Til toppen

Television and the Meaning of Live

This text was first published in . The topic is , the genre and the year of publication .

Paddy Scannell
Polity Press: Cambridge and Malden, MA, 2014
253pp, ISBN 9780745662541 (pbk)

Television and the Meaning of Live.

Paddy Scannell is a media scholar who started writing about media history and media phenomenology long before the Internet. He has always asked big theoretical questions concerning the media, and his new book contains the most complex so far.

The book has two main parts. The first deals with Heidegger’s philosophy in relation to television as a technology, and the second presents phenomenological analyses of the production of television content in the Anglo-American world. Taken at face value, Scannell’s new book is all about television: its technologies, production practices and reception history. But there is more to it. Scannell has in fact written a philosophical account of what it implies to experience something live and recorded in the media, not just on television and radio, but by extension also on the Internet. It deserves to become an important reference in the annals of media research.

The first part is a challenging introduction to the existential phenomenology of Martin Heidegger, especially The Concept of Time, Being and Time and ‘The Question Concerning Technology’. Time, for Heidegger, is the horizon of our being, disclosed as such by death (p. 190). Human existence consists of ‘birth > life > death’, and consequently being towards death is the fundamental experience of being human (p. 190). What makes Scannell’s version of existentialism interesting is the fact that it is truly a media-oriented version, formulated in dialogue with media scholars as diverse as J. L. Austin, Paul Lazarsfeld, Daniel Dayan, Elihu Katz, Erving Goffman, Jacques Derrida and John Durham Peters.

What is his media philosophy, then? ‘We now live in a totally technologized world’, Scannell argues, referring in particular to the immediate connectivity provided by the electricity grid, and exploited in various media for around 150 years. ‘To understand our conditions of existence demands that we address the question of technology as constitutive of the world we live in’ (p. xi). We inhabit a world of infrastructure that ‘gives unceasingly, from moment to moment, hourly and daily, day in day out, the taken-for-granted conditions or our lives’ (p. 11).

Scannell follows Martin Heidegger in saying that the essence of technology is nothing technological – it is human. Technologies contain care structures that are organized spatially and temporally. There is a constant need for creative human labour to produce the conditions for communication in a medium, so that it is hermeneutically recognizable for anyone at any time in the course of life (p. 77). Scannell compares the dull inertia of a closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance tape with a television programme to show how much care goes into a television programme. ‘Liveness’, Scannell writes, ‘is the worked at, achieved and accomplished effect of the human application and use of technologies whose ontological characteristic is immediate connectivity’ (p. 99).

Scannell is a positively minded media existentialist. When distinguishing between the recorded and the live, he argues that a recording redeems the living moment from death. ‘The past comes to life and lives again. I can stop it at any moment. I can rewind and replay. I can fast forward. In the living moment itself we cannot do this’ (p. 97). Scannell considers the recorded and the live to be existentially important care structures provided not only by television but also by all the other electronic media. The living moment has always been fraught with problems. ‘There is a danger in everything we say and do: a possibility, every time, of performative failure and unanticipated and unwelcome consequences’ (p. 97). Electronic media organize the living moment for us, Scannell argues, and reduce its existential strain. ‘Post modern technologies […] are not life threatening, but life supporting’ (p. 93). This positive phenomenology is downright inspirational, and it is easy to see its relevance for new media.

While the first part is purely philosophical, the second part tries to exemplify historically how the meaning of ‘live’ has been constructed in Anglo-American television. Television programmes are analysed with a liberal use of screen shots that illustrate camera angles and misé-en-scene, for example, showing the awkward Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy interviewed by an even more awkward Ed Murrow in a two-screen solution on CBS in 1953. Murrow’s clumsy behaviour makes visible the careful preparations needed to naturalize such interviewing and demonstrates that they were not fully developed at this time. Scannell also analyses the television coverage of the 9/11 events in New York to show how a set of established care structures can break down – if only for a short time. These analyses uncover the hidden labour implicated in the live and the recorded. These histories display good phenomenological handicraft, but are overall less inspired than the theoretical speculations that dominate part I. Instead of recounting the past, Scannell should have looked forward to the tremendous work of ‘naturalization’ that goes on to create a ‘live’ and ‘recorded’ experience of the Internet and its diverse media forms. But at least he makes us aware of their existential dimension, and I am sure younger researchers can apply his insights fruitfully to the Internet.

My biggest problem with Scannell’s argument is his way of being normative. He flatly refuses to engage with critical theory because, he claims, it always analyses television and the other media as if they were all a big problem: ‘a social disorder or pathology in need of critical academic diagnosis and corrective treatment’ (p. 178). I am not convinced by Scannell’s rejection. I think he should have dealt head on with the potentially unjust or politically unsavoury dimensions of television, not least because of his own observation that a lot of hidden labour goes into shaping a medium as something normal and ‘for anyone’. This labour too is bought and sold on a market, and some have more investment capital than others, and use it for superficial, narrow-minded and egotistical purposes. Scannell romanticizes the way television was shaped during the age of public service broadcasting and presents the past as an age when everyone who worked in the media was responsible, well-meaning and innocent. He considers ‘eye-witnessing’ to be a morally superior position that broadcasters occupy on behalf of us all and praises the media for doing ‘immediate, instinctive repair work to the torn and damaged fabric of everyday existence’ (p. 207) during turbulent times. It is too bad that Scannell refused to reflect on the inequality of communication built up during those early years.

In conclusion, Paddy Scannell has written a spectacularly interesting book. His utterly improvable theory about the experience of the media is refreshing in an age of narrowminded empirical papers and politically correct critical perspectives on media. I really believe in his theoretical project, and I lament and forgive its weaknesses. Scannell is on a half-crazy visionary trip that reminds me of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s. Write on, Paddy!