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Television as Technically Mediated Alienation

Part II

To summarise Part One: the TV industry is involved in a complex cultural process whereby environmental meanings are produced and consumed, and where radical environmental politics is explored superficially whilst being subverted and resisted. TV has a profound ideological role in society, but outside a dialectic approach it is difficult to verify or precisely describe its mechanics. TV messages are complex: they are neither unilateral nor arbitrary. Clearly, TV provides / reinforces social norms, and supplies the frameworks through which environmental events and Green concepts are perceived and interpreted. Opposition to the dominant ideology does appear, but its overall effect is to lend legitimacy to the process. At this stage, it is appropriate to consider the "techno-cognitive" aspects of TV. These underly and supercede any actual content of the screen.

By Mario Petrucci  


It might be argued that TV technology is inherently neutral, i.e. if TV's currently venal content were to be alternatively politicised, then TV would cease to act as an instrument of consumerism. However, there are deeper levels yet to TV than mere content. The TV medium itself acts as a technical filter which cannot fail but to "re-create" an artificial world consistent with its own internal laws and tendencies of function. This filter has nothing to do with the various levels of owner-influence, programming, or journalistic and editorial control which generate, sift and frame its texts. TV is incapable in principle of ever yielding more than a second-hand and impoverished "re-presentation" of the world.

Mander describes this in terms of the loss of aura, whereby TV images lose their meaning by being divorced from their physicality and original context. On TV, humans and landscapes lose the autonomy and contextual attributes which diffentiate them from products. In addition, TV's bias against subtlety, its restricted and dislocated sensual range, and its tendency to supplant real, unique, local environments with artificial, impoverished and general images may together conspire to actually diminish environmental concern and understanding. I refer to this general process as imagification.

Human sociality has been distorted and isolated to the point where it is now mediated to a large extent by a continuous stream of transmitted images. This process effectively replaces all "environments" (where social and ecological interactions can take place) with simulacra products. Children take their role models from TV characters; adults increasingly relate to soaps (their surrogate communities and families). Meanwhile, any imaginative viewer feedback is quenched by trivial detail and the inexorable flow of images and narratives. An apparent system of communication is thus, in reality, primarily one of distribution and addiction. This passifying use of images socialises the public to accept authority, autocracy and hierarchy. And the collapse of real multi-sensual habitats into the virtual TV screen alienates viewers from nature, even during the nature documentary! Programmes on coral reefs and rainforests become too easily a substitute for gathering mushrooms and seaweed.


However, TV images do have in them an inherent element of contradictoriness and instability, and therefore may hold some hope for viewer disillusionment and perhaps even a rejection by the viewer of image-making. If there is a strong external and social impetus to generate alternative perspectives (as was the case in China, perhaps) this might yield some fruit; but in its absence, and in an individualist society, most viewers will gravitate towards isolated narcissism and consumerist conformity, where the division between real society and its TV representations grows ever more indistinct. The way in which TV politics has become a form of entertainment, points to a society in which simulation and distraction have entered all aspects of life.

The Fourth Scopic Epoch: the "Show"

TV is, historically speaking, a major and cognitively radical source of society's images: these images are of a type no longer mediated by humans, nor requiring imagination with which to reconstruct personal realities, as is the case with paintings and drawings. The usual perception that "the camera does not lie" not only makes the camera-person's biases invisible, but also turns the world from a first-hand participative experience into a third-hand artefact governed by optical devices.

Illich takes this analysis deeper, claiming that civilisation has now entered the "Fourth Scopic Epoch" (Table 1). In this, the Renaissance image "formed within the gaze" has been globally superceded by the intrusive commodity of the show. The show is a display (for example, a VDU screen) whose visual outputs do not come from reality or its direct images1, but through the manipulation of data received by an instrument. An instance of this might be a digitised "view" of Earth, or Jupiter, taken from a satellite. This process removes the very act of looking into a realm of technically-mediated alienation: the onlooker has no perspective they can genuinely relate to. They have never been at infinity, or in orbit around the planet; but they might conceivably be able to occupy the shoes of a painter or photographer.

