T.V. is America's ultimate triumph, the most successful leveler in history. Before their sets, athletes and geeks, bigots and activists, corporate sharks and striking janitors sit equal. We all ingest the same lore about what to do, eat, drive, think, not think, waste. T.V. is also America's channel to the world: The Young and the Restless, Melrose Place and their ilk daily link America to dim hamlets at the end of the world. The extent to which remote peoples recognize David Hasselhoff is the measure of our power, the culminating achievement of our market-driven democracy; this is capital's podium, an arousal generator simple and glittering enough for everyone to understand.
T.V. teaches us how to mistake life for fantasy, suspend critical judgment for the sake of minor entertainment, space out. Its format prefers personalized political scandals to policy questions, natural disasters to intellectual pursuits-easily digestible good-and-bad dichotomies. It compels even our elected politicians to act in skits-don a hard-hat and exit a factory with a catchy sound-bite. It is an invincible control device because it alters our understanding of life. Whereas the real world beyond the lens is vast and uncontrollable, unceasingly overwhelming, the real world through the lens is necessarily minimized and totalitarian. Being essentially tribal, T.V. reduces world-important issues into brief flawlessly-timed tableaux, like presidents getting off planes windblown.
T. V. is the religious service of the modern world; our exorcism of reality composed of stereotypical characters who say and do specific things in a particular order that regular viewers can predict. Religious rites are designed to eschew surprise and reassure with the repetition of known formulas. Nothing is more inflexible and dogmatic than a low-grade sitcom or news report: the facial expressions, verbal intonations and camera movements are fixed, and shows are constructed around a moral lesson or dilemma, like parables. Our chthonic mysteries have been replaced with images of death more convincing than death, of violence more terrifying than violence, of women more beautiful than women, of men more masculine than men-believable exaggerations that overload our comprehension. With God out of the picture, T.V. has done away with the metaphysical potency of traditional icons. As its technical expertise accelerates, so does our pessimism. For the first time in millennia, we don't believe in the mystical power of the image. The superficial substitutes for the divine, the material for the numinous, and the actor has become the only remaining object for our confused idolatry.
It may not be paranoid to suggest that it is the purpose of all entertainment to keep us from thinking critically. T.V.'s aim is to sell via masterful if soulless ads whose imaginative potency masks the fundamental fact of American life: the market is by definition amoral. Our moral values are the summation of life's experience, the outcome of fights and prides lost. Sadly, America is simply not living enough. It works, and it is being entertained. So were the Romans; their Caesar's kept them entertained to keep them distracted and to spread the illusion of satiety, while an entire Empire missed the "real picture." Most Americans under fifty have lost their competence for self-amusement. They come home from work and relax before the screen, as other generations did around the family table, kicking off their heels and settling down to taped daytime shows or the season's hits. T.V. is our national yoga. We switch off our minds and rarely turn them on till the next morning when we need them for work; as a result, we think mostly in order to produce and we suspend thinking in order to buy what we produce. What we enjoy is the magnificent sense of nearly total irresponsibility-the return to childhood via our electronic Eden; if we question what we watch, we stop being entertained. To watch lay people mimic favorite actor's routines, share TV-private jokes, or emote in TV-perfect pitch when called to the spotlight (Buttafuoco, Susan Smith, any grieving relative on the news), is to recognize that we're all camera-trained. The recycled gestures and sounds of television have so impregnated our society that a neophyte can effortlessly fall into the formula. Since acting requires no specialization, none of us like being plebeian when we're perfectly qualified to earn fame and fortune. Success lies in the luck of the draw, and that is deeply demoralizing for those of us who stay viewers. Yet those who don't watch T.V. become outsiders, excluded from the common discourse. 5 to 9 am programming is proof that we turn on the T.V. in the same impulse with 9 which we open our eyes every morning to view the world; that T.V. has become the extension (rendering subjective vision obsolete), with the remote-control a body organ that affords us momentary gratification by watching multiple shows at once (to overcome the technology's limitations). Nourished on this strict diet of action-driven plots, stock characters and one-liners, we're further from real life than we've ever been. The current mammoth data revolution spawned by the marriage of telephone, computer and television-a network that will carry America's products to the farthest ends of the world instantaneously-is creating for the first time an economy based on a key resource that is not only renewable but self-generating: information. The abundance of parasitic information blinds us to its self-defeating lack of content and colonizes our thoughts. And even though the most horrific events in recent history came out of regimes committed to efficiency and speed, high tech drives us to idealize their benefits once again. But convenience and efficiency are not signs of intelligence and progress, and contain no moral value or cohesion. And if we don't exchange our massive pursuit of numbing sublimations for some real pains and pleasures, and forfeit copycatting, we may just passively amuse ourselves to cultural extinction. To act need not mean to pretend, but to take action. C.f. Hamlet.