Toward a phenomenology of television

I admit that I’ve lost anything but a passing interest in contemporary film and television. I’m not entirely in the dark on such matters; I browse Youtube occasionally, and I have a store nearby where I can find used DVDs for as little as a buck. A year ago, I got into a jag there, buying and binge watching police procedural from the the first decade of the present century. But in general, I don’t watch telvision and stay away from special effects spectaculars. (Although the last film I actually went to a theater to see was Godzilla 2014; but then I have a soft spot for Big Greeny from my childhood, and just wanted to make sure they treated him with respect. I doubt I’ll go to any of the proposed sequels, though.) And 3-D doesn’t interest me. Harpo Marx was once asked about Lenny Bruce who was achieving notoriety at the time; he replied “I have nothing against the comedy of today; it is just not my comedy.”

However, having had to study the phenomenon of television in grad school, and having invested considerable time in thinking, talking about, watching, and even, in my youth, making film, I do have some general remarks that may be useful here.

First, never lose sight of the economic background here. Both commercial cinema and television are primarily business enterprises. The purpose of film production is to provide entertainment enough to attract audiences willing to spend money on it. This has caused considerable friction between those who provide capital for production and those who come to filmmaking with a particular vision that they are hoping to realize.

The purpose of a television show is to produce enough of an audience to sell to advertisers. (This is obviously less true of the secondary markets, DVDs and on-demand viewing; technology has changed that dynamic, although it is still in effect on most of cable.) This is actually quite a lower bar than selling tickets to the theater, since the audience only needs enough incentive as necessary to get them to watch at a particular time for possible advertises. A show only needs to be less uninteresting than competing programs at the same time in order to achieve this.

With these concrete notices, we can get into the phenomenology of the two media. The most important thing to grasp here – both easily recognized and yet easily forgotten – is that what distinguishes these media from all others, and differentiates them from each other, is their relationships to time, and how the makers of these media handle those relationships. Of course every medium establishes a relationship to time, and this relationship effectively defines the medium to a large extent. But each medium does this in a unique way, as opposed to all other media. * Yet one of the problems we have in distinguishing film and television as each a distinct medium is that fictional television seems to have a relationship to time similar to that of theatrical drama or at least of film. This is not the case.
The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day. By the late ’90s, when cable television was multiplying into literally hundreds of channels, it should have been obvious to all; but part of the success of television is that it depends on, and manipulates, our attention to the particular. Most people do not think of themselves as ‘watching television.’ They see themselves watching Seinfeld or Mad Men or The Tonight Show or ‘some documentary about the North Pole.’ On the immediate existential sense, they are quite right, it is the individual program to which they attend. The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives; they sit there and watch Mad Men. Or at least let it play on while they discuss what it was like to live in the ‘60s, and then the Tonight Show… and if they can’t get to sleep, it’s that documentary about the North Pole on the Nature Channel, or an old movie on AMC (does it really matter which?), or an old Bewitched rerun….

Now it sounds like I’m painting a bleak portrait of the average television viewer. But such a viewer is what television is all about. And we should note that this says nothing against such viewers. They are presented with an existential dilemma: What to do with free time in a culture with little social cohesion and diminishing institutions that once provided that cohesion?

So, whereas film is about how to manage visuals and audio and story and acting in the compacted period of a couple hours, television is about how to provide endless hours of possible viewing. It is not about this or that particular show – trends are more telling at any given moment.That CSI and NCIS and The Closer and The Mentalist and Criminal Minds, etc., etc., all appear in the same decade tells us more of what people found interesting on television that decade than any one of these shows, and certainly more than any one episode.

Which brings me to my real point. Although there are still some decent films being made on the margins and in other countries, the history of the cinema I knew and loved is at an end. Despite the fact that the basic premise of both movies is that a group of talented warrior gather to defend the good against overwhelming force there is no way to get from The Seven Samurai to The Avengers. That there is a core narrative conflict they share only means that there are core narratives shared across cultures, and we’ve known that for a long time.

But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, there is certainly an aesthetic at work in it. I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all. We can certainly discuss how aesthetic values are deployed in individual shows and individual episodes. But these are almost always borrowed from other media, primarily film. Television, just as television has no aesthetic value. And that cannot be said for film.

One way to note this is admitting that the ‘talking heads’ television is what television does best. That and talk-overs (as in sports) or banter, playful or violent, as on reality TV shows. Fictional shows can deploy aesthetic values, true; but only to get the viewer to the talk show, the next commercial, the next episode. Anything that accomplishes that.

