Is There a Paratext in This Class?

CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 1 (3) Fall 2013
 Jonathan Gray
 University of Wisconsin – Madison


A key tenet of my argument about paratexts in Show Sold Separately (2010) is that paratexts are not just additions to the text itself, they often are the text itself … at least if we see the text as in any way a cultural, political, and/or sociological entity. It therefore follows that much media culture is paratextually led. Indeed, as I read gushing reviews about Gravity, read, see, and hear interviews with its cast members, have ads for it pop up throughout my Internet travels and television viewing, and see tweets about its dodgy science by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I would need to engage in a radical form of willful ignorance to state that these aren’t deeply constitutive of Gravity’s place in popular culture, perhaps even more so than the film itself. However, if film culture, television culture, and media culture more generally are so intricately paratextual in genesis, these excellent pieces about paratexts in the classroom by Sam Ford, Charlotte Howell, Monika Mehta, Marc Raymond, and Lynne Stahl not only provide helpful prescriptions for how to use paratexts in the classroom, but they also lead me to conclude that paratexts are required to teach film culture, television culture, and/or media culture properly.

Paratexts’ place and legitimacy in the textual analyst’s classroom have been questioned as far back as I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism (1956[1929]), complete with its call for professors to place poems in a vacuum, protecting them from the paratextual information that may otherwise “corrupt” students’ readings. And perhaps Richards was right, if we’re just interested in aesthetics, and if we honestly believe that aesthetics are objective, immutable qualities, not socially constructed. But if we have any interest in the lived environments of texts and to which texts contribute, if we want to know what texts do, how and why they matter to any community of viewers, and hence what role they play in culture, a classroom without paratexts is a classroom without context, and one in which all analyses will fall short. Yet perhaps, these pieces suggest to me, we might even go a step further and say that paratexts will at times be the most important parts of the classroom. We risk doing our students a disservice by inordinately privileging the film, television show, or other Work, and by therefore suggesting that it is the most important part of the text’s placement in society. An examination of The Searchers, for instance, that focuses on the film alone might thereby risk suggesting – erroneously – that this film was so powerful that it did and does not need paratexts, and that responses to the text were and are only responses to the film itself. Such an examination would downplay, at its peril, the importance of various paratexts that situated the film, that variously allowed it to do and to mean certain things, that encouraged viewers to pick up on such meanings, and/or that shifted meanings from the film.

If a classroom in which paratexts are central, by contrast, sounds heretical, let me temper the suggestion by insisting that I am not calling for the expulsion of films, television shows, and other works from the classroom. Indeed, an honest theory of paratexts must allow for “the thing itself” to vary from audience to audience, such that precisely what counts as the Work and what counts as the paratext will shift from audience to audience anyways. But just as the Work can often be eclipsed in importance by paratexts, or can do battle with its paratexts, or might simply be one among many with its paratexts as peers not vassals, we should therefore be wary of returning with adorable yet misguided faithfulness to the Work alone time and time again in our classes.

Making paratexts more central and using more paratexts in the classroom strike me as having several other benefits:

Paratexts could help us to get rid of the Great White Man Theory of Creativity (otherwise known as Auteur Theory) once and for all, and to realize the multiple authors behind any text. This in turn will offer our students a more nuanced theory of creativity and innovation that draws their attention to the inner workings of collaboration – interpersonally, legally, embedded in and performative of social hierarchies. Such a theory could expand our reach in terms of teaching students critical skills for the analysis of media. To direct their critical faculties towards the Work alone is to ensure that they miss much of what makes our media ecosystem what it is, and thus whether our interests lie in teaching about how art works, how ideology works, or how society works, we’re leaving out a great deal of the picture unless we encourage students to subject paratexts to the same levels of analysis and critique as they apply to the Work itself. Meanwhile, for students who wish to become media producers, a classroom full of paratexts may expand their sense of where creativity happens, and of where and how they can make an impact through their own acts of creativity.

As Marc Raymond suggests, we may make our classes more accessible in the process. While Raymond presents a stark case of paratexts helping to negotiate cultural unfamiliarity, a continuing struggle for any teacher is to negotiate all sorts of other levels of cultural unfamiliarity. When few of our students have seen the same television shows, when many of them don’t know films and shows that we consider basic touchstones, it is too easy to continue our classes as though they all do, and to engage in our discussions only the elite few who share our viewing histories. Paratexts might open up our classes in important ways, emphasizing how “familiarity” is created instead of shaming students for not being familiar with our own canons and favorites.

Finally, perhaps an attention to paratexts would make us better archivists. Once one engages paratexts meaningfully, one is soon faced with the frustrating reality that many paratexts have disappeared from the historical record. We need to be better at keeping them, and at making it obvious why they should be kept. When, as Monika Mehta shows, the back cover of a DVD can tell us so much about film culture, let’s ensure we’re not throwing those back covers out.

As Charlotte Howell notes of her own experience of teaching with paratexts, I too have often been amazed by how easily students “get” paratexts and how quickly and excitedly they can get to work at analyzing them. We could better capitalize on this easy embrace of paratextual scholarship. Using some of the techniques described in these five excellent pieces, perhaps we can offer our students yet more and yet better tools for examining the media around them.

Works Cited

Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

Richards, I. A. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1956[1929].

Jonathan Gray is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin – Madison. His most recent books are A Companion to Media Authorship (with Derek Johnson), Television Studies (with Amanda D. Lotz), and Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts.

This entry was posted in Media Examples for the Classroom, Teaching with Technology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply