Taking It Lying Down: A Short Addendum to The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception written for the Age of Ubiquitous Television
On Friday, 10 July, Pam and I were in Manhattan, KS, which with bathroom breaks and fuelings is about ninety minutes outside Topeka. Two largish little league baseball teams were also staying where we were lodging, and the breakfast vibe on the morning of the 11th was just that much off. I sensed suspicion ran on both sides and, as Pam put it, we’re stuck between bikers and bible bangers.
In the Renaissance Hotel in St. Louis, MO, a five-star hotel,1 we were lodged in Room 545, in the southwest part of the hotel’s inner curve. When I’m travelling and staying in hotel rooms that have cable TV, I never turn on the television. Since I was thirteen years old, I’ve had a very uneasy relationship with television. Besides feeling offended by the inanities perpetrated upon and indignities suffered by people/characters who appear on television, I feel restricted by the uni-directional flow of information presented through televisual media, which as Pam pointed out is not so different from recorded music and, in response, I noted the freedom to choose content and scheduling with recorded music, something Pam noted that people get with Tivo—all of which means I have an unsystematic if rationalized aversion to the material whose media characteristics and presentation are collectively denoted by what most people call television. I start to feel incredibly unhappy when I watch television, so I limit my exposure to it because of that fact.2
But HBO recast episode 159 of Real Time with Bill Maher featuring interviews with Cameron Diaz, Oliver Stone, and Billy Bob Thornton, and Pam and I decided to watch it from the comfort of an optimally-positioned King-size bed with a minimalist wall-mount headboard. Stone had talked about Buddhism, Vietnam, and Maher’s Religulous, when Maher noted
Movies, images influence our lives probably more than anything politicians say. You know this better than most people. We have been told recently that we cannot see the pictures from Guantanomo Bay or from Abu Ghraib. They were going to show it to us, but they decided that we probabaly should not see it. Maybe it was too much for us. What do you think about that?
which penetrated my travel-depleted consciousness like adrenaline does an unresponsive heart-attack victim.
I shrugged up out of my media-exacerbated torpor and launched into a rant full of profanities about why I refuse to have a dedicated television in the bedroom. After Pam helped calm me down, I more clearly explained that after a day of travel, watching Stone and Maher exchange ideas about politics and spirituality was pleasurable.
I was enjoying listening to Stone pithily and intelligently discuss the cheapening of Buddhist concepts in contemporary North American parlance. I felt comforted and superior when I got Maher’s gentle and subtle mocking of what passes for spiritual belief among the liberals and yuppies of the US. I was so at peace that I didn’t even need to bother laughing.
Then Maher mentioned Abu Ghraib, and I was reminded of my at-the-time distant anger about the Obama administration’s decision to ramp up US military involvement in Afghanistan. I moved from there to the more immediate memory of the sense of betrayal I felt when the Obama administartion announced that the US would not only refresh the previous administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, but also that it believed the U.S. Government is completely immune from litigation for illegal spying — that the Government can never be sued for surveillance that violates federal privacy statutes. Real people are being tortured in the name of freedom and our democratically-elected Democratic president is extending the rationale for these atrocities.
And there I was, literally lying down after a hard day of driving, choosing to watch a television show from bed, listening as people discussed life, death, and morality in a context where I was being entertained. I was conditioning myself to accept the ongoing murder of thousands, to calmly acknowledge the desctruction of American civil liberties—earned with the blood of innocents as well as patriots—as the inevitable bedfellow of televisual relaxation, and I was reinforcing my docile acceptance of such things by watching television in the exact physical posture of someone going to sleep.
In addition to Foucault’s insights regarding the way in which corporal discpline engenders and increases susceptibility to the dictates of authority, I was also reminded of what Adono and Horkheimer said about film, that
The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. […] the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu. In front of the appetite stimulated by all those brilliant names and images there is finally set no more than a commendation of the depressing everyday world it sought to escape. [… .] By repeatedly exposing the objects of desire, breasts in a clinging sweater or the naked torso of the athletic hero, it only stimulates the unsublimated forepleasure which habitual deprivation has long since reduced to a masochistic semblance. (1230)
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer
In some ways, this post is a reaction to the marginalization of the liberal political position. I don’t accept that the US presence in Afghanistan is an unqualified good. I believe that the continued undercutting of US civil liberties by the Obama administration is in many ways worse than the same under a Republican presidency. More alarming, however, is that under the Obama administration, American foreign policy seems to be normalizing atrocity at the same time it vilifies xenophobia.
From a larger perspective, this post is a reminder to myself that the reception of media is as important as the transmission of media. How audiences receive media is as much of a determining factor as the fact that they do.