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Towards a culture of vision?

A communicative event such as television that has taken up so much of the leisure time of individuals in the modern age immediately poses the problem of its relationship with mass culture. It also poses the problem of its relationship with contemporary culture tout court, of which mass culture is not a deviation, some transitory outgrowth, but a fundamental aspect.

[…] A typical mass communication medium, TV must find its own cultural dimension within its own sphere: the maximum of taste realizable within the limits of a variety show constitutes a cultural event, whereas a dull visit to an Etruscan museum, made by passively filming a scholar describing the exhibits one by one as he strolls past, is an anticultural event par excellence. […]

Televisual communication: intimacy and isolation, passivity and critical reaction
In order to become a cultural experience, a communication requires a critical attitude, a clear awareness of the relationship under examination and the intention to benefit from that relationship. […] Instead, most psychological investigations of the way people watch television tend to define it as a particular type of reception in intimacy that is different from the critical intimacy of reading because it takes the form of a passive surrender, a form of hypnosis. […] In this type of passive reception the spectator is relaxed: […] this mental state of relaxation establishes a highly particular type of transaction in which people tend to attribute to the message the meaning that is subconsciously desired. Rather than hypnosis we might talk of self-hypnosis or projection. […] In 1959 they showed an episode of I figli di Medea, a show written by Vladimiro Cajoli, in which the play was interrupted by an announcement informing the audience that the son of the actress Alida Valli had been kidnapped by the actor Enrico Maria Salerno. Despite the unlikely nature of the news and even though the police inspector who promptly intervened was played by Tino Bianchi (an actor known to television audiences because he was a frequent presence in plays and variety shows), many viewers were alarmed and called the television station using the fictitious telephone numbers given by the pseudo-inspector.

An easy vehicle for false suggestion, television is also seen as a stimulus to false participation, a false sense of immediacy and a false sense of drama. The studio audience watching variety programmes and applauding to order (often substituted by recorded applause) effectively seems to suggest a non-existent social interaction while the aggressive presence of faces talking to us in close-up, in our homes, creates the illusion of a cordial relationship that doesn’t actually exist. […]

The constant shifting from recorded material to live programming (and the fact that much live material is carefully edited so as to leave nothing to chance) effectively creates a basically illusory impression of immediate participation in the event. […] When the trust of viewers is abused, they react violently: not long ago, in the United States, there was the episode of Charles Van Doren, the son of a noted literary critic, who after winning a popular quiz show, later confessed that the programme was fixed. The public’s indignant reaction revealed just how disappointed they felt after expending all that emotional energy on a non-existent drama. Van Doren could be forgiven for the financial scam, but not for the fake sweating in close-up, the frown and the trembling hands as he sat in the cabin.

All these remarks are undoubtedly valid, but they must be tempered with other observations. As for passive intimacy, it’s necessary for example to point out that the typical viewer is not always a solitary individual sitting in front of the television set in an empty house.

The typical viewer is sitting in a bar[1] or at home with the family, and the lights of the room aren’t always off. This means that the audience is not psychologically isolated and – unlike the cinema – when watching television, groups of viewers will exchange comments and observations. Often the situation, be it in a bar or in one’s own living room, involves the kind of coming and going that militates against any hypnosis. The exchange of comments exorcizes the spell of the image and represents, albeit in a rudimentary sense, a critical event. Current definitions of television as the “modern hearth and home” basically arise from this largely valid observation (the accusation levelled at TV, namely that it has killed conversation in the family, assumes highly optimistically that before TV families did nothing but converse amicably, rather than, say, seeing to the housework or reading the papers. When sitting around the television set, the nuclear family often demonstrates what is at least an apparent unity – even when merely arguing about the quality of a singer).

The illusion of social interaction does not annul a certain participation in an outside world that, for better or worse, we come to know. If for one evening the anxieties of the citizens of a small town in Piedmont taking part in a quiz show like Campanile sera become my anxieties too, then willy-nilly I have entered an elementary social dimension. As for the illusion of drama, the fact is that what TV viewers see parading before their eyes is the outside world, which may be dressed up as much as you like, but it is still the world that before TV they could have come into contact with (and only very occasionally) solely through vaguely evocative information gleaned from newspapers. For better or for worse, this volume of information about events broadens the range of my experience; it doesn’t form me, but it informs me, it gives me the sense of the effective presence of whatever it is I am being informed about. Broadcasts of a debate in parliament or of Princess Margaret’s wedding, even if edited, allow me to take part in something from which I would otherwise be excluded. They do not establish an authentic social relationship, but they do offer its preliminary elements.

