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(Video Ergo Sum cont'd)

Then there are the portable video cameras making their appearance in increasing numbers at tourist sites. Last year, while visiting the Tetons, my wife and I found ourselves standing next to a man who had a video camera on his shoulder and was conducting a strange monologue, as if he were addressing a hidden audience -- which, of course, he was doing. He was recording his impression in sound and vision for what he imagined a television experience should be for an audience hidden in the future. To update Susan Sontag's famous observation, it was a sobering reminder of how reality today is experienced in terms of video images.11  

Can there, indeed, be any serious doubt that television has worked a revolution in cultural habits as profound as the revolution worked by print in the second half of the fifteenth century? Whether illiteracy increases or remains normative for large numbers of viewers may not be relevant, for television has radically altered the habits of mind even of the reading public. Furthermore, the sheer volume of video material being produced by the VHS market itself poses a commercial threat to consumer spending on traditional reading matter, and more than one-half of the television population are already owners of home VHS sets. Those of us who still believe in the desirability of literacy will be bewildered, to say the least, by this new culture. I have had students who describe people who don't own a television set as deviants, fit for the madhouse; and of course it's true that if you genuinely don't view on a regular basis, you are a cultural oddity, not properly in tune with the times. You are deprived, or backward, in a new kind of way, as were illiterates in print culture. In fact, you are a new type of underclass, a lettered one, "an endangered species" in Kozol's term.12  

Television, on the other hand, has at least given Americans their own national language, something the United States lost at the Revolution in the sense of a mother tongue containing the cultural and historical associations that define national consciousness. By providing a sense of common identity to the diverse groups that make up this pluralistic society, television has replaced the need for such a mother tongue. The consequences of this shift in the role of language in a television age must be profound for all mother tongues, none more so than English. The Peacock Report on the BBC used an apt phrase to describe this attribute of television, perhaps not giving it the weight that I am doing, and somewhat smugly, I think, claiming it exclusively for the BBC. The report quotes a study that states: "that British broadcasting in its existing public service mode should and did assert and reflect Britain as a community, society, and culture and that it was the principal forum by which the nation as a whole was able to talk to itself."13  

The principal forum by which the nation as a whole is able to talk to itself -- does not this sum up the mirror-like nature of television's effect on human consciousness? That most Americans want to view what everyone else is viewing confirms their sense of belonging. When, after the Challenger disaster, Mr. Reagan spoke of the nation keeping a vigil by their television sets, he was testifying more truly than perhaps he realized to the new order of consciousness possessed by Late Twentieth Century North American Persons. To view is to be. Selfhood is realized in the knowledge that we are all watching the same image at the same time.  

From this shared reality, mediated by television, the myths of a new age are born, nursery and household tales brought up to date. One such myth is the apotheosis of President Kennedy following his assassination in November 1963, which happened to be the first time that television dominated media coverage of such an event. Here is no less a figure than Theodore White, himself a master of literary exposition, testifying to television's role in creating this myth. White was in Washington at the time, a guest in Averell Harriman's house. He writes:  

I would slip out of the house to pick for fragments of the story, and then dart back in to sit and watch on television to find out what was really happening... Sitting with friends in Harriman's parlor and watching the tube was to be in touch with reality, to be part of the national grief. But to slip out, to do one's reportorial duty, to ask questions that must be asked, was a chore, for television tugged one back, irresistibly, to emotional participation.14 

There are still benighted folk, some of them, I regret to say, colleagues, who say that television is nothing more than a delivery system for modes of address belonging to the old culture. This ostrich-like attitude ignores Marshall McLuhan's central insight into the communication process, that a medium's particular technology is all the time transmitting a psychological message to us, and it is this psychological message that alters our perception of reality. I must confess that much criticism of the present state of our culture strikes me as unreal (one might even say, "academic") since it is framed in terms that belong to a culture that is already passing away. Nothing is easier, as I am the first to admit, than to accuse television of being no more than "mindless entertainment", a favorite term of abuse among the intelligentsia. Even if every television program were to satisfy the tastes of an educated minority (a ghastly thought), the forms the medium employs to broadcast such programs would be the same and the psychological effect of these forms on viewers would be no less potent in transforming consciousness. To preserve the old cultural terms of reference means abandoning television altogether, a most desirable operation, according to my dear friend Malcolm Muggeridge, which he terms "having one's aerials removed" (in the age of cable, one might substitute "one's umbilical cord"). Jerry Mander's book takes a similar view, as its title makes clear: Four Arguments For The Elimination of Television.15  

More to the point, I believe, are those who accept that television is here to stay and will remain the primary educational force in society, and who therefore call for restraint and greater social responsibility from media practitioners, an argument strongly made by John Silber, the President of Boston University, in his book, Straight Shooting. And of course it is the viewing public also that has to exercise restraint and self-discipline. Let us, however, remember that the affective quality of television lies in its technology. Its forms are educating as much as its content. It is the act of viewing that attracts viewers rather than specific programs.16 Take Sesame Street. In my opinion it is wishful thinking to suppose that Sesame Street is transmitting a message about reading books, or reading at all for that matter. But how powerful a tool Sesame Street is in teaching children to view television regularly, with great expectations, and to accept the authority of television over every other experience and authority in life, including the authority of parents and teachers!  

Index of Papers   1  2  3  4  5  6  References 


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