Pennies From Heaven

Flusser, Vilem. "Two Approaches to the Phenomenon, Television", The New Television, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1977.

The most common form TV assumes at present is that of a box which stands among the furniture of a private dwelling. This box has a screen on which movie-like pictures appear, and a speaker from which radio-like sounds issue, if it is appropriately manipulated. The manipulation is simple, but the reasons for its effectiveness are complex. The box is, to speak with Moles, a structurally complex but functionally simple system. In order to see the pictures and hear the sounds, the dwellers of the room sit around the box in a semicircle. The pictures and sounds thus received have a meaning for those who receive them, and so has the box itself. The viewers recognize that these messages do not originate in the box, but their true origin is not clearly known. The viewers know vaguely that the box is somehow connected with a place where the messages are being manipulated and broadcast. They know vaguely that this is an expensive process, and that therefore those who finance it must have some sort of interest in it, an interest that must reflect itself in the messages the viewers are receiving. But this vague knowledge is suspended during the reception of the messages, and the viewer adopts the attitude that the pictures and sounds issuing from the box are messages from "his world." This is the meaning of the box for the viewers: it means communication of messages from the world in the direction of private dwellings.

The viewers will distinguish between two kinds of messages: those that present events of the world, and those that represent events of the world. The first type consists of pictures and sounds that issue more or less from the events themselves, and in that sense "mean" those events for the viewers, as with newsreels and political speeches. The second type consists of pictures and sounds that issue from phenomena that represents events of the world, and in this second degree sense "mean" these events for the viewers, as with TV plays and films. The first type of message is taken by the viewers to be "true," the second to be "fictitious." But this distinction between presentation and representation is not very clear, nor is it very important, for the following reasons: (a) The pictures and sounds themselves do not allow the distinction to be drawn; it is only made by a comment on the message which is itself a TV message. The picture of an athlete and that of an actor representing an athlete look alike and can be distinguished only through the comment of an announcer who may himself be an actor representing an announcer. (b) The pictures and sounds have an "artificial" and therefore "fictitious" character, whither they present or represent events of the world. To watch the landing on the moon is like watching science fiction. (c) The vague knowledge that all messages have been manipulated confers a fictional character to those pictures and sounds that profess to present events of the world. A newsreel is vaguely felt to be a film that represents the events it is showing. (d) The pictures and sounds that obviously represent events are often more perfect than those which present them and therefore look "truer." An actor representing a politician often looks "truer" than the politician himself on television. The result is that for the TV viewer the distinction between reality and fiction becomes both difficult and unimportant. The criteria of distinction between messages tend to become ever less ontological ( true or fictitious) and ever more esthetic (sensational or boring).

The pictures and sounds that issue from the box do not betray, either through their quality of their message, that they serve a purpose (with the exception of commercials) which is in the interest of those who finance their reception. The result is that the viewers are led to believe that there are two types of messages: "subjective" ones, which aim at provoking a specific type of behavior (as do commercials), and "objective" ones, which seem to aim at informing the viewers or informing them with esthetic experience (as do plays and newsreels). Although the belief in the "objectivity" of some of the messages is denied by the vague knowledge of the manipulation of all messages, it is still widely held, because it is constantly reinforced by the messages themselves. The fact that all messages provide information and esthetic experience only as a means of provoking behavior patterns that are in the interest of those who finance them, and that the difference between commercials and other messages is one of degree, not of kind, tends therefore to be forgotten. One consequence is that the viewers become more or less conscious tools of those who pay the manipulators of the sounds and pictures. Another consequence is that the viewers tend to forget the existence of those who pay the manipulators, and to some extent even the existence of the manipulators, and tend to accept the box itself as the source of the messages they are receiving. The box thus gains a magic quality, and the messages that issue from it become myth like.

The box has buttons which offer the viewers the choice of various channels, and can also interrupt the flux of the message. This creates an impression of control over the box and of a sort of mechanical freedom. In fact, the choice is highly illusory, because all channels provoke the same behavior pattern and because interrupting them means interrupting one of the few communications between man and the world. This illusion of control and freedom contributes to the manipulability of the viewers. The box emits messages but does not receive any. Although some of the messages emitted seem to be open to replies by the viewers through other channels (mail, telephone, and so forth), such sporadic feedback does not influence the flux of messages in any decisive way. Therefore the viewers are conditioned to what amounts to a passive reception. The result is a passive attitude to the events of the world, accompanied by an illusionary impression of participation, which is due to the constant flow of messages from the box. In fact, this is one of the purposes of the messages: to create an illusion of participation while guaranteeing passive reception.

There are a great number of boxes distributed throughout society, and all of them emit the same information. The result is that private dwellings become linked closely to the public sphere and lose their privacy. On the other hand, the public sphere becomes closely linked to private dwellings through millions of univocal channels and loses its dialogical, "political" character. (The public man is present in millions of private dwellings, talks to them, but cannot be talked to.) The consequence of the invasion of the private realm by the public, and of the elimination of universal dialogue from the public, is the abolition of the distinction between the private and the public. Since this distinction is the basis of politics, it means depoliticization. 238