When a Showman Pontificates: In the Beginning Was...Moses!

Serge Proulx (Université du Québec à Montréal)

François Yelle (Université de Montréal)

Throughout the length of TVTV, Moses Znaimer speaks with the assurance of certainty--to the point, at times, of teasing the viewer--mixed with sympathetic curiosity and a healthy dose of skepticism. From the innocent pastiche of the famous scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which constitutes a successful introduction to the documentary, to the pre-emptory tone of the final sequence of the 10 maxims he offers as a conclusion-summary, Znaimer's narrative is constructed around a disparate (postmodern?) linking of vengeful aphorisms formulated in a categorical manner by certain "thinkers" or "practitioners" of the culture of images (Camille Paglia, Oliver Stone) and recipes for success euphorically transmitted by the sellers of the Temple (for example, Jacques de Suze, Jenny Jones, Michael Solomon, Silvio Berlusconi). To this are added a few reflections which arouse obvious interest (Richard Price, Ron Keast), as well as repeated references--sometimes clumsy--to Marshall McLuhan. But mostly, the three-hour documentary (including commercial breaks) is bristling with the categorical affirmations of Moses Znaimer who occupies centre screen and attempts to persuade us of the veracity of his theories concerning television by the use of seductive and spectacular images put together much like an immense music video.

Our brief commentary will be made in two parts. The first part of our reflection regards the very object of the program, to wit: the so-called (social? cultural?) revolution brought on by television, attested to by the victorious return of the culture of images over that of the written word: "The War Is Over, Damn it! The Future has Arrived!" The second part of our commentary treats the fallacious but popular postulate--which runs throughout Znaimer's entire documentary--that it is impossible for intellectuals to appreciate and correctly judge television as they have been overconditioned by the written word, the privileged medium of rationalism, control, objectivity, and abstraction.

According to Znaimer, technological innovations over the last 50 years have completely changed the structures of our social organization, favouring the construction of a "new reality" and rendering the old modes of creation, production, apprehension, and comprehension of our culture obsolete. At the heart of this revolution, the new popular storytellers designate and isolate television as a major element of the process of change. We can easily associate Znaimer with this contemporary group of popular prophets. He speaks of television as "the single most important development in communications since the invention of the written language."

That which television has already provoked--as well as that which is to come as a result of this medium--surpasses the understanding of the majority, particularly that of intellectuals (Znaimer refers to these people as "critics"). Nonetheless, throughout the program, he avoids explaining why intellectuals would be so deficient in the cognitive tools necessary to adequately understand the social and cultural consequences of an innovation like television. Can these new images be understood only by the mixing together of other images? On the contrary, we believe that a critical reflection on the regime of truth installed by the current omnipresence of electronic images is favoured by a tactical distancing in the face of the cult of immediacy and the forgetting of the past systematically practised by the televisual media.

Moreover, like a politician, Znaimer announces with grandiloquence the long-awaited consolidation of the television revolution. Indeed, he suggests there will be a revolution within the revolution, and uses the multiplication of channels as an example of the new cultural rupture provoked by the media and as proof, predictably, of the ineffectiveness of critical debates orchestrated by intellectuals. The argument builds on the cliché that progress, especially technological progress, cannot be stopped. Znaimer presents the basis of his argument in the form of a simple syllogism. First, the secret, or the force, of television resides in its capacity to entertain: television is essentially entertainment. Second, this entertainment always takes the form of a story, ideally the best kind of story with which the spectator can identify (do we hope for the success or failure of the juggler in front of us?). Third, this entertaining story "takes us into ourselves" as the story tells "us": "the story is always us" (a phrase taken from Northrop Frye). Hitherto, the conclusion imposes itself as: "television is us!"

