How does watching television change you? Can it affect your identity or change your perceptions of reality? Theorists have been asking those questions for fifty years. Here are six books to get you started asking the thorny questions.
I could have included dozens more books in this list, but I narrowed it down to include a small but representative sample of what media theorists over the past half-century have been saying about media - and especially TV. What's interesting is that these thinkers rarely worry about the most-asked question in the mainstream media, which is whether TV makes us stupider. Instead, they wonder how TV reorganizes human society. Does it make us more solitary? More likely to accept oppressive conditions?
Interestingly, these theorists also worry very little about whether TV destroys humans' ability to see reality. Instead, they worry that TV alters human perception to the point that we lose our ability to imagine alternatives to reality. Which is a very different concern indeed.
Other theorists consider the ways TV creates bizarre new kinds of community, like fandom. Or contemplate what it means to get enjoyment out of a story that doesn't end for years (if ever) and only gets more complicated as it goes on.
So, has TV warped your society? Let's find out.
Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan
Published in the 1950s, this collection of wry observations about twentieth century media culture was so ahead of its time that it became an instant classic. McLuhan argued that media are "extensions" of selfhood, almost like cybernetic enhancements but for our minds. McLuhan is interested in how TV allows people to extend and transform themselves, whether socially, politically, or artistically. He coined the phrase "the medium is the message" to describe this way of looking at media. McLuhan would argue that to understand television, you shouldn't look at its content like westerns or soaps. Instead, you should consider how the medium itself changes human society.
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So what was the message of the TV medium, according to McLuhan? He classified media into two categories: cool and hot. High-information, low-participation media are "hot," and low-definition, high-participation media are "cool." At the time he was writing Understanding Media in the 1950s, TV seemed to McLuhan a cool medium whose relative technical crudeness required a lot of participation from the audience - sort of the way a cartoon requires participation from a viewer to fill in what is really being depicted. He also believed that TV was an incredibly effective teaching tool because it required concentration and attention - unlike radio, which he said could easily "become background." Probably if McLuhan were writing today, he would consider the web a cool medium while TV has gotten hot.
Simulations, by Jean Baudrillard
This collection of two early-1980s essays by renegade philosopher Jean Baudrillard is media criticism but could just as easily be read as science fiction. Baudrillard warns against a world where the traditional realms of real and imaginary have been collapsed into ubiquitous media simulations unmoored from reality. In a world of simulation, people use models and fantasies to shape the real world, almost as if they live in the Matrix (which is probably why Morpheus quotes Baudrillard's line about "the desert of the real"). Or as if they are using nanotechnology to create idealized versions of the real world.
Of course these scifi metaphors are Baudrillard's way of talking about what happens when the world is so saturated by media that people have seen fake versions of things before seeing the things themselves. If you've played thousands of combat videogames, then go to war, are you no longer capable of grasping the truth of what you're experiencing? If you've seen hundreds of "dates" on reality shows, can you ever make a genuine connection with a person you go on dates with? Or will your mind be so fogged by simulation that you are unable to access your true feelings and experiences? Though Simulations is about more than just television, Baudrillard's fears about a media-created reality seem especially relevant to TV (and, today, the internet).
Loving With a Vengeance, by Tania Modleski
Written at roughly the same time Baudrillard was raving about simulation, Modleski's book deals in a very straightforward way with some of the same issues Baudrillard tackles via metaphor and evocation. The book's tagline is "mass produced fantasies for women," and it's about how women's expectations about the world are shaped by pop culture aimed at them, especially soap operas and romances.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is where Modleski talks about soap operas, and the lure of stories that never end. She could just as easily be talking about Star Trek and Doctor Who when she describes the way soaps train people to get pleasure out of waiting and anticipation, rather than pat endings. Unlike most other media, TV shows are designed to feel endless (at least while they still on the air). Even when TV series do end, they rarely provide the kind of satisfying closure of a movie, novel or videogame. You get no cake song; you get no "off into the sunset."
In this way, Modleski argues, TV as a medium seems designed to do two things: One, by expanding infinitely on character and plot, it teaches us that almost everybody (except the villain) can become sympathetic if you just get to know them; and two, by circling back to the same themes repeatedly, it acknowledges that its audience is probably multitasking, doing housework or something else while watching the tube. While this makes TV sound fairly innocuous, it isn't. Modleski argues persuasively that TV's endlessness - both in terms of character and narrative length - keeps people (especially housewives) from confronting their loneliness and disenfranchisement as they work at home. TV acknowledges our desire for community, but also distracts us from finding it.
Textual Poachers, by Henry Jenkins
Most critics seem to think TV's message as a medium is, at least in part, socially destructive. It absorbs our attention with its simulations, and fragments us into many audiences of one staring in lonely distraction at our stories. But for Jenkins, in one of his earliest books, TV is actually a way of creating new communities: fan communities to be specific. Here Jenkins focuses on the fan communities around Doctor Who and Star Trek, among others, who have appropriated their favorite TV shows and turned them into their own creative efforts using fan fiction, costumes, and the like.
Where Baudrillard sees TV robbing people of their imaginations, Jenkins sees it as a new force of creativity. And where Modleski sees TV acclimating people to loneliness, Jenkins sees TV creating genuine human community through fandom.
NASA/TREK, by Constance Penley
Penley is, according to Rolling Stone, one of the most dangerous minds in academia - and by "dangerous," they mean willing to stand up for the important role popular culture can play in our lives. NASA/TREK is her homage to Star Trek and the role it has played in creating the NASA space program. As she talks about the development of Trek fandom, alongside NASA's triumphs (and tragedies), she weaves a compelling and beautiful argument about how science fiction and science are intertwined in the imaginative lives of Americans.
While Penley believes that science fiction TV has inspired many of the greatest scientific experiments of the past 100 years, she also feels that science (and society) still have a lot to learn from TV. While science fiction boldly experiments with new social and sexual ideas, science in the real world shies away from such experiments or conducts them in misguided and disappointing ways. Society has not yet been changed enough by TV science fiction, Penley argues. Though this is said partly tongue-in-cheek, her belief that social experiments should become more imaginative is dead serious.
Everything Bad Is Good For You, by Steven Johnson
In this recent book-length essay on pop culture, Johnson takes the unusual position that pop culture in a variety of media, including television, have become more complex and mentally challenging. In other words, TV is making us more imaginative rather than less. To underscore his point, he introduces the idea of the "Sleeper Curve," a reference to Woody Allen's scifi comedy Sleeper, where scientists of the future remark wonderingly that people of the twentieth century had yet to discover the health value of fattening foods and cigarettes. According to the Sleeper Curve, pop culture that once seemed junky has evolved into something as mind-bending as avant garde art. Johnson compares 1960s fare like Dragnet to contemporary show The Sopranos, showing how shows in the same genre have become more subtle and complicated, requiring viewers to pay a great deal of attention and perform analytical thinking in order to follow the show. The Sleeper Curve also helps explain the blindingly complicated plots in Lost, as well as the fast-paced blur of pleasingly obscure references that form the dialog in a show like Middleman.
For further reading:
If you want to learn more about philosophical/academic TV theory without wading in over your head, Channels of Discourse, edited by Robert C. Allen, is a terrific place to start. It's a collection of essays about different kinds of TV theory - from psychoanalysis to audience reception theory - which are intended as introductory overviews of their fields. Readable and fun, this collection is a classic.