- Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual
Satellites are the farthest-flung portions of complex terrestrially based systems that structure so much of modern life. Analysis of their context and impact is quite difficult. But in Cultures in Orbit Lisa Parks presents an ambitious, stimulating, and often successful assessment of the convergence of satellites and television. Her book appears in a series titled Console-ing Passions: Television and Cultural Power, edited by Lynn Speigel. Parks advances the argument that television has extended far beyond its origins in broadcasting commercial entertainment to encompass many convergent practices of observation, transmission, and perception. These she identifies as "satellite television," associated with viewers' practices of the televisual; the practices to a large degree determine the spheres of cultural and economic activities that constitute "the global" in contemporary life.
Parks begins Cultures in Orbit by situating its contents within the nuanced complexities of cultural theory and television and cultural studies. There follow five chapters that extend and deepen her arguments in very disparate arenas. The first, derived from her dissertation research, examines "the fantasy of global presence" as constructed by the 1967 production Our World. This was a pioneering, globe-spanning video that presented itself as a seamless "live" broadcast of the global village, with startling constructions of modernity and backwardness along with prerecorded segments presented as though they were "live." The second chapter examines the early history of Imparja, a satellite television network in Australia owned and [End Page 646] operated by various aboriginal media groups and communities. Parks presents the story of Imparja in the context of various notions of hybridity, arguing that the often incongruous juxtapositions of aboriginal programming and American soap opera can in fact function as "zones of situated knowledges and cultural incongruities that may compel struggles for cultural survival rather than simply suppress them" (p. 62). The third chapter addresses an array of remote-sensing technologies that converged, or did not, on indications of genocide in Bosnia in and near Srebrenica in July 1995. Parks makes particular reference to how these images were displayed or suppressed on satellite television. The argument here is related to that of the fifth chapter, which addresses satellite-related astronomical observations, particularly from the Hubble Space Telescope, and both nonfictional and fictional portraits of SETI, the research program directed to perception of radio waves from "intelligent life" elsewhere in the universe. The chapter in between addresses the literal and cultural reconstruction of classical Egyptian society, via the use of satellite data for Egyptian archaeology, and also the evolution of cinematic versions of Cleopatra and her milieu, in the context of productions of female sexuality, the Other, and the Orient. Parks's conclusion melds strands from her many disparate examples and argues for vigorous, albeit somewhat ambiguous, engagement in response, through "global positioning," which she defines quite differently than does the U.S. Department of Defense.
Parks is accomplished at cultural theory and she knows the history of television and cinema well, and it is no surprise that the parts of the book where these strengths may be deployed work the best. When her analysis attempts to go behind the screen, as it were, she is less successful. She stresses not the overlapping military and industrial origins of remote sensing but rather the aesthetic-phenomenological components. Hence the irresistible nuances of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, as resurrected by Foucault, lead her to examine all satellite remote-sensing applications as though they sprang from the head of Zeus. She makes no reference to a preceding century of aerial photography used for the very same purposes, not to mention centuries of photogrammetry and sophisticated mapping systems. Even her chapter on astronomical imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope—in which her skills at "aesthetic-phenomenological components" could well be brought to bear—suffers from a lack of knowledge about how the Hubble imagery actually "works." Hubble data-streams are in fact large black-and-white arrays passed through three different filters that must be recombined and falsely colored, oriented, and edited...