TV as Mediator of Community

I have relatives who have not watched television in over thirty-five years. At times, I envy them. They spend their evenings reading books that nourish their souls, while I am engrossed in the latest episode of Fringe, Mad Men, Rubicon, or one of the many Seinfeld reruns of which I never tire. At other times, especially in conversation or family games, I am aware that their avoidance of TV actually disconnects them from the rest of us. There is rarely a family gathering when we do not play charades. I got an easy card a number of years ago–Michael Jackson. I moon-walked across the room and looked eagerly at my TV-avoiding relatives only to see blank stares looking back at me. At family meals, when we are shooting the breeze and comparing this year’s contestants on American Idol or when someone refers to a Seinfeld episode in our story telling, these relatives are left out. They wouldn’t know Kramer if he barged through their front door and raided their refrigerator.

These experiences highlight the degree to which television shapes our relationships today. We gather around the TV for nightly family time; we talk about the latest developments on our favorite shows with friends at work; and, our discourse is laced with TV references. In these and many other ways, television mediates community. It provides a point of connection among those alike and those different, those near and far from each other.

This mediation of community through television is related to seismic sociological shifts that have been occurring for more than two centuries. According to sociologist Anthony Giddens, increased usage of the clock and global sea travel in the eighteenth century made possible the standardization of time and the mapping of space. Prior to this time, relationships among people were bound to a particular place, i.e., a local community. With travel by sea and a common orientation to time, relationships could be established and sustained across the globe. Locales could be impacted by the customs of faraway places. Economic, political, and personal interactions could be coordinated across large swaths of time and space.

In the twentieth century, the capacity for relationships to spread across vast tracts of time and space increased exponentially. Planes, trains, and automobiles enabled us not only to travel to far away places but also to uproot with ease (at least in comparison to our ancestors). In the span of a few generations, our orientation to community changed radically. For example, my grandmother has lived in the same house for sixty years and within the same two-square-mile radius for ninety years. This rootedness in place likely will be completely foreign to her great-grandchildren.

Not only do we uproot from local communities again and again, but also our communities consist of people who are simultaneously near and far from us. This dynamic was put into motion with the invention of the printing press, which dispersed information to distant people living in other time zones. As Giddens puts it, mass printed media fostered the “intrusion of distant events into everyday occurrence.”1 TV, the worldwide web, and other forms of social media–e.g., Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter–have accelerated this process, creating face-less social networks and business associations. Persons working for the same company on the same projects live on different continents. Though connected by mysterious digital signals, they may never see, hear, or speak to one another.

This means that many of our relationships are mediated rather than direct. We often know–or at least know about–persons on the television more than our next-door neighbors. We are more grieved when Michael Jackson dies, someone who has never set eyes on us, than when our neighbor passes away. We feel the impact of his death, because he has been part of our community for decades. And we experience tremendous solidarity with each other in our grief, for even if we weren’t Michael Jackson fans, his music and his life story intersected ours.

TV mediated Michael Jackson to us. It granted us a well-constructed relationship with him. Perhaps we remember him from his years of performing with the Jackson Five; perhaps we saw his movie, The Wiz; perhaps we remember that famous first moonwalk dance routine at the Grammys. We may remember Thriller, the music video that became iconic; and we likely remember the endless hours of television broadcasting about the accusations of child molestation and his ensuing legal battles.

TV, however, did more than mediate Michael Jackson to us. It mediated our relationships to one another through its portrayal of his life narrative spanned across four decades. We connected to each other through him. His life became a part of our discourse, our shared experience, our common history. Thus his death became a communal loss.

Television also ushers us into community, or a semblance of community, with fictitious characters. We interact emotionally with characters like Jack Bauer (24), John Locke (Lost), and Don Draper (Mad Men), to name a few. We anticipate and participate in the weekly unfolding of their lives, setting aside regular time for them as if they were good friends.   Many of our relationships are mediated rather than direct. We often know–or at least know about–persons on the television more than our next-door neighbors. We are more grieved when Michael Jackson dies, someone who has never set eyes on us, than when our neighbor passes away.   Well-crafted story lines and cinematography draw us into sympathetic relationship with them. Regular viewers also gain a sense of the personal histories of these characters. We watch the trajectory of their lives for years at a time. Flashbacks, flash forwards, and flash sideways in shows like Six Feet Under, Lost, and Mad Men reveal the complex interpenetration of these characters’ past, present, and potential future experiences.

