Jacques Ellul’s 1954 La technique ou l’enjeu (Trans. The Technological Society) is typical of its time for a deep pessimism regarding technology, as these sections on Broadcasting and Television show:
Man, emptied by the technical mechanism of all personal interests, sometimes finds himself at home. What shall he talk about? Man has always had one unfailing subject of conversation, life’s vexations. Not fear, nor anguish, despair or passion. All that has always been suppressed in his subconscious. But he has always been able to talk companionably about vexatious things, hale on his vines, mildew, machinery out of order, a troublesome prostate, and so forth. Now technique intervenes, repairs everything, and creates a world in which everything works well, or well enough. Even if some petty vexations persist, the individual feels no need to speak of them and turns toward the efficient silence-fillers, television and radio, prodigiously useful refuges for those who find that family life has become impossible . . . Television doubtless facilitates material reunion. Because of it the children no longer go out in the evenings. But members of the family are indeed all present materially, but centred on the television set, they are unaware of one another . . . it is no longer necessary for the members of a family to have anything at all to do with one another or even to be conscious of the fact that family relations are impossible. The television shuts up the individual in an echoing mechanical universe in which he is alone . . . No more face to face encounters, no more dialogue. In a perpetual monologue by means of which he escapes the anguish of silence and the inconvenience of neighbours, man finds refuge in the lap of technique, which envelops him in solitude and at the same time reassures him with all its hoaxes. Television, because of its power of fascination and its capacity of visual and auditory penetration, is probably the technical instrument which is most destructive of personality and human relations. (Ellul 378-380)
Ellul’s critique suggests that TV has become a technological go-between that insinuates itself as the medium through which all social relations now pass. TV has only apparently brought people together through the hoax of mediation, which in fact keeps people irrevocably apart. In this respect it is worth noting that there are a number of TV programs that rather obviously thematise this mediating function. I suspect that most TV contains at least an implicit acknowledgement of its own role. We can, after Frederick Jameson, call it the “auto-referential” function. Two American drama serials can exemplify it for us.
Sliders involves a group of four people, three men and one woman, who are destined through technological advancement gone wrong to travel amongst a potentially infinite number of alternative universes. Each episode begins with the arrival on a new world (always some version of California), as the four come leaping through an oval portal apparently ripped into mid-air, and ends with a departure in the same style. Between arrival and departure each week the group of four must solve some serious social problem before leaving. The entrance/exit route, the “portal,” opens in mid-air at a certain pre-arranged time (three-day intervals) triggered by the use of a small remote-control device in the hands of one of the four. Each week opens with a voice-over asking the hypothetical question “What if there was a portal …?” And the voice goes on (in simulated child-like wonder) to outline the conditions of this generic science-fiction premise. Each world is the same place, is populated by the same people and exists in the same time-period, but “everything else is different.” And what if, the voice concludes, you cannot find your way home? The premise rather obviously reproduces the experience of television—the portal, the remote control, the different fictionalised worlds—and even emphasises the disappearance of “home” beneath the multiplicity of representations (i.e., there’s no reality beyond the ones you get from the TV). The general message of TV seems to be an answer to the question begged, “what if?” The answer is always, “there is! You can!” The dimension that viewers are directed towards, however, concerns the “ethical usefulness” code. These TV surfers are good for the communities they land amongst. Thinly veiled versions of late twentieth century America are represented in terms of utter social disaster, which must be mended before the nation can be restored to its pristine state. In one episode, for instance, they arrive at Christmas time on a world dominated by shopping malls, where subliminal advertising broadcast on huge TV screens forces consumers into irremediable credit debt. The subliminal advertising myth is potent. It detracts from the otherwise “bona fide” direct presentations of ordinary advertising and, by extension, media representation generally. Subliminal is bad. But direct is good and honest. So a sleight of hand distances what looks like an exact representation of radical capitalism and puts it into an “other world,” a fictionalisation of reality. TV’s role here is of course subtly refigured as a benevolent one (not to mention exciting), a perfect exemplar for Ellul’s thesis in so far as the destruction of human relations represented by the episode is undercut by the allegorical representation of the role of TV as saving/mediating force.
Touched by an Angel serves virtually the same function as Sliders. Three “angels” insinuate themselves into people’s lives whenever there is trouble between them. Trouble, in every case, has been caused by lack of communication between parties. After several episodes, the failure of communication has become a quite tediously systematic thesis. Thus the angels serve the precise function of mediating between loved ones who for whatever reason have ceased to communicate. It’s not difficult to see, then, that the angels, in a classic auto-referential pattern, represent the medium that has made them possible, the fictionalising TV. TV (angels) facilitates communication where communication has broken down (because of TV).
For a further example of the ways in which TV thematises and even satirizes itself see my reading of the British variant of the popular Blind Date.