Non-Fiction

How to be an Intellectual in the Age of TV: The Lessons of Gore Vidal

How To Be An Intellectual In The Age Of TV: The Lessons Of Gore Vidal
Marcie Frank

Duke University Press
$17.95
paper
176pp
0-8223-3640-5

Marcie Frank’s book details some of the ways in which Gore Vidal’s novels and essays have benefited from or been influenced by his participation in television (as a writer and talk-show guest). Vidal’s TV engagements provided him with a potential forum to contest the American political system and its morals on every level. Without doubt his screen presence was media-savvy and his charm, quick wit, and full personality must have been the envy of the new breed of politicians like Ronald Reagan, for whom experience in film was the key to political success. Even so, by the late eighties Vidal was considered ‘too outrageous’ by ABC when he was invited for a guest appearance by Peter Jennings.

Frank’s defense of television against its detractors – the reactionaries who blame it for lowering aesthetic and literary standards – is a battle with a paper dragon. There is a real dragon right beside it—the monopolization of the media for political purposes, which Vidal learned something about from Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s Manufacturing Consent. Nor is her bid to see television’s potential for representing ethnic and gender diversity set within a meaningful intellectual framework. The Heideggerean and Ellulian notions of an inherent monopolizing logic in all technological development cannot simply be labeled reactionary: the human/machine tango is not yet over and nobody turns on the TV for intellectual stimulation. When she confronts the doubters like Neil Postman and Pierre Bourdieu, who believe TV’s market orientation jeopardizes the freedom of intellectual discourse, she says, “TV’s market orientation retrospectively purifies print from the taint of the market. But print never was independent from the market.” There are no shades of grey in her representation of the vastly complicated subject of intellectual neutrality: Frank’s palette holds two colours only. And how can any discussion of the intellectual overlook the entire collapse of meaning for the now-destitute logos-centered civilization? It is the latter condition that makes the discussion of ‘the intellectual’ (and even more so the risible How to be…) somewhat futile, and explains why television repeats charades of previous or future lives – in a nostalgic or apocalyptic register – for those in the death throes of present time.

Frank’s book opens with a quote from Vidal: “Never pass up the opportunity to have sex or appear on television.” In the chapter TV: Another Erogenous Zone, the author says, “Bazin, Warhol, and Vidal, like Jacqueline Susann in The Love Machine, all managed to appreciate and exploit the shift from print to screen modes of publicity even as they recognized and responded to TV as an erotic transmitter.” In her discussion of Warhol, she cites his relationship to TV, how he needed to leave it on when people were talking to him, how he played around in his bedroom with as many as four TVs at a time, how sex was better on screen than between the sheets. She does not comment on the pathological drift of this disposition; Warhol’s fetishes supposedly support her thesis about the erotic nature of TV. The section concludes with the comment, “The eroticism of TV in Vidal and his contemporaries’ writings points to another lesson: that it is in the attribution of inherent meaning to the medium itself (be it TV or sexuality) that we prematurely limit its multiple potential uses and thus limit as well our opportunities to have sex and appear on TV.”

What is the lesson again? Let’s see, if I stop attributing meaning to the medium itself (in the case of sexuality, a body? a gender?) then I will find more potential uses and more opportunities for pleasure?

The subject of Frank’s book is full of interest, but the theoretical project, though it bolts together ideas with the usual academic rigour, is seriously flawed. mRb

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Mark Heffernan is a Montreal writer.

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