Ruling Passions: Essays on Just About Everything
Otago University Press, $45.00,
One of the main functions of a book review is to give readers an idea as to whether or to what extent the title under consideration will be of interest and/or use to them. With an academic text that usually involves a consideration of methodological rigour, theoretical sophistication, strength and complexity of argument, liveliness and lucidity of style, and appropriateness or relevance of case studies. It is through this process, perhaps best described as an evaluation and articulation of what a text is adding to the literature of the field, that the degree of usefulness and worth of an academic text is conveyed.
This book presents something of a challenge to this formulation, since it is not altogether obvious where we can locate it (what is the field?), to whom it is addressed (what is the presumed or posited audience?), the mode and tenor of address (what is the imagined “between us” that connects the authorial voice with that implied readership?), or the status or category of the text (what is the genre?). Normally the answers to these questions are explicable, or can be extrapolated, if we can satisfy ourselves with regard to the cultural field from which the text is produced and within which it circulates; but, if anything, that approach only adds to the difficulty here.
Nick Perry is a highly distinguished professor in film, TV and media studies at the University of Auckland, the author of influential books on television and advertising (The Dominion of Signs: Television, Advertising and Other New Zealand Fictions, 1994) and on global culture (Hyperreality and Global Culture, 1998). The essays in his current book deal with important, complex and recognisably scholarly themes, such as the imbrication of identity and contemporary media technologies, the socio-political functions of culture, the relation between the process of commoditisation and inalienable cultural forms, and the cultural politics of globalisation. Moreover, the discussion of these issues moves across, and makes use of, bodies of complex cultural, communication and sociological theory associated with names such as Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Bourdieu and Judith Butler (although the latter’s name is, curiously, missing from the index) ‒ and that’s only the Bs.
This indicates that we are dealing with an academic text located somewhere in the ever-expanding space currently shared by sociology, cultural studies, media studies, film and literary theory. However, there are a number of anomalies: the theoretical engagement, analysis and argumentation are worn lightly; the discourses employed are sufficiently everyday as to allow for and facilitate a more general readership; and every attempt is made to provide the reader with potted accounts of histories, contexts and cases regarding the theoretical issues, debates and positions at hand. The mode of address is, similarly, undemanding and encouraging. Finally, the kinds of cultural literacies that are presumed are not of writers associated with French critical theory (Barthes, Bourdieu, Foucault), media scholarship (Appadurai, McLuhan) or gender studies (Butler); rather they are of popular and iconic cultural texts such as The Avengers, Catch-22, Hancock’s Half Hour, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Prisoner.
This is a book, then, where the concerns and debates of contemporary sociology and cultural studies are given the discursive forms, and insinuated into the identities, genres, narratives and images, of popular culture. This kind of undertaking has become a recognisable sub-genre in its own right, if not its own place; it’s associated with and emerges from academic scholarship, but its style is lighter, and the approach less rigorous, than with conventional academic texts. The narrative doesn’t build connections between and across topics via techniques of analysis and detailed contextualising; rather it is impressionistic and discursive in the sense that it moves quickly from one topic or name or issue or historical period to the next. It aims to provide the reader with an overview of an interesting socio-cultural area (rugby and the media, gambling, the cultural meaning of the telephone) and to incite them to further inquiry, but also to entertain and amuse.
Perhaps the best-known antecedent is the work of the Slovenian Marxist academic Slavoj Zizek, who in Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (1991) endeavoured to make accessible the notoriously difficult work of the French psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan via studies of the films of Alfred Hitchcock. That work gave rise to further attempts to make theoretical material accessible to a general audience by showing ideas (in areas such as feminism, psychoanalysis, Marxism and phenomenology) in action, the assumption being that iconic media texts (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Flintstones, Gilligan’s Island, Blade Runner, The Matrix) and their characters and narratives could stand in or do duty as cultural symptoms and exemplars. Zizek, for instance, has over the last two decades produced almost a book a year dealing with the ideas of Pascal, Hegel, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Kant, Marx, Brecht, Adorno, Heidegger and Habermas, but as they are played out, manifested, demonstrated or exemplified in the horror novels of Stephen King, the films of John Ford, or the Big Brother television series.
Perry takes his lead, not only from the pioneering work of writers such as Zizek, but also from the emergence of “populist-style academic support” over the last 40 years or so, for the value, worth and relevance of popular culture. So, in a sense, Ruling Passions is predicated on the twin assumptions of “the polysemy of media texts” and “the resourcefulness of media audiences”. This is how it is best approached and evaluated: it presumes that readers who normally would shy away from reading about Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity might be persuaded to engage with it if it was raised during a discussion that makes reference to and use of Paul Holmes and Shortland Street; or that an academic-bound consideration of the relation between the body, identity and commodity culture might seem relevant to a wider audience if the ostensible topic was the history of wearable art in New Zealand.
Some of the essays are more successful in this regard than others. The chapters on British television of the 1960s, for instance, are particularly effective because Perry knows the material extremely well, and is willing and able to inhabit it in a detailed and comfortable manner. He provides a convincing and insightful account of the link between Angry Young Man literature and television comedies such as Hancock and Steptoe and Son; plots the change of milieu inhabited by Patrick McGoohan from Danger Man to The Prisoner; and traces the transformation of The Avengers from gritty, noir-influenced thriller to a purveyor of soft porn fetishism ‒ all the while demonstrating how these details are symptomatic of, and tell us something important about, a particular cultural time and place. The chapter on shopping (“Six Retailers in Search of a Consumer”), on the other hand, is too formulaic (the Pirandello intertext is more of a straitjacket than a borrowed costume), and simply tries to fit too much (consumption now, the dairy, the department store, the shopping mall, the mail order catalogue, internet shopping) into too little.
To some extent this unevenness is a product of two contexts ‒ the material was produced over almost three decades (the earliest work, in its original form, dates from 1984, and the most recent from 2011), and crafted from quite different mediums and genres (lectures, review article, book chapter, journal article, encyclopaedia entry). However, this heterogeneity comes together as a single text because the style and tone are consistent, the learning is always apparent, the approach encouraging, and the writing accessible.
Tony Schirato is Associate Professor in the Media Studies Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.