PRINT January 1986


Waiting for Gloria.

PERHAPS THE MOST OBVIOUS feature of any rhetoric of realism is its offering of assurance: its suggestion that “yes, this is the way things look.” The illustration of the seemingly real lets us know where we stand, what side we’re on, and who’s winning. As long as sides are being taken and good battles evil, as long as stories are climaxed and laws enacted, we can continue to think that we’re in the neighborhood of ethics, principles, and truth.

We look at television. Its delivery of conventional narrative via soap operas, sitcoms, and miniseries comforts the viewer with the recreation of prosceniumlike space and the proposal of the real. It returns our look via a cast of miniature characters who declare, tease, and sing themselves into our lives. Left without a singular, continuous script but bombarded by short quasi stories and subjects without predicates (and vice versa), we search for sustained narratives and their attendant realism. But we find only segmented smidgens that “make sense,” that supply us with our need for order and control. We sit and watch the little people. We hear voices. They give us “the news.”

Direct-address television (most notably the news) recognizes the audience and treats it to a sort of rampant discursiveness that depends on the amplification of the crisis, the catastrophe, the event. If the American government can allude to its role in the field of “crisis management,” then perhaps it can be said that the media partakes of a kind of “crisis construction.” Spewing out an event a minute, news broadcasts jump from the Mediterranean to Detroit, from famine to a puppy’s plaintive cry for “Kibbles and Bits.” We keep up with current events.

But what is an event? A gesture framed, a statement repeated, an image reproduced, a shot fired? What happens when details are bracketed and actions extracted from the horizontal expanse of lived time and stacked to form a reconstruction of the real? Events are literally created for the media, from miniseries, whenever hostages are taken, to the structural embroilments of diplomacy and the esthetic formalities of summit meetings and state visits. These terse docudramas are stuffed into the nightly news broadcasts, which are then generously spiked with a dollop of “natural disaster” footage. While the former remind us of the strong government leaders who are taking care of both business and us, the latter—the meteorological mishaps, the “acts of God”—give airtime to our Ultimate Leader and handily distract us from what his lieutenants down here on spaceship Earth are really up to. So while wars are fought over bruised egos and saved faces, we are treated to major coverage of natural calamities, of that which seems beyond “man’s” control and through which we all suffer together. Cameras stalk the globe sniffing out clumps of “natural” morbidity ripe for representation. Broadcast worldwide, these become symbolic of “universal suffering,” elicit sympathy and some money to alleviate a fraction of the problem, and are quickly forgotten, supplanted by the next atrocity in another exotic “elsewhere.”

Closer to home, the media’s “concern” over one of Nature’s tantrums surfaced in its coverage last fall of the much-feared Hurricane Gloria. The foreplay heralding the arrival of this monster was almost incomparable in its relentlessness, relegating nay-sayers to the role of heretics doubting both the capacity of the Almighty and the predictive skills of local weathermen. Not that the storm didn’t inflict destruction and discomfort in a number of areas, but the crescendo of coverage was clearly more of an event than the purported event itself. The spectacle of mini-cams desperately scouring the streets of Manhattan for a significant puddle to substantiate the warnings of devastation was a truly ridiculous reminder of television’s investment in the construction of events. Tonight promises another new saga. Pull up a chair and catch the next installment of “Mr. Brokaw’s Neighborhood,” in which our hero, sans cardigan, evacuates the notion of meaning from the informational and proceeds to tell it like it is, like it never was, and like it will always be.

Barbara Kruger is an artist who writes Her column on television appears regularly in Artforum.