The world is brought to us in our homes. Events are served to us in abundance.
But how are they served to us? In the form of events? Or only as their copies? Or only as reports about the events?
In order to be able to answer these questions, which are addressed in the following paragraphs, we shall translate them into another language; and let us ask ourselves: how are the events broadcast in the home of the receiver? How is the receiver in them? Are they really present? Or only present in appearance? Are they absent, then? And in what way are they present or absent?
The man-world relation is unilateral; the world, neither present nor absent, is transformed into a phantom.
On the one hand, they really seem to be “present”: when we listen to a radio broadcast of a battle in a war or a parliamentary debate, we are hearing not only reports about explosions or about the speakers, but those phenomena themselves. Does this not mean that the events, which we previously were unable nor were we permitted (nor should we) to influence, are now really in our homes and we in them?
Of course not, for does the fact that we have free access to the voices of the world and that the latter has the right to be in our home, while we on the other hand are without any rights at all and have no voice in the delivered events—does this constitute a living present? And the fact that we cannot respond to anyone, although they speak to us, or seem to interrogate us, nor can we intervene in any events, whose noise roars all around us? Is it not a property of the real present that the man-world relation is reciprocal? Is this relation not severed here? Has it not become unilateral, up to the point where the world is perceptible to the listener, but not vice-versa? Is the listener not subject to the radical stricture: don’t talk back? Doesn’t this silence signify powerlessness? Is not the ubiquity that is bestowed upon us the present of the slave? And isn’t the slave absent, insofar as he is treated as a non-being, like air, and cannot have anything to say?
Evidently, he is absent, too. However, it would for the same reasons be possible to interpret this unilateral relationship in the opposite way, that is, as the guarantee of freedom and presence, for is it not freedom when, due to this unilateral process, we can participate at a distance in any event, that is, without incurring any danger and remaining invulnerable; with the privilege to use it as enjoyment and entertainment? And is that person not truly present who cannot be vanquished, in other words, relegated to absence, by any occurrences, of which he is a witness?
This sounds plausible too. And it would be altogether understandable if someone were to interrupt these questions, all this back and forth about whether the broadcast is present or absent, and point out that this does not have any meaning. “What the radio or the television delivers to us,” I can hear someone say, “are images. Representations, not presence! The fact that the images do not allow any interference and treat us like air is something that is obvious and has been a commonplace for a long time under the rubric of ‘esthetic appearance’.”
However, as convincing as this may sound, the argument is false. First—and this is a fundamentally phenomenological fact—because there are no “acoustic images”: the gramophone does not present us with any kind of image of the symphony, but with the symphony itself. If a mass meeting is brought to us over the radio, what we think we hear is not any kind of “image” of the shouting crowd, but its noise, despite the fact that the crowd itself is not physically within our reach. Furthermore, as listeners—at least when we are dealing with the broadcast of an art form (a drama), including its apparent character—we find ourselves in an attitude that could not be less esthetic: whoever listens to a football game does so as an impassioned fan, he believes that it is really taking place and has nothing to do with the “as if” of art.
No, these objections are incorrect. What we perceive are not mere images. But in the same way, we are not really present in the real. In fact, the question: “Are we present or absent?” is without meaning. But not because the answer “image” (and along with it, “absent”) is understood by itself, but because the nature of the situation brought about by the broadcast consists in its ontological ambiguity; because the events that are broadcast are, at the same time, present and absent, real and apparent, there and not there; in short: because they are phantoms.
On television, image and reproduction are synchronized. This simultaneity is the form of the atrophy of the present.
“But,” it will be objected, “what is true for radio broadcasts is not true for television. You cannot deny that the latter supplies us with images.”
This is a more difficult issue. They are not, however, images in the usual sense of the word. The essential aspect of images in the history of human representation was the fact that between the latter and the object reproduced by the latter there was, despite the fact that it was not explicitly expressed, a temporal difference, a temporal disjunction. This disjunction is expressed in German by the words “in conformance with”:1 either it presents an image in conformance with a model; or it produces something real that conforms to a model. Therefore, either the image follows its theme as a copy or commemorative monument, in order to recall its past, that is, to retrieve it and preserve its present; or it precedes its object as a magical object of evocation or as an idea, blueprint, prototype, in order to subsequently disappear, once it has been left behind by the event or object which takes place or is created; or finally—and even this mode of neutralization still represents a relation with time—it was a means to transfer us or to make us imagine that we are transferred to a dimension outside of the present, beyond time. It would be hard to find any images that do not effectively present any of these temporal relations of man with the world; and it is doubtful that one can call the forms that lack this disjunction, “images”. So it is this type of form that defines the images that television transmits:
For in these images one can no longer speak of a temporal relation with the reproduced, despite the fact that they take place as if in a movie in time. In them, what we have called the “temporal disjunction” has been reduced to nothing; they are presented simultaneously and synchronized with the events reproduced by them: just like the telescope, they show something that is present. And does this not mean “presence”? Are not the forms that show something that is present, images?2
This problem has not gone unremarked, but the denomination it was given was insufficient. Resort was had to what was close at hand, to the already existing expression “instantaneous” and with this word it was thought that one could dispatch the phenomenon. This term, however, only obscures the problem. For images in the most legitimate sense are instantaneous, since they attempt to capture the ephemeral moment; in accordance with their function, as images they are closer to commemorative monuments, even to mummies, than they are to televised phantoms. In these phantoms, however, it is no longer just a matter of that preservation of memory, since not only are they presented, but they also disappear at the same time as the events that they reproduce; therefore, even though they may at times be congealed, their lives are as brief as the lives of the events themselves. If they are instantaneous, they are at most images of the moment for the moment, and therefore similar to the images in a mirror, since they are simultaneous and synchronous and perishable like the image reflected in the mirror and, therefore, pure present from any point of view.
