January 10, 2015

On Television
Pierre Bourdieu

A Vast Wasteland, Says Who? – Years ago I found myself entranced by an 82-page book titled, “On Television,” written by Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, philosopher and public intellectual. Bourdieu was the thinker perhaps best known for identifying, in 1973, the concept of “cultural capital.” This pioneering work explores how non-economic attributes (for example, where you were educated, the sorts of clothes you wear, your style of speech, etc.) affect how far you go in life and which doors open and which doors remain closed along the way. (The theory is more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

Reading “On Television,” I dog-eared dozens of pages featuring Bourdieu’s keen observations about journalism, democracy and “free” speech. While he was writing largely about the state of affairs in France, his ideas certainly resonated with our experience watching television here in the United States. An example: “Pushed by competition for market share, television networks have greater and greater recourse to the tried and true formulas of tabloid journalism, with emphasis (when not the entire newscast) devoted to human interest stories or sports,” Bourdieu wrote.  “No matter what has happened in the world on a given day, more and more often the evening news begins with French soccer scores or another sporting event, interrupting the regular news. Or it will highlight the most anecdotal, ritualized political event (visits of foreign heads of state, the president's trips abroad, and so on), or the natural disasters, accidents, fires and the like. In short, the focus is on those things which are apt to arouse curiosity but require no analysis, especially in the political sphere.”

Bourdieu died on January 23, 2002, in Paris, at the age of 71. The Guardian newspaper called him “as important to the second half of the 20th century as Sartre had been to the generation before.” When I read the news online, I sent an email to a handful of friends noting the world had lost one of its greatest and most influential thinkers.

My friend Rosemary Tinker replied via email immediately: “At least we still have Sherwood Schwartz,” she wrote.

The name was vaguely familiar. “O.K,” I responded, “I’ll bite. Who’s Sherwood Schwartz?”

A moment passed before Rosemary replied again: “The creator of ‘Gilligan’s Island.’”


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