Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanks to Thom Donovan, David Buuck, and Arun Chandra, Elizabeth Williamson and Kate Arvin, this week has been a re up (for me) of the question of what a poetics of the television interview show genre/form might look like. In a recent conversation about potential poetics theater projects, Thom mentioned to David and I that he was planning on teaching Glenn Beck in his class: from Beck's rhetoric to the show's aesthetic and narrative strategies, its picnoleptic performativity as both citation and indication of a particular discourse going on in the production of such shows, as well as the larger sociopolitical landscape. We mused about "performing" Beck somehow, and David proposed this what if: what if we performed the gestures of a particular Beck interview or monologue without words, stripping the thing momentarily of its content, to, in Buuck's words, "do a 'dancerly' Beck," then play the particular show, immediately after, content and all, to whatever audience happened to be.  There's definitely analysis potential in the setup, or some version of it, tho nothing's yet been worked out more than an initial set of musings.  

This conversation combined for an interesting convergence of new media discussions I've had this week, however, as composer/collaborator Arun Chandra proposed that I take a look at some of the old William Buckley "Firing Line" interview transcripts (most available online at the Stanford Archive), see if we might not be able to work with one or two as grounds for a new performative work.  I'd never seen Firing Line, only knew of its existence as part of the Buckley machine, so when Arun sent us the Buckley-Chomsky interview transcript (1969), I thought about Thom and David's ideas, decided it might be interesting to perform the work as an occultation for the book I'm working on, in which one of the sections involves staging "distraction zones in miniature," i.e., activities/rituals metaphorical of the corporate-surveillance industrial complex that would serve to deliberately distract me, discomfort me, or otherwise cause difficulty trying to write thru the experience (full notes on the section of the book are in a post below).   

The ritual I decided on was very simple: someone (Elizabeth Williamson) would print out the transcript and read it aloud (without me having heard it or read it before), and I would perform the role of poet-as-cynically ironic-interruptor, recording my interjections, then typing them up.  I would take on the persona of the audience member who would blurt out whatever thoughts came to mind within that circumscribed persona as response to the information that xe was getting.  The occultation, then, would be a kind of analysis of what is partly occulted, hidden--all the visual elements of the television interview--with the hope that this removal would reveal some structures, narrative and rhetorical.  I would only have the auditory experience of transcription (remnant, archive) of an event to go on, and in turn I would further mediate the mediation, and as such, be one point in a line of mediations where the archive itself is a dissipative structure.  

So, we performed the occultation last nite (results below), then watched the video recording of the interview.  I expected the poem to be an obvious departure from what would have been the case had we performed the same sort of analysis, using the same persona, but in response to the video recording.  That is, I expected to be greatly "in the dark" as to the tenor of the discussion, its content, the gestural modalities of Firing Line (an apt name viz. poetry).  Instead what I noticed in watching the video was that I confused oftentimes who was speaking--Chomsky or Buckley--despite the script's prompts.  My experience of hearing the script read to me was a numbing one, a sense of vacuity and one-upsmanship, an acute boredom.  And the viewing afterwards was not at all dissimilar.  

So I've been thinking about the poetics of the television news interview.  One often reads (I'm apt to say in my classes) about the hyper-visual culture of this present tense, its resulting paradigm shift viz. the corrosive conventions of cable news.  We are, so goes the line, living in a time deeply dependent on a visual signification process that is spectacle-driven, almost to a complete neglect of other modalities, hence, forms of information construction.  Thus, the result for current events, specifically, the cable news interview, is a degraded, fast-paced, opinion-oriented sound-bite organ, of sorts, one that flashes right at the threshold of the seizure in order to disseminate talking points that private corporations or their beholden law makers have just moments before delivered by facsimile.   I think some versions of this negative critique are basically right, but I couldn't help but notice during this process of poetic re-scription that there are as many interesting similarities between the conventions of the television interview in the 1960s-70s (the Buckley) and those of now (the Beck, or the late, widely mourned Crossfire, which was modeled not on Firing Line, as the name would suggest, but on ESPN's early interview shows). 

