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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  • Like a cheap date refusing to shell out for dessert, I recently gaveup television when the dollar amount on the bill became greater thanthe paucity of hours I spent watching TV. Consequently, I’ve turned to(gasp!) more reading, be it in a book, blog or on a bathroom wall. SoPolan’s bemoaning of television’s lack of book knowledge intrigues mebecause it raises so many more questions: How do we translate thecritical strategies used when reading and apply them to sort throughtelevision’s “sheer multiplicity of random events?” How do programsthat aspire to do this (if half-heartedly), like PBS’ “Reading Rainbow”or C-SPAN’s “BookTV,” fit into the equation? Most importantly, whowants to foot my cable bill so I can see if E! will at least make thisMichael Jackson impersonator moonwalk across the mock-courtroom?

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