The Story of my Research

This may turn out to be of interest only to myself. Perhaps, therefore, it is as an ultimate act of self-indulgence that I try here to tell the story of the various strands of my research.

At University I studied philosophy, and – although I was never much taken with the analytic philosophy which was the bread and gruel of my undergraduate course – I did learn from my studies to question and critique concepts.  But the way I went about this changed across the years.  In the early days, I was much taken with the possibilities raised by the intersections of philosophy, social theory and politics – including the issues raised by considering intellectual history through the lens of politics.  So, a few of my early publications explored the relations between Marxist theory, and other intellectual traditions.  This includes my essay on Kant and Marx.  There was a parallel one on Durkheim and Marx, which never got published, and which sadly I have now lost …

I am hoping to return to some of those early concerns in the next few years, if I can (in particular to the issue of what a Marxist theory of cultural reception [currently almost entirely missing] might look like).  What has remained for me in the interim, was in particular a determination to explore how concepts work, more generally, and how their origins and histories might help us understand their cultural and political roles.  While mostly this shows within other work I was doing (for instance, the continuing critique I have mounted of theories of ‘identification’ and the like), occasional essays on concepts and methods (for instance ‘Mass media studies and the question of ideology’, and my contribution to the debate about ‘Television and the miners’ strike’) only make full sense when understood against this background.

My earliest substantive research came very much out of possibilities generated by teaching, coupled with a lifelong political loathing of racism in all forms that I can identify  (I have been a committed socialist all my adult life) – but with a coupling worry that perhaps, in using the term, we are missing some of its important contemporary features. 

In the mid-1970s I developed and taught courses with two close colleagues, Anne Beezer and Jean Grimshaw, at (what was then) Bristol Polytechnic.  They were part of our ‘take’ on the rise of cultural studies in the UK – but with a significant twist.  Like colleagues at the Birmingham Centre, we were concerned to get our students to examine and explore what we might call ‘local ideologies’: significant forms of representation within all kinds of materials, official and unofficial.  One of the ways we did this was to study political debates and media coverage of them, around ‘hot topics’ such as immigration and race.  But I carried into my engagement with this a bit of a back-story.  As a member of the International Socialists, I had long been bothered by a mistake I felt my organisation committed in 1968, when Enoch Powell gave his notorious three speeches about immigration – the most famous of which was his ‘Rivers of Blood’ one.  IS had issued a leaflet in response to this, headed ‘The Urgent Challenge of Fascism’.  At the time that had felt wrong to me – while the rising National Front was certainly dangerous, it didn’t seem to me to be the heart of the matter.  But I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, instead. 

A decade on, my teaching led me to gather and study with my students a range of materials – Parliamentary debates; political speeches; press commentaries, and the like – which pointed me in a different direction.  Now, it seemed, contemporary racists almost gained credit for not being like racists of old, who believed in biological accounts of ‘races’ and ordered these in a hierarchy.  Instead, talk was now focused around ‘culture’, or ‘cultures’ – and the stresses of their encounters.  And lurking in the background was from time to time a different kind of biological account, borrowing bits from ethology and sociobiology, which simply offered an account of inevitable conflict of cultures

In first an essay in Radical Philosophy, then in my book The New Racism, I offered an account of this as I saw it, in these kinds of materials.  If I am honest, the piece of work which most pleases me from their period is neither of these, but the essay which I wrote with Anne Beezer on the Scarman Report on the 1981 Brixton riot.  There, the lessons and implications of the general analysis led to concrete claims about a very influential moment in British politics. 

The book had some influence at the time, but gradually passed into history.  However I am bemused by the fact that the book appears to have been rediscovered in the last ten years, as a possible source for thinking about anti-refugee sentiments, Islamophobia, and the like.  This is oddly gratifying, but I have had to say to several people who have talked to me about this, that I don’t see the similarities.  If looking back at the 1960-80s helps spark some thinking about now, all well and good.  But the context now is markedly different, and the forms and dynamics of hostility look pretty different to me, too.

