- Television and Precarity: Naturalist Narratives of Poor America by Jasmin Humburg
Critical studies of American naturalism often trace naturalist storylines through twenty-first century culture and examine contemporary narratives of hardship and poverty. Some of the most exciting and groundbreaking recent work in the field (such as that of Klaus H. Schmidt) focuses on revealing the roots of naturalism within popular culture and teasing out naturalist iconography in contemporary film and television. In this spirit, utilizing Donna Campbell’s, Donald Pizer’s, and Eric Carl Link’s capacious definitions of naturalism, Jasmin Humburg continues this trend of critical expansion in her new study on popular television series. Therein, she explores a contemporary American application of past naturalist tropes and diegetic techniques in order to remedy the “gap in research on representations of poverty in contemporary fiction” and demonstrate that “visual representations and configurations of poverty . . . can be traced back to their literary counterparts in naturalist fictions” (6). In this study, the chapters rely on and are in dialogue with one another, providing a cohesive examination of varied naturalist approaches and tools of characterization within a selected six series, including The Wire, Treme, Ozark, Shameless, Orange Is the New Black, and 2 Broke Girls.
In her preliminary chapters, Humburg provides a concomitant crash course in the emerging field of “new poverty studies” and a retrospective of definitional naturalism and the ways which naturalist critics have heretofore considered narratives of “downclassing” via the “naturalist plot of decline” (7). She draws on the work of authors such as Gavin Jones, John Guillory, Eric Schockett, Walter Benn Michaels, and Jude Davies to shore up her theoretical underpinning and to make connections among sociological studies of poverty, class, race, and American naturalism.
Chapter One, “Poverty and Class,” effectively grapples with some of the contradictions and problematic constructions within the field of poverty studies, such “as the reduction of its meaning to mere material deprivation” and the conflation of poverty and class (19–20). The author advocates an intersectional consideration of poverty as a category of analysis, which “call[s] for a heightened awareness of potential intersections as well as differences between race, ethnicity, gender and class” (22). In the following section, “Social Stratification and Social Mobility,” Humburg [End Page 253] dissects hierarchical social stratification and class mobility as objects of representation. Chapter Three, “Naturalist Narratives of Poverty” will be the most familiar to readers of Studies in American Naturalism, as Humburg surveys cornerstone critical texts and recounts the analytical debates within the field. Despite its familiarity, it is nevertheless worth a careful read as it broadly and judiciously reviews studies of “classic” naturalist texts in order to later transpose these analyses onto the contemporary television series that provide the most interesting nexus of Humburg’s work. In a forward-looking gesture, these expository chapters afford an unwinding of the theoretical debates and draw connections between sociological considerations of poverty and the multitude of materialist analyses that characterize the study of American naturalism.
Each of the ensuing chapters is structured according to a quadripartite formula with the “[Series] as a Naturalist Narrative,” “Determinism in [Series],” “The Downclassing of [a major character],” and “Classed Bodies: Classed Spaces: [key locale].” While initially this formula may seem to lack dynamism, the prose itself makes up for it, and the repetitive structure enables like-to-like comparisons of elements within the different television series. Organizationally, this creates a cohesive framework for analysis. In so cleanly delineating these sections, Humburg allows for associations between the series in question but also hearkens back to “classic” naturalist texts such as Sister Carrie, McTeague, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, etc., in order to make the case for viewing contemporary television series through the framework of naturalist aesthetics.
In her discussion of David Simon’s The Wire, for example, Humburg argues that the show “both preserve[s] and disrupt[s] notions of post-industrialist capitalism and speculate[s] about the precarious positions of human beings within a crushing networks of systems...