Allison Perlman: Media History as Intellectual History

Allison PerlmanTo understand conservatism in contemporary America, do we read Edmund Burke, leaf through old copies of the National Review, or turn to one of the most popular purveyors of conservative thought, Rush Limbaugh? Of course we recognize Limbaugh’s influence through media, but do we understand his ideas and the relationship to the institutional structure he uses to disseminate them? In a 2012 essay for Cinema Journal, Allison Perlman wrote about the significance of Limbaugh’s public position on race as mediated through his many media platforms.  Perlman introduced her essay with a story about Limbaugh defending one-time presidential hopeful Herman Cain as a victim of liberal “racial politics” in which he echoed a claim he has made for decades, that “liberals are the ‘biggest bigots among us all.’”  Perlman pointed out, “Though often dismissed as ‘racist,’ and thus unworthy of critical attention, Limbaugh’s position on race has been an important part of the reimagining of injury and discrimination, and of the rescripting of the civil rights movement, central to conservative politics since the Reagan Era.”[1]

Perlman’s serious attention to the politics of media and to figures such as Limbaugh illustrate her attention to media history as intellectual history. She writes effectively about the institutions of media as well as the ideas that are mediated through those institutions. Moreover, she explains, “struggles over broadcasting policy have been critical parts of campaigns for social justice and political reform. As American social movements responded to an increasingly mass-mediated culture, they have tried to mold television to reflect their moral and political beliefs; activist communities have understood that their success or failures would be tied to the narratives presented in, faces and voices appearing on, and values and perspectives circulating within the televisual public sphere.”  Perlman’s work analyzes the apparent ubiquity of media by contending with the histories of particular social groups, political struggles, and legal arrangements shaped within the institutions of media. Her research has made her among the few scholars who can expertly grapple with the forces shaping a world made by media, as well as one reflected by media.

Allison Perlman is an assistant professor with appointments in Film & Media Studies and History in U.C. Irvine’s School of Humanities.  She holds a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas-Austin. For the 2010-2011 academic year, Perlman was the Verklin Research Fellow in Media Ethics and Policy at the University of Virginia.  She is the author of numerous scholarly essays and the co-editor of Flow TV: Television in the Age of Convergent Media, (New York: Routledge, 2010).  In addition to her work on race, social politics, and media, Perlman relates that she is also interested in “the way that television operates as a portal of popular history and collective memory.” Her recent work has explored “how television’s role as popular historian has shifted in the digital age, and the degree to which changes in media production and consumption, branding strategies, and distribution platforms affect the presentation of the past on the small screen.”

[1] Allison Perlman, “Rush Limbaugh and the Problem of the Color Line,” Cinema Journal 51 (Summer 2012), 198-99.