Monday, January 16, 2017

Core Post Week 2

During our first class, upon being asked to define television, I gravitated towards describing it as “an audiovisual medium that is broadcast live,” despite the paradox that this definition disqualifies much of what I watch and consider to be TV. This week’s readings seem to confirm that there is some essential importance to the liveness of TV, at least in its (former?) capacity as a primarily broadcast medium. In Jane Feuer’s article, she challenges Herbert Zettl’s account of TV’s ontology. For Zettl, the live televisual image has some ontological affinity to the way we experience the world in the present: “the television frame is a record of the living, constantly changing present” and “lives off the instantaneousness and uncertainty of the moment very much the way we do in actual life” (quoted in Feuer 13). Zettl’s celebration of televisual liveness echoes a prominent position in what Amelia Jones hilariously calls ‘mainstream performance art discourse.’ Describing the ontology of performance, seminal performance theorist Peggy Phelan states that “performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. Performance… becomes itself through disappearance” (Unmarked, 146). Phelan and Zettl seem to discern a similar presence in both live performance and live television that is contingent upon impermanence, and that ontologically resembles life itself. Recording would seem to destroy their auras in both cases, and transform them into something ontologically different.
Feuer then challenges Zettl, much in the way that Rebecca Schneider, Amelia Jones, and other performance theorists have challenged Phelan, by pointing out the ideological ways that liveness is fetishized as being somehow closer to the truth. This understanding of spontaneity as authenticity permeates our culture. One example that comes to mind is when Jennifer Lawrence tripped and fell at the Academy Awards, immediately endearing viewers to her (1:30 in this clip: This example is relatively harmless, but illustrates a proximity between (apparent) extemporaneity and authenticity that can be mobilized to other, more destructive ends. This is a major concern for Feuer, and one I agree with and will allude to in my presentation tomorrow. However, I don’t want to entirely denounce the ideology of liveness in the way that Feuer does. Phelan’s claim that performance “becomes itself through disappearance” is distinct from “performance disappears,” and suggests a process of becoming over time which can happen in the liveness of life. That’s why performance has been useful for theorists like Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha, and others committed to uprooting the supposed fixity of identity categories. Similarly, Zettl claims that “each television image is always in a state of becoming” (13). While I find such a claim to be inexplicably annoying, I want to be more open to the potential merits of liveness without buying into a perilous ideology of liveness.


  1. I am not sure to what extent I can say "I am with you in your 'open[ness] to the potential merits of liveness’” as your openness may be directed towards other aspects than what your response reminded me of in relation to the experience of liveness: my fascination with simultaneity or quasi-simultaneity on television (but elsewhere as well) in the sense of being able to witness (in a limited way, and from a particular point of view, etc, yes) a spatially distant event; to be more precise, to co-witness it with many others from various locations, which indeed incites in me a (partial nonetheless touching) sense of connectedness. In any case, we might agree on doubting that liveness as such could be exhausted by an explanation that takes it to be as the mere workings of ideology (and that, as a consequence to this, it should necessarily be discredited).

  2. Sasha, I really like the connections you are making between performance and television (through the dual reading of Phelan and Zettl), as they both become discursive terrain for the making of what you call the “liveness of life.” I want to extend this line of thinking a bit. What this phrase suggests to me is the link between the aesthetic rubric of immediacy (“liveness”) and its sometimes material stakes of life/death. Perhaps when you mentioned Butler, I immediately thought of her move from “performativity” to “precarity.” That is, the subject is not simply constituted through reiterative gestures, acts, and performance. Rather, as Butler elaborates in Precarious Life, the legibility (or rather illegibility) of a subject in the arena of performativity characters certain lives as “precarious”—lives who “do not qualify as recognizable, readable, or grievable.”

    Following your dual reading of performance/performativity and the televisual, I wonder if we can say something similar about subjects who cannot operate comfortably within the aura of “liveness.” In other words, if we bracket the debate regarding “liveness = truth” for a moment, how is the effect of “liveness” distributed across non-normative bodies, bodies of color, etc.? Do these bodies cause a rupture in the aesthetic of “liveness?” I am thinking most specifically about the series of horrific police brutality videos that show a “live” account of state-sanctioned violence and murder. And, without a doubt, in each of these instances, there are always subsets of comments that are skeptical about the footage. In the sense that “liveness” can convey a sense of social reality, certain bodies, at times, cannot traffic in this privileged aesthetic.