In the realm of passive contemplation



Considerations on the relationship between television and society

It is convenient to start with some ideas from Guy Debord, author of the book The Society of the Spectacle (Counterpoint) [1]. Debord's radical critique of the spectacle goes far beyond a simple critique of television and the mass media. He himself said: “The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the visible world, a product of massive image diffusion techniques” [2]. Recognizing, today, a “prophetic” value in Debord's book published in 1967 is therefore easy, but also reductive, if one sees Debord's perspicacity only in the fact that he envisioned a society dominated by a dozen or a hundred entertainment or news-show television channels.

It is currently fashionable, in environments that believe themselves to be more intelligent, to turn up their noses at the “spectacle”, and there are television directors and creators of television programs in Italy and French ministers who love to quote Debord and praise him. Debord already says, however, in his book: “The spectacle is not a set of images, but a social relationship between individuals, mediated by images” [3]. He also says that the spectacle understood in its entirety is at the same time the result and the project of the existing mode of production. In fact, he speaks of the society of the spectacle, that is, of a society that functions as a spectacle.

As Debord is no longer a “marginal” or “damned” author, I think that the concept of the spectacular society that he developed is already known: it is a society based on passive contemplation, in which individuals, instead of living in first person, look at the actions of others. This happens not only on the television level, and not only in advertising, but also on many other levels: in the society of the spectacle, also politics – including a good part of what is proclaimed revolutionary –, culture, urbanism, the sciences they are always based on the distinction between spectator and actor. There is no direct relationship between the individual and his world, although this world was his product. In fact, the relationship is always mediated by the image, an image purposely chosen by others, that is, by the owners of society.

Perhaps you also remember that Debord distinguished in 1967 two main spectacular types: the so-called “diffuse” of Western societies, in which real life is alienated in the abundance of consumer goods and in their contemplation; and the spectacular “concentrate” of totalitarian, fascist or Stalinist countries, where the supreme commodity is the contemplation of the leader's perfection. In 1988 in his “Comments on the Society of the Spectacle” [4], Debord announced that these two types of spectacular society had merged all over the world into a single type called “integral”, that is, into a commodity democracy with authoritarian traits.

I will linger no longer on summaries of Guy Debord's ideas. I would just like to remind you that the spectacle he is talking about is a total social category that can certainly be useful for understanding television today, but only if one takes into account the fact that, in his view, television is just a case of television. of a much broader logic. In other words, spectacle television can only be understood as a product of a spectacular society. This statement may seem trite, but most accounts of television say almost nothing about this connection. Only a few commentators see on television the logical outcome of a specific form of society, namely, fully developed capitalism, Fordist and post-Fordist, as it came to exist after the First World War.

The other theories about television either widen the field too much or narrow it too narrowly. Many considerations, above all in the journalistic, sociological, political spheres and in all the so-called “communication science” (which, at least in Italy, has been transformed, a few years ago, into a real university faculty that produces, in short, a record number of unoccupied), they don't even question themselves about the structure of the medium, they don't ask the question "what is television" and don't even risk a judgment. They only ask what the transmitted contents are, what semantic analyzes we can give them, how to satisfy the public even better, etc.

In Italian politics, television has been much discussed, especially since former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is also the owner of the three main private networks. The object of that debate is, however, only to decide who should own the television and determine, therefore, its contents. In other countries, such as France and the United States, there is, on the contrary, lively discussion about the rate of violence and obscenity on TV and the effect this has on children. In these, and in so many so-called public debates, there is obviously no conceptualization of the relationship between society and TV, because the existence of TV, as well as the existence of the society in which we live, is so evident and “natural” for these “public opinions” and for their representatives, which cannot even be perceived, as all that is quite obvious.

In this text I always deal with television, however, naturally this discourse applies to all electronic media in general, cinema, the internet, virtual reality, etc. But, leaving aside the futility of repeating it every time, it is true that, on a mass level, the importance of TV as a means of accessing the world has long surpassed that of all other means put together. However, I am not talking about “communication”. Radio and television are extremely efficient means of unilaterally imposing orders on those who listen to them, but as communication between individuals, they count for very little.

