Banality and Anxiety

Michael Mason

  • Thirty Seconds by Michael Arlen
    Farrar, Straus/Faber, 211 pp, £5.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 374 27576 9
  • The Crystal Bucket by Clive James
    Cape, 238 pp, £6.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 224 01890 6
  • The Message of Television by Roger Silverstone
    Heinemann, 248 pp, £14.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 435 82825 8

It is common knowledge that British publishing is in the doldrums. This is generally thought of as a temporary state of affairs, but it is conceivable that something irreversible is taking place. Today’s new wisdom about publishing may become as enduring, familiar and dispiriting as the truism of the decline of British cinema. That decline had much to do with television. Book publishing has seemed, hitherto, robust on this flank. The industry prospered in the 1960s, when television was completing its conquest of film in Britain. Books and television do not compete for the same ground, it might be said. In particular, there is a difference in respect of cultural quality between their undertakings. Books can be learned, beautiful, experimental, mentally searching, subversive and fanciful to an extent that television very seldom permits itself to be. Television is almost always banal.

This is what makes these three books about the medium a little ominous as tokens of the relative strengths of publishing and broadcasting. Each of them is a bookish book in its way. One is academic. One is by a very literary-minded critic (and draws its title from a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh). One is a piece of vivid journalism recognisably in the tradition of Norman Mailer and other modern American writers. All these books are from literary stables. Michael Arlen’s first appeared in the New Yorker, and comes to the British reader via two very respected publishing houses (Fabers, incidentally, are apparently issuing the American edition with its original binding and title-page, without their own imprint: a direct expression of the financial discomforts of the industry in Britain.) But they all centre their attention on what is least bookish in television. They don’t only recognise the banality of the medium: they embrace it. This no doubt has many explanations in addition to a loss of nerve on the bookish side of the question. Banality has been the theme of some prestigious literary utterances in our culture, some of them directly ancestral to the books under review (Roger Silverstone, for example, frequently acknowledges Roland Barthes on fashion). It is striking nonetheless that only one of them, Michael Arlen’s Thirty Seconds, shows an inclination to regret the fact that intellectual and artistic adventurousness is habitually thwarted in television.

More precisely, his book suggests that the adventurousness is available, at work even, in something as staple as television advertising, but diverted and concealed in the outcome. Thirty Seconds recounts step by step the extraordinarily laborious sequence of activity required for the production of a half-minute commercial for an American telephone company. The extreme disproportion between the effort of the making, and the ephemerality of the result, is an equivocal matter, like much that Arlen notices. It betokens at once a cynical determination to get the maximum charge from every affective aspect of the brief film (music, decor, people, animals, costume), and at the same time a certain disinterested perfectionism on the part of the film’s makers. When the film is finished, after six months’ hard work, a vice-president of American Telephone and Telegraph runs it through just once. ‘Fine’ and ‘a bit heavy on the red’ are the only comments he offers. And that is appropriate in its way, it appears, because much of the detail of the direction, ‘the props and extras and atmosphere that were thought up and assembled and arranged and rearranged with so much trouble’, is not actually legible in the series of small, fleeting images which results.

This is an interesting, teasing complication in a story about our popular culture which keeps raising puzzles of this sort. But on the whole it is a bleak, if uncomfortably amusing story. The television commercial in question has only one purpose: to persuade more people to make long-distance telephone calls. In pursuing this aim, it mangles everything in its path, including the English language: ‘so what we try to do is keep the obligation level very light, and, of course, artistic, and relate it to an upbeat, positive theme.’ The structure of the half-minute film is a series of short takes of people making telephone calls, accompanied simply by a song (thus keeping the obligation level very light). The callers have generally just won something – a race, a tap-dancing contest etc – which is presumably the upbeat, positive theme. Drinking and sex are downbeat and illegal. The hockey-player who is having champagne poured over his head is forbidden to lick any of it. The girl in the yoga scene must not show her nipples.

It is the drearily affirmative spirit of the thing, the spirit of Babbitt and boosting, which is the hardest to take. The actors and others involved in making the commercial seem subdued to Babbittry even when released from work. They have the peculiarly American way of achieving a ‘positive’, even idealistic-sounding, account of their personal lives through an unconscious negativity and coldness about ideals: ‘Temperamentally, I’m very well adjusted to the creative side.’ Or: ‘I won’t do everything. I won’t do those brutal pesticides that poison the environment, and I won’t do douches. I mean, as you work your way up in the profession, you begin to set certain standards for yourself.’ There is something melancholy at the heart of these utterances. They are the affirmation of rejection, of compromise, but such is the logic of boosting. Advertising has done extensive harm to American culture. Arlen’s book suggests it has also damaged the souls of Americans.

This is, at any rate, the impression British readers are likely to get. The author is closer to his subject than they are, and probably has more complicated and ambivalent feelings. It is the Maileresque tendency of the book, anyway, to open itself towards, to harmonise with, its strange subject-matter: using extensive transcriptions of people talking, and richly detailed blocks of descriptive writing. Mr Arlen’s long sentences and unexpected stylistic discords do not quite secure the full Mailer effect, however. He has Mailer’s way of taking interesting linguistic risks, but not his way of outrageously surviving them.

