Raymond Williams on Television: Notes Toward Further Research
Dana Polan / New York University

Raymond Williams's Birthplace

Raymond Williams’s Birthplace

Insofar as my Cinema Journal essay “Raymond Williams on Film” intended to surface a lesser-known aspect of his engagement with moving image culture, the study had, of necessity, to eschew extended discussion of Williams’s familiar efforts in the theorization of television. I did, however, suggest that there is still critical work to be done around Williams’s writings on television, and I hinted at possible research paths along those lines. For instance, there has been virtually no critical engagement with the practical criticism of individual television broadcasts that Williams offered over four years in a monthly column for The Listener (collected usefully in the 1989 volume, Raymond Williams on Television) and I hope at some point to return to these less-known writings for the ways they, in contrast perhaps to the better-known Television: Technology and Cultural Form, mediate the direct level of textuality in individual television programs with fascinating ideological analysis. Here, though, in this online complement to my Cinema Journal essay, I want to remind us of ways we’re still not done with Television: Technology and Cultural Form and note some aspects of that breakthrough 1974 volume that merit renewed study.

Clearly, of course, Television: Technology and Cultural Form is in its status as a classic of television studies — even, perhaps, the formative book of the field — a book we can easily assume we’ve grasped in all its consequential implications. For instance, a vast, impressive secondary literature on the key concept of Flow has not only dissected myriad meanings to the term but found ways to update it to new moving image technologies. Yet, even with our seeming familiarity with Television: Technology and Cultural Form there remain compelling paths of possible critical engagement:

1. At a most immediate level, the book calls out for illuminating genealogical, even graphological study. The Williams archives at Swansea University (where I was able to find so much on Williams’s extensive, but little-known, engagement with cinema) hold the draft for Television: Technology and Cultural Form, and there is much about this manuscript that could tempt the exacting (even perhaps obsessive) archive-geek: for instance, while the body of the manuscript is a long typed text, this typescript bears all sorts of written additions. To take just the most revealing of these emendations, the introduction of the key concept of flow (p. 86 of the 2003 “Routledge Classic” edition of the book) is hand-written onto the manuscript, suggesting that Williams evolved the notion of flow over the days of his engagement with current television form during his famous U.S. trip. (The well-known description of his discovering flow while watching television in Miami when “still dazed” from the boat trip over is, in the first text version, “slightly dazed,” a much less dramatic rendition of the encounter). The Swansea folders on the television book also include program notes (probably compiled by Joy Williams) for a multitude of programs that aired during the Williams’s U.S. stay, along with Joy’s tabulations of content for a variety of American TV channels for the book’s quantitative analysis of programming decisions. All this material invites careful investigation into the genesis of Williams’s study, and the results could indeed contribute to the historiography of television study and the role of Williams in the discipline’s development.

2. As I imply in my Cinema Journal piece, the very emphasis on the breakthrough concept of Flow in the secondary literature, while no doubt understandable given how much that concept has mattered to our continued understanding of the televisual medium even as it evolves over the decades, has meant that other potential contributions of Williams’s book have been under-studied. The focus on Flow tends to inflect the reading of Williams in a textualist direction even as he himself wanted to move beyond stylistics alone to television’s social emplacement: as the subtitle of the book would have it, it is notably not “form” alone that Williams analyzes but its “cultural” implications, and this, for him, necessitates a move beyond textual analysis alone. Here, we might note two key political areas into which Williams wanted to intervene. First, Television: Technology and Cultural Form is a volume very centrally focused on questions of policy: for example, issues of access creative/political control over the means of production. Perhaps as cultural policy studies and political economy of media gain in traction, we may see more concerted attention to this major side of Williams’s book (and to this one study’s relation, then, to Williams’s continued engagement with culture policy throughout his writings on communications). Second, Television: Technology and Cultural Form is very much concerned with the development of media technologies, both past and future, especially around delivery platforms, and while he certainly gets some predictions wrong, Williams’s very desire to diagnose how our moving image cultures are delivered to us could itself become the object of significant historiographic and theoretical analysis. To take just one example, while Williams is celebrated for the key concept of “mobile privatization” (for instance, far-flung images consumed by monadic subjects ensconced within domesticity), Williams actually wondered if historically there couldn’t have been (and in a possible future couldn’t perhaps still be) publicly broadcast television in large-scale format. The issue here for Williams was both formal (a lot he felt was lost in visual quality on the small sets of the bourgeois home) and cultural (a lot he felt was lost in shareable democracy when television was consumed as domestic event). Williams’s critical examination of the media technologies we have accepted compared to the ones we might have developed bears further investigation.

3. Above all, we need, I think, to not assume that the voluminous, admirable secondary literature on Flow settles the case for what this term intends. In particular, in reading beyond Williams’s writings on television, I was struck by parallels between what he says elsewhere about advertising (for example, in his famous essay on “Advertising: The Magic System”) and the quite denunciatory analysis of commercials that he offers throughout the television book. For Williams (and here his debt to F. R. Leavis and a notion of commercial culture as an excrescence on an imputably more “authentic” culture is apparent), advertising is a corruptive detouring of cultural talents, and he is excoriating about commercials on television. What is important here with regards to Flow is that, in contrast to the ways it is sometimes rendered in the critical literature, Williams sees Flow as frequently anchored to the punctuating power of commercials: Flow is not undifferentiated outpour but a sequencing that often only find a sense (a highly ideological one, to be sure) in the recurrent blare of the advertisements. As Williams puts it (p. 119), “The most ordered message, with a planned use of sight and sound, are the recorded commercials. . . . Devices of repetition to sustain emphasis within flow are common to both [commercials and new items],” and Williams even resorts to a new sort of textual notation, in a way that makes his work resemble modernist poetry, to attempt to render this anchoring of flowing meaning: “today . . . today . . . today . . . now . . . fast . . . or tomorrow . . . don’t miss it . . . today . . . coming out . . . today . . . today . . . at this moment . . . today . . . now . . .”

When Television: Technology and Cultural Form was reissued in 2003, it was as part of a series notably named “Routledge Classics.” Perhaps Williams’s book merits such reverent nomination, but there’s always the risk that classic status means we think we’ve fully grasped the work and can be done with it. Yet, as I suggest, important, rewarding work remains to be done around Raymond Williams’s rich engagements with moving image cultures, and here his television writings, no less than the little-known ones on cinema, still merit attention.

Image Credits:

1. Raymond Williams’s Birthplace – courtesy of author’s collection

Please feel free to comment.

Foucault TV

Spoofing on The Simpsons

Spoofing on The Simpsons

There's a kind of television I nickname “savvy TV.” By this, I don't mean programming with presumably deep intellectual content – not Masterpiece Theatre or Charlie Rose. It’s not so much a question of content but of practices of viewer targeting by which an audience of presumably astute intellectuality is played to and ego-stroked for its ostensibly discerning ability to tap into learned references and arcane in-jokes within the television experience. “Savvy TV” operates through several strategies. There is, for instance, the clever allusion and the way that spotting it flatters the talented viewer. Two examples at random: the mid-1980s detective show Crazy Like a Fox included a scene in a film school where the establishing shot showed a professor telling a student to study for an exam by reading the works of Dudley Andrew and Christian Metz (!!); or, an early episode from The Sopranos had young gangster Christopher seeing Martin Scorsese on the street and yelling “Kundun” in appreciation – a complicated reference since that obscure film is the least likely Scorsese film that one imagines Christopher would know (let alone like). Of course, The Simpsons has made a career – one of its many “careers” – from packing complicated, intellectually astute allusion into its entertainment.

There is also the strategy of incorporating into a show various images of the practice of interpretation and of practitioners of interpretation not unlike those the savvy viewer encountered in college lit or film classes (or still encounters if he/she is a professional in a cultural realm, such as the university). Hence, MTV early on included a psychoanalyst who commented between clips on the multiple meanings of sexual difference within the spectacle. And The Sopranos is rich in scenes like the one in which, for a school assignment on Robert Frost's poetry, Soprano son A. J. has his sister Meadow explain to him that both black and white can symbolize the void of death. Whatever their specific realm of employment, so many urban professionals, so many members of what Richard Florida terms the “creative class,” have had schooling in interpretation, and there is pleasure to be found in seeing both its common protocols and its excesses (“if it's longer than it is wide, it must be a phallic symbol,” one college professor taught us) banalized and regularized in the stories we watch. All that college learning in the humanities pays off on the viewing couch.

The creative class has been trained to appreciate paradox, surprise, aporia, and contradiction, and this can include irony and upset aimed at its own values and beliefs. As I suggested in my last Flow column, a show like The Sopranos derives much of its effect for its target audience by playing with viewers, toying with them – turning the television experience into a ludic duel of mockery and oneupsmanship. Savvy television often operates at the self-delighted expense of the very audience it is setting out to captivate. It dares one to spot the reference, to solve the puzzle. Its tactics often seem particularly tricky for the academic television analyst who can find his/her best insights turned into amusing fodder for mockery, deconstruction, and ironic reversal in the shows themselves.

Thus, where I had reflected in an earlier Flow column (“I Got Plenty of Nothing [and Nothing's Plenty for Me]: Television's Politics
of Abundance”) about the absence of books on television and suggested it was a symptom of the medium's reluctance to find space for that slow, patient form of critical analysis that books represent, recently savvy TV had a bookish trick of its own up its sleeve. The finale of The West Wing included a quick shot of a copy of Michel Foucault's “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976 being taken off a shelf as the office of former president Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was packed up to make way for the new president, Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits). Step aside, Janet Jackson and wardrobe malfunctions: here was a TiVo moment for critical theorists! And within a day fan-sites and chat rooms were rife with speculation about what it meant: a general reference to Bartlet's intellectual voraciousness? a specific comment on his openness to European culture (compared to our actual administration's disdain for “Old Europe” and active scapegoating of France for its resistance to the Iraq war)? a reflection on the way Bartlet's administration was geared to the liberal defending of American society?

The West Wing book cover

The West Wing book cover

At the very least, it seemed a good gag even if one couldn't figure out what it meant. But maybe the allusive elusiveness itself was the meaning. Knowing the ways in which academic media studies has given its lessons to so many media practitioners – who then have to work at making the insights of theory relevant to their everyday professional activity or put them aside – it is easy to imagine the former film and media students who now work in the industry willfully playing with the very sort of knowledge they got in college and that they know makes members of the creative class swoon with delight. The appearance of the Foucault book could as likely be homage or in-joke.

Certainly, the evidence suggests that no one connected with The West Wing had read Foucault's volume in such a way that had consequence for the specific political points the show's narrative world set out to make. The quotation marks in the title of “Society Must Be Defended” are ironic: Foucault intends precisely to unveil how the discourse of the state as defender of society is duplicitous, an apology for brute applications of power, control, and discipline. Briefly, Foucault chronicles a history in which social life is not benign cooperation but a form of conflict, even permanent war. In the modern period, the impulse toward bellicosity turns inward to transmute into a form of internal crowd control as the nation state finds it necessary to police its citizens through an enterprise that Foucault terms “bio-power” (and which is much more about power over population than over individuals – these being the province more of “discipline” than of the wider-reaching “bio-power”). Deriving from Foucault's reading of, among others, the Black Panthers, but anticipating today's research on interconnections of race and incarceration (for instance, Ruthie Gilmore's much anticipated Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California), the lectures in “Society Must Be Defended” move inexorably toward rendering the modern state as de facto a “State of Racism.” The modern state wages war against its own by engaging in discourses and practices of purification and elimination.

None of this, of course, appears in the liberal space of The West Wing's fictional world. Bellicosity is directed outward – to terrorists, rogue states, failed empires. America is in no consequential way at war with itself. At most, there is some conflict in politics but that is something that charismatic leadership, negotiation, compromise, and recognition of the higher, shared good will generally put to rest. At worst, the internal conflicts of America come not from the state but from deviant figures (wacko Christian rightists, disgruntled workers who run rampage, homespun racist militia men, and so on), and the state itself is seen as above domination, discipline, power, and control. On the one hand, The West Wing holds out a dream of peaceful cooperation (Santos asks his Republican opponent in the presidential elections to be his Secretary of State: it's nice to be benign domestically when the right can enact your hawkishness internationally). On the other hand, the show assumes that beneath politics lies an atomistic realm of personal lives that are not really about politics, not really touched by the state. (Thus, the finale ends with each West Wing staffer going off to their private lives as if the political is something you simply close the door on; the personal is not the political.)

But the end of the Barlet regime is also the end of the television show that dramatized its reign, and here perhaps “Society Must Be Defended” has few insights to impart. That is, Foucault's book doesn't really say much about the specific ways media and culture operate and how their textual operations might aid or not in securing the needs of the modern state. (Indeed, in the few instances in which Foucault's book looks at cultural representations, his approach tends to get fairly reflectionist: Shakespeare's tragedies are “about” the rapaciousness of royal power; Gothic novels are “about” the rapaciousness of an aristocracy that is declining in power at the end of the 18th century.) Ever since Discipline and Punish, which appeared a month before the start of the lectures that became “Society Must Be Defended,”
it's been tempting to imagine that Foucault can be enlisted in the analysis of visual culture and media. But one fundamental problem is that Discipline and Punish is about citizens being looked at while television is about them looking: how to get from one to the other? No doubt, the connection could be made, no doubt the mediation of media and discipline could be forged, but it remains an unfinished critical project. In this respect, savvy television and savvy theory can continue to revolve around each other, each imparting its own useful lessons about the complicated world we live in.

Image Credits:

1. The Simpsons

2. West Wing book

Please feel free to comment.

Food for Thought

Carm_Tony Dinner

Tony and Carmela Soprano eat dinner

The opening episode for Season 6 of The Sopranos had Tony and Carmela obsessed by sushi. They devoured it greedily, spoke of little else but it, and, when Tony snuck out to surreptitiously ingest more of it, it almost aroused more jealousy in Carmela than had Tony’s various mistresses. Given the big narrative questions — such as Tony’s very fate — that the expectant fan addresses to the new season and the soon-to-follow finale (which will air next January: Seasons 6 and 7 were shot together), the concern with what the narrative’s characters are eating as they go toward their destiny might not perhaps seem that important. Indeed, by the end of the first episode of Season 6, Tony was close to dead after being shot by his uncle and soon, in his hospital bed, would go off in his imagination into the alternate universe of an Orange County, California conference hotel where the only sustenance seemed to be the endless freebie drinks offered him by a bartender sympathetic to his dilemma. Sushi dropped away and has not been mentioned since.

The extent to which the sushi motif disappeared so quickly (but who knows if it will figure in the narrative later on? After all, many fans keep wondering if the wounded but resilient Russian from a celebrated episode in Season 3 might not just come back) could seem a confirmation of its relative triviality, one more jokey element thrown up for quick delectation along the show’s breathless move toward its finale. But, conversely, the very fact that it came up so pointedly in the first episode only to then drop out might also indicate its importance: maybe the sushi motif had its job to perform for the season opener, did it, and then could retire from the scene. Perhaps there was something significant in the show’s juxtaposition of Tony and Carmela’s newfound passion for sushi (a raw food alluded to in Season 1 by Tony for its negative associations with potentially pungent impropriety when he wanted to assail his Uncle Junior’s masculinity by referencing his famed skills at cunnilingus) with rich Italian food, so beloved in earlier seasons but now itself given less than positive connotations. Indeed, in this first episode of Season 6, the newfound affirmation of sushi ran alongside skepticism about Italian cuisine: Artie Bucco’s restaurant was now said to lack in excitement and innovation (with ennui, the mobsters declared they could recite the menu by heart), and the only figure who lusted after saucy Italian fare was the less-than-respected representative of law-and-order, Agent Harris, who had come back from the Middle East with a parasite and was obsessed with thick hoagies from Satriale’s Pork Store restaurant.

I watched this opening episode at a friend’s house in Los Angeles, one of the capitals of a rarified cuisine for which sushi has been a key player: for the professional-managerial class, L.A. is so much the site for the meal as aesthetic tableau marked by separation of delicate items and often laced by light traces of sauces that interweave on the plate like so many dainty brush-strokes. But this night, in honor of the show and in keeping with long-running ritual, we were going for classic, rich Italian food: pasta with bolognese sauce, rounds of buffalo mozzarella, thick slices of salume and prosciuto, and so on. Like many other faithful viewers, I suppose, my friends and I celebrate each new season by the self-consciously corny and jokey consumption of precisely the sort of food that we associate with the Sopranos world, and in this we can find inspiration in such commodity tie-ins as the best-seller, The Sopranos Family Cookbook.

As the success of food-as-lifestyle culture in the form of cooking shows, manly-metrosexuals-in-kitchens, celebrification of chefs as veritable public intellectuals, etc., suggests, the obsession with food is a key symptom of urban professionals’ cultivation of everyday life precisely as lifestyle. Food is something the social stratum holds dear. Gastronomy, first, is turned into a source of challenge: Richard Florida argues in his best-selling The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), a pop-sociological outline of urban professional practice, that after long, and potentially alienating, hours in the service of the information economy (for example, all that time spent in front of the computer screen parsing data), the urban professional requires visceral, extreme experience (Florida’s example, is the yuppie fad of bungee-jumping). Florida’s creative worker dwells in a vibrant city culture in which he/she needs endless visual stimuli and strong experiences, variety of social interaction, malleable boundaries between work and play, and always wants to be abreast of the new, next thing, and here food that is bold, daring, and experimental (in spice, “exotic” origin, mixture of cuisines and tastes, and so on) might fit the bill. Food, in other words, as a source of vibrant thrill.

Conversely, the urban professional also needs moments of respite in which the franticness of life in the fast lane is traded for calm; this is the province of “comfort food” which has made its upscale come-back (especially after 9/11) and accounts perhaps for much of the appeal of Italian cuisine on The Sopranos and in its cookbook. Additionally, like HBO’s claim that it is something more than television, the urban professionals’ studied practices with food (from home preparation of it to cultivation of its refined consumption in increasingly engineered and designed restaurants) can promise distinction, whether of quality of food or of sheer price of admission. (But a recent investigative report on restaurant sushi in the Wall Street Journal [March 25-26, 2006] unveils an irony in this quest for difference and status elevation: it turns out that in many cities the same wholesaler supplies the very same grade of sushi to all levels of restaurant from downscale buffet to palace of ostensible refinement. There is in many cases no distinction of quality, just of price.)

In this respect, then, the Sopranos Season 6 opener’s emphasis on sushi may be one of the show’s biggest jokes of its own. As the urban and suburban professionals who form HBO’s privileged audience base give up their typical take-out or delivery food for the downscale richness of heavy Mediterranean cuisine they cook and consume in the show’s ironic honor, the show itself has its characters turning their backs on that fare and opting for precisely what the typical viewers have given up for the night. The Sopranos has received prestigious awards and accolades for its innovativeness, and here the seemingly throwaway joke reiterates just how the show’s inventiveness is one that directly incorporates awareness of the audience into its very structure. HBO sets out to win over the “quality” demographic, but it clearly also is toying with — and even mocking — the values of the members of that demographic.

For all the seriousness of theme that some critics and TV scholars — most of whom speak from and for the quality-demographic — have attributed to the show, The Sopranos works fundamentally perhaps as a defiant challenge or game that is played out between the industry of creative workers who construct the series and the audience of creative workers who consume it. The joke on Japanese/Italian cuisines then is only the most recent manifestation of a duel/duet between a channel looking for distinction and spectators looking for distinction that in previous seasons manifested itself in the representation of upscale urban professionals as sanctimonious, hypocritical, patronizing, naive, voyeuristic, and so on and so on: the show seemed to be testing how far it could go in assailing the very demographic that makes up its preferred fan base. That the urban professional spectator can relish such challenges to its own sense of being implies that the audience for The Sopranos is willing to follow the show in its every twist and turn, even at its most critical or most subversive of upscale lifestyle and the very values of personal pleasure that the stratum of the urban professional holds dear.

The Sopranos Dinner Table

The Soprano’s Dinner Table

That this audience is indeed so tolerant of the jokes and surprises being played out on it cautions us to not assume that a playful challenge by a cultural product (in this case, the inventive Sopranos) to lifestyle values is the same as overthrow of those values (the reader might remember 1970s film theory’s obsession with the subversive text and how far that got us with a capitalism so resilient that it could make subversion marketable). Richard Florida’s description of the creative class is useful as a description of the lifestyle and the emotional needs but worrisome in its valorization of a creativity defined in the abstract and disconnected from political import. There is little sense in Florida’s study of the specific purposes to which creativity could be applied, and of the contexts in which it is applied, so that, in the end, all creative workers in all sectors end up resembling each other. It is sobering to realize that everything he says could apply equally to a military researcher developing new scenarios for war as to a worker in the creative media industries. For both sorts of “creative” workers, it’s all potentially just a game in which nothing matters, not even one’s own commitments (which means there are no commitments to be assailed and subverted).

