November 4, 2015

Television and the culture's collective memory

I've long said that if you restrict writing about TV to what’s written about TV, something’s missing. Quite possibly, considering the wordiness of that sentence, what’s missing is coherence.  So let me try that again, using the following example.

This link is to an article written by Rod Dreher, and it’s discussing a book called How Societies Remember, which was written in 1989 by Paul Connerton. It has absolutely nothing to do with television, and in fact is the kind of article that I’d usually save for discussion over at the other blog. But it addresses some points that are key to understanding (in a somewhat bookish way) why some people watch old television shows while others don't, and the importance of television as a part of a society’s collective memory.

For me, the key point of Dreher's essay comes from this comment:

When a society really wants to remember something as a society — e.g., mythical, religious, or historic stories that tell a people who they are and what they must do — it invents commemorative ceremonies around those stories. It is not enough to tell a particular story; the story has to be “a cult enacted.” That is, the story must convey a metaphysical truth, and thus has to be granted sacred status as an event that is taken out of the past and in some mystical way re-presented in the present.  

For our purposes, we're going to simplify the "commemorative ceremony" to mean depicting it in a television program. And let's face it, there is a veneer of legitimacy that TV can apply to an event; that's why so many special interest groups complain that this or that issue or demographic or viewpoint is ill-represented on the tube, and deserves more recognition, in order to depict something which they refer to as the "real world." Note that I'm not automatically criticizing such behavior - it's true that your results will vary depending on your own personal system of beliefs, but at least in theory there's nothing wrong with wanting television programs to depict something that approximates your reality.

The point is - as I always say, there's always a point - the point is that somehow an idea, whether it deals with social injustice, homosexuality, political ideology, or any number of issues, remains an abstract until it's actually presented on television and witnessed by viewers. But simply presenting it is not sufficient to make a point; it has to be done in a way that is plausible to the people viewing it. The logician will assert that plausibility derives from presenting something so that those who see it will immediately recognize it as representing what it purports to represent. In other words, to cite one of my favorite examples, The Judy Garland Christmas Special of 1962 gives us a Christmas full of caroling and parties and decorations, purportedly in Judy's own home. Today it's seen by some as camp. However, the important thing is that people in 1962 recognized it for what it was. Sure, their homes might not be decorated like that, they might not sit around a mod fireplace singing carols (and I sure as hell don't think they had Jack Jones and Mel Tormé dropping by), but if it had not been recognizable to viewers, if it had not presented a plausible version of Christmas 1962, it would have been laughed off the screen.

This is one reason why the content of a television show is so important - it will serve to future generations the function of a time capsule, telling those viewers what life was like back in the day: the values, the relationships, the way people thought and acted and what they believed in. Advocacy groups understand this, inherently if not explicitly, which is why they spend so much time and effort on it.*

*Interestingly enough, it occurs to me that one could ask opponents of, for example, violence and sex on television whether they really believe such behavior influences those, particularly young people, who watch it - or if they're concerned about the legacy such shows leave, and if future generations will see and accept such behavior as acceptable. In the long run it serves the same purpose - to convent behavior - leaving the only question as to when that behavior kicks in.

Here is another key passage, this one from the author Connerton, that to me illustrates the appeal of classic television, and why it's important for us not to forget it:

Under the conditions of modernity the celebration of recurrence can never be anything more than a compensatory strategy, because the principle of modernity itself denies the idea of life as a structure of celebrated recurrence. It denies credence to the thought that the life of the individual or a community either can or should derive its value from the acts of consciously performed recall, from the reliving of the prototypical. 

So what, you may ask, does this mean - and how does it tie in to the general discussion?

My take on it, as it relates to our topic, is thus: what classic television does is not only portray a lost period in time, it identifies that portrayal as having represented the values as understood - if not practiced - by society at the time.* To the extent that modernity rules the roost, attempting to overturn the values of the past in favor of a new and revolutionary way of thinking, it attempts to pigeonhole such shows, - and here is what I think is important - ridiculing the idea that "the life of the individual or a community either can or should derive its value from the acts of consciously performed recall."

