The Plug-In Drug

This week, America turns off the TV. Yeah, right, says Scott McLemee.

April 26, 2005

A professor -- grant money in hand, spouse and child off on vacation -- goes to Berlin to work on his long-gestating book about the painter Titian. He plans to focus (perhaps New Historicist-style) on an anecdote in which Charles V stooped to pick up the artist's paintbrush.

As often happens with a writing project, the scholar gets bogged down on a minor point. Days go by, turning into weeks. All he writes are the first two words of the book. Meanwhile, he has agreed to take care of a neighbor's plants, and he procrastinates about doing that, too. When he finally gets around to watering them, he lingers a while in front of the television, slipping into the narcotic trance of the total couch potato....

At this point, some of you are thinking, "I know that guy. In fact, I know him a little too well."

The era when any self-respecting academic would do the standard "I do not own a television machine" bit is now as distant and implausible as, say, Ozzy and Harriet. It may be that the turning point is recorded by the cultural commentator John Leonard, in his account of a discussion with Lionel Trilling in the early 1970s. After denying that he actually used his television machine very much, the sage of the Columbia University English department admitted to watching quite a bit of basketball, and also to having a certain weakness for Kojak.

Actually, the Titian scholar with the square eyeballs is the narrator of Jean-Phillipe Toussaint's Television, published in translation last year by the Dalkey Archives Press. It's the sort of novel in which dry irony is the real hero. As the drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs used to say, there isn't a lot of plot to get in the way of the story.

But it seems like the right book to be reading now, during national TV Turnoff Week. Not because the unnamed European professor in Toussaint's book is an example of what happens to someone who succumbs to the tube. Quite the contrary: Television is a book about how pride in not watching can render you even more obsessed.

The narrator (sounding a little like Trilling) announces that he seldom turned the box on: "Apart from major sporting events, which I always watched with pleasure, and of course the news and the occasional election-night special, I never watched much of anything on television." He says he avoided seeing movies there, for the same reason he never read books in Braille.

"Although I never tried it," he continues, "I was always quite sure I could give up watching television anytime, just like that, without suffering in the least, without suffering the slightest ill effect -- in short, that there was no way I could be considered dependent."

And yet, from time to time, he slips into "a slight deterioration of my day-to-day habits." He finds himself barefoot and unshaven, "half-reclining on the couch, taking it easy ... my hand cradling my privates." (Note to anthropologists and psychoanalysts: The latter gesture, possibly universal, requires cross-cultural interpretation. See also Slavoj Zizek's proposal that tendency of men to dominate the remote control is symptom of castration anxiety.) 

"Most of these afternoons I was alone in the apartment," the narrator recalls, "but sometimes the cleaning woman was there too, ironing my shirts beside me in the living room, mute with contained indignation."

He resolves, more than once, to quit for good. And yet television is everywhere. Looking out the window of his temporary lodgings, he sees the blue glow in apartment after apartment across the way. Visiting the museum to do research for his monograph (research that merely amounts, at this point, to another form of procrastination) he wanders into the security station, where guards keep watch on the gallery through a bank of surveillance cameras: "After studying the monitors for some time, I finally recognized a painting that had been a starting point for my study, the portrait of Emporer Charles V...."

That is the trouble with procrastination. It is hard to make any progress, no matter how hard you work at it -- and any halfway serious bout of procrastination is, of course, quite exhausting. The obligation you try to escape keeps returning.

Likewise with the effort of Toussaint's narrator to avoid television. The solemn (if never very firm) vow to keep the machine turned off becomes just another stage of immersion in "its essential immediacy, its ever-evolving, always-in-progress superficiality."

Resistance is futile. So Television shows, tongue in cheek. But for the most articulate terms of surrender, we have to turn to another professor.

"TV offers incredible amounts of psychic data," says Murray J. Siskind, a visiting lecturer at College-on-the-Hill. "It opens ancient memories of world birth, it welcomes us into the grid, the network of little buzzing dots that make up the picture patterns...."

(At this point, it is probably worth mentioning that both Siskind and the College appear in Don Delillo's novel White Noise, first published 20 years ago. In 1985, the book was clearly a satire. Now I'm not so sure. It's probably turned into a fairly straightforward picture of the way we live now.)

"Look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid," says Siskind, "in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice of life commercials, the products hurtling out of darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras. 'Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it.' The medium practically overflows with sacred formulas if we can remember how to respond innocently and get past our irritation, weariness, and disgust."

Then again, all of this -- Toussaint's fiction and Delillo's alike -- does seem a little out of date. The locus of procrastination has now shifted.

It's moved to another screen ... a different grid ... offering infinitely more information ... white noise that is louder and blurrier. The distractions range from the sublime to the barely legal.

Going online, and resolving to stay offline, will require another kind of obsessive narrative. One to be read, perhaps, in August, during PC Turnoff Week.


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