I have already recounted and published (in an early volume of the International Journal of Comics Studies)the history of my research into comics in some detail, so will not do so in detail here [see ‘Kicked into the gutters …’, 2002].  What I will emphasise is that my investigations of comics, while I hope and trust that they are utterly respectful of their materials (in the sense of dealing with them carefully and thoroughly – a fault that I definitely identified in a series of published critiques), the primary driver for me was always to get through them to a series of claims and concepts which underlay critical reviews and debates: such as ‘stereotyping’, ‘identification’, ‘interpellation’, ‘effect’ and ‘harm’.  I do have every respect for those for whom comics are beloved objects in their own right, but I have to be honest and say that this is not what drove me.

Since my 2002 IJCS essay was published, I have done very little work around comics.  Just two further essays emerged, one collaboratively with Roger Sabin (on whom more below – see The Last of the Mohicans) on Gary Trudeau’s graphic treatment of the war in Iraq, and the way he (was) sold the idea of ‘Post-traumatic Stress Disorder’; the other a reception studies examination of reviews and commentaries on Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine.  By the mid-1990s, I had for all intents and purposes left the field of comics studies, to others far better equipped than me.

I have always very much valued working collaboratively in research.  Just about all the major projects I have tackled have involved at least one other person, and a number of them involved teams.  Why?  I really love the processes that collaboration enacts of ‘talking things through’ – from the earliest stages (formulating questions, probing and evaluating relevant critical contexts) to the doing (building and carrying out a research design, and gathering materials) and analysing (studying the materials systematically, and eventually finding appropriate written form to deliver the results).  (Though I have to confess that on the very last part I have probably been unreasonably ‘picky’ and difficult.) 

Choosing partners for research is a significant challenge.  There has to be a good measure of complementarity and trust for a project to work.  But too much similarity, near-identity of researchers is not a good idea.  And I think I have been ‘lucky’ (I’m not sure why that isn’t quite the right word) in so many of my collaborative projects.  But none more so than my project with Roger Sabin, on the history of adaptations of The Last of the Mohicans into film, television, animation, and comicbook.  I first met Roger during my work on comics, when – at a London comics convention – he gently took me aside and pointed out some errors in my work on the British comic Action.  He was spot on.  We quickly became friends, and began to talk about the possibilities of finding something that we could work on together.  Roger and I have slightly different skill-sets.  Roger has skills as an investigative journalist that I lack.  I am more confident with handling and unpicking theoretical claims and concepts. 

The actual choice of Mohicans again came about through a teaching topic.  I was looking for examples for use in class of the same story being told in different ways, in comicbook form (because these sit nice and still in a class, for discussion, and can be projected with relative ease for collective examination), and came across three different retellings of Mohicans in a comics shop in Bristol.  This was around the time (1992) when it was announced that there would be a new film version of the story – which would rework some materials from an earlier (1936) version.  Bingo.  Our separate searches uncovered a plethora of other versions, dating right back to one made by the famous film-maker D W Griffith. 

Our Mohicans research re-taught me something I knew very well – that there are great attractions and even greater risks in deriving explanations from purely textual explorations.   In the book which Roger and I produced, we proposed an account of the 1936 version of the film which located it in relation to the American Depression and New Deal.  We concluded this from some close work on the narrative organisation of the film.  It was neat tidy – and absolutely wrong.  For various reasons I became dissatisfied with the explanation which I had produced and managed to get a bit of funding from the British Academy to go and delve in American production archives for the film. What emerged was a quite contrary story, of a film which struggled to find any form at all – and most definitely not one associated with the New Deal.

But without any training.  I knew about the small number of important works from within cultural studies (the Nationwide study, the work on romance fiction, and on Dallas, for instance), and (a) little about the history of social science approaches to audiences.  And of course I had a strong antipathy towards the mass communications/experimental ‘effects’ tradition.  Where and how to do it differently, in light of my various critical positions, was not at all obvious.  The truth is that I got lucky, in several respects:

