THE TV RITUAL: Worship at the Video Altar by Gregor T. Goethals

THE TV RITUAL: Worship at the Video Altar

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Thoughtful but ultimately weak analysis of TV as a cultural and quasi-religious institution, a critique that scratches when it ought to slash. Goethals, who is an art historian by profession, raises a number of interesting points, but almost never presses them far enough. He begins by suggesting that the tube ""seems to be a primary source of popular piety and public symbols,"" then doesn't ask to what extent it is simply a conduit for the myths and values (manufactured elsewhere) of capitalism, consumerism, and the whole American ethos. He applies the notions of icon and ritual to his explanation of how TV conveys ""meaning systems"" to the public; isolates three types of icons--of the family, nature, and technology; and then discusses shows like The Waltons, Dallas, One Day at a Time, and Grizzly Adams as if they were high art. Goethals says some good things about televised ceremonies (the funeral of JFK, masses celebrated by Pope John Paul II), but neglects TV viewing as a ritual act in itself. He notes TV's iconoclastic function, citing, reasonably enough, the way prolonged coverage of the Vietnam War helped to disenchant the public with it. But with characteristically excessive generosity he writes as if TV reporters had displayed some sort of brilliant political awareness in their slowly developing opposition to the War. As the book proceeds, Goethals gets a little bolder, and looks into TV as a purveyor of ""sociological propaganda"" (Jacques Ellul) and a reinforcer of oppressive stereotypes. Still, for his conclusion he can venture nothing stronger than the idea that until the great religious traditions relearn how to arouse thrilling sensations akin to those of the final seconds of a closely fought championship playoff game, the ""illusions of culture"" (i.e., televised trash) will hold the nation in thrall. Clear, plausible, but shallow.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1981
Publisher: Beacon