*Another pet peeve of mine. Critics will look at programs such as Leave It to Beaver and chortle that they give us an idealized look at childhood. Of course they do, and I don't think anyone ever intended for them to be documentaries. You can argue that the shows attempted to enforce a type of conformity, however mild, to certain roles and archetypes, but what's important is, once again, that they were plausible, acceptable and recognizable depictions as far as the viewers were concerned. The Beverly Hillbillies, by contrast, never attempted any type of overt realism; its value comes from a combination of slapstick and covert allegories based on the appeal of common sense.

Again, in other words, when television was a communal activity - with a limited number of programs watched at the same time by the entire population - it either presented or reinforced the values of that community, in such a way that both individuals and the community as a whole would recognize. Those who seek to cast off classic television, wittingly or unwittingly, look to deny credence to the world presented in those programs. They may dislike the simplicity of the scripts, the quality of the acting, the implausibility of a lawyer solving a case in 60 minutes or family disputes always ending "happily ever after," or something as simple as the show being presented in black-and-white rather than color, and for some people that may be all there is to it. But either explicitly or implicitly, the secondary consideration is not only to deny the past as it appears on television, but to wipe it from the memory banks of today's generation - remember my earlier point that television grants a veneer of legitimacy to what it portrays.  When you remove that collective memory as presented in the program, what happens? Dreher posits this from Connerton's words:

He’s telling us that in modernity, the market is our god. It conditions what we imagine to be possible. We can’t dream that life should be ordered by rituals that bound and define our experience, and link it to the past, to a sacred order. There is no sacred order; there is only the here and now, the tangible. The world exists to be remade to fit our desires. There are no ways of living that we should conform our lives to, no stories that tell us how we should live.

The only thing that matters, therefore, is what we see now, what we read now, what we believe now. The past is the past, while control of the future is played out on the battlefields of today.

Connerton, and by extension Dreher, is specifically discussing capitalism and the free market economy, but to the extent that television is (as the networks keep reminding us) a commodity, prepared for and purchased as a business transaction, the analogy remains intact.  "When Connerton says that in modernity, and under capitalism, we can hardly 'imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence,'" Dreher writes, "he’s saying that we can no longer easily believe that we should live according to set patterns of thought and action because they conform to eternal truths."

I've used a lot of words to make a very small point, and perhaps I've lost some of you along the way. In that case, I take responsibility for my failure to be concise. But the very small point I'm about to make has very large implications, ones that we're dealing with today and will continue to deal with in the future. And the point is this: classic television is a medium, one of many but perhaps the most visible and most personal one, that tells us about ourselves - who we were, who we are, who we aspired to be. Forget that, banish it from our collective memories, fail to learn from it, and we have forgotten an integral part of ourselves and our American culture. And as Santayana suggests, if we forget the past, we fail to learn from it.

I take great pleasure in watching classic television, but I also study it and learn from it - and that's one of the reasons I watch it.


  1. If I could add this to your piece. I’ve often found, on several comment sections on the net, when a discussion occurs about a piece of literature, a movie, a comic book or more in line to your discussion here, older (classic) TV shows, that appeared many years before the comment poster was born, they spend their time deriding what the characters said or did. Those commenting on, what they consider archaic, have an air of superiority, a “How could they say that!” or “Look how they’re treating that person”. A feeling that everyone “back then” were so stupid or unenlightened.

    Yes, 30, 40, 50 years ago many different people, because of their sex, race or religion, were treated in a way, that by today’s standards would be considered uncivilized, embarrassing or to some extent cruel. But at the time those shows were written, filmed and aired, it was what that current society understood. It’s how they lived. It was, for want of a better description, a reflection on how the either wanted to, or did, live.

    Every present day person, whether they’re reading articles and fiction or watching older TV shows and movies, have to abstain from looking at them through current-day glasses. To criticize, or worse, to dismiss an old TV show, simply because it doesn’t check off all the boxes that fit present day sensibilities, is not only wrong (IMO) but denies them the opportunity to enjoy some great entertainment.

