Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 2, 1991
Television and ...
Edited by John Hartley

Ways of arguing: a reply to Bruck and Docker

Theo van Leeuwen & Philip Bell

In a recent issue of Continuum (2:2, 1989, 77-96) Jan Bruck and John Docker published an extended critique of John Berger's four-part TV series Ways of Seeing, 17 years after its publication in book form. Their critique targets not only Ways of Seeing, and not only Berger, but also others whose work 'intermeshes' with Berger's 'puritanical rationalism' and who, as they see it, all postulate a passive and gullible mass audience; for instance Theodore Adorno, Screen, Neil Postman, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, Martin Esslin, Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard.

In the following critical response we make only passing reference to Bruck and Docker's overview of a modernist and puritanically rationalist cultural studies, and concentrate on their claims about Ways of Seeing and on the political positions which their aesthetics seems to endorse.

First, we argue that Bruck and Docker misrepresent Ways of Seeing, more particularly the one episode The Language of Advertising on which they mainly concentrate.

Second, we take issue with their "politics of pleasure" and with the way they contrast this politics to the politics they attribute to Berger.

Third, we ask what sort of semiotic theory informs their analysis of the episode of Ways of Seeing which they discuss at length.

Fourth, we comment on the romantic pedagogy they appear to recommend. It is especially this last aspect which has impelled us to respond. Bruck and Docker seek to found media and cultural studies on an unanalysed and absolute concept of pleasure, without taking on the responsibility of educating pleasure. In our view, educating pleasure remains as necessary as it ever was, and Berger remains one of the few writers in the field who has provided pointers for this, and for whom pleasure and reasoned critique are not antithetical.

Ways of Seeing - modernist, elitist?

Bruck and Docker characterise Ways of Seeing as being "modernist":

The modernist aesthetic must work by permanent contrast, it must never be contaminated by mass culture, nor should it be realist, that is, try and reflect everyday life. (p 81)

But has not twentieth century modernism been "contaminated by mass culture" in many of its manifestations, e.g. in the influence of black (especially jazz) music, and in the cinema? And, leaving aside the assumption that realism is a matter of "trying to reflect everyday life", has not Ways of Seeing in each of its programs explicitly examined and criticised those forms which Bruck and Docker see as characteristically modernist - cultural forms which are (formalistically) "self-referential, separate, pure"?

In saying "Berger" rather than "Ways of Seeing", we are echoing Bruck and Docker's slippage between the program and its presenter-author. They frequently write as though it is Berger-as-a-person that warrants their critique. They speak of the "cultural intellectual, high above the ruck of everyday life and mass culture, (who) can speak with unassailable sweep and vision about and on behalf of the plight of civilisation and humanity" (p 81). Yet, in the programs, Berger explicitly breaks up, and asks the viewer to question, his privileged discourse. He includes a sequence showing children interpreting a Caravaggio painting, in anything but high modernist terms. He shows women discussing the representation of women in pre-modern and modern western painting and in advertising. He includes, in The Language of Advertising, a sequence showing women production-line workers in a cosmetics factory and intercuts this with advertisements for the product they are working to produce. This contrast, emphasising the symbolic suppression of waged labour in all forms of advertising, is still anything but "risible" seventeen years after it was filmed. It might give some historical perspective to Ways of Seeing to remember that debates about feminism and the politics of representation were exceptional and radical intrusions into the complacency of BBC television and the university curriculum at that time.

Bruck and Docker write as though Berger ignores or condemns popular or mass culture. However, at least one whole program in his series is devoted to the way mechanical reproducibility has altered readings of high art and the ways in which photography allows complex popular uses of visual texts in everyday contexts. They write as though Berger is elitist and incorporates no ethnographic or sociological dimension in his work. However, even in Ways of Seeing, Berger explicitly places cultural forms in their context of production and reception. In the episode on advertising he shows us how glamour is produced, and gives a sociological analysis of the role of publicity in society. In the episode on the nude, he incorporates the voices of other readers in the program, long before ethnographic audience studies became a recognisable trend in media studies. In more recent works, e.g. Another Way of Telling and A Seventh Man he continues to do so. These works are nothing if not quintessentially ethnographic in approach. Of course, in 2-hour long television programs his ethnography was neither theoretically detailed nor thorough, and much of his sociology was of the glib, 'pop' variety. Yet, more than any other comparable films of the time, Ways of Seeing foregrounded sociological questions. Is it their disagreement with just this approach that causes Bruck and Docker to accuse Berger of "puritanism"?

