PRINT September 1987


Hearings and seeings and the law on diaries.

TELEVISION THRIVES ON DISCLOSURAL spectacles. From the kooky narratives of soap operas to the issue-mongering of docudramas to the jurisprudence of the supposedly real, it engages the pleasures of disbelief. Three decades after what was called the Army-McCarthy “hearings,” it is clear that television has transformed the confessional and cleansing ritual into what can only be named the Irangate “seeings.”

The yen for disclosure has also always been the nub of print journalism. But where print has always been concerned with getting the story, sipping the leaks,spilling the beans, telling all, with embroil ing its readership in the increments and rubric of narrativity, the text has basically held sway (despite its juxtaposition with advertising photography and copy). Electronic journalism’s transformation of print methodology, however, makes for a particularly queasy and uneasy marriage of pictures and words. Its compelling visual recordings tend to bury the language that adorns it, dwarfing each utterance like a slab of beef crushing a tiny sprig of garni. The insinuations of speech become muted,barely audible whispers treading perilously close to being lost in space.

Ollie North, like Ronnie Reagan, is a triumph of the rhetoric of the image, tucking all unpleasant textualities behind a glazed and hunky pose that handily evacuates the specificities of the seemingly real. So what if the regulatory role of Congress has been dissolved by a shadow of the shadowy CIA? So what if anthematic sites like “democracy” have been emptied of their procedural value, and function solely as rallying cries in the battle against the yukky evil empire? Let’s stop all these questions, these. facts and disclosures. No more listening, just looking. Looking at Ollie, his cartoony brow, his moist doe eyes, his mouth zigzagged into a coy but smirky candor. He is our new nothing, who’ll whisper sweet nothings in our ears and then “salute smartly and charge up the hill.”

If North’s performance in the Iran/contra-gate hearings represents a new apotheosis in the powerful rhetoric of the image, then why all this simultaneous focusing on verbal specificity and facts, on recollection and disclosure? Because though television recognizes that nearly all speech and text are subsumed by the seductive centrality of the image, it still wants to simulate a concern with “truth,” morality, and historical order. Furthermore, TV knows that the seductions and pleasures of the image are increased with narration’s delivery of a riveting kind of staying power. That power is based on the promises of disclosure, of exposure, of confessing, of undressing, and speaking of the undressed, perhaps the motor of this disclosure is something that typically remains sliced, unwholesome, and unseen: the off-screen, the obscene, the pornographic. Not surprisingly, this is the arena of objectified, metaphorless muteness—the domain assigned to women. The broadcast of their secrets violently abolishes the daintily baroque embellishments and veilings of metaphor, and leaves us, finally, speechless as we watch the naked and the mute act out the stark poses of objectification.

We watch men fill courtrooms with litanies of diverted funds, diplomatic machinations, botched business deals, and military choreographies, while women are generally called upon to disclose only what they most economically signify: their bodies. Emerging like charged doyennes of the interior, their indiscretions are delineated by the parameters of their bodies: from Jessica Hahn’s toppling of Jim Bakker’s PTL ministry, to Fawn Hall’s patriotic bra-stuffing, to Donna Rice’s risqué shuffling of electoral politics, to Bess Myerson’s scatological meanderings and excavated jottings of self-revulsion and contempt. And what has been the historical repository of some of these “secrets”? The life jacket of female reportage, the diary—the the diary that, in Jennifer Levin’s case (with her accounts of sexual pleasure, which she paid for with her life), echoes in the courtroom of the law of the Father, who cannily converts her female candor into her self-indictment. Depicted solely through the disclosures and delineations of their bodies, women are denied the abstract and left to reside far, far away from the “serious” musing, scheming, and “being in the world” of men.

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