Having said that, however, are we not just playing around with the word, “present”? Are we not taking advantage of the fact that the term oscillates between two meanings in order to suggest imaginary problems? For there can be no doubt that we are using it in two senses: on the one hand, to describe a concrete present; that is, the situation in which man actually finds himself with other men or with the world and simultaneously grows (=concrescunt) by interacting with, encountering and confronting them. On the other hand, we use it to show mere formal simultaneity; that is, the fact that man and any event whatsoever, being at the sharp point of the same nunc, share the same worldwide moment. It is not by chance, however, that this double meaning should be possessed by this word—and not only in German; this double meaning is instead based on the fact that one cannot really demarcate the border, in the fact that an event or a part of world is of such small interest to us when the “present” is defined only in the sense of simultaneity. The present goes beyond what is only simultaneous; the latter is the limiting case; it is what is of least interest to me, and therefore most alien; but, on the other hand, since it has not even been withdrawn into a non-datum, it shows that it still interests me.3
But even if it were to be possible to draw a solid line to separate the two meanings, it would not be we who would be playing such a duplicitous game, but television. For this game is precisely the principle of the broadcast, since its power consists in presenting only or almost only the simultaneous in such a way that it functions as the real present, in conferring upon what is present only formally the appearance of a concrete present, in completely dissolving the borderline, which was already blurred, between the two “presents” and thus between the relevant and the irrelevant. Every broadcast of images proclaims—and rightly so: “Now I am me; and not only me, the broadcast, but me, the transmitted event”. And by means of this “now I am me”, by means of this act of making present, it becomes a phenomenon that goes beyond everything that is purely image; and since it is likewise not something that is really present, it becomes an intermediate thing between being and appearance, which, when we spoke of the radio broadcast, we referred to as a “phantom”.
In this respect, not only is there nothing to object to with regard to the dissolution of the borders between the two presents, but it must be welcomed, if it is undertaken correctly, since today there are too many things that we dismiss unjustly because they are “only simultaneous”, that is, as adiaphoron, despite the fact that they affect us and can interest us, they are nostra res and comprise the most concrete and threatening present. The danger of parochialism is no less pressing than that of false universalism. Techniques for the expansion of our moral horizon of the present are absolutely necessary, techniques that would allow us to see beyond the horizon of our senses. This expansion, however, is not provided by television; television instead dissolves our horizon to the point where we no longer recognize the real present; and we even fail to devote ourselves to the event that should really interest us, not even that apparent interest, that we have learned to devote to the apparent presents transmitted right to our homes.
It is not necessary for us to add that the number of phantoms of the present is unlimited. And since the principle that reduces the consumer and the event to a common denominator is abstract and precise, that is, it consists in the mere common now, it is also universal. There are no events that fall outside of the universal now; therefore, there is nothing that cannot be transformed into something that is allegedly present. However, the more present it becomes, the less present it was. Among the fans of radio and television that I have met, not one of them, by means of his daily portion of simultaneities, was educated to be a friend of the world or even just to be contemporaneous with his era. To the contrary; I have encountered many for whom this daily bread has deprived them of the world, and left them without any reference points, dispersed, that is, it transformed them into mere contemporaries of the now.4
Digression: interpolation concerning an extinguished passion. The disoriented person lives only in the now. Television and radio produce an artificial schizophrenia. The individuum is transformed into divisum.
Several decades ago, there was a series of poets (Apollinaire or the young Werfel, for example),5 who, in a variation on the old formula, were always “in various marriages at the same time”, or, formulated more seriously, they were disoriented and “fugitives” everywhere, in the metaphysical sense of ubique simul. Often beginning with the word, “now”, in their poems they detailed what happened at the same moment in Paris, Prague, Cape Town, Shanghai, or anywhere else. It is indisputable that what drove these poets to compose their particular hymnal catalogues of fragments of the world was a real metaphysical excitation: perhaps they confused non percipi and non esse; that is, they considered as non-existent, as lost, everything that, existing, went unnoticed; in any case, they were profoundly afflicted because, condemned to always remain in a single contingent here, they had to abandon their quest to escape everything that exists. They cherished the hope of rendering present the disoriented yonder and, therefore, absent by way of a kind of spell: they desperately tried to reunite them and to fit them into the focal point of an ubiquitous momentary now, in which all these places and events would be found and could participate. One could speak of an attempt to perform metaphysical magic, since what they sought to accomplish was to annul the discretionary nature, which was unbearable for them, of events that were separated from each other (and therefore absent), of which the world consists, by way of the magic spell of the quality of the ubiquity of the now; that is, they sought to establish the moment as a magic charm against space as “principium individuationis”. However mistaken their passion may have been, it certainly was a final variation of the Eleatic passion: the desire to metaphysically discredit multiplicity. The fact that they viewed what was most unreal, in the instant of the now, the “properly existent”, in that it had to be manifested by revoking the multiple as illusion, was almost tragic; a mere testimony of the fact that we no longer possess really metaphysical principles, not even the most fashionable pantheists, any more than the “system” does in its last resort, which converts the “totality into the real”. Certainly, they, too, were therefore the last. However, how vital they were, compared to our contemporary fans of the now! It would be hard to discover in the latter the least glimmer of that passion for the now.
Naturally, it was no accident that these poets arose at the historical moment when the technique of disorientation (by way of illustrated magazines and things of that kind) began to acquire massive proportions. It was just that the poets desperately tried to accommodate disorientation, while the purpose of the techniques of disorientation and the machinery of entertainment consisted, to the contrary, in producing disorientation or in favoring its development. What “disorientation” (usually understood in too “disoriented” fashion, that is, only as a metaphor) attempted to do was to deprive men of their individuation, or, more precisely, to dispossess them of the consciousness of this loss by depriving them of their principium individuationis, their spatial orientation; in other words, by moving them to a place in which, ubique simul, they always find themselves in another place, and no longer occupy any particular point and are never with themselves, never in any particular affair; in short: nowhere. It will be objected that the victims of this technique of disorientation are not really victims, since industry, with its supply of disorientation, has simply adjusted to a demand, something that is not entirely false, but certainly does not explain everything, since the demand has also been produced.
