TV subverts even the possibility of morality, of human responsibility.
June 1, 1987
Jun 1, 1987
20 Min read time
TV subverts even the possibility of morality, of human responsibility.
“For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set.” —Don DeLillo, White Noise
The “Literary Brat Pack”—Ann Beattie, Bret Easton Ellis, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tama Janowitz, and others—have been collectively and individually denounced for superficiality, amorality, lack of passion, indifference to social issues, and hedonism—in fact, of bypassing the central concerns of literature. What the critics miss is that this is literature but in a new form, coming from the first generation of writers to grow up with the technology of television.
Moral issues have dominated discussion of TV and culture: endless conjecture about the promotion of violence or sexual permissiveness in viewers, repeated decrying of commercial hard-sell to the young. But TV has also been creating a new perceptual environment, and the new fiction is giving form to life as it is now lived with video technology.
The narrator of William Warner’s story, “August 20, 1982 Bobst Library,” in the anthology ISBN, identifies his girlfriend as someone from Connecticut who “grew up on Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.” Warner’s narrator, like himself a young writer, observes that some writers are trained by Dickens or Fitzgerald, some by overhearing the arguments of relatives, and still others “by watching TV.” He says of himself,
I was weird. I don’t think I ever watched a whole Twilight Zone. Perry Mason I liked. Get Smart. Football! But I just couldn’t sit through a whole Twilight Zone. Even now with reruns. All of science fiction—whatever the appeal is—I have never gotten into it. I like sports on TV. A regular team I can root for. And commercials that are well made. Especially if I can learn all the words and sing along. “Coke and a Smile”—perhaps my all-time favorite. And “Aren’t you hun-gry Aren’t you hun-gry? Aren’t you hun-gry for Burger King now!” Gives me a lift every time I hear it.
A Bobbie Ann Mason character in “The Climber” looks at a yard full of fallen leaves: “The broad leaves look like hands. Dolores thinks of the way Phil Donahue holds hands with the women in his audience.” In William Warner’s novel, Knute, and Knute Again, the title character encounters his neighbor in the hallway of his home and says her name “as if it was a guess, [as if] a man in a blazer and holding a microphone had come up to him in his second-floor hallway [saying] ‘Look at the camera and tell our audience at home in five seconds or less the true name of this woman . . . who’s standing next to you, holding up your mother who’s sobbing uncontrollably.’”
• • •
William Warner and Bobbie Ann Mason grew up amid the proliferation of television sets in American households in the late 1960s, when television viewing was no longer a quasi-theatrical experience in a darkened living room. The early days of television were different, as one writer reminisces in the March 1987 issue of American Heritage: “I sat with my parents in front of the family’s brand-new television set, with its small, round-cornered screen, and watched the . . . program.” By about 1970, the family was not gathering as it had in the 1950s to give its undivided attention to the TV set for a particular program. Households no longer had one TV but two or more. The children had one, the parents another. Portable TVs sat on kitchen refrigerators and took a prominent place in the family room, even the bath.
In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the narrator walks his neighborhood at night and sees “the glow of blue-eyed TVs” in every window. His wife, Babette, insists that each Friday night the family share a meal of Chinese take-outs as they gather before the television: “She seemed to think that if kids watched television one night a week with parents or stepparents, the effect would be to de-glamorize the medium in their eyes, make it a wholesome domestic sport.” The ritual fails, Jack tells us, because all feel coerced, subtly punished. The message is that television-watching is now individualized, privatized.
And continuous. Part of the texture of the contemporary household, television becomes a hyperactive but continuous voice. No one in the family watches entire programs. The set is simply turned on, the video voice and images entering consciousness intermittently.
“The TV said” is part of the running dialogue in White Noise: “The TV said, ‘If it breaks easily into pieces, it is called shale.’” Or, “The TV said, ‘This creature has developed a complicated stomach in keeping with its leafy diet.’” Or, “The TV said, ‘Meanwhile, here is a quick and attractive lemon garnish suitable for any sea food.”’ This thread of TV fragments establishes the video environment. Says Jack’s colleague, “The flow is constant, words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, waves, particles, motes.”
