Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 2, 1992
Photogenic Papers
Edited by John Richardson

(Don't) say "cheese": on John Hartley, The Politics of Pictures

Niall Lucy

Now I don't know if it's just me, but I think there's something amiss on the front cover of John Hartley's new book The Politics of Pictures: The Creation of the Public in the Age of Popular Media. The cover depicts a still from an old Esther Williams movie, The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), directed by Mervyn LeRoy and also starring Victor Mature and Walter Pidgeon, in which Williams plays real-life Australian swimming champion Annette Kellerman. All that's by the by, but it might be noteworthy to mention that the film's aquatic routines were choreographed by Busby Berkeley (so that at least you can get the picture). However, to get back to the still: it shows Esther Williams dressed in a shimmering body suit (a touch less S&M than Michelle Pfeiffer's slinky Catwoman outfit of more recent fame, but no less sexy all the same), standing tall with her arms uplifted, her body slightly angled (all the better to define its femininity in profile) but her face aimed squarely and directly out at the viewer. Above all, she is smiling. And, as might be guessed, she's surrounded by a synchronous bevy of complementary beauties - all of them dressed in what look like gold or silver (the still's in black and white) lame swimming costumes cut in the shape of a micro-toga (God, what a movie!) and disported around Esther in two semi-circles of five beauties apiece, the extremely leggy and very busty body of each "mermette" being mirrored in its state of recline by its counterpart directly opposite. So (and this isn't easy) it's a picture of a sort of synchronised swim above water, since all the bodies are arranged on what looks like it's meant to look like a floating platform in what could be an indoor pool. Behind them (for the Freudians) dozens of water jets can be seen spurting upwards in a line that makes it look like there's a curtained backdrop in the photograph, though probably not in the movie.

I don't know; I could be wrong about a lot of this. But not about the fact that Esther Williams is smiling, and that so too are all the other women. Except one. If you go into a bookstore and check out the cover, you'll notice (I don't think it's just me) that the mermette reclining front-right, her face turned like the others towards her mermaid queen but still sufficiently in view to make out her expression, isn't smiling at all. It seems that she's been caught blinking at the very instant that this still was taken, so that the expression on her face makes it look like her reclination is an effect of having been punched in the stomach, causing her to fall backwards, as if she's about to faint. Her outstretched arms behind her seem to be a sign of her attempt to break that fall, an instinctive enough response but utterly out of kilter with the disciplined poise of the other bodies in the rest of the photograph. It's almost as if she doesn't belong here, in this photograph, on the cover of this book, as though she'd been spliced into the present scene from another movie still. Just for a split second (and maybe if it weren't for her bathing costume, although even this could be explained) she looks like the moll who's been slapped about the face by the bad guy in a gangster flick, a kind of ghostly preview of Gloria Grahame getting scalding coffee thrown in her face by Lee Marvin in The Big Heat (1953).

I don't know. Even if she doesn't look like what I've described, she does look out of place. She looks wrong. Now you wouldn't be able to tell this by watching the movie (unless of course she held her expression for longer than the split second I'm guessing to be the case), but it's certainly captured here in the still for all eternity. Here in this photograph, on the cover of this book, she's forever held in the act of being totally unprofessional: she isn't smiling!

Does this go to show the invasive power of the media, then? Is the grimacing mermette, unlike her colleagues, their faces locked in a permanent rictus of professional happiness, another victim of the media's self-appointed role as moral watchdog? For if it weren't for this photograph (and who's to say that her performance wasn't otherwise impeccable?), she'd never be in a position to be accused of having fallen down on the job. And what public good is being served here by showing this, her moment of indiscretion? After all, she isn't a movie star and she doesn't hold public office; so that how well she does or doesn't do her job is not legitimately a matter of public concern. If this were a press photograph, in other words, perhaps captioned in such a way as to anchor the kind of meaning that I've been imagining here, it could no doubt serve as another instance of journalistic prurience, or just plain downright sensationalism - a classic beat-up...



