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TV Timelessness March 27, 2009

Posted by dailyegg in essay.
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Participation in representations of human reality are a very poor substitute for participation in actual human reality and it seems, now that we’ve had TV around long enough to study its effects socially and psychologically, that it produces distortions and deficits in personality that weren’t around in pre-TV generations.

The number-one deficit seems to be the slowing of the maturation process. There seems to be a link between the amount of TV a child consumes and the rate at which that child matures emotionally. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. By rewarding passivity, by structuring gratification on as a one-sided affair (all you have to do is watch), by designing programs that are interrupted regularly for the sake of another short program with an entirely different message, by bombarding the brain with fast-moving images to keep it active yet with engaging that activated brain for any other purpose than flattering it, goading it, tickling it, engaging it in dramatic narrative structures that have day-to-day or week-to-week or moment-to-moment resolutions, whose resolutions tend to be structured around dramatic cliches (sex, greed, money, power) the net result is that we condition our younger populations into sketchy conceptions about more or less everything that it important to us, civility-wise.

The television audience and the corporate worker have become counterparts in the same narrative dynamic of acclimation and expenditure, one instantiating  the other through constant re-signification and tropic images recycled from the domain of the workplace into the domain of the home place.

Today’s consumer-worker-TV-watcher exists in a kind of Möbius strip of never-ending cross-reference where his or her job is routinely performed to earn the wages to pay for the privileges of entertainment that exist outside the workplace but which are referenced by the workplace and within the workplace by other workers who are caught in the same cycle of narrative self-referencing. The dailiness and the nightliness of each frame the other in conjoining narratives, each one scratching the back of the other, turning around supportively as the clock designates whose turn to narrate will be coming next. Which overall creates and experience resembling social activity—here we are in the office talking about The Office—but without the potential corollary  psychological benefits, the social bonds, that arise from actual non-mediated social functionality (ideally in places where media domination is at a minimum). An unacknowledged self-consciousness surrounding these actions of self-presentation looms over the entire  enterprise: the viewer/worker is invited to participate in a form of synthetic socializing, and prolonged exposure to this dynamic  mimics the supports and the challenges of actual social activity without imparting any of its potentially nutritive benefits. And the extent to which TV replaces actual social activity in people’s lives is the extent to which its negative effects become afflictions.

 

 So if TV is such a corrosive and socially destructive thing, why is it so popular, why do people continue to watch, why do they claim it is so much fun and often an excellent aesthetic experience? Am I saying people are dumb? And what right do I have to make such a horrid claim?

Popularity can become self-fulfilling as more people consume what they hear is popular thereby making it all the more popular, which makes more people want to consume it because everyone else is talking about it, which makes it more popular. That answers part of the phenom; but it doesn’t explain why some things last a long time and others expire quickly. Popularity is by some reckoning, consensus. popular things are tapping into a need, some latency, and they are consumed, not abandoned, because they’re so magically pleasurable. And consensus, for social animals like humans, confers legitimacy. If the consensus is that TV is fun, then TV, dog gone it, is fun. It’s as real as, say, The Olive Garden.

Is it safe to say many of us know what it’s like to consume too much TV? That consuming too much makes one ill the way consuming only junk food makes one ill? 

The other part of the popularity equation comes simply from exposure and habits and the availability of other options. If one is only ever offered the choice between certain hamburgers, and hamburgers are all you know, all you have ever known, it it offensive when someone shows up talking about how great steaks are.

But what is more important than either of these is simply the fact that human beings love stories and TV is the fastest, easiest way available for us to consume stories. Nothing is easier than watching TV. This is what a child clings to: the  engaged fascination that creates the weird compelling tension between immersion-oblivion and self-observation that is unique to TV consumption. To a large extent we watch ourselves watching it, and  that is both spooky and sort of kinky; you can learn to adapt to the spookiness of TV’s fluency, and the more you watch the more pleasure is delivered because you develop a kind of perverse fascination with what you realize must be your own boredom. You are both fascinated and repelled, satisfied and starving, rebuffed and repeatedly drawn in. That is the nature of TVs peculiar charm and menace. You realize it is sucking your life out of you while at the same time the fangs it sinks into your flesh begin to feel like welcome presences: when they are removed, you ache. You donate another hour or two of your attention: the ache goes away. Or gets deeper.

Personally I’m convinced TV does enormous damage to the soul but I have no illusions about anyone believing me or caring what I think. It’s been around too long now for people to consider it anything other than a safe happy thing. Where else can we instantaneously enjoy the company of  the gangster, the cowboy or the cop?  Where else can you slip into the bedroom of a desperate housewife or sit and chat with someone as pleasant and wise as Oprah? In the absence of the close-knit day-to-day familial and social networks within which we used to live and work and play, TV seems like a way to pick up the slack and offer solace to those who are lonely or shut in or just plain bored with life.

Seriously. Isn’t life hard enough without having to point fingers and complain about something that is basically a harmless entertainment? So there’s commercials? You can mute those. So there’s a lot of crap. But HBO really does make some kick-ass shows: The Wire is a masterpiece. And the Sopranos, estupendo. Those were more than entertainments: they sank into the membrane. They spoke to the culture in real and cleverly provoking ways. So isn’t it just sort of tiresome and pedantic to sit back and thumb your nose at TV? And maybe all shows are trash—but we have an appetite for trash, and what is so wrong with consuming some now and again, even though some of it’s damn good?

Here’s the thing: I totally agree with all of the above. TV can be approached, if not harmlessly, then at least in a spirit of healthy fun. Plus it can have some really good shows, shows that partake in what some professor might term   “real artistic merit” or whatever.

 All those things are true. And yet at the same time I can’t help feeling that prolonged and excessive TV watching distorts a person’s views of what is real and what is not so real—not in the epistemological sense—but more along the line of values and self-images. At some point, once TVs denaturing powers are studied more formally we might find that much of the depression, anomie, anxiety and helplessness people in post-industrial societies feel is traceable back to their exposure to TV, which should be  less understood as a device for entertainment than it is a medium of indoctrination into the ethic of consumption. No only are large doses of TV toxic to a person’s understanding of the world,  it also robs that person of time they will never be able to get back. So enjoy.  Meanwhile, we will continue to be aroused and sated by the represented world TV offers, one that fosters in the watcher a kind of false consciousness arising from what amounts to a prolonged bout of solipsistic socializing. With phantom friends.

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