I will no longer dwell on this type of discussion – often apparently passionate – which revolves only around details, but simply around the distribution of the spoils, that is, access to the microphone. In this cycle of conferences, the opposite type of reasoning often takes place: the one who sees on television a particular case of a secular, if not millenary, logic of “seeing” and “image”. Given that television is a transmission of images, many think that, in order to understand television, it is necessary to question man's own visual faculty and the structure of the image as such, and the way in which it is consumed. These theorists therefore abound in references to what they call “Western metaphysics”, to Plato and his condemnation of images, to medieval theories about seeing, to the phenomenology of perception, to the relationship between vision and the other senses and to the particular configuration that this relationship has assumed in European history.

The success that television has had, since its inception, throughout the world would be the result of a hunger for images, a hunger congenital in man; the same Debord quotes the American sociologist Daniel Boorstin, who wrote in the 1950s one of the first critical studies on television, and comments: “Thus, what happens is that Boorstin sees the cause of the results he describes in the unfortunate, almost fortuitous encounter between an excessive technical apparatus for the dissemination of images and an excessive attraction of the men of our time for the pseudo-sensational. In this way, the spectacle would be due to the fact that modern man is too much of a spectator.” [5].

Many similar considerations could be made about more recent authors, such as Neil Postman and his book, which in some respects seems interesting, Amusing Ourselves to Death (“Fun to Death”), published in 1985, and still translated in Brazil, unlike other books by the same author. In this type of theory, the particular case, television is therefore linked to something much more general, almost to an assumed “human nature” of an anthropological or ontological type. These considerations are not necessarily wrong. But they do not help to understand the specificity of the phenomenon. They tend to “drown the fish”, as they say in French. It is equally true that excess automobile traffic has much to do with the human need to move, or that all material production has to do with the need to eat.

But based on such general assumptions, it is never possible to understand why seeing, moving, eating took on a specific form at a given moment, whether in 1500 or 2000, and not any other. Drowning the concept of the society of the spectacle in a sea of ​​considerations about the image as such, and about the criticisms linked to the image as such, as the Frenchman Régis Debray, inventor of a supposed “midiology”, does, or looking for the supposed metaphysical roots of the – in fact, rare – mistrust in electronic media often serves, amid polemical intentions, to dodge any debate about TV and society today. Instead, what is achieved is to claim that critics of TV and spectacle are just the re-edition of an attitude that has existed for 2 years: that of condemning the superficial and futile fascination with images, visible forms and copies. , because they distract from the intellectual, poetic understanding of true essences.

Those who criticize the spectacle do not fail to underline, on the other hand, that this criticism of images is, at least today, but perhaps ever since, anti-scientific, anti-democratic, religious, anti-progressive. Criticizing television today is equivalent, in their eyes, to the condemnation of the book carried out by Plato, who then wrote many books: an attitude, therefore, even more hypocritical and impractical in reality. [6]. It is better, therefore, according to them, to make good use of a new medium, when it appears [7].

It should therefore be underlined right away that the essential structure of television is not only linked to the image. TV is not essentially a transmission of images. Electronic media can also address different senses of sight without changing them much. It suffices to demonstrate a simple fact: some of the perhaps most pertinent criticisms of television, such as those by Theodor Adorno and Günther Anders – to which I will return – were developed in the 1930s and 1940s and applied then only to radio, because television did not yet exist. In the book man is old fashioned [8], by Anders, published in 1956, it can be seen that he began his analysis of the media talking about the radio and little by little adding observations about TV, without changing anything essential in his argument.

Adorno and Horkheimer's famous considerations on the “cultural industry”, published in 1947, were developed by analyzing cinema and radio. Television has far fewer analogies with cinema – despite the fact that images are always involved and the same film can be projected in a cinema or broadcast on TV – than with radio, although radio and television transmissions are not interchangeable. But in essential traits, TV and radio are similar to each other and have not been modified from the beginning: each listener or viewer is isolated in his domestic cubicle, where the world is provided for him at home in a way chosen by others.

The essential issue is not whether they convey images, images and sounds together, or only sounds. Essential are the social relationship between individuals and the relationship between the individual and the world. Furthermore, nowadays television is often not even watched, but serves only to provide background noise; other times, with zapping, with the screens divided into more screens, with the spots advertising or with video clips, you don't even see images in the normal sense anymore, but just a heap of colors in motion to which you don't pay any attention.

