Still Life in Real Time: Theory After Television

Still Life in Real Time: Theory After Television

by Richard Dienst

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Television can be imagined in a number of ways: as a profuse flow of images, as a machine that produces new social relationships, as the last lingering gasp of Western metaphysical thinking, as a stuttering relay system of almost anonymous messages, as a fantastic construction of time. Richard Dienst engages each of these possibilities as he explores the challenge television has posed for contemporary theories of culture, technology, and media.
Five theoretical projects provide Still Life in Real Time with its framework: the cultural studies tradition of Raymond Williams; Marxist political economy; Heideggerian existentialism; Derridean deconstruction; and a Deleuzian anatomy of images. Drawing lessons from television programs like Twin Peaks and Crime Story, television events like the Gulf War, and television personalities like Madonna, Dienst produces a remarkable range of insights on the character of the medium and on the theories that have been affected by it.
From the earliest theorists who viewed television as a new metaphor for a global whole, a liberal technology empty of ideological or any other content, through those who saw it as a tool for consumption, making time a commodity, to those who sense television’s threat to being and its intimate relation to power, Dienst exposes the rich pattern of television’s influence on philosophy, and hence on the deepest levels of contemporary experience.
A book of theory, Still Life in Real Time will compel the attention of all those with an interest in the nature of the ever present, ever shifting medium and its role in the thinking that marks our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822398219
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 03/25/1994
Series: Post-contemporary interventions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 840,110
File size: 419 KB

About the Author

Richard Dienst is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University and a founding editor of Polygraph.

Read an Excerpt

Still Life in Real Time

Theory After Television

By Richard Dienst, Stanley Fish, Fredric Jameson

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9821-9


The Outbreak of Television

Television is for pleasure, for bringing the family together, and for killing time. Those are the three functions of commercial TV.—Silvio Berlusconi, Italian media magnate

Television, like modernity and capitalism, has not always existed. It is a dynamic thing, a concrete machine, a collection of working parts: it had to be invented, produced, reproduced, and placed here and there upon the earth in numbers we can still count. To be sure, modernity and capitalism are dynamic things, too: whatever they are and whenever they emerged, they also work upon the earth without being visible or comprehensible all at once. Although the term "television" seems specific in a way "capitalism" and "modernity" (not to mention "postmodernity") do not, it definitely belongs to the same plane of abstraction, the same scope of materiality, and hence the same theoretical hesitation. Each of these terms names an elusive and unresolved object—perhaps not an object at all, but a "problematic"—something whose processes, functions, and domains cannot be fixed in a stable discursive field. Directed at such global abstractions, our thinking is forced to follow the very motions of dispersion and unification that would define the thing itself in its full contours. In light of all the interlacing questions about saying, doing, showing, and knowing that have been raised in contemporary theory, it is no longer possible to define television in a single set of terms, to treat it as merely derivative of the current mode of production, or to let its place in the history of writing systems go unexamined. If theoretical questions can dislodge television from its cosy nest of familiarity (lined with empirical certainties and ideological disclaimers), perhaps this thing can look strange again.

To approach and apprehend "television" in general, we must engage in creative speculation, combining and recombining all kinds of images, some supplied by television, some not. For if there are fleeting images visible on television, there must also be persistent images of television, visible somewhere else, which may be harder to discern. What abstract images—what rules of composition, figural devices, representational structures, or conceptual frameworks—can be built into and out of the concrete images on television? How do we know what television can show us? To explore these questions I will begin by working through three distinct historical images of television, to see how television looks before people begin to watch it. Later, I will outline two related sets of images—the technical and the theoretical—along with the narratives of invention they bear, in order to mark out the questions that occupy the rest of this study.

