Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture, Elizabeth Seaton

Margaret Morse is well-known to students of media studies for her critically astute analyses of media culture. Articles such as "Talk, Talk, Talk: The Space of Discourse in TV News, Sportscasts, Talk Shows and Advertising" (1985); "The Television News Personality and Credibility: Reflections on the News in Transition" (1986); and "An Ontology of Everyday Distraction: The Freeway, the Mall and Television" (1990) are now considered "classics" of the field if, at the very least, their continued presence on course syllabuses is evidence of enduring value. It was Morse who provided an explanation of the crucial role of the TV news anchor as "the personality in the machine," that is, as the enunciator who breeches the "wall" of the television screen to build a subjective link to the viewer. And it was Morse who, long before most cultural studies and political economy were to catch on, undertook an analysis of the synergistic relations of television, freeways, and shopping malls as analogous media, interrelated in their de-realized mundaneness as machines for what Raymond Williams once termed "mobile privatization."

The above articles are included in this new collection of Morse's writings (published under Kathleen Woodward's Theories of Contemporary Culture series) along with other essays on video art and cyberculture. Morse publishes not only in academic venues, but in art and photography journals such as Afterimage or Art in America and exhibition catalogues, and this disciplinary breadth is evident in the essays assembled here. The book as a whole is indicative of a scholar involved in the interdisciplinary pursuits of media and cultural studies, moving from close examinations of different media and media forms to consider their wider cultural implications in a given historical moment. While an eclectic collection, the potential for confusion is tempered by a rigorous conceptual and theoretical structure.

Despite what appears to be the foregrounding of things technological in the title, Morse is predominately interested in pursuing the cultural relations of our cyber-age, or what she describes as "the far greater complexities of a postindustrial and postnational socio-political information economy" (p. 4). The path into this territory however begins at the television screen. As Morse's previous works have argued, the very success of television as a medium of social control is due to its expertise at subjective relations: its ability to establish a type of virtual interpersonal world with the viewer. Morse thus extends television's premise to examine how newer "cyber" technologies continue with such subjective relations in ever more sophisticated degrees. Television then represents an "interim phase" in a process in which machine-human relations become ever more personal and subjective. For Morse, it is "left to the genres of cyberculture to develop the full implications" (p. 4) of a form of social and cultural maintenance based not just upon subjective identification, but inhabitation and even embodiment. We, rather than the machines, become the cultural transmitters.

Lest one find Morse's thematic structure too teleological or characteristic of the emancipatory science fiction of computer marketing, what she examines throughout these articles are the contradictory processes of technological hegemony. This "evolution" itself is based upon a paradox: while our work and private lives are increasing characterized by impersonal relations with machines, these same machines become more refined and elaborate in their personal and subjective means of expression. In effect, our machines become more cultured. As Morse argues, information, which is impersonal and ephemeral, must be "reengaged with personality and information.": "[T]he more abstract and removed information has become from everyday life and the perceptual field, the more virtual the substitute context of subjectivity in a here-and-now at the foundation of cyberculture will be" (p. 6). Such virtual relationships--personal, subjective, and embodied--are the primary focus of Morse's book and act as the thread by which each essay is bound.

The book is divided into three sections, each of which is indicative of this overall concern. The first, "Virtualities as Fictions of Presence," establishes historical and conceptual premises for the book as a whole. Morse's fine introductory chapter offers the conceptual framework and the theoretical tools (theories of language and subjectivity) for understanding succeeding chapters. Her second chapter, "The News as Performance," expands upon ideas regarding social power and news discourse originally found in "The Television News Personality and Credibility." The second section, entitled "Immersion in Image Worlds: Virtuality and Everyday Life," is comprised of essays which examine technologies and technological spaces (or more aptly, non-spaces), which bear greatly upon the conduct of our daily lives but of which we have only a tangential awareness. The essay "An Ontology of Everyday Distraction: The Freeway, the Mall and Television" is included in this section, as are two others which respectively concern the development of television graphics as a precursor to the imagery of virtual reality, and the perceptual relationships between culinary and cyber cultures. Section three, "Art and Media Environments," considers the analytic and exploratory work undertaken by artists using media technology, beginning with the older form of video installation and moving to a discussion of the construction of subjectivity in art which creates virtual environments.

