- “Television Resurrections”:Television and Memory
Television has often been characterized by its “transience,” “ephemerality,” and “forgetability.” Even more seriously, it is seen as an “amnesiac,” responsible for the “undermining of memory.” Television is not only the bad critical object in the academy, but it is a bad memory object as well. In her account of the shifts in theories and concerns with memory from modernity to late modernity, Susannah Radstone observes that “whereas in the nineteenth century, it was the felt break with tradition and the long durée which constituted the temporal aspect of the [End Page 137] memory crisis, in the late twentieth century, that crisis is inflected, rather, by the experiences of immediacy, instantaneity and simultaneity.”1 Radstone goes on to reiterate, working through research by Vivian Sobchack, that the development of new electronic technologies that “collapse the distance that previously separated an event from its representation” are in part responsible for the “deepening” of the memory crisis.2
In his book Present Pasts, Andreas Huyssen explores how a contemporary fascination with memory might be viewed as a response to the “spread of amnesia” in Western society. For Huyssen, “intense public panic of oblivion” is met by the “contemporary public obsession with memory.”3 Huyssen also suggests that the increasing popularity of the museum and the monument, as central to the “memory boom,” may have something to do with the fact that both offer something “that television denies: the material quality of the object.”4 By offering some thoughts below on the relationship between television, memory, and the museum, I hope to provide a way of rethinking television’s role at the heart of the memory crisis and its paradoxical memory boom—to raise the question: how does memory function on a medium, and for a medium, that is often seen as a metaphor for forgetting?
Through its repetition and continual re-narrativization of grand historical narratives of, for example, world wars and world cups, television itself is marked by, and generates our obsession with, commemoration and anniversaries.5 Along with a host of new electronic technologies, television prompts a contemporary fascination with memory. As Huyssen writes,
The turn toward memory and the past comes with a great paradox. Ever more frequently, critics accuse this very contemporary memory culture of amnesia, anaesthesia, or numbing. They chide the inability and unwillingness to remember, and they lament the loss of historical consciousness. The amnesia reproach is invariably couched in a critique of the media, while it is precisely these media—from print to television to CD-ROMs and the Internet—that make ever more memory available to us day by day.6
While Huyssen’s argument moves on to discuss the relationship between remembering and forgetting and the need to make a distinction, amongst the excesses of a memory and information culture, between “usable pasts and disposable data,”7 we might also respond to the need to pay specific attention to media forms and the operations of a contemporary memory culture. Radstone’s assertion that “memory means different things at different times,”8 and her suggestion that we need to pay more attention to the “specificities of contemporary preoccupations with memory,”9 opens up medium-specific interrogations of memory.
There are two primary concerns raised by the relationship between television and memory. The first, illuminated by Huyssen’s work, is the role of television within the constitution of contemporary memory cultures; and the second, arguably a more neglected area of investigation, is the role of memory in the operation of specific television cultures. Huyssen states that “we cannot discuss personal, generational, or public memory separately from the enormous influence of the new media as carriers of all forms of memory.”10 If this is so, then it is essential that we [End Page 138] reevaluate the relationship between memory and television not only as an attempt to understand how memory works, but, as Karen Lury writes in her book on British youth television, an “attempt to understand how television works” as well.11
While television is often viewed as central to a postmodern condition that produces an abundance of memory in response to the fear of...