Concerning men who, by way of their daily labor, are boxed in the limited space of a very specialized job that is of little interest to them and, furthermore, exposed to boredom, one cannot expect that at the moment that they abandon that scene of pressure and boredom, that is, after work, they should be capable of or should want to recover their proportio humana, that they should reencounter themselves (if their self-identity still exists) or even that they should still want to do so. Instead, since the conclusion of compression seems to be an explosion and those who are so suddenly liberated from their work no longer know anything but alienation, insofar as they are not just exhausted, they succumb to a thousand alien things, it does not matter what they are; consequently, after the calm of boredom it is appropriate to return to the flow of time and imprint another rhythm on the scenes that change so rapidly.
There is nothing that so completely satisfies this understandable hunger for the ubiquity and rapidity of change than radio and television broadcasts, since they counterbalance anxiety and exhaustion at the same time with tension and release, rhythm and inactivity, tutelage and leisure, they serve all these purposes at once; they even spare us the trouble of succumbing to that disorientation, since it is thrown into our arms; in short: it is not possible to resist such a diversified temptation. It is therefore not surprising that the abomination of being in two or one hundred marriages simultaneously, which caused those poets so much suffering, has now become the normal situation of a more ingenuous leisure (in appearance); that is, in the situation of all of those who, just sitting there, go on voyages and have now become accustomed to being everywhere at the same time, that is, nowhere, up to the point that they actually no longer inhabit any place at all, at least no place, much less a home, but at the most their temporary inhabitable place, which changes with each passing moment: the now.
However, we still have not completely described the “disoriented character” of our contemporaries, since its climax is found in a situation, which can only be called artificially produced schizophrenia; and this “schizophrenia” is not only a collateral effect of the machinery of disorientation, but is expressly intended and, in addition, demanded by its customers, although not by this name, of course.
What do we mean here by “schizophrenia”?
That situation in which the ego is divided into two or more partial beings, at least in two or more partial functions; in beings or functions, which are not only not coordinated, but which are not at all capable of being coordinated; and not just this, but the fact that the ego is not capable, either, of attributing any importance to this coordination; even more, the ego emphatically rejects such coordination.
Descartes, in his second meditation, described as impossible à concevoir la moitié d’aucune âme. Today, the divided soul is an everyday phenomenon. In fact, there is no feature that is more characteristic of our time, at least of its leisure time dimension, than its inclination to devote itself at the same time to two or more disparate activities.
For example, the man in the tanning salon, working on his tan, while his eyes swim through an illustrated magazine, his ears are attending to a sporting event and his teeth are chewing gum: this figure of the simultaneously passive player and of the hyperactive character who is doing nothing is an everyday phenomenon all over the world.
The fact that this figure is an ordinary sight and is accepted as normal does not make it any less interesting; to the contrary, it is its very existence that demands a full explanation.
If one were to ask the man in the tanning salon what it is that “he” is actually doing, that is, just what it is that is entertaining his soul, of course he could not provide an answer; he cannot answer because the question relating to “him” is based on a false premise, i.e., on the assumption that he is the subject of the act and the entertainment. If in this case one can still speak of “subject” or “subjects”, they consist only of his organs: his eyes, which are being entertained by their images; his ears, which are being entertained by their sporting event; his teeth, which are being entertained with their gum; in short: his identity is so radically disorganized, that the search for “the man himself” would be a search for something that does not exist. He is disoriented, then, not only (as before) by a multitude of places in the world, but in a plurality of particular functions.6
The question about what it is that drives man to this disorganized frenzy of activity and that makes its particular functions so autonomous (or autonomous in appearance) has actually already been answered. But we shall repeat: it is the horror vacui; fear of autonomy and freedom; or, more exactly: the fear of articulating for oneself the space of freedom that leisure places at one’s disposal, the fear of the void to which one is exposed by leisure; the fear of having to fill up one’s free time by one’s own efforts.
His job has so definitively accustomed him to being kept busy,7 that is, to not being autonomous, that at the moment when he leaves work he cannot face the task of really self-directed activity, since there is no longer any “self” that can assume responsibility for this activity. All leisure today has secret family resemblances with unemployment.
When at that moment he is abandoned to himself, he buries himself in his particular functions, since he does not exist as an organizing principle. Naturally, however, these functions of his are repeatedly exercised merely for the purpose of keeping himself busy; hence the fact that, at the very moment he is rendered unemployed he sets to work with both hands at the first good opportunity that arises; and the first one is good enough, because it is nothing but a container and represents a support, something to which he can fix a function.8 One container, or one support, is not enough in any event; each organ needs its own, because even if there is only one organ that is unoccupied, this would represent a breach through which the flood of nothingness could be introduced. To only listen or to only see is completely insufficient, without taking into account the fact that the exclusivity of such “only doing this or that” would demand a capacity for abstraction and concentration, something that is not at all the case when one lacks an organizing center. This is, furthermore, the reason why we will always need continuous music in silent films and why we will begin to breath with difficulty when music disappears and only the visual dimension remains. In short: in order to be rendered impermeable to nothingness, every organ has to be “occupied”. And being occupied as a description of the situation is incomparably more accurate than being kept busy.9
However, since occupation does not have to consist in work—because we are dealing here with leisure—what occupies the organs can only be means of enjoyment [stimulants]. Each organ, each function goes in search of its consumption and its satisfaction by consuming.