We do not share a history with these TV characters–for they do not and cannot know us–but we connect to them as complex, historical beings. It may be that our relationships to TV characters, therefore, compensate for certain qualities of communal connections that have been eroding in recent decades. That is, fewer and fewer of us experience longterm history in a given place with a stable community–and this is a very new phenomenon in human history. Those who have shared the most intimate living quarters for nearly two decades are separated from one another and strain to maintain once robust but now thin connections through email, phone calls, and periodic visits. As one author puts it:

Given how often I have moved, my community is widely scattered. I have close friends all over the world; none of them know each other. We have only our own brief intensities of common experience to bind us, our telephone calls and letters. Friendship is tethered to loss, dependent on mental reconstruction instead of daily enactment. Sometimes I feel stranded at the center of a fragmented orb, my life divided into a series of experiences and places that can never be brought together–except in the solitude of memory. My family too is deposited all over the continent. Crucial junctures in our lives take place in hospital hallways or over bad coffee in airports.2

Of course, emotional connection with TV characters is not an adequate substitute for long-term, face-to-face communal ties. Instead of a network of relationships characterized by authentic encounter and moral formation, these relationships are what social psychologists call “parasocial relations.” They are one-sided bonds of intimacy between TV viewers and TV celebrities and fictitious characters. As such, they fall far short of Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationality or Karl Barth’s cohumanity, which is characterized by mutual seeing, hearing, and speaking, and assisting with gratitude and freedom.

Nevertheless, parasocial interactions may contribute to the strengthening of certain face-to-face communal relations.   Perhaps the Spirit of God can use the richly textured narratives of TV figures as a means of opening our hearts and minds to see real people as God sees them.   Through TV, we encounter persons or representations of persons from distant places and different cultures. We also encounter persons who live close but with whom we might never affiliate. In other words, TV supports parasocial relations with the “other.” Thus it potentially humanizes our attitudes toward those whom we relegate as outsiders. TV may help us see past our prejudices to recognize the common humanity of those whom we may have categorically judged and rejected. Will and Grace (1996-2005), the first and most successful sitcom with a principal gay character, is frequently cited as an example of this dynamic. One cannot prove a causal relationship between this sitcom and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in our culture. But a significant portion of regular viewers–60 percent –reported that the show encouraged them to think more positively about gays and lesbians.3 In other words, emotional engagement with the life story of a gay character on TV fostered increased openness toward viewers’ homosexual friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

All of this suggests that TV’s mediation of community is complex and ambiguous. It can create a startling disconnect when close friends or family members opt out of television culture as it simultaneously bonds many of us who do not share a long-term, common, face-to-face history. We do not engage in fully humanizing encounters with T V celebrities and characters, because mutual knowledge is lacking. Yet it may foster such encounters with real-life people who are represented by the constructed persona of T V producers.

Such ambiguity poses interesting pastoral theological questions.

(1) How might TV support community with the “other” and encourage compassion toward those whom we regard as outside our circle of community? Perhaps the Spirit of God can use the richly textured narratives of TV figures as a means of opening our hearts and minds to see real people as God sees them. Consider Sayid (Lost), who represents the kind of person that our national leaders demonize and our fellow civilians fear, but whom like us God still claims as God’s own. Sayid is a passionate, intelligent, loyal friend, husband, and lover who also is a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard. He tortured others, and despite his regret and remorse, continues to do so when he thinks there is no other alternative. The producers of Lost enable us to see clearly the co-mingling of darkness and beauty in Sayid’s soul. Even murder and torture do not eradicate the image of God.

(2) Can TV’s function as mediator of community point us toward the Mediator of Communion? TV forms a community bound by neither time nor space. In this regard, it is similar (though radically dissimilar) to the nature of the church. The communion of saints is not bound to time and space. It consists of all believers from all times and places. Our very being is knit together with persons whom we will never see, hear, or touch (at least in this life). In the communion of saints, we belong to others not on the basis of kinship, ethnicity, nationality, or any other social affiliation but on the basis of our common union with Christ. Perhaps in no other time in history could we grasp the concept of the communio sanctorum in such a visceral way. Communion may be a plausible, compelling, and Christological ontology in a world in which people near and far are linked by TV and other digital connections. This may turn our attention to Jesus, who mediates our communion with each other and sanctifies our seeing, hearing, speaking to, and assisting of each other, so that we see one another as Christ sees us; so that we listen to each other as Christ listens to us; so that we speak to one another with the grace of Christ’s words; so that we serve one another as Christ serves us.