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What does understanding television mean?

      We are taught that communication, civil discourse in its common sense, is the two-way process of conveying meaning.  This appears to be straightforward enough.  But for two-way communication to succeed, several important processes must be accomplished accurately, for instance: intention, composition, coding, transmission, reception, interpretation, etc.  Yet we are increasingly witnessing today --as are our algorithms-- that these exacting processes for understanding rarely execute as planned.  Like in the child’s circle-game of ‘telephone’, we soon begin to conclude that most notions of ‘ a true media-understanding’ are quixotic. 

      Worse still, these important processes only scratch the surface of the panoply of possible obviating variables.  Innumerable recombinations of ‘continuous miss-firings’ conspire, subtract, and stand-between any completion of true understanding.  It’s safe to say the ‘accuracies’ of most two-way communications are at best partial, garbled, absurd.  Notions of ‘accuracy’ begin to resemble holding an empty toilet paper roll to your eye and looking through a kitchen colander, while standing inside a glass shower with the water running.  Narrow, incomplete, foggy.

      Sure, we feel obliged to join in and reply --to something or other-- yet we grow less able to respond, less able to be heard.  We often don’t even know who we are speaking too, or if anyone is listening.  And, of course, none of this even begins to happen during one-way televisual communication like TV.  Television just yammers non-stop... all we have to do is be near it.  Result: the more we continue to communicate through mediating technologies, the faster the historical human ‘act of speech’ becomes one dimensional, one directional, and one purposed.  In a word: Lethal.

     Increasingly, the important tasks necessary to complete media communication today are highly challenging, maybe even impossible.  For unlike any other time in history, today the very essence of human communication has been turned on its head.  At breakneck speed, all media are being privatized, hyper-mechanized, politicized, and weaponized beyond all recourse.  Most of this change has happened in only the last few years, all accomplished in plain sight, and with our blessings. 


      To aid my own understanding, from my home over many years, I accumulated and contrasted much of this historical televisual change.  My aggregations began to trace the primary premise of contemporary media making: To perfectly hypnotize ourselves and others, like frogs floating in pots of slow-boiling water, until we are perfectly edible.  And then in return, once agreeably under media’s influence, we perfectly respond --in kind-- by demanding even more heat.  This witch’s brew continually ratchets upward towards eventual failure.  How could this have happened?  Hegemonic perversity should not be an overriding premise of any communicational medium.  But it is. 

      My television projects suggest that much of televisual communication today, particularly throughout ‘TV journalism’, must be theorized as an exhilarating rush for profit, power, pleasure and death. 

  “We believe we understand media and media making, but we are ill-trained ...amateurs, professionals and academicians alike.

Indeed, I have posited over the last two decades that our cameras, along with other similar ubiquitous technologies, are now weapons as much as as tools of communication.  This claim is not bombast.

    We believe we understand media and media making, but we are ill-trained -- amateurs, professionals and academicians alike.  We now find little reason to think about communication before we act.    Point and shoot.  Everything is a target, in any direction, and the ammo supply is endless.  Because of this we have rapidly transitioned, in just one human generation, from passive mass-spectating to complete and voluntary individualized media immersion.  We no longer talk like we used to.  But we haven’t bothered to figured out methods for harnessing these new televisual media.  We’re fast descending into an ‘understanding black-hole’.  This comes with great risk to both the idea and practice of historical human communication.  Tradition is out the window. 

      I have, over the course of this project, often critiqued thorny Tower of Babel  talk, like “We are the media!”, and its newest rendition: Je suis Charlie.  I would counter expressions like these with my own, “We are not media, rather we are humans on Earth who communicate badly with many forms of media machines.”  But today, I am not so sure.  Maybe we are becoming our media.  At the very least, we eagerly encourage media-makers to make us into their media images.  Call it the “ineluctable modality of vision”.  And this mechanical mystification is where most of my Cultural Farming projects come into surreal focus... and practice.

     Best-practice farmers understand that growing good soil comes well before growing good plants.  And this is also the challenge of Cultural Farming: To longitudinally compare, recontextualize, diversify, cultivate and harvest healthier media, which naturally requires heavy-lifting, tilling, planting, mulching, weeding, pruning, fertilizing.  Like any farmland, we need to work our mediascapes toward simpler and healthier production, and further away from (technological) modifications. 

      Why do this?  Well, to riff on an old ‘critical’ aphorism, it’s because Form reforms Function exactly as Accuracy reforms Truth --or--  Accuracies of Form lend Truth its Function.  Farming media is, intellectually, a much different premise than editing a re-mix parody, or snapping smart-phone selfies, or dumping videos into YouTube, or grunting for celebrity in 140 characters, or even gaming the craft of Journalism for profit.  And it is radically different from much of so-called ‘documentary’.  For these mostly unreflexive methods foster little more than toxic vast wastelands.

