TELEVISION ENVIRONMENTS AND THE FOURTH SCOPIC EPOCH
[copyright Mario Petrucci 1997]
It has been argued that Green issues occupy a special status in TV which subverts the dominant ideology. However, the TV industry is involved in a complex cultural process whereby environmental meanings are produced and consumed, and where radical environmental politics is explored superficially whilst being subverted and resisted. There is also a deeper, much-ignored "techno-cognitive" level to television which underpins and delimits all its content. The inherent technics of TV not only mirror and deepen the alienating and passifying processes of commodification, but also make of human experience an image-based product. Television, increasingly, becomes the environment. We have entered what Illich terms "the Fourth Scopic Epoch".
Television's jurisdiction is now immense - both macroscopically (globally distributed) and microscopically (in the private spaces of families and individuals). There is little in the literature to indicate how this might be influencing Green concepts and politics. This makes it essential that "environment" now be understood in the broadest sense possible: from the domestic scene, to the wider socio-cultural and global political-economic realms in which TV now exerts such major influence. In the first part of this article, I hold that TV generally promotes a pseudo-democratic consensus in which Green issues are framed in or around the existing assumptions of free-market capitalism. In the second part, I shall look beyond the imposed ideology and content of television, to examine the "techno-cognitive" characteristics of the medium itself. By its very nature, TV promulgates an alienating and commodified image space for the viewer. This process operates continuously, regardless of the particular TV programme being shown, or of the intentions of TV institutions and vested interests. This techno-cognitive aspect of TV has profound implications not only for Green institutions employing the medium, but for all TV viewers.
Passive versus Active Audiences.
The "passive versus active audience" debate in TV research has raged for decades. Enzenberger  marks one extreme. For him, the audience is passive, with the ruling classes utilising the media to consolidate an "internal imperialism" of ideas as environmental conditions worsen. Others have refuted his position: TV coverage of environmental issues has, they claim, undermined and exposed the current ideology, for example, by showing us the adverse ecological and social effects of inappropriate development. The audience sees the contradictions and responds. Viewers also construct their own interpretations of the TV content, making reception itself a "political act".
I would point out here that Green issues on TV may arouse some interest, perhaps even low-level activism, but NGOs would probably face a less sympathetic media coverage should they mount a serious threat to current practices. It is likely that television contributed recently to social arousal in China, but it was unable to generate successful opposition. Its temporarily destabilising role was a glitch in the ongoing process of media globalisation of values and the centralisation of leisure activity. TV in China will, I believe, become a prime instrument in determining new patterns of mass consumption and control.
In the West, we may believe we have risen above all this. But the viewer who concurs with the radical insights of a political TV comedian, say, is herself nevertheless transfixed daily by soap operas and formulaic news reports. Our interpretations of TV content are, for the most part, channelled or framed within the wider social ideologies which TV both reflects and supports. TV moulds dominant norms incrementally over time, and reinforces them through an on-going and consistent presentation of the world across a variety of programmes. Being able to "see through" TV does not, of itself, represent a manifestation of political power. More than anything else, perhaps, the sheer quantity of time spent watching TV devours many opportunities for civil activism. NGOs battling for TV representation may win the occasional skirmish, but the battle is going all one way. Greens must accept that diverse TV decodings may not signify audience autonomy, nor do they indicate an absence of centralising cognitive forces.
Consumer TV: the North.
In order to make environmental degradation, poverty and mass unemployment bearable, public opposition and radical awareness has to be absorbed and co-opted using ever-wider ideological frameworks. The ubiquity and range of TV make it a prime agent in this process. Advertising also enables companies to extend influence, effect rapid changes in consumption patterns, and redesign home environments to suit their products. But TV is no mere sales conduit: it actually makes possible entirely new modes of consumption that would be difficult or inconceivable without it. When markets stagnate, capitalism can expand by alternative routes, for instance by transforming political and social relations and their infrastructures into codified forms of exchange. Thus, households, opinions, leisure, even human nature and perception, become fair game for commodification. This process is real. In such cases, capital does not expand through the traditional route of acquiring raw materials from outside sources, but rather by increasing the number of dimensions of private and public life where consumption can occur.