Of course, what we end up discussing is the individual show, or the individual episode. and because television lacks aesthetic value of its own, it can fill endless hours deploying a multitude of aesthetic values from other media – poetry recitals, staged plays, documentaries, thrillers, old films, old television, various sports, news and commentary – perhaps ad infinitum. That’s what makes commenting on individual shows so interesting – and yet undercuts any conclusion reached in such discussion. All the shows we find interesting today, will be forgotten in the wave of the next trend tomorrow. But don’t worry – there will always be reruns and DVDs. As long as there is a market for them, that is.
My general point here is such that it cannot be disconfirmed by any show, or group of shows, or discussion of these – such would only confirm part of my point, television’s dependence on our attention to particulars.

One way to see think of the general problem is to imagine rowing a boat in a river; upstream someone has tossed in a flower – perhaps it is even a paper flower, and we’ll allow it to be quite lovely. So it drifts by us, and we remark its loveliness, while not addressing the many rotten pine cones that surround it. Now do either the flower or the pinecones get us an aesthetic of the river? No. So ‘bad’ television tells us no more about the aesthetics of television than does ‘good’ television.

And the river trope has another use for us here. We know the flower was tossed into the river only recently; but the pine cones have been floating about us for some time. Yet to us, now rowing past these, the pine cones are contemporary with the flower.

We think of an old TV show, say Seinfeld as if it is a phenomenon of the past; it isn’t. Reruns are still playing in major markets, making it a viable competitor to Mad Men or even Game of Thrones. It is still contemporary television. (Television does not develop a-historically, but the history of its development has been somewhat different than for media where individual works are the primary product.) So an ‘aesthetics of television’ would need to account for that phenomenon as well – not just the aesthetics of Seinfeld or of Game of Thrones, but why it is these aesthetics are received by their differing audiences at the same moment in history – and allowing even that many will watch both. And I suggest it would also have to address the aesthetics deployed in ‘non-fiction’ television (scare-quotes because I’m not sure there is any such thing). I suggest this cannot be done. What television as television presents us is grist for the mills of sociology, semiotics, cultural history; but an aesthetics?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have criticism of individual episodes or discussion of favorite programs. In fact most of us having watched television or still watching it are doomed to this. But we should be aware that, reaching for the flower, we may end up with a rotten pine cone – or, what is most likely, simply a handful of water, slipping through our fingers. returning to a river we merely float along.


* On the time issue: The art of cinema – that is, the cinema I know, which I admit is no longer of interest, except on the margins – is defined by the control of time. This is also true of music and drama, but in a different way, since the filmmaker has a tool neither of the other two have: editing. Films were made on the editing boards.

But this technique could be accomplished – at least to some extent – in the camera itself. Thus even amateur filmmakers, making home movies, deployed the aesthetic of the medium – a particular control of time that photography could not emulate. Thus, picking up a movie camera and operating it immediately engages an aesthetic, however poorly realized and however unrecognized, even by the one using the camera.

Stories are inevuitable in every media; exactly becasue of this, each medium must define itself in terms of its approach to and presentation of stories, not the stories themselves, since stories will occur inevitably – and when they do not, the audience will invent and impose one.

To be less elliptical then, film’s dominant concern was – and still is, although in a way I no longer recognize – vision, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, as we experience it through time.

While such considerations are understood by producers of television, that’s not what television is about. Television is about filling time with whatever, and getting the viewer to the next block of time (as defined by producers and advertisers). If a talking head can do this, there’s your television.

Again: We viewers are not the consumers of television – that would be the advertisers. We are the commodity that television sells to them.

That changes everything.

A reply to

“Medium, Message, and Effect” by David Ottlinger:


Philosophy, history, neuroscience, evolution, and politics – in a possible universe

After working hard on my criticism of Hitler’s rhetoric, I’m in the process of shifting gears here. I hope to be posting something about the German philosopher Georg Hegel soon.  Also, I plan to start a separate web blog that would really be single protracted essay reading Martin Heidegger’s metaphysics in relation to the politics of his time (always a hot topic, but needing to be confronted).  These twin projects may lose me some readers, but they will personally satisfy me, since I spent so much time and effort with these two philosophers, and it would be silly to toss all that away and say “I should have spent my time collecting stamps.”


This past week, while trying to come up with something new and original to say, I was tempted more than once to defer to one my favorite British theorists, Mr. Python; and since I am weak willed, and give into temptation easily, I’m indulging myself by providing a platform for this theorist to expound incisive insights into all important topics of the day.


So – now for something completely different.:


The theory of evolution has been widely debated among the intelligentsia (and the not so intelligentsia) since even before Darwin; the different theories proposed can get so complicated, that we forget what really matters – namely, how big is it?



