The Robert Thompson problem

This isn’t directly related to video games, but the University of Chicago Magazine has an interesting article about Robert Thompson, the director of Syracuse’s Center for the Study of Popular Television and perhaps the most frequently quoted nonpolitician in the world. (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan via Daniel Drezner.)

Amy M. Braverman’s article has a sidebar that gives 11 Thompson quotes in as many publications since May, about video games; Star Wars; the FX show Over There; the National Zoo’s panda webcam; bad language on TV; the media coverge of 2,000 U.S. deaths in Iraq. This list gives only the barest hint of Thompson’s ubiquity in newspaper articles having the slightest connection to pop culture. The quotes and the article together point out some of the worst tendencies in cultural studies and cultural journalism.

Pop-culture insecurity

In arguing for the worth of the Beverly Hillbillies, for example, Thompson says the theme song is “possibly the pithiest statement of the American dream since ‘Go west, young man.’ ” That’s certainly a pithy sound bite, but it doesn’t really tell you much. People enjoy shows for more than an intro song and a single theme. And anyway, Thompson’s quote could apply to any number of shows and movies.

More troubling is the profile’s opening scene of Thompson showing his students Fast Times at Ridgemont High:

In the film they’ll watch tonight, Thompson tells the 100 or so Syracuse University undergrads and grad students settled in teal-cushioned seats, they should look for signs of “teen life as a commodity” and “the teen world as a liminal space between childhood and adulthood.” In fact, underlying themes include creating a “teen nation” and — Thompson pauses the DVD near the film’s end to explicate this point — the U.S. Constitution. One character, he says, represents the Jeffersonian Democrats, “operating from the heart” and believing “what you need will come to you,” while another illustrates the Alexander Hamilton Federalists, a work-oriented guy who believes in centralized power.

I’m not sure what “teen life as a commodity” means (companies view teens purely as consumers? teens buy things? teen life is materialistic?). The “liminal” quote is simply stating the obvious: A teenager by definition is transitioning from childhood to adulthood. The bit about Democrats and Federalists is either meaningless or trivial. For one thing, people don’t read the Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalist Papers to tease out why some of the Founders “operated from the heart” and others were “work-oriented.” Those writings reveal deep, profound intellectual struggles and insights that are as much the basis for American democracy as the official documents that came later. But even if Thompson’s odd reading of the Founders makes sense, it’s hard to see how bringing it up adds to an understanding of Fast Times. The profile continues:

More evidence: when history teacher Mr. Hand gives Spicoli a home lesson on the American Revolution, Spicoli articulates what he’s learned: “What Jefferson was saying was, “Hey, you know, we left this England place because it was bogus. So if we don’t get some cool rules ourselves, pronto, we’ll just be bogus too — right?”

This is the movie’s history-inflected deeper message? Please. Sean Penn’s riff is the equivalent of sticking Sigmund Freud and the Emancipation Proclamation in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (one of Fast Times’ many descendents). It’s like Ted trading “Dust in the Wind” lyrics with Socrates. A joke, in other words. Even if the allusion were serious, pointing out that the movie’s referencing Jefferson is an example of … the movie’s referencing Jefferson doesn’t illuminate the film in any way. It’s simply trivia.

Moreover, the jargon-laced, obvious statement and the reference to a traditionally serious or highbrow subject are classic examples of pop culture insecurity. If pop culture is really worth our time, it shouldn’t be gussied up and obscured with the tools of self-important academia. This sort of analysis is like writing a material culture essay on toilet paper and saying, “The juxtaposition of cardboard tube and quilted square reveals the tension embedded in American life: An unsettled duality of the disposable center and the comfort and paradoxical permanence of home.” Using the traditional (that is, obfuscating) language of academia doesn’t make a subject any more real or serious.

I write about video games because I think they’re fun and important. But I don’t pretend they’re more than what they are. I get serious when I need to; I have fun when I need to. When I write about movies, I do the same. I try to get at the heart of the experience or the work, how or why it affected me. Sure, history, psychology, philosophy or any other field can add to the understanding of a work. But I would never reference Jean Baudrillard or Carl Jung just to try to add intellectual heft to a video game review.

Hey, journalists — try reading a book

Thompson’s level and style of analysis might or might not shortchange his students. But journalists’ overreliance on Thompson’s pithiness does a disservice to readers and cultural studies alike.

The profile partially explains Thompson’s ubiquity:

The key to Thompson’s savvy is staying ahead of the game. “You hope that by the time a journalist calls you’ve already been thinking about it,” he says. The 60th anniversary of the webbed aluminum lawn chair, he offers as a nontelevision, pop-culture example, is approaching, so he read up. The chair is fascinating, he says, “because you had all this extra aluminum after the war,” and some enterprising folks thought to “take this surplus of aluminum and match it with the explosion of the suburbs, which was helped with the GI Bill.” It’s his favorite type of topic. “It’s fun to learn the contextual history of things you take for granted. The stuff is so totally a part of who you are and you fail to see the significance.”

What’s striking here isn’t that someone might be writing a newspaper article on the webbed aluminum launch chair and would thus have reason to call Thompson, or that someone wrote about the chair in the first place thus giving Thompson reference material. After all, material culture studies is full of quirky, “someone wrote about that?” moments. What’s striking is that a journalist would seek out Thompson, who has no knowledge of webbed chairs other than what he read to prepare for the interview.

Why not talk to whoever wrote the book or essay on the lawn chair? Better yet, why not read the book yourself and give your own analysis? Articles usually rely on cultural “experts” like Thompson for the same reason some cultural studies scholars cloak their work in jargon: it adds a sheen of legitimacy. Like: “See? This subject is important — a college professor has something to say about this chair/show/circus/whatever! See?” Or conventions of objectivity don’t allow a writer to just give his own analysis.

Either way, readers are too often left with nothing more than a collection of pithy quotes that don’t tell them anything and reinforce notions of pop culture study as a realm of trivia and banality.

I’m sure Robert Thompson has worthwhile things to say about plenty of subjects, and not every story that quotes him is superficial. But if journalists are going to take pop culture seriously, we need to do more than give Thompson a ring. We need to make more of an effort to find people who have actually studied a subject or a work, to seek out actual analysis and insight rather than just easy quotes. One of the Thompson quotes in the sidebar is about video games, but there are any number of game developers or scholars who know more about the subject.

Above all, we need to dismiss the constraints of “objectivity” if it results in surface-deep cultural writing. If you’re interested enough to write about lawn chairs, toilet paper rolls, lawn sprinklers, baseball cards, the Beverly Hillbillies, whatever, you should do enough reading and analysis (in addition to interviews) to have something to say about it — and convention shouldn’t get in your way.

Along with a zillion other things, Thompson knows this. “He doesn’t pass out handouts or go through all the readings,” Braverman writes. ” ‘You have to think for yourselves,’ he says.” For anyone tempted by the Robert Thompson quote machine, that’s a quote worth considering.

— December 31, 2005

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