It is true, however, that rather than providing me with an ordered knowledge of the environment in which I am personally integrated (which amounts to the cultural act par excellence), television offers me a jumble of disordered and fragmentary information about a world whose connection with me I find hard to identify.

At this point the problem of the psychological impact of television ends and that of its “cultural” efficacy begins. […]

 

Negative mythology
As soon as the discourse is shifted onto the cultural plane, the first classification to become necessary is that of television as mass medium. […]

Basically, the man seduced by the mass media is the most respected of all his fellows: no one ever asks him to become anything more than he already is. In other words, desires are aroused in him based on his tastes. Nonetheless, since one of the narcotic compensations he is entitled to is escape into daydream, he is usually presented with ideals that might establish a tension between them and himself. To relieve him of all responsibility television ensures that these ideals are in fact unattainable, in such a way that the tension is resolved in a form of projection and not in any operation that might affect the status quo. In short, he is asked to be a man with a fridge and a 21-inch television set, that’s to say he is asked to stay the way he is, with the addition of a fridge and a TV set. In return, Kirk Douglas or Superman are held up to him as ideals. The ideal presented to the mass media consumer is a superman he will never even think of becoming, but one he enjoys pretending to be in his fantasies, much in the way as we might put on someone else’s clothes for a few minutes in front of the mirror, without even thinking of possessing them one day.

The new situation television puts us in is this: TV does not offer superman as an ideal with whom we might wish to identify, but everyman. The model that television offers us is Mr Average. In the theatre, Juliette Greco appears on stage and immediately creates a myth and establishes a cult. Josephine Baker triggers idolatrous rituals and gives her name to an epoch. The magical face of Juliette Greco frequently appears on television, but no legend is born; she isn’t the idol, that role is reserved for the announcer who introduces her. And the best loved and most famous announcers are those ladies who best represent average characteristics: modest beauty, limited sex appeal, debatable taste and a certain homely inexpressiveness.

In the world of quantitative phenomena, the average represents a median; and for those who haven’t got that far, it represents a goal. According to the famous witticism, statistics is the science that says if a man eats two chickens every day and another man eats none, then those two men have eaten a chicken apiece. For the man who hasn’t eaten, half a chicken a day is a positive aspiration. Instead, in the world of quantitative phenomena, levelling down to the median is tantamount to levelling down to zero. A man who possesses all the moral and intellectual virtues to an average extent, immediately finds himself on a minimum level of evolution. The Aristotelian “mean” is equilibrium in the exercise of one’s passions, borne up by the discerning virtue of “prudence”. But harbouring average passions and exercising average prudence means being a poor specimen of humanity.

The most striking case of the reduction of the superman to everyman in Italy is to be found in Mike Bongiorno and the story of his fortunes. Idolized by millions of people, this man owes his success to the fact that every word uttered by his televisual persona oozes a total mediocrity allied to (and this is the only virtue he possesses an excess of) an immediate and spontaneous charm that can only be explained by the fact that he is devoid of any discernible artifice or theatrical pretence. It seems almost as if he is selling himself for what he really is – and what he is makes no viewers feel inferior, not even the biggest dope among them. Viewers see a portrait of their own limitations officially glorified and honoured by national authority.

 

The phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno
To understand the extraordinary power of Mike Bongiorno we must make an analysis of his behaviour, an authentic “phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno”, where by this I mean not the man himself but the television personality.