Whatever else it provides, television perhaps offers training in game-playing: learning, for instance, how to shift allegiances, how to accept momentary defeats, how to care about little but the thrill of unfolding play. Gaming has become a keyword central to our moment, and it is that very centrality that I hope to address in my next column for Flow.

Image Credits:

1. Tony and Carmela

2. Soprano Dinner Table

Please feel free to comment.

Television’s Aesthetic of Dead-Ness

by: Dana Polan / New York University

Fonz Jumps the Shark

Fonz Jumps the Shark

One of the ironies of the notion of “Jumping the Shark” is that it invokes imminent demise through an example that celebrates life. More specifically, the concept, as is well known, refers both to a scene from Happy Days in which the Fonz water-skies up and over dangerous sharks — an act of personal survival (however comically treated) — and to its consequences for the non-survival of the show itself. By winning out over death, the Fonz’s act seals the show’s own fatal spiral toward cancellation.

In fact, many television cases of “Jumping the Shark” appear to involve affirmations of life’s seemingly positive moments only to then lead inevitably into negation of the shows’ very being: you know that Darren and Samantha’s television presence will stop once they have Tabatha or that Maxwell Smart and 99 or Mork and Mindy will soon cease to exist if they decide to marry. The seemingly affirmative step forward seals eventual disappearance. Marry and/or have kids and you risk being cancelled. Only perhaps in the nostalgic netherworld of the rerun channels like TV Land or Nick at Nite or Trio (itself in danger of demise or, at the very least, of being re-purposed away from nostalgic reruns) do the characters gain an after-life, and in that case there can be something ghostly about seeing these figures from an increasingly distant past. (Likewise, the reunion show might seem a re-affirmation of the original world of a series — let’s bring these people back together and give them a new life — but it often has its own ghostliness in its revelation of the ravages of time: for example, the reunion for The Dick Van Dyke Show was filled with wistful flashbacks to characters whose actors had died, and much of the presentness of the show simply reminded one how much the surviving actors had aged.)

The way in which a TV couple’s consummation of love (for example, the case of Max and 99) signs a show’s death warrant is a bit different perhaps from the effect of such consummation in the narrative structure of classical Hollywood romance. The kiss, for instance, that ends the screwball film comedy and seals the destiny of two lovers who have been bickering all through the story is supposed to put all problems to rest and create an eternal present of love: it is true that the film ends, but we are supposed to imagine that the couple’s love will last forever beyond the credits. The film can come to closure because timeless romance has been achieved. In television, in contrast, the fading away of the narrative is often more downbeat or downright abrupt. (For insightful analysis of endings in television, see Jane Feuer’s critical reflection, “Discovering the Art of Television’s Endings” in Flow.)

Indeed, until The Fugitive in 1967 infamously tied up its narrative and enabled Richard Kimble to catch the one-armed man who had killed his wife, it was rare for television shows to even offer any satisfaction through closure. The cancelled shows would simply die, disappearing from one week to the next with their narratives unresolved. Television is often an art of frustration and fatality. (The Fox show Action, about the venality of Hollywood, played with the conventions in order to get back at the network for canceling it. In the last episode — in a season foreshortened by Fox’s abrupt decision to eliminate the series — the lead character dies unexpectedly of a heart attack and the announced time of death is a reference to the moment the producers learned of their project’s cancellation.)

I intend the title of this column to speak of the converse of that aesthetic of liveness that has so centrally been seen as part of the defining quality of the television experience. Just as the idea that television presents liveness is metaphoric, so too the dead-ness I am invoking is not necessarily literal demise (although television is in fact one of the primary sites/sights for the witnessing of fatality, from events around the Kennedy assassination to the Challenger disaster to 9/11 to daily images of warfare). Television finds the converse of live-ness when it takes things we have come deeply to care about away from us and thereby makes us participate in the tragedy of our own fidelities to our popular culture. Yes, television is about presence and plenitude (or about the mythified, constructed appearance of them), but it is also run through with a waning of story, ruptures of continuity, disappearance, a fading away of the images that flit seductively but evanescently before us.

Indeed, as Jeff Sconce notes in Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, his study of the entwinement of modern image technologies with the spectral and the supernatural, the otherworldly and uncanny quality of television was even reiterated in the cathode-ray period by the way in which the television screen would slowly go empty when turned off, the light gradually diminishing as it hovered between presence and fated absence. (HBO’s lead-in to its shows parodies this by mimicking a television screen turning on to cathode-era static but then enclosing that static within the letters that form the company name as if to say that the older cultural form is now being transcended by new media — “It’s not television, it’s HBO.”)

Certainly, television is about flow, an energetic continuity, a vitality, that goes beyond any one show to create a veritable life-force. HBO, for instance, runs promotional spots that use special effects to merge characters from one show with another as if to say that it’s all part of one big television universe where every experience bleeds into every other and where the spectator is engulfed within a limitless and unending plethora of pleasurable possibility. (However, that great cultural barometer, Mad Magazine, actually beat HBO to the punch, having its Sex and the City parody end with the women deciding there are no good men in Manhattan and going across the Hudson River to hook up with Tony Soprano and his gang. Mad has always mined the knowledge that we live immersed in a seamless popular culture.)

