by Michael Z. Newman — University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee
March 15, 2012 – 10:15
Still pictures can be a rich source of meaning for historians of the moving image. Advertisements in periodicals, magazine covers and illustrations, promotional flyers, stock photos, among other representations, offer their own ideals of representation and use. They often express the same hopes and fears as language, but in their own vivid wordless ways. Sometimes they suggest different ways of thinking, or ambiguities about the value of popular culture. Because they don’t state their meanings in words, they can invite more interpretation than writing does. But as Barthes says of myth, we can think of any cultural text as a form of speech, and think of our task in analyzing myth to be a process of decoding, making meaning evident. Barthes writes that myth makes history into nature, but we can reverse the process and return what seems to require no interpretation to meaning and value.
Still image representations are especially beneficial to the social historian of film, TV, video games, and other forms of moving image media interested is in the place of these media in popular imagination. Images like these offer us a sense of the range of possibilities of understanding. They are especially useful in considering new media, emerging out of the old and promising fulfillment through technology.
I have been noticing, as I work on my video games history project, how consistently certain image tropes or representations recur historically. In general it’s a good idea to take the skeptical view of new media rhetoric, and to think of change less as revolution and more as repetition with variation. For instance, the two Magnavox ads above differ in style (black and white vs. color, separation of type from photography vs. integration, more vs. less formality of dress and posture). They are advertising different products: a television set on the left, a video game console, the Odyssey 200, on the right. But the rhetoric of the image is remarkably constant: the same harmonious family circle is promised by both advertisements. I also like the way they both picture the set containing a representation of tennis, classiest of all televised sports.
This is an example of an image concept itself being repurposed to sell a new product, related to but also distinct from the old one. It balances the familiar and the unfamiliar, which is important for the introduction of new technology. The iPhone is a phone — it’s not some entirely new idea of a gadget. But it is also the Jesus phone, the dream device that promises so much more.
In Lynn Spigel’s Make Room for TV, she analyzes this image of an Emerson TV set in gigantic scale, facing a theater audience.
This ad is for an e-mail service, represented by the familiar CRT display of a computer workstation that rivals a post office in scale, substituting the plastic casing and text on screen for the neo-classical facade of an institutional building.Newsweek, 1984 And this Newsweek cover from 1984 pictures a VCR as a cinema, with its buttons and tape slot (it’s a front-loading deck) — and a marquee to clarify that people are lined up to enter it as though it’s a cinema — all dwarfing the human figures. It also incorporates a screen on the right-facing side, though the TV aspect is less central in the illustration. Which is telling: the VCR is the revolutionary technology, not the television. In all of these images, however, a CRT display is pictured on a gigantic scale, dominating the human beings. Despite their historical divergences, all of them express a similar anxiety, as well as a similar hopeful futurism, about the potentials of audiovisual technology. ***
One common and ambiguous figure in the imagery of TV technology is the human figure with a cathode ray tube head. This TV-headed woman pictured in a 1982 National Geographic story on “the chip” transforming society is promoting word processing rather than television per se, but the technology of computers included CRT displays in those days and the identity of the computer, especially the personal computer in the home, was closely tied to the technology of TV. National Geographic, 1982
The boxers below pictured in an Electronic Games issue of the same time would seem to be representing the game pictured on each screen: Asteroids and Space Invaders. The muscular adult bodies contradict the typical identity of a video game player at this time, a teenage boy. They represent a fantasy of competitive masculinity, but one in which the human brain and face have been replaced by electronics. Electronic Games, 1982
A similar illustration from the same issue pictures a related but distinct idea: boys controlling men. This image adds a racialized fantasy dimension, as white boys in a safe and heavenly play zone (maybe this image epitomizes the “magic circle” of so much discussion in video game studies) control, through their joystick cables, the aggressive bodies of adult football players, black men in gladiatorial facemask-to-facemask conflict.
Electronic Games, 1982
I first really started to pay attention to TV-heads when Elana and I were asked for ideas for the cover of our book. This might work differently depending on the press, but in my experience cover design begins with suggestions from the author(s) for images, fonts, concepts, whatever you might have in mind. We had a fairly clear idea that we wanted a flat-panel TV in an upscale domestic space (actually I had a specific image from Dwell magazine in mind, but Dwell ignored our emails). A press editor sent us a list of links to pages in a stock photo website containing images of televisions, and I was impressed by how banal and irritating most of them were. Women grinning while pointing remote controls, happy couples watching TV, cutesy retro sets, etc. One of the recurring images that I noticed in these sites is the TV-head, as in the following sample:Here we have satisfied TV-head, bright color bars like a wide smile. If I had that much hardware on my shoulders I would slouch but it’s Photoshop so no worries.
TV-head as anatomically bizarre (what shape are his thighs? how many fingers?) cartoon schlub with frazzled rabbit-ear antennae and a remote aimed at his electronic noggin, could be suicidal or maybe it’s just time for a new show? Reminds me of this line from Billy Joel: “I got remote control and a color TV, I don’t change channels so they must change me.”
