Television, habituation, and the skewed views of wild nature on the screen
Finally I gave up and bought a TV, DVD player, and cable service. At last my family could watch videos and shows. They could see the whole world shining in its savagery and glee. They had been dunning me off and on for years to get with the program. After lifelong clashes with TV’s freeze frames and fast cuts, implausible plots and sensational effects, I rolled over, decided to try to relax in the company of TV’s flat screen. I would treat it as contrition for being resistant and irascible for so long.
My earliest experiences with TV left me insulted and offended. It promised entertainment, education, and art, even as it delivered so much less. Nonetheless I grew habituated early on. My habit included Ron Ely as Tarzan at 4:00 on Sundays, Walt Disney at 7:00 the same day, Daniel Boone at 8:00 on Thursdays, Lassie at 2:00 on Saturdays. Those shows honed my tastes for natural spaces I could not see at home. TV’s vivid simulacra could lure me in from the great outdoors, from the big screen with no ads where I liked to spend time in swamps and trees.
The marshy acres of my Seattle borough cultivated auditory dream fodder for a modern child. Those soggy spots flourished with the rhythms of wind and water and birds. Natural noises filled the interstices between dissonant human sounds, like disparate tape loops suffering an overdub. The very moment a temperate wind would strive to lift me to its lips and whisper, cymbals from the city would crash, horns roar, every promise of an intimacy shattered. I yearned to be immersed in nature at all times.
As my domain I claimed the interface of airport, wetland, highway, and woodlot on Seattle’s south side. The acreage of the family homestead had become a noisy place. Escape proved tough without going microscopic on plants and bugs, without retreating into apertures of the imagination.
The whistling of widgeon flocks turned nervous when a neighbor’s hammer began to ring upon a post. The ducks took wing when a country squire’s pent-up Labrador tore from its kennel door and raced their way, choke chain jangling. Departing jet planes drowned out coughs, curses, even gunshots, swallowing whole the innuendo of birdsong. The jog of horse hooves played rhythm for squeaky saddle leather. Finches feeding upside-down on thistle seed heads ceased when a clattering car on the highway overpass flung a hubcap. Rock doves cooing on roosts grew grave in the wake of sonic booms from military planes. My middle school fell silent for 20 minutes each day while planes went overhead. Something in the television’s clamor seemed fit surrogate for my lost environs: curled beside the TV, I could believe I was being led to sleep beside still waters.
My mentor in this meditation on television is poet Wallace Stevens. He “explored exotic verbal words in his poetry while working as a claims lawyer for the Hartford Insurance Group,” noted a New York Times writer. His poetry plumbs the pleasing prospects for an aestheticism the TV lacks. Stevens died the year after my birth. In “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” he rhapsodized, “In solitude the trumpets of solitude / Are not of another solitude resounding; a little string speaks for a crowd of voices.”
Solitude may resound, Stevens intimates, like a noise that startles. Those for whom solitude is fraught or appalling may silence solitude’s clamor with proxy sounds, clamor like the TV offers. Such proxies might not still the din, but they can supplant it by distracting the listener who, to recall Stevens in another context, “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The volume of our trumpets may assess our inner resources as listeners. We may watch TV to distract our imaginations from the frightening silence that precedes and follows death.
Early on for me, the TV became a dread harbinger of imagination’s ruin. Maybe I was feverish one night, maybe I had burned a few too many images on my retinas, but I woke with a groan from a terrifying dream. In the dream my nightmare-nation had mandated a ritual sacrifice, and I had been randomly chosen. The TV broadcast the news of my dubious honor to the nation and to me; that same box glared and prepared to cast the ray of death that would do me in. Before the machine I lay transfixed, the public marketing of my execution at least as embarrassing as its inevitability.
My dream articulated a deep-seated distrust of the televisual. On my birthday the year before, Ohio National Guardsmen had shot to death four Kent State University students, an ordeal whose aftermath was broadcast into living rooms around the nation. I accepted that event as a dark gift my government gave, a cataclysm intertwining with my own execution in my dream. I had become, both awake and asleep, an edgy TV habitué.
As a college student, I grew more skittish about watching. For years I withdrew myself from any TV whatsoever, even refusing to linger in a room where one was playing. At the same time, I lifted no brow over those who chose to indulge. Their carefree faces edged me into envy, in fact.
