In Response to John Caldwell: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in "30 Rock"

Last week, the research project I am a part of at Freie Universität Berlin hosted a workshop with the American media scholar John Caldwell, best known for his two influential tomes on Televisuality and Production Culture (from which I borrowed the subtitle of this post: "Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice"). By way of a response, I tried to establish a link between Caldwell’s current research on the forms of intuition and reflexivity through which production workers in the media industries relate to their crafts, and our own research on the Television Series as an Aesthetic Form, identifying as a privileged site of this contracted relationship the televisual genre of the backstage comedy (I will elaborate what I mean by this further on). I reproduce my response here, with a few qualifying additions and not without giving due to my colleague Lukas Foerster, whose ideas fueled the following speculations:

The question I asked myself at the outset was: How might Caldwell’s research on production cultures help to elucidate some of the issues our project engages with, chief among them the question whether – and in what ways – the forms of intuition and reflexivity Caldwell encounters among production workers might bear upon the products of their labour – and especially on the format of the television series. Or, to put it bluntly: How do the aesthetic forms through which production workers perceive and understand their own craft relate to the aesthetic forms that they produce?

It seems to me that there are many ways this aesthetic relationship between real work worlds and fictional story worlds may turn out. The work worlds may be entirely effaced within the respective story worlds, or precariously repressed, or seamlessly sublimated – or they might become thematic as the express subject of a series, as is the case in backstage comedies (and sometimes dramas) such as The Larry Sanders Show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or the more recent 30 Rock, all shows set, for the most part, on the sound stages and in the writers rooms of contemporary television studios. It’s hard not to conclude that in these instances television applies itself to a kind of self-reflexion. But since that which is reflected upon here, namely the production cultures of television, are always already caught up in aesthetically mediated forms of reflexivity (as Caldwell’s research has shown), the question becomes whether these backstage series actually achieve the feat of reflecting upon the innate reflexivity of their producers, and in what ways. In the course of our discussion, Lukas brought up the very useful German term of "Reflexionsniveau", meaning level of reflexivity. Equipped with this term we might then posit as the crucial question to ask of the genre of backstage comedy: Do its mediations of television production attain a higher "Reflexionsniveau" than the habitual self-mediations of television producers?

Let me provide a few concrete examples in order to flesh out the abstract notion of self-reflexivity, and by pointing to the myriad shapes and forms it can take to eventually find out how far this notion can be carried. All of the clips are extracts from the ongoing NBC-series 30 Rock created by Tina Fey. I’ll start with a rather straightforward case:

Here 30 Rock mimics aesthetic forms culled from the inventory of industrial reflexivity: the memo and the promotional or instructional video. It is used for comic effect, poking fun at saturation product placement in what can only be described as an ostensible, and thematic, manner. The logic operative in this example can be summarised as a self-effacing mimicking of a pre-existing aesthetic form; a mimicking that derives its critical edge first and foremost by means of its topic, from a humorous, and clearly self-reflexive spin on the discourse of product placement; without interfering with the aesthetics proper of the ridiculed format.

Here’s another example, and one that I hope will illustrate the opposite pole of the continuum of self-reflexion. Or not – we’ll see how far you’ll want follow me on this one:

The inserted flashback does not utilise some subject matter pertaining to the work world of television production in a self-reflexive way, but is shaped in different ways by an aesthetic template pervading the production cultures of television in the digital age, named "content" by its practitioners. Content is more flexible and less anchored in a specific media environment than more traditional forms, and, more often than not – at least as we encounter it today – made up of short, manageable segments. From a narrative angle, theses content-style blocks, which occur throughout the series, can assume the shape of a character’s flight of fancy or reminiscence, but even more frequently they are embedded in the series as, precisely, snippets of content, displayed on TV-sets, computer-screens or closed-circuit-systems on the studio lot. I will show an example of this in a bit.

For those acquainted with 30 Rock: Notice how well Jenna’s extreme solipsism and Tracy’s spells of crazy lend themselves to these recurring asides. In keeping with the two narcissist stars, these inserts are like little self-contained satellites, circling around the gravitational centre of the show’s overall architecture, but ready to break loose at a YouTube user’s whim. They’re not narrative building blocks, but potentially free-roaming content, doing away with the residual resistances narrative structure puts in the way of effortless repurposing. Here’s one, as rearranged on YouTube:

And here’s a couple more (spoofing Clint Eastwood's It's Halftime in America spot for Chrysler), but this time posted online by NBC itself:

Now, this invasion of content-style blocks hardly qualifies as self-reflexive in any conventional sense of the word. What it betrays, though, is the extent to which the backstage comedy 30 Rock is informed by the notion of content, both as an industrial practice and as an organising metaphor – a form of industrial reflexivity – among television and new media producers in the post-network era. But would we still want to call this an instance of self-reflexivity? Even when escalated or transposed from the work world of TV production to its fictional pendant in 30 Rock, the "Anschauungsform" (form of intuition) of content is not brought within the purview of self-awareness (let alone self-consciousness). Instead, it surreptitiously exerts a structuring influence on the series' buildup. One might characterise this phenomenon as the "symptomatic" incorporation of an increasingly influential aesthetic template or, alternately and less pathologically, as an instance of a kind of reflexivity that does not necessarily entail a heightened awareness of its own procedures.

The same, I think, holds true for the subject of "stress aesthetics", as Caldwell terms the often justificatory self-modelling of precarious and unpaid labour in film and TV production contexts. There are precious few moments in which 30 Rock addresses the stressful working environment of television producers head-on. But there is another, more deeply entrenched sense in which the series deals with this issue, permeating its very "feel". 30 Rock is derived from the sitcom format, but it adds a few ingredients (and leaves out a few others) in order to arrive at something quite different; something that above all else feels very stressful. It is all but impossible to demonstrate this stressed feel by means of a short clip, since it is a mood or ambiance more than anything. Each time a sitcom would leave a dramatic pause or let a one-liner dangle mid-air for a while for theatrical effect and in order to make room for a live audience’s reaction (or canned laughter), 30 Rock will immediately cut to the next scene and to the next joke, often before we’ve finished laughing at the last one. To keep up with this pace, the series has to reduce to a minimum the gestural and corporeal identifiers sitcoms love to employ – think of Elaine in Seinfeld or Sheldon in Big Bang Theory or Chandler in Friends. There is no laugh track in 30 Rock, and no implied audience to the fast-paced and tightly interlocking exchanges between characters, resulting in a world that feels almost vacuum-packaged. By tinkering with the sitcom format in such a fashion, one might argue, the series incorporates what Caldwell terms the "stress aesthetics" of production culture.

Several questions arise from these considerations: What other forms of industrial reflexivity have an impact on the aesthetic or textual features of television series? How do we theorise them? I tried to suggest a few tentative answers to this question, but I’m positive that there is still a lot to say about this. And last not least: What do we make of backstage comedies like 30 Rock and the kinds of reflexivity they offer? Do they merely reproduce the forms of intuition through which production workers relate to their work worlds? or express them in the manner of a symptom? or is this genre conducive to all kinds and levels of reflexivity, self-conscious or not, from which some critical import might be gleaned?

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