COLUMN - THINKING OTHERWISE - Television and Social Class
“We Irish think otherwise.” Bishop Berkeley
It is a journalistic truism to note that we live in the Age of Information. In this neo-feudalist age it is not your relation to the land but to the media that defines your social class. You are a Lord or Lady if you receive your important information orally. George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Heads of State do not get their important information from the Times or the Wall Street Journal; they get it from conversations with one another.
You are a knight if you get your important information from reading. Whether you read Nature or The New York Review of Books, or multiple journals and newspapers on the Web, you depend on textual media for your participation in the Noosphere.
And you are a serf if you get your basic information from television. Like a Russian serf bound to the land, you are bound to TV. It is the ground of your being and you are unrooted without it, so you have a small TV on the kitchen counter top, another in the family room, and one in the bedroom to watch crime dramas that you wash down with late night comedians before you try to settle your shredded psyche into dreamland.
Disclosure: I had Time Warner cable in Manhattan and satellite Direct TV in Crestone, Colorado. But when I moved to Maine, I decided that I would not subscribe again but, in fact, would not watch TV at all. I have gone without TV for four years now, and I feel like a new man, as if I had had a colonic cleansing of the brain with silence.
With a 27” iMac, I read all newspapers on line and watch their little video inserts or their full broadcast of public events such as the President’s State of the Union Address. Netflix offers immediate streaming, so any movie or TV series that proves worthwhile can be watched without the weekly wait for the extended series to complete itself or without having to put up with the screaming commercials. I can watch the whole season of Downton Abbey on Saturday and Sunday and read the rest of the week.
What I first noticed in kicking the habit was that there was no withdrawal at all. It was nothing like giving up smoking, which I did in the middle of writing my dissertation in Dublin on December 24, 1964--a day that, as Walter Cronkite used to say on his 1950s TV history program You Are There—“ a day like all days filled with those events that alter and illuminate our time.” Perhaps it was easier to give up smoking in Ireland because the Player’s cigarettes stained your fingers dark yellow and made you cough. Smoking is now forbidden in Central Park, but back then smoking was allowed in the upper deck of Dublin’s Green double-decker buses, and in that enclosed space with its foggy windows under the unending rain that made Ireland as green as its buses, the coughing became a chorus of souls seeking release from their addicted bodies—like the chorus of prisoners released from the dungeons in Beethoven’s Fidelio. But I digress.
The second thing I noticed whenever I did encounter TV—say, for example, in my heart surgeon’s waiting room—was how loud TV was, and how stupid, especially the afternoon TV of trivia quiz shows. TV was a cognitive sewer, a utility that I had paid to flow into my home in screaming torrents so that I would never have time to feel bored, lonely, or reflective. As for evening network news with its pretensions to civic gravitas, even PBS was highly biased and basically presented the front page of the New York Times for the über busy after work and before dinner.
Pity the elderly in nursing homes who are wheeled into the common room to spend the day anesthetized by sitcoms with canned laughter. These not yet dead are already in hell and don’t know it.
The next thing I noticed about living without TV was how wonderfully quiet and peaceful my home became. I could read, think, write, and meditate for two hours a day. Thanks to the Internet, I still could get all the information I needed, as I had newspapers, both domestic and foreign, on my Top Sites and Bookmarks, and could click on Aljazeera to escape the dumbed-down American bias on world events.
Sometimes, I confess, that to escape my own high browed reading of the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Liberation, Le Monde, the Guardian, the Economist, or Juan Cole’s blog on the Arab world, Informed Content, I would slum and mouse over to the electronic tabloids. The Huffington Post has a stack of TV inserts from John Stewart, Bill Maher, and Barbara Walters with a gaggle of women all shouting at one another at the same time called The View. Here the first thing I noticed as a foreigner in my own country was that stand-up TV humor was basically about other TV programs. If you live in TV’s Fun House of Mirrors, everything is a reflection of a simulacrum. There’s enough material there to keep a French critic like Jean Baudrillard in work for years.
Once I had unplugged from the IV stream of television, I moved out of the nursing home of Info-Entertainment with its daily round of stupefying drugs. I did not care about what celebrity had new breast implants, or what politician was caught Twittering his penis to female constituents. TV became about as interesting as a cat riding a skateboard on YouTube. If you really do care about Charlie Sheen’s or Lyndsay Lohan’s latest bust, then TV is for you. But this means you are most definitely a serf with a world-view as small as your Awesome Dude vocabulary.
Unfortunately, we Americans do live in a mediocracy in which even disliterate serfs can vote, and they seem to prefer those they know from TV, and so are charmed by the likes of Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin. Serfs vote for the celebrity of their choice with the coolest ads paid for by Rupert Murdoch and the Koch Brothers. (Small wonder that Communist China won’t listen to us when we lecture them about the need for democratization.)
Of course in an electronic neo-feudalist society, things are not as fixed as they were in land-based feudalism. George Soros and President Obama will curl up with a good book or take time even to write one, knights will slum and watch TV or even go on it to flog their latest book, and the serfs will go to college, packing their TVs and microwaves along with them into their noisy dorms. But even if they go to college, the serfs prefer to major in communications or media studies where they are happier discussing moral ambiguity in the Sopranos or The Wire than reading Shakespeare.
But come to think about it, maybe these bottom-feeders are not serfs but something farther down in the food chain of the soil. Perhaps they are lively bacteria in the compost heap of information. Their world is enclosed and anaerobic, but maybe in the larger cycles of nature these bacteria are breaking down and recycling dead ideas in the noosphere. Just think about the “new” ideas of the Tea Partiers. Tea Party thinking is to eighteenth-century Adam Smith what garbage is to food.
In neo-feudalism everything has its place in Disney’s Circle of Life. Flies like to swarm on dog turds, but just think of how much shit we all would be drowning in, if flies didn’t have a taste for it and served to break it down into soil. By the serfs talking something to death, the public becomes bored and loses interest. Look how fast Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich decomposed as Presidential candidates, and even Glen Beck was dumped by Fox News. Microwaved celebrities get hot fast, but cold even faster.
So the three classes of Lord, knight, and serf are archetypal--like the three biospheric rings of atmosphere, sea, and earth.
“Three rings, and one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”