  1. I got lucky in that in the first substantive piece of audience research – a retrospective study of readers of the 1976 British comic Action, a comic which was driven from the shelves by a media campaign against its ‘dangerous violence’  – I designed a pretty basic questionnaire which happened to include two accidentally-excellent questions.   (I really don’t now remember the thinking that led to them.)  One asked former readers to pick out which stories they had particularly valued in this portmanteau comic, which unashamedly borrowed story-ideas  from then-popular films and TV shows (the film Jaws became a strip Hookjaw, as one example).  Another asked if people could tell me in their own words how they would describe the comic, and who it had been aimed at.  A third, crucially, asked everyone to tell me if they thought of themselves as ‘committed’, ‘regular’, and ‘casual’ readers.  The overall number of responses wasn’t huge – just 139 in all.  But the results of categorising the answers into those three categories were so very, very striking.  While the ‘regular’ and ‘casual’ readers (who hardly differed at all) described the comic in self-mocking terms that reproduced critics’ complaints (eg, ‘gratuitous violence you knew your parents would disapprove of’), and the readers in seriously uncomplimentary terms (eg, ‘pre-pubescent potential hooligans’), the ‘committed’ readers gave an entirely different account.  For them, the comic was ‘intelligent and dark’, ‘an exploration of the seedy side of the world’, and ‘a friend’, and its readers ‘members of the post-Punk generation’.  And the two groups chose different stories as their favourites.  These results set in train a host of thoughts which have continued to the present, about the differences between highly engaged audiences and critics: their different ways of finding meaning s and pleasures in cultural materials. 
  2. I got lucky again when, while I was engaged in a not-very-successful study of Action’s successor, 2000AD, I got news of a film version being made of its prime strip ‘Judge Dredd’.  Seizing my chance, I went for a quite big research grant to study audience responses to the film – and got it.  And then the film was truly bad – which brought into my view the significance of disappointment and frustration in audiences, and how these can reveal the hopes, expectations and ideals that audiences carry with them into cultural experiences.  That too has remained with me. 
    I was ‘lucky’ again when a subsequent study of the campaign against David Cronenberg’s Crash (1998) also won funding – and (with two colleagues, Jane Arthurs and Ramaswami (Hari) Harindranath)  we were able to probe the patterning of audience responses to Cronenberg’s film. 
  3. I then got lucky, following a move to Aberystwyth University, to get the chance to work with someone for whom I have exceptionally high regard: Ernest Mathijs, now in Vancouver.  I had met Ernest through my work on the ‘video nasties’ campaign, but soon learnt the range of interests and ideas that he encompassed (in this reach and range he typifies many European scholars whom I have met, who are encouraged to ground themselves much more widely than, in my experience, are UK scholars).  When a new post came up at Aberystwyth, I had the rich pleasure of appointing Ernest and of working alongside him for five years – during which time we (a) created an experimental but very satisfying MA in Audience and Reception Research – several of whose students went on to PhDs and posts; (b) created the journal Participations which has gradually established itself as a pre-eminent journal for this kind of work; and (c) build the big international project and network on the reception of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy – see below, the section on ‘Fantasy’, for more on this. 

Ernest was with me still when we won a contract to do work for the British Board of Film Classification, on the extremely tough topic of screened sexual violence, and audience responses.  Here, the ‘getting lucky’ was a combination of having a small personal connection to one member of staff at the BBFC, but also encountering the BBFC in a brief window when it was willing to entertain broader questions and approaches – a window which closed pretty rudely and crudely just a few years later (see my essay on this, ‘Knowledge-U-Like’, in the British Journal of Film and Television [2016]).  I am inordinately proud of the research that we did on this, and very much saddened that it hardly had any impact on the BBFC’s thinking. 

That research led on to the next trickiest project I was involved in, with two splendid colleagues Clarissa Smith and Feona Atwood – two brave women who refused to bow down before the orthodoxies of condemnation of pornography.   I was first and foremost a methodological adviser to a project in which they were the principal thinkers (who knew the lived and intellectual contexts in a way that I simply didn’t).  But the evidence we gathered was of major significance, and remains pretty much unique in gathering the rich and complex responses of porn ‘users’. 

Along the way, and interspersed with these large and ambitious audience studies, I have tried to tackle smaller and more detailed topics.  Loving the film myself, I was drawn (during my brief time at Sussex University) to try to understand the appeal of Being John Malkovich as an example of ‘clever’ cinema.  That one, I did alone.  With three other people (at least initially) I was drawn to the notion, while at Aberystwyth, of addressing how audiences perceive the role and contribution of acting to their feelings about a film.  This was very much prompted by working in a department covering film, television, and drama – where of course attention to actors and acting is de rigueur.  (One of my failures at Aberystwyth was my inability to get a module on ‘Acting to Camera’ developed – a shame…)  On this occasion, I proposed and my collaborators were happy that we use The Usual Suspects – where ‘role-playing’ and deceitful self-presentation play such a large part – to try to get inside the complexities of this.  This and other small-scale projects resulted sometimes in just a single essay, but that to me is fine. 

