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Television, Theory, and the Avant-Garde: Johnny, the Colonel, and Late Modernism

ISSUE:  Summer 1987
Having emptied myself of experience, I
know better than they the works and the boredom
of life without content, life as pure performing.
from “Good Morning America,” Irving Feldman

Who of us lives without or beyond television? Antennae, dishes, and transmission towers give pattern to, and disfigure, the landscape everywhere; and cable goes into deep, remote valleys. Even when we walk at night, we see chalky and prismatic flickerings through the curtains of our neighbors’ houses and apartments. We doubtless absorb this subdued incandescence as the Romantic poets received the moon—as a force giving shape to the Self.

In less than half a century, our society has transformed television from a novelty item—an iconic test-pattern—into a daily ritual. It is perhaps only children who now see it for the first time, though because tots look at dots from birth, they may not really see it (in the Jamesian sense) at all. The once novel postwar technology is now a standard perceptual fact of our consciousness.

Still, we seem to be embarrassed to talk about television’s influence on us (if we admit, in the first instance, that we even watch), and intellectuals pretend, as a rule, that the “tube” is unrelated to their academic identities. If sex was the dirty secret for D. H. Lawrence’s generation, and money for Norman Podhoretz’, television may be ours.

Despite the disclaimers of academics, television stands, in its form(s) and content, more closely connected to our aesthetic and academic existence that we would like to think, and the intellectual preferences of the academy make up something like mirror images of popular culture as it is defined by the role of television.

A few recent items, perhaps important only as signs and symptoms, get at the power of television and allow us to establish connections between some of the attributes of daily television, some theoretical implications of recent academic (especially literary) criticism, and recent avant-garde tendencies.

The New York Times reported in June 1986, that Colonel Qaddafi wears mirrored sunglasses, even at night, as he watches television.

He repeatedly stared at his television set, which he keeps on constantly without sound as he watched one of an endless series of people’s assemblies in which Libyans were chanting and waving their fists in anger at the United States.

More recently, we were asked to contemplate whether Johnny Carson would retire after 25 years of hosting “The Tonight Show” and how would the producers of “Dallas” bring about the return of Bobby James Ewing from the “apparent” dead? (the vehicle of whose return would be less important than the fact of his reappearance, as it turned out).

The anecdote about Qaddafi’s television-watching habits suggests ways in which television serves as a random and meaningless event for many people who watch, and these habits may also serve as a guide to some aspects of contemporary culture, if only by analogy.

One watches TV, with or without attention, around the clock. It is random and, at the same time, continuous. One can watch it, as well, without sound (or with very little sound), as many of us like to watch it, if watch is the word, as we doze, read, or even make love—but who of us will admit to these habits?

It penetrates our minds, psyches, and habitats from the outside, and yet it is part of the inside—as furniture, artifact, and comforting presence. The words and pictures may or may not bear relationship to one another, the events on the screen usually bear little relationship to the words spoken, to the person who watches, but—we watch, comforted by the lack of meaning.

The cases of Johnny Carson and “Dallas” emphasize the role of repetition and trivialized sequence on television. We look to it as a medium that provides us with a continuous set of narrative events whose contents (and the meaning of whose contents) are less important than the fact of sequence itself. We watch Carson because, in part, we have watched him for so long.

He is one of us. Perhaps, he is us. He has talked to us for so long, his monologue has become so much a part of our narrative history—of our history of, in, and as narrative, of our very acceptance of diminished narrative possibilities—that we feel that we cannot do without him. When he is replaced, though, we will probably feel, a night or two later, that we need the next host just as much. Yesterday’s television host doesn’t fade away, he just disappears; or, is disappeared.

Even if Johnny were to tell us after his mimed golf swing and necktie-tightening, that he had nothing more to say, we would probably just laugh and take it as more shtik, part of a monologue, as good or as bad as “The Best of Carson.” Merv Griffin recently recalled that Jack Parr said, when he left TV in 1962, “I’m leaving because there’s nobody left to talk to.” Griffin says, “Well, in a sense he was right.” But this didn’t stop Merv, or his audience, from going on for 24 years.

We crave the continuity and longevity of the “talk show” itself (the unique genre of television) no matter how trivial, banal, and nonsensical the talk may be. In some sense, we don’t really care if one host replaces another one. Our electronic media gods are false, after all, and they are only immortal, in any case, because they are on.

We crave the continuity of the talk show even if the sequence of guests (contiguity) is disjointed: a stupid pet trick, or act, follows a performance artist, a trained seal follows a conceptual comic, a clairvoyant follows an anti-paranormalist We demand the presence of a host, any host, though preferably the same one.

We want someone to be there talking when we turn the set on because we are entranced by traces of narrative sequence despite its content, even as we can be fascinated by discontinuous, Qaddafi-like watching—for both approaches agree that we live in a world that doesn’t make much sense.

The “Carson” and “Qaddafi” principles, as we might call them, can be extended, amplified, and emended to apply to the content of television programming (from sit-coms to sports) and to the forms and modes in which programming, reception, and selection take place (commercial, cable, and VCR). Our ability to switch channels without purpose is not unlike, finally, the manipulation of our attention span (four-seconds) on any program or series that we may happen to watch.