  “When artifice becomes natural no amount of description adds up to depiction.

     So this experimental visual monograph may look odd to you at first, after all, we all feel like TV experts, eh?  What could possibly remain unknown?  And since most everyone in North America has spent countless hours watching screen media, you may actually know more of it than I do.  But then, knowing is not understanding.  Increasingly, it isn’t enough to simply claim understanding by saying “I watch TV”, or “I worked in TV”, or “I have studied TV for 30 years”.  Paradoxically, experiences like these do not get us much closer to understanding.  How can that be?  My expansive video experiment (ARCHIVES) attempts to sharpen this media question to a much finer point. 

      I do so by refracting historical televisual practices through the colored lenses of Critical Theory using ethnographically surreal methodologies.  My purpose here is to edit against-the-grain of familiar TV practice, and towards a higher form of media memory (Method of Loci).  It is both understanding and response: reciprocal verisimilitude.  This is the true “work of art” in the age of its mechanical reproducibility: To identify and rehabilitate the violations of sacred boundaries.  For when artifice becomes Nature, no amount of description adds up to depiction.


      Cultural Farming is wholly designed for personal intellectual profit.  And I do it all without ever touching a camera; in part because one of the very first lessons gleaned from applying Cultural Farming to media understanding is that pushing-a-button today is too often the same as pulling-a-trigger.  I mean this literally, not as metaphor.  As a reply, I re-employ TV against itself through forms of symbolic exchange by critically collecting, re-citing and contrasting the languages and techniques of contemporary communication in order to return its gifts.  This reciprocation is a necessary, sacred and liberating form of media potlatch.  Cultural Farming -- Art for Thinking.

       We assume technology will solve every conceivable human want, and beyond.  But today’s technological weaponization of communication holds dire consequences for every living thing on our planet.  This is a new pornography, which can be likened to a righteous mechanical form of theocratic dominionism.  It is the false promise of a poisonous new fidelity, mutually designed by the lords and vassals of these new communicating machines (read: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Amazon, Netflix, et al).  It heralds a violent informational Dark Age of more dead metaphors, false equivalency, flaccid journalism and mechanical sadism across the so-called Seven Mountains of Culture: media, government, religion, family, business, education, and arts and entertainment.  (Now there, that’s a biblical conspiracy!)  Beating plowshares back into swords, however, must always be rebuked at every turn with equal force.  Cultural Farming can help to repay.

      In order to redeem media understanding and help recover this communicational

  “Beating plowshares into swords, however, must be rebuked with equal force.

slippage from historical realms of ‘humanness’, my work posits that we are obliged to intervene and re-employ forms of technological communication like television.  We must re-take it, re-make it, re-function it, and then re-play our findings back to their makers.  This is to intentionally re-fuse & re-gift (Mauss).  This kind of response attempts the completion of exchange within two-way meaning making.  For the way we are currently making “THE-media” today is more than dangerous...it is lethal.  The mountains of obvious fakery we now so readily produce may indeed be well-intentioned, but they mostly fail.  Responses must never be rendered impotently.

      Technological lethality here pervades two ways.  First, by converting any subject into an object.  Subjects become instantly dead to us, devoid of being.  Second, is through its totalizing binary alienation.  Everything drops into stark opposition --self/other, near/far, local/foreign-- nothing escapes these kaleidoscopic vibrations between extremes.  If not literally lethal, both are harsh acts of negation -- technical acts of omissions of the in-between, which feverishly stoke growing tribal outrage over skewed perceptions of injury to social beliefs. 

      Humans living in mechanically mediated worlds like these need critical methods for reciprocal-response.  Citizens need sharper methods for replying to today’s growing one-way interpellations.  We must craft these replies clearly and immediately, and critical televisual comparison --at its best-- demands reciprocal usage of the very same shameful  ‘doublespeak’ grammars we mediamongers so willfully and perversely master (Orwellian Newspeak).  

      One, often applied, ancient method of resistance is called ”fighting fire with fire.”  This implies a refunctioning of what is bad, in order to turn it back against itself.  It means to defeat something with it’s own strength.  It’s about reversal.  The simple act of re-showing the ways communication tells itself to us is indeed an intellectual, educational response... maybe even revolutionary.



1.  What is going on here?

2.  How should viewers watch these video essays?

3.  Introduction to the research.

4.  What does understanding television mean?

5.  How do I understand television?

6.  What does using theory mean?

7.  Can you discuss one of your videos?

8.  What was discovered in this research?

9.  What if viewers still don’t ‘understand’ television?



An American

resident of Canada, experimenting with new forms of critical media ethnography in Cultural Farming


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