Some critics of television, such as the aforementioned Postman, link their critique of TV to a general critique of the modern predominance of the image over the spoken and written word, arguing, for example, that the image supports hidden contradictions as much as it supports written discourse. , and that in the end only writing, that is, the isolated and impersonal text, educates for coherent, logical, analytical, objective, detached and rational thinking, and teaches to classify and deduce, while the image, from the photograph , is a rambling, out-of-context exposition of facts that often contains disingenuous judgments.

This type of consideration is undoubtedly interesting, but, contrary to what is often stated, criticism of electronic media is not the simple continuation of a long tradition, especially French, of distrust of the gaze, and in favor of the body or other senses, or in favor of a fetishized notion of immediacy [9]. In each case, this affiliation of criticism of the spectacle with an assumed general distrust of the image is certainly not rediscoverable in Debord, who not only made five films, several collage works, and a magazine – the Situationist International – which was among the first intellectual magazines to contain images, but he also wrote in the preface to Panegyric II, composed almost exclusively of photos with captions and published posthumously:

“The dominant lies of the time are capable of making us forget that the truth can also be seen in images. The image, which was not intentionally separated from its meaning, adds much precision and certainty to knowledge. No one doubted this before the recent past few years. I propose to remind you now. Authentic illustration clarifies true discourse, as a subordinate proposition that is neither incompatible nor pleonastic.” [10].

I do not, however, want to repeat the various critical analyzes on television as a product of late capitalist society, as you are surely already familiar with them. Without necessarily claiming that these are the best or the only criticisms, I use as an assumption here the texts on the mass media written by Debord, by Theodor Adorno and by Günther Anders.

man is old fashioned, the main work of Günther Anders was not published in Brazil. Anders, a German philosopher born in 1902 and died in 1992 [11], was originally a phenomenologist and a disciple of Husserl and Heidegger, but the experience of Nazism and exile in America, where he had to work in a factory, led him to a fundamental critique of industrial society. Particularly famous are his considerations of the atomic bomb. Some references to Marxism can be found in his thought, but it essentially consists of a consideration of the relationship between man and the world with phenomenological categories sometimes similar to those of Husserl or Heidegger. They speak, however, of current phenomena and lead to radical political consequences.

Anders himself indicates his three fundamental theses: we men are not up to the perfection of our products; what we produce exceeds our capacity to imagine and our responsibility; we believe that it is lawful or absolutely obligatory for us to do all that we can do. Anders' main theme is the discrepancy that exists between the new technical means created by man, of which the most visible case is the atomic bomb, on the one hand, and, on the other, his capacities to imagine, feel, think, which still they are the same — therefore old, antiquated. In the first volume of man is old fashioned, Anders devotes the two main chapters to the atomic bomb, radio and television. I'll deal with that again. Evidently I cannot here give a detailed summary of Anders' work.

It is noteworthy, however, that many observations about television that even today seem very pertinent – ​​such as those by Adorno, Anders or Debord – were made at a time when television was still in its infancy, or applied until then to the radio, as I said. It was the era of black-and-white transmissions only, on one channel, then two or at most three, all state-owned, very educational and not very entertaining, almost without advertising, and which in each case it broadcast only from mid-afternoon until midnight at the latest, when they ended with the national anthem: the youngest among you could hardly believe it.

It was, however, precisely at that time, which today may seem bucolic or archaic, that the most apocalyptic analyzes were launched regarding the impact of TV on society and on cultural, social, political and family life. At that time, well-known figures – if I remember correctly, even the German chancellor at the time – proposed to institute a weekly day without television, because it was considered too intrusive. Today, with television occupying a space in social life that has, compared to those beginnings, a hundredfold value, almost all criticism has disappeared. Proposing a weekly day without TV would raise something hilarious, comparable to what might provoke the proposal that we all walk on all fours.

On the one hand, this has to do with the fact that it is often easier to recognize, and therefore criticize, the distinctive features of a phenomenon when it is in its infancy, even though its outlines may still be deformed. But what counts above all is this: only those who grew up in a society without television were able to notice the passage and observe the changes. For those who, on the other hand, have known it since birth, it may seem amusing to discuss whether TV should exist or not, in the same way that one could fantasize about a world without gravity.

