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Chapter 3: Spectacle

Seeing comes before words.
–John Berger

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Let us begin with a brief return to the scene from DeLillo’s Americana referenced in the last chapter, David Bell sitting before his television set:

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I looked at the TV screen for a moment and then found myself in a chair about a foot away from the set, watching intently. I could not tell what was happening on the screen and it didn’t seem to matter. Sitting that close, all I could perceive was that meshed effect, those stormy motes, but it drew me in and held me as if I were an integral part of the act, my molecules mating with those millions of dots. (43)

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 David’s television, which has drawn him in, and holds him fast, acts in a manner quite different from Pynchon’s television, into which the couch potatoes of the past are physically wired. Here, the television’s “meshed effect” produces a new kind of intertwining of human and television set, one that functions “as if” human perception were required to complete the broadcast. In this meshing, the “stormy motes” of the set’s image pattern seem transformed into reproductive cells, “mating” with David and creating a new potential form of life. The interconnection David perceives is fundamentally imaginary, however, in both the common sense of unreality and in the Lacanian sense of a preverbal realm of the visual, because those reproductive cells themselves do not have a physical existence; they are merely the effect of the scatter pattern of an electron-scanning beam striking a phosphor-coated screen. These motes are pure evanescence, because they exist only as light, and only for a fraction of a second. They are, in other words, the purest form of image, pure visuality, communicating with the unconscious, fleeting and gone.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 David’s confusion of these image parts, these flashes of light, with a kind of materiality is not unique in DeLillo’s fiction. One might remember Lyle’s “discipline” of television watching in Players:

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Sitting in near darkness about eighteen inches from the screen, he turned the channel selector every half minute or so, sometimes much more frequently. He wasn’t looking for something that might sustain his interest. Hardly that. He simply enjoyed jerking the dial into fresh image-burns. He explored content to a point. The tactile-visual delight of switching channels took precedence, however, transforming ever random moments of content into pleasing territorial abstractions. (16)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The “image-burns,” like David’s stormy motes, communicate something beyond content that remains an abstraction and yet penetrates beyond consciousness. That this undiluted visuality is connected to a kind of tactility, however, suggests that these image-burns take on a sort of physical existence, at least in Lyle’s conception of them.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Such a bleed between the visual and the tactile, between the ephemerality of the image and the solidity of the physical can be further seen in the transformation of Babette into a screen image in DeLillo’s White Noise, and her family’s response to that transformation. Having accidentally stumbled across a broadcast of her posture class on a local public-access cable station, the family races through a series of silent, terrified questions: “What did it mean? What was she doing there, in black and white, framed in formal borders? Was she dead, missing, disembodied? Was this her spirit, her secret self, some two-dimensional facsimile released by the power of technology, set free to glide through the wavebands, through energy levels, pausing to say good-bye to us from the fluorescent screen?” (104). This apparent disappearance is rapidly transmuted into a kind of reappearance, however, as the disembodied state of Babette’s image mutates into a new form of embodiment:

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 With the sound down low we couldn’t hear what she was saying. But no one bothered to adjust the volume. It was the picture that mattered, the face in black and white, animated but also flat, distanced, sealed off, timeless. It was but wasn’t her. Once again I began to think Murray might be on to something. Waves and radiation. Something leaked through the mesh. She was shining a light on us, she was coming into being, endlessly being formed and reformed as the muscles in her face worked at smiling and speaking, as the electronic dots swarmed.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 We were being shot through with Babette. Her image was projected on our bodies, swam in us and through us. Babette of electrons and photons, of whatever forces produced that gray light we took to be her face. (104″“5)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In this “coming into being,” Babette as image becomes more real than the physical Babette, producing a deeper communion with the members of her fragmented household, meshing with each of them. This image that is but isn’t Babette, like the stormy motes on David Bell’s television screen, creates an imaginary bond between viewer and viewed that in every case is associated with a decadent withdrawal from the real, and most particularly from the meaningful encounter with that real produced by symbolic forms of representation.[1] As Thomas Ferraro argues: “the rhetoric of light’s physicality suggests that the screen’s ultimate strategy is to destroy the distinction between flesh and image, re-presenting the image-in-all-its-fleshiness as the thing-in-itself. If the vehicle that generates perception is to replace the object perceived, then television can be said to seduce us with a major reconstruction of the nature of reality itself” (26). In this fashion, the “gray light” that her family takes to be Babette’s face inspires not merely recognition–that image is an image of my wife, of our mother–but also mistaken identification: that image is my wife, is our mother.[2]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 This obsession with pure nonsignifying visuality, this longing to mesh with the light from the electron-scanning beam, is only an extreme form of what Ferraro saliently calls the “image narcosis” (28) of contemporary U.S. culture repeatedly depicted in the novel of obsolescence. In this metaphor of image as narcotic are laden the supposed dangers the image presents: hallucination, incapacitation, addiction. Not all renderings of the role of the visual in the discourse of obsolescence are this extreme; however, that contemporary U.S. culture is image oriented has become nothing short of truistic in recent critical and popular cultural analyses. For instance, in an attempt to account for a surprising rise in museum going during the mid-1990s, the New York Times cites as a contributing factor the overwhelming visuality of the contemporary U.S. cultural scene. Again, the mere claim that the late twentieth-century United States is image driven says very little that is new; the surprise in the Times‘s assessment in this case lies in its sense that our connection to the visual could be responsible not just for MTV, but for something as socially uplifting as an appreciation of fine art. In making this claim, however, the Times recounts an abbreviated history of the image’s rise to power:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Image began to reign supreme over the written and spoken word once television started to dominate the national consciousness, beginning in the 1950’s, a trend reinforced by the explosion of influence of movies and video. Americans, particularly young ones, learn their news on the tube and their history in the movie theater, and what interest they have in the high arts is best satisfied by the visual richness of museums. (Dobrzynski 1)

