a draft for a round table discussion on television studies for the journal ‘South Asian History and Culture’
needs a bit more work…
Beyond television studies.
The Kitchen Debate.
The whole world is twitching and the study of television is in the final throes of a long generic isolation, becoming a fully integrated weapon of global war. Or rather, the impossibly naïve view of television as entertainment and television news as mere reportage has reached the endgame of a national-cultural isolation which has been careening towards crisis ever since Krishna hitched his chariot to the Doordarshan platform and Murdoch entered the star-filled firmament to parade as colossus astride a rampant deregulation. Media studies can never be the same now that death by TV prevails (I will explain). New, and varied, work by scholars such as Arvind Rajagopal, Ravi Sundaram, Nalin Mehta, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and M. Madhava Prasad make the old media studies obsolete and the urgency of a fresh look at television, and screen cultures in general, imperative. Television today is a fully articulated geo-political medium, reporting instantly upon world events, flitting from news flash to product placement, ticker tape stock report across the bottom of the screen, station ident in the top corner. Cultural contours of course remain, but now wholly in the service of an all-conquering apparatus, an extended machine, accessing all areas. We should not be surprised that television becomes battle media – we watch 1000-yard stare reporters feeding on other media feeds, and we long ago got used to actors as presidents or god-politician, such that the staged press opportunity is now no more unusual than Amitabh Bachchan fronting a game show.
At last the old national organizational architecture of television and consequently television studies is necessarily put under review. Of course television has long been a global industry with a global logistics, and every ‘international incident’ involves battalions of workers laying cables, assembling cameras, grooming presenters, building sound stages, driving celeb vehicles, rushing here and there. In general, the globalization of television has meant a massive new participation in the production of images, from the somewhat romanticized ‘citizen journalism’ of ‘tele-democracy’,[i] to the live-cam combat footage and embedded reportage of the military and security services, all deploying the latest buzzwords as codex for wider techno-social shifts. We can consider the cable guy, VCR copy shop, dodgy wiring and knock-off brand sets of the parallel second-hand economy of reconditioned media gear – so eloquently described by Ravi Sundaram at Delhi’s Nehru Place, Lajput Rai and Palika Bazaar, where the ‘shops, markets, cable, wiring, cassettes [and] distributors’ – as only the constitutive pirate end[ii] of a mass commercial accumulation that begins much earlier and reaches much further. It begins perhaps when Nixon and Khrushchev debate the merits of colour TV in the famous Moscow ‘kitchen’ debate in 1959. It ends, or rather never ends, with television in every room of every house, every office and mall and beamed constantly everywhere – the 24×7 rule.
An academic industry of course follows in the wake of television, like some sort of camp hanger-on modeled by Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage who sells her children into prostitution and slavery, running after the marching army of the 30 Years War.[iii] Academic studies are in danger of becoming a similar sort of campaign support and the logistical supply troop for a comprehensive cultural takeover – media courses, conferences and journals with critique, scholarship even, when this suits the operatives of commercial advance and technological aggression. No longer a diminutive fuzzy furniture item in the corner of the room – if it ever was, always trying to take over like it did, with aspirations to be the centre of attention – television is now ubiquitous, as a mobile in your pocket, an Ipad platform, an airplane seat, taxi cab, station concourse, large public screen, festival feature, cricket stadium scoreboard, plasma proliferation. Reassessment of the volatile political place of television and the complicity of television studies as market support is well overdue. The whole world is flicker and pixels, coming to get you, already invading.
The context of television’s market saturation is the neoliberal compact of the past 40 years: deregulation, commercialization, privatization on the one side, intervention, penetration and diffusion on the other. For example, Ashish Rajadhyaksha contests an ‘isolationist’ view of Indian television, noting the Doordarshan state monopoly was accused of a narrow ‘Delhicentric’ view of India and he argues for refocused attention to Indian cinemas in a global frame.[iv] M. Madhava Prasad seemingly starts at the other end and takes political, economic and historical factors as key to understanding Indian media and its relation to capital.[v] Both reconfigure the focus of media studies away from the media alone, and away from the old national allegory paradigm. The illusion that the political somehow escapes television was always merely televised, and the economy seems now to perform for TV, while socio-cultural change runs interference for a technological escalation that only sells us more television. It does not matter that we are all always on screen and under scrutiny check in the garrison society. Or rather, it matters only insofar as the global economy is performed as TV, designed, like war, with all of us as screens. A co-constitution of camera and capital, such that the fiction of a single point of view – the camera, or the screen you are looking at now, even when it cuts from angle to angle – is the portal of a total commodification, and condenses the multiple social input of a vast productive geo-political apparatus into the disguised and singular presenter speaking directly to you, telling you your news, encouraging you to laugh or cry, living your life right there, before your eyes, everywhere.