My rejection of the medium seemed to be the only way to keep from being drawn in, co-opted, self-betrayed. If environmentalists argued for no compromise in defense of Mother Earth, I held with equal fervor that no TV was good TV. When my college friends congregated to tune in to Saturday Night Live, I crept away to read books or listen to live music at downtown clubs and beer bars. All in the Family and M*A*S*H had absorbed me in high school, both shows rich with social commentary. Then in the decade after college I saw Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, regionally appealing series that were produced and filmed near my Northwest home. But I always felt antsy before the screen, as if it were programming me.
Even public TV, I knew, captured funds from companies that needed to cleanse trade in petrochemicals, wood products, or agriculture. Bad corporate actors exploited TV to greenwash their mischief. Sponsorship of public programming bought cheap PR in the very market segment that had been skeptical of corporate messaging historically. Sponsorship imparted a luster of midday to corporations benighted by malfeasance or greed. If even the elites could not see through television’s impostures, what hope remained for the rest of the nation, for the eaters of pork and beans?
“Enhanced sponsor credits” on nonprofit networks became de facto commercials—transmitting logos, slogans, promises, pledges, names, phone numbers, websites. Ever since Congress began gunning for PBS hosts like Bill Moyers, alleging that they transmit liberal agendas, public television has become more bland and circumspect. It has taken the principle of “fair and balanced” coverage to extremes. Instead of plainly reporting well, PBS leaders studiously thrash the bushes to flush out divergent points of view. They scrape the barrel’s bottom for moderation.
An image of my father entering retirement still pulverizes me. When the Sunday paper delivered the weekly guide to the network listings, he mapped out individual evenings of his nonworking week. He studied the network grids and circled his favorite shows in pen. Day after day, he did not stray from the visual script. Toward the end of each evening’s canned laughs and ham-handed humor, he treated himself to a bowl of ice cream topped with maple syrup, gustatory treacle topping off the optical stuff. Bonds falter, conventional bets erode, but lockstep programming dispenses constancy. Everything works out in TV Land.
The comic strip Calvin and Hobbes bashed TV often. Calvin made watching “a complete forfeiture of experience.” He drooled, mouth open, “eyes half-focused.” Naïve Calvin yearned to “take a passive entertainment and extend the passivity” to his “entire being.” Inertia set in. He could almost feel his “neural transmitters shutting down.” His wise tiger, Hobbes, expressed a need to vacate the premises before Calvin began “attracting flies.” From the pen of comic artist Bill Watterson, a thundering herd of Calvin and Hobbes strips gored the sacred ox of America’s favorite form of relaxation. Having taken the comic as far into a cultural criticism as newspapers and their corporate owners would agree to, Watterson retired early from public life. Would that corporate television could assess itself so well.
Following college, I discovered the book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by former ad executive Jerry Mander. “At first, I was amused by TV’s power,” Mander wrote, “then dazzled and fascinated with how it worked. Later, I tried to use mass media for what seemed worthwhile purposes, only to find it resistant and limited.” Mander’s view affirmed me. In trepidation I allied with Mander against the supremacy of the tube and the advertising industry. Mander also gained my respect by coining the term “ecopornography.” It caught on as the perfect word to name the exploitative ways that industry had come to co-opt the natural world.
No mere captive to suspicion and fear, I discovered my regard for the televisual had grown primal, gut-level. I threw a personal party when writers Hunter S. Thompson and then Edward Abbey posed for photos beside TVs whose screens they had shattered with rifle slugs. I confess now to have blasted a boxy set or two myself. Symbolic action, I reasoned, might prove superior to no action at all. Few deeds satisfied more than to take up arms against the babbling transmission tower of trouble. The ancient vacuum picture tubes made fine and lively implosions when they went.
A quandary arose from my aversion to TV, one much like opponents of marijuana face. Is the stuff harmful? If so, how much so? If TV causes harm—by quelling hard-won critical-thinking skills, by numbing down verbal literacy—are damaged watchers damaging others right along with them? If friends don’t let friends vote in certain ways, should I try to keep mine from slipping into the TV pit? Were he alive today, Karl Marx might have to agree that TV now has overtopped religion as opiate of the masses.
In the movie Being There, Peter Sellers played Chauncy Gardiner, a witless victim of TV whom his culture ironically mistakes for a prophet. The catchphrase of Mr. Gardiner is “I like to watch.” Television holds his attention and helps to keep him tranquil. Jerzy Kosiński, who wrote both the novel and the screenplay, depicted television viewers as passive conduits of frothy nonsense. Interviewed about the film, Kosiński warned, “Imagining groups of solitary individuals watching their private, remote-controlled TV sets is the ultimate future terror: a nation of videots.”