The new fiction finds a location where characters can be forever poised for action rather than engaged in it.
In a video world, television is always on. Its series and reruns and open-ended soap operas, its continuous process of stories in the news format—all present a reality that is ongoing and in-the-moment, the moment itself endlessly protracted. That flow is enacted in Ann Beattie’s Distortions, in Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero, in Peter Cameron’s One Way or Another, in Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York, in all of which the narrative consciousness is that of the ongoing present. Take this, for instance, from Ellis’s Less than Zero:
My mother and I are sitting in a restaurant on Melrose, and she’s drinking white wine and still has her sunglasses on and she keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks me what I want for Christmas. I’m surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head up and look at her.
Or this from Bobbie Ann Mason’s story, “The Retreat”:
Georgeann doesn’t answer. She gets busy in the kitchen. She makes a pork roast for supper, with fried apples and mashed potatoes. For dessert, she makes jello and peaches with Dream Whip. She is really hungry. While she peels potatoes, she sings a song to herself. She doesn’t know the name of it, but it has a haunting melody. It is either a song her mother used to sing to her or a jingle from a TV ad.
Mason, Ellis, and others are in full revolt against the traditional structure of beginning-middle-end because it is false to their perceptual experience. Instead, with their television-based experience of ongoing time, the protracted present has become a resource and a natural way of representing characters’ state of being. For these younger writers, the present tense is both ontologically accurate and aesthetically enabling.
On the television screen, there is endless movement to and from scenes within programs and on to ads—not to mention other channels. Offscreen, viewers have dozens of other distractions competing for their attention. In fiction, the fragmentation of this environment lends itself to short scenes juxtaposed almost at random. As Marshall McLulian noted over twenty years ago, “TV, the mosaic mesh, does not foster lineality.” In the new fiction, the conventional chapter dissolves into a patchwork of loosely related scenes without causal sequence—parts of a perceptual environment.
• • •
The new fiction finds something else central as well: a location where characters can be forever poised for action rather than engaged in it. Endlessly tuning in and out, psychologically coming and going, TV viewers become sojourners in several video realms and in the material world too. In transit, they may feel self-possessed only at the point of juncture between worlds. In the new fiction, that threshold is more often than not the place to be, the only firm place, both a point of poise for the author and the locus of attention for the reader. What seems in conventional, pre-TV terms to be a sense of tenuousness (of place, of personal conviction) in the new fiction is really a new consciousness, poised for comings and goings. Thus in Ann Beattie’s “Downhill”:
To calm myself, I make tea. Earl Grey, an imported tea. Imported means coming to; exported means going away. I feel in my bones (my shinbones) that Jon will not come home. But perhaps I am just cold, since the fire is not yet lit. I sip the Earl Grey tea—results will be inconclusive.
A commitment to the inconclusive is a hallmark of video fiction. In “Downhill,” the absent husband of the woman who makes the Earl Grey tea returns to serve her breakfast in bed on her birthday:
He walks out of the room and I am left with the hot tea . . . Jon leaves so he can come back. Certain of this, I call and they both come—Jon and the dog—to settle down with me. We have come to the end, yet we are safe. I move to the center of the bed to make room for Jon; tea sloshes from the cup. His hand goes out to steady it . . . He smiles, approvingly, and as he sits down his hand slides across the sheet like a rudder through still waters.
This is one of Beattie’s most affirmative story endings, yet the characters are at best poised in a momentary cessation from transit. In Beattie’s world there are forays into a wide range of places and of feelings—but only forays.
Her characters always return to the threshold. As the locus of all possibility, it is also the only point of stability.