TV Skull

TV Skull

I would contend that discontinuity, interruption, frustration, and a reneging on narrative contract are often as much as plenitude the experience we have of our popular culture. (And, as Allison McCracken suggests in her Flow piece, “Lost”, we need in any case to be suspicious of the sort of plenitude and affirmative fulfillment that today’s culture can offer. Thus, McCracken nicely argues that television’s ongoing recognition of loss and disappearance has been given a veritably reactionary answer in shows that imply Godly redemption and restoration of presence through religiously resonant mythology.)

A medium such as television becomes caught in fraught tension between fulfillment and disappointment. For instance, the example of The Fugitive aside, so much of the viewing experience of classic television was in fact about its frustrating failure to adhere to the goals set out in its narrative premise: the amnesiac Man Called Shenandoah or the guy muttering “Coronet Blue” would never get to recover their memory, a soldier who was Branded and “marked with a coward’s shame” would never get to clear his name, David Vincent would not bring the Invaders to defeat, and so on. The stories that have come and gone on television speak of a vulnerability and dis-continuity, of promises made and broken that are central to the experience of culture.

“Not Italy is offered, but proof that it exists,” wrote Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in “The Culture Industry,” in the context of a discussion of the ways lotteries grip popular consciousness through their simultaneous offer of reward and tough reminder that only a lucky few will in fact win the announced prize. Culture promises, but it also falls short of satisfactory delivery. The planned obsolescence that is so central to the ongoing marketing of goods, including cultural goods, means that capitalism is always promoting something new but also always reiterating that it will always brutally take the old things away.

In this respect, I see my argument as complementary to an essay that came out just as I was beginning to formulate these reflections for Flow: an analysis of the global marketing of the French-Canadian television show Highlander by Shawn Shimpach in the current issue of Cultural Studies (full disclosure: I was an outside member of Shawn’s dissertation committee and am a big supporter of his work). Shimpach begins his essay with a declaration that might seem at first glance the converse of my assertions about the fatality and broken promises of popular culture: “On television,” he says, “immortality seems the rule rather than the exception.” In Shimpach’s analysis, the very subject of Highlander — a man gifted with immortality who travels throughout the globe and across the centuries — is an apt and seductive rendition of an unfettered cosmopolitanism that seeks home and sanctuary everywhere in the world, and it serves thereby as an allegory for ever-expansive flows of capital that themselves seem endlessly renewable and “immortal.”

But capitalism’s liveliness comes often at the expense of ordinary citizen’s livelihood. In the 1950s, anxieties about ways in which the new worlds of suburbia and 9-to-5 white collar labor were turning the worker into an other-directed “organization man” were given metaphoric form in such films as The Incredible Shrinking Man. Today, however, the metaphor turns literal and is lived in one’s very being as the threat of “downsizing” or, in that striking British term, of being made “redundant.” Culture dramatizes this, as much as it promises escapism from it.

Film, television, and media studies may have been doubly hampered by the seductive dominance of French Marxist Louis Althusser’s model of ideology in which the ideological operates to secure reproduction of the means of production by making the worker want to continue to invest in the productive system. On the one hand, although Althusser actually provided little description of the actual mechanics of ideology’s operations, it was easy for fields that dealt with culture’s representations to imagine that ideology was a matter of theme and message — that films or television shows operated ideologically by transmitting affirmative messages about current social configurations. Ideology, in other words, as a sort of civics lesson.

On the other hand, the very emphasis on ideology as the reproduction of production through the securing of a labor force might miss the extent to which, in the flexibilized, casualized mode of production that is late capitalism, it is as important that production not always be reproduced — that, for instance, not every company or subsidiary survive, that workers be vulnerable to downsizing. Television’s ideological functions here might be multiple: the work of ideology might not be to offer civic lessons of rewards for good behavior so much as to remind citizens that the world is too cut-throat for such rewards to be democratically available (hence, the reality shows that make people fight among themselves to serve as survivors or apprentices of the system); it might set up the world not as endless promise or reward but endless cancellation (“you are the weakest link, goodbye”).

And I don’t mean to suggest that television is alone in this. Mass culture in general is necessarily not just a pedagogy about good things, but also the bad. Television is far from the only site in which we are made to play out our own vulnerability to the vagaries of the market and the strictures of work under late capitalism. Thus, in my experience, a theme park like Disneyland can be the offer of fun and sensational thrills but it is also a training in how to live with disappointment — agreeing to wait over long periods of time for meager reward; being disciplined into patterns of line-up obedience and sheepishness; learning that time-management is a frantic business in which immediate gratification may have to be deferred until later in the day; accepting the frequent frustration of not getting, or getting to, everything you were promised; and so on.

