Monday, January 18, 2010

My Mother the Television

I just read Raymond Williams's Television: Technology and Cultural Form, which was originally published in 1974. Williams had agreed to revise and update it just before his death in 1988, but didn't have time to do so; still, the book has useful ideas and information in it, and is held in high esteem by at least some contemporary scholars. In particular his rejection of technological determinism ("the medium is the message" -- he was sharply critical of Marshall McLuhan) needs to be remembered and understood. Here are some bits that I liked.
Many people who are aware of the manipulative powers of radio and television, or of its apparently inexhaustible appeal to children, react in ways which implicitly suppress all the other history of communication. Thus it is often indignantly said that television is a ‘third parent’, as if children had not in all developed societies had third parents in the shape of priests, teachers and workmasters, to say nothing of the actual parents and relations who, in many periods and cultures, intervened to control or to instruct. Against those real alternatives this switchable communication has profound attractions. Or it is said that people are exposed to propaganda by television, as if there had never been masters, employers, judges, priests [135]. ...

This explains the realities of contemporary mediation, but it explains also the apparently irrepressible search, by listeners and viewers, for other sources. Many British working-class people welcomed American culture, or the Americanised character of British commercial television, as an alternative to a British ‘public’ version which, from a subordinate position, they already knew too well. In many parts of the world this apparently free-floating and accessible culture was a welcome alternative to dominant local cultural patterns and restrictions. Young people all over Europe welcomed the pirate broadcasters, as an alterative to authorities they suspected or distrusted or were simply tired. of. The irony was that what came free and easy and accessible was a planned operation by a distant and invisible authority – the American corporations. But in local and immediate terms, as in the other cases mentioned, this did not at first greatly matter; a choice was being exercised, here and now.

Television has been a majority service for a whole generation. It has had certain intended effects corresponding to certain explicit intentions, explicitly declared by the variable character of television institutions. But it has also had unforeseen effects, among them the desire to use the technology for oneself. In the young radical underground, and even more in the young cultural underground, there is a familiarity with media, and an eager sense of experiment and practice, which is much an effect as the more widely publicized and predicted passivity. Indeed, by prolonged use of a technology which had seemed to be contained and limited to commercial or paternal or authoritarian ends, many people – we do not yet know whether they are enough people – conceived quite different intentions and uses. …

… Yet this does not mean that the issue is undetermined; the limits and pressures are real and powerful. Most technical development is in the hands of corporations which express the contemporary interlock of military, political and commercial intentions. Most policy development is in the hands of established broadcasting corporations and the political bureaucracies of a few powerful states. All that has been established so far is that neither the theory nor the practice of television as we know it is a necessary or a predicting cause [136-137].

But a community is also a real social fact: not an idealized notion but a social system containing radical inequalities and conflicts of interest [155].