The Nature of College by James Farrell


In Proverbs 29:12, we learn that “Without vision, the people perish.”  That may have been good enough for the Old Testament, but for the new and improved Testament of modern times, Americans have substituted television for vision.  Recent surveys show that Americans average 151 hours a month of television, and an hour of ads each day.  An American who lives to a ripe old age will watch about nine nonstop years of television in a lifetime.  Television, therefore, is an American value.  It’s a religious value, although it might be idolatry.  And it’s an environmental value.

In the ongoing creation, human beings have evolved to have binocular stereoscopic color vision; we have amazing eyes that help us to see and manipulate and express the nature of the world.  In America, however, we focus those eyes relentlessly on flat-screen, high-definition, pixilated color panels that that screen out deeper visions of nature and human nature.  In one of his American Studies classes, Dr. America asked his students to consider what TV tells us about our relationship with nature.

Mostly, we noticed, TV tells us nothing about nature, unless it’s human nature.  When we thought carefully about our watching, we noted that TV reinforces the problematic dichotomy between people and nature, and a definition of nature as remote and scenic and sublime.  Nature shows like Planet Earth, for example, show us a nature that’s not much connected to our everyday lives.  In fact, as one student said, nature on TV is most beautiful when it’s uninhabited.  Or as another suggested “nature is where people are not”—except, of course, for film crews.  In other instances, scenic nature is just the backdrop for human action, the stage set for the human drama.  Sometimes, too, nature can be used to reflect human emotions and experience, in the same way that violins on the soundtrack signal love and emotion.

We noticed, too, how often nature is used in ads to sell us something else.  It’s what we might call “the commercial sublime,” and it dates back to 19th century Romanticism.  In this commodified naturalism, we get back to nature by buying manufactured goods.  TV ads often connect the Romantic sublime to the technological sublime, in forms like the SUV sublime, where motorized monsters cavort in remote natural settings.  Other ads draw on the picturesque or pastoralism.  The serenity of nature, for example, is often the backdrop for perfume ads, so you can (apparently) get the serenity in a bottle.

At the same time, we are taught very well by what we’re not taught—by the de-natured character of most ads and programs.  For the vast majority of props and products on TV, we learn nothing at all about their natural origins or environmental impacts.  For the most part, TV reinforces American resourcism—the devout belief that nature is primarily a source of natural resources, the raw material for the stuff we stuff our lives with.  On TV, products are decontextualized from their earthly origins and impacts and recontextualized in fantasies of human satisfaction and happiness.

In any case, except for the weather, it seems like nature’s optional.  It might be there on our favorite shows, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s not.  You can watch nature shows or the news, or you can change the channel.  Except for the weather, too, there’s not much local nature on TV.  TV shows us nature everywhere in the world, but nothing local or bioregional.  If you wanted to know about your own habitat—unless you lived in a wilderness—you’d probably need to read a book or go outside.

When it comes to our own habitats, in fact, TV mostly teaches us that nature should be controlled.  We learn about lawn care and landscaping, about bug sprays and biocides.  We learn about the domesticated nature of cats and dogs, and how to keep them happy with kibbles and bits.  We learn about pharmaceuticals that can overcome nature, and cosmetics that can cover up nature.  Commercial culture, it seems, is designed to combat the effects of nature.

Television programming, therefore, contributes to a “normal-world syndrome,” suggesting that—despite the dire warnings we occasionally hear on the news—our planet can still support the normal activities of Americans. Both dramas and comedies show people with normal environmental consciousness (which is negligible) engaged in the routine behaviors of Americans, without ever showing the environmental complexities behind the social interactions.  People on TV eat food, drive cars, breathe air, and use resources.  They seldom deal with wastes, especially their own, and they virtually never think about their environmental impacts.  In general, television characters don’t do politics—and they don’t do environmental politics, because it’s too controversial.  Even though the climate is changing, even though we’re de-creating God’s Earth, most of television tells us that the main changes we need to make in life are to buy better products than the ones we have now.  The “new and improved” will improve our lives, and that’s all that counts.  The default setting of TV, it seems, is unvironmentalism, and it’s more pervasive and influential than the anti-environmentalism of recent American politics.  In general, that’s what we value.  It’s the value of television—and the nature of American life.