restricted access Still Life in Real Time: Theory After Television (review)
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Reviewed by
Richard Dienst. Still Life in Real Time: Theory After Television. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. xiii + 203pp.

What is theory “after” television? Can theory take TV as its object, explain it, and thereby come “after” it? Or does TV play its part in altering the stakes of theory in a postmodern culture? Richard Dienst makes a significant contribution to our understanding of these questions, as media studies continues to evaluate its methodologies “after” poststructuralism. The set of problems posed at the interfaces of print and electronic media must now be approached, as Dienst understands, as a series of encounters and overlays in which different modes of writing are put into a process of mutual displacement and illumination, proceeding by “the invention of theoretical images that link up with images produced through the machine itself.”

Still Life in Real Time supports this critical project with a three part structure that begins by interrogating the marxian materialist account of broadcast TV, then shifts to a series of readings of TV texts, and closes with some alternative philosophical articulations of a televisual [End Page 252] ontology and poetics. As the title suggests, Dienst’s central thesis—engaging with TV theory’s predilection for the notion of “flow”—concerns TV’s production of “socialized culture time” as exchange value. In response to this continual electronic flow of real time, Dienst poses theory as the best hope that there is still life after television.

TV, as an extension of the cultural logic of capitalism, packages and sells space and time “in measured lengths of representation and reception.” Theory, in Dienst’s account, has the potential to defamiliarize this commodification of everyday life. Yet TV has from the beginning been articulated at a theoretical level in terms of a certain global utopianism, both capitalist and communist. In a close reading of Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Raymond Williams’s analyses of TV, Dienst traces the split between TV’s institutionalization by the state and its theorization as vehicle for a democratic popular culture. However, in Dienst’s analysis, the argument for a populist appropriation of TV has suffered from a refusal to acknowledge the structural conditions of TV transmission, what theorists since Williams have termed “flow,” that effectively overcodes any attempts at resistance. Neither does he accept John Fiske’s celebration of TV’s semiotic excesses. Finally, however, he reveals flow as “the blurry image of unresolved metaphysical impulses in the theorization of television.” “Flow” as a theoretical concept mirrors TV’s drive toward global totality.

In order to arrive at a more adequate materialist theorization, Chapter 2 traces the metafigure of the machine in Marx. In a way that is cognizant of Deleuzian and Foucauldian economies of power, Dienst rejects any simplistic understanding of TV as a “propaganda megaphone” and presents instead a theoretical image of TV as a machine that produces a range of social effects. The electronic image functions to regulate the time of everyday reception by exchanging it for commercially manufactured units of time. Even the new “freedoms” provided by VCR and remote control remain within the terms of this exchange.

By way of providing some concrete examples, the readings in Part Two of the book focus on hybrid texts where the conventions of TV and the categories of criticism are mutually displaced. All of these readings attempt to move away from revealing ideological “content” and toward demonstrating the aesthetic possibilities opened by the machinic reproduction of time and space theorized in Part One. But [End Page 253] Jean Baptiste Mondino’s videos and Twin Peaks can no longer be understood as “interventions” in the sense that media studies has inherited from Brecht or the avant-garde.

It is left to Part Three to fulfill the promise made at the opening of the book that “theory itself” is “the best available technique for remaking televisual images and reclaiming the power to create images of our own.” First, Heidegger, who one might have assumed would have posed authentic Being in contrast to TV’s instrumentality, finds Being persistently caught in the movement of technological enframing, and himself attempts to overcome TV by appearing on it. Derrida’s Post Card displaces...