Admin note: Again, a book review. I think this is the kind of work that you either get, or you completely don’t. Joselit’s choice and style is somewhat surprising, given his completely different approach in earlier works (such as the one on Duchamp, which you can access here), but an approach that he will develop even further (in Painting Beside Itself, OCTOBER 130, for example, for which you can click here).

 

Frfeedback joselit book coverom its early beginnings until the present moment, television has been on a linear trajectory from an object of commodity to a necessity. A wide range of scholarship has been concerned with the social, political and cultural implications of television, and debates ranged from the consumption of TV as a commodity,[1] to television’s place within the ruling ambitions of the governing classes,[2] or to the impact television has on children.[3] Feedback proposes a different perspective, an organic (re)view of the individuals that rebelled against television’s domesticity, trying to enhance a perspective in which art stands against television and television against democracy. Joselit’s mission lies in describing the politics of the images themselves and the way in which art history and visual culture might participate in its procedures. Chiefly using the metaphor of the figure-ground relationship, Feedback aims to achieve three main goals. Firstly, it aspires to provide a close analysis of the television system during its early years in the United States, secondly, to discuss closely the implications of conducting politics through images, and, thirdly, to challenge current methodologies used in the field of art history, accomplished by what the author calls “fantasies of revolution and subversion” (p. xii). The selection of artists falls under the umbrella of eclecticism, as Joselit’s preoccupation is not limited to categorizing, but to uniting a set of images in a discussion of dislocating and to reconstructing television’s compact circuit.

Joselit opens the discussion by redefining the network and the commodity, concepts that are simultaneously antagonistic and inextricably linked: while the commodity requires a network to enable movement the mobility of the network is a potential threat to the stability of commodities (p. 7). Using the examples of Nan June Paik’s Prepared TV’s and Andy Warhol’s Underground Sundae, the author illustrates how two very different approaches bring together common issues,[4] reasserting trajectories and evoking television’s unconsciousness. Thus, as a post-rationalization, the network is a function of the commodity, the commodity a function of the network and the network becomes a commodity itself. The debate slowly advances towards three very important vectors: the virus, feedback and the avatar.

 The Virus, in simple words the artist’s methodology in combating politicized information, slowly slips towards the realm of aesthetics, due to the ingenious use of the technical apparatus of television to create an anti-message, a revolt towards anti-democracy. Joselit advocates for what Susan Sontag [5] once called the eco-formalism, being interested in how a certain type of imagery established relationships with networks, proliferation and commodities. One of the theoretical examples refers to William Burroughs, who – in his work The Ticket that Exploded – identified the viral attributes of the language. Following this line or argumentation, playback becomes a political virus and the manipulation of language “is powerfully catalytic” (p. 55). For Jasper Johns, to give a pictorial example, painting undergoes a syntactical manipulation through his ready-mades, where motion is the focal attribute. In Paik’s electronic painting, the parasitic and systemic become the object’s way of being “absorbed into scan lines only to be rewritten as pure abstract patterns” (p. 63).

Naturally, the dispersion of a virus implies a certain set of responses, or feedback(s), a process facilitating dialogue, set against the control of information by the private sector. It is a process of reconfiguring a given subjectivity into a new typology, possible primarily through cable access television (that would inherently build community-oriented networks).[6] Joselit exemplifies this brilliantly by discussing the politics of the Yippie activism versus the network, where outrageous events sought to seize a few moments of the network news for anti-propagandistic reasons. Their anti-political and antisocial manifestos overlap with performance in creating “advertisement[s] for revolution” (p. 112), attempting to assimilate corporate advertising structures only to challenge it from inside out. Joselit very unsurprisingly associates these events with Paik’s TV sets, arguing that what seemed like an extreme measure ultimately led to a dilemma of assimilation. In other words, by adopting a strategy of dislocating a system from inside out, the Yippies risked getting absorbed into the institutional framework of television, a paradigm exploited by Andy Warhol – Joselit’s next stop – in his TV $ 199 [7] and Exploding Plastic.[8]

Finally, the Avatar translates the virtual identity of the artist, an assumed alias by which a creator completes his cycle of transformation, distancing himself from the “dangers” of the network. Joselit once again, in an anthropological manner, argues against television’s ability to replace “human belongings with characters” because it “transposes politics and public debate into privately owned and operated simulations” (p. 155), a very efficient tool of manipulation. Joselit’s solution consists in operating this political agent, and directing it against assumptions of consumption and possession. Unfortunately, although the idea seems ingenuous, it lacks consistent exemplification. The inconsistency between the identification of a series of iconic pieces (especially from the branch of performance art) and its poor employment affects the accuracy of the argument; furthermore, Joselit’s discourse is plainly obscure, making a clear argumentation difficult. Moreover, the scarce criticism that the author makes towards art historical methodologies prove his initial intention to be, in this respect, unsuccessful.

It is interesting how Joselit chose to summarize his ideas in the afterword-manifesto, where the three key concepts of the book unite with the author’s perception on the art-historical methods that should be applied when assessing artworks. However, point four of this manifesto in the only place in the entire book where Joselit decides to criticize openly previous methodological approaches; a sustained argument illustrated relevantly in this direction would have been most welcome. In retrospective, Joselit’s argumentation seems to imply a political stage, from which a certain set of actors detach themselves in creating alternative forms.

 

Bibliography and further reading:

  • Engelman Ralph, Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History, Sage Publications, 1996
  • Kellner Douglas, Television and the Crisis of Democracy, Westview Press, 1990
  • McAllister Matthew P. and J. Matt Giglio, The Commodity Flow of U.S. Children’s Television, subchapter From Television Flow To Commodity Flow, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 22, no. 1, March 2005
  • McCarthy Anna, The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America, New Press, New York: 2010
  • Morley David, Television, Audiences and Cultural Studies, Routledge, London, 1992
  • Shamberg Michael and Raindance Corporation, Guerilla Television, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971
  • Smith Ralph Lee, The Wired Nation, Nation 210, no. 19, May 18, 1970
  • Sontag Susan, On Photography, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979
  • Spigel Lynn, TV by Design, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • The Brave New World of TV, (click here)
  • Tichi Cecilia, Electronic Health: Creating an American TV Culture, New York: Oxford University Press 1991

[1] In David Morley, Television, Audiences and Cultural Studies, Routledge, London, 1992, chapter 10

[2] The main aspect discussed in Anna McCarthy’s book, The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America, New Press, New York: 2010

[3] Matthew P. McAllister and J. Matt Giglio, The Commodity Flow of U.S. Children’s Television, subchapter From Television Flow To Commodity Flow, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 22, no. 1, March 2005, p. 26-44

[4] such as the connection between different objects and the information networks in which they travel

[5] Susan Sontag, The Image-World, in On Photography, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979, p. 180

[6] Michael Shamberg and Raindance Corporation militated for the adoption of such measures in the book-turned-into-manifest Guerilla Television (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 28- 40). Other scholars seem equally concerned with this issue:

Ralph Engelman, Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History, Sage Publications, 1996

Douglas Kellner, Television and the Crisis of Democracy, Westview Press, 1990

The Brave New World of TV, an article essentially technical; it is a good starting point for contemporary debates on this subject.

Ralph Lee Smith, The Wired Nation, Nation 210, no. 19, May 18, 1970

[7] Where the connections between money and television are impossible to dissolve (p. 115)

[8] Where two instances of the body – pain and an object of mechanical reproduction – overlap (p. 120)