    (hope I didn’t derail too much from the point you were making)

    Oh, and I do have to kind of disagree with you about “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Yes it was slapstick, broad humor, but several years ago while watching several seasons on METV rotation, it struck me that it was almost a barometer to American tastes in the 60’s. Through the show’s mid-run, the writers began commenting on the fads of the day (James Bod/Spy movies, the love affair with everything England, RockPop music, Television itself, the space race, etc…) through the eyes of these characters, most specifically Jethro. Using these fish-out-of-water characters filling in for the audience themselves as they dove into every current trend. Those who were never born until years later can watch these episodes and get a little taste at just what people were into in the mid 60’s.

    1. On your first point - yes! You're exactly right that one cannot hope to understand the past if they insist on viewing it through the lens of today's mores. That's why I keep stressing context, context, context. You're spot on!

      My comment about "The Beverly Hillbillies" wasn't meant to be critical, by the way, and I agree with your comment. I think there was a very sly commentary going in the show (as there was in "Green Acres,") but they were smart enough to have this running just under the surface. I also agree that you can get a real look at the culture of the time by watching the show; you made that point far better than I!

  2. Such a rich topic for exploration, and I could not agree more with your main thesis. I do not watch a lot of current TV, but from what I know of the types of programming deemed by the media as most insightful into this culture, I wonder whether there is still any effort made to be aspirational, or if that, too, is now an antiquated notion.

  3. I don't know how - or if - this connects up with what you're writing here, but let's see.

    Recently, one of my preoccupations has been finding copies of books and magazines that I had years ago, when I was a lot younger.
    Among others, I've been tracking down old issues of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, with special reference to the years 1965-66 - the year I started buying and reading it - fifty years ago.
    I was still in high school (sophomore, Oak Lawn Community High). Through TV and books, I was exposed to works both old and new, from the turn of the century to the (then) present day. EQMM was part of that, with Fred Dannay's chatty intros to the older stories forming part of my "memories" of people and events from long before my lifetime.
    Just as the old movies on TV made me a fan of performers who had passed away years before I had ever seen their work.
    In the '50s and early '60s, this was commonplace; all the kids I went to school with were seeing the same TV and movies (and movies on TV), reading the same books (including the comic kind), listening to all kinds of music (not limited to pop and rock - that latter just coming into prominence).There was no such animal as "demographics" - that brand of junk science was a decade or so away.
    During this period I was a devout Chicago White Sox fan (South Side Irish division). "Memory" played a part in this as well - reading up on the history of baseball was a favorite preoccupation, starting with Baseball Digest out of Columbus, Ohio.
    In 1958, BD ran a story called "Remember Twenty Years Ago?", about the 1938 season.
    This was where I saw my first references to the St. Louis Browns, the Boston Bees, and the Philadelphia 'Athaletics' (clarifications of these references available on request). My curiosity was piqued; the more I read up on it all, the more I wanted to read.
    Maybe I was the exception; after all these years I couldn't say for sure. But all the above examples are what shaped my thinking processes into what they are today.

    I'm not sure exactly when memory - learned or direct - became unfashionable.
    It was a gradual process, so gradual as to go unnoticed while it was happening.
    TV did not suddenly become 'color' and widescreen, any more than movies did. For a long period, the various forms from the past and present existed side by side, available to one and all - "You pays your money and you takes your choice", as the old saying goes.
    Cut to the present, where for all the 'alternatives', there seem to be fewer and fewer choices.

    I'm not sure where I was going with this (or where I wound up), so I'll close on a personal note, backtracking to the beginning.
    In 1966, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine marked its 25th anniversary.
    I was 16 myself, and I found that impressive.
    In the years since, EQMM has gone through any number of changes in style and form, as the passage of time dictated.
    But during anniversary years, especially milestones like tenth-power years, EQMM has always celebrated its past history.
    The next issue of EQMM - January 2016 - will mark the beginning of the magazine's 75th Anniversary.
    If they follow their past performance, the whole year should be a series of special issues, celebrating the past and present - and the future. This is as it ought to be in all things.
    If it isn't ... we're in trouble.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!