Miss Lonelyhearts and Me
A shameful admission: I probably spend more time reading about television than actually watching it. There, I said it and I feel so much better. Now somebody ring Sally Jessie and pitch the drop-dead theme Actual People Without Cable.
But before you pity the confessing freak, consider that my bid to escape is futile. Television really has become like the air—an imagined community of the airwaves whose members surround me. It's not just watched, but used; and puzzling out its meaning means asking, how is it used? What sort of community am I running from?
The relentless kind, immanent and indwelling. During the occasional political discussions at my workplace, for example, some of us tread too deliberately, too lightly, to compensate for those who don't. This makes such conversation uncomfortable—in fact, it makes work difficult—and so, politics is felt to be unpleasant, divisive; consequently shunned.
Compare this unease with the collective response to a question like: did you catch the second part of the Taxi two-parter last night? Disregarding the triviality of the topic, this may rouse an intensely sociable reaction. And the conservative complaint—that television has replaced a common American culture cemented by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Bible, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address—becomes more understandable, at least to the extent that one wishes one were more familiar with the words of, say, Jefferson, over the scriptwriters for Cheers.
This late, lamented culture was only common as far as it was sanctioned and privileged—enforced, force-fed, vigilantly withheld and defended. That is, not common at all. But the agreeable feeling one enjoys when spontaneously harmonizing to a snatch of half-forgotten TV tune—admittedly preferable to silence or disaffection—is also the opposite of common culture, in the sense of communal and shared. The pleasure is not of communality, but one of surprise: by the depth and detail of unfamiliar memory, first, but secondly and more forcefully, by coincidence.
I mean this in the most literal way—parallel event, simultaneous incident. The incidents in question are the solitary moments we've spent in front of televisions, moments scattered geographically and in time, moments which have become memories so intensely private they seem obscure and remote as they are recalled, even to those who keep them. To be conjured by the chance meeting of someone with similar memories seems uncanny and serendipitous, as if intimate. But close and familiar conversation about television is social mostly in an aggregate or formal sense; at least at the outset, at the point of origin, it is less whole and subtle encounter than intersection—like virtual intimacy, such commonality is a ghost, and though it might provide occasion for more, that's a separate issue.
Intensely private and intensely public: this is the paradox stoking the conflagrations on Oprah, Montel, Gordon, et al, or so critics claim. True, the most personal of situations are paraded shamelessly on their sets in full view of a public audience. But the charge of "shamelessness" has been directed simultaneously as complaint and as praise; for to be without shame means that a taboo has lost its power—a good thing, usually. Let's just not confuse loss of shame with loss of dignity; or mistake a less repressive social order capable of discussing the political dimensions of the personal, with a society in which the public confession of intimate suffering and misfortune has become a means of expiating feelings of guilt, of excusing private failures inevitable by social design. Because the latter society—which is, by the way, our society already—is a society in which the dominated are learning to manage their own oppression so hegemony may downsize. This is a noteworthy mindfuck.
Bringing me to a second confession: I work for television. Not a local channel, but an international cable channel, a nakedly capitalist channel, a channel whose self-proclaimed reason to exist is pure consumption, a channel whose executives publicly gloat over extravagant and record growth, over scandalous profits. A twenty-four hour a day, three hundred and sixty-four day a year commercial: QVC.
Granted, I'm no more than a wage slave grade five, a whore processing behind the scenes at "The World's Premiere Electronic Retailer." Keeping in mind that these are the non-unionized, service-sector-ascendant, slow-growth Nineties, it's not a bad place to work; that is, it's relatively tolerable, though essentially evil. I find working for the channel more bearable than watching it; so I offer no appraisal of the chummy on-air shtick or the apparently effective illusion—complete with slick programming guides, blurbs for upcoming specials, and expertly researched theme shows—that something is actually, always, going on here. But I can offer enough statistical evidence to make an anarchist queasy.