Another way of putting this, is that TV is a rhetorical activity which corners the public's attention and then attempts to sell them various kinds of "goods". Not just obvious products, but also attractive stories, broadly acceptable ideologies, and so on. All products function symbolically as well as materially, so that the capacity for audiences to work "creatively" with TV can itself be reinterpreted as a complex act of consumption involving symbols, images and meanings. As well as this colossal input into the symbolic environment, TV also serves the social function of entertainment in which certain goals - such as economic growth, progress, modernization and materialism - are largely taken for granted, even within "Green" contexts. Indeed, the parallels between a critique of consumerism and of TV are more than superficial (see Table 1).
So, although Green concerns have penetrated TV, there is nowhere a challenge to TV viewing itself. Meanwhile, against the small Green input to TV, towers the TV advertising machine which engineers public tastes and behaviour, and to which staggering resources are allocated. Indeed, the advertising agencies of multi-nationals actively subvert the public's desire for environmental protection, with the flood of green business images depicting the sustainable future as a corporate one. This is the ultimate irony of Green TV: that the televisual medium itself commodifies the Green stance, being energy-intensive and extravagantly packaged for uniform audience consumption.
Chomsky and Manufactured Consent.
Noam Chomsky describes how TV obscures capitalism by "manufacturing consent", with TV as the voice of "consensualese". Pilger calls this "information imperialism". TV continues to get away with reporting major socio-economic and environmental crises (e.g. riots, "the recession", or ozone depletion) with the acausal, descriptive acceptance that is normally reserved for incoming weather fronts. Even the more perceptive viewer tends to retreat into underinformed cynicism.
As traditional forms of control and consensus crumble, the mass media provide a substitute social cement and common identity. That is why so many political and interest groups - including the Greens - have become sensitized to media stereotypes and have sought to gain a footing in its ideological output. But one should be wary of the 1980s media "success" of certain Green pressure groups such as Greenpeace. TV can tolerate local gains by NGOs if they are thereby accomodated in the overall world-view of the medium, its Weltanshauung. Environmental disasters are often packaged by TV producers to control the interpretative mode, for example by showing them only when the effects are most dramatic - usually too late to inspire action, but in time to generate horrified spectatorship. Thus, in its present form, TV is unlikely to serve Green politics through a decentralising or liberating provision of information. Rather, it creates a centrifugal force which draws in and simplifies public perception. The putative plurality and frankness of TV are facile.
Dark Green TV.
Dark Green politics, when it is expressed on TV, loses much of its essential diversity and subtlety. Complex Green issues are cloned into ideological look-alikes or presented in simplistic or distorted terms, usually to enhance viewer pleasure (Table 2). The myth of the "average/normal citizen" legitimates the omission of views which fall beyond its pale: thus activists are, by definition, not "normal". Also, the priority given to programme structure and impact over its depth and accuracy of discourse, means that radical arguments cannot emerge in a developed, cogent way. Social events are stripped of their historical connections, and over-personalised into the realm of spokespersons' motivations and demands. Ironically, it is the light Green (or conservative Environmentalist) who could pose the worst threat to Dark Green perspectives. For instance, the light Green might focus on TV's potential for popularising issues, while the dark Green rejects the "flatness" and surrogation of TV experience. Against the intimate, local and holistic stance of the dark Green, the TV displays a disenfranchised, atomistic, homogenised and global world-view.
By virtue of its need for strong images, TV favours charismatic leaders and hierarchies over co-operatives and decentralised political processes. This structures the viewer's ideological field by communicating the established premises of public discourse and determining what is "normal" or "real" - that is, the pursuit of wealth and maximum GNP, private ownership, national rather than regional pride, social hierarchy, the importance of experts, the celebration of the competitive ethic, and the current economic system as purveyor of personal well-being and the national interest. TV has "naturalised" free-market capitalism so deeply as to almost remove it from TV discourse. It has isolated and exceptionalised radical opposition. TV reasserts the existing limits of political imagination. It may support a semblance of informational and political freedom, but it excludes truly alternative perspectives and defines what must be opposed. Nor is it certain that cable TV can create a genuinely participatory communication medium; it, too, is subject to the inherent limitations and bias of the technology, and is a poor substitute for direct interaction and experience.