    • Mike Bongiorno is not particularly good looking, athletic, courageous or intelligent. Biologically speaking, he represents a modest degree of adaptation to the environment. The hysterical love accorded him by teenagers should be attributed partly to the maternal instincts he arouses in young girls and partly to the glimpse he affords them of an ideal boyfriend, docile and vulnerable, tender and kind.
    • Mike Bongiorno isn’t ashamed of being ignorant and feels no need to educate himself. He comes into contact with the dizzying heights of human knowledge and emerges virginally pure and unscathed, a comfort to all those who naturally tend towards apathy and mental laziness. He takes great care not to overawe viewers, not only by revealing his ignorance, but also through his stubborn determination not to learn anything.
    • On the other hand, Mike Bongiorno shows a sincere and primitive admiration for those who do know things. He stresses their physical diligence, memory and their obvious, elementary methodology: you become educated by reading lots of books and remembering what they say. He doesn’t have the slightest notion of the critical and creative function of culture since for him the sole criterion is merely quantitative. This being the case (as it is necessary to read many books for many years in order to be cultured), it’s natural that those with no inclination for this simply give up without even trying.
    • Mike Bongiorno professes a boundless respect for and faith in experts. Professors are learned persons who represent official culture, specialists whose competence must be deferred to.
    • Admiration for culture, however, comes when culture serves to make money. That’s when people discover that culture has its uses. The mediocre man refuses to learn for himself, but he will decide to have his children educated.
    • Mike Bongiorno has a petit bourgeois notion of money and its value (“You’ve already made 100,000 lire, now that’s a tidy sum!”).
    • Mike Bongiorno therefore anticipates, when talking to a contestant, the uncharitable thoughts that viewers at home will probably have: “Who knows how happy you are about winning all that money, you who have always lived on a modest salary! When did you ever get your hands on this much money before?”.
    • Like children, Mike Bongiorno divides people into categories and addresses them with comical deference (children say things like “Excuse me Mr Policeman…”) nonetheless using the most vulgar, often derogatory appellatives: “Mr Street Cleaner, Mr Farmworker”.
    • Mike Bongiorno accepts all the myths of the society he lives in: he kisses the hand of signora Balbiani d’Aramengo, a titled contestant, saying he does so because she is a countess.
    • As well as myths he accepts social conventions. He is paternal and condescending with the humble and deferential towards the socially eminent.
    • In dispensing money, but without openly saying so, he instinctively thinks more in terms of handouts than of deserved reward. He shows he believes that, in the dialectics of class, the only means of upward social mobility is represented by Providence (which may occasionally take on the aspect of Television).
    • Mike Bongiorno speaks basic Italian. His speech is of the maximum simplicity. He does away with the subjunctive and subordinate clauses and almost manages to make the syntactical dimension invisible. He avoids pronouns, always repeats the subject in full, uses an enormous number of full stops, never ventures an aside or a parenthetical remark, uses no elliptical expressions or allusions and no metaphors that aren’t already part of the everyday lexicon. His language is strictly referential and would be the joy of neopositivists. You don’t need to make any effort to understand him. Any viewer can see, should the need arise, that he could be more eloquent than Mike.
    • He doesn’t accept the idea that there can be more than one answer to a question. He looks on variations with suspicion. Nabucco and Nabucodonosor are not the same thing. He reacts to data like a computer, because he is firmly convinced that A equals A and that tertium non datur. An Aristotelian by default, his theory of education is consequently conservative, paternalistic and reactionary.
    • Mike Bongiorno is devoid of a sense of humour. He laughs because he is happy with reality, not because he is able to deform it. The nature of paradox eludes him and, if anyone uses it in his presence, he repeats it with an amused air and shakes his head to imply that his interlocutor is likeable but quaintly eccentric. He refuses to suspect that a paradox conceals a truth and in any event he doesn’t consider it a legitimate means of expressing an opinion.
    • Mike Bongiorno avoids debate, even on permissible topics. He never fails to inform himself about the oddities of knowledge (a new school of painting, an abstruse discipline… “Tell me, there’s so much talk today about this Futurism. What is this Futurism, exactly?”). On receiving the explanation, he doesn’t try to go any deeper into the matter, but lets it be understood that he is in polite, right-thinking disagreement. He does, however, respect the opinions of others, not out of any ideological consideration but out of a lack of interest.
    • Of all the possible questions on any argument he chooses the one that would be the first to come to anyone’s mind, and that half of the viewers would immediately dismiss because too banal: “What does that picture mean?”. “How come you chose a hobby so different from your work?”. “What made you think of studying philosophy?”.
    • He brings clichés to their extreme consequences. A convent-school girl is virtuous, a girl with coloured stockings and a ponytail is a “kook”. He asks the former if she, such a respectable girl, would like to be like the latter. When he is told that this is offensive, he consoles the second girl by highlighting her physical superiority thereby humiliating the convent-school girl. In this giddy series of clangers he doesn’t even attempt to use circumlocution: circumlocution is already a sign of wit and wit belongs to a Viconian cycle that is beyond his ken. For him, as we have said, all things have one and only one name, rhetorical artifice is a sham. Basically, gaffes always spring from an undisguised act of sincerity; when the sincerity is deliberate it is not a gaffe but a challenge and a provocation. The gaffe (and Bongiorno is a master of this, according to critics and viewers alike) arises when the sincerity is unwitting and thoughtless. The more mediocre a man is, the clumsier he is. Mike Bongiorno offers consolation to such men by elevating the gaffe to the dignity of a rhetorical figure, of an etiquette approved by the broadcaster and the national audience.
    • Mike Bongiorno rejoices sincerely with the winner because he respects success. Although politely uninterested in the loser, he may be moved if that person is in some kind of serious trouble. This may prompt him to organize some charitable event, after which he will share his obvious satisfaction with the audience. Then he moves on to other matters, comforted by the existence of the best of all possible worlds. He is quite unaware of the tragic dimension of life.
    • Through his own triumphal example Mike Bongiorno therefore convinces the audience of the value of mediocrity. He causes no inferiority complexes even though he poses as an idol, and the public repays him with their gratitude and love. He represents an ideal that no one need attempt to emulate because everyone is already on his level. No religion has ever been so indulgent with its faithful. He says to his worshippers: you are God, stay just the way you are […].

