The Vietnam War in the late sixties and
early seventies, the Christmas Revolution in Romania in 1989, the Gulf
War in 1991 and the O. J. Simpson Trial in 1995 can be considered as milestones
in the history of television. In each of these cases television enabled
an unprecedented public awareness of a certain course of events; a war,
the toppling of a government, or a murder case in a court of justice. Television
viewers were given the impression that they were involved in these events.
Nevertheless, these events where such that, according to normal human standards,
the viewers could not have been involved in them.
These cases were also remarkable in the
way they seem to have boosted a popular misconception of television as
a straight channel to things as they are. This misconception implies the
idea that the word "television" should be understood literally, i.e. as
denoting an extension of our vision. We shall call this approach to television
the "perceptual position".
This paper contains a challenging approach
inspired by the German phenomenologist Adolf Reinach's theory of social
acts and his ontological realism. In his spirit, our approach can be called
the "presentational position". In its core we have the idea that television
essentially is a medium. As such it enables social experience, i.e. communication.
Television is an instrument used in order to present things and
not an instrument that enables us to observe things.
Probably the most important implication
of the presentational approach concerns the contents of television, i.e.
what we see on the screen. As long as television is mistakenly understood
as an extension of our perceptual senses, the contents are thought to be
independently existing physical objects, i.e. bona fide objects.
As a consequence of our presentational approach, we have to dismiss this
view. Instead, we argue that television is concerned with social objects,
i.e. objects dependent on the people using television for their communication.
Epistemologically, a presentational approach
to television has quite significant implications, too. Television images
cannot be considered as valid grounds for making judgments about actual
states of affairs out there in the world. Images on a television screen
are only valid evidence of judgments proposed by persons presenting these
In terms of our presentational approach,
the focus on the television reports from Vietnam, Romania, Iraq or the
Los Angeles court room is shifted from the topic of these reports to the
purpose of the reports. Television reports are not peep holes allowing
viewers to observe an event. Instead, they are suggestions made by somebody
to the viewer. In these suggestions the viewer is invited to ascribe a
certain significance upon something.
1. PERCEPTION OR PRESENTATION
According to the view argued for in this
paper, television is essentially an instrument used in order to present
things to other people. It is an improvement of one's ability to reach
other people, and not a way of extending one's own senses in order to perceive
a greater portion of the world.
The thrill in watching Mr. Simpson being
prosecuted, or Pres. Ceausescu of Romania being executed, or some suburb
in Baghdad being demolished is due to the misconception that a viewer can
approach the scene and get a glimpse of the real thing. But, according
to our presentational approach, somebody serves us impressions of something
in order to reach an understanding with us.
The perceptional approach emphasises the
deeds of members of television audiences. Television is conceived of as
an object of our perception or as an instrument that enables the audience
to go beyond the range of its natural vision and hearing. From this point
of view, television is an instrument of the same kind as a stethoscope,
a magnifying glass or a microscope.
Our approach, the presentational one, emphasises
the deeds of television producers. Television is conceived of as a manifestation
of certain communicative attempts by the producer, i.e. networks, journalists,
directors, and other people behind the programming. It is an instrument
that enables these people to reach beyond the natural range of their own
voices and gestures. From this point of view, television is an instrument
of the same kind as megaphones, semaphores, or smoke signals.
Television is always about something. As
viewers we are, primarily, interested in the objects appearing to us on
the screen. The receiver itself, as well as the noises and images it exposes
are of secondary interest. Nevertheless, this does not imply that television
would serve as a mere channel to the objects we see on the screen.
In ontological terms, there is a crucial
difference between the perceptional position and the presentational position.
If we regard television as an extension of our senses, what we see on the
screen are actually existing, physical objects. Empirical evidence in support
of this position is allegedly given by cases such as camera surveillance
of a parking lot.
Actually existing physical objects, i.e.
bona fide objects, are in the core of the perceptual position. What we
see on television is thought to be independent of us, the viewers, as well
as of the television producer. According to this view, it was a sheer coincidence
that the cameras happened to be on the spot when Ceausescu was shot. We,
the viewers, were happy enough to catch sight of this event. No other significance
seems to be implied by the images.
The perceptional position may seem plausible
in cases such as television reports of the execution of Ceausescu or the
trial of O.J. Simpson. However, if we consider television reports of the
life of Homer Simpson or Mickey Mouse we run into trouble. What could we
mean by saying that we extend our vision and hearing in order to see Homer
Simpson and his family in the town of Springfield? There is no such town,
and this particular Mr. Simpson has no existence. Are we then, according
to the perceptionalist, hallucinating by watching television?
