Saturday, March 7, 2015

"Kill Your Television" or "Titian’s Initials (T.V.)"


Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Kill your television. Or maybe just turn it off. That’s what the obsessive, hopelessly distracted narrator of Toussaint’s novel, Television, does. Or tries to do. A French academic on sabbatical in Berlin, where he has taken an apartment in which to commence and complete a draft of what he is confident will be a ground-breaking study of Tiziano Vecelli, the Venetian-school painter best known as Titian, the anonymous narrator quickly concludes that unless he stops watching television altogether he will never get down to work.

            I’d decided to spend the summer alone in Berlin to devote myself to the study of Titian   
            Vecellio. For several years now I’d been planning a vast essay on the relationship between 
            political power and the arts. Little by little, my focus had narrowed to sixteenth-century Italy, 
            and more particularly to Titian Vecellio and Emperor Charles V; in the end I’d chosen the 
            apocryphal story of the paintbrush—according to which Charles V bent down in Titian’s studio
            to pick up a paintbrush that had slipped from the painter’s hands—as my monograph’s  
            emblematic center and the source of its title, The Paintbrush.

Unfortunately, the project is for naught, that is, unless he can actually renounce the odious habit that has overtaken his life. As he is quick to learn, it is no small challenge. Indeed, more than halfway through the story, the reader discovers that the narrator has still only managed to write the opening two words of his great monograph, "When Musset..." He is so distracted by the television in the apartment that he can't stop thinking about it—even (or especially) when it is off. Every day he sits down to write and every day he gets up. A "first-class rationalizer," "a casuist of rare accomplishment," he reassures himself that not writing is as important to the process of writing as writing itself! In fact at not-writing he seems to possess a singular gift, whiling away his time in Berlin drinking coffee, reading the newspaper, flipping his computer on and off, watching the neighbors in the apartments across the way (most of them watching television), sunbathing nude by the lake in Halensee Park, and generally neglecting the neighbor's plants, which he has agreed to water according to a strict and particular regimen—all while waxing philosophic about the troubling role of television in his thoughtful, well-meaning life.

Given what I have written so far, it should come as no surprise that what follows in this decidedly quirky novel is not the monograph itself (Who after all was Musset?) nor a humdrum, if heartening account of scholarly creation nor even a  comedy of bad manners, say, in the style of David Lodge, but a protracted, ironically amusing, finally deeply unsettling meditation on the effects of watching television, a habit now as ubiquitous in the world as it is disturbing in its effects and implications.  
            I spent hours every day motionless before the screen, my gaze fixed, bathed in the  
            ever-shifting light of the scene changes, gradually submerged by the flood of images 
            illuminating my face, the long parade of images blindly addressed to everyone at once and no
            one in particular, each channel being only another strand in the vast web of electromagnetic
            waves crashing down over the world.

Of course the point (his point, my point) is that a steady diet of video (television, movies, YouTube, TED Talks, advertisements, and pornography, in essence, the Internet itself) makes us dangerously impassive—sated, jaded, solipsistic, and remote. Driven by profit, by the frenzied peddling of trends, video culture depends on our willingness to be led by the nose, to cut loose our moorings, to be spectators in our own anxious lives. Indeed it depends on our willingness to not participate at all, to not think, to not question, to not evaluate what it is we see on the screen (and by extension in the world around us). The thriving video culture of today is a colossal sleight-of-hand, a vast, impersonal, essentially mercenary conglomeration of forces that thrives by our willingness to feed it, to take what it gives us as meaningful, significant, to accept as real and sufficient the restless tingling of its pulses in our brains. In his last, uproariously bleak novel Extinction, the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard has his thinly disguised narrator declare, “Photography is a base passion that has taken hold of every continent and every section of the population, a sickness that afflicts the whole of humanity and is no longer curable. The inventor of the photographic art was the inventor of the most inhumane of all arts. To him we owe the ultimate distortion of nature and of human beings who form part of it, the reduction of human beings to perverse caricatures… Photography is the greatest disaster of the twentieth century." While Bernhard was not explicitly speaking of video, I have no doubt that, were he still alive, he would be appalled by the virtually unchallenged, now dogmatic hegemony of video culture in the world today, astounded and dismayed by our zealous, fanatical subservience to the all-mighty screen.   

Reading and writing, by contrast, are actions, things a person does. That is the difference: reading and writing are creative acts, while (with perhaps few exceptions) watching video is not. In time, with exposure, watching video (even the most revered and artistic films) makes us dumbly acquiescent, for video, by its very nature, is about passivity, about receiving information over which one has little or no control. It is about allowing ourselves to be made puppets; it is about permitting our brains to be little more than screens upon which the lives of others are played.

Video culture today is not about connectivity and the democratization of information and knowledge, nor is it about the redistribution of wealth and power, but about its ruthless consolidation. It is about conscription and compliance and consumption. At the risk of overstating it, watching video at the rate we do today is voyeurism and titillation at the price of our souls, a habit and pastime, an obsession now pandemic, that, in the gloating guise of reality (and increasingly of 'progressive' education), quickly overwhelms our intelligence, our skepticism, our curiosity, our compassion, our courage, and our dissent, not to mention our individuality (about which, ironically, we Americans now seem more boastful than ever). As the late Edward Said puts it: "We are bombarded by repackaged and reified representations of the world that usurp consciousness and preempt democratic critique." What's worse, what's more, our desperate and ever-more defensive addiction to video erodes our basic optimism about ourselves, our belief (surely a prehistoric one) that the answer to what ails us lies not in sitting captive before a screen, in the political-corporate mediation of our lives, but in our own stubborn agency as people, that is, as cultures, communities, and individuals thinking and doing every day—a trying, hard-won engagement with the world that is, to me, the only truth that matters. Writes Warren Motte in his insightful afterword to the novel: "For as much as anything else, Television is about the ways in which novels compete for our attention with other, newer media, in an increasingly unequal dual where some of the most basic terms of our culture hang breathlessly in the balance. And the real hero of that struggle, Toussaint suggests, is the novel itself."

Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of seven novels, including The Bathroom and Monsieur, both of which have been publish in English translation. His work has been compared to that of Samuel Beckett, Jacques Tati, and the films of Jim Jarmusch. Published by Dalkey Archive, Television was translated by Jordan Stump.

Peter Adam Nash

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