Summer Books in Conversation / Caetlin Benson-Allott and Charles Acland

A conversation between Caetlin Benson-Allott, author of The Stuff of Spectatorship: Material Cultures of Film and Television (University of California Press, 2021), and Charles Acland, author of American Blockbuster: Movies, Technology, and Wonder (Duke University Press, 2020)


Following the success of our Thinking With series, we’re thrilled to release our Summer edition of “Books in Conversation”. This collection features conversations that scholars Douglas Dowland (Weak Nationalisms: Affect and Nonfiction in Postwar America), Jessica Pressman (Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age), and Caetlin Benson-Allott (The Stuff of Spectatorship: Material Cultures of Film and Television) each have with their “ideal interlocutors” about their recent books.

— Jerrine Tan, Reviews Editor

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Charles Acland (AC): This is your third monograph, so congratulations on The Stuff of Spectatorship: Material Cultures of Film and Television (University of California Press, 2021). It really is continuous with your other two books: Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing (University of California Press, 2013) and Remote Control (Bloomsbury, 2015). Collectively, they seem like an attack on some key presumptions about the way we do the kind of film and media research that we do. One of the contributions you’ve made over the years is to successfully blur the boundaries between film and television studies. You’ve done that in important ways here, while keeping gender studies and historical consciousness central to the work.

The Stuff of Spectatorship challenges us in terms of the kinds of attention we pay to how moving image culture circulates. This is important work; this new book is a document of this era and it’s also going to be read and consulted for a long time.

Many people today would approach the questions you ask about contemporary spectatorship by focusing on something like streaming media and arguing that video-on-demand is over-determining viewing conditions. But what’s interesting is that you don’t do that; streaming is there in your book, video-on-demand is there, and sure, they are major disruptors to film and television viewing and distribution, but they’re placed in an historical context, making for a more compelling analysis. You situate the technological changes within a whole range of practices that have a longevity to them—complicated procedures, materials, and rituals that don’t always get attention and have been with us for decades. You show that, if you’re going to talk about technological change, that’s fine, but you might also want to pay attention to the things already in place that orient us as we accommodate ourselves to whatever new distribution mechanisms there may be.

For that reason, the book is a terrific statement. Manifesto might be too strong a word, but it demonstrates what it means to do mature, close, detailed material analysis right now. The different case studies that you’ve picked—Battlestar Galactica and videotape culture, Looking for Mr. Goodbar and DVD distribution, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and the branding of film history, cinema violence, and then of course the material on drugs and television and alcohol in movie theaters—all of that really works to point to the variety and the specificity of ordinary conditions under which we encounter moving image culture.

At one point I think you say that your work is a challenge to the idea of medium specificity, but what’s interesting is that you don’t lose analytical specificity; in fact, you are very careful about both larger and more proximate forces that shape our ideas about medium specificity.

As such, what you’ve presented is the best of the cultural studies tradition of understanding the media that we encounter as dynamic and changing and then trying to chart those changes. So let me start by asking, given all of the possible things that one might focus on, how do you end up picking the ones that you do? I mean, clearly material culture is a difficult thing to research, because it’s not as though many of the things you pay attention to are prioritized by conventional research archives or collecting practices.

Caetlin Benson-Allott (CBA): Thank you for that incredible and generous introduction; I feel very seen, in the parlance of our times. I appreciate the connections and through lines that you’re pulling out in my work, and that’s really where the answer to your question emerges, I think. Ever since Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, I’ve been interested in the objects and spectatorial occasions—the media occasions, to use your phrase from American Blockbuster— that our field has tacitly deemed unworthy of study. I was in graduate school during the boom of interest in DVD, and I remember thinking What happened to VHS? In part because I was a poor graduate student and didn’t want to upgrade my VCR to a DVD player, but I also wondered how the field could go directly from praising cinematic exhibition as if it were the sine qua non of the filmic encounter to celebrating DVD without thinking about the ways that VCRs set up that domestic connoisseur culture, the spectatorial practices we brought to DVD. That interest, in what has tacitly been deemed unworthy of study, brought me to Remote Control too. I was curious about media archaeology and platform studies at the time and the kind of objects that did or didn’t get picked up by their practitioners. It struck me that one cannot really understand the dynamics of home media consumption without thinking about the remote control device and the fantasies attached to it.
When it came to The Stuff of Spectatorship—well, I’ve always been captivated by Vivian Sobchack’s essay “The Scene of the Screen,” but I also feel drawn to all the stuff around us in that scene, stuff that changes how we make sense of media. Sobchack’s staging a very particular kind of intervention with that essay—it was written for a specific moment—so she’s not thinking about cannabis; she’s not thinking about wine or gun violence or video packaging, which is what I really wanted to pursue. Because it’s very interesting to consider how the spectatorial subject responds to—and is shaped by—the rich materiality of media culture!