To wit: QVC's 1995 sales topped $1.6 billion; translation: it's no minor it-dices-it-slices-it's-yours-for-only-nine-ninety-five outfit. Last year, the Comcast Corporation, which is "principally engaged in the development, management and operation of wired telecommunications including cable television and telephone services, [and] wireless telecommunications including cellular, personal communications services, and direct to home satellite television," purchased a majority of outstanding QVC stock, along with TCI Inc., for about $1.4 billion. Comcast's consolidated revenues for 1994—the year before the purchase—were $1.37 billion (Comcast, 1995, 1,3).
QVC reaches fifty-four million homes in the U.S., and four million with a U.K. version. A Mexico-based venture failed last year, but plans are underway in Kuwait to initiate a Middle-Eastern endeavor (code name: Project Falcon—no, really) as well divisions in Canada, France, Japan, Germany, and Australia. Eighty percent of all U.S. cable homes currently receive the channel; and it has a customer file of twelve million names, adding about a hundred thousand every month. It averages a hundred and thirteen thousand orders a day, handling up to fifty thousand in an hour. Incoming orders average about two per second. Thirty-nine million packages left its facilities in 1994. It introduces two hundred fifty products each week. It dices and slices on a monumental scale (QVC, 1996).
Who shops QVC? The "current customer base spans virtually all socioeconomic groups, with two common links: cable service subscription, and above average disposable income." Thirty-four percent of its customer base is "young professional families" (QVC, 1996).
I find this last figure questionable, or at least misleading, mostly because Q2—a hippish New York-based venture aimed at the wallets of young professionals—recently packed up and moved back to the main West Chester, Pennsylvania headquarters, in search of a more profitable identity. Its new format—a talking head, news update, over-the-shoulder graphics style, showcasing late-breaking deals from QVC proper—appears even more ludicrous and doomed.
(By comparison, the latest attempt to capture the gen-X market—the "Q-Check"—seems campily ingenious: in these prime time cross-channel efforts, second rate celebs, wearing their first rate, so-bad-they're-cool value on their sleeves, lounge before a forty-foot television screen, crappy lighting and garish props mocking their personae while they "Q-Check," i.e., flip to QVC during a commercial break in order to snap up whatever demographically-correct commodity is being touted. Thus, grungemeisters John and Jane can shop QVC with tongue firmly in cheek and hipness intact, while QVC's core constituency remains safely unalienated—though implicitly scorned.)
So who really shops QVC? Here's a jaundiced opinion. Twenty-three percent of QVC's merchandise is returned by "members," as they're termed, and it all comes back to the facility I call home, where I and my co-workers—chained to messy workstations equipped with computers—are gravity-fed the bad goods as they arrive. Four-point-something million units per annum. We credit the member, briskly determine where the item is to be sent (outlet stores, bargain shops, back to vendor or stock, the compactor), tag it, and on to the next. As a process, it commands a socio-alimentary metaphor: member/mouth transacts with merchant, consumes the unit, household/small intestine benefits weakly; unit passes into colon/returns facility, wherein the last molecule of nourishment/profit is squeezed from unit before it is excreted/shipped out.
Like most organismic models of social practices, this scenario is fascistic; it confuses the good of the consumer with the good of the corporation, while individual will is subsumed by corporate priority. I suspect the facility manager would appreciate it, since QVC recently initiated an intra-company propaganda effort, describing to us what our "corporate values" are. Short answer: it's the customer, stupid.
Interestingly, however, there's a degree of "interactivity" and "feedback" going on here with regards to QVC's members. In this instance, these oft-misused words are apt; for the relationship between show and audience, so unidirectional on every other channel, is weakly reciprocal at QVC.
During the six months QVC has employed me, I figure I've "processed" about fifty-two thousand items. (Forty hours a week, for twenty-six weeks, at fifty items per hour….) With nearly every one of these items comes a pack slip, listing reasons for return, requesting method of reimbursement, with a space for comments. Usually, the comment space has a few brief words in it—to-the-point descriptions, not much: demotic writing, barely memoranda, chirography revisiting its utilitarian origins.