We shall maintain the position that average
viewers are primarily interested in what the programme is about and not
in the programme or the transmission itself. Contrary to what the perceptual
position seems to suggest, this view can be kept even if we say that television
is a means of communication and not an extension of our perception.
A perceptual approach to television fails
to provide a satisfactory account of such main genres of television programming
as soap operas and animated cartoons. Genres such as these are accounts
of fictitious persons and events. Hence, it is impossible to be a casual
bystander unless you are a part of fiction yourself.
Somebody might try to counter this argument
by claiming that we actually watch what the actors are doing. Or we watch
a series of drawings exposed to our sight by a speed of 24 images a second.
Such arguments fall short of supporting the perceptual approach. Average
viewers of soap operas watch these shows primarily out of interest in the
fictitious events and characters. Only incidentally they may reflect upon
the fact that some of the persons on the screen appear as actors under
other auspices as well. Such awareness is of secondary importance.
A more severe attempt to maintain the perceptual
position could be to claim that soap operas, cartoons and other fictitious
programmes are only parasitic on documentaries. This objection to our presentational
position is countered by some arguments stemming from Reinach's theory
of social acts and some elaboration of that theory.
2. REINACH'S PHENOMENOLOGICAL REALISM
Adolf Reinach's (1883-1917) ideas about
simple objects and states of affairs along with his theory of social acts
('speech acts') serve as our theoretical background. As a disciple of Edmund
Husserl and Franz Brentano he worked within the phenomenological tradition
but belonged to its realistic branch. His ontological theory makes an interesting
distinction between simple objects and states of affairs. This distinction
is crucial for our argument about television as presentation.
Reinach was particularly interested in
revealing the necessary laws governing all different kinds of states affairs
(cf. DuBois 1995, 96). His theory of social acts anticipated J.L. Austin's
(cf. Austin 1962/1986) and J.R. Searle's (cf. Searle & Vanderveken
1985) speech act theory by half a century. In addition to historical superiority,
Reinach's theory has some other advantages to speech act theory. In his
argument, Reinach does not favour any specific language. He sees linguistic
expressions in their context but he was not mainly concerned with philosophy
of language. Instead, he attempted to explain the necessary laws governing
obligations, rights and other phenomena on which human societies and their
legal systems are founded.
In Reinach's philosophy, experience (Erlebnis)
is the basic category of analysis (cf. Reinach 1913a&b). He uses the
term 'act' to denote a psychic experience. Reinach follows the Brentanist
tradition in stating that experiences are directed towards something, i.e.
they are intentional (cf. Brentano 1874/1924). In order to stress that
intentional objects are not in the experience, but only targets
of the experience, we call them "act correlates".
According to Reinach, there are qualitative
differences between acts. Acts of perception have simple, physical objects
as their correlates. Still, there are various types of perception. We can
see trees, hear noises, and smell odours.
Acts of judgment and apprehension are examples
of act types radically different from perception. Such acts do not have
simple physical objects as their correlates. Instead, their correlates
are complex objects of a certain kind, i.e. states of affairs. As we shall
see below, communicative acts are directed towards states of affairs. The
typical expression describing a state of affairs is of the form 'the x-being
of y', e.g. the state of affairs that a certain car is red, or the state
of affairs that there are no cars in the parking lot.
States of affairs (Sachverhalte)
we regard as complex objects because they necessarily involve one or many
simple objects and the relations between them. The simple objects are not
parts of the state of affairs but they are its foundations. For instance,
we may see that there are no cars in front of my house. Neither the house
nor the absent cars are correlates, only the state of affairs that there
is an absence of all possible cars. The cars and houses are correlates
of our acts of perception. The state of affairs that the parking lot is
empty is the act correlate of our act of apprehension.
Reinach gives the essential characteristics
that distinguish states of affairs from simple objects as follows (Reinach
1. the relation of ground and consequent
is characteristic for states of affairs and only states of affairs can
be related in that way;
2. states of affairs are distinguished
by modalities, and only states of affairs can take modalities; objects
3. states of affairs are either positive
or negative; this is a property that objects do not have;
4. states of affairs either obtain (bestehen)
or do not obtain; objects either exist or do not exist; when a certain
state of affairs does not obtain, its negation obtains;
5. only states of affairs can be correlates
of acts of judgment.
For our present purposes it is most significant
to pay attention to points number 2 and 4. States of affairs differ from
simple objects to the respect that states of affairs can suffer modalities.