Confusing — you’d think the screen would darken when TV-head snoozes but nope.
Love among the normative heterosexual TV-heads. I could go on.
In the early 1980s iteration, the TV-head evoked fairly coherent associations about the then-novel interface of ordinary people with computers and computerized technologies such as video games. Computers were often understood then to be a form of artificial intelligence, thinking machines. The components of electronic gadgets such as microchips were referred to as “brains” and programs were likened to thoughts. David Sudnow described in A Pilgrim in the Microworld (1983), “the entire syntax of thinking engraved on a sliver of silicon, our most perfected thought mirroring itself back in a visually moving display.” Sherry Turkle wrote in 1984: “Video games are a window onto a new kind of intimacy with machines.” She described them, in distinction to TV which you merely watch, as “something you become.” The term microworld often used in this period makes video games into a place the player enters into, distinct from reality. This affects identity and identification: rather than seeing yourself in a character or feeling an affinity, the player was assumed to become the onscreen figure. Turkle compared video games with pinball, observing that pinball players merely “act on the ball,” while “In Pac-Man you are the mouth.”
By contrast, TV is often seen as an unintelligent medium, a one-way stream of idiocy and a potential source of harm. If you think of the head as a computer, that’s an upgrade; if you see the TV-head as a broadcasting receiver, that’s a failure of identity and of rationality. Thus the following image: The “LET US THINK FOR YOU” TV-head is of unknown provenance, but can be purchased on hoodies and other apparel if you search around online. Note the discarded CRTs in the background and the spray paint on the surface, the former reminiscent of a museum installation by Nam June Paik, the latter subversive suggesting street art. This seems like one possible interpretation of the stock photo TV heads as critique of mass mediated society, but by contrast the stock photo TV-heads seem cheerful and satisfied, even if some of them are kind of pathetic. This TV-head is in a collage on a book cover for sale for $4 at the Etsy shop of mrsnoggle. I like how he seems to be glancing at us on his way somewhere else. Maybe he’s meeting up with some of the boys from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for drinks at the Yale Club.
(Brief aside, as well as a callback to my cover design story: TV heads have actually found their way onto the covers of two recent academic books: How Television Invented New Media and Television Mockumentary; perhaps there are others.)
TV-heads have a number of antecedents. Shel Silverstein’s poem “Jimmy Jet and his TV Set,” from his 1974 collection Where the Sidewalk Ends, pictures a kid who watches so much television he has been transformed from person to appliance:
He watched till his eyes were frozen wide,
And his bottom grew into his chair.
And his chin turned into a tuning dial,
And antennae grew out of his hair.
And his brains turned into TV tubes,
And his face to a TV screen.
And two knobs saying “VERT.” and “HORIZ.”
Grew where his ears had been
And he grew a plug that looked like a tail
So we plugged in little Jim.
And now instead of him watching TV
We all sit around and watch him.
These verses express the anxiety felt then — as now — about the amount of time young people spend in front of the screen, and the potential for media to mess with your head. But whereas becoming a computerized head can be figured as upgrade to your hardware, turning into a television set is more clearly a loss, even if Silverstein’s rhetoric is gently satiric, in a spirit of play and fun. And after all, the child reading this poem is, you know, reading.
For polymorphous machine-human video forms of the 1970s, the motherlode has to be the Beckerbots of Gerry Becker. These robot illustrations in David Ahl’s Basic Computer Games (1978) and More Basic Computer Games (1979) generally are pictured with cameras rather than screens for heads/faces. (The books contain page after page of BASIC computer code, which the reader might transcribe into a program to effectively write his or her own game. This is a kind of cake-mix idea of programming, but presumably users modified the scripts or learned from them and sometimes went on to write their own.)
The Beckerbot images of sentient television apparatus are reminiscent of the fear from the 1950s, also discussed by Spigel, of TV watching its viewers, returning their gaze and functioning as a surveillance technology. It also reflects the influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its representation of a sentient machine, which Becker has said made a big impression on him. As in the word processor scaled to a post office edifice, the CRT image in these illustrations is not so much the television condemned as the vast wasteland but rather the video display terminal of the computers of the present and future. Still, associations persist, and the promise of computer games to improve on television is inherent in the presence of a boxy CRT display (discourses of games in the early 70s routinely frame them as a positive alternative use for a TV set).
What is most exciting and humorous about many of these drawings is how effectively anthropomorphized the familiar audiovisual technologies become, as though all along we have been keeping them as pets or servants. As in the revolutionary avant-garde visions of Dziga Vertov, the camera is an eye. An essay on video art by Jack Burnham from 1975 elaborates a similar metaphor: “Without too much difficulty, it is easy to envision television as a kind of human eye attached to a purposeful brain…” This borrows as well from the pervasive ideas of McLuhan at this time, who considered media to be extensions of our senses. In this Beckerbot the monitors and cameras stand each other down like in a gunfight at high noon, playfully menacing each other.
