Monday, May 05, 2003

Media in Transition 3: Television in Transition II

Dan Mackay: Genre Television and the Imaginary Entertainment Environments

Dan Mackay is a doctoral student at the University of Oregon, where he studies the historical development of fantasy and theorizes about changing conceptions of the imagination in literature. Here is a rough transcript of the paper Mackay presented at MiT3:

How should we begin to discuss the genre of television fiction? Fantasy, science fiction, and other genres of television should be treated differently than other forms of television drama.

There's something about the imaginary entertainment environment. TV drama tends to focus more on character. Imaginary television tends to have more sprawling story arcs that don’t allow for as much character development. The environment takes on more of an importance. The environment itself at a certain point takes on even more of an importance than the author.

The fictional environment cuts across media. It's expressed in many forms. And each form slightly changes the environment. Each new form will incorporate the changes that have been made. Let's use Lord of the Rings. It was a discrete story written by Tolkien. There have been a couple of animated versions. There's the Peter Jackson version, which is ongoing. None of these are changing the Lord of the Rings world. The world is set. You can explore Tolkien's papers.

Then there's Star Trek. It's ongoing. Each change made in a new video game, television series, or comic book will be taken into consideration. Jean Baudrillard looks at three main stages -- an early primitive stage in which an image represents a profound reality. The second stage is an image that masks a profound reality. It no longer refers to an actual event. The third stage is one in which the image begins to mask and signify, but it masks the absence of reality. That's the existential crisis.

We take this and apply it to the world of television fiction, something like Seinfeld, for example. The streets and sets are signs for actual New York locations. In Boston, you can go to the Cheers bar. MASH signified Vietnam even though it was set during Korea. It was competing with the nightly news reports. Fantasy, science-fiction, and horror television has no such signifiers.

But as Baudrillard would say, the reality signified represents the absence of reality. The image is seductive. It's a hook. It fills your vision and hearing, and you're left with questions. What is it that's about this environment? How does this work? As you answer the questions about this absolutely useless world, a subject is constructed. There's a whole universe of meaning embodied by the show.

People inhabit their viewing selves and are creative when they watch Babylon 5 and then they project those selves back out through discussion forums and newsgroups. They allow a subject that’s only momentarily created to be continually created. They allow for the pleasure of the signifier to come out. The pleasure is their own momentary creativity that comes out while inhabiting the medium.

In the fan forums, through the performance of this self, the self is reinscribed. The subject that is created becomes an author. We see a jump at the end when the fans themselves become an author. Look at Stracyzinski. Look at Kevin Smith, They become successful to such an extent that they’re able to return to that pleasure and make a vocation of it.

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