Over the several weeks since I completed it, Pierre Bourdieu‘s On Television has kept me thinking about what it means to appear publicly, particularly through the media, but also in the many other places where we are asked to “make an appearance” in a formal sense, to deliver a conference paper, for example, or to give a sermon, or to teach a class. More specifically, it has kept me thinking about the conditions, often unspoken and unrecognized, under which we agree to make these kinds of appearances.
Bourdieu argues that, “by agreeing to appear on television shows without worrying about whether you will be able to say anything, you make it very clear that you are not there to say anything at all but for altogether different reasons, chief among them to be seen,” and while he is referring to television specifically here, his argument is more broadly applicable. Whenever we are asked to appear, whenever we are asked to make an appearance, we are confronted by this question of whether the conditions of our appearance will enable us to say anything, will enable us to do anything but be seen.
Throughout On Television, Bourdieu discusses several factors that silence those who try to say something by appearing through the media, and central among these factors are time limits, which he says “make it highly unlikely that anything can be said.” This is one of the reasons that On Television takes the form it does. It was originally delivered as two television lectures for which Bourdieu imposed his own strict conditions. He was allowed to speak as long as he liked without interruption by advertizing and without editing or censorship of any kind. Bourdieu agreed to appear, in other words, but only under conditions that he believed would allow him to say something rather than just be seen, which meant in large part insisting on having sufficient time.
Jacques Derrida says and does some similar things in Echographies of Television, arguing that “the least acceptable thing on television, on the radio, or in the newspapers today is for intellectuals to take their time.” The central part of this book, the interview with Bernard Stiegler, was also to have been shown on television, though the broadcast never took place, and Derrida agreed to appear in this way only after asking for a right of inspection, a right to inspect the conditions under which he would appear. Though he says that he had no illusions about his right of inspection being able to guarantee that anything would in fact be said or that what was able to be said would not be misappropriated, Derrida insists on the principle of this right, on the principle of at least trying “to reconstitute the conditions in which one would be able to say what one wants to say at the rhythm at which and in the conditions in which one wants to say it. And has the right to say it. And in the ways that would be least inappropriate.”
I agree with this argument, and I am very concerned with the conditions under which I have to appear in various senses, but I am discovering that the right of inspection is not available to most of us in the way that it is available to Bourdieu and to Derrida. These thinkers are able to insist on this right only because they already possess a certain status and a certain influence that allows them to negotiate the conditions of their appearance from a position of relative power. The vast majority of us, however, in the vast majority of the situations where we might appear, are not operating from a similar position.
For example, I recently had the opportunity to appear on a local Christian radio show as a participant in a panel on ethics, but I knew immediately that it was not an opportunity that would, in Bourdieu’s terminology, allow me really to say anything. The constraints of time and of the moderator’s questions and of the station’s political position would have made it very difficult for me to say anything worth being said. I would have liked to do as Bourdieu and Derrida did, to have negotiated a different way of appearing, but I lack completely the kind of influence that would allow me to make such demands. To appear in a way that would have allowed me to say something was simply not possible for me in that situation, so I decided not to appear at all.
This is not to say that opportunities do not exist that would allow me to appear under conditions that I would find more acceptable. I was also recently approached by a parenting show on the local university radio station to participate in a discussion on fathers who stay at home and who homeschool their children. I was initially very skeptical again, and I have no guarantee that I will not be disappointed in the event, but my conversation with the host was a very positive one, and I felt that I would be permitted the time and the space to say something worth saying, so I decided that I would appear on the show.
The problem, therefore, is not that there will never be a place where we can appear under the kinds of conditions that Derrida calls least inappropriate. The problem is that most of us have no power by which to insist on these conditions, and so our right of inspection amounts almost entirely to a right of refusal, and if those who have something to say must constantly refuse to appear, than the only ones who will appear are those who are interested merely in being seen. In this way, our right of inspection as right of refusal will most often serve to reinforce a media culture that is concerend primarily with being seen rather than with actually saying something, and though I think this cost is perhaps necessary, it is nevertheless a vastly heavy one to bear.