Good TV as a Roadblock to Becoming Ungovernable, or Anything Else Really
From Plain Words
“Become ungovernable” is a slogan anarchists like to use these days. It sounds cool and fits the anarchist aesthetic of revolt and spectacular conflict. It doesn’t immediately mean much, but that’s the beauty of it, the meaning shifts with each person and the specificities of their lives. With no revolution and lots of environmental catastrophe, state violence, and “active shooter situations” on the horizon, rather than despairing at our no-future future, it instead contains a path forward: to refuse submission to law, duty, and passivity in daily life.
But “become” ungovernable? As in, transform your life into one of ungovernability? This is where things get tricky. Capitalism and the technology developed through it have created conditions that hinder the creation of long-term life habits outside those of passivity and consumption. The toys of information technology are small but contain terabytes of distraction, ever pulling their users’ attention towards them, like a tiny black hole’s massive gravitational well. Bursts of energy and spectacular moments responding to a crisis generated by capitalism may draw people away from the daily grind for days, weeks, or even months, but the system has tools to pull people back in. That’s a lot to dissect here, but this essay is going to stick to one element of it: good TV.
We are living in the era of “good TV” or the “golden era of TV,” a relatively new phenomenon where TV series are being praised as intelligent, gripping, and even works of art. Until the last decade, “the idiot box” has had somewhat of a bad reputation. While most of the masses were sucked in by it as they are today, it seemed like people back then knew even as they watched it that it was mindless entertainment, and rolled their eyes at all the laugh tracks, game shows, and sentimentality.
Since TV was a vehicle for commercials, shows were crafted to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and therefore contained the least controversial and most normative portrayals of characters and life. They featured almost exclusively attractive white actors playing static and one-dimensional cliché characters. With “good TV,” shows have compelling ongoing stories, comedies have become sharper, and characters have a wider spectrum of emotions and are no longer just straight white people. Additionally, niche audiences are targeted with subcultural anecdotes, political jokes, aesthetic, and tone which prompt viewers to more easily identify with specific shows. In other words: TV’s reputation has gone up, and it is not seen as something to avoid or try to disconnect from.
The “good” quality of programming rose out of the success of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” in the early 2000’s. The dark, moody Sopranos used subtle literary techniques and complex symbolism while telling stories about organized crime as more broad metaphors and critiques of contemporary American life. The Wire, similarly pessimistic, detailed the intrigue and contradictions revolving around the Drug War in urban America to point out how difficult and naïve attempts at reform can be. The Sopranos was a commercial success, The Wire not so much outside of liberal and academic circles, but both demonstrated to the television industry that viewers were interested in shows that had effort and care put in to them, and wanted more than mindless entertainment. Hence shows like True Detective, which boast numerous literary and philosophical sources and references.
While they are not always as deep as The Sopranos or The Wire, there has since been a proliferation of “series” which are ongoing stories, like the soap operas of the past, except with more care put into crafting characters and plot, as well as higher budgets in designing sets and hiring actors. Unlike episodic shows where everything more-or-less returns to normal at the end, these shows are similar to novels where each episode is a chapter. Episodes often end in a cliffhanger or with some dramatic moment taking place, creating buzz and anticipation for the next one. Or they are released a season a time, so they can be “binge-watched.” Contrasted with a banal-yet-anxious life under techno-consumer capitalism, these shows with ongoing stories give the viewer an escapist fantasy of a life of adventure and intrigue, but from the safety of the bedroom or couch.
Likely resulting from instant viewer feedback in internet forums and social media, market researchers for these media companies have honed in on both what they did poorly in the past and how to now tailor shows to specific demographics. Additionally, cultural critiques produced by academics in the 90s detailed ways that shows and movies were racist, homophobic, and sexist. This material, including the tumblr-sphere which criticizes shows along these lines practically in real-time, is all easily accessible for marketers to study in order to market their products to the millennial generation that seems to be interested in social justice. This has led to certain shows now having a higher percentage of actors of color and characters that are queer, which can widen their appeal, especially when targeting younger audiences.
For those interested in liberation from oppression, exploitation, and other systems of control, good TV is bad news. Television is a technology of social control, and the world would be a better place if it was destroyed. But it seems like the opposite is happening, and people are increasingly drawn to spending significant amounts of time watching these shows. Whether good TV or cheesy 90s sitcom, these technologies isolate people from each other and thus further the loneliness and anxiety of capitalism. They frame this society and all its ugly mechanisms and social relations as natural. And they kill the imagination by putting us in a position of passivity where we are set in receiving mode while being flooding with images, archetypes, and stories. TV is both bad in its own right, and in how it stymies revolt and keeps people from taking action against the nightmare world around them.