In my first years as a lecturer I found myself allied with other sore souls distrustful of the TV. By unplugging, we fondly hoped to weaken corporate control. We hoped to reanimate our imaginations, revive our creative lives, and shape our opinions and ourselves on our own terms and time. Some colleagues are turning to TV programming today with claims of touting a cultural literacy. One of them published a book entitled Who is Who? The Philosophy of Dr. Who. Nor is he the only one entranced. In the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education I learn that Rutgers University Press published a study titled Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television. The assumption is that television can teach us who we are and gauge our cultural currents. On the contrary, my inner curmudgeon mumbles, TV manufactures the currents in which we all eddy. Media transmit the information for us to partake in our own domination.
Some years ago I met a German-American named Hart Rink. On the face of it we have little in common. Hart loves to hunt and fish, sports I gave up long ago. He retired from the U.S. military, while I never served. After he retired, Hart kicked off a second career in which he wrote soap operas. For a decade following retirement, he made some 30,000 surplus dollars every year. How he broke into that racket I never learned. He intrigued me because he disdained the medium in which he had been complicit. For Marshall McLuhan as for my friend Hart, the unanticipated consequences of the televisual medium bathe us everywhere we go.
A comparable message came to me when I saw a reading by Barry Lopez, a National Book Award recipient for the nonfiction Arctic Dreams. Lopez dejected me with his assessment of our human prospects. One shred of his dismay still itches within me like so much embedded shrapnel.
TV manufactures both products and consumers, Lopez said—hardly a blinding insight. But programs are not the products, nor are we the consumers. Instead, we are the products of TV’s manufacture; corporate sponsors are our consumers. We are the sumptuous food for industries that graze upon us—like so much aphid nectar for the overlording ants.
Barry Lopez reminded me of the statistics communication professor Sut Jhally has been dispensing in his more than 40 videos that document the sad status of American media literacy today. In Advertising and the End of the World, for instance, Jhally reported that the average American consumer is exposed each day to some 1,500 commercial “impressions,” his studies demonstrated, a number that TV spectatorship has to augment.
Despite all these data in hand, these biases in mind, I needed to try to make nice with the new family TV. As a father and a husband, I had to soften my ideals. The world is imperfect, I know in spades. Nor have I a greater claim to virtue than any other folks I know. If politics is the art of compromise, so are parenting and marriage. No longer do I refuse to enter rooms where TVs are playing, a strict aversion that would be perverse to maintain, a fundamentalism that would embarrass. We are all complicit in this TV nation—in the affliction that some wise soul named “affluenza.” My family and I consume a lot of stuff, much of it sold by multinational corporations. We fill a domestic garbage dumpster to heaping every week.
And so I crouched on the couch at home, knees under my chin, and watched a show from start to finish with my children on the new set—an imported flat-screen 32-inch light-emitting-diode television. We watched a show on the Animal Planet network. African wildebeests were being driven toward chutes and pens, baffled by shouts, funneled by fabric screens, shunted brusquely into trucks. All except a few of the wildebeests grew captive in the trap. Those few escapees began to behave less like herd animals than like independent creatures. Seeing through the ruse, they vaulted the screens and headed back to the vanishing savanna.
TV celebrity Steve Irwin died in 2006, pierced by a stingray’s tail while filming an episode for a commissioned TV series. His widow says the footage of his ordeal will not be released. Starring as the crocodile hunter starting in 1997, he educated first-world audiences about untamed critters and habitats. Chaturanga in Sanskrit, or crocodile for yoga practitioners, comes to us as a pose difficult to hold for long without a lot of trembling.
The auburn-haired Aussie mugged for the screen. He tutored us by acting goofy, fearless, sometimes even reckless in the face of the predatory megafauna of which he was so fond. He took over his family’s destination corporation named Australia Zoo and built it into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Some nut. The zoo includes a 5,500-seat amphitheater. Like other TV celebrities, he had studied hard to give his audiences what they never would have dreamed they’d want. Now his widow Terri and daughter Bindi carry on his legacy by massaging his interlocking animal products.
His signature cry of “Crikey!”—exhaled as aftershock, even from the most premeditated of scrapes involving teeth and claws—aimed to give a voice to everything atavistic and rare. He positioned himself as a junky for the rush that comes when brushes with the abstract wild become concrete.
