There’s the big screen of cinema and there are the small household screens. Television teeters between them. And we should really see television as a particular (and hybrid) case of a general screenisation which is changing our relation with images.
If the channel hopper was honest, he’d say this: as soon as his eyes leave the television screen, they dive into the greenish darkness of the electronic type writer, where what he will write will inevitably appear. In other words, he moves from a screen to another, from one with flickering images to another with scintillating letters. Television is not only a smaller cinema, it is the intermediary stage between the theatre screen and the household (and now utilitarian) screen. Yes it shows images, but it also shows many written things, which can be read. The succession of all the logos, jingles, subtitles and program titles occupies a good chunk of viewing time, and, without them, without their constant punctuation, the viewers would be lost in front of images which are rarely capable of existing by themselves.
It may be worse than that. For everything on television tends to become ritual, to settle in its own being and its own code, to be a sign and nothing else. There are very few human actions (actions which can be executed by a human body) that have been domesticated by the small screen of television. Ways to look, to read, to stand or sit, to stay in the camera field, to clap or merely to occupy space, are in incredibly small numbers. We discuss a lot the small differences between legless newsreaders, but we don’t often mention how similarly they stand and speak. We should really consider them like a modern heraldry, a gallery of living shields, which ought to be read before they are even seen.
Strangely, we talk a lot about ‘images’ when we spend most of our time listening and decoding. It took many years of semiology in the 60s to learn how to ‘read’ and ‘decrypt’ films in order not to be credulous of the effects they generate, but the era of decoding is truly starting 20 years later. The number of things that each of us effortlessly ‘decodes’ (from advertising to quotation, from small hints to second degree) has become greater than the things we simply accept to ‘look at’ (at best, we binge on special effects at some Imax cinema). And this gain of intelligence is perhaps becoming sickening. It’s as if we had been given a bad hand, and, instead of bringing us closer – more lucid – to the cinema pictures which deceived our parents, this know-how of the codes had unknowingly prepared us to look at all types of screens, including screens with letters. Reading ‘acts as a screen’ to vision, rapid decoding acts as a screen to raw sensations, and regular occurrences of familiar codes act as a screen to the encounter with the not-yet-coded. Yet, a true image is defined by the challenge it will always throw down to the reading that simply attempts to decode it.
Besides, it’s absolutely possible that, to the contrary, we witness a certain return of the image onto these other screens (like the one this article is typed on) – a perverse return where the imaginary is claiming its due. Letters are also images. And if we hadn’t lost the art of calligraphy, we wouldn’t oppose so strongly images to writing. And then there is language, this language common to all which we had gotten used to make ours on the pretext that, whether handwriting or typewriting, we had put the materiality of writing in-between us (blackened ribbons, typos and blotches, strikeouts and annotations, carbon paper, etc). Between the hand, typing the text, and the gaze, sustaining the sentence, from a no man’s land full of all possible enunciations, the language works without us, like the image of a memory that we would merely draw into.
In order to understand the adventures/avatars of the contemporary image (which only a few filmmakers are trying to salvage from the mannerist decoding), it is useful to have typed on keyboards and chatted with unnamed others on the Minitel. Sexy chat-lines are, you guessed it, the most instructive, since their interactive game (and we know how much television, in its desire to stick to the public, wishes to be ever more interactive) relies precisely on the lack of images, which is the condition of imaginary abundance. To communicate with another via these two unknown elements: the way the other uses the (French) language and the way he/she (will) use his/her body (sexually) is like a technological horizon, both hot and cold, of a world where there wouldn’t be time to go via the mediation of images. And this gain of time ushers us even faster towards greater opaqueness.
First published in Libération,
23 December 1987. Re-printed in La Maison Cinéma et le Monde; 3. Les années Libé 1986-1991, POL, pp: 733-5. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar, 2013.