The juncture itself is neutral ground, inviolate by the clamorous world, including TV. White Noise identifies the “wealth of data concealed in the [TV] grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials, the products hurtling out of darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions.” This bombardment of images on commercial television makes older viewers respond, says DeLillo, with “irritation, weariness and disgust.” But the younger viewers retreat to the threshold, where they can keep their sometimes-fragile balance. This from Clay, one of the Southern California Lost Boys and the narrator of Less than Zero:
I realize that it all comes down to is that I’m this eighteen-year-old boy with shaking hands and blond hair and the beginnings of a tan and semistoned sitting in Chasen’s on Doheny and Beverly, waiting for my father to ask me what I want for Christmas.
As long as Clay stays on the threshold, he can contain the pain, can tell his story.
• • •
The first hints of this revolution in consciousness and narrative style began to appear in the sixties, as the number of TV sets grew to an average of one per household. Writers grappled with the meaning of the medium, with its possibilities for plot, theme, and structure. Novelists, in fact, became the chroniclers of the new video culture.
A hall of mirrors reflecting only itself, TV subverts even the possibility of morality, of human responsibility.
Norma Rosen’s Touching Evil, for example, published in 1969, showed how television could bring the twentieth century face to face with itself to provide historical instruction. Set in New York City, Touching Evil deals with race and class divisiveness in the United States. Its plot includes rape, robbery, and marital betrayal. Its central image is the televised trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann. The TV trial, showing film clips of Nazi atrocities, brings horrors with the regularity of weather, and one of the novel’s major characters, Hattie, watches like “a frightened child who’s turned on the horror movie and doesn’t know how to turn it off.”
Hattie’s brother-in-law, irked by her preoccupation with the televised trial, tells her that human pain “was always there, Hattie, even before TV.” But he misses the point that television is the contemporary means of initiation into knowledge. Hattie “drinks in the words, sucks up the images. This is watching TV as TV means to be watched, as children watch.”
The book’s narrator gets the facts of the trial daily from the newspaper, but she knows that The New York Times runs a poor second to television. “It doesn’t do any good when I tell [Hattie] that I’ve read my paper. She has watched living clips on TV. She is in the news and the news is in her. There’s no competing, news-wise.” The implications of viewer and TV becoming one are momentous, but Touching Evil, a novel coming early in the TV era, does not examine them.
• • •
Other writers of that time recognized larger implications. Jerzy Kosinski, the Polish emigre novelist, was troubled by the issues of perception. His novel Being There (published in 1970) dissects the body politic of an America obsessed with images.
Being There is essentially a political fable. A simple-minded orphan, Chance, has been sheltered from childhood within the walls of an estate, where he tends the garden and otherwise watches television in his room. He is illiterate. All his life servants have brought his meals, and in adulthood he wears the elegant cast-off clothes of the estate owner, the Old Man. Chance is rather like the plants he tends, bereft of reason or imagination, unable to be self-reflective, powerless to act on the larger environment. “All that mattered was moving in his own time, like the growing plants.”
But TV creates its own time too, not of the season but of the instant. And Chance lives in that time. Kosinski, obviously aware of McLuhan’s argument, popular in the 1960s, that television is above all a tactile environment, shows Chance in front of the set: “Everything on TV was tangled and mixed and yet smoothed out: night and day, big and small, tough and brittle, soft and rough, hot and cold, far and near.” Later, physically unaroused by a woman trying to seduce him, Chance
wanted to tell her how much he preferred to look at her . . . He [wanted] to explain to her that he could not touch her better or more fully with his hands than he could with his eyes. Seeing encompassed all at once; a touch was limited to one spot at a time.
