Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire

Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire

by Amy Villarejo

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In Ethereal Queer, Amy Villarejo offers a historically engaged, theoretically sophisticated, and often personal account of how TV representations of queer life have changed as the medium has evolved since the 1950s. Challenging the widespread view that LGBT characters did not make a sustained appearance on television until the 1980s, she draws on innovative readings of TV shows and network archives to reveal queer television’s lengthy, rich, and varied history. Villarejo goes beyond concerns about representational accuracy. She tracks how changing depictions of queer life, in programs from Our Miss Brooks to The L Word, relate to transformations in business models and technologies, including modes of delivery and reception such as cable, digital video recording, and online streaming. In so doing, she provides a bold new way to understand the history of television.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822377429
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 01/20/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Amy Villarejo is Professor of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University. She is the author of Lesbian Rule: Cultural Criticism and the Value of Desire, also published by Duke University Press, and Film Studies: The Basics; coauthor of the BFI Film Classics volume Queen Christina; and coeditor of Keyframes.

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ISBN: 978-0-8223-5511-3


Adorno's Antenna

I was giving up—being realistic, as people liked to say, meaning the same thing. Being realistic made me feel bitter. It was a new feeling, and one I didn't like, but I saw no way out.

—Tobias Wolff, This Boy's Life: A Memoir

For Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, the "culture industry"—the unified, centralized, and highly administered system of early to mid-twentieth-century industrial production of mass culture, including print media, film, radio, and television—never appeared in its own right as an object of analysis. Instead, Adorno posed the question of the culture industry, as one of his editors puts it, from "the perspective of its relation to the possibilities for social transformation[,] ... its potentialities for promoting or blocking 'integral freedom.'" The disciplinary location of the subject and critic is therefore implicated in the form of appearance of the object of analysis, since both the subject and object are products of the same alienating effects of capitalist subsumption. In his writings in German and in English, with Max Horkheimer and other collaborators or alone, Adorno stressed the necessity for the dialectical analysis of autonomous art and mass culture, the necessity of thinking culture within larger rubrics of philosophy and politics to challenge the status quo, and the necessity for criticism as an essential component of cultural production. In this chapter I read closely and sympathetically one of Adorno's essays that is preoccupied with gender and sexual representation, "How to Look at Television," from the vantage point of current cultural criticism that addresses queer appearance. This article is anthologized and read far less widely than The Culture Industry or Adorno's essay on music, "On the Fetish-Character of Music and the Regression of Listening." My goal is, as his was, to urge the possibility of negation, of saying no to what is. If realism and representation regulate the terms of that negation, Adorno may have offered us, more than a half century ago, the tools we need for a change and the mechanisms we need to understand the peculiar forms of time and life that dominated television shortly after its widespread adoption. Both television theory and critical theory are transformed in the interaction.

Writing about more-recent organizations of these televisual forms of life in the guise of "liveness," Mary Ann Doane begins her observations in "Information, Crisis, Catastrophe" with an apparently simple truism: "The major category of television is time." In what sense? First, time is television's "principle of structuration," in Doane's words, insofar as television's flow is segmented into changing rhythms and patterns (from the fifteen-minute time slot to the droning or mesmerizing presence of uninterrupted footage). For Doane, however, this principle of structuration penetrates or organizes modes of apprehension; this is one of the signal contributions of her important article. In naming these "information," "crisis," and "catastrophe," Doane attends to the ways in which constancy (steady presence, flow), condensation (decision, resolution), and instantaneity (the moment, the punctual) characterize the three respective organizations of the televisual event. Historically, multiple and varying temporalities have structured televisual time. There is no reason not to extend Doane's thinking beyond the largely nonfiction and news domain that she believes marks a limit case of television temporality, for there exist multiple temporal structures even within something as naturalized and seemingly synchronized and serialized as a situation comedy, which is the dominant form referenced in Adorno's article. The audience's familiarity with recurring characters creates a constancy that corresponds to Doane's category of information, a flow of time across episodes, in which the spectator will bring habits, traits, appearances, histories, past actions, familial associations, relationships, and whatnot across the dead time that composes the interval between episodes; in this way, the sitcom may be a form that embalms its own past. Likewise, guests and minor characters occupy less screen time than their recurrent counterparts and are frequently consigned to playing for type, condensing a lived past into a panoply of signifying data, whether through appearance, costuming, gesture, or dialogue. Here we are in the realm of stereotypes, where brevity, instantaneous recognition, caricature, shorthand, innuendo, and the like must interact with more fully developed or familiar characters in the funny rhythms that the genre promises. I am not trying to shoehorn Doane's tripartite and careful distinctions into a description of the sitcom. Rather, because I attend more deeply to the sitcom's particular rhythms in what follows, I am merely appreciating, thanks to her, that multiple temporalities already permeate televisual forms (in the plural). One of the consequences of so apprehending forms other than the event (seen as nonfiction and news) is that we can understand the broader crisis of temporality that television seeks to manage as attaching to degraded or trivialized images.

