Spiritually an ancestor to Todd Gitlin’s article from earlier in the semester, this week's “Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans,” by Mark Andrejevic, sees its author take up the task of leaving readers deeply crestfallen. Much as Gitlin argued in “Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment” that major social conflicts are brought into the body of cultural production and made digestible, regardless of whether they began as alternatives to dominant thoughts and assumptions, Andrejevic asserts a similar futility in the face of the routine workings of the market and commercial culture. He suggests that the so-called “interactive” fan efforts opened up by new media actually double as forms of unpaid labor, and may enhance marketing strategies of corporate culture as much as they subvert authority through textual appropriation (42-44). Or better yet, what we might call “textual poaching,” as Henry Jenkins labels such fan actions in his own article for this week: “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten” (471). Indeed, part of Andrejevic’s intent is to take previous commentators – most notably, Jenkins – to task for how they have created a false binary between the “complicit passivity and subversive participation” of viewers (43). Andrejevic sees this divide as naïve, and disabuses us of that notion by showing how creative acts by viewers can be simultaneously pleasurable and disempowering.
Gloomy as Andrejevic’s conclusion may be (his final sentence: “spectators take their pleasure in knowing – with the insiders – just why things are as bad as they are and why they could not be any different”), he does admit that creative viewer activity can be fulfilling from the perspective of those viewers. Even if power relations haven’t shifted as dramatically as new media would have us think, and even if interactivity is “rather more passive than advertised,” I wonder if the situation’s really so dire (40). Much of the author’s argument hinges on the idea of fans now being “savvy viewers” (i.e., viewers who claim knowledge of how “the system” works, yet take pleasure in identifying with the insiders within that system). These savvy viewers exhibit insider, self-reflexive knowledge, but seek not to reshape media with that knowledge; instead, they accept that their participation must be ineffective (39-40). Andrejevic seems to suggest that these highly aware viewers are ultimately incapable of activism, incapable of challenging existing social/material relations. But, I think he goes too far when claiming that newly enhanced, interactive participation has “little influence” over media content (40). Interactive participation may be misread, misconstrued, or otherwise mishandled by media producers, but it does seem to have a discernible effect on what they churn out. Andrejevic seems disappointed as he spoils the revolutionary luster of interactive participation, but, if the pleasure derived from creative viewing is sufficient on its own, do fans even need to be revolutionary? Who decides what a viewer finds empowering – Andrejevic?