In picking the objects to do that study, there was again a sort of perversity at work—I wanted to choose the she did what now? case studies and prove that it really, truly matters that movie theaters have had this long-standing relationship with alcohol and that the reintroduction of alcohol to cinema culture has already profoundly changed the way people understand moviegoing and generate meaning from movies.

Relatedly, I was stunned by the silence from our field when the massacre at The Dark Knight Rises happened in 2012. Film scholars didn’t seem to have anything to say about it. We had just spent 10+ years debating the idea of the death of cinema! But with the exception of Gary Rhodes, no one else has historicized cinema violence as part of reception culture.

So I picked these limit cases to see just how far we might push the boundaries when thinking about what material media culture means.

CA: You’re right, and I think that it’s easy—or has been easy—for parts of our field to dismiss many works, artifacts, and events as small and not that impactful. But what becomes apparent in The Stuff of Spectatorship is that we’re talking about very powerful determining and structuring factors for the way in which we encounter moving image culture, and also for how we organize and understand social relations generally.

Perhaps that’s why, even though there is discussion of thing theory in the book, you’re aligning your work with material culture analysis. You never lose sight of the practices involved. I think that that’s absolutely key. Sometimes you approach practice in an autoethnographic way, but you also do so by documenting the strength and the prevalence of conventionalized and shared practices, as opposed to individualized ones.

CBA: It’s interesting that you brought up thing theory. When I started this book, I saw my approach to thinking about material media cultures as a response to various depoliticized strands of new materialism, such as object-oriented ontology. I really cottoned on to material culture studies because it always insists on the political life of things, or—to borrow Bruno Latour’s term—on things as political actants. And that was incredibly important to me in trying to articulate the roles that these various material objects and forces play in media culture, because I’m not just interested in the branded stuff of Turner Classic Movies or its metamorphosis into a lifestyle brand. TCM is a highly politicized taste culture; there’s a lot of class messaging baked into TCM’s control over classic film spectatorship, into how they want us to understand what classic means and buy their lifestyle of classic film fandom.

CA: I love that early on in the book you talk about TV Guide; that’s an excellent example of how our field has tended to ignore these things that are absolutely foundational. In American Blockbuster, I recall how important the free TV Weeklistings were to me in the 1970s—not even TV Guide, because as you rightly describe TV Guide was the version people had to subscribe to. But the listings were so important, because that’s where I could find the names of movies; that’s where I could find little descriptions of the films and information about the actors, years of release, and ratings. That was my first film education, right before videotape culture took off, which offered a different mode of accessibility to works and which introduced a whole library of mass-marketed movie guidebooks. You see that there’s a way in which newspaper TV listings are an everyday educational platform, a classic sort of Bourdieuian hierarchization of cultural knowledge and sensibility, one that has been disparaged or ignored. But this is one place where the encounter with the organization of film and television culture begins! I love that you have that as part of your introduction, your launching pad.

CBA: Thank you! As a field, I think we have gotten to a place where we’re willing to say that Scorsese, Spielberg, and all the 1970s American auteurs that we’ve long venerated started learning film history from TV—but how did they know what was on? How did their TV Guides shape their viewing choices?

As everyone does, I wrote the introduction last, and I was asking myself what is an anecdotal object narrative that I can include here that will encapsulate my methodology? I really wanted it to be something ancillary to film and TV, something not officially part of the synergistic operations of “blockbuster strategy” and yet constitutive of the way in which we make sense of these media in our lives. And I remembered the shame that I used to have growing up about the fact that we were a TV Week family while my friend Kim’s family was a TV Guide family. The slickness and the size of the TV Guide really impacted me; I thought Kim and her family were certainly a better class of TV viewers and maybe a better class of people than we were because of the physical properties of that little digest.