Isolation & Ideology, Inherent in the Technology
Capitalism breeds isolation. In no other society in history has humanity experienced such separation between themselves and others. This has come to be because divided people are easier to control. Where people regularly encounter others, potential exists for a variety of interactions, behaviors, and relationships to develop over time. In these spaces it becomes possible for people to build trust, share frustrations, and maybe take rebellious action together. Strikes, riots, and the building of subversive bonds need these spaces to unfold. There is a reason why totalitarian societies enact laws forbidding more than a certain number of people from converging in public. TV is liberal democracy’s work-around for this problem, in that it draws people towards voluntary isolation.
Capital, which can roughly be defined as “money invested in something to make more money,” over time increasingly colonizes the world, transforming it so that investments can be profitable. This process includes the evolution of technologies in directions that support the status quo and the cementing of habits and cultural norms that benefit it. We go home exhausted after work and the most attractive option is to collapse on the couch, a significant other next to us maybe, while amusing spectacles on the screen pass the time until we go to sleep and recharge our bodies enough to trudge back to work. This is not natural. It is the environment that’s become dominant over time because it is suitable for capital, this is capitalism.
Sitting back and watching a show is especially seductive because it requires virtually no effort. It is the easiest option to relieve boredom and to distract from anxiety. Contrastingly, socializing with others requires active listening, emotional energy, and a sense of obligation towards performing social niceties. The potential to say the wrong thing, to embarrass oneself, or to be made upset by something someone says always exists. So TV, being much easier, draws us away from the social and in towards separate private worlds.
Good TV kills creativity, because there is no reason to think or struggle with what to do with your time when screens can connect you to instant entertainment. What to do with ones’ time is hardly a question people need to grapple with, because TV fills in the empty slots in ones’ daily routine. There is no urgency to deal with a society that is destroying everything via environmental catastrophe, war, and oppression, because the ability to distract or easily entertain ourselves always exists.
People have rapidly been losing the talent towards communicating with each other face-to-face. This tendency, hundreds of years old, gets worse every generation with the increasing mediation of information technology. It’s a common cultural trope to notice that people hardly really communicate with each other, they instead talk at each other. In our era, the lure of mediating technology or voluntary isolation via staying home and watching shows is a result and further cause of this phenomenon. The more awkward we are, the more we want to stay inside, and the more we stay inside, the more awkward we become.
In addition to pulling people towards isolation, television and similar media forms like movies present the world unquestioningly as it is. The portrayals of life mimic the structure of the lives we live now, and therefore reinforce the hegemony of this way of life in our minds. This is not an intentional strategy of elites scheming in a smoky corporate boardroom, rather it is built in to the technology itself.
Daily life, social relationships, value systems, technology, and even the geography of infrastructure are specific to capitalism at this stage of its development. The daily experience of waking up, commuting, working, commuting, watching Netflix, and going to sleep is only one of millions of forms of life that could exist. Capitalism has colonized the world to prevent us from discovering and creating almost any other. But the characters in shows and movies live in have somewhat similar daily lives as us, and their relationships look like ours. If things deviate, it is in specific genres like fantasy or science fiction where the deviation is part of the appeal. When viewing these spectacles on an ongoing basis, the rhythms and forms of daily life under capitalism are cemented in our minds, so that it doesn’t seem like life could be any different.
To be clear, television does not “defend” this conceptualization of life, it in fact specifically does not do this. Rather, it presents images caricaturing our daily lives, our relationships, and the way we conceptualize everything as normal. Like all ideology, it camouflages itself as natural. Any benign intentions for producing subversive content using TV, and visions of TV existing in a post-capitalist world, would unknowingly create these same conditions of isolation and ideology.
I want television, and the world that it mirrors, to be totally razed to the ground. The world I dream of surely has stories, roleplaying, and other similar forms of play, but not in such a mind-numbing form as television.
I don’t know what I want readers to take from this essay. I don’t know what anybody’s life is like but my own, and I’m not interested in telling people what to do with their daily lives or how to engage politically. But I do know that this society mystifies what it’s doing to people, and I’m interested in pointing these things out when I see them. Since television sucks roughly five hours of life every day from people in the US on average [note 1], it seems like an important thing to notice and think about. Especially for those of us that want collective revolt and to develop lives of our own subversive desires.