In 1963, my parents, with three kids (aged five, three, and one) in tow and one more on the way, moved into a third-floor apartment at International House, a residence for Harvard grad student families in the Boston Back Bay. They soon got a small black-and-white television set (color was available at the time, but was still fiddly and beyond a grad-student budget). We would watch period fare such as The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, Romper Room, and the local weather report, which was often mocked for its inaccuracy—that is, when we could get reception. TV signals would bounce off of buildings, creating small lags in transmission and Doppelgänger on screen, but often the signals would never even arrive, leaving us with no more picture than an apocalyptic scene of warring ants jousting at high-speed.
Eventually my father jerry-rigged the TV’s antenna with an unbent coat hanger he’d swivel in different directions, searching for a signal to scare off the fuzz, ghosts, and snow. He quickly noticed that the reception got worse when he let go of the wire. Armed with this discovery, my younger brother and I were soon drafted to stand at attention by the set, holding the wire and serving as compact, water-based antennas. It worked well—even better if you spread your arms out to full wingspan. My more theatrical brother could almost play the set like a Theremin.
At the time we didn’t realize we were retracing the primal scene of Yankee ingenuity courtesy of another Bostonian, Benjamin Franklin, who pulled lightning down from the sky and nearly electrocuted himself in the process. Indeed, TV safety warnings in the 1950s told people to be careful since antennas could serve as lightning rods. I don’t trust my memory on the details, but eventually a long double wire was rigged from the TV set stretching to the wall and up to the ceiling, where it competed for space with a highly ambitious avocado plant. Thus ended, for the time being, our experiments as bodies electric.
The famous 1963 introduction to The Outer Limits, a science fiction anthology drama, makes cosmic sport of the art of adjusting a TV set, and pokes self-reflexively at the idea of television as an alien power that takes over your life and mind. The sound and image morph arbitrarily and we see the so-called “Indian-head test pattern” and the moon, to be visited by human beings a few years later. This transmission is coming from somewhere, but we have no idea from how far or with what intent. In one episode, “The Sixth Finger,” the heroine must adjust a lever on a very fancy bit of machinery to bring her boyfriend back from his grotesquely evolved state while he sits in a booth framed exactly like a television screen. As he morphs from megalocephalic alien to old man to young man and then—oops—briefly caveman, the whole thing looks like an allegory of the ontological powers of adjusting your TV set. (Parliament Funkadelic would later pay an Afrofuturist tribute to The Outer Limits in one of their songs, dealing with a great postwar TV theme, the Bomb. Indeed, the idea of an alien takeover of your TV set was ripe for parody, as somehow during the commercial breaks of The Outer Limits, the old banal regime somehow fell right back into place.)
Mid-1960s American television might tell us a few things about the nature of media.
Media vary historically. The massive shift of television signals from air to wires since the 1970s has made searching for the signal a rare experience for most people ensconced in first-world infrastructures. The closest we get today is hunting for a Wi-Fi signal. Nothing’s quite as spooky as logging into Wi-Fi in a hotel or apartment building and seeing all those anonymously intimate networks pop up, a broadcast Kabbalah of secret names and private jokes you will never be privy to. You realize how much you pass through life with your body bathed in overlapping Wi-Fi fields and within the range of other lives. With “white-boxed” digital technology, our ability to coax the connection is diminished, as is our imaginative awareness of the awesome in-between that the signal must traverse.
Media turn on borders and interfaces. Our TV screen was both near and far, both intimately in our living room and subject to meteorological and cosmic disturbances—a term, of course, that applies equally well to weather and signals. The shimmering TV screen was a window, an exit, an access to a world beyond. (We get a bit of this today with Google’s search page, bathed in white, the door to the internet. Search, of course, is a term that unites our deepest existential and epistemic quests.)
Media are often oceans of banality spiced with rare islands of delight or relief. Nothing is as full of glittering boredom as television. Its industrial function is to produce boredom—which it then kindly offers to cure. (Facebook’s function, in turn, is to produce loneliness—which it offers to cure.) Not all media offer such addictive feedback loops, but most mix the mundane and the transcendent. The ethicist and Talmudist Emmanuel Levinas wrote of the “il y a,” the there is, as a kind of “anonymous current of being . . . There is no perspective . . . there is a swarming of points.” We feel “an impersonal vigilance.” It sounds as if he has been watching late-night TV. Of course, when things get boring and mundane, they can get revelatory. Sometimes. A lot of the time they just stay mundane. That’s why we have to keep watching.
Media have grammars. In the 1960s and for much of the past century, television was different than film. TV was about reception, film about projection. If you saw a visual glitch in a movie theater, it probably meant the film was stuck and melting in the projector. But if something weird happened to your television, it could be a political takeover, a looming storm, or the end of the world. TV is tied to a live signal, and is therefore cosmic and urgent in a way (theatrical) cinema never can be.
Media combine nature and culture. I know it can be bad form in our anthropogenic moment even to presume such a distinction, but a television set gives you both the sword-into-plowshare offshoot of advanced military technology and the solar wind; it joins an artificial contraption and the cosmic flux. Patterns of video noise reflect background radiation from the Big Bang. Nothing is quite as existentially resonant as a TV screen vibrating with video snow or a radio crackling to the staticky music of the spheres. Media can tap the sky—in all its emptiness and glory.
Media have ontological effects. Pull the lever, and transform your boyfriend from alien back to himself. Touch the dial, and open up the universe—or annoy the other people watching with you. Stand by the device and make your body into a receptacle for the signal. A medium must not mean but be.