First TV Generation


[Some personalized ancient history: growing up with and without TV in the late 50s/early sixties. Still thankful we didn’t have a TV at home. Only managed to not have one ourselves till our son was about ten years old. Photo of a family watching television about 1958. A bas le societe du spectacle.]

First TV Generation

The generalized use of receivers of the spectacular message makes it possible for the individual to repopulate his isolation with dominant images, images which acquire their full power only because of this isolation.
– Guy Debord 1970, Society of the Spectacle, 172

…as we all watched from our separate living rooms, it was as if we sat in isolation booths, unable to exchange any responses about what we were all going through together. […] I was chilled at the thought, realizing that these conditions of TV viewing, confusion, unification, isolation – especially when combined with the passivity and what I later learned of the effects of implanted imagery – were ideal preconditions for the imposition of autocracy.
– J. Mander (1980), Four Arguments For The Elimination of Television, pp. 26-27.

Eleven or twelve, the beginning of high school at Fort Street Boys’ High in Petersham, Sydney. You live in Haberfield, where your parents have opened up and totally ruined a heritage Federation house by removing the front brick wall, heritage-tiled veranda and path, back timber sunroom and grey slate roof and attaching the de riguer ‘migrant dream’ concrete façade with large window to the planted radiata pines blocking out the street, an extra flat to rent out at the back (made of second hand bricks we spent many hours cleaning) and the obligatory Sydney red roof tiles. The house then has a total of twelve rooms and they are rented out to German, Austrian and Chinese-Malaysian tenants.

We never have a TV. You go next door some evenings to watch. Polite, monosyllabic entries and exits. A dark womb of a lounge room lit only by the flickering screen. Plato’s cave re-visited. Utterly screen-absorbed, almost funereal silences of father, mother, adult daughter, son-in-law, ‒ your neighbours ‒ whose names, if memory serves you well, were Buchanan. As separated as our neat, fenced, suburban quarter acre blocks, we are now united in total isolation as we watch, a ‘lonely crowd’ in miniature.

‘From the automobile to the television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation of ‘lonely crowds’” (Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 28).

This may be the defining suburban experience: without a living community, delocalised, we are isolated consumers of the new 1950s corporate culture of consumerism.

You never see the Buchanans watching as your head is kept turned away sideways from the couch to watch Hollywood’s adventures like Bonanza (and names, real and fictive, you definitely do remember like Hoss and Little Joe Cartwright and Lorne Green), Hawaian Eye (Ephraim Zimbalist Jr. and Cookie, the young guy, the proto-‘beatnik’, always combing back his blond hair), The Fugitive (the existentially lonely and darkly scowling David Jansen, a kind of TV-canned James Dean), canned-laughter products like My Three Sons (the pop singer Ricky Nelson and, like Lorne Greene, another good, calm widower and father figure with the comforting pipe Fred MacMurray…) and I Love Lucy (Lucille Ball, that strong proto-feminist clown in the Mae West tradition, long before feminism’s Betty Friedan or Germaine Greer)…

A refreshing antidote to Hollywood’s synthetic characters are the old Cockney rag and bone merchants of Steptoe & Son, the only British product we watch. It is almost ‘Beckett and Pinter for the masses’, unsurpassable British humour at its Goon Show, Monty Python best. (The only scene I now remember: old Steptoe finds an old newspaper under the carpet they are salvaging. Squinting reading, pause, looks up with an oblique look of squinting recrimination at his son, pause, whines: “You never told me Gandhi died!” His son remains silent, merely raising his eyebrows and shoulders slightly as his face is filled with the expression of pained indifference that is his habitual response to his father’s constant accusations and recriminations. ‒ The phrase has become part of the absurdist or comic relief repertoire of our marriage). Their eternally repetitive, antagonistic father-son dialogues and tramp-Beckettian body language have you in such great stitches that it is all you can do to somehow heroically and unhealthily repress them for fear of disturbing that genteel Buchananian silence…

Apart from such a British working class and absurd-realist exception, what are all these synthetic Hollywood characters doing to our brains, these post-patriarchal male role models compensating for absent fathers, these modern ultra-nuclear families seemingly more alive than your silent neighbours next to you in a lounge room darkness in Haberfield Road, in the flickering cathode glow we stare into and are all hypnotised by? Are we ‘repopulating’ our isolation with the dominant images of ‘the spectacle’, in 68’s Situationist theory the form that Capital takes in late capitalism? TV has only been in Australia for about five or six years. Ten years after its introduction almost every household had a set. A veritable cultural revolution, only partly recognised. With the car, the key producer, product and symbol of post-war suburban consumerism. (And sharing all its social ambiguity: phoniness and cultural homogeneity on the one hand, the promise of almost classless universality and prosperity on the other). We are the first TV generation.

The British experience mirrors that of most industrialized countries, including Australia: “All ages, all classes, all faiths consumed it avidly […] By the end of the seventies the English people were spending an average of twenty-five hours a week watching television (over the whole life span, more time than they spent in formal education or at work). As a ‘leisure pursuit’ it crowded out everything else, cinema-going in particular but also sport and other outside activities. As an institution and an activity, television established itself as the most representative emblem of the national culture. It was classless and culturally universal in a way and to an extent barely approached by the press, the traditional arts, educational institutions, and political groupings.” (J. Holloway)

The TV entertainment is of course interwoven with the commercial propaganda of affluence, development, progress, consumerism, the “uninterrupted conversation which the present order maintains about itself, its laudatory monologue” (Guy Debord). All these family shows interspersed with the usual phoney-surreal washing powder, shampoo, processed food and fly spray ads in which things seemed more alive than the manically smiling plastic people extolling their virtues. Advertising jingles that (like the previous ones for Laxette and Aeroplane Jelly from the radio of your childhood) will haunt your neurons forever, the folksy fear-based minor brainwash firmly embedded…(Still today you will notice TV characters’ voices occasionally replaying in your brain when out working in your orchard or sitting on your tractor slashing meadows.)

Jingle 1. “I’m Louie de Fly, I’m Louie de Fly, Straight from rubbish tip to you…Spreading disease with the greatest of ease…”: this Mortein’s domestic contribution to the beginning chemicalisation of the environment manifestly manipulating germ phobias and covertly perhaps appealing to the fears of the dark, disease-carrying other that is the stock in trade of all authoritarian/fascist projections;

Jingle 2. This ad appeals to fears of another kind, male fears of personal image, of romantic failure or rejection. There is the cultivation of the male façade and adolescent sexual wish fulfilment in “Brylcream, a little dab’ll do ya, Brylcream, yer look so debonair, Brylcream, the gals’ll all pursue ya: simply rub a little in yer hair!” Seen psychoanalytically, there is something like a displacement upwards: the sexually potent hair of the head is rubbed with a white semen-like substance until its sleek bird-of-paradise shine attracts the enraptured females, the ‘birds’ or ‘chicks’.

You come at a set time, leave at a set time. An ideal arrangement: you receive an experiential education in the Americanised zeitgeist, the self-propaganda of the spectacle and the main genres of its pop culture industry, and yet cannot get too hooked. As you do, increasingly, on books.

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on September 12, 2016.

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