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 There is, first, something peculiar about the Times‘s chronology, in which the image’s reign “began” with television and was “reinforced” by film. “Television” has in this narrative become dislocated from history. Final cause has become first cause; television is here not the image’s teleological endpoint but rather, by some logical shift, its origin. Television has, for the Times, as for numerous other participants in the cultural discourses of obsolescence, become less itself than a metonym for what has gone wrong.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 But beyond this brief historical lapse, the Times‘s replication of the conventional wisdom about the passionate relationship between U.S. culture and the image is revealing for what it says about the Times itself. It is no accident that the image is here described as “reign[ing] supreme over the written and spoken word”; the print form itself is endangered by all this visuality.[3] If Americans are indeed “learn[ing] their news on the tube,” the newspaper reporting this fact is obsolete. Despite countervailing evidence that people persist in reading the Times even in the age of television, the newspaper apparently continues to operate with one eye checking nervously over its shoulder for the competitors that threaten to overwhelm it. Little wonder, then, that even that “old gray lady,” the Times, had, by the date of this article, succumbed to the pressures of the image and begun printing in color.[4]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 This lightly paranoid conviction, that one mode of communication is being forced out of existence by a newer, more technologically advanced medium, bears much in common with the novelist’s anxiety of obsolescence. The discourse of obsolescence, as we have seen, flourishes across U.S. culture, surfacing in the journalistic realm as well as the novelistic, the popular as well as the academic. Participants in this discourse repeatedly depict older forms–here, the newspaper–as in danger of eradication by encroaching new technologies, a threat made possible by the birth of a postmodern, surface-oriented, sped-up subjectivity. The representation of this threat in the very forms presumably endangered–the newspaper’s death announced in the newspaper itself–creates a protected space for these older forms, within which critics of contemporary U.S. culture can take refuge. The technological threats these critics uncover repeatedly differentiate, as I suggested in the first chapter, into three interconnected and yet distinct conceptual categories. Where older forms are assumed to be “human,” new media are seen as mechanical; where older forms are individualist, new media are designed for an interconnected mass. And, as the Times here argues, where older forms are based upon the word, new media are founded upon the image. These new forms of mediation–machine, network, spectacle–are represented not simply as differences, however, but as active threats: a mechanical vision of the universe can only distort one’s sense of the human; an affiliation with the mass undermines one’s assumption of the individual’s prerogative. In much the same way, concerns about the spectacle stress the ability of the image to weaken our cultural relationship with the word. These concerns assume a conflict inherent between visual epistemologies and typographic or linguistic ways of knowing; writing itself, these writers claim, is under siege.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 This apparently threatening visuality, however, presents the novelist with another set of strategies for contending with the electronic media. In writing about the visual threat to writing, the novelist of obsolescence is able to create a cultural preserve, a protected distance from the contemporary that grants to writing important powers of political resistance. By delineating the epistemologies of text and image, and by repeatedly pointing to the dangers that the image ostensibly presents to a literate culture, the novelist of obsolescence is able to reclaim the primacy of text. In so doing, however, the writer must both represent and misrepresent the processes of the visual. As in the Times article, in which television is thought to precede film, the historical origin and development of the electronic media are manipulable narratives, free to be shifted and construed as the context of obsolescence demands. Similarly, the structure and functioning of the media are subject to appropriation and rewriting–including the very question of these forms’ reliance upon the spectacle. Neil Postman argues, for instance, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, that television is primarily a visual medium, conducting a “conversation in images” (7). Many media theorists would insist, however, that this is an erroneous assumption, and that television, as an outgrowth of radio, is primarily an aural medium, pointing out the tendency of viewers to wander away from the set, only to be drawn back by the sounds that announce important images. Thus, according to John Fiske, “the look of the viewer is one of glances rather than the controlled gaze of the cinema spectator” (Television 57). The point here is not that Postman is wrong or that television is not reliant upon the image, but that the workings of the electronic media are not self-evident but subject to interpretation–and that these interpretations, as contained within the novel of obsolescence, reveal more about writerly perspective than they do about the media themselves.

  • [1] In the preceding, I have left “imaginary,” “real,” and “symbolic” in lowercase type, hoping to signify that, while these concepts owe an inescapable debt to Lacan, my analysis is not to be taken as Lacanian, in the least. To point out one among many distinctions between the use of these concepts within the novel of obsolescence and within Lacanian-inspired theory: while the Symbolic is in Lacan primarily considered to be the realm of ideology, of the Name of the Father through which the subject is disciplined and constrained, the symbolic in the novel of obsolescence is rather the realm of a verbal communication that escapes the ideological pressures of the image. Similarly, while in Lacanian theory the subject has no access to the Real, in the novel of obsolescence, the symbolic/verbal is imagined to provide an unmediated (or a more truthfully mediated) access to the real.
  • [2] Hence, as Ferraro goes on to point out, Wilder’s hysteria at the disappearance of Babette’s image when the set is turned off; the disappearance of the image enacts for him the literal disappearance of his mother.
  • [3] This of course begs the question of the visuality of print itself; I’ll address this issue shortly in discussing the work of W.J.T. Mitchell.
  • [4] Not to mention, of course, the resources that were, at the same time, being poured into the Times‘s website. If newspapers were to go the way of the horse and carriage, the Times would not be left behind.
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    Source: http://www.anxietyofobsolescence.com/chapter-3/