Imaginary Totalities

In debates about globalization, cultural imperialism, dialectics of enlightenment, and so on, "television" assumes a power beyond that attributed to its programming, as if its mere existence ensured certain effects, both ideological and physical. All of a sudden, at some point that should be within living memory, television seemed to flood the social sphere with a new kind of power. But the question is not: when does television begin? but: when does television begin to function to the second power? When does television replace the "communication" of discrete messages with the profuse "diffusion" of images? When does television cease functioning merely as a movement between distant points and begin shaping its own "world," gathering distances into itself in order to redistribute them according to its own program? And the answer is: from the start.

The dreams of television at its birth were already global. On the basis of the most rudimentary experiments in image transmission, televisuality was immediately imagined as an all-encompassing putting-into-view of the world. In its future ideal state, television would override the irreducible gap between speaking and listening (telephone, radio) with a field of total instantaneous visibility, where relays of cameras and monitors would speed up and finally erase the distinction between seeing and being seen (that old residue of the self-conscious subject, with its inevitable emphasis on "perspective" and "framing"). The earliest partisans of television saw no reason why anyone would refuse this offer of trans-visibility, since it included the promise of mutual recognition, equal exchange, and an immediate symmetry between transmission and reception, ultimately a kind of immanent Absolute Knowledge. An admirably succinct statement of these hopes comes from Rudolph Arnheim, writing in London in 1936, where public tv broadcasts were just beginning.

Wireless, with television, is the last phase of a development that was begun by the first seafarers and nomads. Man leaves his birthplace, crosses lands, mountains and seas, and exchanges produce, inventions, works of art, customs, religions and knowledge. European doctors, missionaries, educational officials in Asia and Africa; Chinese, Japanese, Indians and negroes at European universities; the African fetish in the metropolitan drawing-room and the stiff collar round the neck of the black chief: and to-day a voice singing, teaching, preaching, conquering, going everywhere, coming from everywhere and making the whole world participators in everything ... [Wireless] and television enable any number of people to hear and see simultaneously what is happening everywhere in the world.

Arnheim celebrates broadcasting not only because it perfects the lopsided cultural exchange in which Western religion, education, and medicine are swapped for the decorative exotic "fetish" (he got that right!). More important, he listens to the radio with an eye on the prospect of television and hears a new Gestalt: a single voice that sweeps up all the others into a placeless ubiquity, a circulatory transcendence from "anywhere" into "everywhere." Although Arnheim did not clearly recognize it, television would be the best finale for his story, returning us at last to a settled state of existence unknown since the primordial nomadic disruption. Stilled by the sight of television, we are supposed to say: let images and voices travel in our place and the world will be one.

Television's first imaginary horizon is the Utopia of uninterrupted free trade, already transnational, a realization of specifically metropolitan, imperialist geopolitical ambitions. The "worlding" image of television, with its ideals of total flow and tendential completion of the network, bears the unmistakable stamp of post-World War I Anglo-American corporate optimism and liberal universalism. Like an archaic legacy, this ur-image persists through subsequent developments. Indeed, each turn in the history of television's invention generates new images of its world. There is no way to separate a technical advance from the ultimate uses and deployments imagined for it. Even the assumption that television was invented to transmit images includes a certain understanding of what an "image" is, what "transmission" does, and "who" might be involved. The creation of television's world requires a textual protocol that emphasizes reproducible verisimilitude over representational veracity, requiring an acceptance of transmission as the possibility of instantaneous exchange and co-presence between here and an elsewhere, or rather, since sites of sending and receiving can be multiplied outward, countless heres and elsewheres. It is a long step, but taken immediately, from recognizing the light on the screen as a transmitted image to accepting that the world can be assembled under a single rule and process.

Television's apparent capacity to project and bind an abstract totality was not lost on those opposed to global capitalism. Eleven years before Arnheim, the visionary Soviet director Dziga Vertov predicted that television ("radio-eye") could itself be overturned to prepare for the completion of an alternate world economy, communism.

Technology is moving swiftly ahead. A method for broadcasting images by radio has already been invented. In addition, a method for recording auditory phenomena on film tape has been discovered.

In the near future man will be able to broadcast to the entire world the visual and auditory phenomena recorded by the radio-movie camera.