The Hanging Channel.
If we do still want to look at a specific regional televisions, as the scholars mentioned above have been doing, the process does not gain in focus. Rather, the suggested direction to look is outwards, towards ‘geo-capital’. Across Asia[vi] we find many commentators able to point out how the local game has taken on reality talk show formats just as fast and furiously, and just as reified, as anywhere else. Not only the curios of Star and NDTV pan-commercialism, but also the idiosyncrasies of flip channel goddery and the ready access of a global identification, for example of Shilpa Shetty and Jane Goody, or of Osama bin Laden and Barack Hussein Obama. Note already the pairings of TV stars are geo-political, and the alienation effect that such staged pairings should have still does not mean we understand that things are staged: this is not a Brechtian entfremdungseffekt.
The nationalist televisual project become global also fosters an orientalist TV which prevails outside Asia, where Asia itself is vicariously and phantasmagorically screened. Indeed, it is this synchronization of national and geopolitical that has most quickly expanded with the proliferation of screen culture large and small – culture televised, and no longer under pundit control. I am particularly interested in the ways a refocusing of Asia as a theatre of war is performed on TV and, as theatre, is a consequence of a massive labour of commentary, the efforts of publicists and copywriters, advertisers and agents, spin doctors, image makers and propagandists. Entire teams working behind the screens/scenes to bring us all versionings of ‘Asia’ in real time. Yet, the work here, the network, the convolutions of the apparatus and its wiring, infrastructure, logistics and co-ordination, its structure of production and transmission, is rendered transparent in a way that is not different to game show staging, in that even when shown, it remains invisible. Arvind Rajagopal says as much when he notes that ‘Viewers may know that they are gathered and sold to advertisers, but they remain capable of acting as if they did not know this, and as if they thought they were free in their viewing behaviour’.[vii] What I mean here is that the television interface presents itself as direct connection, an inter-fascism, and its alienation effect is erased.
A case in point might be the way we approach the controversy around the images that stage the death of Osama bin Laden. The new geo-political reach of television was never more evident than in the photogenic scene of May 1st 2011 showing Hilary Clinton and President Obama watching the televised (remote closed circuit) Seal Team 6 raid on bin Laden’s Pakistan compound. In the (cramped) comfort of the White House situation room, with a large group of advisors and aides, they seem to express both astonishment and concern. However, we do not see the TV. We do not hear the TV. We do not even see this as TV – the picture is a still, and mute: no static, no radio-cam, no shouting, no pop pop pop shots. The still image is more suitable for the printed press than for television news, and yet this moment is global television in its new guise. Watching television as propaganda in this Situation Room is perhaps not your usual viewing platform, but it is connections like these, in this case a secure Ethernet network with remotely connected helmet-mounted camera feed,[viii] that makes television a cross-border, live-beam, everywhere and anywhere, medium of the political.
If we set aside conspiracy theory doubts about the faking of the killing and the ‘found footage’ that was also presented of Osama watching TV, what we see of ‘Asia’ here on the officially sanctioned publicity release is basically the leaders of the ‘free world’, Presidents, advisors, aides and now us all, gathered around a screen to view a snuff film assassination video. We can be sure that in some sense this is watching ‘Asia’, however perverse. With all the contradictions it implies, this view of Asia says it all – we can even read the hand over mouth gesture of Hilary as muted reference to the guilty contradiction of razing Afghanistan to dust, or not (technically, from already war-ravaged rubble to dust) and invading a sovereign, and paranoid, country uninvited, to kill an old man, himself pictured watching telly in Abbottabad… The double-play of this scene, a snapshot slice of a much wider and wilder scenario, is our changed TV world.