Although Bruck and Docker do attempt to place Ways of Seeing in its historical context, they consider it in isolation from Berger's work as a whole. Moreover, they discuss only one program of the series of four, and ignore the published version of the series. Having thus ignored the most obvious potential intertextual relationships, they then proceed to recontextualise the television text, to create for it another context entirely of their own invention: "locating Ways of Seeing in other interesting paradignms", they call this (p 91). It amounts to a strategy of proving guilt by association. For instance, because Martin Esslin, according to Bruck and Docker, considers the "masses" as "living at an unconscious level", as "oafishly idolatrous, superstititous and credulous", and as "incapable of scepticism, distance, doubt, criticism" (p 90), and because Esslin and Berger are both critical of advertising, Berger is also held responsible for considering the masses "oafishly idolatrous", even though he never speaks down to, or about, ordinary people, never uses the term "masses" (in fact he often uses "us" in the inclusive sense - a significant difference), and does not consider ordinary people "oafishly idolatrous" or formed and shaped exclusively by the dreams that money can buy. Instead he sees ordinary people as also formed by their experiences, which often contradict these dreams, and as capable of becoming conscious of this contradiction, and of overcoming it. This is why the final sequence of The Language of Advertising shows us both the billboards with their images of glamorous people, and real people - in a real, and far from glamorous environment. "What surrounds advertising"?, Berger asks, and then, after giving the viewer time to look at the billboards in their unglamorous environment: "Not a gilt frame. We, as we are, surround it". And, if that is not enough, Berger ends the whole series by saying again that his viewers should judge what he says against their own experience.

The logic of Bruck and Docker's attack on Berger's program has the following structure: like some of the work of Eco, Barthes, Esslin and others, Berger criticises the cultural forms which Bruck and Docker variously label "escapist entertainment", "popular television", and "mass culture". Yet, such cultural forms can be read as heterogeneous, humorous or excessive, and, clearly, are enjoyed by many people. Therefore, the cultural forms in question cannot be criticised. To do so is to criticise those who enjoy them. In other words, Berger (and Barthes et al.) is covertly accused of criticising those who enjoy the popular. It is true that Berger criticises the use made of nudes and portraits by their bourgeois owners. He sees such oil paintings as similar to pornography and to the status symbols so beloved of contemporary advertising directed at bourgeois consumers. But where does he accuse the masses, the working class, or women of blind, ignorant or servile consumption of the culturally inferior or the irrational? On the contrary, Berger seems to identify with his fellow readers/viewers in asking for values which he and some of them (at least) share, to be reflected and explored in the public culture of the period.

The rational and 'rationalism'

Berger, and those with whom Bruck and Docker align him, are accused not just of puritanism or elitism, but also of rationalism. Rationalism can refer to various schools of western philosophy, opposed, say, to empiricisms or idealisms of various kinds. It can refer to the tendency to present verbal argument based on explicitly inductive and deductive relationships. Then there is Weber's reference to the rationalisation associated with modernity. Doubtless, other uses of the term could be found. For Bruck and Docker verbal dichotomisation and verbal analysis (induction-deduction) epitomises rationalism. They judge (one of) Berger's programs to be argumentative-in-form, based on induction/deduction, and on dichotomous, verbal categories (in addition to being judgemental). Berger would surely agree that, in this sense, he is a rationalist. Yet, his chosen mode is the essay, not the didactic textbook or the academic paper. Even Ways of Seeing manages to avoid some of the didacticism inherent in BBC arts documentaries of the period; it is hardly rationalistic in any pejorative sense. However, in the absence of any definition of 'rationalism', it is difficult to see what other claims Bruck and Docker might be making here.

Perhaps they see the program as rationalistic by definition, simply because it proposes a (political-aesthetic) point of view at all. This they regard as denying hedonistic, a-historical "excess", fun, etc. If this is all they mean, "puritanical rationalism" is used as an elaborate tautology. It refers to any position which Bruck and Docker don't like, because it is opposed to the sort of values they see in advertisements for consumer goods which they enjoy for their "ceaseless hedonism, erotic excess, juxtaposition, humour, jokes and gags ..." (p 83). Ironically, in this approach, the carnival-esque enjoyment of advertisements is endorsed on purely formal grounds. Bruck and Docker here contradict their earlier implicit request that Berger be more of a realist and less of a Modernist by now valorising cultural forms regardless of what they claim about the material world, being content to revel in their form.