Evolution is history, in the broadest sense; but it is history in the narrow sense that usually concerns us most – the history of the human species, i.e., ourselves. That history , as Hegel once remarked, is a slaughterhouse. Or perhaps a laugher’s blouse…. Well, never mind. Lotsa big bang battles! Long before the Marvel Comics Universe brought the explosive ruin of whole cities to the cinematic screen, kings, generals, and idiots were hammering at each other for the greater glory of something or other, as we are reminded here:



As time marches on, so do armies (although how they do that on their bellies, as Napoleon claimed, I’ve never figured out; wouldn’t that rather be crawling?). Anyway, as the species moved into the 20th century after something or other, modern science provided the tools necessary to realize historically bloody battles, and in this re-enactment of one, we are reminded of the true cost of warfare:



Yes, the terrible wars of the twentieth century have produced monsters – but they have also brought us out of the darkness of tyranny, into the light of democracy where we can elect the monsters of our choosing (or not) – as we see in this recent Republican campaign video:



But we mustn’t forget that the sciences of the current era have re-written our expectations of what it means to be happy; to live a fulfilling life; even what it means to be human – AI and the neurosciences are soon to redefine the kind, the quality, the very amount of intelligence we can expect from our fellow humans:



Science will also help our empirically informed philosophers to at last solve the riddles of the universe – even that greatest of all mysteries: what follows life (if anything other than unpaid bills):



It’s a brave new world we’re living in, my friends. (But I’m not sorry I’m nearing the last decades of my life expectancy. The future doesn’t look bleak – it doesn’t look at all –




Neuroscience and art: a threnody



What is the functional purpose of the current trends of neuroscience? to produce understanding? or perhaps to produce better means of control? More to say; but first, a bit of prophesy:

“Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for? True,” he added, “they might ask for shorter hours. And of course we could give them shorter hours. Technically , it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any the happier for that? No, they wouldn’t. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four-hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness, that people felt constrained to take a holiday from them. The Inventions Office is stuffed with plans for labour-saving processes. Thousands of them.” Mustapha Mond made a lavish gesture. “And why don’t we put them into execution? For the sake of the labourers; it would be sheer cruelty to afflict them with excessive leisure. It’s the same with agriculture. We could synthesize every morsel of food, if we wanted to. But we don’t. We prefer to keep a third of the population on the land. For their own sakes–because it takes longer to get food out of the land than out of a factory. Besides, we have our stability to think of. We don’t want to change. Every change is a menace to stability. That’s another reason why we’re so chary of applying new inventions. Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy. Yes, even science.”

Science? The Savage frowned. He knew the word. But what it exactly signified he could not say. Shakespeare and the old men of the pueblo had never mentioned science, and from Linda he had only gathered the vaguest hints: science was something you made helicopters with, some thing that caused you to laugh at the Corn Dances, something that prevented you from being wrinkled and losing your teeth. He made a desperate effort to take the Controller’s meaning.

“Yes,” Mustapha Mond was saying, “that’s another item in the cost of stability. It isn’t only art that’s incompatible with happiness; it’s also science. Science is dangerous; we have to keep it most carefully chained and muzzled.”

“What?” said Helmholtz, in astonishment. “But we’re always saying that science is everything. It’s a hypnopædic platitude.”

“Three times a week between thirteen and seventeen,” put in Bernard.

“And all the science propaganda we do at the College …”

“Yes; but what sort of science?” asked Mustapha Mond sarcastically .

– Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World.”

Reviewing some articles concerning neuroscientific research on aesthetic receptivity (see below), several questions kept gnawing at the back of my mind – or some group of neurons in my brain. The first of these is, what is it we are even hoping to find in the neurosciences? I thought it was better understanding and medically useful information. But when I read that Columbia University’s Neurobiology Department’s mission “is to arrive at cellular and molecular explanations of development, behavior, and learning,” and then find that “research suggests that there may be a basis in neurobiology for wisdom’s most universal traits,”* Will we soon have ‘wisdom’ shunts plugged into our brains? Or (which is more likely) will we be given new ‘soma’ medications to reduce our anxieties, unhappiness – and dissent? I wonder what it is we’re really looking for in that 3 lb. bag of chemical goo that overburdens our skulls.

The second question that arose came from a frustrating sense of deja vu. I kept thinking that, although the terminology has changed, I seem to have seen much the same models, arguments, and even research and data, that I was seeing in the ’70s and ’80s. Unfortunately, I don’t have a library I can access to check this, and the internet is worthless for historical research of that kind; but really, despite the terminology, and despite promises of ever new ‘break-throughs,’ the field doesn’t seem to have advanced very far in the past thirty years.