In fact, as act correlates they always suffer modalities. This means that
states of affairs can be imagined, feared, hoped for, asked about, and
so on. I can imagine that I am the bold king of France, or I can fear to
be caught by a lion.
Modalised states of affairs are in a key
role in Reinach's theory of social acts. There are things asked for, commanded
or promised in a social act. Contrary to Searle's and Vanderveken's view
in their version of speech act theory (Searle & Vanderveken, 1985)
there are no propositional contents and hence no truth values in these
The fourth point on the list concerns the
characteristic mode of being of states of affairs. The distinction is made
between existing entities and obtaining entities. Simple objects are neither
possible or impossible, they just exist or do not exist. States of affairs
neither exist nor do they not exist. The mode of being that corresponds
to existence of simple objects is obtaining. A state of affairs
that obtains, i.e. holds, is positive. A non-obtaining state of affairs
is negative. Either Homer Simpson has a bold forehead or does not, i.e.
either the positive or the negative state of affairs holds. His forehead,
however, cannot be negative, since simple objects do not take negations.
Reinach's term bestehen has been
translated into English by Smith (1982) as 'subsist', while I prefer DuBois's
(1995) translation 'obtain'. The term 'subsist' has an inclination towards
existence. To make the difference between simple objects and states of
affairs more tangible one should prefer the translation 'obtain' since
it has an inclination towards holding, which is more in line with the German
3. COMMUNICATIVE ACTS
Reinach's theory of social acts (cf. Reinach
1913a) deals with experiences that are of such a peculiar type that they
need two persons in order to be completed. These experiences are very far
from simple perception since they require not only intentional correlates
but also activity and an external expression. Furthermore, they have social
Social acts have, according to Reinach
(cf. Reinach 1913a/1989, 158 ff.), four main characteristics in addition
to the necessary physical expression which is needed because human beings
are bound to the physical world: (1) social acts are directed at an intentional
correlate, and (2) they are doings of somebody, furthermore, (3) they generate
changes in the world but, in order to do this, (4) they need to be recognised
by a counterpart.
Acts of simple perception are generally
things that just happen to us. We see or hear something but seeing and
hearing are no activities. Social acts, according to Reinach, are doings.
The agent does something, e.g. he promises, commands, asks, or answers.
Perception does not change the world outside
the perceiver. Social acts, however, are entitled to change the circumstances
for somebody other than the agent himself. By commanding you to do something
I put an obligation on you. Social acts change the world by introducing
new, social objects, e.g. individual obligations and claims.
Generally, acts of perception belong to
the singular perceiving agents. Even if the total population of a village
stands watching the same fire, the perceptions would be individual. A certain
burning building could be the intentional correlate of all their perceptions,
but still the acts would not be identical. Neither should such acts be
called social. Sociality is qualified so strictly that the two persons
involved have clearly distinguished roles to play.
Reinach's version of sociality involves
at least two persons. One of them has initiated the act, i.e. it is his
doing. The other one recognises this to be the case. Both have access to
the same physical expression, e.g. an utterance, a text, a sign. They ascribe
the same, or at least sufficiently matching intentional correlates to that
expression, i.e. they have a common language. Last but not least, they
identify a certain pattern of claims and obligations stemming from this
social act, i.e. obligation to obey a command, to answer a question or
the right to claim something promised. In doing this, they give birth to
new social objects.
Promise is Reinach's paradigmatic example
of social acts. A promise, he says, is completed only if there is a physical
expression initiated by somebody in order to oblige himself to a promised
state of affairs and if there is a counterpart who recognises this expression
as a manifestation of the promisor's attempt. Social acts generate or revoke
obligations and claims involving the communicating parties.
Social acts such as described by Reinach
always appear in a context, in a communicative situation. Since Reinach
emphasises the consequences of a social act, he has to take the situation
into account. Claims and obligations are not effects of the promise, they
are consequences for which the promise is a ground. In this respect they
differ from the so called perlocutionary effects discussed in speech act
theory (cf. Searle & Vanderveken 1985, 11-12).
Reinach leaves the discussion by mentioning
that there are different kinds of social acts, i.e. commands, questions,
answers, assertions etc. He does not go further to generalise his findings.
What interests him are the consequences of certain social acts used in
legal or semi-legal situations. Promises and commands are quite clear-cut
examples of communication. Usually, there is an overt reference between
the intentional correlate of the act, the communicative situation and the
consequences. Contracts and even informal agreements and promises tend
to be quite precise concerning circumstances in which they apply, and persons
to whom they apply.
