“Raise the Lowbrow”: My trip to the Conference on Jersey Shore Studies

By November 2, 2011New Media, Outreach and Events

Last Friday, I attended the much anticipated (for me anyway) Conference on Jersey Shore Studies at the University of Chicago. If you have talked to me in the last six months, shorely you have heard me gushing about this. I am pleased to report that the conference was everything I expected and more; it was thought-provoking and snarky. Most presenters were self-proclaimed watchers of reality TV, so there was (almost) no troublesome air of superiority present. This was crucial, for when conducting ethnographic research and reporting back to colleagues, anthropologists should be careful to not belittle the people they are studying – too much.

The atmosphere of the conference was one of fun intellectualism. There were posters around the rooms with dictionary-like definitions of Shore phrases (smush (v.): 1. To mash down or compress 2. To engage in sexual activity.  t-shirt time (n.): entry not found in dictionary.) At the same time though, it was very serious. Polite applause followed every presenter, sans fist-bumping. Television cameras showed up to take interviews, presenters were in suits and well it’s the U of C for crying out loud, of course the day was of an intellectual bent. As Candace Moore was giving her keynote on “Guidosexuality,” a look at the queerness of sex on the J Shore, I couldn’t help but wonder about the control we were asserting over an absent social group. Suffice it to say, that if “The Situation” walked in on Moore who was playing the role of ethnographer and presenting footage to illustrate the queer group sex the men perform nightly, there would be a situation.

My vote for best paper of the day was one called, “Foucault’s Going to the Jersey Shore, Bitch!” by Ellie Marshall. The writer was a former intern at MTV and sought to explore the mode through which Viacom and MTV executives manipulated both the cast and the viewers into “docile bodies” or bodies that are politically and economically useful. For indeed, as another paper titled “’Get to the Business’: The Entrepreneurial Labor of Jersey Shore” pointed out, the cast is a commodity as it produces shows that we viewers consume, but we too are a commodity; the more we watch, the more valuable we are when sold as advertising slots. MTV currently makes 2.6 million dollars in ad revenue per episode, the writer pointed out. Thus, the viewer is truly made economically useful here.

To keep the profitable viewer coming back, Marshall continued, the producers of the show, and for all MTV reality shows for that matter, use the mode of the confessional to engage us in a dialogue with the program. When Snooki whines to the camera about losing Jionni, or when Sam proclaims for the fiftieth time “Ron and me are done. Done. This isn’t even funny anymore,” there is an identification and engagement that goes on between confessor and confessee i.e. the drunken cast member and the viewer watching the footage. When the fourth wall is broken, we place ourselves in the position of subject judging the objectified reality star. However, we also become the object, identifying with the cast, asking ourselves how we would feel if this happened to us – if we were the objectified body. The confessional drives this mode; we get every cast member’s side of the story which propels us to pass judgments on or identify with the “Guidos” and “Guidettes.”

With this active engagement an interesting idea came to mind. Unlike a scripted sitcom that feeds us an unchallengeable stream of premade and packaged events, it seems that the mode of the reality television show has an inherent sense of engagement that may actually be superior in some ways to traditional programming. Marshall pointed out that MTV knows this. They know that engaging their audience, that is, giving them something to talk about during the commercial break, will keep them coming back for more. Sure, one could argue that what we are discussing is banal, pointless, and a detriment to society as we know it, but another could shoot right back that it did spawn a day of undeniably academic engagement. So what’s the problem?

Well, here’s where I report on the most disappointing panel of the day.  This presenter proclaimed proudly and derisively to have just seen her first episode of Jersey Shore that day during the lunchtime screening of S01E01. She also noted that she was from Jersey and therefore, apparently, an authority an all things Guido and Shore related. What she imparted to her audience was that she was above it all, though failed to back up this claim with any visible work. This prompted pointed follow-up questions from the conference moderator and a reaction of complete indifference from the spectators. Her failure to engage in so much reality smut reflected a passivity that, to me, was even more problematic than those who tune in with the crowd on Thursday nights. She refused to acknowledge the possibility, even in the low brow, for a point of analysis.

So, is there an unacknowledged level of engagement and inquiry that goes on when tuning in to the guilty pleasures of reality trash? In this way, is it possible that there is some dare I say, morality to the project of reality TV in that it acknowledges its existence in a democratic society full of thinking bodies? Further, is it even ethical that this conference took place? At times, as in the case of the queering of “The Situation,” I felt that we were acting as supremacist intellectuals passing judgments on a strange and primitive culture. What do you think?