Kevin Warstadt, Edward Connery Lathem ’51 Digital Library Fellow at the Dartmouth College Library, muses on his experiences with television, inspired by articles in the latest issue of the Journal of E-Media Studies.
In the recent special issue (vol. 5, 2016) of the Journal of E-Media Studies published by the Dartmouth College Library, contributors explore the early history of television from a number of different angles, promoting a comprehensive view of the medium and its societal impact.
I can only inadequately express the impact of television on my own life. How many nights I spent camped out, snacks in hand, mesmerized by those flickering images on the wall, I can’t say. Though often taken for granted, television was a persistent presence in my life. It entertained and informed, provided continuity and structure.
Beyond my personal interactions with television, it was also a social thing. I remember when my family would gather around the screen weekly to watch the latest big show. It became a ritual, a time to think about people and morality. It became a kind of instant mythology that gave meaning to a world which often seemed frightening and inconsistent. When I grew older I watched “The Sopranos” with my father, one of the few things we were able to bond over. And it left the home as well. We spoke about the goings-on of our favorite shows over the water cooler. We saw horrors and beauty. It was hatred and fear and love and hope, everything art should be. We felt pride when we saw men walk on the moon. We felt the terror as the twin towers fell. We had these visceral, unifying experiences, all because of television.
Elihu Katz discusses this unifying effect of television in his interview with Doron Galili. “…television truly lived up to its promise—the occasions of uniting a whole nation, allowing everybody to feel part of some great national event, burying differences for the moment, feeling a thrill of simultaneity—of actually being there.” He also makes note of the formation of hegemony, the drawback of such a powerful force. As the founding director of Israeli television, Katz can speak to that power as much as anyone.
Television weatherman Nils Curry Melin painting a van Gogh-inspired weather forecast. Skit from Multikonst—hela Sverige går på utställning (1967). Still image: SVT—Sveriges Television AB.
Whereas Katz covers the social influence of television, Åhlén writes about the medium as a tool for cultural education. In the case of the Swedish program, Multikonst, television proved an innovative means of spreading appreciation of modern art. However, the creators of Multikonst saw television as only this; a tool. Åhlén writes, “Television was thought to be able to become an important part in the contact-making but never to actually substitute this contact; it could provide information about art, bolster engagement for and create interest in art, but it could never actually be art, because art was chiefly considered a product of an artist’s work.” They can hardly be blamed for failing to recognize the potential of the fairly young medium, but to the contemporary eye it’s clear that television can be art in its own right.
It seems that the devotees of the high arts are quick to dismiss television. I must admit that when I talk about its influence on my own development I do so with a hint of shame. Even the word itself, television, seems disconnected from the old, artisanal world. It’s a product of mechanization, of industry, and it’s easy, especially with the advent of ubiquitous reality television and product placement, to dismiss it as a kind of opiate of the masses. But it’s so much more than that.
It is surreal to look through the images of old TV sets on McVoy’s website for the Museum of Early Television, and see the art deco style of them. They have the whisper of optimism, straight lines going up up up to the skies, suggesting infinite possibilities. There is magic in those old boxes, that made living rooms, homes, and neighborhoods center around them. Even in photos they possess an inexplicable weight, and in their dim glow is the specter of a past wonder that was lost in the trudge through postmodernism.
Image from La photographie électrique à distance, directed by Georges Méliès, 1908, Star Film Co., France
It is enchanting to peruse Koszarski and Galili’s filmography and watch the dancing ghosts of Georges Méliès and Fritz Lang. The figures within seem alive with their explosive movements and exaggerated facial expressions, and yet, in silence, they seem so far away, trapped in the past.
And there they remain. As visual media advances they’ll grow farther away, moving ever nearer the first shadows on the wall. But they’re not lost. The studies of early television presented within this edition of the Journal of e-Media Studies and others like them allow us to hold on to the optimism of the past. And like those artists who dreamt of a technological age, we can use that past to look in new ways ever toward the future.
About the author:
Kevin Patrick Warstadt holds the Edward Connery Lathem ’51 Digital Library Fellowship for 2016-2017 at the Dartmouth College Library. He studied film and history at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and holds a BA in Science, Technology, and Culture. He is a student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth, and is completing his thesis on Theodore Roosevelt and American Expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Recent publications include the short story “In the Desert” and the poem “Response to Xanadu,” both published in The MALS Journal.
In his work as Digital Library Fellow, Kevin handled the mark-up for each of the articles in this issue, and this article was inspired by that deep work with the texts!
About the Dartmouth College Library Publishing Program:
The Dartmouth College Library’s Digital Publishing Program focuses on providing open access, online publishing of scholarly publications that are created by Dartmouth faculty or students, or are published by Dartmouth.