X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
When I talk about television, what I'm really talking about is the consumer culture. What I'm talking about is the kind of corporate power that finds expression through TV, so profitably, so effectively, and I think --- so disastrously.
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Mark ?Cristin Miller, associate professor in the writing seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. He's author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Dr.ÝMiller. How does your book Boxed In draw on your original English literary and critical experience?
MARK MILLER: Well, I began that experience with a very powerful interest in, and love of, the literary text, and I soon came to understand that the text was often informed by forces larger than the author's consciousness, the author's intention. Not informed by those larger things to the complete exclusion of the author's intention necessarily. But I came to discover that one might very often, by delving deeply enough into a given text, arrive at an understanding of the social and cultural totality around that text, an understanding that might be every bit as acute as the understanding one might attain to by reading two-hundred secondary works, history and social analysis about that period. That in some way the historical moment is embedded in the text. That's a very simple way to put what I discovered in graduate school, as a graduate student in English, I was in the Renaissance specifically, that was my field. But all the while, as I was doing that kind of critical analysis, I was also interested in film, and came to be interested in things like advertising and television and discovered that even authorless text, if you want to put it that way, or works that are the result of committee labor, that are the result of certain kinds of economic imperatives, that are as it were anonymous compared to work like Othello. That even, maybe even especially, those works tell us more than we might expect about the present. And what seemed to me to be exceptionally important about this latter kind of work, which is the work that Boxed In is comprised of, was that it seemed to offer a kind of a critical response, or to set the example of a certain kind of critical response that the objects might have to the great barrage of images and sounds, suasive images and sounds, commercial images and sounds, political images and sounds, that constitute what passes for our culture. We are intended to be the objects of that barrage. And I think that it's time that the public or the people, whatever you want to call this entity that we comprise, look back at that barrage and began to see that it was in fact, that it is in fact fraught with meanings which once understood might give us, if not outright power, at least an understanding of what power might mean.
MP: I want to be fairly specific. We know who the people are who buy television, and buy ..............., buy it, provide it to us, or sell it to us, ultimately collect from us for it. But you also generate the image of the advertisers learning how to work with the media.
MARK MILLER: Absolutely.
MP: Over the last thirty years, an evolutionary process.
MARK MILLER: Yeah.
MP: .............. particularly unique in the way you describe it.
MARK MILLER: Well, one of the problems one has when one engages in critique like this is that a certain kind of respondent, usually a respondent who is in some way implicated in the thing I'm talking about, a respondent will say, well, people are too smart for this kind of thing, they can see through it, you're an Èlitist for claiming that people are taken in. Well, I'm not positing a kind of gullibility of the sort that we find in outright authoritarian systems, but I don't think people are necessarily wide-eyed, rapt in their attention to the images that come down from on high, and simply do the bidding of those who generate those images. I think we need a different model for life in a consumer culture. I think that people are indeed leery of those mass-produced images. I think that they do look on figures of power with a kind of a jaundiced eye. And that's precisely one of the ways in which those images succeed. And I talk in the book about how it was in the '30s that the big advertisers in this country, as well as big business management, came to discover the uses of seeming to join the little guy in his democratic, smalld, skepticism. Distrust of authority.
MP: This was after the countless famous photographs of billboards of happy American family with the penniless people standing in .................. lines in front of it.
MARK MILLER: That's right. That was, those famous photographs by people like Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White and many others represented one kind of a warning signal to big business, that it was no longer, now that the Depression had arrived, specifically, it was no longer possible simply to offer a broad, beaming face to the public, and say something like "what's good for business is good for America." Photographs like the ones you refer to, I reproduced one in my book, told big business men and advertisers that now there might be a certain value in seeming to take the same jaundiced view of advertising that the people were taking, since the Depression started. There was a magazine in 1934 launched, it was called Bunk. It was a little bit like Mad Magazine. It was sort of, it was an adolescent humor magazine, but its main purpose, the raison d'Ítre was to make fun of advertising, and all it was, was a series of parody ads, ya know. Now. Inside of two years, Bunk had become a premier advertising vehicle, you see? In other words, the advertiser had himself learned how to knock the product. The advertiser had learned to dispense with a kind of reference, solemnity, that had characterized a lot of advertising up to the '20s. Now a kind of jeering skepticism seemed to be called for. That was a very important lesson. One of the things I want to demonstrate in Boxed In is the ways in which both our political leaders and our mass advertisers have managed to use television to put across the same kind of calculated derision as a way to make people think that they see through things and to flatter the people for apparently seeing through things, but the point is that that penetration is only superficial, and doesn't really constitute a seeing-through.
MP: You've argued in fact of the very descriptive qualities of television one is irony.
MARK MILLER: Yeah.
MP: .......... ?Joe ?Izusu or Dan Rather or President Reagan.