We must now prepare to turn these inventions of the capitalist world to its own destruction.

We will not prepare for the broadcast of operas and dramas. We will prepare wholeheartedly to give the workers of every land the opportunity to see and hear the world in an organized form; to see, hear, and understand one another.

Vertov understands television as the combination of two distinct operations—recording and broadcasting—that together can organize a world. The "visual facts" collected by the camera pursue their truths on two levels. First, since the radio-eye presents every image as a fact drawn from the real world of production, each would represent a single product in an endlessly unfolding economic cycle. Second, the relation between any two images must testify to a necessary bond, a mutual material link, which would consist neither in the "content" of the images nor in the syntax of the presentation, but in the system itself, in the indivisible unity of a world acting as an integrated economy. This link between images must be "produced" each time by tracing a kind of ideological algorithm, which, insofar as it demonstrated the laws binding together all work and life, would itself presage the concrete realization of international communism. Relationships between images would not only figure but enact reciprocal relationships between workers. Television would be, in good Leninist fashion, "cinema plus electrification," a dialectical procedure in which an expansion in the quantity of images would generate new qualities of representational power.

Both Arnheim and Vertov visualize television as an unlimited economic Utopia. (Seen from this perspective, McLuhan did no more than repeat pretelevisual ideas long after their historical moment had passed.) But as soon as television systems began to be set up on the ground, it became clear that governments and private enterprises would not necessarily hurry to saturate the social field with television. In fact, the means of saturating the social field would vary from nation to nation, depending on the level of public and private capital available for investment in the machinery and programming. In starting a broadcast system, the first strategic decision is how best to generate and occupy a particular social space through the distribution of transmitters and receivers. Access to television can be regulated at both ends. The actual placement of receiving and transmitting devices, as well as the crucial ratio between them, will be the product of intense competition between interests, sometimes of outright class struggle. For it is by no means obvious whose interests would be served by putting receiving sets (let alone transmitters) in every home. Nor is it obvious that television becomes "total" only when it is visible everywhere. The second strategic decision, then, concerns the way in which all these machines, working together, can project a specular totalization of the social field through the textual power of images.

The most familiar techniques for such a grand task were borrowed from the existing discourses of state and cultural authority that immediately informed the creation of broadcasting institutions. In Europe, television (like radio) began as an instrument of government, so that official messages could be voiced in the distinctive timbre of a ruling culture. In each case, there was a tension between state functions and cultural production, since providing "public service" required maximum diffusion, and unifying "public demand" required a consistent aura of "distinction" and even exclusivity. Public monopolies like the BBC and ARD/ZDF, regulated and sometimes financed by the government, were charged with the dual task of promulgating information in the national interest and expanding the demand for cultural training (generally in a universalizing bourgeois mode). For as long as it holds, such a compromise prevents the formation of either an official state culture or a fully privatized, commodified one. (In the case of Italy, for example, there was an especially strong swing from one to the other.) After World War II, all of western Europe followed the route of public service and state stewardship, with its characteristically limited broadcast hours and allowances for regional and private company productions. The Soviet Union and the United States, on the other hand, bypassed prolonged periods of compromise and pursued the expansion of television according to their respective centralized and commercial network models. As other countries joined the television club, and as older members renegotiated their startup agreements, the distinctions between the models have blurred. To generalize quickly: in places where television is not simply ruled by government, broadcasting authority is becoming highly hybridized, with state and public corporations running alongside local entrepreneurs and transnational conglomerates. (For the purposes of this discussion, the word "broadcasting" includes all telecommunication of programming.) In the face of such mixtures, and with the promise of further heterogeneity, the imaginary work of television cannot be assumed to be linear, cumulative, and transparent; on the contrary, as its machinery becomes more available, its powers of visibility threaten to become more uneven, competitive and preemptive.

