Watch What You Watch

'The response to television may be fairly described as passive . . . . Television is a communication medium that effortlessly transmits huge quantities of information not thought about at the time of exposure.' ~ Herbert Krugman (1969), quoted in Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television

We imagine ourselves to be independent units, standing somehow apart from 'nature' and from each other. But that's just our pride talking. Such independence is an illusion. Actually each of us is simply a momentary incarnation of matter and energy, a moment in the flow of time. Special? Yes. Unique? Of course. But not separate ' a part of nature, not apart from it.

Newton taught us of the conservation of energy, and Einstein taught us that energy and matter are, in essence, the same, are interchangeable. We are merely a specific and fleetingly temporary organization of matter and energy ' the same matter and energy that has existed since time began. This corporeal thing that we call ourselves, this incarnation of spirit, depends upon a constant, never-ending flow of matter and energy. When that flow stops, 'we' die, and the matter that we incorporate dissipates to become parts of some other incarnation, whether of bees or man or metal none can say.

It follows, then, that the quality of the time we're allotted is in large part determined by that quality of flow: in other words, by what we take into our bodies and make a part of ourselves ' by what we use to refresh, replenish, and recreate ourselves. We know that what we consume physically becomes a part of us. We know that we need fresh clean air and water and that taking too many impurities into our system can seriously damage us. We know we need a balance of foods for fuel because our bodies need that flow of good, fresh, usable material for bones and blood.

But this holds true mentally and spiritually as well. We replenish those aspects of ourselves just as surely as we replenish our physical selves. Shouldn't, then, we take as much care?

In modern American society, the mental and spiritual 'nourishment' of choice is television. This is something most Americans consume every day. They can, if they so choose, receive a minimal supply without charge simply by plugging in and turning on their TV sets. The images, the thoughts and implications, that we consume become as surely a part of our minds, our spirits, our souls, as the calcium and mucus in this morning's milk.

Out of curiosity, I taped on Memorial Day an episode of a 'show' I had never seen: that night's 'CSI-Miami.' I chose it not only because it was on during a national holiday but also because it is the highest rated of all the 'shows' that 'premiered' last September (I quote the words in this sentence to point out the loaded terminology that we habitually and unthinkingly use in these situations). It's a 'spin-off' of the highest rated 'program,' called 'CSI.' In both instances, CSI stands for 'crime scene investigation' (or perhaps 'investigators'). Both 'programs' are shown on one of the major 'networks,' CBS, at 10 PM Monday nights. Because it's shown by a 'major' network, it can reach more millions than those broadcast by cable 'channels.' Each night, millions of Americans sit in front of their televisions sets and consume shows such as this.

The story began quickly, of course: One purpose of such a 'show' is to attract and keep viewers so they can consume the commercials that finance it (my purpose being an analysis of the show itself, we will not deal with these commercials, as interesting as they were). Since this is about crime scene investigating, we of course need a crime: an apparently rich white male in a quite expensive house answers the door after taking a swim in his indoor pool and turning on the whole-house music system. Someone he knows surprises him there.

The scene suddenly cuts to later. The 'star' of the 'show,' David Caruso, walks in with an assistant. While the rich man swimming was an unknown, Caruso is very well known to the media-saturated as the former 'star' of 'NYPD Blue' who walked away ten years ago to try his hand at movie 'stardom.'

They find the man's body tied face down in the bed. The assistant says that there's 'no sign of forced entry,' to which Caruso responds quietly as he looks at the body, 'Oh, I wouldn't be too sure about that.' Then the credits roll. They begin with Roger Daltrey screaming 'yeah' from the Who's 1971 song 'Won't Get Fooled Again.' You then see, as the music plays, shots of Miami, Caruso, and plenty of high-tech instruments. The only words retained from the song are the title ' you may have fooled it before, but the State now has superior technology; now the State will catch you. 'Yeah ' we won't get fooled again.'

After the opening seven-commercial break, we touch briefly upon the murder victim before changing to an entirely different scene: a crematorium in which very few bodies have actually been burned; the investigators note that the late business owner 'had a side thing going on with the gold fillings.' Out back they discover a mound of rotting unburned bodies.