In a recent issue of Flow, Derek Kompare spoke of the need for television studies to find passion in its engagement, and it might seem that my estimation of the negativity in popular culture is a form of downbeat bleakness. But critique can itself be passionate. As Antonio Gramsci asserted, “Pessimism of the intellect” (awareness, that is, of the quite historically determined failures of our social world) is always to be balanced by “Optimism of the will” (invocation of a future beyond the promises that are reneged upon). In several of his essays on popular music, Adorno — so often thought of as an embittered sad sack who found popular culture a total closing off of spaces of resistance — suggested that cultural fads, the cynical replacing of one trend by another for purposes of renewing the market, might breed a comparable cynicism among consumers, a bitter awareness that the culture industry is exploiting their desires. Viewed pessimistically, such cynicism at the point of consumption might be another twist in the culture industry’s control of its audience — we seem often to be living in an age where systems of power can freely admit their contempt for ordinary citizens and democratic process and yet still gain the adhesion of those very citizens – but it can also optimistically suggest resistance and rejection of top-down models of cultural flow. But we then need to be clear about what culture gives us but also what it endlessly seems to take away, and about what we can consequently do regarding all the broken promises around us, ones that come to us from culture but also from broader configurations of social power.

Jumping the Shark: Chronicling the Moments When TV Show Go Downhill
Homepage of the Hunted: Unofficial Website of the Fugitive

Image Credits:
1. Fonz Jumps the Shark
2. TV Skull

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I Got Plenty of Nothing (and Nothing’s Plenty for Me): Television’s Politics of Abundance

by: Dana Polan / New York University

Michael Jackson Trial

E!’s Michael Jackson Trial

Just after the political upheavals of 1968, director Nicholas Ray began work on a film about the prosecution of the Chicago 8 accused of criminal behavior during the Democratic National Convention. Ultimately deemed unworkable and shelved, Ray’s project would have combined documentary footage of street protest with dramatic reenactments of the daily transcripts of the trial, still going on at that time, in which actors would intone lines within an ersatz courtroom set. No doubt many factors contributed to the undertaking’s demise. For example, Ray’s offbeat desire to cast either James Cagney or Dustin Hoffman or Groucho Marx as the irascible Judge Julius Hoffman seemed to the backers a symptom of a production that was out of control. But the financiers’ utmost worry was that the demands of reality would exceed the frames of filmic fiction: on the one hand, how to contain an ongoing trial (with thousands of pages of transcript) within feature-film limits; on the other hand, how to structure the unfolding of reality within a meaningful ending when no one yet knew what the verdict would be?

As I write, almost forty years later, an even more celebrified version of Ray’s project is being realized on a daily basis. Every evening until the verdict is announced, the E! channel is offering half-hour reenactments of the Michael Jackson trial which take Hollywood self-reflexivity to a new level of claustrophobic navel-gazing. Even as the trial itself deals with hanger-on parasites and Hollywood has-beens who tried to get close to celebrity in the hopes that a few crumbs of beneficence might tumble down to them, so too does the reenactment involve unknown wannabes (for example, a Michael Jackson impersonator who has little to do here except sit and look blank since Jackson isn’t testifying at his own trial).

Most people I’ve talked to about the E! show have greeted the fact of its existence with two seemingly opposite yet ultimately connected reactions: surprise, whether appalled or bemused, at the very conceit and then recognition that it was all too predictable, something one easily should have expected television to do.

Increasingly, U. S. television reveals itself to have a voracious appetite for material, and there seems to be no limits to its ability to generate new subject matter. There is no visuality or topic so eccentric that television can’t go after them. The game of “they can’t do that on television” seems to have been trumped by the current configurations of the medium which enables it to convey an endless capacity for weirdness. Television engages in a boundary-free experimentation so unbelievable it overthrows the (in)famous boundaries of avant-garde and kitsch, and makes it difficult to know just which of these we’re witnessing. Try to imagine something so bizarre you can’t believe TV would do it, and you generally discover that some channel has announced it as an upcoming program or, more likely, the channel has done it already and you simply missed it.

No doubt, there are limits to what TV can do and limits to what it can cover. I’ll return to the latter (a limit in subject matter) in a little bit. But for the moment, I want to examine a formal limit in what television can do: paradoxically, the sheer ability of television seemingly to absorb everything into its panoply of channels means that any particular television experience reaches only an ever tighter market niche. Television can do everything but often only for increasingly select groups, and that means it doesn’t do as much as it could: its reach is not so grand. In my conversations about the Michael Jackson reenactment, I was struck by how many people understood the conceit (whatever their ultimate reaction to it and judgment of it) and by how few had actually watched it.

Certainly, there are programs that do really well in the ratings but there is ever increasingly a large population that doesn’t tune in to even a hit show. As Gary Giddins notes in the first volume of his Bing Crosby biography (Bing Crosby, A Pocketful of Dreams: The Early Years, 1903-1940), Der Bingle had 50 million people tuning in regularly to his Kraft Music Hour radio program in the 1930s and 1940s, while at its height ABC’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire? registered 36 million viewers, a number the network considered to be phenomenal.

In the abundance of post- or neo-network television, there can be no single and singular national experience of television, no possibility for the medium to serve as what the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci termed the “national-popular” — a folk culture that would speak to citizens in common and shared fashion.

This has political implications. One might take the proliferation to be a good thing — the fragmentation of ideological consensus and the proliferation of new positions. Hence, John Sinclair, writing at the beginning of the British Film Institute’s recent volume on Contemporary World Television, contends that the breakup of a public service ideology (encapsulated, say, by the old BBC) can mean the potential replacement of top-down paternalistic models of television-as-enlightenment by “a range of formats with a range of social actors that would once have been excluded” and that “offer an opportunity for previously silenced voices to be heard.”

