For three years now I have not had a television. I enjoy telling people this, as friends and family (as well as strangers I’ve met at parties) will readily testify. Whenever they talk about some commercial or new show, I always say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t watch TV.” The pleasure I get from this disclosure comes in equal measure from witnessing their disbelief and from tingling with my own self-righteousness. (As someone who teaches the history of popular culture, the fact that I don’t watch TV is ironic if not problematic, but that’s probably the subject of another post). Recently, however, several of my close friends have begun to call me out on my smug pronouncement.
Them: “So you don’t have a television in your apartment?”
Me: “Well, I have a monitor that includes a built-in DVD player that I watch movies on.”
Them: “But it is technically a television set.”
Me: “Yes, technically, but I don’t have cable.”
Them: “Do you watch television shows on DVD?”
Me: “Well, sure. I rent seasons of Arrested Development, Californication, Six Feet Under, and so on.”
Them: “Do you watch television shows on your computer?”
Me: “Well, once in a while I’ll watch clips of Jon Stewart online, or I’ll watch episodes of old TV shows on YouTube.”
Them: “So you watch TV shows online and on DVD?”
Them: “Then I hate to break it to you, but you still watch TV.”
Hence these friends of mine, these masters of logic and forensics, believe they have put me in my place. And perhaps they have. Two cultural questions emerge here. First, what does it mean to “watch TV” today? And second, what does it mean to say, “I don’t watch TV”? American Studies practitioners (as well as psychologists) would probably be less interested in debating whether or not I technically “watch” television (technically I suppose I do), and more interested in analyzing why I feel the need to tell people, “I don’t watch TV.” What does it mean that I say this? What does it reveal about my sense of identity? What does it say about how I perceive my relationship to modern technology, to mass culture, to social conventions? Why is not watching TV an essential component to my vision of who I am—to my vision of self—living in the United States in the year 2009?
As an American Studies practitioner, I’ll try to answer my own questions. Here are four possible ways to interpret my TV boast, though this list is by no means inclusive. 1) It is my way of asserting control over technology. When I say, “I don’t have TV,” maybe what I really mean is, “TV does not have me.” I mean that I can watch TV shows however and whenever I want, on my own terms—on DVD, or online, or not at all. I am not yoked to the technology, not beholden to the medium. I am master of it. 2) It is my way of signaling that I can control the flow of information into my domestic space (I also don’t have internet access at home). I can limit the intrusion of the outside world into my private sphere. 3) It’s my way of pushing back against information overload in this new digital millennium. I am making a return to simple living in a complex age. 4) It is a way to express my individuality, to present myself as a nonconformist, and—let’s be honest—to use culture and taste to make me feel superior to others.
I can already hear my friends saying, “So why don’t you just get cable and a DVR and watch specific shows whenever you want and shut up already?” Fair enough. But if I had cable, I’d probably watch TV all day long. And then TV would definitely have me.
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