In a number of ways it has seemed strange to me that in the final years of my employed life I held the title ‘Professor of Film & Television Studies’.  First, television has hardly caught my research attention – just occasionally as part of a project such as Last of the Mohicans.  Second, film studies is a decidedly strange world, replete with its own ‘theories’ (even that word takes on meanings here that it has hardly anywhere else), and I pretty much sidled into it in the mid-1990s, via my researches into Judge Dredd’s and Crash’s audiences.  At Sussex and then at Aberystwyth I taught introductory and advanced courses on film and cinema, and had to make myself read and talk about things which I regarded and still regard as on the edge of bizarre.  On the other hand, I do love films in a way that I never loved comicbooks.  So, at several points in the later stages of my career, I have found myself exploring particular films, film genres, or film debates.  My main attempt to systematise my thoughts on this – and I can see the weaknesses in the attempt – came in the book From Antz To Titanic: Reinventing Film Analysis.  Dreadful title.  My original wish was to call it Film Analysis Without Pants – the explanation is given in the Introduction to the book ... My publisher told me that the expression ‘pants’ to describe something poor wouldn’t last.  Oh how wrong they were. 

(One late piece of audience research came out, once again, from teaching about film.  At Aberystwyth I was responsible for a first year introductory module, which brought together contributions from a range of my colleagues.  My own contributions included one lecture and seminar, entitled ‘What can we do when scholars disagree?’.  It was an attempt to get students to think about what is involved in film debates – and used as its focal point one film which, for reasons that bear a lot of consideration, has been the topic of almost more debate than any other film: Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).  Partly, I suspect, because of a confluence of time of release, with themes stimulating the ‘juices’ of scholars,it has been the topic of seemingly endless critiques.  In 2007, with my colleague Kate Egan I prepared an application to the Arts & Humanities Research Board for funding for a project which would both have gathered a wide range of audiences, and also explored its place within academic teaching and thinking in Britain and America.  The bid was turned down, which happens.  But what narked me hugely was that one of the evaluators pretty much dismissed the bid with a comment suggesting that this wasn’t the kind of film that was worthy of serious attention.  I couldn’t let that go, so some years later Kate and I, with two other colleagues Sarah Ralph and Tom Phillips, self-funded a massively trimmed down version of the project, resulting in the book Alien Audiences.  We learnt some wonderful things about generational viewing, and the place and role of film memories.  Anonymous Evaluator, I spit in your gravy …)

One area of film scholarship for which I have great respect is the area of production studies, and of institutional histories.  But it is a domain that I have hardly penetrated (just one essay, really, on the the near-production, but eventual death, of a younger version of the really important comic 2000AD – see ‘Very nearly in front of the children’.)  But just once I attempted this systematically.  I was teaching on contemporary Hollywood, and each year updating and trying to ensure that a variety of kinds of films got covered.  In 2005 I was seeking a replacement for The Lord of the Rings, and wanted something very different from that kind of mega-blockbuster fantasy project.  I was struck by discovering that a small number … no, say that again, a moderate number … no, say it a third time, the really quite large number of small, almost vanishing films that had come out in response to the Iraq War.  And their evanescence was part of what fascinated me, along with the fact that ‘everyone knew’ that they would fail, yet they kept on coming.  Twenty three in all, over a four-year period.  Researching (as best I could) the makers (companies, financiers, directors, scriptwriters, etc) alongside looking at the politics of the films, led me to a topic which was once again highly risky and controversial: post-traumatic stress disorder.  PTSD proved to be the undergirding ‘discourse’ threading these films together – yet the term hardly gets a mention in any of the films.  It provided an ‘atmosphere’ allowing American ‘liberal’ film-makers to be critical of government and military without ever criticising soldiers.  My book ‘A Toxic Genre’ was for me a step into a kind of writing and analysis I had not really tried before.