I seize on insights from Adorno that betray some similarity to Doane's recognition of the structure of the event: for him, there is a crisis of living even, or perhaps especially, in brief comedies about alienated schoolteachers and their cats. ("Gets me where I live," I can't help but respond, schoolteacher of a sort that I am, and with cats of course! But this is precisely the point.) His work has been too coolly assigned to the realm of an unceasing and undifferentiated critique. As Robert Miklitsch puts it, in his inventive reading of Adorno in Roll over Adorno, a dismissive tone in scholarly criticism renders Adorno either outmoded or frozen in the past: "Adorno and Co., with their programmatic, for some unremitting, stress on the dire machinations of the culture industry, seem absurdly out of touch with the times, imprisoned like so many Madame Tussauds wax figures in the now outdated critical dress of the period, but without the endless trivial pursuit possibilities of retro or kitch appropriation." Arguing as strenuously as I can to the contrary, I think that Adorno may represent a figure who can mine the real and persistent dislocations of modern life, who may be more prescient than we have believed.

In this regard, I value David Jennemann's contention, following the late Edward Said, that Adorno indeed gestures "toward a future where everyone is brought together by their alienation." Jennemann, in his study Adorno in America, recognizes how intimately Adorno interacted with popular culture during his time, almost a decade, in exile in America: "To dismiss Adorno as politically and socially detached is also to misunderstand how thoroughly he immersed himself in America's myriad forms of entertainment and communication." The work of this chapter is to begin the process of bringing the wax figures, as it were, to life, noticing how attuned Adorno's antenna was to gendered and sexual life on TV and how that awareness alerts us to the specific transmissions between television and queer life in the 1950s.


Measuring the distance between Adorno's moment and our own is a project made difficult by the domestication, institutionalization, and demonization of Adorno's writings on culture. I seek neither to rescue nor to condemn his writings but instead to understand them within the context of present political struggles over representation; I take heart in Jennemann's similar desire to rediscover Adorno's actual interaction with the products and practices of American popular culture as a means of calculating his continuing significance. Emphatically, I do not see Adorno as a kind of extreme theorist, outmoded and inattentive to cherished chunks of mass culture (as he was frequently alleged to be by those who seek to defend particular programs he is seen to dismiss). I am against reductions of Adorno's conceptions of the culture industry, and I hope to open routes for further analysis of television throughout the past sixty years in subsequent chapters. With this chapter's title, particularly by invoking the antenna that received ethereal signals during the era of broadcast network television, I mean to capture a first sense of differentiation in the form of historically situating Adorno's article. I do this with the conviction that historicizing is in this case a necessary but by no means sufficient methodological step. Fredric Jameson suggests as much, presuming, however, the change I seek to explain:

The Archimedean point of view of some "genuinely aesthetic experience" from whose standpoint the structures of commercial art are critically unmasked has thus disappeared; what has not disappeared, however, is still the ancient philosophical problem of true and false happiness (from Plato to Marcuse) and whether watching thirty-five hours a week of technically expert and elegant television can be argued to be more deeply gratifying than watching thirty-five hours a week of 1950s-type "Culture Industry" programming.

