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The Reality of TV

Television isn’t to blame for every social ill but neither is it neutral, write Melinda Hinkson.

When anthropologists Don Kulick and Margaret Willson took cinematic equipment into the remote village of Gapun in the Papua New Guinea Highlands in 1991, they encountered some interesting responses. While many Gapuners had ‘heard stories’ about moving images, only a small number had actually seen a film or television program. Yet this lack of direct experience had not stopped the members of this community from developing a series of elaborate narratives about the potent force of visual media.

In Kulick and Willson’s account, published in The Anthropology of Media, Gapuners regard cinematic technology as an ‘eye’ with incomparable power. According to local explanation, draivisen — as television is known in the local lingua franca, Tok Pisen — could be directed by any person who possessed it to see anything they wished to see. Draivisen could look into other spaces and other times; it even had the ability to penetrate death and call forth ancestors. One local pronounced his desire to acquire draivisen in order to spy on sorcerers. There were tales of seeing, via draivisen, both the Pope and the Queen ‘in the flesh’ on their respective recent visits to PNG. These narratives about the power of draivisen connect up with Gapuners’ exuberant millenarian ideas. Images of white people in their native countries are interpreted as pictures of the spaces and bodily forms that Gapuners themselves will come to occupy after the millennium or death. As Kulick and Willson explain:

Conceived of as an eye, film and cinematic technology becomes for the villagers an instrument of knowledge and revelation whose narratives interweave with and comment upon the present, the past, and what is to come.
The box that stands in the corner of our lounge rooms appears a much more mundane object. Television is so pervasively a part of our lives, so central to our understanding of our place in the world, that we take it for granted. In order to be reminded of the world-changing potency of visual media it is helpful to look to the responses of peoples whose encounters have been much more recent. For us, such media have become thoroughly naturalised, a part of the furniture, as Catharine Lumby observes in Arena Magazine no. 82.

In rejecting the ‘effects theory’ of visual media — a particular distillation of technological determinism — Lumby takes issue with writers who have made television ‘symbolic of all that’s allegedly wrong with the modern world’. She argues that cultural critics of both the Left and Right tend to accord a similar determining power to television — the technology is identified as either producing passive citizens who are disconnected from broader social concerns, or as having provided people with too many immoral ideas that have caused them to commit anti-social acts. Lumby draws on the work of David Buckingham and others to show that there is no evidence to support the ‘effects’ thesis. In its place she posits a more positive appreciation of TV, one that sees the medium as ultimately ‘neutral’.

Lumby’s critique of the ‘effects’ thesis is fair enough, up to a point. As Raymond Williams observed in relation to what might be characterised as the most celebrated instance of an ‘effects’ perspective, Marshall McLuhan’s mantra: ‘the medium is the message’, such approaches cleave visual technologies from the social contexts in which they are developed and utilised. In his book Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Williams argued that, if the medium was the message, then questions of ownership, control, intention and, indeed, human agency all became irrelevant. Corporate interests could interpret McLuhan’s model as an endorsement of the status quo, while communitarians could embrace his notion of an electronic utopia. But while I’m sympathetic to Williams’ critique, there is one crucial sense in which McLuhan’s model differs from other ‘effects’ writers — he was one of the first media theorists to distinguish between the content and form of media. McLuhan’s model was celebratory of electronic media’s inherent capacity to transform the very nature of human experience. As an early theorist of modern globalisation, McLuhan argued that the interactive potentiality embodied in electronic media, especially networked computers, would deliver to us a new global village in which the richly intensive forms of social interaction he associated with communities bounded by face-to-face interaction would be recovered.

The ‘effects’ writers do not recognise this distinction between content and form; their discourses tend to be rather slippery on the question of whether it is a particular content (e.g. ‘violence’) or the technology itself that has causal effect. Nor does Lumby grasp this distinction. And rather than offering up an alternative analysis of media, in suggesting we interpret television as ‘neutral’, Lumby simply takes up the converse position to technological determinism: electronic media become tools that can be turned to desired ends. These two perspectives on technology — technological determinism and determined technology — are inversions of each other. They conceive television simply in either positive or negative terms, according all agency or determining power either to the technology itself or to those who utilise it. In so doing, both perspectives effectively dismiss any need for a more complex social analysis of media.

Television and Social Interaction
The reason for opening this essay with the Gapun perspective on television is that it dramatically serves to remind us of the very real ways in which technologically extended media can transform pre-existing orientations to the world and our place within it. In the case of the Gapuners, the boundaries of their social universe were cracked open by draivisen’s capacity to see into the furthest reaches of the world, literally drawing distant lands and foreign people into their purview, providing new symbolic material, new content, for existing narrative forms called storis, through which Gapuners collectively confirm the ordering of their universe.