If Reinach's characteristics for social
acts are generalised from the realm of jurisprudence we get a somewhat
different picture. In order to underline the generalisation, we use the
term 'communicative act' instead of Reinach's 'social act.'
1. communicative acts have an outer as well as an inner side, i.e. they have a physical marker (utterances, text, film footage etc.) and an experiential foundation in the mental acts of the communicating parties;
2. in a communicative act the communicating parties turn towards an intentional correlate, most commonly a modalised state of affairs;
3. in a communicative act the active party presents a certain intentional correlate under a certain modality in order to provide a foundation for some further states of affairs, i.e. consequences;
4. communicative acts are identified through their consequences, i.e. the state of affairs that a communicative act is completed serves as ground for some further states of affairs, e.g. claims, obligations between the communicating parties;
5. in a communicative act the passive counterpart
perceives the physical marker and in doing this turns mentally towards
the act correlate under the right modality, furthermore, he recognises
his relationship to the active party, i.e. their roles in the communicative
situation, and in doing so authorises the communicative act as foundation
for its consequences.
In practical terms, when we consider a
television programme, the marker consists of the constantly changing image
on the screen and the sound waves emitted by the loudspeakers. The topic
of the programme serves as intentional correlate, no matter whether it
is a feature film, a newscast or a quiz show. All people responsible for
the broadcast inhabit the role of active party, i.e. they are responsible
for presenting the intentional correlate under a certain modality.
What then are the consequences of a television
show? At this point we should be careful not to confuse the Reinachian
concept of ground and consequence with causality, i.e. with cause and effect.
The consequences of a promise are that the promisor becomes obliged towards
the promisee, and the promisee is acknowledged to have some claims upon
the promisor. Whether the obligations are fulfilled or not is a contingent
In our generalised description of communicative
acts, we have to provide a generalised equivalent to the consequences Reinach
speaks of. It is a crucial feature of a promise that it serves as foundation
for certain obligations and claims. In a similar way, all communicative
acts should serve as foundation for certain consequences, i.e. states of
affairs that appear because of this communicative act.
Any communicative act, e.g. a television
report, is an invitation to consider a state of affairs with a certain
purpose. If the purpose is to judge something morally, a state of affairs
is presented for instance as morally dubious, morally unjustifiable, or
morally acceptable. This puts a request on the counterpart to take a moral
stand towards this state of affairs. No counterpart can be forced to an
ethical judgment, but the appropriate way to react is to make such a judgment.
In December 1989, we were invited to consider
the execution of Pres. Ceausescu of Romania as an important turn in Romanian
history. We are invited to consider the stories about Homer Simpson and
his family as a funny commentary to American life. We were invited to consider
the Vietnam War in terms of public ethics in the United States.
Understanding the genre of the programme,
including the modality of the states of affairs presented, is closely related
to our recognition of the programme's consequences. We recognise the tendency
of a certain programme. However, from this does not follow that we condemn
the Vietnam War or accept that a single execution implies a major turn
in a nation's history.
4. WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET
During the Christmas Revolution in 1989
we watched the violent crowd in the streets of Bucuresti. We saw amateur
footage shot at the trial and execution of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Many of us thought that they had seen how democracy was implemented in
Romania. In a similar manner television viewers could see that the victorious
U.S. forces cleaned up Kuwait two years later almost without hurting anybody
How is it possible that we 'saw' these
things, i.e. things that we later on have learned were not equivalent to
truth? Still, the images we saw were all documentary, i.e. non-staged events.
For one thing, some of us were misled by their false conception that television
is an extension of our senses. And this was used by the reporting parties
to their advantage.
Those of us who were aware of the presentational
nature of television were fooled, too. In fact, we were fooled because
we did quite well as counterparts to the anonymous communicators. They
invited us to consider the execution as a political turning point and they
invited us to consider the Gulf War as a high-tech campaign without bloodshed.
And we did what they invited us to do. Our mistake was to confuse the presented
states of affairs with the real, non-modalised world. We made the right
judgments but about the wrong states of affairs.
Everything we thought to have 'seen' were
intentional correlates presented to us by somebody, a somebody who had
chosen to stay virtually unknown to us. When speaking of television we
should distinguish the concepts of seeing as perception and seeing as conception.
As an attempt to make this distinction explicit we now introduce the notation
seeing(p) for visual perception in the physiological sense, i.e.
the fact that our sensory system receives certain physical emissions, seeing(i)
for our ability to identify simple objects visually, and seeing(c)
for our ability to grasp states of affairs, i.e. to conceive.