MARK MILLER: Or David Letterman, yeah, yeah. Irony is the, how would one put this? the attitudinal armor, or vehicle, of advertising since the '60s comes across on television, it pervades television. Irony is something that no longer represents a response by the enlightened victim of the powerful. Think of Voltaire, for example. In other words, it no longer has that Enlightenment position that it once had, of allowing some small knowing figure to grin devastatingly at enormous and oppressive institutions. Now irony is in fact the attitude of those institutions, or of analogous institutions. Now, the Pope is not an ironist, obviously, but Ronald Reagan was a master ironist. David Letterman is a very effect ironist. I mean Johnny Carson was an ironist to begin with. David Letterman represents the hippening, if I can coin a verb, of the Carson figure for the '80s, someone who can help to make a generation of the '60s, my generation, feel somehow above the very media spectacle that we're all not implicated in, you see. But there was a moment on the Letterman show that seems to me to have blown the cover, as it were, on that pose of irony. It's Harvey ?Picar, who was a regular on the Letterman show and I think wrote for that show at times, suddenly put it to Letterman about General Electric, the corporate owner of NBC, and accused Letterman of basically being a sell-out, and he did it in the venerable tradition of a kind of '60s outrage, but he wouldn't let Letterman off the hook. There, Letterman's irony failed him. He couldn't simply smirk this off, because there was a seriousness there that that kind of incessant, automatic, standup irony couldn't withstand, and Letterman lost his temper, and it was interesting. It was interesting, because it shows that that hip irony is not necessarily on the right side of every issue. But you see, it is an implication of an irony that to be laid back, to be cool, is also necessarily somehow, in some vague way, to be countercultural. But that is by now meaningless.
MP: And to be ineffective defense against the commercial message.
MARK MILLER: Absolutely. There's a recent Roy Rogers commercial that represents perfectly the kind of thing you're talking about now. It shows a handsome young, somebody in his twenties, a young man, thirty-something material, expensively but casually dressed, handsome, with a shaggy but no unkempt head of hair, sitting back in his armchair alone of an evening, watching TV, and he's watching a game show. The game show is overheated, frenzied, vulgar, in a way that no game shows are any longer, represents the game show of the early '60s, but it's tacky looking enough to allow this character, and by extension us, to laugh at it. Now, the question that the grotesquely beaming emcee of this show asks the sweaty, panic-stricken guest has one answer, and that answer is Roy Rogers. It's a commercial for Roy Rogers. The guest can't answer it. The guy sitting in the chair keeps saying "Roy's, Roy's." This is a moment I think was taken from the film Diner, because all these things come up in movies. We know the answer, he knows the answer, the guy on the TV doesn't know the answer. Finally, after having failed to answer the question like three or four times, the guest on the show leads the character in the chair to smack himself on the head in disgust and say "Where do they get these people?" And he takes his remote control, turns off the TV show, and goes off to Roy's. "I'm going to Roy's," he says. Now, what this does is, this allows us to feel superior to TV. It allows us to feel superior to the hard sell. But it is the hard sell, it is TV, you see? [chuckles lightly]. And insofar as we find that character in the chair attractive and empathize with him, we've fallen for the pitch, and we're just as gullible as anyone who might have fallen for the oily wiles of a patent-medicine salesman around the turn of the century. There's really no difference at all except that one has the modern patina of a kind of coolness, that's the only difference.
MP: You go beyond irony and talk about other qualities that television has, particularly the connection to shopping malls, and the sensate connections.
MARK MILLER: Yeah. It's, I'm glad you picked up on that, 'cause that comes into the book here and there.
MP: Well, I am fascinated by that, because that's an extension that's uncommon in recognition.