• • •
Kosinski, like Rosen, asserts that viewers are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the television programming they watch. But Rosen’s world is still a moral one, while Kosinski’s novel offers no lessons to justify the medium, no McCarthy hearings or Eichmann trial. Rosen’s Hattie, a selective viewer, turns off the set at the conclusion of each day’s trial episode. Kosinski’s Chance watches nonstop, and the programs are all one to him, ads and newscasts, sitcoms and police chases. “The figure on the TV screen looked like his own reflection in a mirror . . . By changing the channel he could change himself.” Chance is a composite of every TV image he has ever seen:
He sank into the screen. Like sunlight and fresh air and mild rain, the world from outside the garden entered Chance, and Chance, like a TV image, floated into the world.
When at last he goes outside the walls of the Old Man’s estate, Chance sees a TV world. “He had the feeling that he had seen it all.”
The American political establishment is much more the butt of Kosinski’s satire than is Chance, who, cast out of the garden, encounters a society functioning solely on images. Like many Europeans, Kosinski comes down hard on America’s anti-historicism, and television is his measure of American infantilism. Imagistic, television lacks depth; fixed on the instant, it blocks the historical imagination. In Being There, TV is no lifeline to history, as it is in Rosen’s Touching Evil; on the contrary, it is the most anti-historical of media, engaging the viewer—in fact the entire society—in a continuous present without reference to past or future, eroding the substance of the material world:
Of all the manifold things there were in all the world—trees, grass, flowers, telephones, radios, elevators—only TV constantly held up a mirror to its own neither solid nor fluid face . . . Television reflected only people’s surfaces; it kept peeling their images from their bodies until they were sucked into the caverns of their viewers’ eyes, forever beyond retrieval, to disappear.
A hall of mirrors reflecting only itself, TV subverts even the possibility of morality, of human responsibility. Kosinski’s contemporary America is a TV culture, plastic and politically infantile.
• • •
While Kosinski was commenting on the television experience as one of the protracted moment, the Beatties, Ellises, and Masons were growing up, accepting TV as part of the natural world and getting ready to enact it formally in fiction. A final bridge to their world—but still taking the outsider’s view—came with Don DeLillo’s White Noise in 1985.
DeLillo’s novel, focusing on TV in American middle-class life, assumes that TV compels interpretation not because it is new (in which sense Rosen and Kosinski approached it), but because it is old. Fifteen years after the Rosen and Kosinski novels, White Noise presumes that television has been adapted to and assimilated. Life without it is unthinkable; life with it has become unremarkable.
What gears and girders did for prose and poetry of the 1920s, communications technology is accomplishing in the literature of the ’80s.
White Noise is a zany, suburban middle-class novel of second, third, even fourth marriages, of children who are steps- and halfs-, with ex-spouses on the periphery. Its narrator, Jack Gladney, heads Hitler Studies at a local college. His wife, Babette, teaches continuing education classes in posture in church basements and runs a household of four children. At the heart of this novel is the underlying terror of death in a culture that denies death’s existence in euphemisms, Muzak, and dyed food—all the while poisoning the human habitat.
The novel reflects the entrenchment of television in contemporary life, a part of the air we breathe. It has settled into folklore and superstition (“Where do you think all the deformed babies are coming from? Radio and TV, that’s Where.”) And it has its deep neural pathways; for the TV voice saying Toyota Corolla, Toyota Celica is “part of every child’s brain noise,” the way the-cow-jumped-over-the-moon used to be. To grow up without television is to be a modern-day wild child, no matter how intelligent and literate.
Nor does DeLillo find TV a palliative or nostrum. It brings the lurking “outer torment” into the house, beams to the heart the fears and secret desires of middle-class America trying to evade both in suburban insulation. “If our complaints have a focal point, it would have to be the TV set."
• • •
Television in White Noise is so much a part of daily life that people stop to watch only when disaster is aired. “Come on, hurry up, plane crash footage,” calls the teenage son:
By the time I got to the TV, there was only a puff of black smoke at the edge of the screen. But the crash was shown two more times, once in the stop-action replay.