The images are indeed revealing – Hilary and Obama are paired in silence, as are the bloodied Osama we do not see (despite the photoshopped image that circulates on some websites[ix]) and the impotent Osama in a blanket watching TV that we do (much questioned, see below). An alternate pairing would show the situation room crowd with Obama and Hilary, and the images they have seen but which we cannot – the raid itself, the assassination, and presumably the burial-at-sea. Why do we not see all the images? Surely there is actual film of Hilary and Obama watching, of the body of Osama, or of the Islamic funeral ceremony, all chronicled as evidentiary record by the pubic relations and historical-archive conscious administration? It is hard to imagine the White House was unable to record every minute of the attack on some form of in-house VCR, possible a Watergate-style recording device, and that they do not have documentary footage of the situation room itself, or from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (Nimitz class), and so on. There is, of course, the inevitable plethora of conspiracy theories: was it really Osama we see sitting wrapped in an old blanket? He was left-handed but has the remote control in his right; he has himself filmed watching himself but does not look at the camera; the sound has been stripped from the video – although this last is a strangely silent coincidence also replicated with regards to the situation room. Perhaps understandably, there was concern about release of the bloodied body shot, but in the absence of all these possible images, theories thrive, and indeed a vast number of spoof YouTube videos can be seen recreating the events, as well as a graphic novel,[x] animated game-show cartoon and slapstick Saturday Night Live-like comedy routines, all beaming stereotypes of ‘Asia’ abroad in a parallel universe with fan-fiction proportions, deeply implicated in dramatic events.
The snuff film mise-en-scène in the situation room and its spin-off press and video images offer us a new genre identification for deregulated global television. This requires a more urgent aesthetic and socio-critical appreciation of the integrated media spectacle. Innovations in the forms of political television can also be seen in the cockpit-cam of the drone bombers zeroing in on insurgents in the Kush, or the shaky phone mp4 that records Saddam Hussein’s New Year 2006 execution and shown on what surely must eventually become the ultimate satellite offer – the Hanging Channel. I have argued something similar in relation to NDTV 24×7’s mobile phone-in poll around the trial and sentencing of Afzal Guru, but there are many candidates for round the clock horror ready to be screened.[xi] There are the beheadings, torture snaps, and attack drone reels, but also strange sub genres such as the spoof Osama kill vids and what I would call grunt videos – a particular grotesque consequence of sending US teens out on patrol in Afghanistan or Iraq and leaving them later confined to barracks with free time and computer kit to produce music videos with their own night vision footage and soundtracks from AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ – or remixed with even more chilling effect – Marilyn Manson’s version of the same.[xii]
Reality, Cinema, Diaspora.
The reality TV franchise that is the War on Terror in Asia has shown so much more for less than Big Brother’s or Crorepati’s star-studded (Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan) staged scenario production ever could. Cheap to embed, easy to download, the military journalist is a controlled, edited, and carefully screened ideological imaging. The camera is already on the weapon, the footage already beamed back to transmission HQ. Only sports and parliamentary debate offers such easy access to the action – the camera knows in advance where the game will be played, how many bowls will be bowled, and who has the hits. War footage is similar – we only see the highlights, and the camera was already set up in the kit. The image of global television is not Neil Armstrong setting out on the surface of the moon, but rather the stain of screen erasure when the missile-mounted camera is destroyed à la some glorified stump-cam moment writ large. The ideal view of war television, like a bowled wicket in the IPL, is the destabilization of the viewers perspective. The wicket is smashed, the camera askew – all the work that contrived to produce this scene, the training, the technology, the calculation of wages, Duckworth, averages and back room deals is obscured in the thrill of that singular close-up. This is the metaphor for television today, unashamed alienation in a distraction regime high profile, big bucks, product placement spectacle. Only on the Hanging Channel we would not have cheer squads, unless it be those outside the White House chanting ‘USA USA’ the evening Osama was snuffed.