MARK MILLER: Yeah, well, I mentioned a certain easy kind of refutation before, kind of refutation that one must dismiss, the idea that it's Èlitist to mount this kind of critique. I'll mention another one now, that is the claim that when one mounts a critique of this kind, one is demonizing television, and this allows the pseudo-historical argument, well, people thought that the rise of bicycles or the rise of automobiles would do this or would do that, or the rise of radio. So, they were wrong and you're obviously wrong too. Well, although TV comes in for some hard knocks in my book, I would argue that the subtitle, "The Culture of TV," is very seriously intended. I'm talking about a medium whose influence is now so pervasive that it's become impossible to extricate television proper from the world we now inhabit. We live in a culture of TV. When I talk about television, what I'm really talking about is the consumer culture, what I'm talking about is the kind of corporate power that finds expression through TV so profitably, so effectively, and I think so disastrously. When you're talking about television, therefore, and its success, you're also necessarily talking about the material infrastructure, for want of a better word, that makes TV indispensable to so many people. When you're talking about people's need for television, and I'm not, incidentally, meaning to imply there's nothing worthwhile on TV, I watch shows myself that I enjoy. Nevertheless, people's need for a night of television, irrespective of what particular shows might be on during that night, is, that need is somehow profoundly connected to the dullness of most labor in this society, the numbing dullness of so much white-collar labor. The success of TV has everything to do with the successful spread of the interstate highway system after the war and the rise of suburbia. It has to do with the inexorable erosion of neighborhoods. There was an excellent series of articles last year in the Wall Street Journal about the modern suburbs, the new suburbs, that so many people moved to now all over the country. Suburbs established in places that really aren't places, they're not really rural and they're not really urban, nobody knows anybody else in them. Those are places that require shopping malls, hermetically sealed places that do not permit the intrusion of any data or influence that might somehow detract from the shopping, that might wreck the pseudo-festive atmosphere that you have in a mall, the controlled temperature, controlled lighting. Television is exactly the same way, the commercial spectacle is just as zealously guarded by its managers against the inappropriate intrusion of some piece of news or some image that might cast a shadow over the ads. I mean that's probably an impossible desire, but they are ever vigilant against that possibility, and I think that it's not just an analogy. In other words, TV and the shopping mall aren't merely analogous, they're connected, because it is the aim of TV to keep the goods moving. And TV is watched, is always on, as the fire once always flickered in the hearth, it's always going, in all those condominium units and suburban homes and so on that are linked as if for the sake of their very survival to the local shopping mall, the biggest ones of which are now called the power malls, you know? [chuckles]. But it's all for the purpose of consumption, it's all for the purpose of production, that's all it's for, and that's where TV primarily comes in, as virtually any network executive will tell you, the function of TV is an economic function, it's not really a recreational one.
MP: We'll be right back. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, and our guest today is Mark ?Crispen Miller, associate professor in the writing seminars at the Johns Hopkins University and author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV. So far we've discussed criticism applied to television, we've discussed irony, we've discussed the issue of shopping-mall/television connection. And I want to pursue that again, because there are elements that you've brought out, not just the lack of surprise, suppression of political reality, the homogeneity, the comfort, protection of the spectacle, you've also brought out other elements in terms of movement, in terms of lighting, in terms of almost conviviality.
MARK MILLER: The kind of conviviality or an illusion of conviviality, yeah. What you're saying suggests to me that it's time to bring up one the most crucial facts about television, which is that, like the enormous outlet in any mall or like the mall itself, TV is characterized by an increasingly hectic, I suppose you could say desperate, internal competition of image with image. We live in a moment, it's very peculiar, there's an unprecedented proliferation both of commodities and of images of the commodities and of images, period. This is always extolled by certain kinds of apologists and pundits as representing an unprecedented enhancement of personal choice, you see. But the fact is, all it means is an expanded shopping opportunity for some, and a much-expanded fantasy of shopping for everybody, [chuckles].
MP: ........... several Russians in the last few years, including ?Josef ?Brodsky, that says Americans have the freedom to choose among a thousand different cerealsó
MARK MILLER: That's right.
MP: It's totally trite.
MARK MILLER: Terrific.
MP: Trivial choice.
MARK MILLER: Yeah, that's right, well, Nathan ?Charanski recently, in fact I think in his new book, despairs of how trivial choice really is in this society. That's something, that those are statements of his that haven't gotten all the press that his original statements got when he came over here for the first time. Yeah, I mean, this leaves of account entirely political choice, it leaves of account entirely a choice as to the work, choice in the workplace. It represents in fact disempowerment rather than empowerment because all it means is you can choose between seventeen different kinds of yogurt, and I put different in quotation marks 'cause they're really not that different. At any rate, this vast proliferation, you could even call it nightmarish, is, this is the paradoxical part and the part that gives away the whole game. That proliferation is underwritten by increasingly concentrated corporate power. When we're talking about all these channels that we can now get on cable, for example, well, the media spectacle is in the hands of fewer and fewer people, more and more and more powerful. The Time/Warner merger is just one example. But each of the networks is owned now by one corporate power, GE, Capital Cities Communication, and Loew's, Incorporated. This represents a lessening of the possible spectrum of representations that you can get on one channel or another and it represents I think inevitably an increasing sameness among the channels. Well, all right. This is the ground, this is the situation. Within this situation, there is the fact that it becomes more and more difficult for any image, any commodity, to stand out from the other images and the other commodities. This is a morass, which the admen term clutter, that's their word for it, clutter. And every time they announce a new campaign, they say this will have the impact to break through the clutter, they say that endlessly, they say that over and over again. Well, more and more, what an image, whether it be on TV or on a movie screen or on a shelf, what an image has to do more and more, in other words, more and more its primary obligation, before it does anything else, is simply to make an impression. It simply must get your attention. So that ads and shows alike become more and more gratuitously jolting, more and more graphic, simply to break through. Now, much has been made of television's recent graduation into a new kind of graphic portrayal of sex or, more profanities and so on. This has nothing whatsoever to do with a new maturity on the part of the networks. Since it's still a Puritanical society and the networks are still interested only in making money, what it represents is competition from cable and syndication and channel, Fox broadcasting, things like that, and the videocassettes people can rent. Faced with that kind of competition, the networks are obligated to give us more skin, give us more dirty words, and thenó
MP: Or violence, shock.