CA: One of the features of the book is its interest in understanding the complexity of what we think of as media or film or television history. Could you say a little bit more about that, because there’s one moment—I think it’s at the end of chapter three—when you talk about TCM as “manufacturing the future of Hollywood history”? And I can see how that operates in a couple of the chapters, such as the analysis of Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which directs our attention to how easy it is for major works to fall off the map, or the examination of Battlestar Galactica and the remediation of television history. So could you say a few words about the kind of historicity that circulates around material culture?

CBA: That’s a great question. It actually took me a long time to start understanding myself as a historian, because as a student, I thought that to be a historian you had to work with special collections; you had to go into a physical university or museum archive and examine preserved documents and artifacts. And I was much more concerned with how popular histories are shaped by commercial forces—such as how journalists are writing (or not writing) about acts of cinema violence in relationship to prior incidents or how the copy on the back cover of the Battlestar Galactica VHS puts it in conversation with Star Wars rather than All in the Family, which it was originally programmed against in 1978-1979.

I’m very interested in how these common objects and discourses compose history and how we as scholars and especially as teachers pick those stories up without realizing it. It wasn’t until a 2014 encounter with Looking for Mr. Goodbar that I realized, my god, I teach film histories of various sorts every single year and I have not reckoned with the fact that I can only teach what is made available by commercial distributors. So yes, I wanted to address how the material availability of different objects shapes the ways that we as media consumers—which we all were before we were historians—receive film history and the history of popular culture.

CA: That’s a good encapsulation of the entire work as well, namely attention to the conditions of spectatorial specificity. In that way, you’re critiquing approaches that would suggest a general or universalist approach to reception, and doing so by rooting reception not just in materials but in historically shaped situations.

On that note, could you say a little more about one of the concepts that you introduce, transient viewing, and the way in which it speaks to John Ellis’s glance theory as opposed to the cinematic gaze, which is one of the ways we conceptualize the difference between the filmic and the televisual spectator?

CBA: One of the problems with glance and gaze theory, for our present moment, is that they’re both making very strong implicit claims about the architecture and ecology of media consumption for their respective technologies. So in glance theory, as you know, Ellis is very insistent on the idea that TV is designed to be listened to, not necessarily to be watched, which perhaps made sense for a certain kind of apparatus at a certain time, and some shows made for that apparatus.

With a streaming platform, though, all of that content—those films and series that may have been produced with quite specific reception practices in mind—is mingled together on the platform’s user interface (UI). Media from around the world and many different decades are lumped together in categories that tell you next to nothing about the context of their production or initial reception.

With transient viewing, I was trying to describe the effect of this radical equivalence for the user, the spectatorial subject created by that UI. Users are encouraged to drift from one media property to another without a map or a plan, which is to say without cultural, industrial, or artistic history to guide them.

But transient viewing also describes the media player itself, because it’s incredibly difficult on one of those streaming platforms to rewatch a scene again and again and again, the way one would for a paranoid or reparative reading.

CA: You’re absolutely right that the alteration of that simple practice of rewatching is, in fact, a major shift from what we were used to. There are other watching practices, too, that we’ve adopted and acclimatized ourselves to, though we might not appreciate how they shape our encounter with the work. On the other hand, there’s a way we sometimes approach this as scholars with a sense of judgment, that this is the better way to encounter media, and that the more abject. It’s important that we find ways of writing about, describing, and understanding what happens in spectatorial practice without judgment.

You walk a fine line, successfully I think, of asking us to consider transient viewing and our new world of audiovisual encounters while also recognizing all of the creative labor that goes into these works. In your conclusion, you make a case for the importance of textual analysis. You want readers to take Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and the microsegmentation of humor in Broad City, seriously. You could see somebody taking the idea of transient viewing and saying this means that the status of reading is less crucial to our work as scholars, but you don’t say that by the end.