Viewers became adrenaline junkies right along with him. Witnessing his crazy capers, we reveled less in the ecological or educational value of his forays than in the entertainment function of his cunning stunts. Irwin helped originate, even perfect, one of the few extreme sports that demand humans tangle with formidable species minus the tools of technology. For that reason alone I doff my bush hat to Steve Irwin’s barehanded bravado.
If hunters and anglers were to compete with their bare hands, those nominal sports would dry up fast. Even resilient bull riders in rodeo rings these days are wearing helmets, facemasks, and Kevlar vests. For viewers who prefer their hunting at secondhand (think about the Outdoor Life Network and other ersatz sports programs, not to mention reality shows like Survivor), the rush may have lain in seeing how closely Steve Irwin’s artful escapades exempted him from onscreen agony or a messy death.
Some say he should have taken greater care, even worn a Kevlar vest, when he gave chase to short-tail stingrays. After the eight-foot ray stabbed him, he kept swimming. He tried to survive it. That act of bravado may secure him entry to some pantheon. Actively resisting mortality, he cried out in body language akin to the apostle Paul in Corinthians, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Whether Steve Irwin’s heart was pierced outright, or poison from the barb traveled through his bloodstream, even his most prurient followers might never have a need to know. Irwin’s deathly ordeal generated a species of mythology. Online commentators swapped stories that the man had yanked the detached stingray barb from his chest before he died.
Controversy shadows his legacy today. His photographer and diving partner, Justin Lyons, during an interview on Australian TV, said the ray attacked Irwin and killed him with “hundreds of strikes.” The water filled with blood; he knew he was dying. Strict rules had guided taping, though. He told his support people to keep the cameras turning no matter what went down. The videotape of those final moments must be lurking in some vault—painful, instructive, never to be aired if his widow has her say. Meantime his daughter Bindi has agreed to be “youth ambassador” for the harried Sea World, a career move with which her grandfather disagrees. Sea World’s profits fell tens of millions in 2014 after the animal-abuse imagery and allegations that freight the documentary Blackfish.
On several levels Lyons’ account resists reason. There are no records of stingrays premeditating attacks on humans. Like tens of thousands of other tourists I have swum among their sundry species, often in very close proximity, and never felt the slightest danger or faced a threat display. The claim that Irwin suffered hundreds of strikes is also unlikely. Unless the ray had him pinned against a rock or growth of coral, there is no way. Nor did Lyons add that kind of detail. Mr. Irwin had to have made a dire mistake, menaced the ray and placed himself in unacceptable peril.
Decades before Steve Irwin came out to play, the avuncular Marlin Perkins, a finished zoologist, created Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Sidekick Jim Fowler played the man’s man in snug shorts and khaki shirts and hairy chest, the wrestler who got down and dirty with the wildlife. Fowler and Perkins invited viewers in 1962 to participate vicariously in their encounters with “nature red in tooth and claw.” Vicarious is the operative term. Media studies show that most of us prefer to take our dose of nature on a screen than by encountering it at firsthand. In the Big Outside there are all those hassles to contend with—heat, cold, travel, mud, bugs and so much more.
Offstage, Perkins was bitten by a rattlesnake and had to recover for several weeks. A bit of folklore combusted spontaneously—folklore that foreshadowed the belief of Steve Irwin’s followers that he pulled the detached stingray barb from his own chest before he died. Viewers swore they had witnessed Perkins get hit by the fangs onscreen, so far were they enmeshed in his ordeal. Who says TV disengages the mind’s eye? Those viewers’ flammable imaginations ought to call up people who have seen the face of Jesus rise from pastry dough and photo’d it. If Perkins turned off some viewers with a bland naïveté, he meant well, at least by my lights. Marlin Perkins meant to edify, but he was over a corporate barrel of sorts.
Mutual of Omaha, an insurance company, sponsored Wild Kingdom. It seemed right. Something there is that causes us to clamor for coverage when reminded that danger lies just around the corner, that nature strives so steadily to clasp us to its breast. It was a shrewd device for selling new policies—stir us up, calm us down, urge us on to buy. One writer for the program did no other job but plug in commercial segues, usually spoken by Perkins in voiceover. “Just as the mother lion protects her cubs,” one segue went, “you can protect your family with Mutual of Omaha.” Product placement strategies these days most often dump such clunky disruptions and plant brands more subtly. We organic products have gotten shrewder.
