The Velvet Light Trap 52 (2003) 71-73
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Anna McCarthy. Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001. 328 pp., $18.95 paper.
It is undeniable that television has become a fixture in public space. The pervasiveness of the television in "routine locations" outside of the home has become part of the familiar ambience of grocery stores, shopping malls, bars, laundromats, and airports, to name a few establishments (1). In Ambient Television Anna McCarthy has launched an extensive investigation of the "work" the presence of the television set "does" in the public environment from the 1940s through the 1990s. She considers the effects of the publicness of television on American media culture, focusing primarily on the politics of spectatorship and institutional power.
Ambient Television is presented in two parts. Part 1, consisting of chapters 1-3, showcases the discourses and rhetoric pertaining to the discussion of public television viewing. The section begins with an account of the introduction of television to public space, employing the environment of the 1940s neighborhood tavern as a case study. As evident in the first chapter, the case studies McCarthy employs tend to be narrow in scope. In conceiving of place in both generic and specific terms, the author frames her case studies as historical moments in which the new geography of the television set altered the manner of television viewing or modified television's social and/or cultural effects. In part 2, chapters 4-7, McCarthy continues her investigation by illustrating and expanding on the rhetoric brought to the forefront in part 1. She provides a comprehensive survey of the daily experience of television in the public space and practices associated with it, centering her analysis on questions of screen placement, merchandising and consumerism, and temporal relations (namely, "waiting"). In the final chapter, she concludes by offering the category of video art as a blurring of boundaries between rhetoric and practice. In two parts, Anna McCarthy effectively situates a place for the consideration of the presence, production, and reception of television in public space within the narrative of American media culture and the trajectory of cultural studies.
Chapter by chapter, the author highlights relationships and conflicts between television and public space that (she reminds us) are not historically specific and illustrates how they are reiterated at present. McCarthy takes care in attending to the totality of the coincidence of television and public space, including the larger social context in her understanding of the television set's role in a particular public arena. She structures her chapters similarly throughout the book, beginning with a discussion of the cultural space pretelevision, providing an account of the manner in which television was introduced into that space, and finally analyzing the reconstructive work the television's presence performs within that space. At first glance, this structure seems to be an implementation of a classical Hegelian dialectic; however, the processes McCarthy explicates become manifest through the renegotiations of complex matrixes of expressions and silences of social power, ideology, and audience formations. In some cases, the author regards the introduction and situation of the television screen in public space as neither antithesis nor synthesis but rather as a perpetual negotiation of "commerce and community."
In chapter 1 McCarthy illustrates how the initial presence of television in the tavern disrupted the "imagined community" of the predominantly masculine, white [End Page 71] working class, threatening it with the expression of "contradictory cultural sensibilities" (33). The television, as McCarthy explains it in the context of the tavern, undermines the "local," invoking the narrative of the television as "intruder." She recognizes a discourse of power at play between the preexisting social practices of working-class leisure time and new practices such as the collective viewing of sporting events, the managing of spectator gaze by tavern personnel, a novel promotion of alcohol consumption, and the opening of the cultural space of the tavern to new forms of distraction and interpersonal interaction as well as new clientele. The opening of the particular cultural space to external regulation and discourse with the...