Often, however, the customer writes a real note, addressed to an unknown but implicit fellow human paid to read his or her (usually her) message at the end of some vaguely imagined operation. This is something rare and exceptional: concrete instances of people talking back—or out—to the world of television, missives folded and fired off into some gaping void, with the trust that somewhere, real people will welcome them, and respond. Real interactive technology, securing a virtual community, complete with actual membership cards!
The notes are almost uniformly depressing—but recall that I type these words from a shit-eye view of the world; after all, I handle returns, failed connections, waste. Among other trash, QVC sells membership in a consumption community; and these community members believe themselves to be on intimate terms with us, whoever "us" is, or is supposed to be.
"QVC, I got this for my Mom for Christmas and had to take her to the Hospice House and she is dying of cancer so I am sending back the tray as she can't see either. I'm so sorry. Thank you."
A typical note, replete with stock devices: the excuse fashioned from superfluous and naively pathetic detail, the embarrassing glimpse of private calamity, the apologetic tone, the excess of misplaced gratitude, the guilty mood. Another:
"I really wanted this exerciser—but I could not get it put together. I live alone and have no one to help me."
"sorry my husband is real ill and we not afford right now"
"[Radio] didn't come in clear for deaf husband"
"my aunt died before opening"
"displease with it and lost my income can't afford it lost my income at present time"
"Right after I received my steamer; I ended up in the hospital for 2 weeks…. Then got sick again…. Due hope you will exchange this due to the illness and not returning within proper time. I've been with you for a long time + hope this will be honored."
"comment it is dangerous I got burned. plus it was hard to clean."
"Granny died before she got to wear it."
And so on. One quickly begins to imagine an audience ten anted by the sick and dying, by the elderly and by shut-ins who struggle with packaging and often lack the most basic notions of what the item they're purchasing might be for, how it might be used. So why buy it, other than to reach out impotently to Kathy and Bob? No doubt QVC offers a valuable service to such folks; no doubt it's pillaging them, as well.
Perhaps halfway into my six-month stint, it occurred to me that my situation was not without literary precedent.
"The letters were no longer funny. He could not go on finding the same joke funny thirty times a day for months on end." So laments the eponymous individual in Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathaniel West's novel of a newspaper columnist forced to transform the fodder of human tragedy into a shabby gimmick to increase readership.
"Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, I am in such pain I don't know what to do sometimes I think I will kill myself my kidneys hurt so much…."
In the years before Miss Lonelyhearts was published, West used to steam open lodgers' mail while working as night manager in a cheap New York hotel. So he enjoyed privileged access into the inner lives of people very like his creations; yet his fictional characters come off not as real, but as melodramatic grotesques, victims of stunningly bad luck. Their letters are as brimming with pains and complaints, doctor's advice, and ill fortune, as any QVC note. Which is to say, West found himself in a typically modern dilemma: plunged "into a world of misery and suffering, peopled by creatures who are strangers to everything but disease and policemen," actuality had exceeded his abilities.
In the half-century since West died, America's gotten to see television, its confessions have gotten less sacred and more self-conscious, and the sermons of easy social critics grow increasingly beside the point. The dirges tucked within used product, the Xeroxed death certificates and petitions for forgiveness, say so much more. Yet they strike me as self-consciously manufactured, slightly arch, maybe as calculated as any appearance on Jerry Springer—possibly sincere, but probably not. They're negotiated, I think, with an imagined companion or an adversary—nobody out there seems sure just what—and the layers of sincerity and duplicity are cleverly stacked to cover all possible angles. This is what reaching out to your friends inside the television requires. As West's friend Josephine Herbst wrote of his fiction, "the only valid currency is suffering" (quoted in Ford, 1988, 445).Boris Ford, ed. American Literature: Volume 9 of the New Pelican Guide to English Literature. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.