Reading Berger's text

Bruck and Docker propose to put Ways of Seeing "under the microscope" (p. 77). In other words, the analysis of Ways of Seeing as a text is intended to be the most important source of evidence in their article (as far as ethnographic evidence goes, they only tell us what audience studies of advertising "might show", (p 87). But, how revealing is their microscope?

Bruck and Docker take Ways of Seeing to task for its "authoritative" and "monologic" discourse. In Ways of Seeing, they say, Berger appears as a "BBC talking head, a teacher", and when he shows images, he uses voice over "to tell us what to think about what we're going to see" (p 78). But, given that Berger was using broadcast TV, what else could he have done? Not address the audience directly? Manipulate the images, so as to insinuate rather than directly state his ideas? Not link his points directly to the images that bear them out? Have himself interviewed by a BBC presenter? When he appears on camera, Berger in fact avoids, as much as possible, the trappings of authority and status. He wears an ordinary open-neck shirt; he does not stand imperially in front of great masterpieces or on the steps of art galleries, but appears against a simple, neutral background. And, rather than "telling us what to think about what we're going to see", he tells us to look, and then to look again. When he appears on camera, it is characteristically to ask questions. These questions are followed by long silences which allow the viewers to look for themselves - before Berger makes any of his points. Take, for example, the section on Holbein's The Ambassadors in the episode Possessions. Berger asks (on camera): "What is this painting most about?" The camera then scrutinises the entire painting, systematically. There follows a silence of 10 seconds before Berger finally comes in with a voice over: "There is not a surface in this picture which does not denote wealth". This method contrasts with that of Bruck and Docker who seldom allow their readers to judge for themselves, only once quoting from the text they say they are putting "under the microscope".

Berger is also reproached for using music as a "monologic discourse, trying to suppress doubt and difference, trying to prevent other discourses being permitted within the beleaguered walls of the proper perspective" (p 83). The reference here is to a section of the advertising episode referred to above in which music accompanies advertising images showing, among other things, fashion models in underwear together with 'Arab nomads' in a desert setting, and a model wearing pantyhose together with what look like South American guerrillas, against a bombtorn house with the slogan "Viva Chevrons" painting on one of its walls (Chevrons is the brand name). The music Berger uses here, according to Bruce and Docker, is "medieval", "monastic" and "masculine" (p 91). "Gloomy", "foreboding", "threatening", "fretting", yet also a "discourse of certainty" and "rational", as it "tries for an almost clinical detachment" (p 83), where Bruck and Docker would prefer hedonistic celebration and "questioning through laughter and parody" (p 84). Bruck and Docker provide no evidence of any kind for this musical interpretation. The music is, in fact, quite low in level and unobtrusive. It consists, for the most part, of a single melody played unaccompanied on an electronic instrument sounding somewhat like an organ, though it also contains passages with an electronically synthesised female choir singing in wordless harmony. The "monastic" and "medieval" impression presumably derives from the fact that much of the music is without harmony and without accompaniment. In this sense the music is, indeed, monologic. The melody is more or less atonal and uses the kind of intervals which are common in music accompanying 'eery' images - graveyards in horror films, outer space, or antarctic landscapes, as in Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antarctica. Hence, perhaps, the impression of "gloom" and "foreboding". But how this music, with its wordless female choirs, can, at the same time, be "masculine" and how "gloom" and "threat" and "foreboding" can be reconciled with "certainty" and "rationality" remains a mystery. And - has not Berger, by using music, opted for an emotional, rather than a "rational" way of getting his point across? We cannot understand, finally, why Berger's juxtaposition of this music and these advertising images is not an instance of the very "heterogeneity" and "difference" which Bruck and Docker value so much, more "heterogeneous" and "different" in fact, than the advertisements themselves. To be more pedantic, we would note that Bruck and Docker misrepresent the images they discuss. In describing the advertisements, they say that the models "wear only underwear" (p 82). But, this is not true: they also wear something resembling (male) Arab head dress, just as, in the Chevrons pantyhose advertisment, the model wears not only pantyhose but also a guerrilla jacket and cap - and she sports a machine gun. Far from stressing difference, these ads could be said to make heterogeneous things similar, and to diminish difference.