While Jameson here underscores the shift from a modernist capacity to distinguish autonomous from commercial art to a postmodern immersion in simulation and spectacle, there are other ways to mark the movement from Adorno's moment to this one: in terms of the location of critical theory in the postwar context and in terms of television itself. A word about the former is crucial: Adorno's time in the United States, from 1938 to 1949, was experienced by him as a period of traumatic exile and alienation. (Let me note that Adorno composed "How to Look at Television" during the period from 1952 to 1953, when he returned to California to serve as research director for an institute run by the psychologist William Hacker.) In California both during the initial period of his exile and upon his return for a year, he found himself sunk in a community and society dominated by mass media and its institutions, Hollywood foremost among them. His view that modern mass society tends toward totalitarianism and authoritarianism strengthened as he witnessed the almost seamless integration of high culture with mass entertainment, specifically film and television.

In this first section, I mean to distinguish between the kind of television that Adorno was watching and trying to understand when he wrote "How to Look at Television," broadcast television of the mid-century (centralized, limited to network channels, picked up through the ether via an antenna on a home set) and the digital spectrum on offer in the household and in public spaces through the five-hundred-channel world, perhaps on a plasma, liquid crystal display (LCD), or light-emitting diode (LED) screen, of the current moment. Just as it is true, by way of a qualification, that not every household in the United States currently subscribes to satellite delivery or digital-cable services, it is also true that variability between receivers or television sets in the 1950s led to significant differences in the experience of television reception. It is not an easy task, in other words, to characterize using Jameson's very general terms, the distance between that "culture industry" programming and the ostensibly elegant flow of today's television, since the phenomenon of television, its physiognomy (to use one of Adorno's terms), is itself varied. Yet, despite significant historical, phenomenological, and cultural similarities between the television of then and now, there nevertheless remain a number of equally significant differences between midcentury television and early twenty-first-century technologies that particularly influence Adorno's take on television in his article.

I emphasize those differences because our cumulative historical knowledge of television—understood, as Raymond Williams again puts it in order to stress the multidimensional nature of an apparently simple noun, as "technology and cultural form"—tends to obscure them. In left-sympathetic cultural histories of television, the narrative of evolution emphasizes television's commercial nature throughout its brief history. Adorno was palpably aware of how the domestic space of the home and the family was becoming a site for immense productive capitalist labor. These effects were keenly felt in the 1950s, the decade of television's most spectacular growth and consolidation in the United States, particularly the period from 1953 to 1955, when Adorno's study of television programming was published in what was then called the Quarterly Review of Film, Radio and Television. In those years, by way of a summary from Erik Barnouw, "stations made their debuts and were joined by coaxial cable and radio relay. National networks took shape. Sponsors made their moves. Schedules expanded. Important stars made the plunge. Sets sold rapidly. Euphoria ruled in executive offices." In addition, by way of further contextual reminders: news became increasingly marginal to the prime-time schedule, the Army-McCarthy hearings were broadcast, the anthology form peaked, the U.S. media expanded its worldwide broadcasts, and the ACNielsen company secured its monopoly on ratings. Three overarching developments in the history of television further structure its form of appearance in the early 1950s, and they ask for some elaboration.