As Morse reminds us in her introductory chapter, the "new" abilities of cyberculture (especially their "interactive" and "telematic" capacities), have radically altered our understanding of the function of images. Only a decade ago, under the scrutiny of a "politics of representation," an image was recognized as a discursive construction which conveys situated knowledges and powers. Today, images ferry not only a politics of meaning or place, but an ever-more-tangible "aspect of agency," in which the remote control of images (via telematics or telepresence) can be used to inflict immediate and potentially deadly change on the real world. An obvious case in point is the Gulf War, widely noted for the ways in which its mediation resembled a video game. What are the ethical costs of a war in which it is images, rather than flesh and blood people, which are the primary agents of destruction? What happens to a sense of social accountability or even humanness when telematic images allow one to be removed from the consequences of one's actions?

Virtuality is dematerialized--it exists in effect, but not in actuality. The composition of virtual worlds (such as the evil empire of Saddam Hussein) carries with it certain ontological insecurities which undermine our sense of reality and perhaps ultimately, empathy. The virtue of virtual reality is that no one really lives there. And thus, as Morse explains, the technological apparatuses of fiction and artifice used in the mediation and conflict of the Gulf War imparted a sense of distance which influenced the conduct of both bombing crews and the "moral remoteness" of Americans towards those who actually suffered from the effects of the war. One senses that the continuing air strikes by the U.S. against an already devastated Iraq, and the mute complicity of its and Canada's media and populace, are made possible by the conflict's mediation by virtual telematic technologies. As Morse writes, "'we' met the enemy and 'he' was not just dehumanized, he was a nonentity, for there was no one there" (p. 30).

The increasing presence of these machines in our everyday lives and the consequences of remoteness and disengagement which they convey also has its effects closer to home. If one is to judge by the promotional discourse of material culture, it appears as though security has become a pervasive concern within the lives of North Americans. Increasingly urged to protect ourselves against the threat of an unpredictable world, we are offered the defences of wired cars, cellular phones, "smart" houses, gated communities, private police forces, and the video surveillance of what remains of public space. Such consumer technologies invariably promise to help control a world which is said to be out of control, to fend off a reality which is felt to be more dangerous and difficult to manage. Paradoxically, the means towards this retreat involves the increasing technological engagement with, and mediation of, "reality." So, too, the concurrent growth of private enclosures which are worlds away from anxiety and fear: the theme parks, shopping malls, and mega-movie palaces which offer a separate and exclusive clientele the utopias or "no-places" of a virtual reality.

This brings me to the possible limitations of Morse's analysis. While Morse is committed to the cultural implications of cybertechnology--in particular its ramifications for human subjectivity and language--there is room for a more extended discussion about the political economy of these new machines and the cultural industries they support. One case in point concerns her conclusion to the chapter "The News as Performance," which incorporates much of the analytic thesis of the earlier "Television News Personality" article. In a discussion of "post-television," Morse sees the potential of a "public sphere" for cyberculture limited to a question of access: only 20% of people will be able to afford the requisite technology. And yet, what really inhibits the processes of a "public sphere" (the very term conveys an optimism I no longer have), is the privatization and/or corporatization of public space. Can virtual space ever be considered public space? Today, the erstwhile problem of access (the exclusion of women and slaves from the agora) is an effect of privatization. It is in this respect that Morse could delve deeper into the structural factors at work in the political economy of cyberculture. What, for instance, is the relationship between the growth of private, virtual worlds and a class structure in North America increasingly described as "feudal" or "oligarchical"? What bearing do the abstractions of finance capital have upon cultural expression (wherein money has now only speculative, rather than concrete value, and is mobile, rather than attached to a locus of production)?

Leaving these questions aside, the book is a careful and rigorous analysis of media both old and new, and is often stunning in its insights. Much previous writing on "cyberculture" has tended towards either simple-minded cheerleading or overly obtuse critiques laden with techno-jargon and self-important puffery. Morse's book offers an informed discussion about the practices and process of virtual machines from someone who clearly has experienced them firsthand, and who has the wisdom and critical distance to tackle the complexities and contradictions of such wondrous machines. One can only wish that the cheerleaders would take note.


Morse, Margaret. (1985). Talk, talk, talk: The space of discourse in TV news, sportscasts, talk shows and advertising. Screen, 26(2), 1-11.

Morse, Margaret. (1986). The television news personality and credibility: Reflections on the news in transition. In Tania Modleski (Ed.), Studies in entertainment: Critical approaches to mass culture (pp. 55-79). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Morse, Margaret. (1990). An ontology of everyday distraction: The freeway, the mall and television. In Patricia Mellancamp (Ed.), Logics of television: Essays in cultural criticism (pp. 193-221). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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