Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Oh, So Close!

Tonight at the laundromat one of the TVs was showing Jeopardy. When I was younger--10, 11, 12--I would watch the show regularly. Now whenever I see it I'm just flabbergasted at how obvious the secret is: watch a lot of television, spread out your viewing over 10-20 channels (including Discovery, History, a few more), and retain as many soundbites as possible. You can get every question right! If it isn't to be found on an hour-long Hitler special or trumpeted as the lead story on the national news, it won't be found on Jeopardy.

But there was one question tonight that did hew vaguely towards that wide, weird world of books. The cue was something like, "John Stuart Mill was an advocate for this system of 'the greatest good for the greatest number of people.'"

Contestant 1: What is capitalism?

('No, sorry.' Beat.)

Contestant 2: What is socialism?

('Not that either.' Beat. Beat. 'The correct answer, 'What is utilitarianism?'")

I suppose there aren't too many specials on J.S. Mill. But that first contestant sure knew his Marvel superheroes (an entire category for them, with illustrations).


Tuwa said...

On Liberty is a brilliant book. Small but rich, very thought-provoking. I haven't read any of Mill's other work though.

ZC said...

Save a few excerpts (and synopses) I don't have any experience with Mill! But that's the thing--one doesn't need to know anything about him, or anything about the intricacies of his thought, to simply associate him with his appropriate "-ism." The most cursory knowledge of philosophy or progressive social thought can tell you that very simple piece of information.

But Mill's not the sort of figure who's mentioned on television or anything like that, though, and my theory is that Jeopardy is like a big valorization of trivia without calling itself trivia per se. Smartypants boob tube style. It's not that it's an incredibly important fact (JS Mill=utilitarianism); it's not that people who don't know it are stupid or ignorant; it's that it's exactly the sort of thing someone with a well-rounded humanities basis and probably college/graduate education (which I assume is meant to apply to most Jeopardy contestants) should know ... but it would most likely come from a book, not the tube. (You don't even need to read the books, just browse the philosophy section in a bookstore.) What does it mean that this question stumped Jeopardy intellectuals but the one fellow knew the Human Torch, Cyclops, etc. by sight?

Anonymous said...

"What does it mean that this question stumped Jeopardy intellectuals but the one fellow knew the Human Torch, Cyclops, etc. by sight?"

It simply means his interests lie elsewhere.

Like you said, "it's not that people who don't know it are stupid or ignorant". The reverse is also true: it's not that people who do know everything about Marvel superheroes and nothing about ethical philosophy is stupid or ignorant.

ZC said...

Cole, thanks for commenting--yes, "his interests lie elsewhere," of course. But that's the symptom, so to speak, and I'm trying to pinpoint the cause or the logic of it.

(I knew the Marvel characters by site too, fwiw.)

My point has to do with television as the pervading and (this is important) legitimating medium of basic cultural knowledge. Jeopardy is the "intellectual" game show, it's not supposed to be mere trivia, or mere pop culture trivia, but the point is that this is exactly what it is. The people who designed the game have devoted an entire category to pictures and descriptions of Marvel characters, and these days obviously comics are heavily legitimized (also meaning marketed) by graphic novel forms and, moreso, massively expensive film/tv adaptations. Mill is just Mill. No sexy tv specials on him as far as I'm aware. Why did none of the contestants know to associate him with utilitarianism (when one is mentioned, the other usually is too, and he's not an obscure philosopher either)? It would be comparable to asking 'This is the comic book company that Stan Lee helped build?' (I can't imagine three contestants missing out on that question.) Both sorts of questions reward a basic cultural legitimacy, but Jeopardy is built 99% around the latter, rewarding pop culture investment and (especially) tv watching.

The point being that individual interests are well and good, but they are often corraled and manipulated in the service of television (i.e., advertising and ideology), and that (not the fact that this one contestant knows comics well) is the target of my inquiry.

ZC said...

Oh my typos are bad these days--I mean, both sorts of questions reward a basic cultural literacy ...

Tuwa said...

I remember watching that one time and they were asking questions about American Idol. I was stunned. I'm still not sure if that's all considered basic cultural currency now. I think maybe it is. Yet I have absolutely no interest in sports either, so take that comment with as much salt as needed.

Anonymous said...

hmmm. for a guy who argues against canonization...

i get uncomfortable when people weigh the worth of different cultural knowledge. and i agree it is unnerving that the three contestants didn't know mill's claim to fame but i don't know that you can draw such broad, sweeping generalizations from such a failure.

when i watch jeopardy, obviously on account of my own interests, i can nail the movies, literature, arts, etc. categories. but sometimes history, particularly non-20th century euro history, trips me up. why is this? i did fine in history classes in high school and college. do i not watch enough history and discovery channel? have i removed myself from the cultural dialogue? maybe i'm just not interested. well, i'm not a jeopardy contestant but maybe i should know these things. because they're useful?

one example: i was watching jeopardy and none of the contestants could name on the road as the book that featured the characters carlo marx and dean moriarty. i knew that right away because i read the book in hs. then they asked the contestants what states were included in the louisiana purchase. i'm stumped.

did television and it priorities dictate this situation? probably not. is it a bad thing thing that i remember a piece of 20th century lit better than key elements of american history? probabyly not. i agree with cole in that it probably has something to do with my interests and maybe nothing more.

also, i read on liberty in hs. it's boring. i don't remember it very well. i probably would have gotten that question. i never watch the history channel.

sorry to be long-winded.

