Monday, April 19, 2010

Culture, television, and the nation-state (apropos a surprising new TV series)

Now this looks very enticing! In fact, this is one of the more surprising things to come out of the world of commercial television. Quite unexpected, and this is one of those very rare times when I would actually want to "get TV" (cable or air) in my house. Fortunately, it will surely come out on DVD fairly soon.

Usually, to encounter high culture on TV, in Amerika, you have to watch PBS - the much maligned Public Broadcasting System, the closest equivalent to a national (as in, "state") TV station Amerika has. However, in many other parts of the world, and especially in Europe, the national ("state") TV stations are the guardians of high culture, and thus have a civilizing role - or impact.

A case in point is the world of television in Central and Eastern Europe, and the impact of commercial television after the 1990s. They have invaded the market, have become very successful, but true quality television remained with the "national," i.e. state-owned stations.

These states came about as a result of the pursuit of the idea of the "nation-state," that every nation (defined ethnically and culturally, i.e. ethno-culturally) needs to have its own state(hood). In consequence, the very raison d'être of the resulting states became, and is, the protection of the interests of these "nations," defined ethnoculturally: around a "common" language, culture, history (real or constructed? shared or inculcated? - usually both). (This is the German model.) What is a state, however? It is a set of institutions. This is then what the state institutions are meant to do: to protect the interests of a culturally defined nation, which means the protection and promotion of the given culture, as defined by the state. (This is the French model, although the French nation was not defined ethnically, but politically and culturally.)

There are many downsides to such an understanding of nation and state; for example, the existence of a quasi-sacred canon of national culture, whose questioning is almost a blasphemy - and  whose epitome are the "national poets" - usually romantic poets who wrote during and about the struggle for the definition of the nation, in the nineteenth century, intertwining in their work the definition of the language, history, and the struggle for independence.. There are, however, important upsides, namely this self-understanding of some of these institutions of the state, as being the guardians of cultural heritage - not necessarily limited to the past, especially in the case of national TV stations.

Of course, this might also have to do with the fact that, in many countries, when television arrived, it was through state-owned stations, and not through the market. As a consequence, the approach to this new medium has been shaped not by commercial interest, but by the idea of public service (information, news - just like in the case of the first radio stations there), and might also have meant that the input of educated people, with sophisticated cultural backgrounds, was decisive - and they applied their understanding of other branches of culture, to deciding about the very purpose and direction of the programs of this new medium.

Now, I am quite unfamiliar with the history of television, but these seem to be fair enough suppositions, since I have experienced them first hand, growing up in Europe, nourished (in part) exactly by these institutions (sometimes to my delight, sometimes to indigestion).

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