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From Remotely, which will be published this month by Yale University Press.

We try to think of ourselves existing in history, like people waiting in line. More or less patient, but with our fingers crossed, trusting that someone will be in charge. That queue is scattered now; we are left in an unmapped zone where the facts are uncertain, and dreams struggle with numbness—isn’t that the mood of modern advertising? We would prefer to hold on to reliability. We would rather not worry, and we say that TV is there to take our minds off all the bad stuff. But we gave up on our contract to stay real or rational some time ago.

You may not remember this as an event; it happened too long ago. The risk or incursion was not much examined at the time, because the new toy then seemed trivial and warm-hearted. Uplifting even: endless hours of fun. I’m talking about 1945–50, the dawn of TV. You see, we let it in the house, we welcomed it in. This was moments after a war in which many homes were ripped apart beyond repair or belief. So much of our physical world had been demolished. It would seem a folly to rebuild. There was a bomb site in south London where our gang played, a ruined house. This was a couple of years into the peace. The house was fenced off, with warning signs telling us it was unsound. So we went in like rats and rascals—no one prevented it—and there was a dining room, still laid for a meal. With the dust of old food on the plates. Nothing had been done to repair it. If we looked up, there was a hole in the roof with birds fluttering at its ragged edge.

The old domestic order had been canceled. There was a legend of new bombs hovering over us, game changers before we understood how our lives had become as fleeting as a game. Wasn’t it playful then that we let this beast in, treating it as comic or benign, and found a place for it in what we called our living room? We were coming out of a dread of Gestapo knocking at the door. Knocking?—that’s too gentle; they tore doors off their hinges; they devoured whole villages. One thing about war is how it leaves you vulnerable in what you had regarded as home. Maybe television arrived to sabotage the theory and comfort of home. So we let it in. Without a thought. There was an episode of The Honeymooners in which Jackie Gleason brings a TV set home to please his wife. It was an ad for the whole enterprise.

Every day, we still let it in the house. It feels good to turn it on and have the light flood our darkness. Isn’t television a treasury, sitting patiently in what used to be our house? Like a hole in the roof. From the photograph onward, we have been so busy examining the styles and the genres of our imagery. But we must admit that, like lions on the veld seeking meat, we have got to have light.

We all have our favorites, the shows we delighted in and felt so transported by that we forgot some of our worries. Isn’t that what we mean by entertainment? And in the new millennium, there was this dawning of a fresh ambition in television—as if it knew we might be ready to concentrate. Because television was growing up. As if we believed we could save ourselves. Think of the excitement there was going from The Wire to Ozark. In Act IV of Henry V, the chorus asks, “Now entertain conjecture of a time/When creeping murmur and the poring dark/Fills the wide vessel of the universe.” It could be an airline commercial. Entertain. Don’t forget the idea of a screen being entered, a room beyond our room.

It’s the inhalation of an atmosphere. But this is more complicated than our sense of being lifted up in an adventure. The word “entertainment” seems to have originated in the sixteenth century to convey something amusing but also compelling. Even now, we suppose it takes our mind off sad things for an hour or two. But this usage surely derives from the richness of theater in that age. For the tiny portion of the population that had theaters to attend, the era of Shakespeare and the flourishing acting companies meant a marriage of poetry and the business of filling seats.

It was a business, and its operators, in 1600 or now, have been happy to treat it as a simple transaction: our fun, their money—granted how few people were involved in a culture that depended on live attendance. That system only deepened with the creation of the photograph. That was an industry and a new discourse that mined the lifelike, and it reached from a keepsake of a wife or a child that soldiers kept in their tunic pocket, to be treasured if they found themselves dying, to images of unknown chorus girls. Some soldiers kept both pictures, in separate pockets.

But the photograph was our first mass medium because it seemed open for everyone. That big concept revered the universality of those dead or alive but forever lifelike in a print. Those old photographs can be ravishing—they have enhanced the pathos of memory: look at the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron beholding the young actress Ellen Terry, or the wild-haired, wilder-eyed astronomer William Herschel, who named some moons of Uranus. Those two were famous portrait subjects, but the camera was startlingly egalitarian: it was a new way of recognizing a pauper beauty in the slums, or a nobleman in the cotton fields. Photographs were useful and inescapable tokens of life—nearly everyone was using them by 1900 in a steady, automatic way. We still trust them to establish identity. But they are phenomenal in quietly acting out the plan offered in several constitutions but seldom seen through to fruition—that we are all alike and equal, faces fit to be dreamed over.

I see twin possibilities: first that the entertainment in photographic discourse was easily monetized; and then that the precious slips of photo paper built an inventory of everyone, a culture of common virtue or vivacity that was entrancing. Some photographs may be better than others (like television shows), but they all share this mysterious allure: in giving us the lifelike they downplay life with an alternative. The photograph and its offspring let us think we had mastered life. But at the same time this surreal beast began to eat away at reality.

And we let this trick into the house, even if it has some qualities of an assassin. I do not use that last word lightly. If you want another example of what I am looking at—of why I am watching something I could not endure in life—notice that heavyset man over there, not quite brutish, but morose or sorrowful. He seems like a hulk with a hurt boy’s expression. He is a local chieftain presiding over a family business that sometimes kills other men and degrades women. Those are not habits we admire, but you feel sympathy just because he seems gloomy. He needs to see a shrink. We followed him for six years. Call him Tony Soprano. Some smart and lawful people say he and his show redeemed television.

Pros in that business ask why their trick ever needed to be redeemed when it had the world by the eyes and was making so much money. How could redemption match up to that? Are we still harking back to 1961 when Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, told a convention of broadcasters that television was often “a vast wasteland”? Wasn’t that like the president of Harvard warning the world to be wary of its graduates? Or like a pilot on the tarmac passing on a last hint to us passengers that we might be advised to disembark? Perhaps Tony Soprano was more disturbed than he knew—more than the show’s creator, David Chase, could have explained; more than James Gandolfini understood; and more than those who conspired in the dark glow of The Sopranos cared to think about. There has always been the possibility in moving-picture narratives that our feeling ignored, downtrodden, and unknown in life can be relieved by gaudy monsters who trash the self-important world. That is the song in The Sopranos, as it was in The Godfather. We let ourselves be entertained by this rueful portrait of a mobster who lacked confidence, and we chuckled at what a funny old life it was for us to be backing a gangster in our worldly way. These stories are urging us to be bigger than ourselves, to forget our smallness or vulgarity.

We feel we have a right to be pleased or consoled. That’s the insistence in advertising. Didn’t America come up with the best of all jingles—the one about the pursuit of happiness? That’s how a theory of entertainment comes into being. That’s why we were reckless in letting this medium in the house when we had a buried understanding that the forces involved—show business, government, and our feeble selves—reckoned that if the entertainment was novel enough then we would overlook how unsettled we were. The year 1945 was on an incline toward dismay and disintegration: the codes of progress and humanism had been dissolved, even if you felt the “right” side had won the war. So do not be overconfident about how we relax on our couch in the evening. It’s as if on a bad night in Eden, Adam, Eve, and the serpent chose to watch Candid Camera rather than listen to the Lord read his solemn riot act.

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July 2011

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