Clive James writes wonderfully well, of course. He is one of the most remarkable figures in British cultural life at the moment: a poet and gifted literary critic who is also genuinely liked by the mass audience. In crossing the border-posts in our culture he does not even need to disguise himself, it seems. There are allusions in this new selection of his television criticism to Walter Pater, Keats, Saul Bellow and John Donne – consorting with boisterous jokes about the crushed budgerigars composing J.R.’s hatband.

James goes as far as it is possible to go towards miscegenating Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, and The John Curry Spectacular. Even he cannot blink the dullness of television, however. He seeks to pay compliments to soap operas and spectaculars, and curls his lip at avant-gardism, and programmes which ‘Explore the Medium’. But a defensive note comes in: ATV’s Jesus of Nazareth is ‘not all that dire’; Washington: Behind Closed Doors is ‘not entirely to be despised’. This is distinctly the language of the literary-minded Clive James, not of the man in the saloon bar. It is a peculiarity of television criticism that it appears post facto, and therefore is used by the reader either as something to check his own response against, or as a substitute for seeing the programme itself. For the second of these purposes James is the best critic we have, because his verbal gifts so often yield an object which is more skilful and interesting than the one he is writing about.

That we also like to read television criticism to see if we agree with it – so that, in James’s words, ‘everybody is a television critic’ – is the kind of fact which has impressed Roger Silverstone. As he rightly says, television ‘is involved in the very life-blood of contemporary culture’, and it is important that people should ask what the consequences of this involvement are. The main trouble with his book is that he leaps straight to a general type of answer, of very doubtful correctness. His way of reformulating the question about the role of television is to ask: ‘What is the message of television?’ But why must the answer involve a ‘message’ at all? The man in the saloon bar would find the suggestion unintelligible.

Mr Silverstone makes his very big assumption because he believes in structuralism, a line of thought which is currently creating a great deal of mystification, but which is essentially quite simple. The origins of structuralism lie in an inference drawn by linguists from the fact that words are connected with their meanings as a matter of convention and not, or only rarely and tenuously, by any kind of resemblance. The inference drawn was that a word could not possess meaning unless there also existed other words with different meanings, the whole constituting a language. As an inference from the conventional character of meaning, this may not be very secure, but the idea that words generally could not function without the existence of other words to which they have a recognised relationship is intuitively extremely plausible – so much so that it is hard to think how an alternative view would be stated.

The difficulties about structuralism arise when this idea about language is applied in other contexts. Mr Silverstone sees some of the problems, and it is a merit of his book that it is intellectually rigorous enough to mention them. But his commitment to the general possibility of talking about television as if it were like language, and ‘said’ things, is overriding. His idea of an adequate clearing of the ground for the application of structuralist ideas to television amounts to listing and bringing into a shadowy kind of coherence the statements of a large number of structuralist-minded commentators on human culture. That the very terms of the discussion may be inappropriate he does not acknowledge.

The result is a book which will strike the unbiased reader as topsy-turvy. The right way to proceed would have been to take a piece of television, and see if an adequate account could be given of it which exposed stable, systematic relationships between its elements. Then the question could be put, whether these relationships conferred meaning in a way analogous to linguistic meaning. Mr Silverstone does eventually look closely at a piece of television (the 13-part LWT serial about suburban family-life, Intimate Strangers), but the presumption that it will have a ‘message’ is already made.

The best approach to the book is to go straight to the quite brief part of it which discusses Intimate Strangers, and assess how convincing this is. Mr Silverstone has spotted some patterns in the narrative which lead him to interpret it as advocating ‘withdrawal, a withdrawal above all from the extremes of city and garden, a withdrawal from nature and from supernature’. It is not clear why the same patterning shouldn’t carry exactly the opposite message (for the assumption is arbitrarily made that the force of the narrative will be an encouragement rather than an admonition), but prior to this is the problem of the categories used: ‘nature’, ‘supernature’, and so forth. These appeal to Mr Silverstone because he is influenced by a school which has a strong circumstantial association with structuralism: the anthropological school of Lévi-Strauss.

Some of the most unsatisfactory parts of his book are those in which he tries to connect the role of myth in primitive societies with that of television in our contemporary one. In some fudging paragraphs the connection is achieved by calling myth ‘transitional’: between cultural stages anthropologically, and currently between ‘specialised knowledge’ (aesthetics, science, politics) and ‘the nonsensical’. Without wishing to make a glib point, it must be said that this stuff reads like the bad kind of medieval theology: concepts are manoeuvred in relation to each other in a fashion that is wholly ungripping because they don’t seem to contain anything, and the outcome is easily foreseen. Mr Silverstone appears to be saying that television gives us a somehow unconscious acquaintance with areas of experience which we do not feel inquisitive about: ‘we may not, as individuals, be particularly anxious about problems of science or aesthetics on the one hand, or of life, death and identity on the other, but our culture, like any other, is.’ This at once sensationally underrates and overrates the banality of television. A lot of people are anxious about science, and they require and receive explicit information about it from their television sets. I doubt whether Mr Silverstone is always free from anxiety about life and death, and gets much help from television when he isn’t.