- Feedback: Television Against Democracy
In the swell of scholarship surrounding New Media, treatments of television and other so-called Old Media are becoming less frequent. One potential result from such a swift shift, however, is that some may begin to believe that, after decades of scholarship on television and its contemporaries, there is nothing left to be said about Old Media. David Joselit’s Feedback convincingly argues that this is simply not the case. This penetrating volume is a sobering reminder that Old Media, specifically television, is as enigmatic as ever and that we have much yet to explore before we can claim to understand its sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and sociohistorical effects.
Feedback focuses on the politics of television: not just on how political candidates and messages are broadcast through television, but, principally, on how network television reconfigured the dynamic political relationship between the individual and the collective and the very possibility of democratic political interaction. Generally speaking, the claim that television impedes democracy is not new; rather, what makes Joselit’s version of that argument so compelling is the methodology that he uses to advance it.
Joselit “practices a kind of eco-formalism whose object is interrelated image ecologies rather than individual artworks” (xii, italics in original). In other words, while Joselit analyzes various artistic works from, among others, Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol, Joan Jonas, Michael Shamberg, and Melvin Van Peebles, he does so not to stabilize these works within various physiognomic traditions, but to articulate how the images emergent with these works are part of a larger ecology of images regulated by a dialectical relationship between network and commodity. For example, in discussing I Love Lucy, Joselit explains that while Lucy’s specific character is produced as a commodity, this character must also conform to the expectations established by a larger network (also a commodity) of sitcom characters to which Lucy is a contributing member: “[w]hat the sitcom sells, in short, is the virtue of remaining in character” (149, italics in original).
Joselit believes that this methodological shift is imperative if artists want to generate work that is efficacious in its attempt to improve current political situations. He argues that network television has succeeded in establishing a patterned ecology of images that politically “polices” human behavior: “the great accomplishment of commercial television is to train Americans to maintain their proper places—roles that they will reprise at election time through identification with spectacularized candidates” (146, italics in original). Joselit posits that if artists hope to circumvent this policing, they need to understand how one becomes a resistant rather than complicit part of the policing measures of that ecology.
To this end, Joselit provides three “metaphors for assessing the effects of image-events” (xiii), metaphors that provide artists with practical suggestions for resistance: virus, feedback, and avatar. In his discussion of what he calls “viral aesthetics,” he explains that artists can use the television apparatus to enter images into a given ecology in such a way as to create a virus: an image or set of images that is “parasitic” upon commercial networks and their televisuality (xiii), resulting in a phenomenon of “runaway reproduction” that can “invade and transform [political] systems” (50). When such a system is invaded and transformed, the system, he explains, undergoes a process of feedback, in which the virus results in the destabilization of oppressive formations of subjectivity and initiates new subjectivities. When new subjectivities are in fact mobilized through the use of viruses and feedback, ideally the artist will have succeeded in the formation of an avatar. In some ways, Joselit’s notion of avatar is similar to the notion common in New Media studies—a virtual identity taken on by an original self-identity. But whereas the common notion of avatar implies that the avatar identity is as stable and singular as the self-identity, Joselit eschews stability and singularity altogether in favor of a notion of identity that is ever-in-process: “identity as process, not a televisual presence” (163, italics in original). In summation, Joselit argues that through...