But of course it isn't this; it's the cover-photo of John Hartley's new book, in which a great deal of effort is spent on redressing this bias against the "scandal-mongering" press, in particular, and the "low-brow" popular media in general. This is not to suggest that Hartley is a populist, defiantly in favour of "racy" headlines and glossy pictures of "pretty girls" just for their own sake. However, as a textualist, and as a teacher, he's not simply on the side of media-bashing (in the name of politicking), either. Hartley doesn't buy the view that the "political" or any other form of (the) real exists outside a discourse; early on in his book, he argues that this is (more or less) where cultural studies came in, and why he came to it, although the (political) power of this proposition is perhaps in danger of losing some of its force nowadays through an internecine debate over (in its extreme form) the policy-driven versus text-based nature of the constructedness of the real. [1] Hence the subtitle of his book, The Creation of the Public in the Age of Popular Media. For Hartley, in other words, there is no public outside the text:

Neither the public domain nor the public itself can be found in contemporary states; they've literally disappeared. However, both of them are very familiar figures, figures of speech, in which everyone spends quite a bit of time. So while they don't exist as spaces and assemblies, the public realm and the public are still to be found, large as life, in media. Television, popular newspapers, magazines and photography, the popular media of the modern period, are the public domain, the place where and the means by which the public is created and has its being. The clue to its whereabouts is not to look for citizens in the city centre (that will only produce paradox and sore feet), but to look for the public in publicity. (1)

For anyone familiar with Hartley's much-published essay "Invisible Fictions", to be found most recently in his last book Tele-ology, the proposition that the public is knowable only through those popular and institutional discourses that call it into being will seem like a version of the same with respect to his argument about the discursive nature of media audiences. To this extent, his argument in The Politics of Pictures isn't "new". But that's hardly surprising, given that these books were written in quick succession and published in the same year. Even so, it would be hard not to credit a book with "originality" that managed to combine such interesting and critical discussions on such a wide range of cultural objects, from the Bow Wow Wow "Cassette Pet" of 1981, See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy!, to an issue of Fog's Weekly for Saturday, 20 November 1736. Indeed, perhaps even more than its pliant prose, it's the curios that lend The Politics of Pictures so much appeal. Name me another book that finds room to quote Dr Johnson on refusing to partake of backstage frolics at Garrick's theatre in London - 'I will never come back. For the white boobies and the silk stockings of your Actresses excite my genitals' (161) - as well as for pictures of early Australian television sets in the home; a reproduction of the world's first crowd photograph, a Daguerreotype of the Chartist assembly in London in 1848 (copyright permission from the Queen, who holds the original in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle!); a discussion of a little-known Peter Greenaway film, Making a Splash, which features synchronised swimming and was shown on Channel 4 in the mid-1980s; a drawing of the nineteenth century British "explorer", John Speke, saving the life of a Ugandan queen (taken from a book, Heroes of Britain in Peace and War, which had been presented to the author's grandfather as a child in 1894 by HRH the Duchess of Fife on behalf of the RSPCA!); not to mention several passages from Hobbes' Leviathan (1651), an illustration of "the King's coloured subjects" from the Citizen Reader (1856), exterminationist propaganda from The Sydney Morning Herald of the 1840s, and coverage of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia by the London (Tory) Daily Sketch.

From this (incomplete) list, it might be said that The Politics of Pictures, in the words of Donald Barthelme's Seven Dwarves, is a book with a lot of 'dreck' in it:

We like books with a lot of dreck in them, matter which presents itself as not wholly relevant (or indeed, at all relevant) but which, carefully attended to, can supply a kind of "sense" of what is going on. This "sense" is not to be obtained by reading between the lines (for there is nothing there, in those white spaces) but by reading the lines themselves - looking at them and so arriving at a feeling not of satisfaction exactly, that is too much to expect, but of having read them, of having "completed" them (106).

