Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Un/Reality and Media

Before you stop reading this, please note, that though at first glance this post appears to be about Hurricane Katrina, it is not! So, if you are sick of Katrina, read on.

A couple of days ago, I was dining with a Katrina refugee, and he was talking about the "unreality" of the situation. Like so many others, he left before the storm hit, so the last time he saw home everything was fine. Since he can't return to see for himself, his experience of perhaps losing his home comes the same way for him as for most of the rest of the world: through television images. Though he is experiencing his displacement first-hand, his epistemology of losing his home is entirely mediated through visual media [Is it too redundant to say "mediated through media" in this situation?]. Hence, the situation has an unreality to it, as his knowledge is almost without gnosis altogether, unless (and here's where I'm going with this), one considers television images a sort of gnostic revelation, a kind of experiential knowledge.

I've been thinking about his description of the events as "unreal" because he has only experienced them through television. I've also known of people who had the opposite reaction to other events. For example, several members of my family were involved in an event that received national television coverage, particularly on CNN (I'm not omitting description of the event here to be evasive; it's just irrelevant to the argument). When they learned the event would be covered on the national news, they were excited about their 15 minutes of fame. Once the actual reports were aired, however, they were terribly dismayed. CNN's version of events bore little resemblance to what they had actually experienced. The events had been caught on video, which the network misleadingly edited and from which they removed the sound, since the dialogue caught on tape would have contradicted CNN's reports. They shot footage of an area miles away, and aired that footage as if it were where the events had taken place.

For a couple of days, the reaction from home was one of cynicism. Suddenly, they felt they couldn't trust news reports. Suddenly, they understood the power of editing to twist the truth into a beautiful lie. Then, over a few days, I noticed their attitudes and comments changing, and within two weeks, those in my family involved had changed their version of events to agree with CNN's version, which just days early they had denounced as total falsehood, and of which they had actual physical evidence (the location of the events and the videotape) contradicting. Nevertheless, their experiential knowledge was rejected and replaced by a television-mediated story. Their experience was unreal, and the television was the reality.

Here, then, we have two different reactions. It seems to me that the Katrina refugee would have rejected CNN's version as "unreal," and accepted only his experiential knowledge as real. By the same token, if my family had been refugees from Hurricane Katrina, they might have felt that the experience was more real because of the widespread television coverage. What accounts for these opposing epistemic positions?

It may be, as I alluded to earlier, that some some people really do consider "television images a sort of gnostic revelation, a kind of experiential knowledge," whereas other people are alienated from those images. Perhaps people feel that they can know a celebrity through the television not out of error per se, but because they reject the epistemic superiority of the physical person over the television-mediated personality. Maybe guys like me (and the refugee I was talking to) who see the television-mediated as ... well, mediated, only experience television broadcasts with a sense of alienation instead of connection.


  1. Wow. This was one of the most insightful posts I have ever read. Needless to say, I would never have come across anything like this in the mainstream media. I don't think I'll be able to stop thinking about this today. For someone who teaches philosophy, your thoughts here present fascinating possibilities for a discussion of the epistemology of television. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Chris. I'm glad you like it. I obviously like your site too, because I added it to my blogroll yesterday!

    For the rest of you, "Nihil Fit" over in the blogroll comes recommended.

  3. really interesting and insightful