TV North and South.
As implied earlier, a common way in which capital may expand in stagnated core regions is to extract wealth from abroad. TV is in the vanguard of technology transfer to developing countries, backed by Northern advertising and business finance. Advertising promotes sales in the developing world and spreads the market-based consumer ideology. Furthermore, the ubiquity of TV and its narrow range of familiar images fosters the "global village" mentality. Through TV, the world has become a small, overcrowded place. This legitimates the North in its self-protective "solutions" to environmental degradation, thus avoiding radical reform. Famine is portrayed as due to environmental limits (food, water), or "natural" climate (drought), or local political events (war), rather than the end-result of on-going government policies within the international political economy, beginning in the boardrooms where trade deals are struck, and ending on the supermarket shelf and in the life assurance policy. It is not scathing political commentary that is screened worldwide, but Coca-Cola adverts.
It is time to move the discussion onto a different plane. It might be argued that TV technology is inherently neutral, i.e. if TV's currently venal content were to be alternatively politicised, then TV would cease to act as an instrument of consumerism. However, there are deeper strata to TV than mere content. The TV medium itself acts as a technical filter which cannot fail but to "re-create" an artificial world consistent with its own internal laws and tendencies of function. This filter has nothing to do with the various levels of owner-influence, programming, or journalistic and editorial control which generate, sift and frame its texts. TV is incapable in principle of ever yielding more than a second-hand and impoverished "re-presentation" of the world.
Mander describes this in terms of the loss of aura, whereby TV images lose their meaning by being divorced from their physicality and original context. On TV, humans and landscapes lose the autonomy and contextual attributes which diffentiate them from products. In addition, TV's bias against subtlety, its restricted and dislocated sensual range, and its tendency to supplant real, unique, local environments with artificial, impoverished and general images, may together conspire to actually diminish environmental concern and understanding. I refer to this general process as imagification.
Human sociality has been distorted and isolated to the point where it is now mediated to a large extent by a continuous stream of transmitted images. This process effectively replaces all "environments" (where social and ecological interactions can take place) with simulacra products. Children take their role models from TV characters; adults increasingly relate to soaps (their surrogate communities and families). Meanwhile, any imaginative viewer feedback is quenched by trivial detail and the inexorable flow of images and narratives. An apparent system of communication is thus, in reality, primarily one of distribution and addiction. This passifying use of images socialises the public to accept authority, autocracy and hierarchy. And the collapse of real multi-sensual habitats into the virtual TV screen alienates viewers from nature, even during the nature documentary! Programmes on coral reefs and rainforests become too easily a substitute for gathering mushrooms and seaweed.
However, TV images do have in them an inherent element of contradictoriness and instability, and therefore may hold some hope for viewer disillusionment and perhaps even a rejection, by the viewer, of image-making. If there is a strong external and social impetus to generate alternative perspectives (as was the case in China, perhaps) this might yield some fruit; but in its absence, and in an individualist society, most viewers will gravitate towards isolated narcissism and consumerist conformity, where the division between real society and its TV re-presentations grows ever more indistinct. The way in which TV politics has become a form of entertainment, points to a society in which simulation and distraction have entered all aspects of life.
The Fourth Scopic Epoch: the "Show".
TV is, historically speaking, a major and cognitively radical source of society's images: these images are of a type no longer mediated by humans, nor requiring imagination with which to reconstruct personal realities, as is the case with paintings and drawings. The usual perception that "the camera does not lie" not only makes the cameraperson's biases invisible, but also turns the world from a first-hand participative experience into a third-hand artefact governed by optical devices.
