The remote control: a symbol of postmodernity

Nothing confirms the death of narrative like the zapper that lets us pick between a hundred channels without even getting off the sofa.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

I recently spent some time with my father down in Kent, and unfortunately he does not have multi-channel Sky Plus, which makes television very boring indeed. Only four channels? This is the height of philistinism. It was intolerable.

It just reminds you how terrible terrestrial television is. Cable television is awash with such delights as history channels dedicated to war, war and more war; nature channels about the feeding habits of meerkats or pandas who can’t get erections; travel channels with the ubiquitously smug but amiable Michael Palin going round the world in ever more desperately-themed voyages. You have classic films on TCM, Premiership coverage; Johnny Knoxville from Jackass skateboarding into sewers or putting his willy into something horrible; suspicious Cockney-type fellows selling cheese graters to Americans on shopping channels; re-runs of the best comedy of the past 30 years; late night music channels which are, mysteriously, signed for the deaf; and, of course, pornography.

Terrestrial television, on the other hand, seems mainly to consist of cooking programmes, ‘reality TV’ programmes featuring nobodies, and shows about people trying to flog antiques from their attic. Then there is the dreadful local news, in which every local grievance – such as a kid not being admitted to a local primary school, a library closing down in Dover, or some Albanian immigrants allegedly eating swans in Ramsgate – is treated as a national disaster. But this was Saturday morning, so perhaps I’m being too judgemental.

The worst thing about terrestrial television is that it deprives one the power of the remote control. There are only four channels from which to choose, rendering the remote control, that symbol of both masculinity and postmodernity, a hollow and impotent shadow of what it should be. I don’t want to be reduced to choosing between four channels; I desire the omnipotence to choose between hundreds of channels.

‘Who needs / remote control?’ The Clash once sang. Well, I do. The remote control gives the illusion of power, which is why it is invariably men who always insist on clinging to it. It is also iconic of our age, one in which postmodernists have announced the death of narrative, and the emergence of fragmented, consumerist micro-narratives. The remote control allows one to create one’s own story, by flicking between Neighbours, Chelsea vs Blackburn, The World At War, and repeats of Star Trek. The remote control allows one to create one’s own particular, nonsensical montage.

Using the remote control, or ‘zapping’, is symptomatic of an age that has zero concentration, that is hyperactive, impatient, amnesiac, and that lacks depth. Just as consumerism gives the illusion of choice (when all it does is create demand, rather than cater for it), the remote control gives the illusion of freedom. It gives the controller the illusion of telekinesis. ‘I’m in control.’ The remote control is the tool of the powerless and the apathetic; anyone who can’t be bothered to get out of their seats and change the channel manually is clearly not an alpha-male, whether it be Keith from EastEnders or Marty Crane from Frasier. Those who hog the remote control and watch television all day are invariably portrayed as infirm or hopelessly depressed.

And what are remote controls otherwise used for? They are used by Nasa, for computer video games, for controlling substations, locking one’s cars, opening garage doors, and for operating toy cars. In other words, the remote control is for boys who refuse to grow up and who like doing childish things. Remote controls are the kind of thing Jeremy Clarkson likes, and were also admired by the late Jean Baudrillard (whose death recently did not take place), a man who diagnosed the death of narratives and heralded the birth of hypereality. Remote controls are both postmodern and juvenile. They represent our fragmented, broken society. Remote controls literally give us ‘control’, in a world where people feel controlled, and impotent. ‘Where’s the remote control?’ is a familiar cry of panic among males who have lost their substitute tool of power.

And this is exactly why I am so attached to my remote control. A remote may on the one hand represent a threat to authenticity, linear narrative and symbolise ‘the death of the author’, but it can be a liberating tool. It allows one to bypass advertisements, so perhaps it could be seen as an anti-capitalist gadget. Or in its emphasis on ‘choice’ it can be perceived as an icon of individualist capitalism. In all, it can be judged as a symbol of libertarianism.

In an ambivalent respect, the remote control is a malevolent contraption, and a liberating one. It destroys the ability to concentrate, but it enhances the capacity to create – and recreate – one’s own micro-narrative. It may do disrespect to authors, but it emancipates viewers – terrestrial viewers who have to deal with intolerable adverts from Carol Vorderman offering exciting ways of getting into crippling debt, or Noel Edmonds on Deal Or No Deal, wittering on about the power of ‘cosmic intelligence’ and ‘positivity’, during a programme that is for people too stupid to go on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?.

The remote control is a symbol of freedom. But it is also a symbol of the price of freedom. It can liberate us all, but it can make cretins of us all.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Read more at: spiked-issue TV

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Topics Politics


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