TV, Computers, & the Gnostic Grail

October 1996By Will Hoyt

Will Hoyt, who has been well known to our readers as "the Berkeley carpenter," has moved with his wife and four children to Steubenville, Ohio.

Nobody really contests, deep down, that TV probably isn't very good for us. How can wiring our eyes to a glowing box for an entire evening instead of attending to our neighbor be okay? People say TV isn't centralized anymore, that ever since cable arrived information has tended to split along all kinds of demographic lines, and that therefore TV in the 1990s doesn't so much homogenize as reinforce individuality. But the people who talk this way must be people who never turn their sets off, because if ever they did surely they would see that power in TV land is centralized like never before and that as this power grows it leaves just one cultural habit in its wake, not many. What does it matter how many channels there are? The important point is that most people spend their time watching video. Here we all sit -- for six hours a day, some of us -- staring at light! It's phosphorescent, this light. Some of it is green and some of it is red. It gets fired at us from a cathode gun, and, indeed, when the light enters our eyes whatever it is that makes us us and nobody else is slowly killed. The light stuns us, makes it so that we lose power to turn away, and before we know it we're mainlining pre-manufactured, mass-produced images that crowd out and eventually replace homemade ones. TV, as Jerry Mander has pointed out, is like a utility now. The images just pour on in as if from a tap. But unlike electricity or fluoridated water, which at least help us to cook and clean, TV just stones us. Never mind whether the shows you watch are "educational" or not. Spend too long watching TV and you stand a good chance of becoming a shade who can only receive light, not emit it. And to think some people regularly park kids in front of TV screens! Children, the very beings who, naturally, are the ones who make homes places of light!

True though all of this may be, the reigning arguments for the elimination of TV are strikingly inadequate and perhaps even counterproductive. The usual so-called Luddite line of reasoning is that TV is dangerous because it is a pale substitute for direct unmediated experience. The argument goes something like this: By spending our time watching images of things, we lose touch with things themselves, which means we grow less and less able to discern the difference between a forest on TV and a living forest, which means we wind up living out our lives in a state of abstraction from "reality." The issue, in other words, is framed in terms of bandwidth. Owing to a "poor signal-to-noise ratio," TV conveys only a little of the real world; therefore, it is dangerous to favor it as a cognitive mode over direct experience. And it is plausible, this reasoning. Very serviceable. The problem is that it isn't true. The guiding assumption behind the bandwidth argument is that if people had their wits about them they would opt to see things directly instead of through TV, if only they could -- that the only reasons to accept TV are because it is not physically possible to be in a desired locale in person, or because you happen to be taking advantage of the way TV encourages voyeuristic license and you couldn't endure the embarrassment or the moral obligation attached to being in the actual locale in person. But if this is the case, why then do people prefer a TV image of a hawk to a vision of the hawk itself? Why is it boring to watch your neighbors call their cat but suddenly interesting to see that event unfold on video? The truth of the matter is that TV images aren't perceived as less real, but as more real, and it's time critics of the medium stopped assuming otherwise. Something changes, when an event gets filmed. We become able to see as Dorothy sees when she looks at Auntie Em in the witch's crystal ball. Things look whole, they have a lastingness about them, inevitability is in the air. No wonder, then, that most of us favor the technology. The ubiquitous video image of a moisture-beaded can of soda, the unique ontological status of celebrities -- these phenomena testify to a strange but most definite power to confer there-ness, extra-ness, real-ness.

Where does it come from, this power? How does it occur? One possible explanation is that TV producers consistently emphasize the simple over the complex, thereby achieving a degree of definition not commonly found in ordinary life. But the reason goes deeper. TV images appear to provide access to "the real" because they mimic the spoken word. It is true that unlike words (which, as material entities, are very unlike that which they signify), TV images have a somewhat transparent aspect and carry a trace of the world they re-present. As Susan Sontag has said, video images seem almost to have been "stenciled" off "the real." Hence they don't depend so much on incarnational logic for their power as on the magic of unspoken thing-ness. Yet TV still manages to trade in the magic of authentification. Like words, video images create a remove and then re-present and in some mysterious sense make new the object to which our attention has been drawn. Indeed, they are so successful in this latter regard that they are displacing words. Reproducible images now comprise an entire medium in which people live and move and transact business, and TV is the major player. We use it to safeguard embryonic life, identify thieves, make pornography, conduct conferences with colleagues who live overseas. Even more revealingly, we videotape every last aspect of our lives for no other reason than to videotape it. Births, parties, trips, baseball games -- when the end of the world comes we will tape that too. All told, the urge to produce and consume images has become so powerful and widespread that it threatens to outweigh language as the defining characteristic of our species.

TV is in fact a kind of anti-word -- perfect resemblance to human language, opposite import. I have said that the usual complaint regarding TV is that it obstructs unmediated experience. But in fact its whole appeal lies in its spurious promise of access to the thing itself. Not the thing as reflected in the incarnational medium of human language, but the gnostic grail, what Kantian epistemologists call the thing-in-itself, the thing in the form of a disincarnated hit of sheer now-ness, and all-there-ness. With TV, in other words, the difference between sign and signified gets collapsed. Identity ceases to be relational and becomes, instead, tautological; things "mean," in TV land, to the extent that they mean themselves. How strange all this would seem to someone from almost any age but our own! Until recently, for example, the word "truth" was positively lit up, for all the English-speaking world to see, with light cast by the words "contract" and "vow." Truth connoted agreement, faithfulness. Today that sense is all but obsolete. Now truth has to do with evidence. What does this mean, "evidence"? Is it data? Evidence isn't so much data as it is the sheerly visible. In the age of TV, truth isn't so much spoken as seen and therefore anything that is visually forceful is true. Minnie Mouse, Bill Clinton, Indiana Jones, Saddam Hussein -- all have the same ontological status now. All are real because all are "there" in the way video cameras make things "there." Really, it's as though we have all decided to follow a strategy called "apocalypse now." For increasingly we have just one desire in this life and that is to see right this second electrons and flowers opening and other things we wouldn't normally see, to see "everything" -- nature discovered and in a state of exposed-ness, nature unmediated by words. Which is to say, we are trying to see as angels see. We are impatient with incarnational life and would prefer to float free of it.

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