Having done philosophy at University, I had no experience, let alone training, in empirical research methods.  That has mostly been a disadvantage.  But in small ways I see some benefits from this, in that I approached questions of methods with particular tasks in mind.  I have great respect for all those, especially, in the fields of sociology, who have written about methods, and I have done my best to learn from them (for instance when thinking about and designing questionnaires).  But I have approached issues of methods with an ‘outsider’s’ gaze, asking the same kinds of question that I have wanted to ask about this, as I asked about the historical rise and fall of wider intellectual frameworks.  Because, for instance, I was intensely sceptical about the claims of the long tradition of ‘effects’ researchers (with their near-linear model of messages transmitted, and cumulatively influencing ‘vulnerable’ recipients), I felt that I had to look at them, not just for their statistical claims, but for the ways in which they embedded assumptions in their research.  To use a near-contemporary example, what thought processes lead a researcher to declare that Armageddon and Falling Down can be treated as exemplars of a single category: the ‘suicide film’, leading to preposterous claims about the cumulative influence of watching such films, based on research among … yes, you have guessed it … his own students?  There are ontologies inside here, which couple with methodologies and with politics, and I believe it is really important that we tease these out. 

I have not written systematically about methodology, except to try to state honestly what decisions I/we made in major projects such as the Lord of the Rings project (see ‘Rings around the world’ [with Kate Egan], and ‘Researching world audiences’ [with Ernest Mathijs & Alberto Trobia]).  Yet I have a sense that in some of the methodological decisions and outcomes that I have been involved in, something very important and substantial has emerged.  I just don’t know if I will ever have the courage or the capacity to spell out what might, I think, prove to be a substantive contribution to methods of cultural research. 

What I have done, though, in a couple of essays is to dare to address some of the concrete developments in my field.  In particular I have written about my experience of ethical issues in research (see ‘Finding audiences for our research’).  I have a very clear memory of an idiot of a Pro-Vice Chancellor, when I was asked to explain what my early ‘horror comics’ research had involved, throwing back across the table: ‘Yes, and if you were doing that now, we wouldn’t let you’.  Universities are becoming increasingly pusillanimous, and restrictive – and it is remarkable to see the extent to which they are operating under the imprimatur of an ontology borrowed straight from a combination of legal cowardliness, and medical modelling.  Challenging, critical research is in considerable danger. 

It may seem a little strange that I have left till last the work that I suspect I am best known for: my work on issues around censorship and censorship campaigns, moral scares, and issues of ‘media violence’ and its ‘effects’, and so on.  It’s not because I think it less important or interesting than the other kinds that I have done, but because in a curious way it is almost summative – although a lot of this was done quite early in my career, in a way its intellectual footprint depends to a large degree on the other, later, and more particular kinds of work that I have done.  (And yes, the implication of that is that when I did some of this in the early days I did it with a worrying degree of naivety because I didn’t yet recognise how much it depended on those other parts.)

My work in this area began entirely accidentally, as I have spelt out in the section on comics research (and specifically on the 1950s British horror comics campaign, and then on Action).  Censorship was not a topic on which I held particularly strong personal views.  I was certainly interested in the repression of information (I remember reading with great fascination ‘Report from Iron Mountain’ in the 1960s, and then of course following the disclosures of the Watergate scandal). But moral censorship – which was of course in decline as I was growing up – didn’t particularly impinge on me.  It was very much through becoming a serious sceptic about the claims of particular public scares and associated theories and researches that I gradually evolved a ‘position’. 

Rather than run over here the various researches and publications that I have been involved in, I will try honestly to set out what my summative ‘position’ is:

A)  I used to be asked quite often ‘Am I denying that the media ever have effects?’, and my answer was always a very straightforward one.  Yes, of course they have ‘effects’ – but ‘effects’ won’t reduce or be limited to the very narrow list that moral campaigners want to stick with.  And – as my research into this deepened – I even wanted to say that very often the ‘effects’ of the media are the inverse of what campaigners claim.  So, for instance, the more a person engages with so-called violent media, the more expert s/he can become in knowing the kinds of image and representation that is on offer, the good versus the bad, the well-done versus the badly done and so on.  I very consciously use the metaphor of Crosswords and Sudokus: the first times we try to do these, they are tough and almost incomprehensible.  But as we learn the rules, we develop strategies for tackling them.  That of course raises the question of the ‘Crossword Addict’ (or by analogy the Violence Addict, or the Games Addict, or Porn Addict, or ISIS Convert, or etc).  And I am very clear from my research that serious engagement with and commitment to a kind of cultural material doesn’t lead to ever-deepening loss of self, or invasive influence.  How the materials will play into people’s sense of self and of place in the world cannot be told just from the encounters themselves.  Yes, we for sure need to have good ways to talk with such people – there is much that we can learn from good research into committed viewers/readers/followers.  But the model that pictures a hermetic balloon emerging over such people is simply nonsensical. There are pervasive and invasive contexts which in play all the time – the more so, that a person engages. 

B)  Should there be any censorship, or is it all a matter of free speech?  My answer again has always been a complicated one.  It begins by asking: who gets to speak, and who gets to censor?  I don’t mean the individuals, rather, the organisations and perspectives that have historically gained voices, and laid down the boundaries of ‘acceptable opinion’.  What several of my concrete researches revealed to me was that these people were unreliable sources – not just in their judgements on particular kinds and forms of culture, but in their accounts of their own motives.  The 1950s horror comics campaigners were typical in this respect.  Fuelled and energised by members of the British Communist Party, but at a time when they felt the need to hide their presence and activities, the campaign got caught in a terrible paradox: it began as a strange form of anti-cultural imperialism, but had to drop that in order to appear ‘acceptable.  So it ended up speaking on the one hand the language of ‘protection of children’; and on the other attacking and trying to censor some of the rare critical, anti-McCarthyite materials to emerge from America.  Other situations were different, even if they each borrowed some of that ‘safe’ language of child protection (the search for ‘vulnerable ones’ is a recurrent theme, of course).  So, in asking who gets to speak and decide, I have demanded that we test the claims of the judges.  What are they really trying to prevent, to safeguard, to block?

In recent years, an interest that has kept rising to the surface became a thing in its own right: an interest in thinking about the nature, meaning, and role of ‘fantasy’ in human life.  And not just safe and nice forms of fantasy (say, C S Lewis) but the grubby, dodgy kinds associated with sex, death and revenge.  My interest began in the context of censorship debates, and my refusal to go along with lazy arguments that, for instance, ‘children might lose the distinction between fantasy and reality’, or that ‘people might be triggered by fantasies to do bad things in real life’.  I guess at back of it also lay my long-standing personal pleasure in reading certain works of fantasy – from JRR Tolkien and Frank Herbert when I was younger, to my recurrent late-adult favourites (Scott Lynch, China Miéville, K J Parker, Robert Jackson Bennett …). 

My earliest almost intuitive position came in a very short chapter I was asked to write as a Frontispiece to Comics … to take up a general position.  My ‘argument’ (it reads more like an expostulation, now) was that having spaces and opportunities to fantasise are part of what makes us human, and that this is what censors routinely try to restrict.  I still believe this – but I am aware how thinly expressed and elaborated that idea was.  But the notion that fantasy is a crude name for a ‘place’ where we try out alternative versions currently beyond us, of what we, and the world, might be or become, has remained with me, and become something I have wanted to return to, in lots of big contexts.  Three of those, the biggest and most ambitious, became a kind of sequence of research projects: the Lord of the Rings, Hobbit, and Game of Thrones projects.

This is still ongoing work for me.  I have tackled its broad outlines in one essay, the sneakily titled ‘Fantasy audiences versus fantasy audiences’, where I sketched a critical history of recent theorising about fantasy’; and I have tackled the specific field of sexual fantasies, in a piece arising from the pornonline project.  But I sense that there may be more to come, all (and me) being well. 

Hopefully I still have some years ahead of me when I can, in perhaps constrained circumstances, research and publish.  I am aware in small ways of being seen as an Elder Statesman now in the field of audience research and that’s OK.  But that very awareness is making me horribly alert to the risks of getting out of touch with what the many good young scholars are doing and achieving.  I can’t make that assessment, and am (reasonably) happy to leave that to others.  I know that there are one or two projects I would still like to tackle, if I am able.  I am also very aware that there are others that will now never happen.