I see this in the students of the “Media Art” course at the Academia das Belas-Artes where I teach: criticism of TV interests them, they don't lack a critical spirit, especially with regard to the content of the broadcasts. But the existence of TV is as obvious and natural to them as the air we breathe. The statement contained in the “Comments on the Society of the Spectacle”, by Guy Debord, from 1988: the greatest success of the spectacle is having raised a generation that has never known anything other than the spectacle, a generation for which the spectacle is the whole world and therefore lacks any term of comparison.

Let us therefore start from the assumption that contemporary society is the creator of television and that television does not obey an autonomous logic. It is not the relationship between the ray of light and the retina that explains television to us, not least because this relationship was not very different for the ancient Egyptians or in Plato's time. This does not mean, however, that television and other electronic media fell from the sky: they were implanted under the influence of ancient evils. A society that could invent television and make it the supreme sorcery was already obviously rotten, and this happened because it was the continuation of other societies unaware of themselves.

This is the capital point often overlooked by those critics who present television as a kind of evil genius, a Pandora's box, inexplicably coming to disturb a life that was previously harmonious and happy. In fact, the ardor with which television is accepted practically everywhere and always would not be explained if it did not already encounter a situation of intense boredom that makes looking at a screen seem preferable. The solitude that television brings would not be borne by someone who lives in a minimum of true community. It is particularly widespread to lament the negative impact of TV on family life. It was noted that the traditional dining table, around which the family gathered looking each other in the face and talking, disappeared in favor of the television in front of which the family members alienated themselves looking at a common vanishing point. instead of looking at each other – if family members don't have a TV in every room.

But this demented form of family life would not have spread so quickly if people weren't tired of listening for the thousandth time to their grandfather's stories about the war and their parents' stories about work, or complaints about the weather, or the price of food. tomatoes, speeches that are themselves the fruit of a life emptied by economic reason. The family table was also an instrument of control in which no one escaped the watchful eye of the head of the family who wanted to see if his daughter was ashamed to hear a certain name. All this does not mean, however, as many want, that TV was an instrument of emancipation or liberation from customs, but it does mean that the specific form of alienation represented by TV is the continuation of other forms of social alienation, and not the mechanical result of a technical invention.

This last evidence should be enough to contradict the well-known theories of Marshall McLuhan, who presented, with an enthusiastic tone, “the global village” created by electronic means as the result of a technological revolution comparable to the revolutions produced by the invention of the wheel, the stirrup , or the press: inventions that, according to McLuhan, would each time have created a new type of society, mentality, culture, economy. To reduce this theory to fair proportions, it is enough to remember that inventions, as a technical feat, are never widespread before there is already a society that needs them.

In fact, many inventions were made more times in history, but initially without consequences, remaining a mere toy, as long as the appropriate context did not exist for them. The steam engine was already invented in antiquity, in Alexandria. But in a society in which work was carried out by slaves, there was no need for machines to mechanize work, because, according to the prevailing mentality at the time, slaves would be the only beneficiaries. Only a society like the English society at the end of the XNUMXth century, in which there was a wide availability of “free” labor – and which was itself the result of a long history of expropriation – knew how to use a machine. steam engine that would allow a worker to produce twenty shirts instead of one.

In previous centuries, machines capable of increasing productivity – and, therefore, of reducing the number of workers needed for production – were invented, but precisely for the same reason – that is, they would have taken work away from the poor and disturbed the social order. – were sometimes burned along with their inventors, instead of being put into production. There are also examples of cannons and rifles, submersibles and flying devices invented in the Middle Ages by the Chinese, but not used, or wheels known to the Mayans, but used only for toys. In short, technology depends on society, it is not an autonomous factor. It was not the invention of the cathode tube that created the society of the spectacle.

But who then created this society? Theorists, even divergent ones like McLuhan and Anders, agree on one point: television is not a simple medium that can be indifferently put at the service of different objectives. Its structure, its shape strongly impair its use. As McLuhan said, “the medium is the message”. He says this with apologetic intent, when TV critics present the same statement as a criticism. But what finally is this structure, if it is not merely technological, nor is it a simple particular case of the logic of vision and image?