This need not inevitably consist in a positive enjoyment, but—unfortunately language does not have a term for it—only in the fact that it cannot set in motion fear or hunger, which appear when there is a lack of objects of enjoyment; just as breathing as such does not need to produce a positive enjoyment (in fact, it only rarely does so), but the lack of air on the contrary results in suffocation [hunger for air] or panic.
This term, “hunger”, is the motto, since each organ believes that it suffers hunger at the moment when, instead of being occupied, it is exposed to the void and, therefore, it is free. Each moment of non-consumption is poverty for the organ; the best example of this is the inveterate smoker. Thus, horribili dictu, freedom (=free time=not doing anything=non-consumption) is identical with poverty. This is also the cause of the demand for means of consumption that can be consumed uninterruptedly and therefore do not entail the danger of satiation. And I said “danger”, because the condition of being satiated would limit the time of enjoyment; therefore, dialectically, it would be transformed into non-consumption; therefore, into poverty: this is the explanation for the role of the constant chewing of gum and of the radio that plays non-stop.10
Of course, the perverse identification of freedom and poverty—and consequently, of the privation of freedom and happiness—is nothing new:
The “total work of art” of the 19th century had already speculated on the horror vacui and provided works that totally claimed man, surprising all his senses at the same time; history shows us the degree of rapture enjoyed by those who were surprised in this way and how those who were charmed in this way enjoyed the total deprivation of their freedom. We need only note the currently popular term, “charming”, whose genuine meaning is now hardly understood by anyone, in order to understand what I am referring to. And it shows good breeding to pay very high prices for “charming” depictions. Nietzsche was the first, and until now almost the only person, who discerned the dubiousness of this “charm” and who expressed it in words. Certainly, the charm of that time, which saw its consecration in Bayreuth, was still absolutely human compared to today’s charm, since the idea of the “total work of art” still had as its presupposition the old and honorable idea of man; that is, man was still recognized as a being, who even in his surprised and charmed condition could claim to create a unitary work in itself, that is, to be one; and the one still deserved a defeat that would still be homogenous in itself.
This remnant has been lost today. The discrete principle of the most pure addition is entirely sufficient. What is normal today is the simultaneous supply of completely disparate elements; not only physically disparate, but also disparate with regard to feeling; disparate not only with regard to feeling, but also with regard to scale: no one would be surprised to see, while eating breakfast, while reading the comics, a girl in the jungle being stabbed between her lovely ribs with a knife, while your ears are caressed with the three part harmony of the sonata of Claire de Lune. No one has any problem accepting both at the same time. Up until recently psychology could still question the possibility of such a simultaneous consumption of two contents and feelings that are so disparate. The fact, demonstrated tens of thousands of times every minute these days, seems to make this possibility more plausible.
Up until today, the cultural critic had seen the destruction of man exclusively in the latter’s standardization, that is, in the fact that the individual, transformed into a mass-produced being, was left with only a numerical individuality. Now he has even lost this numerical individuality; this numerical remnant itself has been divided, the individuum has been transformed into a divisum, it has been decomposed into a multiplicity of functions. Undoubtedly, the destruction of man cannot go any farther; man cannot become more inhuman. In this sense, the “rebirth of integral perspectives” celebrated by today’s psychology with such zeal and confidence is all the more abstruse and hypocritical; it is in fact only a maneuver to conceal under the academic toga the theory of the fragments of man.
All of reality is becoming phantasmagorical, everything that is fictitious is becoming real. Deluded old women are knitting clothing for phantoms. And they are trained for idolatry.
After that long, but not superfluous, digression on the “divisibility” of disoriented man, we shall once again return to our more narrowly defined topic: the threat posed to man by radio and television.
As we have discovered, what is “sent” to man, right into his home, is ontologically so ambiguous that we cannot answer the question as to whether we must treat it as something that is present or absent, as reality or image. This is why we have given this ambiguity another name, all its own: phantom.
The theory of ambiguity has been challenged, however, by our hypothetical adversary. According to the latter, to ask about the meaning of presence or absence is pointless, because broadcasts comprise an esthetic appearance and thus our attitude is also esthetic; and the problem of appearance in esthetics was formulated in a satisfactory way a long time ago.
To argue in this way, however, is just putting new wine in old bottles. The old categories no longer function. No objective observer, no matter what his attitude may be towards his radio or television, would ever entertain the idea of claiming that he obtains his enjoyment from an “esthetic appearance”. But he does not do so because he is incapable of it, that is, because the essential characteristic and what is most disturbing about these broadcasts consists in the fact that they circumvent the alternative of “being or appearance”. It is indeed true that events are becoming phantoms by being broadcast; it is not the case, however, that they thereby acquire the “as if” character of art. The attitude with which we view the broadcast from the point of view of a political process is fundamentally different from the attitude we adopt with regard to the performance of the trial scene in Büchner’s Danton. To describe it without ambiguity is difficult, not only because our theoretical concepts of the new reality are still incomplete and awkward—which indeed they are—but because the positive intention of these broadcasts is precisely to produce ambiguous attitudes: what has been produced is non-serious seriousness or a serious lack of seriousness, that is, an oscillating or fluctuating situation, in which the difference between seriousness and lack of seriousness is no longer valid and in which the listener can no longer respond; he cannot even propose the question: in what way is the broadcast material of interest to him (whether as being or as appearance, as information or as fun) or in what precise capacity must he receive the supply that is delivered to him (whether as a moral and political being or as a mass consumer).