As they investigate, they learn that the rich dead man, who'd also been sodomized with a 'foreign object,' had covered up a tattoo, so they very graphically burn off the skin covering it while leaving the underlying tattoo intact. They also learn that the dead crematorium owner had something clutched in his hand: To find out what it is, they saw the hand off and microwave it; the viewer is treated to the sight of it opening. A careful viewer may note two other things as well. First, the investigators have all kinds of knowledge and information available to them at the click of a mouse button. They even have a program that compares previously scanned tattoos to the newly scanned one, finds a match, and then finds information on that man. Second, the viewer may notice the general color scheme: blues predominate, while the 'star,' Caruso, has red hair ' unusual for a male lead on network television ' and pale white skin.

Cut to a hedonistic night club featuring fluorescent body paint on scantily clad young women dancing to loud rhythmic music. The owners, of course, lie to the investigators. We're shown through sudden close-ups accompanied by dramatic music how the investigators cleverly and alertly notice many small yet extremely relevant details, such as, in this case the matching rings the owners wear.

We then see Caruso thinking about the situation: the dead rich man, it turns out, is not only a thief but a serial rapist as well. Not only that, but he was an unusual rapist in that 'none of the women were raped vaginally. All were sodomized.' We return to the nightclub, where we again see the mostly-naked painted women dancing as the investigators confront the businessmen about their lies. They now are represented by counsel: the increasingly arrogant and superior woman who works with Caruso notes that counsel has an untanned circle on his ring finger. One clue leads to another until the investigators finally put it all together: the lawyer, who had failed in business twice before, is the majority owner of the club. A woman whose body was found at the crematorium had once worked at his new club but was freelancing and taking his high-rolling clients with her. The lawyer, of course, kills her ('I own you, bitch') and takes her body to be cremated, but the greedy owner fails to do a thorough job by keeping her purse, so the lawyer kills him as well. And the dead rich man with which the story began? He had raped another man, a store owner, who had killed him in revenge. The man, of course, confesses to the crime, and Caruso tells him, 'Justice is not yours to dispense, and now you're going to pay for it.'

What has the viewer ingested, then, in this hour? Several murders; a pile of dead and decomposing bodies; a floor littered with gold fillings taken from the dead; anal rape of both men and women; a dead man's arm burned with fire; another dead man's hand sawed off and microwaved; close-ups of various bodily wounds; young partially-clad women dancing covered in florescent body paint. The viewer has ingested the ideas that businessmen are essentially greedy and therefore evil: Every businessman in the 'show' ' the owner of the crematorium, the night club owners, the lawyer, and the store keeper ' was guilty of something.

And, of course, they all got caught. The investigators and their actions, their thinking, even their voices, were calm, measured, even cold ' just like their technology. I was reminded of Michael Corleone in The Godfather: the angrier and more dangerous he got, the softer, quieter, and colder his voice became. And all of this takes place under color of red, white, and blue.

Jacques Ellul writes of the importance to the technological State not only of propaganda but also of what he calls 'pre-propaganda,' which conditions people to accept more direct propaganda. Television is one example of this. This single example, picked only for the reasons already stated, shows this conditioning quite well. Business people are greedy and bad: They rape and murder, even from the dead. Luckily, the State has cool, calm investigators with the most modern technology at their beck and call. Their technology can tell them to whom a sample of hair or semen belongs. It can tell them which pair of scissors cut a particular piece of tape. It can match tattoos; it can even tell them who has what tattoo, and where he lives! And in their cold, calm, technological way, they can and will set everything right again because, after all, they are the State.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of all this is how unsurprising all this is, how accepting we are that this sort of material not only makes it onto the airwaves but that it makes it there practically uncommented upon or thought about.

This, then, is the sort of thing that most Americans consume mentally. This is what they put into their minds ' the sort of stuff with which they construct their minds, their spirits, their souls. Multiply it by several hours a day and by seven days a week. Multiply it further by all the other shows and their various kinds of degradation: wresting, stock car racing, 'reality' programming. And then multiply it by the millions of people in America who devour this stuff.

Is it any wonder, then, that we are, as Americans, in this kind of shape and situation when this is the sort of mental food we consume? And can there be any question that, if we are to change this situation, one step we must take as individuals is to change this diet to one purer, cleaner, more wholesome and life-affirming? We have to become as conscious of the flow of words and ideas and concepts into and through our bodies as we are of the flow of food and air and water through them. Many of us understand that what we eat and drink affects our health. But what we consume mentally and spiritually is just as, if not more, important. We know that to improve our physical health, we have to eat as little sugar as possible and be aware of the dangers involved in that pleasure. We should also know that to improve our mental health, we have to watch as little television as possible and be aware of the dangers involved in that pleasure as well.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.