Illich takes this analysis deeper, claiming that civilisation has now entered the "Fourth Scopic Epoch" (Table 3). In this, the Renaissance image "formed within the gaze" has been globally superseded by the intrusive commodity of the show. The show is a display (for example, a VDU screen) whose visual outputs do not come from reality or its direct images, but rather through the manipulation of data received by an instrument. An instance of this might be a digitised "view" of Earth, or Jupiter, taken from a satellite. This process removes the very act of looking into a realm of technically-mediated alienation: the onlooker has no perspective they can genuinely relate to. They have never been at infinity, or in orbit around the planet; on the other hand, they might conceivably be able to occupy the shoes of a painter or photographer.
The effects of the show are particularly acute when environmental problems are given shape in the form of graphs and charts. Although we are encouraged to be horrified at these, they correspond to nothing the human gaze can grasp. Pollution levels, population growth, resource stock trends, an so on, cease to be concrete, visualisable events enacted by particular individuals. Perhaps one should be more wary of "technical" images such as the by-now familiar representation of Gaia as the satellite-generated blue-white sphere. Beautiful as this image (or "show") is, the real Gaia consists of mouths sucking at coral, lichens clinging to individual rocks, or a human with an axe. We cannot see the Earth as the satellite does, as a sumptuous, all-erasing sphere: we must look out from its surface, at its snags and bluffs. The danger of the show is that it is far more mesmerising, passifying and addictive than the mere image.
Of course, the Fourth Scopic Epoch is not restricted to, nor universal within, TV; but the TV interface must now be considered among its dominant disseminators. It is precisely because our values and behaviour are crucially dependent on how we perceive the world, that we must acknowledge how far the imagification of reality by TV - and its involvement in the show - strike at the very heart of any political discourse, environmental or otherwise. At this more fundamental level, the TV medium alienates perception, and generates a realm of psychic rhetoric outside which it is difficult to stand. Clearly, even if TV could somehow be liberated from its vested interests and their ideologies, it would still be subject to these more profound ("techno-cognitive") processes of simplification, imagification and show. For this reason, Marcuse's call to "somatize" protest - that is, to let the wrongness of the world be felt in our very bodies - is threatened to the tap-root by the de-somatizing effects of TV experience. Indeed, TV's engagement of just two senses, and in an impoverished technomechanical form, could be seen as constituting a visual-aural equivalent to the "scratch-n-sniff" card.
Any analysis of television politics which seeks to be more than superficial must therefore be prepared to include an account of how the acts of seeing and perception have evolved, an area generally ignored by cognitive media studies. The deeper question is not over the degree of bias or distortion in TV re-presentations of the environment and environmental issues, but whether or not these re-presentations themselves usurp reality and thus become the "environment" as perceived by society at large. If the latter is the case, then the mere act of TV viewing influences how people perceive themselves in environmental, as well as political, terms. Compare TV's new political domain of swing-ometers, bar-charts and abstract discourse with Aristotle's "somatic" politics of the agora, an assembly of citizens who can be taken in at a single viewing by the human eye.
When one considers TV's profound socio-cultural acceptability, its ubiquitous and central presence in the home and school, its illusory role as an "objective" window on political and environmental events, and its radical monopoly on where, and how, its captive audiences can look, it becomes clear that TV is no simple mirror on the world, reflecting reality. It is also much more than a distorting lens wielded by some ideological hand. The television screen may itself increasingly represent humanity's perceptual and political eye.
Copyright Mario Petrucci 2001
Circa 2980 words.
TABLE 1: SOME PARALLELS BETWEEN CONSUMERISM AND TV.
CONSUMERISM TV "PARALLEL" SOCIAL RAMIFICATIONS/ COMMENTS.
Consumer choice. Programme/channel TV as a mass commodity leisure activity.
Shopping. Channel-hopping, etc. Mass consumption of "cultural goods".
Purchasing. Viewing. TV's primary aim is to keep us watching. It
achieves this by reconstructing fragments of
the existing ideology into familiar, but attractive,
patterns: these essentially reproduce the ideology.
Producer hegemony. Producer hegemony. For all its presumed creativity, the
television audience is at the end of a process of production over which it has minimal control.
