Postscript to “Evaluating Television: Affect as a Critical Optic”
Hollis Griffin, Denison University
This article did not start with a focus on evaluation or affect. It started as a reflection on the relationship between studying television and the economic crisis of 2008, when it seemed like anyone who’d purchased a home in the ten years prior would soon be homeless. At the time, I was getting up in my feelings about how media scholars could write about anything other than the operation of power in consumer capitalism. Also around that time, I wrote a piece for Flow that came from a place of genuine concern about the economic recession and the role of television scholarship in a changing academy. Alas, I read it now and can’t help but cringe for its stridence and lack of nuance. I wrote the Cinema Journal (CJ) article in an attempt to be more thoughtful in considering the practice of television scholarship in the contemporary moment, with its hostility toward intellectualism, eroding commitments to education, and the widespread belief that the goal of higher education is adequate job training and nothing else. I wasn’t too interested in evaluation when I wrote the article in Flow because I believed rather strongly that it was beside the point.
Over time, my position on that changed. I wrote a book in between the publication of the Flow piece and the publication of “Evaluating Television: Affect as a Critical Optic.” The book features a chapter on the relationship between queer theory and television criticism in which I try to parse out what’s at stake in television scholarship that interrogates questions of power as they operate in discourses on sexual identity and desire. As I wrote it, I started seeing that my interest in reflecting on television scholarship is, actually, an interest in evaluation. The more I thought about it, the more I decided that discourses on television are, in some sense, always about evaluation. I also started to see a more pragmatic argument about the practice of television scholarship in the academy. In the Flow article and the chapter in which I discuss it in the book, I stuck a flag in the dirt and argued that there are right and wrong ways of doing television scholarship. I stand by the underlying logic of the chapter in the book and, for the most part, the one in the Flow article. Yet, of the Flow piece, I can’t help but think: “Settle down, Karl Marx. It’s more complicated than that.” I set out to write the CJ article in order to address that complexity.
In between the publication of the Flow article and the release of my book, I become more invested in scholarship on affect, a body of literature that is, like all areas of scholarship, pretty contradictory. Some camps identify affect as a bodily experience that precedes cognition and escapes representation. Other camps characterize affect as a bodily experience that constitutes a form of knowing that is, often but not always, borne out in representation. That form of knowing is not necessarily conscious or rational in the traditional sense though it’s no less useful or meaningful for that. Following feminist and queer scholarship on affect, I understand it as a system that encompasses multiple forms of bodily experience—fear, laughter, anger, boredom, etc.—that are intimately connected to the psyche. I see affect as a range of forces that connect subjects and objects—in this case, those forces connect viewers to television. Viewers can have any number of experiences with television programming, even the same programming. Those experiences are as much cognitive as they are corporeal. Embodiment is a form of knowing that shapes identification with television and vice versa.
One of the difficulties of writing about affect is doing justice to the literature. My biggest fear in seeing “Evaluating Television: Affect as a Critical Optic” in print is that I could not lay out the literature in all of its complexity. I suspect that I do a better job of that in Feeling Normal if only because I had more space and the questions I take up there are different. I did not see the CJ essay as being about sexual minorities, wholly. If I could go back to the article and change a second thing, I would want to underscore more clearly that there is a way of using affect as a lens to illuminate the ideological issues that attend all of television’s representations of minorities. There are a host of other examples I might have used to provide evidence for my argument. For instance, the short-lived program Luis (Fox, 2003) features Puerto Rican comedian Luis Guzmán in a sitcom that features recurring jokes about the differences between various Latinx cultures. It aimed for diversity in its representation of Latinx but was slammed by critics and cancelled after a handful of episodes. Even so, its cancellation does not make the program any less important to the people who watched, liked and/or identified with it. Although I am most interested in complicating the ways in television represents minority lives and cultures, I see affect as providing a way of considering all television representations. I am hopeful that other scholars of the medium find affect to be a useful optic as they approach those questions themselves.
The deeper I got into the literature on affect, the more I understood that it provides a way of thinking about television as a system in which bodies, texts, technologies, pleasures, and modes of critique become connected and bleed into one another. So when I finished the book and sat down to write this essay, I wanted to think through what affect—as a body of theory, as an object of analysis—can reveal about television. Writing about affect can seem as though it is too loosey-goosey and subjective to be useful. In contrast, I think treating affect as a varied system that includes a number of different bodily experiences mitigates its subjectivity because it foregrounds the diversity of affective responses. I also think its vagueness is precisely why affect is so useful as an optic for approaching analysis of television. It allows for attention to multiple, even contradictory experiences that overlap and are entangled with one another. One can shake with fear and then burst into laughter. One can go from being angry to being bored by that anger and then back to being angry all over again. Watching television is itself a loosey-goosey experience in which bodies inhabit subject positions structured by numerous discourses that are always in a state of unfolding, collapsing into one another, diverging, collapsing again, becoming something else. Watching television is a classic example of “What comes first, the chicken or the egg?” Ideology or aesthetics?
I think attention to affect can help identify the tensions as well as the common ground between television scholarship that takes up aesthetic questions and television scholarship that focuses on ideological concerns. I use the dialogue between Jason Mittell and Michael Newman and Elana Levine as a jumping off point. Their back-and-forth about scholarship on television aesthetics provides a good entry for thinking about the relationship between television’s forms and their attendant ideologies. Yet there is another, equally valid way of saying that: the relationship between television’s ideologies and the aesthetic forms through which they are communicated.
What I want to highlight and I don’t know if this comes across as clearly as I would have liked it to in the article: Even though they do not agree, I see the dialogue between those two books as featuring more nuanced arguments about the relationship between television’s aesthetics and its ideologies than I had had up until then, myself. I wrote the CJ article as a way of approaching that dialogue through a set of terms and conceptual frameworks that made sense to me and, I hope, articulate affect as a lens for conducting analyses of television that take up those issues. As I discuss in the CJ piece, I think that lens can highlight a number of issues of interest to television scholars. But perhaps more importantly, I think approaching television through the lens of affect provides good fodder for the undergraduate classroom. It can help frame television scholarship as “practical education” even as it allows for analysis of the operation of power as it is made manifest in programming. Considering the current, widespread hostility to higher education, that is no small thing.
When I talk about affect as a critical optic, I have a sense that such approaches to studying media culture are fashionable. I have seen and heard people brush it off as little more than a flash in the pan that will crest and then ebb as quickly as it started. I find that funny if only because media scholars have been writing about bodily experience and ways of knowing for…. forever, maybe? When I was younger and perhaps more pleased with myself, my take on television scholarship in the context of late modernity was “ideology over aesthetics.” (i.e. “Why are we talking about how good ______ is? The world is ending! Television isn’t helping!”) As I read, thought, and wrote more about affect, my take on that morphed into “ideology and aesthetics.” Separating one from the other is akin to trying to answer the question of the chicken or the egg.
And that, in sum, is what affect can tell us about television. It’s neither chicken nor egg. Rather, it poses the question itself.
 Hollis Griffin, Feeling Normal: Sexuality and Media Criticism in the Digital Age (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017): 112-139.
 I do a better job of parsing that out in the book than I will ever be able to do here. Ibid. 3.
 Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television (New York: NYU Press: 2015; Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (New York: Routledge, 2011).