It is perhaps easier to document the role of Carsonian repetition on television than it is to substantiate Qaddafi’s repertoire. The terms “series” and “mini-series,” to say nothing of “reruns,” highlight television’s programming as a compulsion whose underlying determinant is the need for repetition itself. Every night and early morning, we can see “T.J. Hooker,” “Remington Steele,” and “Simon and Simon,” for example, go through a set of gestures all of which we have seen before, all of which we only half look at, or look at with a sense of glazed fatigue.

It is, in fact, one of the special qualities of television that we remain interested when bored (maybe most interested when most bored). We stay awake and watch even when we long for sleep with its more imaginative fund of dreams. We watch even if television only begins to rival dream-images in advertisements, though we must pay tribute to the higher ethics of dreams in that they do not try to sell us anything, save our own wishes, as distinct from the wishes of a profit-driven sponsor; but . . .we watch anyway.

If these situation stories and series have content, they have so only in the form of exhausted tales and fables of fall and redemption, triumphs of spirit over matter, that we are given in purer and more forcible form in religion and fairy tales. It must be that we need the illusion of sequence itself in a world that often operates without apparent motive. We seem to want organization without import.

Perhaps it makes more sense to say that we wish the illusion of coherence without implication, loss, or material renunciation. This set of terms fits a culture that paradoxically prides itself at once on a Puritan-like sense of spiritual mission and an ethic of gain.

The Qadaffi-principle is less easy to define if we look at television program by program; but, if we take television programming as a whole over time, we can see it at work: interruptions (within, through commercials), fragmentation (the editing, say, of movies for TV), erasure of sound and sight (the scrambling of images on paychannels for the nonpayers), the topsy-turvy interpenetration of past and present (“classic” movies shown against dream-like MTV’s), and the subtle mimetic ambiguities of ads-in-drama and drama-in-ads. We see a blend of inside and outside, as well as nature and art, through the absorption of the great outdoors into the microscopic indoors. Like the Colonel, we look at a fragmented world through dark glasses.

In content, then, television tends toward the preconceived and recycled, toward empty narratives. In form and modality, in its distribution through time and space, TV presents, cumulatively, a chaotic, if not nihilistic, world without order that is strictly organized (programmed): an inverse image of the paradox of order without purpose. If we want value without implication, we seem to want as well a discontinuous freedom that does not, finally, overwhelm us.

The Carson and Qaddafi principles might be said to represent, then, two versions of the late modernist movement as these principles embody a common Structuralist and post-Structuralist approach to the nature and problem of meaning and representation. Both structuralism and post-structuralism, in their accrued implications, turn away from value to the symbolic forms and and systems through which and in which individuals and societies achieve meaning. The late Modernists—whether Structuralists or post-Structuralists— agree, in effect, that we have passed beyond a literature of reference (to God and/or the observable world) through allusion and irony (the strategies of 1920’s modernism) to one of codes and the manipulation (processing) of information with (Structuralist) or without (Deconstructionist) meaning.

More and more, literature and the arts—and we may now add television—provide equivalent post-Modernist examples of self-serving, or self-denying, systems in which the structure of the system takes priority over any possible reference the system might carry. The program—rather than what is programmed—has come increasingly to be of prime importance or, I may now say—of prime time. The structure (or lack of structure) of the code takes precedence, as it were, over what is said.

In other words, the taste for, and defense of, certain popular art forms (including television) may not be so different, in the end, from an edge of current literary theory and related avant-garde tendencies. The seriatim structure, say, of Andrew Warhol’s designs, Robert Coover’s The Gingerbread House, and the encircling plot of John Earth’s Lost In The Funhouse, to look just at the sequential side of literary postmodernism, provide sophisticated versions of a world whose links, like Carson’s, seem to be contrived rather than organic, more matters of artificial arrangement of time than causal developments.

And the pleasure of watching the spins of “Wheel of Fortune,” of listening to Pat Sajak’s dulcet tones and watching Vanna White’s seal-like clapping as a form of consumer spasm is like the aesthetic (if not the level of achievement and degree of invention and refinement) of the work of, say, Robert Wilson and Martha Clarke.

Listening to Pat chat with one guest and then another and then watching Vanna smile is similar, in this way, to the underlying appeal of the nonsequential side of late Modernist aesthetics, the higher form, so to speak, of the Qaddafi-principle. The guests have no real connection to one another, unless they are trivial matonymic ones; and Vanna’s Poe-like smile has no objective correlative. Her teeth gleam—detached, isolated—and seem to have a life separate from her arms which, in semirigid arcing movements, point to the goods and wares.

With a few changes and transpositions and a shift in audience expectation, we might find ourselves in the avantgarde American theater. William H. Honan says in The New York Times about this avant-garde American theater: “The new theatre artist is blitzing the senses with irreconcilables, incongruous juxtaposition, and jarring disorientation . . . .” If one turns down the sound of “Wheel of Fortune” and looks at it as Col. Qaddifi does (with or without dark glasses), we might well use Mr. Honan’s words to describe what we see. The game’s order is only superficial and its content/passion is one only of absorption and consumption.