The most critical analyzes of the relationship between television and society highlight, above all, the passive and isolated contemplation to which electronic media lead. Beyond the contents, the spectator is always condemned to look at what others are doing, without having any power over his own life. What characterizes television is not simply looking at it, but just looking at it. The immobile gaze, the inert contemplation: this is what characterizes watching television and makes it the expression of a society in which everything is a spectacle, as Debord said. Because not everything is spectacular, in the sense of sensational, colorful, exciting, flashy – in fact, as Anders rightly observes, television does not always sensationalize events, sometimes it trivializes and presents certain events, due to the small format of their screen, the musical accompaniment, etc., in a more innocent outfit than they have in reality. If Debord said that everything is a spectacle, it was because of the fact that everything, from politics to traffic, from cities to culture, tends to produce and reproduce the isolated individual, therefore, massified, who finds himself in a state of complete impotence in the face of the world. which, in fact, is the result of your actions. He does nothing but look at this world, therefore, being a spectator of the show.

But this contemplation is not the fruit of ontological laziness, but the result of a social order that lives thanks to passivity. And it is this fact that links the theme of television to that of merchandise. This connection is often asserted but rarely developed (Debord develops it more than others, however). Why is television a commodity? Not only because devices are commodities and because you generally pay to receive transmissions, a fact that is almost insignificant. And not just because, as everyone knows, television channels play a leading role in promoting sales of every type of merchandise. And not just because they incessantly propose lifestyles based on the incessant consumption of goods.

One reason, which is the most fundamental, is in the structure of the commodity, and particularly in commodity fetishism. This concept was developed by Karl Marx and appears to close observation as a kind of secret core of his entire analysis of capitalist society. But few of his presumed disciples, that is, the Marxists, took up this concept. Among these few, however, we find Debord, as well as György Lukács or Adorno, even if they did so in different ways. In recent times, it has been above all the German group Krisis that has developed analyzes of commodity fetishism.

“Commodity fetishism” does not just mean an adoration of consumer goods, an excessive emotional investment in them, as the term might suggest at first glance. It does not even indicate just a form of mystified consciousness, which veils the true functioning of capitalist exploitation, as the Marxist vulgate wants. The concept of fetishism indicates this above all: in the capitalist commodity society, production does not take place for its content, for its use value. It happens to increase the value, the exchange value of commodities, and this value is determined by the amount of labor that was needed to produce the commodity – whether material or immaterial, it does not matter. It is not determined by the amount of concrete and real work, but simply work, undifferentiated work, abstract work, as Marx said.

From the point of view of capitalist commodity production, the production of concrete objects is only a secondary aspect; what counts is transforming living work into dead, objectified, past work, and this transformation must take place according to the productivity parameters in force at that time. The fate of a product, and of all production, does not depend on its real use for someone, nor on its beauty, nor on its symbolic value, but on its ability to be sold, so that the exchange value contained in it returns. to feed an ever expanding cycle of production and consumption.

The question of, for example, producing fighter bombers or bread does not depend on a conscious and collective decision that takes social needs into account, but depends on the profit that can be obtained from one or the other. This, we all know. It is not, however, just a moral aberration, or a defect exclusively attributable to the avidity of certain individuals or social classes. The society based on the production of commodities appears to everyone as an already given system. Although this society is undoubtedly a product of human action, it is opaque and imposes its rules on everyone.

In the commodity society, the subject is not man, the subject is value and merchandise, money and capital, the market and competition. Are these creations of man who rule human society, without even being aware of this fact, because this process is presented as “natural” to the subjects involved. Not every society is, however, a commodity society, because the commodity is not a supra-historical category, like the “good” or the “product”, but is a certain historical form of them.

The commodity society created forces far greater than those available to other societies, reaching the point of being able to devastate the entire world. But at the same time, modern man has even less power over these forces than his predecessors had over the forces of the past. He cannot do anything but contemplate them and let himself be governed by them. [12]. "No power do something else” does not mean that it is an absolutely invincible destiny, but that this is a logical consequence while living in a commodity society.

