Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The fragmentary nature of television

For the past couple of months, I've been reading, and thinking about phenomenology, a philosophical movement concerned with the nature of conscious experience. My guide has been the wonderful Introduction to Phenomenology by Robert Sokolowski. I haven't found it easy to understand phenomenology, nor have I found it easy to explain to other people, but I am finding it to be a very rich source of insight. As I was watching a television show the other night (Vampire Diaries, if you must know), I suddenly made a connection with something I had read in Sokolowski's book:
One of the dangers we face is that with the technological expansion of images and words, everything seems to fall apart into mere appearances. ... it seems that we now are flooded by fragments without any wholes, by manifolds bereft of identities, and by multiple absences without any enduring real presence. We have bricolage and nothing else, and we think we can even invent ourselves at random by assembling convenient and pleasing but transient identities out of the bits and pieces we find around us.
It struck me that television is a perfect example of this point. Now it's easy to criticize TV, but my main goal here is to understand a particular aspect of television, its fragmentary nature. If we can better understand the phenomenon of television in our culture, we may be able to approach it more wisely.

Perhaps the most fragmented experience of television is channel surfing—a series of disconnected images, sounds, and representations—a toothpaste commercial / a football game / a lion in a savannah / a riot / a soap opera / ... But even when one stays on one channel, watching television is a fragmented experience. Camera angles switch constantly, and our attention is distracted by commercials, and sometimes streaming lines of news updates and stock prices at the bottom of the screen.

But the fragmentation runs much deeper. Consider the constructed narrative of reality TV, a Frankenstein's monster of dismembered and reassembled footage. More fragmented still is one of the parents of reality TV: the news. Like reality TV, a television news segment consists of a patchwork of content assembled to tell a story. A number of these segments are themselves assembled into a news broadcast. Allowing time for advertisements, and to keep things lively, each segment is typically only a few minutes long. What gets left out is context: current events are presented with a minimum of historical, political, and cultural background.

As another example, consider the situation comedy. Granted, this is fiction designed to entertain, and the outlandish characters and situations sitcoms portray are not meant to be taken seriously. Such elements are easily set aside. What is more disconcerting is some of the elements that at first sight seem more mundane. While sitcoms often represent people in apparently ordinary situations, there are jarring absences. For example in some sitcoms nobody seems to have to work. In others, ordinary standards of politeness don't seem to apply. Bizarrely, a laugh track is added in place of an absent audience. Episodes are totally disconnected from each other, so that events have no long-term consequences. One-dimensional characters substitute for authentic identities. It is as if the characters are trapped in an endless loop, condemned to repeatedly play out their fates under a variety of starting conditions, never learning, never changing.

The examples go on. Consider sports on television. Or dramas. Or talk shows. In each case, we can see "fragments without any wholes ... manifolds bereft of identities ... multiple absences without any enduring real presence."

Sokolowski argues that because of this "we think we can even invent ourselves at random by assembling convenient and pleasing but transient identities out of the bits and pieces we find around us." Is he right? Does the fragmentary nature of television lead to a fragmented sense of ourselves? And if so, what is the impact?

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