If the Game Show makes its participants into machine-like elements, the avant-garde transforms the audience into something like recording (consuming) devices, according to Mel Gussow:

Just as one should view “Vienna” within the context of Miss Clark’s other work, one must approach it within a theatrical genre. With her theater of images and illusions, she is closely allied with Robert Wilson, Ping Chong, the Mabou Mines, and other experimental innovators . . . Though several of these artists have also worked with film and television, their stage pieces exist only in performance. By necessity, the audience is its own recording device, storing up impressions.


Some of the trends that I have located in both television and the avant-garde (as well as among contemporary theorists) have been summarized by Denis Donoghue in The New York Times Book Review (June 22, 1986). Professor Donoghue gives us a short history of the rise of Modernism into its later stages. His acute synopsis includes George Simmers notion (“Philosophy of Money,” 1900) that “one’s functional life is arbitrary” (italics mine) as well as Jürgen Habermas’s description of our external life as being “chiefly characterized by its predictable and repetitive quality . . .” (italics mine). Professor Donoghue doesn’t mention TV per se, but he does talk about the “images we consume,” so he might as well be talking about it.

One way or the other, Professor Donoghue probably would agree with some of the assumptions of Sven Birkerts who lashes editor and writer Gordon Lish in “The New American Writing and Its Mentor: The School of Lish” (The New Republic, Oct. 13, 1986), where Birkets says that “fiction seems no longer charged with the mirroring of reality”; and he might agree also that much of the quality of dialogue in recent American writing resembles “TV gabble” more than it does traditional literary speech or, one would hope, the deeper rhythms of our culture.

All told, the representation of our experience—whether on TV, in the university, or in avant-garde expression (which increasingly makes use of TV as prop, recording device, and objet)—fails to account for the middle terms of our lives, a moral term that falls outside categories of mere repetition and randomness.

And television’s obsession with sports (as well as television’s exploitation of our obsession with sports) illustrates the degree to which random structure (the Qaddafi-principle) and a mirage of sequential order (the Carson-principle) are essential to the medium. Sports and games seem to be the perfect activity for television. They escape the terms of true human drama, even as the broadcasters are able to impose a pseudo-language of inevitability upon its action (the “turning point,” “shift of momentum,” etc.). The manipulation of sports shows us, ritualistically, events without resonant human implications, even as they allow us to feel the so-called thematic “ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat.” We never feel more human, apparently, than when we are watching these contentless events.

In some sense, the producers of TV themselves realize, from time to time, that the medium is thin on human reality, and they rise up, in Lear-like fashion (that’s Norman, not “King”), and make humanistic pronouncements. Just recently, Steve White, NBC executive, said about the 1986 season: “Reality is going to be very strong.”

He goes on to say that “The backbone of the television movie is real stories about real people . . .there’s just something about the combination of realism and this medium that works very well.” The problem is that those “real stories about real people” usually turn out to be fantasies.

If we want a better remedy, we can turn to Italo Calvino who brilliantly shows a middle way between the narrative terms of the “combinatorial game” (repetition) and “unexpected meaning” (randomness), who returns us to “empirical and historical man,” even as he defends fancy and fantasy, who reminds us that the “writing game,” despite the metaphor, “is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and his society.” Calvino knows about Carson, Qaddafi, and so much more.

Has a middle term been missing in the mass media, academic theory, and the avant-garde precisely because we have so many ghosts in our personal and cultural lives? Do we prefer to forget the skeleton in the closet (the uncle who is out of work, the mother who is alcoholic, the child who is abused) and the bones-become-ash in the earth (the lost remains of the Nazi death-machine) precisely because we live and have lived in a time that assaults careful observation and memory? Is it that it is too difficult to sell real pain to the “viewing audience?”

But this is not a new situation for us entirely. Whitman says in “Democratic Vistas”:

Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in (for all this hectic glow . . .), nor is humanity itself believ’d in.

We might even say that Whitman imagined television, the “hectic glow,” before it became a technological and cultural fact of American life, and that he had a prevision that its appearance would be coincident with a moral dilemma: “nor is humanity itself believ’d in.” Whitman knew the price America would pay for advanced materialism and consumerism, and he knew that the price wouldn’t be right.

He would have seen how a misguided experimentalism (an amoral and “cool” version of post-Modernism and the avantgarde) could serve to camouflage an unbridled consumerism. He would have seen how ads themselves—as fantasies of consumption, as consumption of fantasy—stand for so much of what television offers us: a dehumanized Scylla and Charybdis of repetition and randomness whose avoidance of a human center clears the way for commercials or, as the announcers say, a “break.”

Whitman would have seen the “break” as a fracture, and he doubtless would have urged healing. He might have exhorted us, for a while at least, to live without and beyond television, to head for the hills where, and only where, in America, it has been possible historically to get good reception on a mythic channel.


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