ZC said...

Ryan--weighing the worth of cultural knowledge has nothing to do with what I was saying. The point is that television itself, as a medium owned & controlled by powers greater than you or me, is what's weighing the worth of cultural knowledge. Practically everything on Jeopardy is something found on television, knowledge of pop(ular) culture is heavily legitimized by it. (Has there been a category on the show devoted to Balzac characters, like the one for Marvel superheroes? Perhaps I'm wrong but I doubt it.)

I don't say this because I want to defend high culture. I say it because I am trying to criticize capitalist culture. This is a very important difference, I think. I'm not urging people to push the X-Men out of their minds and brush up on Mill, Balzac, and Plato. I'm trying to point out what television (and other forms of media, run by corporate interests) does to urge people to know about, to think about, how to think about it, etc. And this is why I'm not really worried about what this guy who knows superheroes, or what I know, or what you or Cole know, or what anyone knows (which is, sure, I've already agreed, a matter of personal experiences & interests). I'm worried about the production of (televisual) culture--as exemplified in one tiny aspect by Jeopardy--whereby certain forms of knowledge (those which television creates/supports) get legitimized, repeated, normalized.

It's just a game show; one can't write Capital for the 21st Century based on an analysis of it. I realize that the basis of a critique of television won't be from my offhand remarks on this show. Can one make a broad sweeping and airtight generalization from this instance? No, of course not. This was just a blog entry that took two minutes to type, a jotting in a public notebook. It's meant to hopefully make a couple of connections with things I've written here before, and will write in the future; I'm referencing a tiny piece of a huge puzzle.

Anonymous said...

you're right, of course. but i was making connections between this and things you've written before. maybe i'm fundamentally misinterpreting them or not articulating myself as well as i should...

i was arguing that maybe television hasn't been successful in its project to normalize certain knowledge or structure the discourse of knowledge. people will always put their own interests forward first allowing that to be the basis for their own knowledge, esoteric or common.

obviously television does marginalize certain types of knowledge, omnipresent though it is it cannot be all-inclusive. but does that marginalization really impact people's perceptions of or uses for knowledge?

respond only if you feel the need, i mainly just wanted to clarify my own thoughts. thanks for the digital space.

ZC said...

Ryan, I had a longer response typed out, but it was so unwieldy that it would be worth an entry of its own if I decided to post it. For starters, a quick scan over these two articles would be useful (the second one is "old news," plenty of EL readers have probably seen it).


Personal choice (as "taste") exists but only has so much sway. The fact that we are all following are own interests--a priori not a bad thing--is something that this stage of media-heavy capitalized appears to thrive on, to cultivate. Why? Because the fora for the public sphere are things like film (in its dominant form), music (ditto), television, the Internet--all things that are largely controlled and heavily profitted from by elite groups. Is it not entirely possible and in the interests of this minority of owners to adjust the media to its own advantage, to set the terms of the debate as they see fit?

So when a show that does not bill itself as a pop culture trivia show devotes an entire question category to Marvel superheroes (a lot of these comic books are movie adaptations out on DVD now, of course), and a contestant knows Cyclops on sight but doesn't know utilitarianism--and what's more, may have considered "capitalism" a justifiable answer to the question of 'greatest good for the greatest number of people'--I'm inclined to think that there's an ideological correspondence between what's being asked and what's being answered. And that is, to me, fundamentally not a question of personal preferences and choices (though these certainly exist), but a single tiny illustration of the establishment of ideological currency. I'd be more convinced that personal pref. is the dominant factor in a personal conversation with the guy, or perhaps from reading his blog. But he's responding to something being asked, a "general knowledge" program that's eliciting not so much what it thinks contestants/viewers should know, but on a deep level what it wants them to know they should know. (If I were really committed to this small question of this small cog in the capitalist media machine, I'd watch Jeopardy every night for a few weeks, or even years, and document exactly what kinds of questions were being asked.)

Let's put it this way, too. Politics in America--mainstream, vernacular meaning. It's personal preference what people feel about "the issues"--abortion, gay marriage, military spending, taxes, Democrats/Republicans. And yes, one can and many do "break out" of this cycle for themselves, by necessity or through real education, whathaveyou. But on a mass scale, people's "preferences" in the political arena are set up, manipulated, and perpetuated by those in power. This is an instance of people's freedom-to-choose, their very real preferences, are also very concretely being structured by elite power! And television is a big way that this is done. Wouldn't you grant that television can do this with regards to itself and all of what it shows, with regards to what viewers know not only about politics, but about "general knowledge"?

If you're willing to grant me this, even tentatively, I think where we'd need to agree, and be clear, is that it's not about high/literary versus low/pop culture, but about knowledges manipulated toward profit. Knowledge from television (or televisual/media/"pop" cultures) is cycled back into knowledge, period, legitimized and once more recirculated through means like the Jeopardy question.