Monday, 6 December 2010

On Television - An Applied Review

Despite being written almost fourteen years ago about French TV, Bourdieu's insights into the structural mediocrities of television broadcasting is easily translatable to the present day output of British television (tr. Note, p.83). On Television remains both relevant and vital. A case in point is the BBC's The Story of Maths presented by Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy. A crucial sequence of Programme 3, was the practical application of Leibniz's work on calculus. du Sautoy sat in the driver's seat of a product-placed Audi explaining how Leibniz's work enabled the calculation of the instantaneous speed in contrast to the average speed on the car's speedometer. Virtual axes appropriately appeared with an overlaid curve of the car's acceleration and deceleration. After three seconds the car was calculated to be travelling at ... Well that's the point there was no calculation: there was no maths. Would it be possible to broadcast the story of other topics whilst simultaneously censoring the topic? the story of music without sound? the story of art without images? 

du Sautoy currently occupies the Oxford chair of `Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science', but what might the public understand from this sequence? Bourdieu's essay helps answer such a question in terms of self-censorship, market economics and the desire to be `on television'. Bourdieu doesn't actually mention the cult of celebrity but in its coruscation of those for whom `to be is to be perceived' (p.14) the acceptance of and compliance in censorship is a necessary condition for television's creation of a `public-that-won't-understand' (p.13). The programme's accessibility to non-mathematicians is deemed to be a success (OU, Sesame, Autumn 2010, p.13) but such success is questionable if non-mathematicians remain uninformed of the mathematics that have caught their attention. 
The second part of the `On Television' essay deals with the sociological field within which TV operates. This focus facilitates an analysis of the way the TV subject is created and established. This effectively depersonalizes Bourdieu's argument (and hopefully this review) and allows for criticism and elaboration upon the structural conditions within and through which such mediocrity is effected. The Story of Maths might operate, most obviously, within the discourse of public service broadcasting, and since there aren't that many maths programmes within this field du Sautoy could have written pretty much anything he liked. However, The Story of Maths is also connected to the most popular, most economically successful shows (X Factor, Britain's Got Talent etc.). "The result is programming that makes concessions to facile [popularism]" Thus the format of The Story of Maths follows that of personality and pits Newton against Cowell, Gauss against Subo: extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. 
Bourdieu closes On Television with a preemptive note in preparation of the charges of elitism and/or esotericism. Imagine a maths programme that introduced the complex concepts of mathematics and which explained them in an engaging, meaningful and entertaining way that challenged the level of superficial reception. That Bourdieu's argument is not elitism is, paradoxically, a challenge to the elite that only seek to reinforce the mechanisms that put The Story of Maths on the screen in the first place.

Buy this book, and if you can afford another please send it to Marcus du Sautoy c/o BBC TV.