I like books with a lot of dreck in, too. More to the point, dreck is unavoidable: it's just that some books pretend to be the last word in their chosen subject, as if all of their examples weren't somehow 'not wholly relevant' and didn't bear a potential to be otherwise. Nevertheless, while it's certainly true that the public is made to look like a perfectly imaginary being in or by The Politics of Pictures, I'm quite sure that this alone won't satisfy the demands of readers who want to go looking for meanings between the lines. For anyone who believes the public is out there, beyond the text, or at any rate in the interstices of politics and culture (not an expression I'd willingly use again), Hartley's book will no doubt seem precious and fey - not to mention politically "irresponsible". But when you choose your words with something other than a straightforwardly political or pedagogical purpose in mind, that's the risk you take. At the same time, Hartley's revisionist slant on the media, from the point of view of popular and disciplinary understandings, is foremost a teaching strategy, designed to redress an "obvious" politics but never of its own accord presented simply as disinterested knowledge:

The contemporary media, as components of public life, did not suddenly appear on the social landscape as a result of technological invention, but were imagined, in terms of their social purpose and political function, long before their technology was invented....

Alongside the twentieth-century expansion of popular media, an uncomprehending moral outrage has continued, based on golden-age nostalgia, of the kind that regrets the very existence of the supposedly trivial, corrupting, sensationalist media. This discourse circulates publicly ... as an obvious kind of common sense. It serves, however, to cut off popular media from history....

A full century after the popular picture press and cinema were first launched, it seems the media are still understood (if that's the right word) ahistorically. So it is still worthwhile to argue that the popular media are not nightmarish aliens visiting curses upon our otherwise warm and glowing century. Instead, they are social institutions whose purpose was being reasoned out in the seventeenth century.... In short, television as a social institution was invented in the first half of the seventeenth century; the perfection of the technology took a while longer. (120-21)

As a teaching text, however, The Politics of Pictures poses certain (by no means insurmountable) problems. Among these is that the sort of scrutiny afforded popular texts, through the form of what Hartley calls 'forensic' analysis, is not just a natural critical propensity but rather is informed by particular intellectual histories and modes of textual practice. Yet often the results of Hartley's forensics are arrived at by seemingly aleatory, biographical means, sometimes to Jack Hornerish effect. This will not wear well with some teachers, and teaching methods. In other words, an argument put together from dreck is (arguably) less easy to imitate, since it appears to rely so heavily on a kind of accidence, and so it's easier to read or even dismiss as a species of fiction rather than critique. Compounding the problem is the range of knowledges that the book invokes, from histories of the Greek polis to eighteenth century English political philosophy, from accounts of the pauper press, British imperialism, and the Royal Family, to television studies and theories of readership, and so on, which not all readers can be expected to share. Hartley's own adeptness at cross-referencing these domains may, then, appear to some to be precisely that - a facility of the author's rather than a teaching model.

But what The Politics of Pictures does teach, for those willing to forgo their investment in the priority of the real, as well as in a belief that popular reality is simply an effect of insidious power relations manipulated by and through "the media", is that intellectual culture is now more than ever characterised by fragmentation, disagreement, and uncertainty. And what popular culture means, in intellectual terms, has always been a case of what intellectual culture says: Leavis despised it, and so it was despicable; Enzenbergher sought to activate its potential for social reform, and so it was potentially activist; and so on. But these understandings of the popular come from different intellectual worlds, where even ideas of "a world" were generally less open to question than at present. While there's no reason to call this fracturing of intellectual culture "postmodern", nor does it seem possible to ignore that nowadays there's not a lot of consensus on what is meant by history, the text, feminism, culture, intervention, ethics, the Left, the media, writing, etc. (which doesn't have to mean that intellectual culture has to be imagined as being previously stable and consensual in order not to ignore this). So from out of an absent centre, intellectual culture cannot but begin to describe popular culture in different terms, which neither claim to speak on its behalf, nor to reform it, nor to discredit it.