 

Average tastes and the illusion of ratings
Mike Bongiorno serves as an emblem of a typical situation in television as a mass medium: produced by a culture industry subject to the law of supply and demand, a mass medium tends to favour average tastes and tries to establish them statistically. American television, which operates under free market principles, satisfies this need through the ratings system. This is a statistical study, implemented by various means, aimed at determining which sections of the public follow a certain programme and how that show is received. The companies that commission the ratings have a quasi-religious faith in them and the extent of their financial participation in a given programme depends on what the ratings say.

Sometimes the figures are scientifically airtight given the massive dimensions of certain audience figures. In the Chicago area every Thursday evening at a certain hour the water pressure verified by the headquarters of the Chicago Department of Water would register a sudden and remarkable drop for a few moments, as if in every house in the city people had turned on the kitchen and bathroom taps all at the same time. And this was indeed the case: it proved possible to verify that the phenomenon was repeated every week the very moment a highly successful TV show came to an end. In that moment most of the citizens, who had been sitting hypnotised in front of the television set, would get up as soon as the commercials signalled the end of the show and go for a drink of water, make coffee or wash up for the evening. But such macroscopic cases are rare, and the usual statistics are far more random.

The means used for the survey range from surprise phone calls to hundreds of viewers chosen at random from the telephone directory – a method also used by Rai TV in Italy – to meters fitted to the TV set to verify which channels, and at what time, are chosen with the greatest frequency over one week […].

A programme made for teenagers keeps to the idea of a model teenager, the kind you would want as the ideal target for the product advertised. Rather than viewers modifying the taste of the programme, it is an unconscious cultural policy that determines who the viewers will be.

In this way television appears as the typical instrument of a hetero-directed individualistic society, in other words, an efficient tool for pacification and control, a guarantee of the preservation of the established order through the constant airing of those opinions and those average tastes that the ruling class deems more suitable to maintaining the status quo […]

In a totalitarian society, while there are clear means of persuasion and propaganda, these tend towards the direct inculcation of the prevailing ideology, without any fear of a problematic approach: people are obliged to think, to meditate – in dogmatic terms – on the principles that regulate society itself.

In a civilization where respect for individual autonomy is a declared principle and the multiplicity of opinions is an article of faith, and in which, however, economic requirements dictate that opinion should be covertly manipulated, the culture industry uses the techniques of commercial persuasion to offer the public its implicit and facile worldview. But rather than give people what they want, it suggests what they should want, or should believe they want.

If this were not the case, it would be hard to explain – in countries where television is not subject to free competition – why television, which is run by people who are relatively aware of cultural realities, does not use its monopoly to oblige the public to accept a critical view of values. […]

 

TV can determine public tastes
Television knows it can control public tastes without needing to slavishly comply with them. Where there is free competition it certainly does conform to a law of supply and demand – not in the public interest, but in that of its clients. It educates the public in accordance with the intentions of its own clients. And where there is a monopoly it conforms to the law of supply and demand as dictated by the party in power.

