Agreeing to Appear

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.

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8 comments
  1. Sorry Luke, but how might you, yet masterwork unpublished, intend to achieve the amount of time which transcends the time it takes to simply ‘flash’ someone later on, without taking the time to notorietously flash someone now. Being seen I would say is relative to what you have to say- condensation into the proper message is something musicians practice as art, the right songs in a fifteen minute set produce not only three consumptive mediums but the chance of a half hour set, and onwards with the right approach to three hour sets saying many things in at least three mediums.Poets and auhtors must practice the same, I am sure the masters you mention here have also done the same, which is why they get to throw the cock and balls earned them by their big brains at broadcasting companies and studios to give them what is needed.

  2. Curtis,

    It is sometimes possible to say something in a concise way and still to give it the kind of time and space that is appropriate to it. Not everything, however, can be reduced to an eight minute television or radio segment, particularly when there is a host who is imposing station agendas and cultural assumptions on the discussion. To say something under these circumstances is equivalent to saying nothing at all, is perhaps worse than saying nothing at all. It is to appear only to be seen and to affirm thereby our culture of media spectacle and media celebrity, where being seen is an end unto itself, at any cost.

  3. d said:

    The Italian fiction writing collective Wu Ming appear in public quite often, but they refuse to appear on television or let their pictures be taken.

  4. d,

    So, they choose to appear in a way that refuses visuality but emphasizes textuality and orality. Considering the primacy of the visual in our media culture, however, does this still amount merely to a right of refusal, or does it permit them to appear in a way that does actually say something meaningful to the visuality that it refuses?

  5. Don Moore said:

    Luke- I think the key thing that Bourdieu emphasizes–if not necessarily Derrida–is that intellectuals SHOULD do TV, but need to be very mindful of the structural limitations that field puts on them (as well as their own habitus as “intellectuals” whose.cultural capital is “intellectual fare”). Even Derrida, having appeared so much on TV and the fact that most of his later output was in the form of interviews, I think, is demonstrating an approval of such public intellectualism. The television interview, much like the grammaphone or the typewriter, is a medium attached to which are conventions that must be mastered in order for ones message to be made intelligible, and to preempt its misinterpretation.

  6. Don,

    I agree. Bourdieu is arguing that intellectuals need to appear in the media, but that they need to appear in ways that permit them to say something. The problem is that most of us to not have the influence to negotiate appearing in these ways, and so we can either appear according to the conditions that are imposed on us. or not.

  7. Don Moore said:

    Yes, this is the very difficulty I, and I think many, have with Bourdieu. What–beyond exasperated despair–is the point of his total deconstruction of intellectual productivity? I don’t think it’s ONLY that intellectuals need the ideal conditions–though that is what he was going for by setting up those conditions for that particular onscreen presentation of On Television. I also think that the book is for journalists (and intellectuals) who might want to empower themselves by better understanding the contours and limitations of their respective fields. I think this goes beyond finding the “ideal” conditions for any particular kind of work (whether intellectual or journalistic), but perhaps getting a better understanding of the nature of that work, and perhaps returning to its more “organic”–rather than formalistic–(to borrow Gramscian language) functioning.

  8. Don Moore said:

    To add to this last post,
    I want to underscore the non-ideality of “intellectual” labour. Bourdieu has, as I said, thoroughly “deconstructed” both the intellectual field and the journalistic field as accumulated cultural capital which, in BOTH cases, tends to be self-perpetuating, at least after a certain point of their trajectories from organic to traditional fields of production and practice. I wonder if part of the point, then, is to re-examine what it is that is really organically useful about intellectual labour–beyond its structures and modes of address–and if some of that labour can be productively practiced within the very popular medium of television and other mediated forms of journalism or popular intellectualism. For example, in Europe, much more than in North America, the newspaper is a venue for public intellectualism. I wonder if an extension of Bourdieu’s own argument (and its limitations) might be to ask: “is it possible that public intellectualism might be practiced differently, so that it might indeed be more popular?” I don’t think we’re there yet, as most popular intellectualism–for example, the books of John Ralston Saul, Michael Ignatieff, and god forbid, Ann Coulter–seem to miss the mark on thorough academic review, though some have done well, such as Umberto Eco or even George Orwell. Of course, this form of populism goes beyond the simple television or radio interview. But my point is, are there ways to frame solid arguments in a form closer to “sound bites” such that important things can be said by important people in a field that is addicted to speed, pap, and sensationalism? I think this is the project of many recent cultural theorists, such as Henry Giroux. I’m not sure myself, but i’m interested in your take on this. /Don

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