by Grenzfurthner

In the 1970s Raymond Williams postulated that the real innovation of television is television itself. He supported this argument by looking at the way in which a TV broadcast constitutes itself. It consists of a sequence of segments, blocks, parts. A normal evening of TV watching strings together multiple series that are already structured in themselves: commercial interruptions which are themselves interrupted, newscasts with their own specific formatting, announcements, films with their structure and cutting techniques, and so on. Williams calls this the “flow”. What was new about the TV medium was not the content (which is actually to be found in theater and other forms of presentation) but the form. It enables the viewer to let himself or herself be carried along. Spontaneity gives rise to relaxation. What is interesting is letting it all flow by, letting it happen.

It is not all too long ago that 24-hour-a-day broadcasting was something unknown in Central Europe. Sometime after the last talk show, the late film or the news came the inevitable nightly signoff. Snow. I remember from my childhood how that was a moment of terrifying stillness and clarity. It is no coincidence that in the film “Poltergeist” from the early 80s Tobe Hooper used just this phenomenon as something calculated to give one the creeps. After the American national anthem the broadcast is over; the snowstorm sets in. And it doesn’t take long for the eerie voices of the damned to start calling out of the hypnotic blizzard. It seems as if we would like to ban this snow from our world.

Nonstop broadcasting leaves no time for snow, which is known as thermal noise in technical parlance. Test patterns are also passé (much to the annoyance of many TV repairmen, I’ve heard). Even in cases where a gaze into the snow seems almost unavoidable – when using a video recorder, for instance – the phenomenon is foiled again. Modern television sets recognize thermal noise and replace it with a static blue screen. A heavy Williamsian blanket, not of snow, but of warm and cozy continuity, descends over the TV landscape. The terrible stillness of the blast of wintry cold after signoff? Ha! That’s how it used to be. But let’s leave it at that. We don’t want this turning into a sentimental “Save the Test Pattern” campaign.

Against the structure of television – to put it bluntly – I am going to posit snow, i.e. noise. It is the real specific characteristic of the TV medium. The acceptance of noise as a universal form of communication and as a media-specific characteristic does not mean seeing noise as null information, but as metainformation.

It is the same in information theory, where noise represents the maximum value of null information, which at the same time is undecidable from the opposite pole of absolute information (which theoretically would avoid all redundancy). Thus both information theory and television work with redundancy, on the one hand in order to make possible any sort of communication or broadcast at all, and on the other hand in order to suppress noise as the fundamental frequency of our interaction.

The television image is unthinkable without noise (snow): firstly, noise is the result of the carrier frequency by which the visual signal reaches the receiver; secondly, the deluge of broadcast images tends to cause itself to devolve into noise in the receiving consciousness. Noise frames the television image on both the sending and the receiving end. The television image appears only as a coded overlay, as an image signal on this side of noise. In this sense watching TV means entering into a twofold battle against noise. One that is immediately technical and can be read against the history of broadcast and equipment norms, and one that is mediately technical and relates both to the way in which the images are produced and to the adaptation of human subjectivization strategies: technology, aesthetics and the human sciences, i.e. work, language and life, give rise in varying degrees to the social production of television. Under a paradoxical universal conception, which is reminiscent of the milling mass of cells in the interior of organic matter, the social production (or the production of society) that is television represses noise: mass communication.

On the concept of communication, Michel Serres writes: “Maintaining a dialog means postulating a Third and attempting to exclude him. Successful communication is the successful exclusion of this Third. At another point we have referred to this Third as the demon, personified noise.” Wherefrom the conclusion can be drawn that noise makes its entrance on television when communication fails (admittedly this happens rather rarely) or when communication is noncommunication as in the case of the countless talk shows: there drama and conflict – in other words the affect, the noise – dominate the landscape.

Obviously television must repress noise, since as an optical medium it operates with the imaginary, not with the real, which is noise. The dialectic noise that arises in the noncommunication of the talk show reveals the necessity of the demonic to facilitate the producer’s desired perception of the medium. Because communication via TV screen only allows an abstract form of exchange, its receivers must revert to religious habits in their interaction with television. The highest authority in this new religious universality is no longer defined as that which is all-seeing, but that which is seen by all. Salvation, previously the result of my fear and His mercy, today derives from my zap and Its – television’s, that is – predictability. It is reciprocative previsibility that bridges the unbridgeable and allows mass communication to function. The “conflicts” of talk shows are embedded in this context of salvation in that they are accorded the role of the demonic-real in the imaginary, of the noise in the medium. It is obvious that the decisive dialog in watching a talk show does not take place between the debating individuals in the studio, but between the moderator and the viewer. The talk show guest is precisely the Third that must be excluded in order for communication via cathode-ray tube to succeed. In their virtual embrace, the sender-receiver pair ensure their place high and dry on the Ark and above the talk guest (You’ve pitched your tent on low ground, buddy!), while from the distance comes the rushing noise of the rising floodwaters.

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