A third problem I’m seeing in the general field for this discussion, is that we are now heavily invested (not only in focus but also lots of money) in lines of research that may be flawed at the base in their principle assumptions. If the computational theory of mind is false (as I believe), research based on it may tell us quite a lot about computers, and nothing about mind. If the brain functions holistically to generate the whole person as a system of responses (as I suspect), segmenting the physical material to find particular localities of response has potential medical value, but can’t possibly provide the ‘big picture’ that we might want from a materialist theory of mind. If cognition and its communication are not fundamentally representational (as some argue), tests devised to demonstrate they are, may only result in subjects providing desired reports. It’s not that the research isn’t useful; the question is whether it can get us what we want from it (which is what?). But we’re committed now, and so I don’t see us likely to pause to reconsider the basic questions here.

But if the basic questions of the research are not first themselves questioned, we may be chasing our tails here.

*; ironically, the sidebar assures me that a related article is “Spirituality Key to Chinese Medicine Success.”

To follow the remaining discussion, it would help the reader to please read (or at least scan) and consider the following research papers in the neuropsychology of response to perceived works of art (music, paintings, poetry): (Wilkins et. al, authors) (Graham and Redies) (Jacobs)

The most defensible is the study by Wilkins et. al., on the neurospsychology of song preference, because they never use the words ‘art’ or ‘aesthetics,’ it is clear they have no professional interest in what these terms signify, and confine themselves to neuropsychological responses to individually preferred songs, regardless of any greater social value in these songs. Bully for them.

On the other hand, the discussion concerning neurological response to visual imagery by Graham and Redies continually mis-deploy the term ‘art’ when it is clear they are merely talking about visual receptivity and response to images – again, regardless of any greater social value in these images. They pretend to be talking about, eg., “Mondrian, Pollock, and Van Gogh,” when they might just as well be talking about photographs in Natural Geographic.

The worst of the lot was Jacobs’ “Neurocognitive poetics.” I’ve never read through such a laughable confusion of terms and evaluative perspectives. Lacking any definition of poetry or literature, or what might delineate them from other forms of discourse; and lacking any means to determine value differences between differing texts or even differing genres (J.K. Rowling is as important to the study as E.T.A. Hoffman – indeed more so) – Jacobs cannot even say exactly what properly constitutes his field of research. If all of the studies his paper links to are along the same lines, then I suppose if they were printed on paper, they might provide kindling for the hearth; otherwise, they are just about rubbish.

The exceptions among Jacobs’ links here would be those works by theorists who have recognized value in non-neurological fields of study. However, these should give us pause. Roland Barthes could be coldly analytical in his semiotic dissection of a literary text; yet he was passionate in his reading of literature.  Jacobson and Levi-Strauss held very traditional values; in their work there is a (sometimes explicit) belief that they are tracing the development of linguistic and narrative structures through a generalized history (beginning with folk narratives) that at last arrives at what they believed to be the great Literature of Europe. This is of questionable application to other cultures; it is not that they lack a definition of Literature, but rather that their definition may be too narrow. They are culturally biased.  Without addressing such issues, the use made of their research, especially as applied to ‘neurocognition’ of ‘poetry,’ is questionable.  If we don’t examine ourselves – critically, reflectively – we have no right to examine others,

As we can see, the neuroscience inquiry into the reception of ‘art’ actually has little to do with art or aesthetics, and cannot even properly define those subjects as objects of study. When convincing (interesting and informative), they don’t even bother with such terms. But when neuroscientists deploy such terms, they do so uncritically, even unreflectively, apparently only to wheedle their way into a larger discourse that really has no use for them. Their ‘research’ then borders on pseudoscience.

There’s no such thing as “scientific aesthetics.” If some people (who may need counseling) want to pretend this, and can get grant money to research nonsense, then that tells us about the society in which we live. It tells us nothing about art.

If such neuroscientists cannot define ‘art’ or ‘poetry,’ then what the heck are they researching? Neuroscientists haven’t answered that question; as far as I can tell, they cannot,

I understand why they can’t see this – they’re getting money for research depends on vague, conventionally acceptable definitions of such terms. But we should demand more of science – precise objects of inquiry. What is the definition of such terms as ‘art’ and ‘poetry’ that their research supposedly investigates?

Why Van Gogh? Why not Norman Rockwell? The answer has to do with society, and collective judgments, not brain response. Such answers cannot be provided by neuroscience, but only through higher level descriptions, narrations, and explanations of social discourse.

We cannot understand the power or meaning of any art, whether the great paintings of Europe or the ritualized sculptures of Australian indigenous peoples, a) without first having some sense of what art is and how it means to us within a culture, and b) without knowing something of the culture in which it is produced.

What is this “power” of which we speak? What culture generates such terminology in reference to such artifacts?

The suggestion that neural reaction to visual stimuli will somehow decide the value in art is amusingly facile. When one one really investigates and comes to know – and truly appreciate – the different arts of different cultures, one could never take seriously such a hollow claim.


Composed from comments on another website, .