Yesterday, Tim Sullivan and I met to toast the completion of the manuscript for Chief Culture Officer. It now enters the production tunnel and I will capture only glimpses of it until it appears, officially, in hard covers, in the fall.
And this is when the doubts begin to form. What mistakes did I make? What did I over-argue? What will come back to haunt me?
These doubts spring from two motives: vanity and scruple.
Vanity asks whether I have made myself look like any idiot. (I know many critics will hope so.)
Scruple asks whether I succeeded in transcending my interests and prejudices. C.I. Lewis argued that investigators have taken,
"[a] tacit oath never to subordinate the motive of objective-truth seeking to any subjective preference or inclination or any expediency or opportunistic consideration." (in Haack, below)
Those who embrace post-modernism will laugh at this. Objectivity is an illusion, they say. Opportunism is inevitable. Power is the prime mover, the sufficient explanation. It's a very fashionable argument…and now of course the very rocks on which anthropology has impaled itself. (For myself, I accept we cannot be fully objective. I also believe that not bothering to try turns scholarship into cant.)
My vulnerability on this issue is complicated by the fact that this book was written over three months, and therefore in haste. When you are writing virtually "in real time," you reach for the handiest ideas, and these are almost certainly the ones you hold dear for reasons of "inclination" or "opportunism." (I said some things not because I believed them to be true but because I wanted them to be true.)
The particular argument I worry about is the one that says that contemporary culture is becoming more complicated, more rich and more nuanced. Did I assume this too hastily? Do I have a leg to stand on? (I've been making the argument since 1997. Perhaps I am a little too invested in it.)
In the book I rehearse the arguments (or at least the proofs) from Henry Jenkins and Steven Johnson. I quoted the latter as saying,
For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest-common denominator standards, presumably because the “masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies want to give the masses what they want. But in fact, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less.
I read the career of David Milch into evidence, especially the writing he did for Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Deadwood. I noted these recent words of praise by Poulsen for the Fox series The Sarah Connors Chronicles which he described as “a deeply felt and artfully imagined drama with so many unexpected gifts that it’s often hard to believe you’re watching broadcast television.”
But now that the manuscript is closed, really good stuff is now popping up everywhere. James Poniewozik interviewed Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof and solicited these very useful comments:
[Lindelof] For me certainly, the big game-changer was Myst. There's a lot of that feeling in Lost. What made it so compelling was also what made it so challenging. No one told you what the rules were. You just had to walk around and explore these environments and gradually a story was told. And Lost is the same way. The problem on Lost has always been, no one has told the characters what to do. If you're on Grey's Anatomy, every episode starts out with a patient coming in–you know what you have to do. If you're on a cop show, your lieutenant calls you into his office and tells you what you have to do; in a law show, your client comes in. On Lost, our characters would be sitting around on a beach if we didn't create stories for them, and [like Lost] videogames don't have "franchises" unless you're a spy or something. Grand Theft Auto is the same way. It's more about the exploration of the environment than a self-contained conflict.
Cuse: We also felt that since Lost was violating a lot of rules of traditional television storytelling, including having a large and sprawling cast and having very complex storytelling, we felt that videogames were one model that showed that if audiences get invested, they love complexity. In fact, the more complexity the better, and the challenge of that complexity was an asset as opposed to a liability. Those are the games that people actually respect, you know?
The career of J.J. Abrams offers useful supporting evidence.
Over the past decade Mr. [J.J.] Abrams, 42, has helped pioneer a storytelling style that demands total commitment from audience members, requiring that they keep up not only with complicated single-episode plotlines (can a time-traveling castaway alter past events to help himself in the present?) but also with fiendishly intricate narratives (how did the Oceanic Six [in Lost] get off their mysterious island, and how might they get back?) that can take an entire season — or seasons, plural — to play out. (in Itzkoff, below)
Very well. There is some evidence for my argument. But it looks as if this issue may be at issue. More on the theme and the show called Fringe tomorrow.
Haack, Susan. 1998. Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 7.
Itzkoff, Dave. 2008. “Complexity Without Commitment.” The New York Times, August 24, here.
Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press.
Johnson, Steven. 2005. Everything bad is good for you. New York: Riverhead.
McCracken, Grant. 1997. Plenitude. Toronto: Periph. Fluide.
Poniewozik, James. 2007. Lyst: Cuse and Lindelof on Lost and Videogames. Tuned In Blogs. Time.com. March 19, 2007. here.
Poulsen, Kevin. 2009. Urgent: Save Sarah Connor Chronicles From Termination. Wired.com. May 4.