CBA: I’m really excited to discuss this with you, because I see you making a very similar point in the first chapter of American Blockbuster, with a defense of reading wherein you also show how textual analysis cannot be supplanted by algorithmic analysis.

Film and media studies went through quite a long moment when textual analysis was kind of scapegoated, when it was disparaged as a methodology. As the editor of a journal, I myself sometimes wonder about its efficacy—like, does the field, do we as human beings, really need another exegesis of Pulp Fiction? How’s that going to make the world a better place? But I think that there are a lot of questions left to answer that only textual analysis can open up. So if we want to talk about television’s relationship to the War on Drugs, which to me is hugely important, I don’t know how you would do that without textual analysis of “very special episodes,” of the narrative and formal representations of drugs on such shows.

So to get back to transient viewing, it was really important to me when writing about Battlestar Galactica, and tracing the framing of that text from off-the-air recordings to prerecorded VHS to DVD and Blu-ray box sets to streaming platforms—not to insist that one platform was better than another. Instead of ranking or hierarchizing the conditions of spectatorship that these different platforms create, we can instead describe them and think about what kinds of history they make available or preclude.

CA: I want to redirect a little bit to pick up on the thread of racial politics and cinema violence. When we talk about movie theaters, there’s a convention of romanticization. As someone who participates in that romanticization on a personal level, I understand it. You dream of a community, because communities are really all about dreams and the possibility of social engagement and social life. But—surprise, surprise—in movie theaters we have reproduced all the social relations, all the exclusions, all the hierarchies that exist elsewhere. We might pretend that they vanish while the movie’s rolling, but they don’t.

You’ve made an enormous contribution with the chapter on violence in cinemas, showing the racialized public response to theater shootings. Yet most incidents of violence in cinemas are not as extreme as shootings. There is a whole other layer of unspectacular, unnewsworthy, everyday attacks and aggressions that are just as racialized. Our mainstream theaters have been slow in trying to catch up with the kinds of antiracist investments that are expanding right now; I just don’t see them taking progressive advantage of this moment to try to reconstruct their environment and change past exclusionary procedures—for instance, the regular profiling of patrons that takes place. On top of it all, there are almost no Black-owned movie theaters in the United States.

So I wonder if you’d like to say more about these dynamics or if you would direct us to any other thinking on that front.

CBA: I finished The Stuff of Spectatorship in Summer 2020, early in the COVID pandemic and the ongoing uprisings for racial justice. Shortly thereafter, Raquel Gates wrote a fantastic essay on these popular calls for Black film scholars to generate “Top 10” lists so that white viewers could educate themselves on the history of racism by watching commercial cinema. Her wonderful response exposed what a counterproductive gesture that was; she argues that “we must focus on the complexity and brilliance of Black film on its own merits” and quash “the very idea that Black film’s greatest purpose is to be an educational primer on race in America.”

The historical work that I’m doing around cinema violence is related to Gates’s point because it argues that white Americans need to reckon with the ways they assume US film culture is their culture. We need to divest ourselves of the supposition that this is all here for us, on our terms.

In addition to studies of gun and knife violence in cinema culture, we need studies of racial profiling and microaggressions as well. Frequently at my local mainstream cinema—the Georgetown AMC—I share space with homeless moviegoers taking advantage of the theater’s restrooms, water fountains, and shelter. But they are consistently surveilled by other theater goers and ejected by AMC employees. The food cultures in movie theaters also police and exclude certain populations.

Film and media studies needs larger histories of these various aggressions—as well as other microaggressions—that enforce cinema as a white affluent space. The longer I researched cinema violence and reactions to it, the more I realized that the dream of cinema as community rests on white homogeneity. As scholars, we need to address the dominance of whiteness in US cinema culture—not that there are not avid communities of moviegoers of color, because we know there are! But the institutions of power in US film culture and the norms they enforce are white. We need to call that out.

CA: I think that we are coming to a point where we need to take more seriously how the work that we do as scholars and critics can bestow legitimacy on situations and institutions that reproduce social relations we challenge in other contexts, such as anti-Blackness. I do think that the chapter on theater violence, in particular, and the book as a whole encourages us to take seriously our relationship to the intricacies of the historical moment that we’re living in, so thank you for that.

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