This definition of television is arguably even more encompassing than the one proposed by McLuhan in days gone by. Television is viewed not merely as the extension of human senses, but as the complete technological incarnation of human nature: its essence--the nature that 500 years of the written word has not succeeded in eliminating, but only in keeping at bay! Camille Paglia confirms the vision: television is a "sensual pagan torrent" which addresses itself directly to the body through images: a natural symbiosis which is no stranger to the pleasures offered by popular culture. Oliver Stone also intones biblically that "In the beginning was the image." This suggests that we are in the midst of a return to ancestral modes of communication, only from here on in a globally accessible way, because television now creates the possibility for emotions to be universally shared.

Does this mean a return to what McLuhan called the "tribal era?" This question is, at one and the same time, necessary and useless. Similarities with McLuhan's historical schema are present in Znaimer's work, but the typology of eras is not the same: the culture of the eye of McLuhan, according to Znaimer's theory, is that of the "written word" and of the oral. At the same time, oral culture as described by McLuhan becomes the culture of the eye in the host's narrative. In this sense, Znaimer eludes the similarities and differences which link his thesis to the work of McLuhan. Finally, if for McLuhan, the technological innovations of the electronic era provoked a rupture with the mechanical era, allowing us to recover the authenticity of oral culture, Znaimer attributes the merit of having completely reversed the modalities of modern rationality entirely to television alone! Not only is this a case of technological determinism, but of a complete intellectual reductionism leading to a form of technological animism.

Let us come back to one of the implicit postulates which structures Znaimer's entire documentary, that it is impossible for intellectuals--be they journalists, television critics, professors, or lobby group members--to correctly appreciate the "new culture of images" and to justly judge television. These intellectuals would be fundamentally marked by a written culture which privileges rationality, control, and abstraction. This implicit postulate participates, in our view, in an anti-intellectual discourse which, with its pseudo-artistic and falsely democratic colours, only serves to repeat the tired populist tune sung since World War II. President of Warner Brothers International, Michael Solomon, summarizes the tune aptly: "I sell what people want."

We are thus at the heart of the ideological discourse for which TVTV is a vehicle. In our view, throughout the length of the program, Znaimer sings the praises of a populist vision of culture. In some respects this is a compelling vision. Znaimer's praise of popular culture is passed through images, orality and emotion--a culture whose legitimacy we fully recognize and which would be more difficult to identify with written culture. Nonetheless, Znaimer's populism masks another kind of elitism. The distance which he takes vis-à-vis the intellectuals he claims are so smitten with written culture--and thus potentially critical of mass culture--acts as a screen to make us forget his euphoric (and uncritical) position on market logic which has been so strongly installed in the world of importing-exporting of audiovisual products around the globe. Equally important, this uncritical populist vision ("I sell what people want") corrupts the very idea of cultural democracy. The idea of democracy is confused with a guiding principle which suggests that "that which is just necessarily coincides with the shared opinions of the majority." This demagogic principle has masked much worse political abominations: the twentieth century bears witness to this. What is forgotten here is the extent to which modern democracy is also governed by a republican principle. To assure and protect the public welfare--the res publica--every democratic society must collectively negotiate a set of principles which guide public expression. The maintenance of these principles necessitates a cultural politics and a coherent regulatory framework in order to avoid leaving the development of television in the sole invisible hands of free market programming.

Znaimer's entire television documentary unfolds under the aegis of the precept that "the medium is the message" and the categorical affirmation which alleges "television is flow, not show; process, not conclusion." The structure of the program consists not of a logical demonstration, but of an obsessive desire to seduce and convince through the exclusion of linearity to the benefit of a "discursive bricolage." Thus, the information is presented in various forms (images, words, music, written phrases), often simultaneously and without apparent links; the texts are frequently decontextualized (in the case of citations of Gerbner, for example). In sum, a process of decentring becomes the narrative's only logic, leaving the images and the aphorisms to impose themselves like so many flashes in obscurity, which become the guiding road signs leading finally to the exit. Znaimer undoubtedly hopes that we are left with the distinct impression of having watched the final demonstration. But of what exactly? We are tempted to return to one of Moses Znaimer's pre-emptory phrases: "The war is not over... the future is much more complex!"


Thank you to Val Morrison for the translation of this article.