It is understood, then, that the concept of “society of the spectacle”, in which man is reduced to the role of spectator, immersed in passive contemplation, indicates a historically well-determined society, that is, the society of the fully developed commodity. , just as it came into existence, roughly speaking, from the 1920s onwards. And this is the first sentence of the book The Society of the Spectacle: “The whole life of societies in which modern conditions of production reign is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles” [13].

In fact, this sentence is identical to the first sentence ofThe capital of Marx, which begins precisely with a fundamental analysis of the commodity. Debord only replaced the word “commodities” with the word “spectacles”, with the situationist technique of “deviation” (misappropriation). This is immediately understood: that the spectacle Debord speaks of is a stage in the development of the commodity. The second chapter of his book is called “The commodity as a spectacle”, and the first two chapters together constitute an extremely important resumption of the Marxian analysis of commodity fetishism.

As we said, in the production of commodities the concrete content of the object and of the work that produces it disappears, only work counts as a mere amount of time employed, which Marx calls “abstract work”. All merchandise production is based on a process of “abstractification”, of “becoming-abstract”, because mere quantity without quality prevails. This is the abstraction of each content. The spectacle, with its reduction of the world to a mere appearance, to an image, is, therefore, nothing more than, as Debord himself said, a later stage in the secular process of the “becoming-abstract” of the world, which began in the Renaissance. and continued with greater force since the end of the eighteenth century.

A phenomenon that is not the result of a mysterious “Western metaphysics”, as perhaps one Heidegger would like to say, but that is the result of a well-determined material and social process, and therefore, at the limit, also modifiable. Television is, therefore, a kind of apogee of the commodity society, not only because it makes sales, but because it enhances the fundamental structure of modern society: inert contemplation, that which man created without knowing it and equally without wanting it. I do not develop this analysis here, because I have already done it in more detail in the first part of my book. Guy Debord (Voices).

I must, however, mention another element of capital importance: the spectacle, as Debord understands it, absolutely does not manage to occupy all of reality. This is very different from what happens according to Jean Baudrillard, whose lucubrations are sometimes confused by more superficial observers with Debord's theory. For Baudrillard, copy and reality are ultimately indistinguishable, there is no longer a reality, an original, a meaning, and perhaps it never existed. Satisfied resignation is the logical consequence of this perspective. Debord's analysis, quite the contrary, considers the invasion of copies to the detriment of the original, of appearance to the detriment of reality, as a scandal. Not because it could ever really succeed after all. But because these are quite real damage inflicted on reality. The predominance of merchandise and the spectacle also means a great impoverishment of lived life. The commodity and the spectacle are the abstractification and glacialization of life, they are “a negation of life that has become visible”. These constitute a negative reversal, a perverted way of life, but we can never replace it with everything.

Anders also observed, already in the 1950s, an inversion operated by television: when the ghost becomes real, reality becomes ghostly, he wrote, specifying that the ghost is neither a reality nor a simple image, but a being of the environment , with a different ontological status. Thus, contacts between real men and ghosts take on the contours of classic ghost stories. Surely, here we will raise questions to affirm that the weak aspect of this theory, its “aged” side, overcome, would be its attachment to notions such as “original” and “real”, “copy” and “appearance”, categories that have the form essentialist and belong to an impossible search for the authentic and the true, from which contemporary thought in recent decades would happily be freed.

It is evident that we assume a different point of view here: only when the aforementioned generation finally grew up – which since its birth has known nothing but copy and appearance, a generation for which, since childhood, reality was the that television transmitted, and not the one that eventually could be directly experienced, well, only when this generation reached the chairs could the postmodern thesis that reality does not exist spread out, and it is not by chance that this happened before in countries where the derealization of everyday life was already more advanced.

Ultimately, television contributes to creating the commodity man: a human being who is not simply forced, by necessity, to enter the cycle of alienated labor and commodity consumption, as happened in the early days of capitalist domination, in which there existed there is still a real conflict between a capitalist sphere of life and another sphere – the family, the village, the neighborhood, the corporation – not dominated by the logic of the commodity, or, at least, not completely dominated. The triumph of electronic media that began between the two world wars coincides with a capillary penetration of merchandise into every sphere of life, with a “colonization of everyday life”, as Debord called it.