The effects of the show are particularly acute when environmental problems are given shape in the form of graphs and charts. Although we are encouraged to be horrified at these, they correspond to nothing the human gaze can grasp. Pollution levels, population growth, resource stock trends, and so on, cease to be concrete, visualisable events enacted by particular individuals. Perhaps one should be more wary of "technical" images such as the by-now familiar representation of Gaia as the satellite-generated blue-white sphere. Beautiful as this image (or "show") is, the real Gaia consists of mouths sucking at coral, lichens clinging to individual rocks, a human with an axe. We cannot see the Earth as the satellite does, as a sumptuous, all-erasing sphere: we must look out from its surface, at its snags and bluffs. The danger of the show is that it is far more mesmerising, passifying and addictive than the mere image.

Of course, the Fourth Scopic Epoch is neither restricted to, nor universal within, TV, but the TV interface must now be considered among its dominant disseminators. Because our values and behaviour are crucially dependent on how we perceive the world, the imagification of reality by TV and its involvement in the show, strike at the very heart of any political discourse - environmental or otherwise. At this more fundamental level, the TV medium alienates perception, generates a realm of psychic rhetoric outside which it is difficult to stand. Thus, even if TV could somehow be liberated from its vested interests and their ideologies, it would still remain subjugate to the deeper "techno-cognitive" processes of simplification, imagification and show. Thus, Marcuse's call to "somatize" protest - that is, to let the wrongness of the world be felt in our very bodies - is threatened at its root by the de-somatizing influence of TV experience. TV's engagement of just two senses, and in an impoverished technomechanical form, constitutes a visual-aural equivalent to the "scratch-n-sniff" card.

Any profound analysis of television politics must therefore be prepared to include an account of how the acts of seeing and perception have evolved, an area which cognitive media studies generally ignore. The deeper question is not whether or not TV re-presentations of environment and environmental issues are distorted or biased, but whether or not these re-presentations themselves usurp reality and thus become the "environment" as perceived by society at large. If the latter is the case, then the mere act of TV viewing influences how people perceive themselves in environmental, as well as political, terms. Compare TV's new political domain of swing-ometers, bar-charts and abstract discourse, with Aristotle's "somatic" politics of the agora, an assembly of citizens who can be taken in at a single viewing by the human eye. The profound socio-cultural acceptability of TV, its ubiquitous and central presence in the home and school, its illusory role as an "objective" window on political and environmental events, and its radical monopoly on where the viewer can look, makes it clear that TV can be no simple mirror on the world, reflecting reality. However, it may be much more than merely a distorting lens. The TV screen may itself have become society's political and perceptual monocular eye.



1. Epoch of the Gaze.

In the classical era, the gaze is a trans-ocular organ. It radiates from the pupil to embrace an object, to fuse with it, so that the eye is dyed with its colours. The end of this epoch begins in Fatimide Egypt, circa 1000AD.

2. Epoch of the Transcendent Gaze.

This retains the idea of an active, outgoing and imageless gaze. However, vision no longer happens where the object is - the eye extracts "universals" from the shapes which objects emit by their radiation. This is the time of Gothic miniatures and windows.

3. Epoch of the Mediated or "Humiliated" Gaze.

This involves the union of the picture and the gaze in the early Renaissance. Increasingly, the eye is experienced as an instrument (on the model of what we now know as the camera) which, in turn, can be enhanced by devices that extend its range.

4. Epoch of the Show.

Circa 1800 AD, the certainties came into being which enable us to now speak about visual communications, global views and interfaces. This epoch is dominated by isometry rather than perspective, by untrammelled horizons, and viewpoints unaffected by standpoint. Illich calls it the age of show, where the eye becomes dependent on interface rather than imagination.

Observation of nature thus increasingly becomes the study of illustrative scientific projections and of abstract or highly-manipulated re-presentations. The show is the transducer or program that "enables" the interface between systems, or is the momentary state of a cybernetic program. For Illich, image is distinct from show in that image requires/implies some act of poiesis - it is brought forth by the imagination.

The above is not a history of optics, but a history of opsis: it describes the ethology of human sense activities across different cultures and epochs. Principal source: Illich [1994].


1 I appreciate here the possibility of confusion over what is meant by "image". For example, between a TV's 2D "image", and the image-as-object (a drawing, photograph, or painting). Illich is not easy to interpret on this. A painting of a tree is an image, but not a "show"; a tree appearing on TV is a show because it becomes "an integral part of a calculated event that 'sucks' the viewer in... rather than presenting to the gaze something to be contemplated." [Illich, I.: Personal Communication, 11-4-1995].

Mario Petrucci is of Italian parents but has lived in London most of his life. He is presently moving to live in Ireland.
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