I Can’t Stop Watching Live Television
The ancient art of watching whatever’s on gets me thinking about some real philosophical questions
In February of this year I was sidelined with a flu that laid me on my couch for days. I found myself lost in childhood feelings, hazy remembrances of sick days and cartoons, memories that for brief and occasional moments felt indistinguishable from reality. In this state I found myself wanting to re-create the experience of childhood sick days. I wanted to lay on the couch and watch talk shows, law office commercials, court shows, soap operas. I wanted to doze in and out of Tom & Jerry cartoons, the remote dropping out of my hand. So I did exactly that. I paid extra for the Hulu feature that allows you to watch Live TV, that is to say what remains of channels. Remember those? I flipped up and down. Nothing was on that I wanted to watch, which is exactly the feeling I wanted. I settled on cartoons which stayed on for hours. And then for days.
A few weeks later the lockdown came, and the hazy remembrances never quite left. In Ling Ma’s book Severence a pandemic comes from China and cripples American capitalism. You won’t believe me now, but I read Severance in early February right before I got sick. In the book, those affected with the virus become lost in memory. For the first few weeks of the pandemic I marveled at how Ma had come so close to predicting COVID but had gotten the memory part wrong. It would take me a few months before I would realize she had gotten that right, too.
This year I’m remembering television, the bizarre experience of channel surfing, plopping down on a couch to watch but with no idea of what you were going to watch. You didn’t choose a show to watch from a list of available shows. You just turned on the TV to any channel to see what they were showing. Here was an old detective show, he was an episode of Cheaters, here was the episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island. I’m remembering what it felt like to never have to decide what to watch. You never chose anything, you just chose not things. You might turn the channel at a commercial break if something didn’t keep your interest, but you never really exerted any will beyond that. The choice was never “which thing am I going to watch out of all the things that there are in the world to watch.” It was much more binary. It was simply “Am I going to watch this, or am I…