Naturally this alienation is not total. Precisely because it knows it can orient viewers, television employs its ablest talent to try to do this, both in Italy and elsewhere, because there are sectors in which a certain cultural policy does not clash with the needs of those who control the medium. This is why in Italy we have witnessed praiseworthy efforts in the popularization of theatrical classics and melodrama and an improvement in the level of light music, while few (albeit occasionally important) attempts have been made to improve the public’s knowledge of history and society or to promote free debate.

Examples of the medium’s initiative regarding the needs of the public are legion; this one is minimal, but it’s highly significant for that very reason. Until about 1956 Italian popular music was averagely deplorable; contemporary production had not gone beyond the mawkish sentimentalism of the pre-war years, which had given us the likes of Mamma and Villa triste: poor imitations of D’Annunzio or De Amicis, poor melodic invention and a total indifference to the evolution of popular music in Anglo-American countries (enlivened by jazz, rhythmically and harmoniously very mature and refined) or the old tradition of French song (with a wealth of excellent lyrics and energized by dramatic élan and unconventional themes). As soon as television began to produce variety and light music shows, after some unhappy attempts, it was immediately scolded for not featuring a variety of traditional crooners as often as radio had done.

In the interests of programming (and thanks to the good taste of some executives working in that sector, especially in the Milan studios), television introduced the public to the stars of French music and other foreign artists. In 1955 and 1956 stations were bombarded by thousands of angry callers (some even made costly long distance calls in the middle of variety shows) demanding an end to this barbaric yowling in foreign languages and calling for Neapolitan melodies. For two or three years the Italian public was obliged reluctantly to put up with Juliette Greco and Gilbert Bécaud, Yves Montand or Georges Ulmer, the Peters Sisters and June Richmond. Then between 1957 and 1958 there were two booms: Domenico Modugno scored a massive hit with Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare, a song that broke the rules of conventional melodicism and dealt with neither love nor la mamma) and stormed the stronghold of San Remo, the home of reactionary music. Bars all over Italy were invaded by juke-boxes in which the hits were sung by unknown youngsters like Tony Dallara and Betty Curtis and by American stars like the Platters, all manifestations of a more refined musical taste, an attention to new and unusual rhythmic values, and even a search for sophisticated sounds. […]

TV’s role in this evolving musical sensibility was undoubted. Radio struggled to adjust to the situation and in any case tended to follow television’s lead. More or less the same thing happened with magazine programmes: experiments made between 1954 and 1955 (Paese che vai, Ecco lo sport, Anche oggi è domenica) were depressingly banal and vulgar. When similar shows were attempted, midway between undergraduate humour and intellectualism, with Telecipede and ok TV, the reactions of public and press alike were exaggeratedly outraged. True, the experiments were unsuccessful, but at bottom audiences were reacting against a formula that required them to adopt new habits, new tastes in humour.

After some hesitant attempts to change the standard format, new formulas were wisely implemented thanks to a comedy duo (Ugo Tognazzi and Raimondo Vianello and their quickfire sketches, based on paradox and snappy, mordant satire – with a touch of surrealism). Then, in the space of three years, Vittorio Gassman’s Il mattatore brought a new kind of humour that was widely accepted by viewers. With reservations and perplexities, of course, it was necessary to continue. But Gassman’s formula called for something dangerous in exchange: a licence to satirize. And so the magazine programme returned to a limbo of uncertainty […].

Once television recognized its potential to influence viewers’ reactions, it could try not only to promote more refined tastes, but also to propose a more profound human dimension. The ideal instrument for this is the theatre. Here the programme planners found themselves faced with a choice between modern theatre – compromising in all respects – and classical theatre. The classical theatre option was the more difficult as far as audience reactions go, but the easier one when it comes to problems of censorship, be it self-imposed or from outside. The Threepenny Opera is fun but foments disorder; Oedipus Rex may seem boring but it’s harmless, because incest is treated in the respectful way we all know. Having gone for the classics, television discovered its enormous power to raise the average intellectual level: anyone who saw the people thronging cafes and bars to watch a great actor interpret the story of Oedipus could understand how television can convince even the most hidebound of philistines that Art is ultimately a beautiful and pleasant thing.