We are dealing here with something that is not only a war scene, but is also the war itself, and the multivariant versions of Asia have always been screened in such narrowcast terms – a double-play of the good guys – temples, Bollywood songs and Sanjay Dutt – and the bad guys – terrorists, gangsters, Ravanna, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Kahn), and Sanjay Dutt. Today its moderate Muslims and unknown terror, the double play at work again. ‘Heat and Dust’ (dir, James Ivory 1983) was the cinematic version, or Art Malik coming to grief in ‘The Jewell and the Crown’ (ITV 1984), or more grotesquely, with Schwarzenegger in ‘True Lies’ (dir. James Cameron 1994). There does not seem to be any reduction in this even with the proliferation of vernacular views of the global, of home movies and camera phone newscasts uploaded directly to the satellite international in the Sky™. There is no sense in which the syncopation of local and global escapes the play of mere colour illustration – and subject citizens from remote to metropole are gathered together to work the scene. At what point would a television studies grapple with the stakes of this and be able to relate the isolated and peculiar details – Osama dying, Obama watching – to the whole? It is possibly useful to remember what Adorno says apropos of Hegel: ‘nothing can be understood in isolation, everything is to be understood only in the context of the whole, with the awkward qualification that the whole in turn lives only in the individual moments. In actuality, however, this kind of doubleness of the dialectic eludes literary presentation’.[xiii]
To be specific is to locate the televisual in the local as global force. This was never more clear when popular sentiment about Asians ‘in the diaspora’ was made more political at the start of the twenty-first century. There was always some politics in diaspora of course, though it is perhaps generous to suggest the US tongue-in-cheek abbreviation ‘ABCD’ for American Born Confused Desi inversely notes a greater diasporic awareness of such issues and has parallels in the ironic use of ‘second generation’ in the UK. Having to distinguish between Hindu and Pakistani, Arab and Bengali, Muslim and NRI, Bhangra and Hip-Hop, cricket and corruption… all this relating of the isolated to the whole became a classificatory blur after 2001, at least for non-Asians. Heavy rotation Asian cinema on late night British TV, for example, was insufficient to disabuse the rest of the British public of its stereotypes of the subcontinent and the threat of otherness. Even the by now standardized choices of ‘contemporary’ British Asian film did little to clarify – ‘Bend it like Beckham’ (dir Gurinder Chadha 2002) but not ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ (dir Stephen Frears 1985), ‘East is East’ (dir. Damien O’Donnell 1999) not ‘Wild West’ (dir. David Attwood 1992); ‘Four Lions’ (dir. Christopher Morris 2010) but no critical analysis of the ways an anti-Muslim pogrom had taken hold in the wake of Sept 11, 2001 or July 7, 2005. That the less safe films were on late night rotation, while telly-plays of security service-foiled plots against airlines or sci-fi scenarios with suicide jihadists (see for example US space operas like Battlestar Galactic[xiv] and Carprica) screened in prime time is duly noted.
The televisual rendering of Asians in the diaspora works largely through condensation of the global. The big screen is reduced to the no-go area of the late night small screen of ‘community’. Asian character roles in long-running classic UK soaps (Coronation Street ITV, EastEnders BBC) barely hide their big-ticket clichés; documentary current affairs arranged marriage honour killing exposés appear more often than any other item of interest at home. Abroad, suicide bombings and the Hanging Channel as above. The camera spotlight on Asians is so often documentary, even when it is comedy it is more often a documentary about Asian comedy, so much so that we need to recognize television as ideological apparatus again. This fabricated and staged documentary moment is a point of view illusion, a machine for obscuring the social and collective, and politically charged, character of this cultural production – a cultural effort that necessarily accompanies the war on terror.[xv] A film, or White House photograph, that hides its edits – cut, pan, zoom, montage, time, audio, narrative – develops a symbiotic relationship with the alienated but global commodity circuit, enforced by commercial and military means. Music television suggested another register for a time, but only to confirm the reductions: ‘Paper Planes’ wins an Oscar, Asha Bosle as a ring tone, ‘Tridev’s ‘Oi Oi’ still more inappropriate. Asian identity is conflated in two directions – a specificity that acknowledges a motivation marked by terror in ‘explanations’ of musician Mathangi Arulpragasam’s (M.I.A.) ‘political’ stance ‘reduced’ to the situated trauma of the Sri Lankan Tamil predicament. On the other hand a proclivity for generalizations such as that reporting on UK musician and filmmaker Aki Nawaz’s engagement with Gaza, Bosnia and Tunisia is taken as evidence of a suspect pan-Islamist tendency. Both are ways of undermining legitimate commentary with equally unsubtle questions of motive and context in a wider racist imperialist coding that never reveals its white supremacist undercarriage. Even the July 22 2011 deaths in Norway at the hands of the killer Anders Behring Breivik merge into this commodification via industrial news production. We watch rolling 24 hour cycle coverage which evokes no compassion, only staged ‘compassion’ – behind which you know there are technicians, crew, director and sound operator all just doing their jobs. No contrition from the media for its knee-jerk first reaction assuming the attacks were Al Qaeda or enraged Muslims responding to anti-Mohammed cartoons, and not much more than a contrived apology and business-as-usual as Breivik is identified as a self-declared ‘anti-Muslim crusader’ with a 1500 page manifesto and links to the English Defense League.[xvi]
That the terrorist self-styles as crusader is no surprise, but again media attention focuses upon the lone-wolf, rogue element, and individuation so as to engender control, in the same way that the manufacturing process divides items for management on the assembly line and market.[xvii] This trinketization ignores, even as we see it on screen, the intimate connections and overall tendential movement that should be diagnosed as a new and vicious military-informational complex, modeled and sold with glossy brochure News Corp and ‘dot.gov’ publicity campaign. It starts with so-called humanitarian bombing, moves through years of attritional combat, and extortion, assassination, murder-death-kill, and at best ends up with construction contracts and ongoing client state dependency. At worst, dissolution, despair and destructive neo-fascist entropy. A form of privatization over scorched earth – the policy choice of the crusades, colonialism and now fully global as World War Three. This blowback only begins to show as breaking news if you are not actually watching. If our media studies would only learn not to flinch from the implications, we could see this differently.