This is the first stage of a process that tends to be repeated — albeit according to distinctive local customs — everywhere that visual media are introduced. New media are first met by curiosity and comprehended within existing ways of taking hold of the world. Initial enthusiasm often gives way to varying forms of resistance or ‘moral panic’, to use Lumby’s term, as media representations become increasingly widespread and pre-existing representational forms begin to lose their taken-for-granted cogency. In the early 1980s, as plans were underway to launch AUSSAT, the first Australian satellite to introduce national radio and television to large tracts of inland Australia, senior Aboriginal people were very much aware of the risks they faced. One old Warlpiri man told a parliamentary enquiry that ‘Aboriginal people got our land back to stop whitefellas chasing them … with things like satellites’. Such statements reflect clear understandings of the potential of media representations to undermine existing ways of framing social worlds and holding together those who inhabit them.

In relation to Euro-American societies, Lumby is right that similar discourses of ‘moral panic’ have historically followed the introduction of diverse communications technologies such as telephones, televisions and the Internet. But does this imply, as she seems to suggest, that these technologies have not been caught up with profound changes in the nature of social life?

The key to a more complex appreciation of the place of television in our society — and note I use the term appreciation — is to approach television not as an autonomous technological object but as a particular instance of a distinct social form: one identified by Geoff Sharp and others associated with Arena, as well as media theorists such as John Thompson in his book The Media and Modernity, as technologically extended mediation. In such an approach, media such as television come to be understood not as autonomous technologies, but in terms of a distinctive mode of engagement through which we relate to each other, develop our sense of who we are, and comprehend our place in the world. It is a form of engagement through which very particular ways of being social and being human are realised.

Modernity and Technological Mediation
The emergence of technologically extended modes of engagement is associated by most media theorists with the invention of the printing press in 1450 and the subsequent growth of literacy. In order to comprehend the profound social transformation associated with the spread of reading and writing, we don’t need to go cross-cultural; European history is just as replete with instances of dramatic world-changing events. The Protestant Church’s embrace of print literacy as part of a wider vision to democratise religion in the Reformation was critical to the ultimate fragmentation of religious authority, the birth of science and the emergence of a new public sphere of critical thought. Literacy was critical in overcoming restrictions of time and space, giving the new reading public unprecedented access to knowledge about events, people and places that were far beyond their physical reach, including the actions of governments. Engaging with the world and each other through the printed word was integral to the radical shifts that occurred in the way people lived and worked as they were drawn to metropolitan centres by the changes associated with the Industrial Revolution. This mode of engagement was also central to the rise of what Benedict Anderson calls ‘imagined communities’, the precursor to nations — communities of readers who would never meet in person but would come to identify as bound together socially by virtue of their shared orientation to the world through the same mediated sources.

The new mode of engagement offered by print, and the subsequent forms of technologically mediated communication that followed the invention of telegraphy, differ in significant ways from the face-to-face, or primary, forms of communication that had dominated in an earlier era. Prior to the massing of populations, small-scale communities were tied together through highly localised forms of social interaction in which participants were co-present, and communication occurred almost entirely in contexts of face-to-face interaction. In such contexts, identity and symbolic meaning were collectively produced in highly intensive forms of social interaction — according to the same kind of process through which the Gapuners made sense of television. Interpretation was a collective act. Reciprocity is a critical dimension of this mode of interaction in which self and other continually reaffirm that they understand each other by observing, interpreting and responding to the complex set of symbolic cues that accompany speech. This reciprocal form of interaction is not a relic of the past, but clearly continues to be critical to us in the present — it is foundational in terms of the development of trust; it is through such dense exchanges of social meaning that persons develop the capacity to empathise with others.

Whereas primary interaction involves all of the senses, technologically mediated engagement involves the heightening of one or more sense and the diminishment of others. As a powerful visual medium, television presents us with symbolic material in the form of fleeting images. Television offers us entertainment and education, but it also enables us to form certain kinds of relationships with images of people and places to which we have no physical access, and little possibility of entering into reciprocal interaction with. This form of engagement is structurally similar to that enabled by print literacy, where, as Sharp (Arena Journal, no. 1) argues, a writer addresses ‘a public rather than a particular other and there is no expectation, or even probability, that any particular person will respond’. This lack of reciprocity means that the onus for interpreting the meaning of any particular mediated relationship or image lies with the individual reader/viewer.

There are exhilarating dimensions to this process. These extended modes of engagement provide us with access to all kinds of worlds, knowledge, people and pleasure that are not possible via face-to-face interaction. As well as entertainment and enlightenment, watching television, reading books and listening to the radio offer forms of companionship that we value highly. These are one-sided relationships — we might yell at a televised image of John Howard, but his image won’t respond — and thus free of obligations or demands. Part of the attraction of the relationships we form via television is that we define and control them. We decide when we will tune in and when we will turn the television off. We decide the extent to which we allow these relationships to figure in our daily life. Thompson describes this process as mediated intimacy, an intimacy that ‘enables individuals to enjoy some of the benefits of companionship without the demands typically incurred in contexts of face-to-face interaction’.