Certainly, on the level of formal presentation in the interest of preserving and expanding an audience, the differences are obvious, and have been treated beautifully by many writers not at moment blogging.  For one, Buckley's audiences, as comparable to NPR's current audiences, were presumed to be highly educated relative to the overall population.  Buckley's demographic, a liberal AND conservative one, if one compares it to the neoliberal NPR audience of today, was a self-ascribed "intellectual" audience, while one's overall knowledge-base of various subject matters one is thought to need in order to follow, for example, Fresh Air, is considerably less than one would have needed to follow Firing Line.  One does not typically need know anything about the subjects of a particular Fresh Air episode, and in fact, questions to interviewees are very much geared towards the audience developing that background knowledge via the interview itself.  One might conclude from this that Americans are less or more poorly educated now than in the 60s, which, access to quality of education aside, is at odds with the number of college-educated people who make up the so-called "potential pool demographic."  My sense, looking at the timeline, is that it's deregulation that's the major culprit in refashioning the television news genre, what counts as news, and so forth. Firing Line, for instance, changed its moderated format at the same time CNN was coming into being, and this coincides with the 1987 elimination of the fairness doctrine and the 1992 Cable Act.  And of course there are many, many more differences one can discuss as one charts the trajectory of this genre from the 60s to the present, and indeed these histories have been discussed at length by both activists and academics for a long time now. 

I'm interested here, tho, in the overlap.  My boredom with the Buckley script was not born out a disinterest in what was supposedly being discussed--the efficacies of Vietnam.  Rather, what I reacted to, I think, was the obvious lack of any real discussion.  Vietnam was discussed but not discussed; consequentialist hypotheticals about whether Chomsky would kill Hitler, and whether this was righteous, dominate the script. So jumpy, vague, and patently pretentious are both sparring partners, once the occultation had finished, I caught myself trying to understand why so many had apparently tuned into this show.  It was very difficult to cynically interject in any poetic tense, as there wasn't much content that I could track. It's the visuality, its centrality to the form, that I'm missing, I thought.  The problem was I couldn't see it!  So, I was lost.

But then I watched the interview, and, as mentioned, nearly the same phenomena occurred: with the small exception of my intrigue with its "oldness" or evidentiary power, I was bored in nearly the same way.  Well, I thought, it must be because my visual cortex is so habituated to the picnolepsy of American candy culture.  Perhaps the slowness of the 1969-era video studio technology was just inadequate to capture my attention.  So I spent a couple hours watching contemporary stuff.  And the same experience arose time and time again.  Crossfire, even Beck, had a narrative arc similar to Buckley, with the great exception of the level of discourse, as well as diversity of opine-ers (it's apparent that somewhere along the line, producers and executives realized it was a safer bet, and just as ratings-effective, to bring on guests who always agreed the show's host).  The wild contortions of Beck and the gesticulations of Carlson are embedded in, maybe limited to, Buckley's face.  The power differential of interviewer-interviewee is propped by body position, height adjustment of the chairs (interviewer a little taller in all cases, save for Beck, where the interviewee is most often confined to the frame of a wall mounted screen).  Where Buckley wields the notepad as power prop, Carlson and Beck both use the split screen, with the power point graphic displaying bullet points, often the interviewees own words.  

The major difference beyond what I've thus far mentioned, as far as I can tell so far, is the pace. Though Firing Line is certainly rapid fire, full of quick cuts, and is, as its progeny, a 1 hour long block of pseudo news, and in no way serialized such that any so called "rich" sense of any topic can realistically be said to have been gained.  In all cases picnolepsy is both narrative strategy and characteristic.  The critique of the cable news show, whether an interview show or some other program, is that one can find scant evidence of any decent journalism.  True, journalism need not factor, or in any case factors negatively, into whether the program will make money. But the "schizophrenic" and manipulative content-less features of the genre, it seems, is what we are habituated, or coerced, into seeking out.  As a market, the television news interview program trades in distraction--like all entertainment, we are buyers only insofar as the commodity can convince us that it is "turning off" our brains and that this is desirous, allows us to quote end quote escape.  I'm interested to hear more from people who watched Firing Line when it was on the air, because I have a sneaking suspicion that, as with today's corporate news engines, people were tuning in to tune out.  Perhaps not consciously so, but this initial hypothesis to be tested further, for me, is what the occultation revealed.  What I find fascinating, however, is that, like all good commodities, the television news interview program is the imagerie of its viewer--it seemingly paradoxically needs be itself "distracted" in order to distract.  Or, the program itself must appear to be as picnoleptic as we, as viewers are.  The moment the program shifts from fragmentary and frantic into a sustained meditation, or we are told that it does by its meta-strategies and conventions, demand disappears--we go looking for another refractive mirror through which we can see what is familiar, precisely that which is our half-conscious, liquidated isomorph. 

