Peripeteia prelude lecture series continues: faculty discusses the state of contemporary television

I was scrolling down my news feed this Tuesday when Peripeteia, a Community Development Grant Recipient for 2015, announced that it would kick off its second ‘Prelude’ lecture.

“Are We in a New Golden Age of Television?,” asked the Prelude, as my thumb and forefinger “checked in” online to Sci 101. Professors Sunka Simon (German and Film and Media Studies), William Gardner (Asian Studies), and Christopher Fraga (Anthropology) provided perspectives for around 40 students and a journalist, in hopes of reaching escape velocity from their respective disciplines all “for the sake of knowledge.”

“Allow Facebook to use your location?” asked my phone. It was appropriate, even progressive, that the Far East was introduced first, precisely because of how close television makes it seem, especially when television, after all, literally means “seeing from a distance.”

“In terms of Japanese television,” asserted Professor Gardner, “we are not in a ‘Golden Age.’”

“If you just turn on the TV today, I feel like a lot of the faces, a lot of the formats,” the same formats that conquered US culture in the ’90s, “are mostly the same faces and formats from the ’70s and ’80s.”

“But it is interesting, when I first started watching Japanese TV in the 80’s, it seems to me that American TV has really come to resemble Japanese TV. And thinking about that in the 1980s, just to name the decade … TV really establishes itself as a media object, and a way of engaging with people’s daily lives, in that people just leave it on —”

I see someone post a picture of the lecture on Instagram, with me in the corner.

Television “was just kind of there. And part of the flow of their activities. And if you look at the kind of shows, they’re really tailored to that distracted viewing.”

“Easily digestible chunks —” Gardner continued. I watched a GIF of something start automatically on my feed. “You don’t have to follow a long plot or anything like that.” An added component today, “is now you can take those chunks and you can share them on Youtube or your Facebook.” It was someone’s birthday that I hadn’t seen in years; something funny was trending. “With anime, you even have some people” like journalists, “who do subbing, dubbing, or they do parody, or they do music videos, where they edit their favorite parts together.”

“There’s also this virtual community interaction scrolling across the screen. It’s actually very distracting, if you want to watch the content, because you see all these comments scrolling across the screen—”

“It’s not the Golden Age of television, but it is a Golden Age of Cat Videos.”

During the transition my inbox received feedback on a paper from a professor, and I immediately switched tabs on my browser.

“— take stock here,” began Simon: “What am I watching, and what am I watching it on? You know, is there a sort of way I am getting away from broadcast TV? I think it’s sort of a more spread-out effect.” This parallels the things “Kevin Spacey talks about in terms of a ‘Golden Age.’”

I liked my friend’s new Profile Picture.

TV, like Facebook, “has been imported to second and third-world countries,” and even “European countries, bombed out or still in the aftermath of war, that really had a relatively slow start with systems and technology. Europe really jumped at the chance to get canned imports from the U.S., because they didn’t really have any systems or technologies in place, the infrastructure, to do things quickly —”

I Google-mapped Europe and imagined a Napoleon or a Hitler conquering the continent with server farms, instead of republics and Blitzkrieg. “—which of these is due to cultural specificity? Because if you grow up on U.S. imports, you have to deal with what you get and you get really good at reading in between the lines,” and “you appropriate story lines, you appropriate a way of movement, you appropriate certain vistas that resonate with you in some ways.” Just “something to keep in mind.”

From the Far East and Europe, we were thrown by Professor Fraga into inner-city Baltimore, the home front. During his segment, Fraga had alluded to Adorno and Horkheimer’s thesis that “Myth leads to Enlightenment; enlightenment reverts to mythology.” During the Q&A he went a different direction: “because I mentioned The Wire, I want to say that it fulfills the criteria.”

Of Golden Age?

“Isn’t The Wire amazing?!” asked Fraga. “The Wire is able to do something that I don’t thinkany film could ever do, and I don’t think any novel could ever do; and I don’t think any comic book could ever do; and I don’t think any opera could do; and I would empirically direct you to season four. There’s a scene when two characters are sitting in a car. These two people are seated in the car, and the camera person is seated in the back seat. You can see these the two on either side of the screen. Something happens outside the windshield, something very innocuous. Someone steps out of a door. That whole scene lasts four seconds, and there’s not a single line of dialogue. But because we’ve spent four seasons with these characters, we know exactly what just happened, and what’s about to happen, even though no one has said a word. That economy of means, those four seconds of highly dense meaning, thick description at its best. I don’t think you could do that in a film. I don’t think there’s any film that could achieve that much meaning in four seconds. To me that’s — if you’re going to make a Modernist case for TV as art—that would be the place to do it.”

I was disappointed that there was no engineering professor to point out the transistors and servers making streaming possible, or economics professors to illustrate cable provider wars.

France recently signed off on a TV series to be filmed in English based on the life of the French Sun King, Louis XIV. I shared this fact on my Facebook and Twitter: “When you resurrect the Sun King, is there any doubt that you’ve (re)entered a Golden Age?”

“First time as tragedy, second time as farce,” reminded Fraga and Marx.

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