Television scholar Jason Mittell doesn't like the television show Mad Men, and he's written an article about why. It wasn't news to me; indeed, I'm one of the interlocutors he mentions having argued with about the show on Twitter and elsewhere. I knew Jason was writing this piece and I've been eager to read it.
Now that I have done, I'm left with a very different reaction than I thought I'd have. You see, Jason Mittell doesn't like Mad Men, a show I do like, just as I don't like Lost and The Wire, shows he likes. The reasons we like and dislike different shows are largely matters of taste, but more than just the immediate reactions that sometimes go by the name of "taste." You see, I dislike The Wire for some of the same reasons Mittell dislikes Mad Men: boredom, disinterest, a lack of attachment to or concern for the characters, a distaste for "unclean and unpleasant" feelings produced by the show, and a lack of an ability to empathize long enough even to watch the show without looking at the clock. But who cares, really, that two people have different if weirdly conflicting taste in television?
A critic's job, in part, is to explain and justify his own tastes, and to act as a steward for those tastes on behalf of a constituency of readers. People tend to circle around the critics we respect and, more so, agree with because we come to trust their taste. There are pros and cons to such a tendency, the most obvious downside being that we can avoid stretching our minds by surrounding ourselves with only like-minded ideas.
But for the academic critic, I think the stakes are higher. One can like or dislike something, but we scholars, particularly of popular media, have a special obligation to explain something new about the works we discuss. There are plenty of fans of The Wire and Mad Men and Halo and World of Warcraft out there. The world doesn't really need any more of them. What it does need is skeptics, and the scholarly role is fundamentally one of skepticism.
Thus, the only thing that disappoints me about Jason's essay is that I didn't learn anything new about Mad Men. And I'd like to learn something new about the show, particularly from a skeptical critic.
Now, Mittell might object that such a project wasn't his charge. He was invited to contribute this essay to a collection on Mad Men to be published by Duke University Press. He was so invited precisely because the editors knew he disliked the show, and wanted to include that perspective in the volume. Makes sense to me.
I think the problem lies in the notion of the "aca-fan," a concept Henry Jenkins popularized and to which Mittell subscribes. In Jason's words, the aca-fan is "a hybrid of academic and fan critics that acknowledges and interweaves both intellectual and emotional cultural engagements." Mittell makes a thoughtful observation about this role:
While media scholars do not solely write about what we like, the prevalence of books focused on "quality television" shows that appeal to academics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, and now Mad Men—especially when compared to the lack of similar volumes or essays about more lowbrow or mainstream programs—suggests that taste is often more of a motivating factor for our scholarship than we admit. We should own up to our own fannish (or anti-fannish) tendencies regarding our objects of study, not regarding fan practices as something wholly separate from our academic endeavors by acknowledging how taste structures what we choose to write about.
I'd push it further: the media scholar ought to resist aca-fandom, even as he or she embraces it. The fact that something feels pleasurable or enjoyable or good (or bad) need not be rejected, of course, but it ought to issue an itch, a discomfort. As media scholars, we ought to have self-doubt about the quality and benefit of the work we study. We ought to perform that hesitance often and in public, in order to weave a more complex web around media—not just to praise or blame particular works.
In this regard, I disagree with Jason when he says that "humanities scholars don't typically brand ourselves as fans of our objects of research." I think this is just plain wrong, and not just for pop-culture scholars. More often than not, humanists in general get into what they do precisely because they are head-over-heels in love with it, whether "it" be television, videogames, Shakespeare, Martin Heidegger, the medieval chanson de geste, the Greek lyric poem, or whatever else. Specialty humanities conferences are just fan conventions with more strangely-dressed attendees. Humanists are doe-eyed romantics, even as they are also snarly grouches.
Embracing aca-fandom is a bad idea. Not because it's immoral or crude, but because it's too great a temptation. Those of us who make an enviable living being champions of media, particularly popular media, must also remain dissatisfied with them. We ought to challenge not only ourselves, our colleagues, and our students—but also the public and the creators of our chosen media. We ought not to be satisfied. That's the price of getting to make a living studying television, or videogames, or even Shakespeare.
I've tried to take this charge seriously, most recently in my attempt to live my distaste for Facebook games in order to understand the pleasures and pains of that form more deliberately. And I don't mean to suggest that I've got everything figured out and Jason doesn't. But I do find myself disappointed that Mittell wasn't able to really rip it to Mad Men, to show me and millions more why the show is bad or dangerous or unrefined or incomplete or any of the other things that it's praised for not being. In this respect, I do appreciate Henry Jenkins's tendency to relate "new" media to older forms, like vaudeville. We could ask the question, what is Mad Men? Is it a costume drama? A soap opera? A morality play? A very complex and elongated television advertisement? I don't know, and I know why I don't: I'm too blindered by my fancy for the show.