Now we have to ask ourselves whether an audience engrossed in the pity and terror of Oedipus and the melancholy defeat of Uncle Vanya might not reveal an unsuspected ability to engage with a Brecht play, The Diary of Anne Frank, or Dessì’s La Giustizia. […] And finally even the history of our motherland, a “bore” by definition, had the entire nation rapt thanks to a programme called Cinquant’anni di storia italiana. The history of this programme was long and troubled. Conceived in 1956, it was put together with impartial rigour by a young and confident team who uncovered uncommon documents and used the power of visual data to take a fresh look at people and events from an unusual slant. The programme was then gradually delayed, cut and sugar-coated until it resembled a masterly example of compromise and the quiet life. And yet, even in this form, it aroused the interest of the younger generations and, in a country that all too often fell back on a passive acceptance of its past, it triggered a debate that called old problems into question once more […].

 

TV can stimulate debate
Television can use all the prestige of the image and the power of its presence in people’s homes to propose contemporary problems, finding an audience that is receptive precisely because it is initially passive and prepared to accept whatever the magic box offers. If viewers were prepared to follow with interest a show devoid of any ideological orientation such as Giovani d’oggi (“Youth Today”, which nonetheless had the merit of presenting real people talking about real contemporary issues), how closely would they follow an inquiry into live coverage of striking workers in Italy or the real conditions of life in Russia, a no holds barred debate, a violent, immediate, exposé of the personalities and events of contemporary life, from the Hungarian uprising of 1956 to the Algerian torture trials and the problem of Sicilian-American undesirables?

When a programme for young people, Orizzonte (1955-56), with a prudent approach and limited resources, attempted to discuss current affairs simply by publishing them along with a photograph week by week (something the TV news didn’t do), youth audience figures testified to unexpected interest.

It was one of the few programmes in which television seemed able to promote a trend toward criticism of the national narrative. Hypnotic as viewing can be, when the hypnosis is disturbed by the violent irruption of reality and a call for judgement, even if only implicit, the critical spirit is aroused and the televisual communication can lead to a responsible awareness. Those who out of laziness do not read the papers and know nothing of the important news will, out of that same laziness, open their eyes to the grand theatre of the world that the TV offers them. And opening the eyes is a primary cultural operation.

Commentary on political events presented by famous journalists is not enough to stimulate a critical attitude, but it does represent a positive factor given that it accustoms viewers to think about things. Nonetheless the presence of a likeable talking head, whose spontaneity and frankness are made obvious by uninhibited habits such as twirling a pencil between the fingers constitutes a form of psychological trickery. Viewers are unlikely to disagree with opinions expressed with so much clarity, which allows them at last to interpret events they had previously found obscure. And since this charm is an element that is hard to eliminate, the only solution lies in offering viewers equally appealing presenters from differing parts of the political spectrum. This factor, which is implemented almost automatically in a group of television stations operating in a regime of free competition, could easily be implemented in a monopolist system that, precisely because of its neutrality, may become not so much a pulpit as a “parade” that provides a clear picture of the national situation.

Since the average person tends to avoid facing problems, one irreplaceable function of television could be to bring those issues right into their living rooms, in all their violence. […]

In this sense, Tribuna elettorale constituted an exemplary programme. And it’s no good objecting that public interest was not aroused by ideological debate but by various forms of psychological suggestion and demagogical showbiz techniques. […] Despite all its defects, American television often manages to perform this duty. On the occasion of the U2 affair and the failure of the summit, Channel 9 broadcast a debate – improvised at the last minute – with five or six journalists from various camps. The American government was almost unanimously accused and Eisenhower, who had come back home to seek the solidarity of his fellow citizens, was held up to public censure. A television that – even if out of “journalistic” spirit – performs this function of constantly correcting the official line, and in any case offers polemical alternatives, is worthy of attentive study.

In this sense Italian television seems to dread any excessive commitment, out of a misplaced fear of disturbing its own audience, whereas it is not the least embarrassed to show them public inaugurations and talks about the workplace that have been completely purged of any connection with concrete reality. There is a continual tendency to present the human situation in sentimentalist terms that would put even De Amicis to shame, so that the solution follows immediately leaving no awkward traces.

Questioning and posing problems basically responds to profound psychological needs: deliberately raising only those problems susceptible of easy solutions is one of the most convenient ways of checking the uncontrolled reactions of the masses.

Reactions to a programme that doesn’t end with an exclamation but with a question are different. But television has never given us elements that allow us to say what this reaction might be, exactly.