Here the form is sort of ambiguously reptilian and insect-like, but the balance of organic and machine forms is gently uncanny. The riveted supports for the camera face are industrial, but the front foot striding forward is natural, even cute.
These machines play checkers, with crane hands and camera-eyes, but conventional board and pieces. A nice contrast of old and new media coexisting.
Along similar lines, the golfing robot has a mechanical caddy.
Finally this one is called “Russian Roulette” — note that the CPU is the possible victim, not the CRT display. We might think of these images as proto-TV-heads, or alternatively as camera-heads, with the understanding that the camera is an input not to a recording or transmission device (film or tape, video signal across the waves) but to an informatic, computational machine. TV-head replaces the camera with a display, making the meaning ambiguous but returning us to the 1950s idea of television watching the watchers, and the Silverstein idea of television overtaking its viewer’s identity. ***
Speaking of watching the watchers! Perhaps no images better convey the ambiguity of media representations as present and absent, powerfully real and ephemeral and impossible to capture, as those in which the image exceeds its boundaries and becomes part of “reality.” The media room of the 1970s above is one in which a television (perhaps projected rather than tube-based) is one of a suite of electronic devices including video and audio decks, cable boxes, slide projectors, video games, and peripherals like remote controls. The erotic female form emerging from the screen is an odd combination of titillating and grotesque, a softcore gargoyle. But what’s more important is its excess, its uncontainability. TV has always been represented as realer than real — Spigel calls such images hyperreal, erasing the distinction of representation and reality, event and mediation.
The most common hyperreal imagery today is in representation of 3D television sets. The cliché of 3D ads and other imagery is of the image emerging from the set, impossible to contain. A running back falls over his tackle into the living room.
The kids kick the soccer ball from the field straight toward you in your home. Here the antecedents are most obviously in film posters that use depth to dramatize the third dimension and assault the audience.
In the poster for It Came From Outer Space, the enormous eye is the source of an arcing beam that appears to project outward from the movie to the world outside, while the typography seems to cascade from the screen out into the space of the auditorium.
And in the House of Wax poster, the characters come from the movie screen to step on the heads of the people watching. As in the other 3D movie posters, the written text, along with the figures, are represented as bursting forth from the movie.
These movie posters of the 1950s offer the inverse of the representation in some of the hyperreal TV set ads of the same time, such as these from a campaign for Sparton (also discussed in Make Room for TV).
The fusion of public and private space is especially pronounced in the second ad, with a chair on the on-deck circle and the batter standing not in the batter’s box but in a picture on a TV set occupying that space. Both of these ads flip the logic of the 3D representations around by placing the mediated image in the space of the representation. But the same ideological dynamic informs them: a confusion of reality and representation, and a sense of television or 3D film, as new technologies of the image, being realer than real. 3D TV may be new media today, but nothing about its representation in promotional still imagery is the least bit fresh or exciting.
What I find most exciting about the older images of the television set, the TV screen, and the experience of watching television are their sense of possibility and their promise of a better life: in a moment of novelty, meanings are going to be established. I get a similar frisson from the imagery of computers and games from the 1970s and early 80s. The 1950s sets are aimed at families that have never owned one, whose routines will be permanently transformed, whose relations to the world outside will be shaped by new patterns of mediation. It’s not going too far to think that television images from the 1950s are poised to change our ways of thinking, though the more McLuhanish ideas about the medium being the message now seem so clearly to be overblown fantasies, by turns utopian and dystopian, of social transformation through technology.
This same spirit of technological fantasy informs the illustration below from Ted Nelson’s famously prophetic book Computer Lib/Dream Machines. It comes after a page about the cathode ray tube’s potential to be used for something more impressive than broadcast television (he calls it “lightning in a bottle”), and the box in the thought bubble is presumably a TV set. It’s a nice image playing on a reversibility of thoughtful machines and machine-minded humanity. I’d like to think of this as a gloss on the TV-head, an image to interpret an image. The thing we watch is watching, the ideas we think about think about us, the mechanical contraptions are animate, cognizant — they’re brains. But the things they think about are totally reciprocal: the medium and its user are dreaming of one another. Maybe this is especially apt as a way of understanding computers, but the idea of the medium projecting a user, and of it addressing itself to him or her, has been a powerful one in many moments in the histories of film, television, and video games.
Nelson, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, 1974
Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972).
Jack Burnham, “Sacrament and Television,” in Video Art, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 1975.
Ted Nelson, Computer Lib/Dream Machines (Tempus, 1974).
Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends (Harper Collins, 1974).
Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago, 1992).
David Sudnow, Pilgrim in the Microworld: Eye, Mind, and the Essence of Video Skill (Warner Books, 1983).
Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon & Schuster, 1984).
Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Fontana, 1974).
Links of note:
Gerry Becker’s website
Vintage Ad Browser
PS: even if you can take or leave the words, you should totally follow me on tumblr for the pictures.