8. (F-ing Line)


once upon a time we will have dreamed a mouth that sees, proliferating private eye singing of the great mundane venture: “a beautiful dis-traction a blanket noise, yr we does the dirty work by rate” unintelligible see yr white tie lacks so stains re-members all those broken dolls unintelligible, both talking both talking simultaneously i’m the occasional hitler this is a homemade porno, & when i close my eyes i can almost taste you beginning to perform the undress  laughter  you know we’re still in vietnam (?) laughter i gift my arm to you, torture this flesh tare it tare from skin to bone then tell me please tell me what it feels like to be at war both talking i once had a boyfriend who stabbed his eye out with his own penis in order to prove a point about tolerance




self inflicted penis blindness is a responsible terrorism, one hole patched with duty free gauze, i sing about self infliction: “yr be-ing is a euclidian plane talk skimming smooth surface without capacity to mend or break” laughter enveloped by american policy a neo gothic office building in tuscon spits out e-mails with the subject line “you’ve been wounded, it’s ok, you can bomb them now” laughter bumper sticker idea: i heart imagined depravity in starched television studio while two gentlemen stab each other strategically never fatal the site it sings of categories: “i am prepared to distinguish between a conceptual coca cola atrocity & a factual coca cola atrocity” unintelligible & a voteforme sign in my window that says “panglossian neoliberal” laughter inaudible penis blinded can’t can’t see -you, hands face eyes words fail a romantic historicism laughter wait! bumper sticker idea: bring greek peasant collared, leashed doglike stage right feed pet make a spectacle make an example a category draw us a picture of yr sitting down framework else yr wasting time we have little time to waste time is wasting me beyond that expensive backlit moon




he said, he says, different interests they say different interests i’m hearing a graveyard of public trusts but there’s no discernible voice in ear-piece, & “so i think terrorism,” this dreaming thing laughter the government on monday & tuesday military intervention on monday & tuesday differentiated from economic law the market the law the decimating abstraction projected like a ragged false tooth on the wall of yr non-existent stately apartment living room bumper sticker idea: gotta sneaking suspicion reality t.v. has always been a counter insurgency




our “we” is so proverbial it’s got its own patron saint laughter  ask yrself when you sit down & plug in what  did the vichy government taste like? both talking simultaneously how to select a government: click & drag  unintelligible bumper sticker idea: we never occupied santo domingo we were simply vacationing there laughter when we talk about iraq, we don’t talk about iraq a poetics conference talk title idea: television advertising during firing line invented the swerve unintelligible let’s compare miseries while the decert campaign heats up & yr poem cools down, new colonial carnage is my renewable energy source  


abraham lincoln suspended habeas corpus, & so let the market decide. abraham lincoln suspended habeas corpus, & so, five dollars monthly to the idf. abraham lincoln suspended habeas corpus, & so who needs universal health care. abraham lincoln suspended habeas corpus, & so what’s wrong with the draft if no one’s enlisting? abraham lincoln suspended habeas corpus, so fuck the kyoto treaty. abraham lincoln suspended habeas corpus, so three strikes & you’re out in california. abraham lincoln suspended habeas corpus, so let’s hurry up with deregulation & burn some more people, drag indiscernible corpse thru occupied streets, hang carbonized he she or who from bridges like the old boys do / at night / to those / lurking faggots    laugher


once upon a time a whole television viewing audience mistook the afl-cio for the cia & that was when the taft-hartley act was born both talking, simultaneously you keep saying “look” but you don’t mean that laughter i dreamed two mouths orbiting a dark immensity, both were open, both were singing “come to me, feel my lips begin to eclipse a be-coming pain, scratch the surface of our words with yr finger nail – this will have been 


--the end of the tape-- 

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