First, as Lynn Spigel and others have shown, television, specifically during the 1950s, was conceived almost without exception as a domestic technology, based on ideal images of the female viewer and rooted in a gendered division of labor in the imagined typical American household. Daytime programming, which began in 1949 in order to expand available advertising time, allowed viewers to perform practical or functional household labors while watching television, in effect conjoining or doubling two labor times: the capacity to pay attention to television, whether sustained or not, was one commodified time sold to advertisers, and the time of domestic chores was superimposed upon that attentive work. The former productive time, sheathed in the allure of pleasure, indeed becomes a lure to further, or more extensive, or more intensive, labors of the second sort. Spatial relations between work and viewing condensed. The antenna's location mattered. Moreover, and I wish to emphasize this strongly, televisual strategies of segmentation, seriality, variety or magazine programming (segmentation based on the model of women's magazines), the marketing of consumer fantasies, and the like all derive from the assumption of a female viewer, steeped in domestic labor and in the worldview proffered through women's media. While Adorno acknowledges the gendered nature of the programming that he analyzes in the fragmented examples he alleges to be random, he tends to perform extremely careful textual analyses, without too much concern given to time slot, advertising, or contextual determinations on those readings, but he does align himself very explicitly with a female viewer. Contrary to Williams and the cultural-studies tradition of television studies, this theorist who has been most associated with understanding the so-called holistic industry actually tends to read programming closely and with a very accurate sense of audience. These deeply gendered contexts matter: in terms of what one constitutes as an object ("television") and in terms of the semantic and rhetorical force one ascribes or brings to the object.

Second, the relative paucity during the period in question of broadcasts in a synchronic slice (that is, the few programs on at one time) tends to produce a strong sense of television's conformity, uniformity, or univocality. In an environment in which three or four alternatives aired at a given moment during the broadcast day, the idea of forced choice or the insistence on a certain generic consistency seems more reasonable than in the current milieu. Jameson's remark can be understood to emphasize this univocality. As opposed to the immense grid that currently scrolls before subscribers to digital-cable or satellite services, the grid for prime time in 1954 included only four channels (ABC, CBS, DuMont, and NBC), combining variety and magazine shows, anthology dramas, sports (boxing), quiz shows, sitcoms, and the news. To take an example, a Thursday prime-time schedule would look like table 1.1. The time slot, as short in duration as fifteen minutes, organizes the evening's programming. Although Adorno refrains from naming the various episodes and programs he examines as examples in his article, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, a bit of reconstructive labor suggests that his main preoccupations were serial comedies (Our Miss Brooks) and anthology dramas, perhaps particularly appealing for their claims to realism. Against his examples, one might proffer other counterexamples in order to argue with Adorno's readings, yet it is important to note that his comparisons were limited to what was on hand, at the moment, in small quantity. One could not yet imagine an archive, much less a queer one, encompassing the stunning generic variation displayed in the list I generated for fun in the introduction; only recording makes such an archive even imaginable. In addition, scholars now have access to the diachronic archive via compilations or curatorial assemblages of recordings, the accumulation of what video retailers call "golden age" television as a whole, or at least as a larger set. For Adorno, haphazardly tuning in (or, later, relying on program listings such as TV Guide, which debuted in 1953) and reading scripts, these programs likely offered themselves as that homogeneous flow noted by Williams.


Excerpted from ETHEREAL QUEER by AMY VILLAREJO. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1. Adorno's Antenna 30

2. Excursus on Media and Temporality 66

3. "Television Ate My Family": Lance Loud on TV 81

4. Queer Ascension: Television and Tales of the City 122

Coda: Becoming 152

Notes 163

Bibliography 185

Index 195

What People are Saying About This

New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut - B. Ruby Rich

"Whether she's citing Theodor Adorno or Amistead Maupin, pondering Our Miss Brooks or American Family, Amy Villarejo channels her lifelong love of television while at the same time analyzing its function as a "pragmatic pedagogy of queer life." I couldn't ask for a better TV Guide than this set of gripping meditations that dares to dream so brilliantly on our behalf."

Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics - Jeffrey Sconce

"Amy Villarejo, already an important and increasingly influential voice in the fields of film theory, gender, and sexuality, here presents a dramatically new intervention in both television theory and debates over queer representation. Ethereal Queer moves beyond concerns about visibility and positive images to provide valuable ways of understanding the force of television in the twentieth century, bringing media studies and continental philosophy into vibrant and productive dialogue."

Patricia White

"Elegantly written, often witty and even moving, this thought-provoking book is both tightly focused and ambitious in its approach to television and queerness. Amy Villarejo offers brilliant insights into theoretical and televisual texts, repeatedly providing new ways of confronting and moving beyond the intersection of sexuality and television."

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