Foucault and television

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

What bothers me is the quality of French television. It’s true! It is one of the best in the world unfortunately!…
What bothers and irritates me horribly in France, is that you are obliged to look at the program in advance to know what you can’t miss, and you have to arrange your evening as a result.
And then there is Le Pain Noir on Mondays. Result: every Monday is booked up … It is this which is the strength of television. People end up living according to its schedules. The news has been delayed by a quarter of an hour: well, you know that restaurants will see their diners arrive a quarter of an hour later.’

Michel Foucault, (1994) [1975] ‘A quoi rêvent les philosophes?’. In Dits et Ecrits vol. II. Paris: Gallimard, p. 705. This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell

Foucault talks about having to program one’s life in terms of the television schedule. Of course he was saying this in the days when there were no cheap ways of recording television and there were only three television channels in France – all government run. Foucault also talks entertainingly about a trip to America where he was able to sample the vast range of ten channels on offer, all showing rubbish (‘it was somewhat degrading using your brain to watch that’) – but with the advantage nonetheless that he could pleasantly surf from channel to channel.

Foucault waxes lyrical in the best fan traditions about Le Pain noir – a lavish high quality historical miniseries with a cast of thousands, based on a multi-volume saga by Georges-Emmanuel Clancier. This series traces the life and times of a female rural peasant who is forced to become an urban worker. Her life plays out against the backdrop of a number of major historical events in France from 1880 to 1936.

In 2009, however, the musician and artist Brian Eno claimed, indeed militantly declared, that television was dead because its rigid programming had been superseded by the current possibilities for on demand delivery of content. In my view, however, the fixed schedule of television is precisely its advantage. It connects people through a shared sociability of common and simultaneous viewership. It also exposes the viewer to things they might never otherwise have come across locked within the confines of their own choices and opens their eyes onto a wider world. There is still a role for television as it currently stands in terms of these social functions.

2 thoughts on “Foucault and television

  1. Hi Clare,

    I agree that TV programming will retain its value for some people. The structured time slots provide security and a sense of routine for people to escape, and yes, learn new things. It is also free in countries such as Australia.

    Eno was a tad presumptuous but I suspect his statement was more of a wish than a prediction. Online delivery provides more critical thinking than TV, and is in my view more desirable as you can access more information when you want it. You can also access a better quality of information such as alternative news media.

    Shared sociability or imagined community through viewing can also be positive in the sense of national appeals, triumphs and issues, but negative with the consistent promulgation of murder mystery shows, stereotyping and propaganda (to name a few). This can work to alienate people from their community and create a realtime fear of murder and fear.

    John

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  2. Hi John,

    You raise a number of really interesting points. I agree that television can be negative if it is used as a propaganda tool – one has only to think of North Korea. But in most other countries there is a choice of viewing – even if limited on free to air. As an aside, I don’t actually mind British crime shows -which for me function as morality plays, but I do find the American ones with all the initials – CSI, NCIS, Law and Order etc etc – extremely tedious. In my own case the latter generate a fear of death by boredom, rather than death by violence.

    I’m not sure I agree with you about the critical superiority of online delivery. One has to consider that it is more difficult to access than television – either because people don’t have the technical know how or the research know how to find the good stuff. Further, in some countries or financial brackets many people have no access at all to computers. Thus in many ways this way of accessing information is still only available to an educated elite.

    For many of those people who do use the net I suspect the internet functions most like a giant encyclopedia and phone directory with only a fraction using it as a serious alternative news source. Personally speaking my main source of news on current affairs is television and newspaper rather than the net. But for more specialist academic stuff I find the net is indeed the best.

    Not everything on television is dross and it has a capacity to raise public issues for wide discussion (for example The Four Corners documentary series in Australia) as well to entertain.

    Every time a new communication technology appears – people declare the older ones are dead, but they usually survive but have to adjust their roles in relation to all the others on offer. Another reason I disagree with Brian Eno on this issue

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