Jack becomes an interlocutor, asking a colleague why “decent, well-meaning and responsible people” find themselves intrigued by televised catastrophe, by lava, mud, and raging water, by earthquakes, fires, and mass killings. The colleague assures him that the attraction is normal, that modern life so bombards the senses that “only a catastrophe gets our attention.” The rest of television is part of the contemporary stream of consciousness. Only explosion and upheaval focus the mind.
Conversely, even personal experience isn’t real without the validation of a television broadcast. When a cloud of toxic gas drifts toward the college town, Jack and the family huddle in an emergency shelter with a motley group of strangers, at one point listening to an evacuee who rails against the lack of TV news about the town’s plight: “Are they so callous? Are they so bored by spills and contaminations and wastes? . . . Shouldn’t the streets be crawling with cameramen and soundmen and reporters?”
• • •
White Noise looks at the subject of TV just as Rosen and Kosinski did. Although DeLillo has come closer to understanding the pervasive influence of TV, he still analyzes rather than reflects it as Beattie, Ellis, and others do. The new writers are a different breed because television is no longer a subject for comment; it has become an integral part of their consciousness. DeLillo’s Jack Gladney, at fifty-one, has a pre-television consciousness: he still feels a keen separation between the world he lives in and the world projected from his television set. In one scene, glancing at the TV, he is shocked to see his wife onscreen conducting one of her posture classes. “Her appearance on the screen made me think of her as some distant figure from the past . . . animated but also flat, distanced, sealed off, timeless.” “Was she dead, missing, disembodied? Was this her spirit, her secret self, some two-dimensional facsimile released by the power of technology?”
Only Jack feels disquieted. His children are “flushed with excitement”; the toddler calmly watches his televised mother and speaks to her. Jack may come from the pre-television world, but his children have joined the future.
• • •
As novelists, DeLillo, Kosinski, and Rosen all assign the essential television experience to children or the child-like mind, Kosinski in order to denigrate the effects of television, the others to emphasize the elemental, the fundamental. All three grant that video images enter impressionistic young minds and remain there, but they themselves, coming from outside the TV experience, can only describe it. Yet they imply a line of literary succession, which assumes that the next generation of writers will emerge from among those children and that their fiction will be worked out of their video experience. And now this generation’s time has arrived.
This should not be cause for alarm; quite the contrary. The last time technology brought radical change to the written word in this century, American literature was enriched by the work of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and William Carlos Williams, who were the first generation to live in an environment of machines and structures, of railroad locomotives and steel high-rise buildings. Earlier generations, attached to a natural world, believed that “man bears a poem . . . as naturally as the oak bears an acorn” (as Henry David Thoreau had written), but by the 1920s the urban, industrialized world had more to do with multiple systems and component-part constructions.
Accordingly, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Williams, and other writers of the time came to understand the novel, the sentence, the poem as construction projects and writers as designers. Williams called the poem “an organization of materials . . . as an automobile or a kitchen stove is an organization of materials.” This new relation between writer and materials was liberating, exhilarating. To read the blurry early verse of Williams is to appreciate how much he owed to the new technology, which saved him from outworn, sentimental forms.
• • •
What gears and girders did for prose and poetry of the 1920s, communications technology is accomplishing in the literature of the ’80s—and causing great alarm along the way. Just months ago the novelist and poet Rosellen Brown in these pages (Boston Review, August, 1986) characterized the new, TV-era fiction as having “controlled surfaces,” “language [that] stays cool,” a “reduction in emotional volume,” with the reader’s relation to the text being one of “tuning in for a few minutes.” John Barth echoes that criticism, speaking of the “cool-surface realist-minimalist storytellers of the American 1970s and ’80s.” Barth and Brown are critical of an apparent literary diminishment, and their alarm recalls the 1920s, when the innovative young Hemingway also offended readers accustomed to the stylistic and thematic values he discarded because he felt them false to the modernist world. As we begin to understand the relation of television to the new fiction, cool language and cool surfaces may be, in fact, the keys to understanding the aesthetic of a new age.
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June 01, 1987
20 Min read time