But the European models were not easily exportable: the successive waves of decolonization offered opportunities to rethink the status of broadcasting authority. In 1961-62, as he was preparing the second volume of the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Jean-Paul Sartre devoted some sketchy but suggestive notes to the question of how television brings about a transformative collusion among state power, elite culture, and new forms of capitalism. In examining the limited expansion of television in Gaullist France and revolutionary Cuba, he distinguishes between two lines of potential totalization, which we can call the ideological and the technological. These two totalizations do not proceed along parallel tracks toward an assured completion but rather interfere with each other every step of the way. For Sartre, the story of television must be told dialectically, through the disjunctures of scale between the concrete apparatus and the discourses it sets in motion. Initially, insofar as television's discourses continue to obey class interests and established cultural patterns, its way of addressing the populace will be irreducibly contentious, provoking by exclusion as much as by inclusion. A social contradiction therefore occurs as soon as there are a few TV receivers, since ideological unification at the level of the broadcast is immediately undone by the scarcity of access to the technology. In a "bourgeois democratic" society, the first solution will be technological: more machines will fill out the imaginary gaps in the social field.

If the tiniest number owns a TV, it appears both as positing itself for itself within the totality ... which for its part, remains deprived of TV, and at the same time—inasmuch as it precisely is the totality—as representing the condition to which the totality must accede. If no practical frontier divides the field, the solution is without real violence: the field organizes itself to be totally supplied with TV sets ... In relation to the owner, equality replaces inequality, in the sense that everyone will see TV.

But Sartre suggests that this solution brings the original enterprise into a new contradiction: a material totalization outstrips the imaginary one that justified it, and television assumes its own synthetic "voice," spoken by an impossible third party in a dialect that is no longer that of the state, the nation, or even the falsely universal bourgeois culture. "[Television's] unifying policy: ideological propaganda, but withoutsaying anything; unity is negative, and consequently serial. Saying what pleases everybody. But nothing pleases everybody. So you have to say nothing. On this basis, there is TV thought, TV behavior, etc., which belong to the practicoinert. It is simultaneously other-direction and senseless discourse" (CDRII, 440-41). The development of the apparatus cuts across individuals and groups, reconstituting them as parts of a larger ensemble. These human parts are no longer linked through older cultural practices or a common project but through the machine itself, which replaces their active mutuality with the whole system's inert, inaccessible absence. Thus television, like other machines and material systems, produces a "serial" unification which simultaneously joins and separates each participant in a grid of Otherness. In this second solution, then, the machine that might have serviced bourgeois culture now betrays its historical mission and henceforth dictates its own terms, generating cultural forces that confront human individuals, groups, and collectivities from the outside, as their destiny

The analysis of seriality—which is for Sartre the very logic of work, culture, and everyday life in capitalist societies—is carried out in ominous detail throughout the first volume of the Critique. Sartre discusses such pertinent examples as the radio broadcast (as a passive "indirect gathering"), the free market (as a "milieu" of alterity), and the Top Ten list (as a composite expression of nobody's tastes). The concept of the "serial" designates a general logic of identity and organization, where individuals and objects alike are constituted only as functions of purely external processes. Seriality erodes the collective dimension of social life, pounding down groups to the rhythm of a deadening dialectical synthesis, realigning and reabsorbing dispersed actions around the empty ordering of thinghood and Otherness.


Excerpted from Still Life in Real Time by Richard Dienst, Stanley Fish, Fredric Jameson. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Preface Acknowledgments Part I: Televisual Flows 1. The Outbreak of Television 2. Image/Machine/Image: Marx and Metaphor in Television Theory Part II: Commercial Breaks 3. History, the Eternal Rerun: On Crime Story 4. Mondino, MTV, and the Laugh of Madonna 5. "Appetite and Satisfaction, a Golden Circle": Magic and Commerce in Twin Peaks Part III: Theoretical Images 6. The Dangers of Being in a Televisual World: Heidegger and the Ontotechnological Question 7. From Post Cards to Smart Bombs (and Back Again): Derrida and the Televisual Textual System 8. Ineluctable Modalities of the Televisual Notes Bibliography Index

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