The Television Mystique: Electric Synchrony and the Television Totem

Essay by R.Cronk

The television audience rides its sofas into outer space, into the past and future, and into countless people's private lives. For many, the framing experiences for acquiring social skills and ethical values are no longer based on the experience of the actual. The orienting experiences for those caught under the spell of the television mystique have been reduced to the passive observation of broadcast programming.

Television supplies the developing personality with the cultural mythologies it instinctively seeks. The assorted tales and fantasies of broadcast programming take on the significance of actualization myths as the subject of the collective viewing ritual. The sacred circle of the television ritual reaches into living rooms across America every night. This is where we establish our common values and how we think about the world.

Lacking the transubstantial experiences of the relatively unchanging Greek myths, or even the reassurance of the once dominant Western historical view, the television-dependent personality continually reevaluates the relevance of its ideals and values through the medium of television. TV personalities provide 'a way to be.' Broadcast programming reveals a kind of tribal totem that guarantees entry into society. The Nielsen rating system establishes a hierarchy of ethical codes for integration into American culture.

Societies solidify around commonly accessible cultural experiences, and ours has substituted the passive involvements of media entertainment and the shallow gratifications of consumerism for active participation in family events, sports, religion and the arts. Traditional cultural myths for incorporating the individual into society have yielded to belief systems based on media produced trends and fads, and on the ethical postures of this year's programming schedule.

The viewer does not necessarily emulate the value systems represented in broadcast programming. Absurd actions reveal how not to act. Television entertainment offers the vicarious fruit of knowledge without active participation. By itself, this would be interpreted as effecting the individuation process in a positive way. But as the number of hours dedicated to television viewing increases, television entertainment displaces the experience of the actual as the principle source for developing cultural values. At this point the television experience takes on a greater role in the socialization of the viewer.

The young seem particularly vulnerable to the perverse biases of television programming (attitudes toward life and death, etc.). After the guidance of the family and peer group pressure, the American youth works out solutions for adapting to the social environment by watching television. How can there be any question as to the influence of television on the young, or on society in general? Weaned on broadcast programming and advertising, the child learns to relate socially by identifying with the banal aggressions of television's pseudo-heroes.

We see the cultural actualization process at work when the young person identifies with the struggles of the hero. The hero is the symbol of ego-consciousness. Consciousness develops in the path explored by the hero as the individual identifies with the injustice of the hero's plight and his heroic action. The child 'feels' his way into the value systems of society through his identification with its mythological heroes.

Broadcast programming offers dismal substitutes for hero myths and rites of passage. For the television audience, the myths are seldom complete or fully realized. There is no sacred element, no sacrifice, no follow through and no confirmation. There is only submission to the television mystique. The television-dependent personality insulates itself from the life experience. Television's predisposition for image over substance and form over content drains complexity and richness from understanding. For the viewer, homogenized information is spoon-fed. There is no soul searching and no urgency.

Without sacrifice and transcendence, it is only the collective viewing experience and the momentum of a continuous stream of programs, products and promotions that keeps the television mystique intact as an actualization myth.

The commercial productions broadcast by the networks provide weak and incomplete models for individuation and cultural integration. The distorted shape the myths take for ratings and profit fuels the listless and amoral attitudes developing in America. The television totem and consumer ideals provide poor substitutes for cultural values derived from traditional family activities and social involvements.

Given the economic motives and sensationalized nature of broadcast programming, it does not seem likely that commercial television will ever provide the kind of exemplary figures of psychic transformation that will produce ethical codes of mutual respect and coexistence. The television audience absorbs cultural directives manipulated for product endorsement and audience share. There is no moral imperative. Today's mythic hero, if there is to be one, must battle the specter of media coercion, and resist economic and political pressures to conform to the consumer model portrayed in the media.

As evidenced by the increase in gang murders and teenage suicides, the young are literally dying for cultural experiences that provide relevant directions for involvement and belonging in society. The graffitied screams of the post-modern trickster are for cultural values that have been gutted by duplicity in the media and displaced by consumer ideals and participation in the television mystique.

When the mythological hero vanquishes the dragon he symbolically attenuates the maternal bond. Without heroes this generation slays no dragons. Typical of American society, and exemplified by the gang member, the trickster personality is inadequately developed and narcissistically and incestuously bound to his group. The television mystique suppresses the spirit and is creating a brutal, lawless society. Without the resonance of the meaningful cultural experience, the trickster cannot find his way into adulthood. And society continues its downward spiral under the influence of the exploitive sociopolitical ideology that controls the media.

Duped by media advertising into the vanities of image achieving and product consumption, and alienated from one another by reactionary politics, the public endures boredom, unrealized potential and pent-up emotions. With sensitivities deafened, and spiritual gratification limited to the shallow returns of a consumer myth, it has become increasingly difficult to achieve integration into a social environment with humanitarian ideals.

America has endured a degeneration of its subjectively realized values as a result of its willful submission to the television viewing ritual. Fad culture and broadcast programming provide inadequate models for personal development. Even as the developing ego guards its tenuous existence against disruption, habituation to the television mystique threatens its existence. In the face of the media blitz and corporate revision of society, the individuation process goes on, but the resulting personality is crippled. Contrary to what seems to be the general consensus, consciousness atrophies from the mindless addiction to television.

In its preoccupation with the television mystique, Western society parallels the ancient Greek culture in its period of moral decline. As they made their transition from the beliefs of classical mythology to a unified world view, the Greeks lost the transubstantiating experiences of the hero myths of epic poetry and tragic drama. They identified instead with the theatrical personalities of comedy and with the logic of dialectic prose. This was the final stage in the transition from synchronic phase consciousness, with its external spirits and delocalized self, to diachronic consciousness with its unified world view, knowledge of consequence and historical causality. Today, we may be experiencing another shift in the nature of perceived reality as television viewing preempts the experiences of 'real life' as the source for acquiring ethical values.

The television mystique offers mindless involvement and formula entertainment. America is lulled and dulled in the security of a slow-changing and predictable medium. The tendency is to disengage diachronic consciousness for an unfocused and television-dependent state. Broadcast programming and advertising seduce the viewer into a type of phase consciousness. The conscious mind is stupefied by mundane programming and charmed by canned laughter and mood music.

In apathetic suspension, the participant does not have to think. His attentiveness is reduced to a near dream state as situations are resolved without his active involvement. The combination of television technology and profit motive has spawned a new mythic state -- electronic synchrony. The audience is urged to suspend the conscious decision-making function as unnecessary. Consider the importance of the apathetic drift of television viewing to the nightly unwinding of a high-strung America, exhausted from the rigors of image-achieving and the obligations of the American dream.

For the television-dependent personality, electronic synchrony is a feeble replacement for transcendent renewal. Electronic synchrony, as experienced by the television audience, does have parallels with the synchronic perception of the mythopoeic mind. But where earlier mythic states offered heightened ontological awareness, electronic synchrony desensitizes the life experience and alienates the participant from the involvements and consequences of reality. The hypnotic affect of electronic synchrony works to leave the television-dependent personality poorly actualized and unfulfilled.

The implications of electronic synchrony and the television totem do not suggest there will ever be a lack of information or a loss in our ability to assimilate facts and figures. But information is not knowledge. At best information is a component of knowledge. The computer contains information, not knowledge. Knowledge is conveyed by language, but remains hidden behind the word. It breaks through the word as understanding. Ironically, post-modern society produces reason without understanding and facts without knowledge. It creates great computers but few great minds.

Copyright © R. Cronk 1996 - All Rights Reserved

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