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Blanca de Lizaur
Born in Mexico City, Mexico, to Spanish parents, in 1966.
Researcher specialized in Cultural Studies, Media and Literature; and professional writer.
The social functions of literature and media, and their connection with commercial success
Blanca de Lizaur has created a comprehensive literary theory, which makes sense in our contemporary world with its multiple technologies, and which explains not only 1) academically acclaimed work, but also 2) works of generalized success –popular–, 3) those rejected by society in general –or marginalized–, and 4) the traditional/folk –or orally transmitted. And we believe it is comprehensive, because she supported her every premise with scientific advances in areas as diverse as Biology, Neuroscience, Psychology, Sociology, Musicology and Philology.
The fact that her theory allows for the explanation and analysis of works transmitted by all different kinds of media, means that she does not place any emphasis on the different “final forms” in which work may reach us, but rather on the essential contents of said work –in that which allows the spectator or lay reader, to recognize it as unique and to distinguish it from all others–. Blanca de Lizaur insists that, first: communicative intention arises, and only after that is the choice of form of transmission made, in such a way that the content will always retain priority and primacy over the media used to transmit it. This accounts to why one body of work can move from one form of media to another, without losing value or identity.
When she first defended this position, internet had not yet arisen, and it was impossible to foretell what our present reality and future would be like. However just as she predicted, the contents of a work are adapted to different “containers”, while at the same time remaining essentially “unique” and recognizable. As an example, de Lizaur gives us Othello: a) the series of events in its “story-line”, b) the different characters who participate in it and the relationships they form with each other, as well as c) the dialogues and memorable sequences of this narrative, which appear in all different versions of it. These are some of Othello’s mains constituents; together they become a “recognizable genetic nucleus” (to describe it in some manner), being unimportant whether it reaches us via internet, whether we watch it on television, or we read it in the traditional format of a book.
A central –seminal, idea underlies and powers the research of this researcher: That nothing will exist and flourish in all of human culture, if society does not need it. And given that literature exists in all human societies, and in all ages, it is essential that it be fulfilling a fundamental social function.
We must, then, disect the social function it fulfills, in order to understand how and why certain literary works are successful (they communicate fruitfully with their target audiences), while others fail. And when we have managed to describe the reason for which they were created, we may also explain the phenomena that naturally arise surrounding different literary works, such as the influence (positive and negative) they have on society, and the differing agents and forces that put pressure on them, and either model them, help them flourish, or strangle and even kill them.
Let us broaden this last concept somewhat more: Given that literature fulfills a social function or need, it makes sense that the authors, works, genres, channels and technologies, have the most success when they fulfill them, and they lose that success –and even die– when they do not. When does this occur?
Whenever over the course of history, an author, work, genre, channel or technology has reached a large majority of the public, becoming an important social referent, other social agents have wished to take advantage of its influence in order to benefit their own ends, and have employed great pressure to this end. And every time creators and distributors have given in to said pressure, their work has stopped pleasing society, which first has distanced itself from it (reducing their consumption), and later even rejected it (traditionally, this has happened in all dictatorships and tyrannies, be they of an overt or covert nature, with respect to the official spokespersons or mouthpieces of those in power–.
Still, this has happened not necessarily due to a dialectical dynamic (thesis > antithesis > synthesis, or action > reaction > re-balance) –as one might suppose in light of the ideas put forth by authors such as Bourdieu (Pierre Bourdieu; Les Règles de l’art. Genèse et structure du champ littéraire; Éditions Du Seuil, 1992)–, but rather simply because the author, work, genre, channel or technology has ceased to fulfill its social function. That is to say: it has ceased serving society, in order to better tend to the interests of other groups.
It follows consequently, that lasting popularity (with the resulting economic gains, when taking place within an open and free market), can only be achieved if the contents are negotiated with “interest groups”, in such a way that the interests of the majority/mainstream audience, are efficiently protected from the interests of others.
The public receiver as a target of literary work, and a force for social balance
Works attain popularity, and retain it, only when the information and emotional vectors offered, prove to be necessary and pleasing/satisfactory for the audience.
This being said –and in addition–, in order for popularity to exist, the work must be codifiable/decodifiable in some way which is particular to each culture, depending on the catalogue of elements belonging to the “collective aesthetic” of that particular culture (characters, expressions, scenarios, motifs, etc.).
