Sunday, July 21, 2019

Television: Caretaking and Maintenance

Resuming the production of brand new translations. Here's Daney on Sunday television.

Television: Caretaking and Maintenance 
Old people and children first! It’s to them that every Sunday, television gives priority. Mass medium, but what mass are we talking about? “A large collection of atomised households abstractly targeted by a concept of statistical programming.” 
What’s fascinating about Sunday television is the feeling of seeing television itself, as it never changes. To see, raw and naked, one facet of the television apparatus, its fundamental and most secret weapon. Which facet? Every Sunday, television is the caretaker of the audience. We sometimes forget this essential function and believe – we are so naive – that we are watching television, when it is television that is looking after us. The Sunday schedule is therefore comparable to the organised ‘activities’ that are imposed on two ‘vulnerable’ categories of the population: children and the elderly. To review these programs according to good taste, aesthetics, or cultural dignity makes no more sense than to expect an old folks home to be anything other than a lesser evil, when everything that matters in life is missing.  
TV as a mass medium? A strange mass in any case. Not the real crowds that haunted theatres, circuses or cinemas. A crowd obeys an unpredictable logic since it’s more than the sum of its individuals (what’s more random than crowd movements?). Whereas the masses targeted by television are only this sum (the equivalent of yesterday’s crowd movements could be found in the fluctuations of today’s customer satisfaction indexes), and even a bit less. Mass media audiences, especially of Sunday television, are but a large collection of atomised households abstractly targeted by a concept of statistical programming. Fellini has given a great description of this pernicious effect of television, capable of simulating the old variety shows in front of an audience of shadows and to the sound of their pre-recorded laughter. And if Fellini gets it right in Ginger and Fred, it’s because the logical solitude of dancers on stage (to which he can only identify) is accompanied by two others (that make him rather melancholic). The solitude of the fake audience on the TV set, naively charmed by the spotlights, an audience that claps on demand and that is sent home once its role as a wallflower is over. And the solitude of the audience at home, who has no other recourse than to believe there’s something like a collective, present everywhere except at home. 
The word solitude is the most adequate when we talk about mass communication. But this solitude has a history which moved from cinema to television and which, every Sunday, continues in a stifled atmosphere. This solitude is first linked to the technical nature of recording. “At the theatre”, said Guitry, “the actor plays. At the cinema, the actor has played.”  Although the audience is collectively present, it is in communion through the contemplation of what has happened, once, and which will always come back. The cinephiles in this audience must have felt the solitude of the cinema actor, conscious that he will be seen (and loved) afterward, unimaginable at the theatre. And the more cinema lost its monopoly over mass communication, the more the solitude of the cinephile became a possible burden to carry (bravely or perversely, take your pick). Alone in a sometimes empty film theatre, alone with one’s own company and with the film as a mirror of oneself. But the solitude of cinema is still an act, a choice, the simulation of an encounter in the theatre or on the screen, the senseless hope for this encounter (even when suspicious). It’s an active solitude. In general, the solitude of television is passive. 
Some will say that Sunday television, with its game shows, crowded studio sets and united families is the opposite of solitude. I would reply that promiscuity does not always save you from solitude, and that it is possible to feel very lonely among the ones you live with (and even the ones you love) or when facing Sunday entertainment with its images intended to please everybody a little and nobody in particular. Of course, some adapt to the constraints: women pretend to watch the sports that men devour and men accept to share the maternal emotions of their wives when watching the kids exhibited on the Jacques Martin show. Families live with compromises, they have no other way.  
Through continuous dumbing down, Sunday television has become shameful. But it is the shame of having only Sunday to rest, to breathe a little, to rebuild the labour force. This is how television fulfils another function beyond caretaking, that of maintenance. Maintenance of human material and minimal management of the free time of those whose last remaining freedom is merely to digest after a Sunday lunch. The specialised personnel of these shows (the obviously complex figure of Jacques Martin is emblematic of this), also seems to oscillate between the desire to scream that everything is not fine and that true life is elsewhere, and the moving feeling of lending a charitable hand to an audience which is captive, tired, vaguely converted or gently indifferent. From the beginning of time, the monopoly over the treatment of misery and over the techniques of comforting has created priests. Priests have no illusions about the illusions they have lost but they are right to believe that they are in touch with a form of reality.  
That this reality (which demands the triumph of charity) is not glorious and that it’s accepted that “someone has to do this work” (and to receive the profits) shows that we are in a liturgic space where it’s purely about negotiating the abyss of ‘free’ time between the austere morning mass and the showy mass of the evening news. Each Sunday, television (uselessly) shows families to (supposedly) useless families, and it rushes to fly to the rescue of the latter by telling them that their prison is definitive, that there is no ‘true life’ elsewhere, and that even if there was one, we would have to go through television.  
Sylvie’s job timetabled their lives. Their week was made of good days – Mondays, because they had the morning off and because the cinemas changed their films; Wednesdays, because they had a free afternoon; and Fridays, because they had the whole day off and, once again, the films changed – and bad days: all the rest. Sunday was an intermediate day, pleasant in the morning (they would stay in bed, the Paris weeklies would come), boring in the afternoon, gloomy in the evening unless, by chance, there was a film to attract them, but it was not often that two notable or even just watchable films were put on in the same half-week.   
Abstract from Georges Perec’s Things. Translation by David Bellows.

First published in Dimanche, le temps suspendu, edited by Nicole Czechowski, Paris, Autrement, May 1989. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector.

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