Finally, to reiterate, what Berger objects to most of all in these advertisments is not their formal heterogeneity, as Bruck and Docker claim (p 85), but the way they trivialise third world struggles, by turning Palestinian and South American liberation struggles into an exotic backdrop for the "freedom" offered by Berlei underwear and the "revolution" offered by Chevrons pantyhose. This aspect is not mentioned by Bruck and Docker, who seem more concerned about the "crazy misuse of the (models') bodies" as they have to pose in the hot sun, than about the appropriation and trivialisation of terms like freedom and revolution.

As a result, their readers are prevented from finding out just why Berger, in contrast to Bruck and Docker, cannot find much in these ads that is "humorous". Anyone who knows Berger's screenplays will realise that this is not because he does not have a sense of humour. Berger is not anti-humour and anti-pleasure. To us, he is in fact a shining example of a writer who can both "enjoy and reason" (p 83). Pleasure exudes from his work when he discusses a painting he likes, or the beauty of female workers in a cosmetics factory, or a bird, carved and painted by a local in the French village where he lives. Far from puritanically seeking to repress others' pleasure, Berger proposes an aesthetics which, almost by definition, seeks to communicate pleasure in cultural works, including those of peasant craftpeople. For Berger, however, an abstracted notion of pleasure can never be used as a criterion of value. People are capable of taking pleasure in marching, burning, torturing, killing. People are capable of laughing at racist and sexist jokes. We need to educate our pleasures and we need to take responsibility for what we laugh about and what we do not laugh about. This is not so much a matter of "puritanical" repression as a matter of imagination, of being able to see things from the viewpoint of the 'others' who might suffer for these pleasures, or be at the receiving end of these jokes. Which brings us to Bruck and Docker's carnival analogy: there is, and will remain, a difference between watching television and actively participating in a carnival, and there is, and will remain, a difference between carnivals, which provide temporary license, a temporary outlet for feelings of oppression, and genuine liberation from such oppression. If these differences are glossed over, say in the context of media education, then such education is, in the end, education for passive consumption - more precisely, for a form of passive consumption which lives under the illusion of being active participation and choice.

Romantic pedagogy: amusement and pleasure

One piece of empirical audience research which Bruck and Docker do report is their students' amusement on viewing these old programs (p 84). This is hardly surprising. Our students, too, are initially amused by seeing television commercials in the 'serious' context of the classroom, and there is, of course, an element of resistance in this - resistance against the education of their pleasures, and against education generally. But, what are we, as educators, to do? Give them distinctions for celebrating pleasures they have already acquired without the aid of educational institutions? Or ask them why advertisements are so humorous, or why Berger would take them so seriously? And, in doing so, try to broaden their knowledge of the context in which advertisements are produced and consumed? Could we not ask them, as Berger does, to look again, and again, to see, perhaps, a little differently from the way that they might have seen before?

Bruck and Docker seem to favour letting students celebrate pleasures they have already acquired - provided of course that they do so in an academic language they have not already acquired, so that they may watch and take pleasure from the same texts as everyone else, but talk about them differently, and derive from this a sense of distinction. With luck they will be able to speak of "pastiche", "heterogeneity" and other formal-aesthetic concepts. But, in any case: are not new students of media just as resistant to that new academic language, with its terms like "self reflexivity", "difference" and so on, as they might be resistant to Ways of Seeing? Berger's pleasure is clearly not Bruck and Docker's. But it is a pleasure for which he takes responsibility, the responsibility of someone who acknowledges that the images and words he reads and enjoys are not his alone, but move within discursive circuits which do not end in his consumption and pleasure. If that is old-fashioned modernism, or, worse, "puritanical rationalism", so what? Should we restrict our pleasure and our politics to the carvivalesque margins of the social world? Is pleasure innocent of social meaning? Or of historical determination, or of political values?

Bruck and Docker do not analyse the concept of pleasure; it is simply invoked as an end to argument. But if pleasure is a condition of all semiotically structured activity, if it is not itself outside of or immune to cultural determination and codification, then it cannot glibly be invoked as the absolute which closes all debate in the cultural-political realm. Sadomasochistic pleasure, for example, is not questioned by critics of fascist art simply because it is enjoyed by its protagonists; rather it becomes a political question because of the social relations (including those of power) in which the pleasure is realised and represented. Cultural criticism is not a matter of pointing to pleasure per se, but consists in analysing the social/political contexts and encodings of what is experienced as pleasurable. A reified concept of pleasure should not be given carte blanche in cultural debate.

New: 20 December, 1995 | Now: 16 March, 2015