In my house, the TV has become a medium for domestic power struggles and the reaffirmation of morals.
Beyond the process of “Appropriation”, we’ve “Objectified” our TV, locating it in a prominent corner of the lounge room at chest-height, visible from the kitchen table. The TV’s location signifies its value as a source of information and as a communal object through rituals of display. We’ve “Incorporated” it into our daily rituals of time: I wake up to ABC News Breakfast or the radio most mornings, each member of my family has criteria for what’s on “late” and when you’d have to “stay up for something”, varying not only with the time at which a show starts, but with the length of the show we’re thinking about watching. I usually know I should go to bed after the second late night SBS movie, or at around 1:30am if I decided to watch Rage. There’s a threshold at which I have to decide if I want to go the whole hog and stay up all night or if I should get ready for bed. It’s true to say though that most of my rituals of time are centred around school: Will I get enough sleep? When do I have to get up? What time is it? Time functions more like a countdown and a process of accounting for minutes. How long do I have to shower, eat, dress, etc.
Most interesting, though, and most prominent is the incorporation of the TV into our moral and social economy – the process of “Conversion”. Through interaction with the TV we demonstrate the relationships not only between ourselves but between ourselves and the TV. There is a personal moral economy, an economy of integrity, and a communal economy of domestic values. Going back to the example of late night movies on SBS: Whenever I decide to watch them I don’t let myself use the remote, I don’t mute the ads and I try to retain exactly the same position on the couch or the floor for as long as I can. I’m offsetting the moral debt I’ve accrued in the process of violating my values in regards to staying active at all times with a deliberate act of sensual self-harm. I don’t like listening to ads, the carpet is sort of uncomfortable and my arm is going numb, but I have to earn it! I have to earn the moral right to watch this movie. It’s like a kind of sacrifice I’m offering up to the TV, not only offsetting my moral debt but reaffirming my commitment to watching this movie through discomfort. The other thing I do when I’m watching a movie is I turn off the lights and as many of the other electronics as I can: I reduce the TV to the sole source of light and sensual input. There is a secret, shameful pact between me and the TV! Also interesting is the language I’m using here: Earn the right, moral debt, moral economy.
Beyond the personal economy of integrity is the communal economy of domestic values. We have rituals: Yelling at the politicians, arguing over whether the volume should be set to 18 or 19, arguing over whether or not Dr. Who is good any more and therefore whether we should turn off all the lights and all the computers when we watch it, like we do when we’re all interested in something. ABC News 24 has become the “default” channel. What does this say about my family? What does it say about what we value? We value news, we commit these rituals to communicate to ourselves and others that we are “informed” and to reinforce the value of keeping “informed”. We also try to keep off the commercial stations. You could say that in the context of the value we place on “keeping informed”, this communicates something more about our opinions on commercial television: We believe that commercial television is less able to keep us informed compared to the public stations, ABC and SBS, whether this is due to the commercial stations giving either the “wrong” news or “bad” news. We yell at politicians we don’t like and reaffirm our political identities, we say some news is less able to “inform” us than other news: Are we living in an echo chamber? Is there any way to escape it?
How do personal conceptions of a value, for example “keeping informed”, come into conflict with each other? For instance I think those fake documentary-format shows like Bug Wars are completely awful but Mum keeps trying to insist they’re informative even though they’re really not and she should just admit she’s watching it because it’s fun watching bugs fight!! Admitting that would however contradict the “keeping informed” value, lessening in part its worth in our household. If she did admit she liked watching it because watching bugs fight it cool as opposed to watching it because she wanted to learn more about bugs, there would be a more direct challenge to the value we place on “keeping informed”. If that challenge were rebuked by me (“Mum this is a dumb show! Put it on SBS or something.”) then the value would remain mostly intact. But if I weren’t around and my brother was like “Yeah”, values would shift in my absence, and when I got back home we’d probably argue about whether or not the bug show was dumb in an attempt to resolve the conflict in values through the invocation of other values: “I just got home and I’m tired”, etc.
Television’s prominence in the rituals of display, its status as prime communal object of display, makes it a natural channel for power struggles: Control over prominent objects signifies power, legitimacy and credibility within the household!