September CommQuote

This month’s quote is brought to us by Paul Frosh offering “some physiognomic speculations” of television in its pre-digital form (The Face of Television) in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (volume 625, September 2009). The issue, edited by Elihu Katz and Paddy Scannell is called The End of Television? Its Impact on the World (So Far).

“When I watch my conventional, seven-year-old cathode-ray tube (CRT) television, I obviously see the colors and forms, figures, and faces of programming content. But I also see something else—especially when the set is turned off: my own reflection and that of the viewing space in which I am located. In fact, it is difficult to remember a time when I did not see my own reflection in the television, and I have occasionally noticed my own children preening before the screen.

There are many tempting possibilities for theorizing this mirrorlike quality of the CRT screen, not least the connection between television and a culture of narcissism, or the deployment of Lacanian models of psychic development (with obligatory references to the ubiquitous “mirror stage”). I will briefly mention only two obvious points, however. The first is that the reflection of the viewer in the television is a virtualization of the viewer’s body and physical setting. This is true, of course, of all reflective surfaces and mirrors. Yet, these other reflective surfaces double the space that the viewer already inhabits but do not add to it. The television screen, in contrast, makes the viewer’s image a part of a parallel world of THE FACE OF TELEVISION 95 strangers that television creates on the other side of the screen, a world that for all its verisimilitude is still very different from the space the viewer physically inhabits.

This incorporation of the virtualized viewer into television’s universe of strange faces and bodies is most obvious when the lighting in the viewing space and in the program content conspire to make the viewer’s reflection overlap with the image on the screen. Even when this does not happen, however, and when my reflection is replaced by the broadcast image, television remains perpetually open to this potential of world-overlap, and not least because I am what appears on the screen when the machine is shut down. The CRT television screen is therefore in a sense never really off: when it shows nothing, what it shows is me.

More than this, it shows me looking back at me. As with one’s image in a mirror, one cannot take oneself by surprise: it takes great effort to see oneself without meeting one’s own reflected eyes returning one’s gaze. To look at my reflection almost always means that my reflection looks back at me as a face that faces it, echoing the structure of the direct deictic gaze to the audience of certain televisual faces described earlier.

How do I look on my television? My image appears to emanate from the darkened depths of the set. The screen does not just reflect me; it also presents a mirror image of the three-dimensional space in which I am located. This is important since it constitutes the space behind the screen as a world in depth. The screen appears not only as a surface upon which images are projected but also as the translucent barrier to an anterior space—a space of representation (the illusion of three dimensions) that is mapped onto the physical space of the cathode ray tube. Unlike cinema, then, the space behind the television screen does not appear to be virtual: the screen is not a surface showing only the illusory representation of a three-dimensional world but a looking-glass onto the (inhabitable) inside of the television set itself.

The appearance of a world in depth behind the television screen is, therefore, not simply an effect of the optical illusion of three dimensions that characterizes the pictures shown on television. Instead, the pictorial illusion is made continuous with the reflected image of the viewer and his or her setting (walls, sofas, coffee tables), as though both take turns to occupy the same delimited space—a space that is mapped onto the physical depth of the television set. When the television is turned off, and the broadcast image disappears, the space it occupied is filled by the reflection. This gives the inhabitable “inside” of the television, the world in depth on the other side of the glass, a semblance of permanence. And this sense of a permanent world-space inside the television intersects powerfully with one of the most obvious aspects of television’s physical exterior: its appearance as a kind of container.”

–Paul Frosh, The Face of Television, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, pp94-96 (September 2009)

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