5 ideas for hacking television

The creator of the Capital City Project lays out five principles that can be used to radically democratise television.

Joel Lazarus
5 February 2016

Reality TV graffiti. Credit: Flickr / Dean (leu)

In this article, I present five ideas for democratising television. The ultimate goal in mind is the democratic transformation of our society. All five ideas derive from a field of practical philosophy commonly known as 'critical pedagogy'. The question of transformation is a pedagogical one: people, communities, societies can transform themselves through processes of learning and the practical application of what they learn.

The practice of 'hacking' entails the deconstruction of a technological device or practice in order to fully understand its logic and function so that it can then be reconstructed or reconfigured to perform additional or alternative functions. What I am proposing in this piece are practical ideas for hacking television.

These are ideas that are evolving in train with my plans for the 'Capital City Project' – a project aimed at producing a TV drama series and accompanying website. The drama will be based on and around the trading floor of an investment bank, telling the contemporary story of money. The website will be produced by a team of philosophers and social scientists, inviting viewers to use social theory to analyse the drama. 

Before starting on the project, I had little idea of how television was really made. I now understand that accessing the television industry requires first penetrating the outer walls guarded by affiliated production companies. To do so invariably requires an already established track record of production success. Perhaps all obstacles can be overcome by a combination of money and contacts, but most of us don't have those things.

This could lead most to abandon television and develop our own alternatives online – a process already in train. Yet, those committed to democratisation through intellectual empowerment need to think seriously about scaling up in order to catalyse a mass praxis: a society-wide process of learning and transformation. We have to think about how to democratise our use of contemporary media technologies in order to engage millions, rather than dozens, of our fellow citizens. 

To attempt mass praxis, we also can't give up on public service broadcasting. Though I feel the BBC has seriously reneged on its mandate to 'educate, inform, and entertain', under changed political conditions the corporation could yet play a central role in cultivating intellectuality and democracy in the UK.

So, in this spirit of optimism, here are five key principles that could guide our attempts to democratise television:

(1) Breaking down boundaries between television's producers and consumers

Following Walter Benjamin, fundamental to the democratisation of television is the democratisation of the means of its cultural production. The barriers to achieving this are political not technical.

Democratising the production of a film or TV programme would require a practice of giving voice, ensuring that the objects of our documentaries or dramas become active, speaking subjects. Ultimately, however, the camera itself must be handed over. The universal male, straight, bourgeois gaze must be joined by a multiverse of gazes: female, queer, black, disabled.

We must also pursue the democratisation of our consumption – our viewing – of television, ending the paternalistic and manipulative concepts of the passive spectator that shape current television production. Here, a cornerstone of critical pedagogical thought is essential. Jacques Ranciere's 'equality of intelligences' is a pedagogical universalism: 'I learn everything the same way - translate signs into other signs and proceed by comparisons and illustrations in order to communicate and understand'. As viewers, we actively make sense of what we experience in just the same ways as we do in our daily lives. Any democratisation of television must recognise the active intellectuality and emancipatory potential of the viewer. A more direct way of putting this might be to endorse David Simon's maxim of 'F*ck the average viewer'! 


Jacques Ranciere. Credit: Petitfestival

(2) Creating dissensus

The transfer of cultural productive power generates a plethora of voices and perspectives. It is now that the possibility for producing television capable of creating 'dissensus' emerges. The concept of dissensus comes, once more, from the philosophy of Jacques Ranciere. What we understand as politics Ranciere sees as a relentlessly policed consensus. Creating dissensus means disrupting our sensibilities of our naturalised social order so that we recognise its artifice and contingency. Other realities, other worlds suddenly become conceivable. It is this experience that is necessary for us to begin to remake ourselves and our society.

(3) Empathy for disorientation

Dissensus does not just disrupt what we see and believe, it disturbs our very subjectivities and identities. Dissensual culture creates the antithesis of what Theodor Adorno described as the 'feeling [of being] on safe ground' and the 'infantile need for protection' that our current mainstream 'culture industry' generates. Dissensus also reintroduces the personal and social conflict that television's production of reality sweeps away or constructs and smoothly resolves. Consequently, initial responses to dissensus can include feelings of denial and anger. Producers of democratic television need to be empathetic toward this experience of cognitive dissonance or disorientation. We need to work with psychologists, psychoanalysts, and critical pedagogues to explore strategies for helping individuals, communities, and even whole societies convert feelings of initial disorientation into positive energy for transformation.