 

TV causes a decline in reading for pleasure
The last question about the relationship between television and the public would concern the influence of TV shows on reading habits. However, it suffices to reveal how, even from this standpoint, it’s not television per se but a particular use of it that can make it a culturally negative element. In other words, it’s legitimate to think that television doesn’t discourage people from reading except in those cases where people don’t read to improve themselves but merely for entertainment. […] . Except for cases of political weeklies, the singular fact is that no truly important magazine has appeared in recent years, whereas we have witnessed a blossoming of “monographic” magazines, from the geography instalments in Il Milione to Natura viva, Storia illustrata, Historia, and the plentiful series of their spin-offs. At the same time attempts have been made to create a highbrow magazine format, on the lines of Espresso mese. Television, therefore, seems to have stopped superficial readers from reading a series of superficial productions, without undermining the authority of the daily papers, but prompting them to become more “visual” and look more like the glossies (see the phenomenon of Il Giorno).

As for books, substantial statistics should tell us how much success is enjoyed by publishers (and there are lots of them, often in competition) who make new editions of famous works when televised versions of them come out.

Another problem, not studied enough until now, even though some literature on the subject has already appeared, concerns the influence of television in underdeveloped areas. […]

 

Limitations and possibilities
What has been said so far permits us to conclude that television can offer us effective possibilities for “culture”, understood as a critical relationship with the environment. Television will be an element of culture for citizens of underdeveloped areas by leading them to a knowledge of the national situation and the “global” dimension, and it will be an element of culture for average citizens in an industrial zone by acting as an element of “provocation” with regard to their passive tendencies. Recognizing the cultural possibilities implicit even in a good light music programme or a fashion show and understanding the need to ally them with television’s function as a means of raising public awareness and stimulating the national conversation is the task facing people of culture regarding the new medium. […]

In asking television to actively stimulate opinion we can legitimately bear in mind its limitations as a medium at the disposal of the entire community and the TV set in the living room as the focus of family life. The condition of this instrument of communication, which has the widest and most differentiated audience of all because it addresses everyone, even those who don’t read the papers, even children who read nothing at all, is decidedly singular. The justification of the television executive who often says “But children should be able to watch TV, too…” smacks of hypocrisy, but it’s absolutely true. Anyone who reads the American code of practice for television […] will find a monument to caution, a detailed prudence worthy of a Counter Reformation casuist. By holding to that code, any transmission might appear offensive to some category of citizens or children. Yet it’s not possible not to consent to each of its articles, taken one by one. Yet again, we are faced with a problem of equilibrium. We should remember that there is a way of respecting the innocence of children that can lead us to letting them down. It was respect for children that led the older generations to avoid telling them the truth about procreation, thereby creating an army of sexually maladjusted persons open to all kinds of neuroses.

These strike me as the limitations and possibilities of television. Venturing any prediction is very difficult. […] Maybe we are living in a heroic age and one day the barbarisms of programmes like Il Musichiere or Campanile sera will look like lost aspects of a happy time in the early days of telecommunications in which everything was of epic dimensions and ministers opened construction sites with a “moved and perturbed soul”. Who knows?

In Robert Sheckley’s science-fiction novel, Timekiller, Thomas Blaine, catapulted into the future, acquires a device that when applied to the temples gives rise to fantastic visions in which the viewer finds himself directly immersed. According to the story, these devices are an integral part of life in 2110, omnipresent and popular as television had been in Blaine’s day. Of course, some people are against these devices, deploring the increasingly passive state viewers are reduced to. On reading a book or watching television, these critics say, viewers must make an effort in order to participate. But these sensorial devices take viewers over completely: vivid, brilliant and insidious, they leave them with the impression, once reserved only for schizophrenics, that dreams are better than life… Within one generation, the critics thunder, people will no longer be able to read, think or act.

Perhaps television is leading us only to a new culture of vision like that of Medieval man standing before the portals of the cathedral. […]

But the language of the image has always been the instrument of paternalistic societies that wish to influence people by depriving them of any concrete “icon” and therefore making it harder for them to reason clearly on the messages they receive. And behind the manipulation of a language of images there has always been an elite of cultural strategists raised on the written symbol and the abstract notion. Democratic culture will save itself only if it uses the language of image as a means of encouraging critical reflection and not as an invitation to hypnosis.

 

[1] Readers should bear in mind that, in the years when Eco wrote this essay, many Italians did not yet have television at home and therefore went to bars or cafes to watch it.

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