In July 2019, I had just retired and was looking forward to having a blank slate before me, existentially as well as on my computer. So naturally, I had a meltdown. Preoccupied with bizarre symptoms (I break down nineteenth-century style) and a totally unexpected depression, I had completely forgotten that months before, I had submitted a proposal to Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series. Like a good deal of my work over the decades, it dealt with culturally created imagery and mythology and their challenge to our sense of reality, history, and truth. I called it “In Plato’s Cave” and was told, very nicely (and accurately) that it didn’t really work for the series. A few days later, I got another letter, this one from Christopher Schaberg, one of the series’ editors: “Here’s a crazy idea,” he wrote, “what if we called this book TV or Television—and you could tell this story about truth, lying, pseudo-events, and reality by way of these different televisual moments/flash points?” Hell, yes, I thought, I’d much rather do that anyway—among other things, it would give me an excuse to watch a lot of shows. At the time I had no idea that by the time I got to the last chapters of the book, bingeing on TV would be no longer just a guilty pleasure that was happily also essential to my work, but one of the few totally “safe” activities in a world altered by a wickedly clever virus.
Although the book is historical in organization—opens with the McCarthy Hearings and ends with “pandemic television,”– it’s personal in its choice of themes and the television shows chosen to illustrate them. It’s very much about my experience growing up with television, and quite intimate in places. Here’s a preview from one of the early chapters—a tour through the televisions in our home which is also something of an introduction to me:
We Have Six Televisions
Are you surprised? Do you imagine that because I am a critic of popular culture I wouldn’t be caught dead watching Dance Moms? If so, you’ve been reading too many academics who came to popular culture only after it became Europeanized and hot. When I was in graduate school, the voracious maw of theory had only begun to invade and chew up the objects of everyday life into unrecognizable form. There were as yet no popular culture departments, the closest you could get was film studies—within which you could study Nosferatu but not Jaws.
I was in philosophy because I loved history, was fascinated by the play of ideas in historical time, and enjoyed taking texts apart, foraging for their meanings. I was good with words, and I was a good arguer. It seemed a better place for me than any of the other disciplines. But my heart was elsewhere—it just hadn’t yet found a home in academia—and because I hadn’t the financial resources to strike out as a writer and these were the days when becoming a college teacher was still a fairly reliable path to earning a steady income, that’s what I did.
I also loved teaching. But I was frustrated by the bridge that I had to cross to make community with my students. Then one day I hit on the idea of asking them to write about how they experienced the duality of mind and body in their own lives—and discovered that Descartes was living right there, in their hatred of jiggling flesh and exaltation of their own will power to say “I can defeat you” to the cravings of their bodies.
Before long they were bringing in Nike “Just Do It” ads, talking about how Jennifer Anniston had been chubby as a child, and the bridge between the seventeenth century and the twentieth was crossed. And so, too, had the bridge between the future of my scholarship and my own experience: those things that I felt I truly knew about, having lived every day of my life with them—movies! television! magazines! commercials! The way they reflect and transform cultural change, and the way humans see themselves.
In short: I was not an academic who started out in the archives and gravitated toward popular culture when it became an accepted field of study. I was a popular culture fiend who went into academia because there was nowhere else for me to go—and discovered that the time was right for a marriage between my deepest interests and the latest thing in scholarship.
So, I don’t have six televisions because they are required for my work (although that’s what the IRS thinks). I have six televisions because I love television. I also hate television. But I’ve never found those two to be incompatible.
Here’s where my televisions live:
One is in the porch turned family room, where my treadmill lives. The treadmill was moved from the basement when my husband had cancer; a runner and bicyclist, he wanted to keep exercising while he recovered, but the mildewy basement wasn’t the place for a compromised immune system. So our lovely enclosed sunroom, surrounded by beautiful bushes and full of light, became a television room, where I now accumulate my daily steps quota with Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.
We have a TV in the guest bedroom. And there’s one in my office, which is on just about all the time. Yes, I write with the television on. I learned how to do this growing up. Born in 1947, I can’t remember a time when television wasn’t a constant part of my life. Always eager to assimilate his immigrant roots to American life, my father was the first in our neighborhood to buy a TV, and it was always on.
There’s a huge television in the basement, a holdover from the days when my daughter played video games. No one has watched it since the room became trashed by Cassie and her live-in friend with half-drunk Ale-8s and old Reese’s wrappers.
The smallest television is in the bedroom my husband and I share. It’s the smallest because we only share the room marginally, given our vastly different sleeping and waking habits (I’m usually awake at 5:30, and am nodding off while he stealthily switches the channel to a sports event). Beyond sports, my husband rarely cares about what’s on the screen. He was born before the war, to a family of lawyers and founders of Cornell University. He grew up without television. Thus, it’s only a peripheral habit for him; he “watches” with headphones on, reading French newspapers on his laptop, learning new phrases, or practicing piano on his silent keyboard. When I ask him what he wants to watch as I scan the Netflix offerings, he rarely has preferences. “A British crime drama” is the most specific he gets—or one of the Jason Bourne movies. He’d be happy to watch one of those every day.
The most important television in our home is in the living room. That’s where my husband and I sit in the evening, watching MSNBC, shouting obscenities at pundits and politicians. It’s also where I often drift to sleep under a huge quilt, my three dogs nestled against (read: shoving) various parts of my body, unable to move myself to go to bed despite the fact that I’ve been relegated by Piper, Dakota, and Sean to about one quarter of the available space of the couch. It’s shaped my body into a permanent pretzel, and I’ve tried to wean myself of this habit, but like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I can’t be evicted from that magnetic spot, not even by myself. My husband turns down the volume as he goes upstairs but I often wake in the middle of the night to the second round of Rachel Maddow in the background. The strangest thing: I sometimes wake at exactly the place where I nodded off during the nine o’clock show. It’s as though my television is keeping track of me.
Why can’t I move from the couch to the bedroom? Partly it’s the quilt—put me under a cozy enough one and I’m two years old again. Partly it’s the doggies, whose warm breath reassures me that sweetness and innocent, creaturely love still survives. But also—I simply can’t drag myself away from the television. To do so is to create a vacuum of dread for me. I’ve skewered broadcast news more ruthlessly than any other critic; yet at 10 p.m. the anchors become familiar, intimate friends whom I can’t bear to abandon. Or perhaps more precisely, I can’t bear to have them abandon me. They lull me to sleep with their gruesome news of the day. If I suddenly wake screaming from a nightmare, I look up and there’s some guest pundit pontificating, reassuring me that everything is still in place. At eleven o’clock, the very habits I criticize in my daytime writing—the “normalization” of the Trump disaster, the repetitive questions, the fact that they can still smile and joke in this hell we have descended into—calms me.
It’s just one of the many contradictions that comprise my relationship with television.