Purchasing Power. Ratings and complaints. Minimal effect for minorities. Self-
justifying support for majority view and dominant expectations.
The Product. Style and content. Programmes are geared to channel-
hoppers and international export.
Marketing. Marketing. "Familiar-yet-new" pitch of
marketing has a parallel in TV whereby ideology is constantly recycled.
Product Loyalty. Viewing preferences. Consolidation of broadcasting goals.
Product Scarcity. Limited TV frequencies/ Scarcity invented to legitimise
Prime time. market control, then a "free" market
ideology operates unchallenged.
Advertising. Previews, TV Times. Targeting; TV socialisation of the young to take up
consumer roles and to understand society in terms
of cultural and economic stereotypes.
Market dominance. Programme dominance. Children appear increasingly to be
unable to deal with free time without TV [Levi, 1994, p.4]. TV acquires what Illich terms a "radical" monopoly.
Controlled Controlled TV fuels desires (for products,
dissatisfaction. dissatisfaction. disasters and scandals) but rarely
satisfies them with solutions or action, except for the act of consumption.
Product dependency. Programme dependency. Programme addiction.
Convenience. Convenience. TV as the supermarket shelf: more
tomorrow, at the same time.
Competition. Programme competition. Laws of the jungle, the market rules.
Profit. Ratings. Viewers "spend" time watching TV.
TABLE 2. DISTORTIVE DEPICTIONS BY TV OF THE "NATURAL" ENVIRONMENT:
(a) Nature as the harsh "outer" world which companies and their products conquer, or protect us from.
(b) Nature as the background against which media heroes play out their environmentally-apathetic, ideologically-trammelled, status-obsessed narratives.
(c) Nature as a largely depopulated (mostly rural) idyll/wilderness. This reflects the concerns and fantasies of the middle/upper class: i.e. landscape for escape, adventure, and tourist playgrounds.
(d) Nature as a series of "landscape" images, familiar and famous places to go to, sites where trials of skill are exercised (sport, gardening, etc.), or where concerned hobbyists show us its wares (e.g. Attenborough). In this way, natural locations become commodities rather than contexts of productive labour.
(e) Misrepresentation of natural disasters and environmental problems: e.g. ongoing and systematic pollution depicted as specific instances of "leaks" or "spills".
(f) Nature as an emblem of "naturalness" and purity which products not only reflect, but ultimately absorb and transform, then hand back to us in a form improved upon and made conveniently consumable through the intervention of science and technology.
TABLE 3: THE FOUR SCOPIC EPOCHS
1. Epoch of the Gaze. In the classical era, the gaze is a trans-ocular organ. It radiates from the pupil to embrace an object, to fuse with it, so that the eye is dyed with its colours. The end of this epoch begins in Fatimide Egypt, circa 1000AD.
2. Epoch of the This retains the idea of an active, outgoing and
Transcendent Gaze. imageless gaze. However, vision no longer happens where the object is - the eye extracts "universals" from the shapes which objects emit by their radiation. This is the time of Gothic miniatures and windows.
3. Epoch of the This involves the union of the picture and the gaze
Mediated or in the early Renaissance. Increasingly, the eye is
"Humiliated" experienced as an instrument (on the model of what we
Gaze. now know as the camera) which, in turn, can be enhanced by devices that extend its range.
4. Epoch of the Show. Circa 1800 AD, the certainties came into being which enable us to now speak about visual communications, global views and interfaces. This epoch is dominated by isometry rather than perspective, by untrammelled horizons, and viewpoints unaffected by standpoint. Illich calls it the age of show, where the eye becomes dependent on interface rather than imagination.
Observation of nature thus increasingly becomes the study of illustrative scientific projections and of abstract or highly-manipulated re-presentations. The show is the transducer or program that "enables" the interface between systems, or is the momentary state of a cybernetic program. For Illich, image is distinct from show in that image requires/implies some act of poiesis -it is brought forth by the imagination.
The above is not a history of optics, but a history of opsis: it describes the ethology of human sense activities across different cultures and epochs. Principal source: Illich .
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