Moreover: “Necessity” and “pleasure”, must also be defined not from the creators’ or distributors’ perspective, nor from that of other social agents (or “interest groups”) which might influence them, but rather from the receivers’ perspective, due to which the definition will vary based on the culture, the public we are addressing, and the circumstances of the time.
In the same way, it makes no sense to distribute the same material to all publics, using all channels and technologies available, and without considering and taking into account the realities they are experiencing at that moment.
Equally, critical terms such as “proper” or “appropriate”, must be studied with respect to the values, ideas and beliefs of the audience we are addressing,and not others.
De Lizaur builds, evidently, a theory orientated toward the reception of works, which advocates for the inclusion of the study of reception, in history and in literary analysis. And she coins the term “freedom of reception”, which accounts to society’s creative and intelligent reaction to the information it receives, in order to facilitate the healthy survival of the individual, the group and its culture. The freedom of reception impacts on whether the information is promoted, filtered or disqualified, for example, by the public, independently of other social agents’ agendas.
Definition and description of the telenovela format, and redefiniton of melodrama
Blanca de Lizaur is better known, nevertheless, for having been the first to clearly, completely and rigorously describe, the telenovela format [–only afterwards did telenovelas start to be sold as formats, and not only as recorded works or scripts].
Telenovelas are the Iberoamerican equivalent of soap operas in the United States, and teleromans in Canada; and they are highly successful competitors in the global fiction market, due to their broad appeal. That they are distinguishable from soap operas –Blanca de Lizaur says– results from the cultural substrata of each: While the telenovela was built on the Greek and Latin dramatic tradition, in which the work ends when the primary conflict has been resolved, soap operas were built on the Northern European saga tradition, which proceeds from conflict to conflict, as long as our patience lasts and the producer survives.
It was precisely while studying the telenovela, that de Lizaur was confronted with the multiple definitions and vagaries regarding the term melodrama (not theatrical but narrative instead). From her analysis of this problem, arose a new definition, not tied in with theatrics (Peter Brooks has described it as “the aesthetics of amazement”: The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and The Mode of Excess; Yale University Press), but rather with the principle of justice inherent to the melodrama, and which explains much more successfully all of its components and exponents (including, of course, its frequent exploitation of elements of surprise and amazement).
And given that Zillman and Bryant –social psychologists, have amply demonstrated that we cannot experience pleasure if a work does not confirm our values, ideas and beliefs (chapter in: Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research; Jennings Bryant y Dolf Zillmann, eds.; L. Elbaum Associates, 2002), we may affirm that melodrama, constructed with the intention of reaching a “just” or fair end (“just” because it reflects, promotes and confirms the audience’s vision of the world), constitutes literary narrative par excellence. And it explains, at the same time, its universal appeal and broad success, in cinema, as well as in television and other media; and its great adaptability to other cultures and technologies.
Significance and future of her work
When questioned regarding the future usefulness of her theories due to the changes in mentality and paradigms occurring in the Western world, Blanca de Lizaur threw herself into analyzing the changes society is undergoing, and clarifying the effects they will have on media content. Her conclusions, which do not agree with those we see in other sources, are particularly useful for the survival of media, considering that the forced application of agendas that the audience cannot value, and that differ from the life experience of the majority, is bringing about media’s own demise.
In spite of the numerous articles and conferences attributable to Blanca de Lizaur (over 90), and the fact that she has been cited or referenced in countries as varied as Poland, Italy, Spain, Canada, United States, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, and Ecuador, her work is not well known outside the academic world and some media.
Would she be better known if she had given in to the pressures of different political and economic groups? Certainly. Nevertheless, it is precisely because of her resistence to external agents that pretend to either influence or conceil her work, that it is relevant and useful. She is the only author who takes into account the literary, social and business needs of the media, who analyses them with academic rigor, and who presents them clearly and understandably, with attained political neutrality, and without neglecting the concerns, tastes and interests of the average citizen.
Her work can help us build bridges between society, the media, and different “interest groups” (or stakeholders), and negotiate a lasting agreement beneficial to all parties, now that the financial crisis, the digital revolution, and the suffocating political agendas have joined forces to lead media to a systemic collapse.
Peer-reviewed and academic journals as prestigious as Anthropos (Spain), The Encyclopaedia of Mexico (the United States), and La Experiencia Literaria (Mexico), have welcome Blanca de Lizaur’s work. Her dissertations, however –and amazingly, if we consider they represent her larger contribution to society, remain unpublished, except for a few isolated chapters, included in specialized journals.