Louis Malle’s Atlantic City at the movies, so I was not one of those poor sods you mention, who had to see it cut up for commercial television. I also thought how good it would be if somebody could explore, with your sort of focused perception, the mythology of teaching on screen.

When I read your piece on early British television, it was not simply nostalgic recall that put me in sympathy with your views (though there was some of that), but rather your acuteness in situating each programme in its social context. With regard to the way Z Cars was corporatised and London-ised into Softly, Softly I was surprised that you made no mention of the defiantly Liverpool theme music of Z Cars (an adaptation of the Liverpool folk song “Johnny Todd”) which had originally signalled its regionality.

I had similarly enthusiastic responses to your exploration of the social implications of the telephone, and your analysis of the language of Catch 22.

I hope you get the picture by now. I read the first half of this book in a very positive way. Okay, I’ll overlook that occasional, and typically postmodern, straining after puns, from your book title onwards (I do understand that Ruling Passions is as much about how we “rule”, or control, passions as it is about how passions, with a lot of corporate grooming, rule us.) At least you don’t overdo the punning as some of your contemporaries in the postmodern socio-critical field do.

But it was at about the midway point that I began to bog down, and read more negatively. (I was going to say “more critically”, but I hope I read critically all the time.) I freely admit this may have been at least in part the old problem of reading all the essays straight through, from beginning to end of the volume, as a reviewer must. This is the too-many-chocolates-in-the-box phenomenon.

The essays were originally written in different contexts at different times, and each should probably be taken as a separate entity. So it doesn’t in the least faze me that you sometimes repeat ideas, and that you dispute more than once Descartes’ essentialist concept of an unassailable internal identity, inaccessible to external construction. (Though I can’t help feeling it’s a bit rough on poor old Rene, whose purpose was ontological rather than existential).

I think part of the problem was that the essays in the latter half of the volume are more theoretical, more detached from the specific, and where they do deal with the specific they hammer the subject into the ground with a solemnity that may not be warranted. Theoretically, I can agree with your essay on the Montana World of Wearable Art which says that the show is iconic of a paradigm shift in New Zealand’s self-image. But in fact, I wonder if you aren’t investing it with a significance that it cannot bear. I know postmodernists aspire to read a society from a soup-can label, in the way Blake could see the world in a grain of sand. But the soup-can label has to be chosen with care if it is to be truly representative. I’m not sure the Montana World of Wearable Art really is the right soup-can label. You strain at a gnat.

Then, almost inevitably, I come across my old misgivings about postmodernist criticism in its relationship with literature, music and the other arts. For example you point out (on p.201) that Media Studies approaches to television soap operas “subverted the convention of critical disdain for such texts by directing attention towards such structural complexities as multiple plot lines, absence of narrative closure, the problematising of textual boundaries and the genre’s engagement with the cultural circumstances of its audiences.” As a statement of fact, all this is perfectly correct. Of course soap operas can be deconstructed. Of course they tell us much about the society that both consumes and produces them. Of course they are well worth the analysis of a sociologist like you.

But part of me still wants to say “Yes, but they’re still only freaking soap-operas”.

To put it another way, we can map the techniques of soap-operas and legitimately and fruitfully analyse them as sociological data. But turning Humanities studies more towards this and less towards “the canon” means sinking further into the soup of our own time, wallowing in present-ism, and gaining less of the critical perspective for which postmodernism claims to provide a framework.

Please, I beg you, don’t tell me that I am missing the point. I am fully aware that postmodernism and its ultimate heroes, the cyperpunks, blur the distinctions between elite and popular cultures. The paradigm is TV viewing as ‘flow’ complete with ads, station breaks and previews of coming attractions. One doesn’t look at or analyse the individual work. One looks at the constructed context. (Yes, I do like the crack you quote about modern critical theory being “TV watching applied to books.”) But the quest for quality, for “excellence” to use a corporately-abused term, withers. Students learn that the art of criticism is saying clever things about crap – any soup-label will do – rather than lifting themselves out of the cultural Matrix. And buddy, in providing help, postmodernism ain’t no Neo.

I hope I don’t alienate you too much in saying all this. On p.162 you note that (in New Zealand and elsewhere) “what had always been a precarious, British-influenced and literary-derived high culture has progressively yielded to a more explicitly populist, and more obviously mass-media-based, American cultural hegemony”. Again a statement of fact, but one to which my own critical response – even after thirty years as a film-reviewer – is essentially one of resistance. I cannot go with the ‘flow’, TV or otherwise. It is my duty to say that there is something other – and better – than the populist and the mass-media-based. “Read a book with grown-up words in it,” I want to shout. And in fact, of course, so do you, as you have written such a book. This is another paradox with postmodernism criticism. It purports to embrace the popular, the mass, the accessible but (forgive me) it is written in a mandarin prose which implicitly shuts out not only the functionally-illiterate, but the averagely-literate. Its message ain’t its medium.

You probably have me taped as one of those conservative guardians of “high culture” – the sort who were at the height of their influence between the 1940s and 1960s, before Media Studies kicked in, and who were immensely suspicious of what they then called “mass culture”. You’d be partly right, but only partly. I live in the same world you do, consume all forms of media as much as you do, perceive them as critically as you do, and think I am as aware as you are of the social forces that shape them. Yet still my blood still freezes when, in your excellent essay on films about gambling, you write such a sentence (on p.51) as “The Hustler is the better movie – but perhaps The Color of Money is the better social science.” This is because I’m essentially concerned with what is qualitatively “better” (you yourself use this evaluative term), while you are essentially concerned with the “social science”. And (again forgive me), I think where the arts are concerned your type of criticism has the tendency to reduce all things to sociological data, and quality go hang.

Nick, we are singing from different song sheets. In saying what I’ve said, I’ve scratched a tiny pimple on the backside of a huge subject. I’m taking a crack at the whole methodology of postmodernism. I salute you for not drowning in jargon, for arguing rationally, for being so provocative, and for making me get on my hind legs and start fighting.

I hope you appreciate that all this means I enjoyed your book very much.

Please fight back
Best regards
Nicholas Reid

PS By the way, I loved the cover design, Fifi Colston’s cod re-representation of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus from the Wearable Art Show. It really tells me where postmodernism is at. While it purports to thumb its nose at canonical art, it still has to quote from it to assert its own prestige. Parody as the sincerest form of flattery.


  1. I loved this book. Perry is a lucid thinker. He is also an academic who the WAY he writes, the form, the style, is as important and central to the argument as the content. LOVED!

  2. Bravo Anonymous, whoever you may be. As I hope my review made clear, I loved a lot of it too, and I stick to my creed that only good books are worth arguing with. Thanks for your forthright response.