I think in the end that's what The Politics of Pictures is about - an attempt at finding new ways of writing about popular culture, but which are openly responsive to recent intellectual currents rather than pretending to be more "faithful" in accounting for the popular as such. And so, for example, we arrive at this image of the public in the form of a Hollywood-inspired spectacle turned Olympic sport:

Synchronized swimming may be fun to do but it has no history as a participant sport, nor was it evolved out of utilitarian concern for the functional enhancement of the swimmers' own bodies and skills. Its genesis comes not from doing but seeing, its explanation lies in the visual desire of its viewers to gaze upon the bodies of desirable, dolphinian others. So it is not like other sports, being dedicated entirely to the point of view of the spectator, to winning and holding an intensity of gaze not distracted even by comprehension. The moves and accomplishments do not belong to the competitors themselves; their bodies hardly make sense as their own, head a metre above water, upside down, arms working powerfully but elegantly to control movements that can only be seen by the unseen spectators looking down from above at legs agape in inverted balletic splits, movements appreciated for the beauty of posed wet skin, trained prowess hidden by regulation, selfhood split in two (or eight), the measure of success being the extent to which each swimmer is indistinguishable from her partner, the delight of the spectators consisting in not knowing which one to look at, the whole edifice kept triumphantly aloft by that fixed but necessarily convincing smile. (137)

Underwriting these sentences is a cluster of critical knowledges (some semiotics, a bit of Derrida, film and media studies, Marx, literary criticism, etc.) that are never quite played out fully on the surface of the text or ever quite as "developed" or "sustained" as might be the case in another kind of book, which might set out to account for the popular along a single disciplinary line. Intellectually armed with a bit of this and a bit of that, Hartley's preferred method in this book seems to be one of surprising even himself with the purposes that can be found for some piece of critical or cultural detritus or other. So it's hardly surprising there's a lot of dreck in it, almost but not quite from Plato to Nato - with a reference to David Hockney here, to Marshall Sahlins there, or a few words in passing along the way on Darwin or Donzelot, Gramsci or Gainsborough, McLaren or McLuhan.

Once again, this (what might be called its readability) will detract from the book's teachability. Yet surely it would be a great pity for cultural studies if its commitment to interdisciplinarity were to become (or remain) simply a piety, not expressed through teaching practices. Let there be more books in a critical form of the ripping yarn, then, and we can all start to pull out our thumbs.


1. On which see (possibly the best essay anywhere, on anything, for 1992) Noel King, "From 'Play' to 'Players'", in which he reviews Stuart Cunningham's Framing Culture; and a letter of response by Jennifer Craik, "One Flew Out of the Cuckoo's Nest". Craik, representing the Institute for Cultural Policy Studies at Griffith University, lambasts the King paper for its alleged ivory-towerness, which I gather is to say that King doesn't write plainly enough. 'Too often', Craik argues, 'academics over-exaggerate [sic] their importance in the policy process, believing themselves active interventionists simply by publishing esoteric articles in specialist academic journals. By and large, these articles are written with a massive overburden of jargon and frequently, from literary-cultural people, in a flippant tongue-in-cheek style. Why not present material clearly? Why not digest it into usable forms? Why not fashion research to wider audiences and reception centres'? King is presently rumoured to be preparing a reply, also for publication in Filmnews, while my own response to Craik's remarkable letter can be gleaned, quite clearly I think, from the pages above.

Works Cited

Barthelme, Donald. Snow White. 1967; rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1980.

Craik, Jennifer. "One Flew Out of the Cuckoo's Nest". Filmnews. 22, 10 (Nov 1992): 20.

Cunningham, Stuart. Framing Culture: Criticism and Policy in Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1992.

Hartley, John. "Invisible Fictions". In Hartley. Tele-ology: Studies in Television. London: Routledge, 1992. 101-18.

----------. The Politics of Pictures: The Creation of the Public in the Age of Popular Media. London: Routledge, 1992.

King, Noel "From 'Play' to 'Players'". Filmnews. 22, 8 (Sept 1992): 8-9, 14.

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