MARK MILLER: Or violence, shock, jolt, whatever. And, it seems to me that Hiraldo Rivero, as revolting as he is, or Morton Downey, Jr., who is just a thug, I mean, these people, with all their manifest shortcomings, are in fact being scapegoated by the media, because, although it's true that the television spectacle has bifurcated into tabloid TV socalled on the bottom and mainstream TV on the top, both mainstream and tabloid TV have become increasingly gratuitously gross and violent. A show like The Equalizer is no more defensible, it seems to me, than Current Affair or one of those programs. They both take on the pointlessly speedy, jolting, mind-numbing, anti-critical quality of advertising, the advertising that makes the whole spectacle possible, and the advertising which is at the same time the whole purpose of the spectacle.
MP: You've gone even beyond this. You've extend the impact of this ?vast ?chop splicing sentiment and technology, methodology, into both the news and into the newsmakers, the political figures.
MARK MILLER: Oh, yes. Well, when I say the culture of TV, I'm not just kiddin' around, [chuckles]. I think that the old TV genres are no more. Television genre is an oxymoron, it seems to me, because, I mean it's been the case at least since the changing of the guard from Cronkite to Rather in 1981, that the news is no longer either a distinct exception to the televisual rule, nor is it anything that even remotely can be said to serve the public interest, which is of course the supposed mandate of the networks. The news, if you analyze the rhetoric, the writing, of any network newscast, as I do in the book on several occasions.
MP: You actually have the dialogue in the book without the images, and the dialogue is ludicrous.
MARK MILLER: It's ludicrous, it makes no sense, it is utterly unlike a newspaper leadin, by comparison, because it doesn't make any attempts to orient you, for however biased a newspaper openingó
MP: No. It jumps, it makes connections that have no historic meaning outside of the abstract sequence of the images.
MARK MILLER: Right. And the imperative to jolt, as you pointed out before. It must hook you. You must be hooked, you must be frightened into keeping the show on, and then, end up having watched this show with its series of anxiety-inducing jolts, you're meant to be consoled by that kicker at the end when the newsman kind of grins and tells you a story about a family of ducks in Manitoba and how they won the lottery [laughing] or whatever it is. But, that's the news. And, we can certainly talk to anybody in the news who is, anyone who works in TV news who's not completely cloned out by the job, and many of them are, we can talk to anybody who isn't cloned out and get a pretty honest appraisal of what's happened, that is, we have to use commercial techniques in order to make the news, in order to sell the news to the people. And it doesn't stop there, as you say, and as I say in the book. By now, our political culture is an extension of TV, and it seems to me requisite that we get beyond the banality that the newspeople trade in. We heard this many, many times over the course of the campaign, from newspeople. Where are the issues? Why has politics come the war of the soundbites? Pointing that out with a shrug and sigh doesn't get us anywhere, because the same people who point it out with a shrug and a sigh continue to create the conditions that make it the case. I think that Ronald Reagan represents the triumph of television. Now, I know he symbolizes Hollywood because he comes out of Hollywood, but his real histrionic genius, as I try to demonstrate in the book, is a televisual genius. It's not that larger-than-life, cinematic, iconic quality. It's a kind of scaled-down, pseudo-homely, pseudo-mundane televisual quality which he mastered. I actually don't think, of, this is a kind of a radical claim and maybe an indefensible one in any empirical way, but, when I think of Ronald Reagan or I think of some of the most efficient and ubiquitous newspeople, I don't think of persons. I think, not only of images either, I think of entities that are completely filled in by the medium. Ronald Reagan is an extension of TV and its advertising. If we could count the numbers of times that Ronald Reagan used the television commercial in order to make a statement, I think we would be shocked. "Go ahead, make my day." That comes from the TV promos for a Clint Eastwood movie, not just from the movie, you know. This takes the place of any kind of a statement. It's another banality that political speech has declined drastically from the days of the Lincoln/Douglas debates to the kind of bumper-sticker brevity at the present. It's not enough to point that out and lament it, in the neoconservative mode. We have to understand why it's happened, what the force is behind the development, and what obliquely that development serves to bolster. It serves to bolster advertising.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Miller. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, our guest was Mark ?Crispin Miller, author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV, published by Northwestern University Press in 1988.