But proliferation might also mean that such voices simply disappear into their niche and resonate only lightly beyond their increasingly fragmented target audience. This might be the function of ideology today: not so much to offer a collective imaginary that everyone can be sutured into so much as to provide no sharing of positions and thereby push potential social actors back toward private passions that serve as little more than hobbies. Television might offer an excess of choices precisely to the end that, caught in the private traps of our private channels, we fail to make connections beyond our immediate desires and gratifications.

Significantly, when Raymond Williams elaborated the notion of flow as central to the television experience, he insisted that the seemingly random running of one show into the next and the bleeding of commercial into show might themselves create political connections, especially for astute viewers. One example from his own viewing of U. S. television during his visit to the Bay Area was the way in which a promo for a news report about the American Indian Movement militancy at Wounded Knee was inserted into a broadcast of the movie musical Annie Get Your Gun with its own pointed representation of Indians (as one of its Irving Berlin songs has it, “I’m an Indian, too — a Sioux, a Sioux”). For Williams, viewers knowledgeable of social history might be able to compare and contrast the stereotypes in the movie to the Native American activism and see social meanings that television’s inexorable flow facilitated even as it refused to acknowledge them.

Today, perhaps, the meaningful links and interconnections become all the less easy to establish. Television is not so much flow and the spark of revealing, if unplanned, juxtaposition as it is sheer multiplicity of random events (and their random viewing) with the consequence that knowledgeable politics and political knowledge fragment and become evanescent. And here despite television’s seeming voraciousness, we do find something it has a hard time dealing with: the establishment — let alone, proliferation — of careful, critical analyses of the complexities of the world we live in. Not merely was there no materialist-analysis channel the last time I looked (and my cable company offers me more than 200 channels to choose from) but, as I write these lines, the right-wing is once again reacting to the relatively benign liberalism of PBS as a communistic scourge that must be eradicated. Television has little tolerance for politics on the left, even of the most meager sort.

Now, I accept the argument of those analysts of television who remind us that the very definition of politics has necessarily and salutarily expanded to include such everyday arenas of consequential meaning as gender and sexuality, lifestyle, and desire and that this may be a realm in which television’s rhythms and representations are particularly adept and often admirable explorers. But this expansion has come perhaps at a cost. To take just one example, as Toby Miller noted in a previous column in Flow, there has been an extremely consequential decline in the numbers of foreign correspondents in the major television news bureaus. This can only impact on that side of the news that should be dealing with geo-politics, rather than (to use recent developments) fawning over Laura Bush’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner jokes about George and thereby humanizing the President in ways that are consequential for his ability to proceed relatively unchecked in his party’s own geo-political activities on a global scale.

In suggesting that one limit for television has to do with critical analysis, I am not assuming any particular form that such analysis might take; I am not assuming, for instance that critical examination of our world by television would necessarily have to take place as talking heads, as news report, as non-fiction, and so on. But as somewhat of a traditionalist perhaps, I have enough investment in the critical power of book reading, in the forms of knowledge it can engender and in the recognition, as one (in)famously long book put it, that “there is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits” (Karl Marx, Preface to the French edition of Capital), to wonder if television’s voracious openness to seemingly everything can include an openness to the book and the careful knowledge it represents in the best cases.

So I decided to conduct a little experiment, one for which I claim little scientific rigor. I decided to search for the presence of books on television: I began at Channel 2 and moved all the way up through the cable line-up looking for any image of a book, anywhere. Obviously, the experiment has no experimental validity and the very fact that the combination of TIVO-plus-cable slows channel changing down skews accuracy by interfering with simultaneity. But to the extent that television, both in its individual programs and in its experiential totality, constructs ostensibly generous images of the world, it did seem to me interesting to see if randomly that seeming cornucopia could find a place in it for the book. And I decided to be generous in my own experiment: I would accept the appearance of not just the serious book but any sort of tome. The result: across the 200 channels of my cable system, I found two images of books. Strikingly, while many channels had programs that dealt both fictionally and non-fictionally with domestic scenes, these seemed to take place in homes notably devoid of book ownership. In other cases, there certainly was lots of verbiage and even a lot of that overlay of words onto images that John Caldwell has seen as central to the experience of contemporary televisuality. But there was little indication that discussion and debate, when those did occur, might have any relations to books as specific sites of knowledge.

The two images of books, by the way, were: an unopened Bible in the hands of a minister on a Nick-at-Nite rerun of All in the Family and the promotion on a shopping channel for a book called Natural Remedies, and Why the Government Doesn’t Want You to Know About Them.

Courts don’t generally allow jurors to bring reading material to court, despite the frequent boredom of the judicial proceedings, and perhaps that’s why I saw no books in the Michael Jackson reenactment on the E! channel. There, perhaps, life does imitate art. But maybe it’s worth asking why a key form of knowledge — one many of us would assume is essential to getting a grasp on our world — doesn’t seem to have a role to play anywhere else in the ostensibly abundant world of television today.

Image Credits:
1. E!’s Michael Jackson Trial

E!’s Michael Jackson Trial

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