The ambiguity of seriousness and joking is fully manifested in radio and television broadcasts, that is, where it is a matter of continuing to utilize the concept of “appearance”, which comes from the theatrical tradition. There, dialectically, it so happens that affairs conceived as fiction (insofar as they are transmitted with the same technologies, which convert real occurrences into phantoms) function as if they were real. Just as, where life functions as a dream and dreams function as if they were life, so too, in this case, every phantom becomes real, because all of reality is presented as a phantom. Where every real event is granted something of the nature of the apparent by way of its transmission, the apparent occurrence (from the invented dramatic stage scenery) must sacrifice in its transmission its specific apparent esthetic character. In fact, this character is no longer observed, or it is hardly ever noted that the fictitious event makes us believe that we are its real witnesses, its real visitors, its real victims. I am thinking above all of the radio adaptation that Orson Welles broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which was about the invasion of the earth. Just as on that occasion, in a crude adoption of Hamlet’s principle of the “theater within the theater”, the broadcast represented a radio news report (in the production of this beautiful appearance this aspect is allegedly what comprised its artistic merit), it could by no means be distinguished from a real radio news report. We shall not address the question of whether it attempted to differentiate itself from a real news report and, if so, what was a more important factor: stupidity or a lack of scruples. Furthermore, even the occasional explanations of the theatrical character of the broadcast would have been useless, because, among the listeners, who thought that such an invasion was possible, once they heard the catastrophic news that “the Martians are here”, none of them would have been capable of just sitting calmly in his easy chair to await the upcoming explanation. In any event, the apparent appearance is brought to us in part as a real event and in part as real information, pertaining to that event, concerning that event, and therefore it provoked real panic. Furthermore, it was the first “solitary mass panic”, because each instance of panic took place inside four walls, without direct contact with that of the neighbors; and it had just as much in common with the “esthetic attitude” as the cry of terror in a burning house has with that of joy at a campfire.
This case, however, a “classic” in the history of radio, is not unique. What is true about it is also true of all radio drama, at least of all those broadcasts that, rather than stylized portrayals of the past, are about the present, even of those that, with regard to their content, seem to be completely inoffensive, since these too mix being and appearance, interest and apparent interest, in a way that deceives the listener with respect to the possibility of being serious. I do not want to be misunderstood here: in this case, the lack of seriousness does not reside so much in the fact that the serious is used and consumed in a non-serious way, but in that the non-serious is offered and received in a way that is too serious. It is this seriousness that supposedly makes the joke funny. I am referring to those serial broadcasts, certainly not gruesome, often even sentimental, in which the everyday lives of the members of fictitious families are followed for years on end and which are anything but harmless. In the United States I am acquainted with a good number of elderly single women whose social circle, that is, whose “world”, is exclusively composed of these non-existent beings. These elderly ladies are so deeply interested in the state of health of these phantom members of the family that, when one of them dies or falls in love, they cannot sleep. Their relations are with phantoms; and the meaning of their lives consists in this: without them they would have nobody, life would not be worth living. In the winter they make mittens for their phantoms; and if, along the way, a baby phantom makes its appearance, the radio network offices are inundated with packages full of diapers, knit rompers and caps, which later, behind the backs of the donors, are donated to completely anonymous, but real, hospitalized children.
“How is Walt?”, someone asked one of these poor creatures in 1943.
“Prisoner of War in Germany”, she responded without hesitation.
The person who asked the question was confused. “In Germany? I thought he was in the Pacific.”
“Oh, you mean that Walt! Why didn’t you say so at first? I thought you meant Walt.”
“Walt” was a nationally well known figure in the soap opera Portia Faces Life and in a way a member of the family for any radio listener.
To many people, these hard working old ladies might seem merely comical or pathetic. To me, they are depressing; with their knitting needles, they are like the Grim Reaper in our world of phantoms. If we previously defined as “unilateral” the contradictory situation in which man experiences a supposed world, but without being capable of controlling it; while, on the other hand, the world just ignores man, although it talks to him endlessly, these Grim Reapers embody in the most shocking way the absurdity of this situation: on the one hand, they are not even at the level of unilaterality, since, otherwise, they would not knit anything; on the other hand, however, they seem to have accepted this as something normal: not even once have I ever heard them complain that their family of phantoms never did anything for them, that they just treat them like air, that there is no real contact and that they have accepted the role of the listener who listens to her own misfortunes on the radio. What is most regrettable and scandalous about this situation lies in the fact that the fictitious family really succeeds in replacing the real family; that it really can provoke, encompass and satisfy the anxieties and tenderness of the mother and grandmother that are expressed in the real family; a family that, on the other hand, being completely “imaginary”, does not take the least notice of the existence of its fans, that is, it makes fun of the real feelings that anyone can experience (and which it produces massively, in order that they be consumed in solitude).
Now I see that someone will object: “Why not? Why should we prevent these old ladies from enjoying such agreeable feelings? Is it not something good to have feelings? And are not the emotions that we experience good things? And are their sensations also phantoms and deceptions?” To this one can only respond, with a love of the outmoded truth and without any other basis, that whoever still lives with such real and agreeable feelings, which develop in a vacuum, that is, to which nothing real corresponds, is even more radically and scandalously deceived than someone who only lives on false opinions; and that lies are not better because those who are deceived, even with complete good faith, accept them as truths; lies have no other purpose and it is precisely by this means that they achieve their goal and their triumph. However, these addicts of phantoms are deceived with respect to their existence as persons, since for them subjectivity and world are definitively separated. And it is hard to decide what is the most scandalous thing about this: the fact that here a handful of sensations and the very love for one’s own grandchild is mechanically and massively produced and imposed on millions of women; or that all of these women need to love only the grandmother’s love instead of “her” grandchild (which in fact does not exist), that is, to be sensitive and sentimental.
The abuse that is inflicted here on the human dignity of feelings is depressing; the transformation of people of any age into receptors of sensations or into radio listeners or voyeurs is odious; and, finally, it is altogether disheartening that criticism of these phenomena should be considered to be a sign of spiteful envy.
