Friday, April 18, 2014

Total TV and the Phenomenal Logical

Paddy Scannell, Television and the Meaning of Live: An Enquiry into the Human Situation

Anglo-American media studies professor Paddy Scannell’s latest media treatise puts me in an awkward position. I disagree with his conclusions, but he challenges my disagreement on such erudite grounds that I’m nevertheless changed. His philosophical premises are so totalizing that they become brittle, shattering under slight pressure, yet backed with such surprising insights that they upend my ideology. I think he’s (often) wrong, but I’m glad I read him, and you should read him too.

Scannell takes an unusual tack, anchoring his analysis to a philosopher. Martin Heidegger, the famed phenomenologist, had intermittent anti-modernist tendencies, and specifically hated TV. But as Scannell notes, Heidegger excused himself to watch soccer broadcasts. Phenomenology, the philosophic study of that which actually is, stands opposed to Platonic ideals that disdain ordinary experience. Scannell persuasively contends that if we omit Heidegger’s baggage, his philosophy permits uniquely meaningful investigations into media technology and its modern uses.

This position isn’t simple. Heidegger’s philosophy makes tough sledding, even for trained academics. Scannell requires nearly a quarter of this book’s densely structured length just to expound foundational ideas, and expunge Heidegger’s unexamined prejudices. Thankfully, he’s careful to translate any jargon he uses, guiding readers to deeper understanding not just of Heidegger or of Scannells’ thesis, but of how both relate to lived human experience. If this is capital-P Philosophy, it’s Philosophy for the masses.

Phenomenology provides unique challenges, which Scannell never stops addressing. That which actually exists, exists under constant pressure to evolve. Platonic ideals, insofar as we apprehend them, remain constant; phenomenology needs constant appraisal. When Heidegger condemned TV, Scannell writes, TV was new and vaguely threatening. Now it has a century’s history, permitting dispassionate judgment of real, not theoretical, consequences. Scannell purposes to remedy what he considers Heidegger’s oversights, predicated as they were on novelty and traditionalism.

This has good and bad consequences. Scannell dismantles alarmism that lingers despite being decades old (he obliquely references, but doesn’t cite, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death). But his totalizing contentions lump all media together. British-born Scannell assumes intent on broadcasters’ part that makes sense, considering centralized non-profit broadcasters like the BBC, CBC, and PBS. He seems sometimes unaware, Rupert Murdoch notwithstanding, that commercial broadcasters have entirely different motives, and audiences receive them entirely differently.

When Scannell writes that TV audiences engage directly with programmed content, I ask myself, do I do that? The answer returns quickly: sometimes. When I’m well rested, interested in the topic, and watching something new, I consume TV content as deeply as any book. But when I get home following a long graveyard shift, and turn on NCIS or Top Gear reruns, I do so to be soothed, wanting something familiar, hoping to avoid engagement.

Thus my problem with Scannell’s thesis isn’t that he’s wrong, because he isn’t, not entirely. Rather, I dispute his totalizing statements. He claims TV audiences have subjective relationships with media, what he and Heidegger call “care structure,” but he implicitly assumes his care structure resembles yours, resembles mine. This not only defies scrutiny, my care structure varies by inconstant factors like time of day. A media professor and a bone-weary laborer watch TV very differently.

If audiences have active relationships with TV programming, why did Scannell write a book? He could’ve directed a documentary, streamed a podcast, or written a miniseries, but his physical artifact bespeaks tacit counterclaims. Maybe Scannell wanted to mollify book snobs and the tenure committee. More likely he understands that TV’s transitory nature, which makes Snooki, Vladimir Putin, and Mr. Clean essentially equal, spurns mental engagement beyond the superficial level. Books are the medium of introspection.

That said, I cannot entirely discount Scannell’s ideas or call him mistaken. Reading his highly technical discursus, I realize I do have a care structure with my TV, even if it doesn’t always resemble what Scannell describes. While reason says humans don’t, can’t, engage equally with Downton Abbey and Ancient Aliens, we nevertheless have some relationship with TV, even if it just permits temporary passivity. Scannell doesn’t let me flippantly dismiss all TV content together.

So though Scannell’s totalizing opinions permit easy rejoinder, I nevertheless find reading rewarding, and long to reread it, with a red pen and more time. I disagree with his many of his conclusions, but he forces me to reconsider why I disagree, challenges received wisdom, and makes me disagree on higher, more reasonable grounds. His prose is dense, his claims difficult, and his reasoning dauntingly comprehensive. Yet having read him, I feel that much wiser.

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