Obviously, there is a close connection
between these three kinds of 'seeing'. The perceptional approach to television
would probably claim that this connection is very strict and very clear-cut.
Perhaps a perceptional stance could be that they merge together.
According to our presentational position,
the connection between these three levels of 'seeing' seems quite context-bound.
Although there are several reasons to be hesitant in calling pictorial
presentation a full-fledged language, there are still several strong conventions
governing how objects and events are presented in motion pictures. Communicator
and counterpart have to belong to the same tradition, they have to adhere
to the same conventions to be able to identify the same states of affairs
when looking at a certain sequence of shots.
When we are watching television we are confronted with the following three kinds of intentional objects, i.e. correlates of our acts of 'seeing':
(i) objects seen(p) are physical occurrents, i.e. occurring intentional objects (dots on a screen);
(ii) objects seen(i) are physical continuants, i.e. existing or non-existing intentional objects (simple objects);
(iii) objects seen(c) are states
of affairs, i.e. obtaining complex intentional objects.
If the objects seen(p) are electronic
occurrents (dots on a screen), it follows from this that television is
not an extension of our visual sense. It only happens to be that television
has a user interface conveniently compatible with senses such as vision
Dots on a television screen are occurrents
and thereby ontologically dependent on some continuant object (cf. Simons
1987, 253 ff.). However the dots on a television screen are not dependent
on the continuant we see(i) on the screen, i.e. the forehead of
Homer Simpson. It may exist or not exist but that does not have any impact
on the occurrence of the dots. Ontologically the image on the screen is
dependent only on the technical devices through which the signal travels.
If objects seen(i) are physical
continuants, i.e. tangible objects, it seems evident that television is
only an instrument used to make visual reference to intentional objects,
existing or non-existing . The continuants we see are not there in our
television box. We see(i) Homer Simpson, Nicolae Ceausescu, or Mickey
Mouse but that does not make them real nor does it bring them into our
living room. Their existence or non-existence and their location are due
to other conditions than whether somebody makes a visual reference to them.
By stating that we can see(c) situations
and other states of affairs, we acknowledge the fact that television serves
other purposes than merely portraying existing and non-existing continuant
The presentational approach to television
can now be summarised:
1. Physical expression of experiences: Like communication in general, television has an outer and inner side. Without the physical medium, i.e. electronic signals in cameras, editing facilitaties, broadcast equipment, receivers etc., there are no programmes. But programmes are not only physically identifiable entities shadows or thunderstorms. They are also vehicles for some persons' experiences, i.e. they have what Reinach calls an inner side.
2. Act qualities and act correlates: Different act types have different types of correlates. We see(p) dots on a screen but we see(i) the corpses of Pres. and Mrs. Ceausescu and simultaneously we see(c) a turn in the history of Romania;
3. Presented states of affairs: What we see(c) are states of affairs presented by someone under a certain modality in order to provide a foundation for some further states of affairs, i.e. consequences of the kind the presenting party wants to achieve.
4. Generated states of affairs, i.e. consequences: Images of mutilated corpses in Chechnya may serve as ground for condemnation of the Enemy or as ground for identification of a remote and suffering people, all depending on in whose television they are shown.
5. Viewers' choice: Viewers are
not less important than producers. A viewer cannot choose what he sees(i)
because the communicator has already made that choice, but to some extent
a viewer can see(c) other states of affairs than the communicator
had wanted, i.e. implied states of affairs. A viewer should also see(c)
the communicative situation in which he himself takes part. In doing this
he turns mentally towards the act correlate under the right modality, furthermore,
he recognises his relationship to the active party, i.e. their roles in
the communicative situation, and in doing so authorises the communicative
act as foundation for its consequences.
These considerations should show that television
belongs to the realm of communication and not to the realm of individual
observation. Although traditional television has served as the main object
of study in this paper, computer networks and other modern multimedia are
in most respects equivalent to television. Common to them all is that they
are essentially instruments of communication although the active party
frequently stays incognito.
Our present account of television, and
of communication in general, makes it easy to dismiss the idea that fiction
would be a parasitic communicative practice. To present states of affairs
under the modality of fiction is equivalent to presenting states of affairs
under the modality of caution, promise etc. When somebody presents a story
sincerely committing himself to telling fiction it is a communicative act
of the same prominence as are acts of reporting, promising or commanding.
With respect to this, television makes no exception from the general rule.
This paper was written with financial support
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