For millennia, idols were capable of provoking and claiming (the abuse of) real feelings: respect and humility. This appears to have come to an end. So that now the place of the idols of the gods is occupied by imitations of men. The little knit rompers that are piling up in the headquarters of the radio broadcasters for children who do not exist are hardly different at all from the idolatrous offerings that in other times were deposited on the steps of the false altars. The abuse that is today inflicted on feelings is not less now than it was then. It is incomprehensible why indignation concerning this contemporary form of abuse should be any less vigorous and justified than the indignation directed at the abuses of the past.11
Modern ghost stories: the phantom world and the real world collide. A phantom is threatened.
The foolish old grandmothers, however, who are not really of this world anymore or who are only clinging to it because it is here that they have the opportunity of experiencing phantom feelings, represent a special case, one that is too pure. Only exceptionally do phantoms manage to fully overcome reality as a competitor, entirely replace it, and assure the monopoly of the emotions of the consumers. Usually something different happens, an intermediate case: the creatures of the two different worlds bump into each other, collide, compete, and merge. Of course, they are from two ontologically different worlds, not like in the stories (compared with the fantastic reality of today’s stories without imagination) of science fiction, creatures from two different planets. In short: the normal cases are ghost stories. I am not using this expression figuratively, since what perfectly applies to the essence and non-essence of the ghosts is the fact that, abandoning the society of their equals, they cross the threshold of their world, they come to our world and enter into conflict with the real. And that is what they are doing today. In fact, at every moment and in the world of each person, ghostly battles are being waged. If they often pass unnoticed it is not just because they are now a part of our everyday lives (just like the battles between the spirit and the flesh), but also because many of the creatures who compose the real world have been definitively overcome by phantoms, they are reproductions of phantoms, exactly the same as phantoms; therefore, because the diversity of the contenders has been disfigured by the victory of the phantoms. We do not have to offer proofs of the fact that innumerable real girls have adopted the appearance of images from the motion picture industry, because, if they had resigned themselves to appear for what they really are, they would be incapable of competing with the sex appeal of the phantoms and, in a consummately non-phantom way, that is, in their pitiful real lives, they would be relegated to a second rate existence.
A particularly noteworthy example of a collision between phantom and reality, that of the conflict between a television phantom and a citizen of London, was published not long ago in the newspapers. It went as follows:
There was—or still is—in London a woman, a petty bourgeois housewife, who was fascinated by a handsome television star, so much so that she never missed a chance to watch him on television at home. No department store sale could deter her, no threat from her husband could intimidate her: every morning, at a certain hour, after having bathed and washed with her Sunday soap and after having put on her best dress, even if only for a lover in effigie, her miserable little kitchen-dining room was transformed, for a heavenly fifteen minutes, into the main room of the house; and the whole business was very real for her.
If someone had asked her, of course, she would not have denied that she had to compete with a hundred thousand other women; but since she always watched the television program in private, that is, in “solitary mass consumption”, the experience of shared property (which would inevitably have been formed in the theater or the cinema) remained completely rudimentary. Briefly, she “had” something going on with him, something that was to her all the more pleasant insofar as it was he who had started it and had come calling upon her; he, who came to her every day and spoke with her; although on the other hand she would not have been able to deny that the affaire had something of a voyeuristic quality about it and that he was never going to profess his love for her; this alone makes it clear that the question is quite complicated and completely phantasmagorical. But we must also add that it involves a lover whose gallantry, charm, perpetual good humor and inexhaustible repertoire of flirtatious advances should have made it clear to her real husband (who worked at a low-level, high-stress job at the gas plant, and with whom she had up until that time lived without too much enthusiasm, but not especially miserably, either) that he could not logically entertain even the thought of successfully competing with such a rival. Before he discovered the truth, this real husband had begun to get on her nerves: she soon began to hate him as a matter of course, not only because he, evidently out of malice, when he came home from work, hungry, only demanded his food, just when her lover (who, due to his phantom nature, possessed the incomparable virtues of not ever requiring food or shouting at her) was getting ready for their evening rendez-vous. Thus, the real man and the phantom confronted one another, the collision took place, regardless of whether it was merely a phantom or semi-phantom collision, since the real man was gnashing his teeth while the phantom was still speaking in a tranquil and sweet tone and “he treated her like air” [that is, ignored her]; the real man had to contemplate how his woman was hanging on every word of the other man and the phantom did not have to do anything; the real man was defenseless because the other was nothing but a phantom; the phantom, on the other hand, was sovereign, for that very same reason. Thus, the stage of the confrontation between husband and lover was prepared for a clownish conclusion. He attempted to suppress his hatred; she threw fuel on the flames; and this not just once, but repeatedly: it was the regular theatrical prelude to what soon became a furious rage. The temptation to “teach her a lesson” once and for all was naturally very strong; but he could not do so, because he owned the television; and not only for that reason, but because it was his most precious possession, his pride and joy, his status symbol and, above all, he had not yet paid even half the installments; not to mention that watching it was his exclusive occupation and his only consolation in the evenings. Venting his rage would therefore be contrary to his own interests. Since there is nothing that conveys more malice than the fierce silent struggle between interests devoted to destruction and interests devoted to possession, nothing so productive of furious rage as repressed anger, in short, since he had to lash out at something, it was best to do so against something of little value which, at the same time, was yet more solid than the television; that is why he hit her. But this, too, was of no avail, since she absorbed the blow in silence, with the look of a martyr directed at her lover (who had not entered the room and was still talking sweetly); she was able to do this because, as the subsequent testimony before the court confirmed, her attacker had evidently never forgotten the fact that the woman’s power of resistance was limited—and thus its value had to be underestimated—that is, he did not hit her as hard as he could have. So he was unable to prohibit her from receiving further visits from the phantom; much less go back to her and inculcate their old love in her by force.