With television, the “outside” and the “inside” disappear, there is no longer a separate sphere of merchandise. Except for small minorities, there is no longer any desire to drink other than the desire to drink Coca-Cola, or another product advertised on TV. There are no more toys made by the child himself, only those seen on television. There are no love behaviors different from those in telenovelas, etc. I don't want to repeat analyzes already made by others about how reality is, finally, being perceived only through the mental and perceptive schemes imposed by TV. Anders said half a century ago that men no longer create their own language any more than they bake their own bread at home. I would, however, like to stress that this confirms our analysis of the commodity as a “total social form”: a subject in commodity form, for which every object of perception, desire, feeling or thought is represented in commodity form.

Also, the “democratization” function that many people want to attribute to television consists precisely in the fact that everyone becomes equal in front of it. Television repeats in the subjects' confrontations the same universal process induced by the logic of the commodity: reducing everything to different quantitative expressions of the same indeterminate substance without quality.

We can also speak of a true and proper “negative anthropogenesis” or “regressive”. Man's millenary efforts to perfect his own existence and enrich his relationship with the world still run the risk of being annulled, and man of falling into a state of existential poverty that, in fact, never existed. Günther Anders insists on the impoverishment, or rather, the near abolition of the individual experience that takes place when everyone is supplied at home, as happens with gas or electricity. All the traditional categories of being-in-the-world, of men's relationship with their world, have been called into question by the existence of radio and TV, and not only when there are a hundred channels, but already when their embryonic structure appears.

The outside and the inside, distance and proximity, the particular and the universal replaced by succession, simultaneity and true presence, being and appearing: all these distinctions disappear. Television, Anders said, makes the world disappear under the image of the world. The world as a world is replaced by a model of the world on a reduced scale that serves to learn and internalize the behaviors that must be followed in real-world confrontations. Deep down, the entire commodity society is such a negative anthropogenesis, a step behind humanity. In the face of the idols of the market and profitability, of merchandise and capital, modern man absolutely demonstrates no greater autonomy than that which so-called primitive man had in the face of his wooden idol to which he attributed those powers which, in fact, were those of the human community.

The enthusiasm with which we received this regression is well worth explaining. Probably nothing is as common to all inhabitants of the globe as the desire to watch TV. Cultural differences may weigh on some of the content, the half-naked dancers perhaps give rise to a scandal in Saudi Arabia. But if it is a matter of watching cartoons, we can be sure that at least this would bring together Palestinians and Israelis, Chechens and Russians, slum dwellers and American millionaires, ayatollahs and pornographic actresses. Anders claimed as early as 1956 that many of his contemporaries would rather be in prison with a television to watch their programs (actually he said "having a radio") than be free without such a device. What shall we say today?

The first thing that was done in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban was to restart television broadcasts. This universalism of TV can be explained, on the one hand, by the fact that it is the vanguard of merchandise, even in places where merchandise does not exist, or practically does not exist. That majority of humanity that does not have access to almost any of the merchandise promoted on TV never tires of looking at their promise, the spectacle of the spectacle. In Europe's poorest and most backward country, Albania, close to Italy, inhabitants watched Italian television during the long Stalinist dictatorship, and after the regime's overthrow in 1990 a good number of them set out to reach Italy and to see the promised land, so that, finally, the then Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, known for his cynicism, exclaimed: “But did these people really think that all of Italy was like on television shows?”, and then sent the Army send the deceived home.

In an even broader perspective, also necessarily vague, it could be that the triumph of television is so universal because it responds to a profound infantilism in humanity and a desire for regression. Just like the individual, humanity could also feel fatigue and resistance in the face of the process of becoming an adult. The culture of the epic or the bourgeois novel is clearly a culture of adults. In fact, children do not understand a novel, an epic or poetry. Television, in contrast, as Adorno noted in the 1960s, is aimed at an 11-year-old viewer. Since then, this target age has been noticeably lowered even further. Cartoons, which I spoke of earlier as the product most universally loved by viewers, are perfectly enjoyable for a 3-year-old boy.

