Mediamatic Magazine vol 5#4 Geert Lovink 1 Jan 1991

Television/Revolution, Das Ultimatum des Bildes - Hubertus von Amelunxen, Anrdrei Ujica

Jonas Verlag (pub) Marburg 1990 ISBN 3-89445-100-9, German text, pp 156, DM 38

The revolution shall be televised.


Television/Revolution -

The revolution shall put you in front of the television set. Even eyewitness number one of the velvet revolution. Timothy Garton Ash, judges, in the middle of the bustling street: The importance of television can hardly be overstated.

In his opinion, the paper document failed totally in the 1989 revolution. In these events much of great importance was not written down at all, either because it occurred in hasty conversations with no note-takers present, or because the business was conducted on the telephone, or because the words or pictures came by television. It is true of all remote regions of Eastern Europe that they watched their own resurrection pass by before their eyes on TV. This fate will also befall historiography: Future historians of these events will surely have to spend as much time in television archives as in libraries.

The title that media and literature experts from Mannheim University chose for their book on the events in Rumania demonstrates very well that TV and revolution have become virtually indistinguishable quantities. In no time at all, the case of Rumania has become the touchstone of contemporary media theory. After the fascination around Christmas 1989 and the disillusionment of Spring over the 'stolen revolution', it is now, some twelve months later, time for reflection. This beautifully illustrated publication provides us with a valuable contribution towards this process.

But what we are still waiting for is the next stage: documentation. Because the book adds little to our knowledge of the precise role of TV in either 'putsch' or revolution. The chronology included may refresh the memory, but it is not focused on the medium itself. From the reconstruction presented by some Rumanian TV employees at a Budapest congress, last April, we were able to deduce how the switchovers between the Square of the Republic and the TV studio were realised, how long TV was off the air, who the people were in the very first broadcast, and how the connections with other countries were accomplished. Strangely enough, this verbal explanation of the over- familiar pictures was not included in the German report of the Budapest conference by the Berlin publishers Merwe (see above).

It is even more remarkable that an insiders’ explanation such as this also failed to be included in the Mannheim publication, since it was the authors' intention to examine what happens when television and revolution coincide. When, from the very first minute, the TV studio serves as the command centre of the new leaders, would it not be worthwhile to take a look inside? Do the authors perhaps distrust the eyewitnesses? (They did, it is true, serve under the old regime.)

The speculations of mid-1990 from Budapest and Mannheim have in common that they avoid the confrontation with the naive enthusiasm of the television makers. Before we rate the theoretical suggestions at their true value, we can already ascertain that with all this remote theory it does not seem necessary to bother with local circumstances to set up a discourse. Consequently, what we are presented with here is pure media theory!

The greater part of Television/Revolution consists of interviews conducted by the compilers Ujica and Von Amelunxen between April and June 1990. In the first part it is Rumanian, and in the second Mannheim experts and intellectuals who have the floor. What is remarkable about the four Rumanians - a professor of French literature, the present director of the Timisoara theatre, the Minister of Education who has already resigned again and the present Minister of Cultural Affairs - is that they all followed the events from a certain distance. Thus, one of them remained an ear-witness to the end, while another was unable to break away from the TV-set. In the course of the interviews it becomes clear that the makers mainly directed their questions at a possible gap between the media isolation under which the Timisoara resurrection took place (13-20 December) and the five TV broadcasts from Bucharest (22-27 December). After the break caused by the cut-short image of the waving dictator Ceausescu on his balcony, there was suddenly a flood of images, 24 hours a day. This came to an end when, on December 26th, after many hours of waiting, viewers were presented with a few illogical fragments from the Ceausescus’ trial and with images of their corpses after the execution. At that moment, the public lost its belief in the revolutionary medium, and became sceptical TV viewers once again. This moment can be seen as a second break. The precise course of affairs around the trial and the execution has not yet been cleared up, even with the broadcast of the 'entire' trial tape at the end of April. For example, the tapes with the images of the execution itself are missing and there are still rumours about tapes withheld by the 'new censors'. So much is certain, however, the moment that the dead rulers returned to the screen marks the beginning of the distrust against the 'neo-communists’ who had seized power. The 'non-image' turned out to be the terminus of the revolution.

The insights and assessments gathered up in the book are fragmentary and, for the outsider, perhaps difficult to place, since the statements were not placed in a political context. We find the professor’s reflections neatly alongside the minister's defence of the policies of the ruling National Salvation Front. A similar commentless series of statements enfolds as the result of a lengthy discussion that the five Mannheim experts held among themselves. The consensus on the ‘media event of post-history that had been anticipated for so long' turns this round-table talk into a superfluity that might have been avoided. Since the Rumanians who actually made the TV revolution were not allowed to speak, the book fails to include any of the controversies that (as can be deduced from the Merwe book) do indeed exist. At the present stage of the discussion, the version of television as an open channel which did not report, but broadcasted (as the embodiment of the rebirth of the Will), is directly opposed to that of the studio as a military command post controlled behind the scenes by a political conspiracy. Although this discussion on the character of the Rumanian revolution is now being conducted in political terms, the role of TV has not yet been dealt with. For many Rumanians, TV still belongs to the 'real revolution' which was 'stolen' from them by the Front a few days later.

Both versions are simply unthinkable to the Western mind. The spontaneous revolution as well as the planned conspiracy are unimaginable in Western societies and belong to an obsolete terminology now only used in backward regions. The stunning use of TV takes a lot of brain-racking on the part of the post-modern academics from Mannheim, who have stopped thinking in strategies and have ruled out the possibility that they could ever be assaulted by a ‘Will’. In the debate on either the end or the revival of history, Rumania is apparently difficult to place. Thus, the Mannheim round-table is a fine example of what can happen when Jean Baudrillard's writing experiments are raised to academic jargon.

The book ends with of 'theory'. Vilém flusser, Friedrich Kittler, Manfred Schneider and Paul Virilio offer us contributions of their own concoction, flusser sees Rumania as a victory of the imagination over the rational discourse in which the image has become a target in itself. To Kittler, it is a victory of electronics over concrete, and he gives the capture of these media stations a place in the war historiography of this century. Manfred Schneider then compares the French Revolution of 1789 with the Rumanian one of 1989 and concludes that the obliteration of the symbolic body of the dictator, unlike that of the French king in 1789, has failed so far in Rumania: the execution has never yet been shown on the screen. That from now on television will turn radically against us, that it will be anti-democratic and will no longer be believed, is the gloomy message Paul Virilio confronts us with (a text also to be found in the Merwe book in a different German translation).

What began as fascination for a media spectacle, is now called ‘nostalgia’. The irreversible liberation from the Ceausescu regime is not even mentioned in the media theory. It will not help to put an end to the isolation in which Rumania now finds itself, as a Third World country beyond the European Stronghold. The borderline between fascination and disinterest seem to be floating. The self-examination practised by users of media networks over their own attraction to the alien - which, as we all know, always ends in disappointment - may now be declared concluded. It is now time for a second introduction to the phenomenon tele-revolution, with a role for concrete facts and real Rumanians.