Martin Shuster teaches at Goucher College, in the Center for Geographies of Justice, and where he also directs the Judaic studies program. In addition to New Television and many articles across a range of subfields, he is also the author of Autonomy after Auschwitz: Adorno, German Idealism, and Modernity (University of Chicago, 2014).
What is New Television: The Aesthetics and Politics of a Genre about?
Above all, the book is about the artistic and political significance of what I’ve termed new television—shows like Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and others. Equally, though, the book might be said to be a sort of self-inquiry into why so much of this sort of television has become important to me (and to many others), why it seems to captivate me and how to best account for that interest (assuming, already, that it is more than “mere entertainment”).
New Television is composed of two parts, the first of which presents a theory about the nature of new television as an aesthetic object (its “ontology” and its dominant modes of actualizing its aims, especially its methods of storytelling). Here I explicitly aim to connect my discussion to far broader debates in the philosophy of art as well as art history, engaging frequently with the work of both Stanley Cavell (vis-à-vis aesthetics) and with Michael Fried (vis-à-vis art history). The second part of the book presents close readings of several shows in order to develop the political stakes of ‘new television.’ On my reading, new television is a genre (or more accurately, a ‘mode,’ say like ‘gothic’) that orients itself around two themes: (1) the wholesale loss of normative authority across all human institutions, save one, (2) the family. What’s striking about so much of this new television is that you find these themes across an array of disparate types of shows, from police procedurals to sci-fi epics to legal mysteries to sitcoms to westerns to gangster shows, and pretty much everything in between. This is why I call it a mode—a way of developing and saying what the work of art wants to say—across a range of genres (hence the analogy to ‘gothic,’ where we now have ‘gothic humor,’ ‘gothic horror,’ ‘gothic romance,’ and so forth). In this second part, I tease out the social and political significance of such a mode: what it says about the aims of such art from this perspective, and especially how I think it engages with elements of political theory around notions of the family and natality.
Throughout New Television I proceed as I do in all of my work, by engaging in close reading (here of visual objects as much as texts) and by drawing from an array of philosophical traditions, whether Anglophone or European. Because of the topic matter, I have also aimed to write the book in a more generalist vein, so that anyone interested in the topic could potentially find something useful in it … but I leave it to such readers to decide how successful I’ve actually been.
Two follow-up questions: (1) could you just give a more specific example of the normative breakdown/family dichotomy and how it works in a show or two? And (2) all of this isn’t really philosophy any more is it?
With respect to the first point: sure. One way to see this really quickly is just to think of the opening of Breaking Bad. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is recording a video to his family that states: “I want you to—I need you to understand that you are safe. You, Junior, Holly. You are completely safe. Everything that I do, everything. I do it to protect this family” (emphasis added). As the show proceeds, we see that what’s shown is essentially the emptiness of norms across all of the various spheres of human life: the social, political, and legal norms of the USA in this moment do not ‘work’ (e.g., at an eagle’s eye view of things, the show’s suggestion is that this is the reason for why White is pushed towards crime … but even more strongly, the show also suggests that scientific norms themselves are empty in a certain way, that there are only instrumental norms within and for science). Ultimately, even the norms of the criminal world turn out to be empty (i.e., there is no honor among thieves). Yet, the family remains a persistent fixture here and is able to animate a wide range of activities for White and others. One finds analogous parameters in a wide range of shows (some sort of normative emptiness or breakdown generally and then a sole institution that appears to be able to vivify normative commitments: the family). Of course, there are a host of very complex issues here, not the least of which is whether we should take such invocations of family at face value (i.e. perhaps they, too, are empty and these are merely rhetorical moves that characters make, in hypocritical or self-deceiving ways). (And this is apart from the issues surrounding how to understand normative authority, emptiness, the philosophy of action involved here, and so forth … all issues I take up in one way or another throughout my discussion in the book).