I recently saw, during a brief sea voyage, that a certain corner of the ship, with toys and the possibility of watching cartoons, was proposed for the children to stay there in order to avoid them seeing the sea and the coast. But most of the spectators who stayed there were so-called adults. “Nowhere is there access to adulthood”, said Debord in one of his films, not even to true childhood, we might add, but only to “infantilization”. Because Neil Postman is right about this, with his book O disappearance of childhood (Graphia) [14]. Television shows, offered indistinctly to viewers of all ages, have in fact abolished that childhood that the culture of the printed book helped to create, while television once again treats children as small adults — but adults made childish by it, we should add. .

But is the negative anthropogenesis of which television constitutes a powerful factor truly fatal, as Postman, Baudrillard and so many others affirm with resignation? It's too early to say. I can say that in the Italian town where I live — which is certainly not an exception — the same elderly people who don't want to spend a night at home without the TV often express nostalgia for the past when they used to get together at night to sing, or in which the women washed clothes together at the fountain, exchanging village gossip, instead of watching telenovelas each alone.

It is not impossible that many people, if they were left without a television, after a moment of disturbance, would rub their eyes wondering from what sleep they woke up. It is unbelievable, but such an experiment seems to have never been done in any so-called “civilized” country. Any kind of experimentation on the lives of populations is considered legal, from the use of asbestos to the cultivation of transgenic fields. But leaving a small town for a month without television, with an experimental objective, has never been heard of.

Perhaps one day, however, stronger actions will be seen. According to a tradition quoted by Walter Benjamin in the theses “On the concept of history” [15], during the revolution of 1830 in Paris, or, according to another version, during the Paris Commune of 1871, or even during the Spanish revolution of 1936, revolutionaries shot the public clocks. Who knows, maybe we will quickly or belatedly see other shots, now on television?

A utopia? I personally knew twenty years ago in California some people who were not revolutionary, but who had decided to remove the television set from the house where they lived together and lock it in a pantry. But it turns out that one day one of them, and another day another, wanted to see “only a certain transmission”, and each time the device was put back into operation. Until one day they got tired, they put him in a garden on a small wall, they positioned themselves at a certain distance, each one, like good Americans, took his own revolver and shot everyone at the television. Since then, no more television has been seen in that house.

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy, and author, among other books, of Credit to death: The decomposition of capitalism and its criticisms (Hedra).

Translation: Juliana Zanetti de Paiva.

Originally published on the website ArtThought IMS.


[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 1997).

[2] Ibid., § 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Guy Debord, “Comments on the Society of the Spectacle”, in The society of the spectacle, cit.

[5] Guy Debord, The society of the spectacle, cit. § 198.

[6] Plato generally seems like the demon of modern TV advocates, who make him a kind of forerunner of the Taliban (and no longer of Stalin or Hitler, as Karl Popper did).

[7] I would point out, incidentally, that this equation of criticisms, actually belonging to very different contexts, that is, those of Plato's condemnation of art and those of modern criticisms of the spectacular society, corresponds to the sophistry of those who respond, to the critics of the use of nuclear energy, that even the first trains were sometimes received by apocalyptic fears and by the demonstration of their extreme danger, and that it is, therefore, in both cases, a simple caprice in the face of the new.

[8] Gunther Anders, The Antiquity of Men (Munich: Beck, 1956). Ed. French: L'obsolescence de l'homme (Paris: Editions de l'Encyclopédie des Nuisances/Editions Ivrea, 2002).

[9] This assertion is present, for example, in Martin Jay's American History of Philosophy in his book (with a meaningful title): Downcast Eyes: the Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1994), that is, the “Defamation of the view in twentieth-century French thought”, in which he also speaks of Debord.

[10] Guy Debord, panegyrique, second volume (Paris: Arthème Fayard, 1997).

[11] I would add, however, that I saw that this book was recently discussed at USP and that at least one text by Anders, the one on Kafka, was published in Brazil in 1969, and that Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, in his 1952 essay, mentions this book about Kafka, which by then had only been published in Germany.

[12] I will not consider here other forms of alienation and fetishism that reigned in previous societies, which naturally did not constitute an Eden.

[13] Guy Debord, The society of the spectacle, cit., p. 13.

[14] Neil Postman, The childhood disappearance (1º ed. Rio de Janeiro: Graphia, 1999).

[15] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in The Angel of History, trans. João Barrento (Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2005).


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