4) Theoretical glasses

Probably only artistic interventions can create a dissensus capable of provoking initial emotional response strong enough to open up transformational possibilities. Yet, the fact that dissensus can help us see our world anew makes the role of social theory vital. The word 'theory' comes from the Greek 'theoria' meaning 'to see', 'to behold'. Producers of democratic television should invite viewers to use social theory to analyse the films and the issues they raise.

We can understand our own ideological perspective as the particular pair of glasses we wear to see the world. Transformation involves changing our proscription, enabling ourselves to see further and deeper. Critical pedagogy as a radical democratic philosophy is committed to self-driven transformation. We must avoid what Pierre Bourdieu rightly called the 'paternalistic-pedagogical' television of the pre-neoliberal era. To quote Bourdieu, we might regularly ask ourselves: 'Am I seeking to get people to see what I see or am I trying to help people to see for themselves?'

5) Harnessing the emancipatory potential of the website

It is the internet that provides exciting technological solutions to the challenges of democratising television. We can build websites to facilitate and encourage online and real life dialogue – safe spaces for people to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas; to help viewers use social theory to analyse the issues raised by our films; and to help viewers come together to join existing or create new social initiatives. The pedagogical website can also liberate the film from any direct need to be overtly didactic. In short, the combination of critical pedagogy, television, and the website has vast emancipatory potential. It can form the pedagogical bridge connecting art and emotion with critical reason, leading on to action and transformation.


Crowd Watching Television at Kings Cross, 1955-56. Credit: ABC

Why now?

We are all living in a state of permanent crisis. Even capital's high priests speak of long-term 'secular stagnation'. Utopian promises have been superseded by endless austerity and disciplinary technologies of 'responsibilisation' and 'resilience'. So many of us are ill – physically and mentally. So many are paralysed by what Mark Fisher calls a 'reflexive impotence': we don't believe we can change anything; we prove ourselves right.

The crumbling of capital's neo-liberal hegemony and the emergence of the internet makes the media a central site of political struggle. As the gap between our lived realities and the reality we see on our TV screens grows, the legitimacy of our media organisations and their ability to perform their ideological functions decreases. 

It may be that the BBC is steadily abandoned as new media enabling more democratically-produced output emerge. However, with its near-universal broadcasting reach, the BBC is uniquely placed to attempt the kind of mass praxis envisioned here. Furthermore, its publicly funded and owned status means that the BBC has a legal duty to serve us. A central element of this service is education. I believe that the BBC's tiresome defence of 'neutrality' has, in reality, meant a withdrawal from the field of political education, leading it ever rightward over recent decades till arriving at what Tariq Ali has called the 'extreme centre' of today.

Last year, I was in the audience at a couple of events featuring senior BBC journalists. What was clear was that they had abnegated any sense of a duty or even desire to educate in a crucial political sense. They poured scorn on the idea, for example, that they should educate their viewers about quantitative easing. 'Who am I to insist that people should know about QE?' one asked. 'Who would watch a 45 minute documentary on that!?', declared another. We desperately need our BBC to serve our needs for political education. As the model I sketch in this article makes clear, this must and can be done in democratic ways. 

British telly has always been blessed with gifted satirists offering us what we might call a beautiful fatalism. Yet, if our goal is to build a better world, we need more than critique. Neo-liberal capitalism has decimated our belief in ourselves and our ability to change our world. It's time to produce television that seeks both to empower all those involved in its production and viewing. For those seeking to produce culture in all its forms aimed at democratic transformation, our goal must be to cultivate our collective self-belief and educated hope.

The Capital City Project

For more details of the project based on these principles and developing this model, please visit the website of my Capital City Project. I am looking for support, funding, teachers, and collaborators, so please get in touch if you are interested.

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