s w i t c h i n g o f f

990511.1904 gugh

over the last week i have watched some television broadcasts , having
previously seen none since arriving in the islands . i have sampled a range of programmes : news and current affairs , historical documentary , serial drama , mainstream comedy , off-beat comedy , advertisments . my primary response is of nervousness and distaste . i do not much like the society these products represent .

i have never invested a great deal of my time in television viewing . probably it reached a peak of fifteen hours a week in 1996 and fell away almost to nothing after that . but i have never so specifically avoided it as i have these last months . nor have i observed it with such a sense of critical detachment as i have this last week .

it is sobering for me to reflect how unquestioningly i viewed it in the past . from my earliest childhood the television set was there , situated at the focal point of successive sitting rooms . rooms symbolising familial privacy , security from the outside world , safety . in these rooms one’s behaviour was unguarded , trusting . and there , alongside my father’s , mother’s and sister’s voices were the multitude of other voices . each in its way as familiar as those of , well , my family .

of course i did not blindly accept all that those voices said , any more than i did what my parents said ( i was an impossible child ) . but i never questioned the act itself , the ritual of fixating on a bulging rectangle of glass , listening to the thin sound , reconstructing people and a world in my imagination . nor did i question how this act might over time be changing me . i was an intelligent child and i did not question these things . at university i studied critical theory and mass culture yet still i did not question these things . it took my relocation to a tiny island and an instinctive decision to fast from this habit before the questions became apparent . the experience is of a spell broken . i shall not see things the same way again .

what we have in our homes , wrapped in the innocent mantle of furniture , is a story-teller . one with the ability to bring numberless characters and scenes to life . traditionally we react differently to someone telling us a story than we do to a neighbour telling us his barn is afire and our help is needed . but the mechanical story-teller has overcome this boundary . by telling the same stories to enough people , by establishing shared familiarity with a range of characters , something is constructed which is able to pass as reality . of course we the audience are firmly in control , able to switch on and off , change channel at will . but in this relationship i wonder where the power really lies .

it is interesting . although my ethnography is expressly focused on this little community , i find myself reflecting quite as much on the world i left .

: cH

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