Television and Youth Culture: Televised Paranoia (Education, Psychoanalysis, Social Transformation)
Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke
Television and Youth Culture is the third book of in a trilogy engaging with the popular culture of young people from a psychoanalytical perspective. The first two books explored films, videogames, the internet and music whereas the final book looks at a number of television series: Dawson's Creek, Freaks and Geeks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Roswell and Smallville.
The first two chapters of the book establishes the theoretical ground on which the subsequent analysis rests. In these chapters an account is developed of a postmodern and post-oedipal age, producing a paranoia and ambivalence in the everyday life of young people which manifests itself in and through the popular culture which they consume. Chapters three and four inquires intoexplores 'Dawson's Creek', a drama exploring the relationships between the teenage residents of a wealthy American town. Chapters five and six analyses 'Freaks and Geeks', a comedy resting on the social tensions at an American high school in the 1980s. Chapters seven and eight explore the cult classic 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', which features the adventures of a teenage girl chosen by fate to defend the world from vampires. Chapter nine looks at the alien drama 'Roswell', presenting the journeys of some alien teenagers who crash landed at the eponymous site in New Mexico. Chapters ten and eleven explore 'Smallville', telling the story of Superman growing up as a teenager in modern day Kansas. The afterword sums up Jagodzinski's feelings about the shows he has analysed, as he tells of a newfound respect for the intelligence of their writers and reiterates how the appeal of the fantasies they articulate is founded in the day-to-day experience of contemporary youth.
The analysis of Dawson's creek is particularly intriguing, as Jagodzinski hints at the proto-therapeutic role which television of this sort can play; the series 'masks and manages teenage anxiety' creating the palliative fiction embodied in the 'seemingly rational, self-reflexive, and nonalientated spontaneous self-therapeutic discourses' of the show's characters. The unmanageable excesses of the psychic lives of young people are entirely occluded by the self-presence and self-mastery that Dawson and his friends exhibit in whatever situation they confront, as are the structural and cultural conditions of the 'risk society of neoliberalism' underlying those often uncontrollable anxieties. More so, the qualities so strikingly and unrealistically exemplified by the characters of the show ('individual agency, self-mastery, and self-expression') are precisely those prized and demanded by contemporary neoliberalism (p. 50). The world of Dawson's Creek is a world devoid of ambiguity, as whatever tensions and conflicts arise between the characters find their resolution through dialogue which is both transparent and exhaustive. This is representative of Jagodzinski's analysis at its best, as he deftly unravels the thread which links the fantasistic elements of youth television to the social and cultural circumstances daily confronted by its young audience.
However the greatest strengths of the book are also its greatest weaknesses. Any concrete purchase on the issues explored remains elusive throughout, as the approach adopted illuminates the unforeseen significance to be found in the most mundane and trivial elements of popular culture, while simultaneously precluding a sociological understanding of the realities underlying this significance. The book highlights some fascinating social questions through their psychological dimensions but they go unanswered because of the nature of the approach adopted. Jagodzinski observes that 'we can't escape our fantasies, and such fantasies have material consequences' (p. 198). Conversely our fantasies have, to varying extents, material causes. From a sociological standpoint, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that the book fails to adequately explore either. Psychoanalytic arguments are sporadically linked to sociological insights but the connections introduced are never systematically developed.
This is not intended as a repudiation of Television and Youth Culture, as it is many ways an immensely enjoyable and intriguing book. Rather it simply points to the necessity that the sort of approach it exemplifies be supplemented with other, more explicitly sociological, accounts. Psychoanalytical cultural criticism of this sort could have an informative role to play within sociological research. The capacity a book like this exhibits to interrogate the psychic dimensions of social reality could sometimes prove invaluable, as a means of surveying the cultural terrain and illuminating pertinent issues for investigation, as long as its inevitable limitations are sufficiently appreciated.
University of Warwick