As far as the second question, I suppose I will let readers judge. There are several senses of philosophy that I find important, some lean on an idea of philosophy as something that aims to capture its own moment in time—think here Hegel, but equally Stanley Cavell (“the criticism a culture produces of itself”), while others lean on the idea of a creation of concepts (Nietzsche, Deleuze), and while yet others conceive of philosophy as a sort of dialogue amidst and around a common canon (in a certain vein, say, Richard Rorty). By any of these definitions, New Television is philosophy: it orients itself around something very important to a large segment of our culture and gives an argument around the aesthetic and political significance of this interest; in doing so, it sketches certain novel concepts; and in pursuing both of those tasks, it engages—is forced to engage—with an array of philosophers and philosophical themes and details (both contemporary and past).
Who has influenced this work the most?
Above all, the biggest influence for this project is Stanley Cavell. Finding Cavell’s work really opened my eyes to the possibilities of doing philosophy in this way: a way that is sincere and serious about being philosophy but that is also equally committed to certain everyday elements of experience. In this vein, I have also found Robert Pippin’s work (on film and literature) incredibly captivating and inspiring, since Pippin—influenced very much by a certain Hegelian conception of philosophy—also far expands the scope of what is properly philosophical.
As far as the argument of the book itself, the most important figures are Stanley Cavell (for the way in which he thinks about moving images), Michael Fried (the way in which he thinks about art history), and Hannah Arendt (and the way in which she conceives of the various issues that animate politics and human agency).
How does it fit in with your larger research project?
I suspect many people, if looking at my first book, Autonomy after Auschwitz: Adorno, German Idealism, and Modernity (University of Chicago, 2014), will be quite puzzled by how you get from there to here. On one hand, I can see why they would be: the Adorno book was a much more traditional philosophy book and one that oriented itself around a very “core” problem in the history of philosophy (autonomy), albeit one that pursued its aims by means of a figure that I would say is still not particularly well known. Similarly, I think that even folks familiar with Adorno will be surprised to find very little Adorno in this book (although in important ways, I do think the book is inspired by an approach to which Adorno would be sympathetic). On the other hand, one of the conclusions of the Adorno book was exactly to argue—in a very Hegelian way (i.e., see the reference to Pippin above)—that the scope of what philosophy is—especially all of the ways in which social and political currents feed into it and affect the formal and actual possibilities of human agency—is quite broad and in fact requires an investigation of these cultural objects (again, something Adorno himself routinely did).
What writing tips do you have?
Write frequently and boldly. During the writing process, don’t worry too much about failure, worry only about being sincere and serious: get across what you want to say and make sure you’ve done that, and then figure out (during the editing process) whether what you’ve said is ‘good.’ Have your own voice—look up to certain writers, but have your own unique voice.
What writing practices, methods, or routines do you use, and which have been the most helpful?
I just try to write frequently and try to do all of my thinking before I start writing so that I can write without breaks (i.e. without needing to stop in order to work something out). To this end, I have often been incredibly fortunate and lucky to be able to teach around a lot of the issues that I end up writing about (e.g., New Television was written—in parts—around two classes, the first, at Hamilton College, called “Philosophy of Film and Television” and the second, at Johns Hopkins, called “Cinema and Philosophy”).
What’s next for you?
In addition to finishing an edited volume with Anne O’Byrne called Logics of Genocide: The Structures of Violence and the Contemporary World (under contract with Indiana University Press), I am also starting work, with Henry Pickford, on putting together the Oxford Handbook of Theodor W. Adorno. Additionally, I’ve also got two monographs that are in differing stages of completion, one is a small text in Jewish philosophy called How to Measure a World? It looks as a certain phenomenological strand oriented around ‘worldhood’ in some otherwise usually wholly unrelated philosophy. The other is a lengthier and more ambitious text tentatively titled The Coldest of Cold Monster: Genocide and the State that tries to sketch the structural relationship between genocide and the fact that we have organized ourselves into states.
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