This mode of relationship marks us as unique social beings, with an unprecedented capacity and obligation to comprehend our place in the world through our interpretation of an ever-expanding universe of visual symbolic materials. Characterising TV in simply positive or negative terms, or indeed as neutral, fails to grasp the distinct mode of engagement and the world-changing process with which it is associated.

The Challenge of Coherent Integration
As mediated engagement has come to be a prominent dimension of our social world, a critical challenge has emerged — as John Thompson puts it, the challenge to coherently integrate two kinds of experience: our everyday ‘in the flesh’ interactions, and those we enjoy via various media. Most of us do this unconsciously. We recognise the symbolic boundary that separates what we might think of as our tangible relationships from those that are technologically mediated. But in ontological terms this is extremely difficult work, and not all people manage this process successfully. Failing to properly distinguish and integrate the two kinds of interaction is becoming increasingly common. It is reflected in a wide range of phenomena — for example, in the practice of stalking movie stars. While celebrity stalkers are often dismissed as pathological or dysfunctional persons, there is a sense in which the desire to cross the symbolic boundary, and convert mediated relationships into face-to-face relationships, is increasingly being conceived as acceptable behaviour. Such a tendency is reflected in the recent establishment of US-based website ‘Gawker Stalker’ (, which broadcasts up-to-the-minute information posted by individuals of celebrity sightings, providing locational details so that interested persons might race across town in the hope of a face-to-face encounter with a screen idol. When confronted with the suggestion that the website constituted a gross breach of privacy and a risk to the safety of those persons whose details were posted, the website’s owner was dismissive, suggesting that celebrities are public identities who owed the public some level of accessibility in return for their successful attainment of fame (Channel 7 News, 18 March 2006). The same process can also be witnessed in a slightly different form in that enigmatic phenomenon, Reality TV, where the majority of individuals who secure a spot on telly fail to attain the glamour and excitement associated with TV images and, rather, carry the banality of the everyday across to the other side of the screen.

In The Individualizing Society, social theorist Zygmunt Bauman identifies individualisation as a key process of modernity that is responsible for human identity being transformed from a ‘given’ into a ‘task’. Rather than being anchored in the sets of relationships and responsibilities that one is born into or acquires through life experience, identity becomes something that we actively have to make ourselves:

The quandary tormenting men and women at the turn of the century is not so much how to obtain the identities of their choice and how to have them recognised by people around them — but which identity to choose and how to keep alert and vigilant so that another choice can be made in case the previously chosen identity is withdrawn from the market or stripped of its seductive powers.

The choices Bauman refers to are to be made at the level of the image and the commodity market. As suggested above, these can be pleasurable and exhilarating experiences and I do not want to be read as simply producing a negative view of consumption. The critical observation is that, as Bauman, Sharp and Thompson all make clear, we have reached a point where these social forms have come to dominate our social experience. A popular interpretation of these developments is celebratory: seeing this freeing up of identity as creating the circumstances in which individuals might overcome the constraints of birth and background, empowering us (or at least those of us with financial means) to be whoever we wish to be. However, as we come to draw more and more social meaning from our mediated interactions, we also carry the values associated with those forms across to other aspects of our life — hence the growing obsession with image and consumption-based ‘projects’ as a way of improving the self. As our values are structurally reorganised in this way, around consumption choices, there is a simultaneous fragmentation and undervaluing of qualitatively different kinds of association and ways of ordering our social world.

Home Alone with the Television
To differentiate, coherently integrate and, importantly, actively determine which mode of engagement and its associated values will provide the primary anchorage in our lives is a challenge we face not only as individuals but at a societal level. It is not television that is to blame for the range of social ills targeted by ‘effects’ narratives, but a society that has allowed technological mediation to become its dominant social form and the dominant means by which individuals might attain social recognition. Failing to recognise the qualitative distinctions between these different modes of engagement carries with it a real human cost. Lumby concludes her essay with the suggestion that television must be good for us because the largest demographic of viewers are older people ‘who are probably very critical and picky about what they see on the box and its influence on their lives’. I’d be inclined to interpret this demographic information quite differently. In a society where we fall a long way short of having mastered the task of coherent integration, let alone that of prioritising primary forms of association, more and more of us — especially old people — are likely to find ourselves home alone with only televisions and radios for companionship. Perhaps in this respect we might have something to learn from the people of Gapun.

Melinda Hinkson teaches the anthropology of media at the Australian National University, Canberra.