Watching ourselves watch television, or who’s your agent? (jim collins)

Post-Modernism and television share a rather bizarre relationship. Long an item in the gossip columns of contemporary theory, they are often depicted as an inseparable, but mutually destructive couple in which the sins of one are forever blamed on the inherent weaknesses of the other. Post-Modernism is allegedly what’s left of culture after television has gotten through with it, and television owes its superficiality and schizophrenia to the Post-Modern culture that produces it. Ironically, this notorious relationship has never really been consummated, theoretically. Few attempts exist to develop coherent definitions of Post-Modernism by television theorists, and even fewer instances of Post-Modern theorists exploring the complexity of television, either as a reflector or producer of Post-Modern culture. To complicate matters even further, the critics who have made the most ambitious attempt to bring them together theoretically have been Modernists at their most puritanical, anxious to condemn the wanton promiscuity of each member of the couple. My goal is not to prove their innocence, but rather to provide a theoretical framework for understanding not just this pair, but the role the critic plays in an even more mysterious triangle.

Вut just what should a coherent theory of Post-Modern television hope to accomplish? Ideally such a theory should enable us better to understand how television ‘works’ and is worked over by its audience in the age of cable, VCRs and remote control. Attempts to situate the medium within larger cultural forces used to describe the Post-Modern milieu, context or condition have met with limited success largely because they remain circumscribed by the Adorno/Horkheimer theorization of mass culture as bad object; consequently, we are offered the same litany of sins with a few new buzz words to spice
up the indictment. The two most frequently made criticisms of contemporary television — that it is pure commodification and mere simulacrum — come from critical positions obsessed with consistency, both in regard to their own continuation of the Frankfurt School approach and, following that work, the systematic homogeneity they attribute to the television apparatus and the behavior of its imagined viewers. While this consistency may make for theoretical tidiness, it renders such critiques antiquated, since precisely the inconsistency of contemporary television production and reception defines it as Post-
Modern. The commodification/simulation critiques share their predecessors’ determination to present mass culture as a totalizable system, operating according to precise laws or logic. The main objectives of this paper will be to expose the limitations of such totalization scenarios by examining the complexities of television discursivity(ies), and to demonstrate that the increasing sophistication of both the medium and its audiences necessitates different notions of subjectivity and agency.

Since the source of these imagined totalities is the critic who constructs them, I will focus on the question of the intellectual or critical viewer vis-à-vis the average viewer because the unspecified distinctions between the two serves as the unspoken foundation of so much television theory. I concentrate on the relationship because notions of subjectivity are inseparable from commodification and simulation, and the way in which those terms are constituted depends fundamentally on the imagined differences between what the intellectual perceives and the average viewer misperceives.