It is probable that for this uselessly infuriated man it would have been a hundred times better to find her with a living rival, with a proper competitor from the real world, even with one who had really seduced his wife, but one whom he could have really thrown down the stairs, rather than to see her with this immaterial entity to whom it was not prohibited to break up the peace of the home, a thing that infested the home, which, even though it did not eat, made you lose your appetite, which even, although not capable of love, destroyed his marriage, and if it had been a living rival he would not have seen his wife, who was once so simple, turned into such a nervous wreck. It is not surprising that, in the end, the desperate husband had no other remedy than to send an ultimatum to the accursed phantom, that is, to write a threatening letter saying, get out or else…. Since this alternative implied a death threat and the post office, unacquainted with the subtle difference between phantoms and real men, sent the letter to actor X, who had never even heard of the existence of his lover but nonetheless had to seriously concern himself with his non-phantom life, the epilogue of the whole affair was the Court’s judgment, which was published in the English press. But the jury is still out.
By means of its small format, television transforms every event into a synchronized stage set of bibelots.
To produce in the consumer a “non-serious seriousness”, as we said, and a “serious lack of seriousness”, is the positive intention of production, since only if the consumer is insidiously accustomed to this indecisive and oscillating situation, can he also be sure of himself as a mass-man, that is, as a man who is no longer capable of making any decisions. The indecision between being and appearance, which may itself be an incidental phenomenological property of the broadcast, is used to morally opportune effect.
How the fictitious is transformed into something horrible or half-serious has already been demonstrated by the Old Ladies, who are knitting rompers for phantoms, and Orson Welles’ radio broadcast; how the fictitious as something half-serious comes into conflict with the real and, also, how it can even imply real and quite serious consequences, has been illustrated by the example of the phantom who received a death threat. Now we must show, conversely, how the real is transformed into something non-serious and innocuous, that is, how it is banalized. We shall thus return to the phenomenon we previously discussed so that we will now fully understand it. But unlike our first analyses, here we do not have to make any general diagnoses about banalization, but instead we have to reveal the nature of a technical ruse employed by the latter; the ruse to which we refer is the small format of the images that appear on the screen.
It will naturally be objected that the small format is not a technical ruse at all, but a technical shortcoming; and, furthermore, provisional, since this problem can be solved. And this is true. But it is doubtful whether anyone would want to do this or that it will ever be done.12 And this is because its minuscule character, even though this was not its original intention, has proven to be highly opportune, a welcome defect, since it has performed a very specific task: circulating the macrocosmos as microcosmos and transforming every world event into a stage set of bibelots.13 I say “bibelots”, because the miniature format of the screen now performs the function that was in other times performed by bibelots. Those little porcelain busts of Napoleon, for example, that were displayed on the fireplace mantels of our great-grandparents, did more to dilute the effect of the catastrophe of the Grande Armée than the most voluminous historical tomes. Today, however, the same process is achieved more easily and quickly, since if you want to make someone believe that there is a naive existence in an innocent world, you do not use the most naïve version a posteriori, but at the same time as the event, as a synchronic bibelot (when not even “in advance” and, for reasons of prophylaxis, before the event). As soon as we sit in front the little screen, we are immediately caused to wear spectacles that, just like opera glasses in reverse, allow us to see any scene of this world as innocent and scaled to human dimensions; or more precisely—since the majority of today’s gifts are camouflaged obstacles—we are incapacitated for seeing in any other way, that is, they prevent us from recognizing that the world, events, decisions, outrages, of which we are transformed into the witnesses and victims, are incalculable, and indescribable. What this gives us is a false general view; false, not because by its means we “overlook” (in the sense that “we do not see”) this or that particular event, but to the contrary, because it makes us believe that, by its means, “we take in at a glance” (in the sense of “mentally grasping”) the incalculable immensity of the world. Even if the screen could optically deliver what the philosophical systems of the past tried to offer—that is: the totality of the world—this “totality” of the world would not be, in the Hegelian sense, the “real”; and this, because it would be the totality, that is, because it would conceal [and distort] the magnitude of our world and the immensity of our actions due to the panoramic model. The television screens are certainly not the only artifacts that commit this fraud of proportion: maps seem to do the same thing. But maps present themselves honestly and clearly as reduced panoramic vistas, while the scenes on television, which we see at the same time that they are happening, claim to be the events themselves.
In today’s cultural criticism, there is too little emphasis on the fact that, together with sensationalism, it is true that anti-sensationalism is also a characteristic of our times, strictly allied with it and no less dangerous; while the former falsely exaggerates, the latter placates; if for the former every mosquito bites like an elephant, the latter turns every elephant into a mosquito. As soon as one sits in front of the screen, any attempt to remove oneself from the conversion of the world into a phantom caused completely by the ruse of reduction now becomes difficult and for anyone who attempts to undertake such a procedure, it is an arduous task. Anyone who has ever had the dubious pleasure of watching an automobile race which is offered up on the screen like a puppet show, will incredulously have to assert that, until the fatal accident, it was not so bad: one knows that what one has just experienced there has really taken place at the very same moment, while you watched it on the screen; but one only knows this; this knowledge has no life; one cannot connect the diminutive image with what occurred so far away somewhere, nor can one connect the now of here with the now of there; that is, one cannot conceive of the now as something really shared [as “one”], with a single now-there-and-here; this is why our emotional response is also small and imaginary, considerably smaller even than the emotional effects that are produced in us by merely fictitious catastrophes that take place in the theater.