Steve Irwin, when he was in his late teens, decided to go off into the Australian Bush alone, according to Australia’s Daily Telegraph. “Irwin flew the family nest and went to find himself in the North Queensland wilderness. There he stayed for five years, conversing mostly with his dog.” Like Athena out of Zeus’s head, mythologies spring fully formed when impresarios heed their calling; Irwin entered a naturalist pantheon. If John the Baptist fed on locusts, and Thoreau planted beans at Walden Pond, Steve Irwin hunted crocodiles. An avocation can become a destiny.
At least as he presented himself on the screen, he shared a naturalist bent with Timothy Treadwell, the hero of the documentary Grizzly Man. A champion of North America’s largest predator, Treadwell claimed that he could communicate with brown bears and could save them. After filming hundreds of hours of Alaska jaunts, he died by brown bear jaws in 2003. Before each filming he combed his hair with care. He hoped to parlay his homemade videotapes into a TV series one day. He claimed he had been passed over for the bartending job on Cheers that Woody Harrelson got. Nature became a device to help him achieve his kismet as an entrepreneur.
As with Irwin, documentation of Treadwell’s final breaths remains, an audiotape of the ordeal he shared with girlfriend Amy Huguenard, who was eaten with him. The attack occurred so fast, probably at night, that Treadwell’s habit of scrupulous videotaping went awry. Director Werner Herzog, in the documentary film he made, warns Treadwell’s quondam girlfriend that she should not afflict herself by listening to the audiotape. One must wonder if Terri Irwin watched the video of her husband’s agony.
Irwin and Treadwell shared a kind of hubris, a sanctimonious belief that they would be spared. Such complacency often manifests as macho jeering in the face of all known natural law; such misprisions have killed off human beings for millennia. Katherine Anne Porter’s character Granny Weatherall believed she enjoyed an “understanding with a few favorite saints who cleared a straight road to God for her.” When the saints failed her and God was not forthcoming, she blew out the big light. In the same way, TV’s fair-haired performers-cum-naturalists fabricated a belief that Nature the Mother Almighty had elected them to sit on Her right side.
Jimi Izrael, a blogger and self-styled “hip-hop journalist,” judges Steve Irwin more harshly than many people would, but he bears repeating, if only to temper the lavish praise that often accrues to martyrs who have perished for a cause. “You and I were expecting him to die like this. Admit it.” Then Izrael’s tone gains apocalyptic trajectory. “Irwin made his living agitating and teasing wild animals. He sealed his fate long days ago.”
What role might television have played in the sealing of Irwin’s fate? How did he paint a pattern for other gonzo performers and extreme-sports freaks? One outcome of all our TV viewing is the social creation of nature. The intelligent designs of corporations, all bent on consuming us as media products, filter what we think we know about the out-of-doors. Irwin was a product who possessed a reckless courage, a loopy sense of derring-do.
After a one-year trial with cable TV at home, I canceled the service. My kids at first were disappointed, but they made the switch fine. The boys still watched movies on DVDs and played video games. We subscribed to a commercial service that let them “stream”: a locution suggesting TV is one of the four elements and electrons akin to water. No man steps in the same river twice, Heraclitus said, because it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. Nor are television shows the same as they were in the so-named Golden Age, those early days when hour-long anthology series, roundtable discussions, and probing talk shows dominated the airwaves.
In the course of prime time viewing my kids have grown more media-literate, I pray. Early on, their tastes tended toward the fantastic and the gladiatorial, toward animated battles and fiendish plots by villains that seek to master a yielding universe. When I see the words “their tastes tended,” a trumpet inside my head reminds me of the industries engaged in determining those tastes. All the same, their tastes have evolved. At the age of eight, Reed sat absorbed for almost five hours in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. It helped to feed his delicate attention that the ghost of Hamlet’s father proves to be so spectacular, so supernatural and fantastic. Burrowing underground, a hulking mole, it erupts at just those times when too much talk threatens to bog down the knotty plot.
Overseeing what they choose to rent and view, I try to be hands-off. I try to keep an open mind. A verbal mutt learning visual tricks, I grate in the face of every rational instinct cultivated in me by my decades of biased likings. I grind my teeth and clack them, so to speak: a guard dog eyeing a potential intruder. Whenever I spend time in the presence of the tube, my fingers keep twitching and flexing to take hold of the remote control.