Mediamatic Magazine vol 4#3 Ger Peeters 1 Jan 1990

The Perfect Machine TV in de nuclear age.

JOYCE NELSON, Between the lines (pub) Toronto 1987 ISBN 0-919946-85-2, English text, pp. 170


The Perfect Machine TV in the nuclear age. -

In November 1964, John N. Ott, an independent scientist, conducted a series of experiments to study the effects of radiation from television sets. A television set was wrapped up: one half in solid lead, the other half in black photographic paper, blocking out light, but permeable to radiation. Pots containing bean seeds were placed before the tv set in a greenhouse. After three weeks, Ott observed that the seeds directly in front of the lead covering and those at a greater distance from the tv set were growing normally. The pots placed before the black paper were growing three times as fast, and seeds in a pot on top of the tv set were shooting up roots. The perfect machine. Television and radiation.
In The perfect machine. Joyce Nelson discusses the two dominant media of this century: television and the bomb. The two are of necessity interrelated. The one cannot do without the other. Glued to our television screens we are led into the world of the bomb. When the bomb was born, TV was there to prove it. Leo Szilard was a witness in 1939: Everyone was ready. AD we had to do was turn a switch, lean back, and watch the screen of a television tube. If flashes of light appeared on the screen it would mean that a large- scale liberation of atomic energy was just around the comer. We just turned the switch and saw the flashes. We watched for a little while and theti went home. That night there was very little doubt in my mind that the world was headed for grief.

It was to be the start of a long-lasting love affair. In 1946, Operation Crossroads was carried out on the Bikini Islands. The experiment was set up to refute rumours about the harmful effects of the bomb. Besides 204 goats, 200 pigs, 5,000 rats, and some nuclear bombs, 4 television cameras were also present. Unfortunately, there were no relay stations capable of transmitting the rays to the mainland. However, it was possible for the assembled press to participate vicariously by gazing in wonder at the new medium.
In 1952, the first lustrum of the cooperation between TV and the bomb was celebrated. The us Advertising Council sponsored a television broadcast of a bomb test in Yucca Flat, Nevada. On the television screens, I love Lucy was followed by The Life of Riley, followed by the Yucca Flat Bomb Test, followed in turn by Your Show of Shows. In 1956, a sequel to Yucca Flat was produced, The Atom Comes to Town, a film sponsored by the us Chamber of Commerce, after Eisenhowers ‘Atoms For Peace' address to the United Nations.

Television was then controlled by Hollywood. Live shows had disappeared and were replaced by shows with canned applause suggesting live broadcasts. In The Atom Comes to Town. nothing can go wrong. There is no danger to our bodies. Worlds apart from the images of Hiroshima, which were banned from ustelevision until 1980. In 1956, the two new media were ready to conquer the world. Mass amusement and mass death dictated a new way of watching television. In the thirties. Walter Benjamin wrote about the mass audience: lb self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. The ‘media mass’, a mass audience glued to the TV screen, had not yet not been born.

Television had become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the ‘media mass' reacts to TV impulses as if these were their own ideas, desires and needs. The media mass is characterized by passivity, watching TV, and consumer behaviour. Joyce Nelson warns that in such a situation, those who control the screen also control past, present and future. This was grasped at once by television preachers. New cathedrals emerged everywhere to transmit the heavenly rays. Father David Manse, a Canadian television preacher: When God created the universe, he took into it the laws of communication that are linking people today. The earth is prepared to receive messages. There are televisions and radios in homes. The Holy Spirit is acting now through the medium of television simply because the time has come, the world has been prepared.

Marshal McLuhan had already compared television to the traditional concept of God, whose centre is everywhere and who is unbounded. Omniscient, omnipresent, seeing all and encompassing all, television comforts us in our solitude and is always there when we need it. Nelson compares television to the ‘good whore’: freely accessible, automatically on, cheap, demanding nothing, providing instant satisfaction, promising more if we keep watching. From another perspective, television can be seen as the 'good mother': accessible 24 hours a day, soothing, reliable and enjoyable, an all-in catering business. The new prophets or patriarchs are iBMHoneywell, Xerox, Westinghouse, General Electric, RCA These are also the prophets of nuclear arms and nuclear energy. While the arms race between the USA and the USSR has come to a halt without a clear winner, the United States have won the media race. Miami Vice is broadcast all over the world. American ideology is dominant. Nelson writes: Perhaps even more powerfully than its military supremacy, this techno-imperialism over the airwaves of the worlds population has caused, and still causes, extraordinary rifts and tension as nations struggle against the overwhelming embrace of the global American agenda.

Television teaches the media mass a new language. Time and space are rearranged on the screen and viewers are forced into the machine world. Bodies have disappeared. Death rules. As Bazin wrote about photography: AM the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage form his absence. Absence is the characteristic feature of the nuclear era. Electronic man has an image, but no body. He is a no-body.

This new language was perfectly captured in ABC'S The Day After (1983). The media mass has now reached Benjamin’s point. The Day After - Beyond Imagining. The starkly realistic drama of nuclear confrontation and its devastating effect on a group of average American citizens will air November 20th. A spectacular vision of destruction, carefully put together for television. There is no physical danger to our bodies, though we might lose a few hairs. The film tells us that a nuclear holocaust can be survived. A few days after the attack, the President appears on radio:
America has survived. There has been no surrender. These have become key words in a twenty-minute animated film, Protection in the Nuclear Age, produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and distributed to local television stations. To be shown in the event that...

Television is ready for World War m. Are you?