Having said this, this coincidence does not have to take place. What must happen and does in fact happen is rather that by way of the televised image we are dispossessed of the capacity for thinking of the latter as real, and, in general, of assuming responsibility for the fact that “in addition”, in addition to what is delivered to us, there is also the real event. The purpose of the broadcast of images, the delivery of the total image of the world—and here we return to a formulation of our first few paragraphs—consists in turning off the real and doing so precisely with the help of the supposedly real itself, that is, in making the world disappear under its image.
It is certainly not possible for us to imagine an atomic explosion. But it is equally certain that the frustrated attempt to imagine it or the despair caused by this frustration is incomparably closer to the reality, and more suited to the immensity, of such an event than the perception, seemingly “present”, of the televised image, which falsifies the inconceivable, because it is a panoramic view, and it fools us, because it situates us within the image.
- 1 “In conformance with” corresponds to the German preposition nach, which appears in the German term Nachbild, which we translate as “copy”, which follows the “model” [Vor-bild]. [Note of the Spanish Translator.]
- 2 During the production of a television program I had the dubious good luck to see and hear an actor who was performing a sketch in a house next door and, at the same time, his seven projections on television. What was interesting about this experience was: 1) the fact that, in my sight, the actor was divided into seven identical brothers, but only had one voice, which echoed in both houses; 2) the fact that the images were more natural than the original, since the latter, in order to confer a natural aura to the reproductions, had to be “made up”; and 3) (and this, more than just interesting, was shocking) the fact that the seven incarnations of the actor no longer seemed strange: this is the kind of normality that we expect from mass produced products. [Author’s note.]
- 3 Events of subconscious relevance, however much they may be present in our body, are not “present”, but only simultaneous; and not because they are not consciously present, but rather because they are not “presented” [they are not “data”], because they are irrelevant. [Author’s note.]
- 4 Here the author introduces the terms, Welt-freund (equivalent to Menschen-freund, a lover of man, which we have translated as “friend of the world”), Zeitgenosse (contemporary of the era) and Jetzgenosse (contemporary of the now). [Note of the Spanish Translator.]
- 5 Franz Werfel (Prague, 1890 – Beverly Hills, 1945). A Czech author who wrote in German; a Jew, who fled into exile in France and then the United States. He wrote lyrical poetry of an expressionist type, but he later shifted towards historical and political realism. [Author’s note.]
- 6 If we are justified to see in the tumor a sui generis disease, i.e.: the situation in which the central force of the organism is no longer in any condition to maintain all its cells under its control, so that the latter begin to multiply independently, then the autonomization of the particular functions that we are discussing here is the psychic analogon of the tumor. [Author’s note.]
- 7 This expression indicates the passive sense, which is conveyed by the German construction beschäftigt werden. [Note of the Spanish Translator.]
- 8 In this connection, see the work by Beckett, Waiting for Godot, in which the author causes the actors to put on and take off their shoes and exchange them with the other actors, so that their hands have something to do. [Author’s note.]
- 9 In this case, to be occupied (besetzt, with military connotations) underscores even more strongly the passive aspect of being kept busy (beschäftigt, which refers to having something in one’s hands, being entertained). [Spanish Translator’s Note.]
- 10 At the same time, in the background of the “simultaneously passive player”, completely distorted, of course, one finds the ideal of the maximum output of work and the principle of economy. Translated to the world of leisure, this means: by the sweat of one’s brow one seeks to provide oneself with as much leisure as possible; producing at the same time everything that is fun: crossword puzzles and gum and music on the radio, etc. And this because otherwise leisure is wasted. [Author’s note.]
- 11 This fraudulent provocation of excitement and the organization of substitute satisfactions, which flow into a vacuum, recalls a habit that is normal in a completely different sector of modern life; the principle that lies at the basis of these two very disparate procedures is identical: as everyone knows, today it is the usual practice to allow stud bulls to mount, instead of cows, so-called dummies, that is, fakes or fictions. The term, fake [Attrappe] comes from attrapper=to catch; [and attrapper comes from the same root as the English word, trap]: so, one allows the bulls to mount the trap, they are allowed to “fall into the trap”. And this is because their inclination, while they were in their primitive state, was to go about this business with a great deal of waste, that is, in a way that was not profitable; because the process of animal reproduction had fallen scandalously behind the reproductive ideal of industry, something that is no longer the case, insofar as the process is captured, attrappé. The fake is therefore an apparent reality in the service of commodity production. In this case an apparent piece of meat at the service of the meat industry. In a similar way, today the sensations of men, up until now “squandered”, are placed at the service of industry. And when feelings, for a lack of a partner, have withered, industry produces new feelings, creating fake imitations of partners, since it knows that these feelings in turn require the production of new fakes, which keep them active. [Author’s note.]
- 12 Of course, the temptation posed by purely technical possibilities of improvement is sometimes so irresistible that they are implemented despite the fact that, in this way, the desired social function is not at all furthered, and is even undermined. On the other hand, however, large corporations have often purchased the rights to technical innovations in order to suppress them. The history of technology is also a history of “suppressions”, despite the fact that the public relations image of technology is one of unbridled development. [Author’s note.]
- 13 Unlike the “sublime” [the “great”], which beginning with Longinus became a topic to be addressed by philosophy, the “small” has generally gone almost entirely unnoticed. A strange exception is that of the young Burke, who in a way, reformulating the meaning of rococo, directly identified the small with the beautiful. This identification is based on the experience of: small=inoffensive=open=defenseless=pathetic=beautiful=not a threat to our freedom. Since “freedom”, at least modo negativo, is exhausted in its determination, this “beauty” evidently preserves a certain affinity with that of Kant, something that becomes more clear insofar as for Kant the “great”, that is, the “sublime”, which exceeds all human proportion, represents the concept opposed to the “beautiful”. In contemporary esthetics the small hardly exists at all, despite the fact that, as beautiful, gracious or light, it represents for much of humanity the only esthetic category. [Author’s note.]