If television is a weapon of war by other means, what might be required for an extended critical television studies in this all-seeing but blinkered world? What means are available to take the proliferation of screens and capital seriously? Is it of use to see TV as an extension of the neo-liberal military-commercial agenda and can we turn this into a transformatory research project that would disarm such codings? Can television be redeemed, or must it be always exaggerated to be everywhere and so nothing special at all – merely the fabric of a politics and economy that lies, not so much elsewhere, but upon every surface? The Hanging Channel would offer a 24×7 war, just as it already is, with product placement. Is another television possible? If we tune in another way is there another possible world to see? What would televise differently? Which screen/scene must we see behind and beyond? Let us turn to that vision – for example, variously in RajaGopal, Sundaram, Mehta, Rajadhyaksha, and Prasad – offering a reconfigured mediation of media studies that does not start so much with the screen as with the place where the screen starts – so that we can reinvent television studies in the widest sense. In this way a television that takes seriously the injunction to break with alienation, exploitation and death. If we can, as we must.
John Hutnyk, Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths College, University of London.
[i] Nalin Mehta’s study of satellite television remains closely tied to the medium of television itself, however much transformed by new modes of delivery. The ‘citizen journalist’ (p248) and ‘tele-democracy’ (p257) are terms that have insider network currency. Mehta, Nalin, 2008 India on Television, New Delhi: Harper Collins.
[ii] For a closely argued study of how media must now be seen inextricably bound up with the staple themes of urbanism, modernity, technological change, aspirations, dreams and desires, see Sundaram, Ravi 2009 Pirate Modernity: Media Urbanism in Delhi, Delhi: Routledge.
[iii] Brecht, Bertolt 1939  Mother Courage and her Children, London: Methuen.
[iv] See Rajadhyaksha, Ashish 2009 Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency, New Delhi: Tulika Books.
[v] See Prasad, M. Madhava 1998 Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
[vi] In this paper I refer to Asia and Asian as a wide specificity that could include Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the diasporic South Asians discussed as ‘Br-Asian’ in the volumes Ali, N., Virinder S. Kalra and Salman Sayyid, (Eds) 2006 A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain, London: Hurst and Sharma, Sanjay, John Hutnyk and Ash Sharma, (Eds) 1996 Dis-Orienting Rhythms: The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music, London, Zed books. This is problematic, as it leaves out many other Asias, East, South-East, Austral- and Middle – this is best discussed by Gayatri Spivak in her 2008 book Other Asias, Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
[vii] Arvind Rajagopal 2001 Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p335
[viii] For an interesting survey of White House information, telecommunications and computing security protocols, see the PhD thesis of John Paul Laprise 2009 ‘White House Computer Adoption and Information Policy’, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
[ix] See for example the comparison of a 2008 image and the 2011 image here: http://todaysnewsnj.blogspot.com/2011/05/osama-bin-laden-corpse-photo-is-fake.html – last accessed 25 July 2011.
[x] Dye, Dale and Julia Dale 2011 Code Word: Geronimo, San Diego, IDW. The authors call this text ‘an American celebration’ – interview with The Associated Press reported in The Guardian 24 June 2011 -http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/9710347 – last accessed 24 July 2011
[xi] See Hutnyk, John 2011 ‘NDTV 24×7: the Hanging Channel: News Media or Horror Show?’ Batabyal, Somnath, Angad Chowdhry, Meenu Gaur and Matti Pohjonen (eds) Indian Mass Media and the Politics of Change, Delhi: Routledge.
[xiii] see Adorno, Theodor, 1963  Hegel: Three Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p91.
[xiv] See King, Laura and Hutnyk, John (2010) ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Gaius Balthar: Colonialism Reimagined in Battlestar Galactica’. In: Arlo Kempf, ed. Breaching the Colonial Contract. New York: Springer, pp. 237-250.
[xv] See Bhattacharyya, Gargi 2008 Dangerous Brown Men: Exploiting Sex, Violence and Feminism in the War on Terror, London: Zed Books.
[xvii] See Adorno, Theodor 1952 In Search of Wagner, London: Verso, p39.