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No Sense of Place: THE IMPACT OF ELECTRONIC MEDIA ON SOCIAL BEHAVIOR by Joshua Meyrowitz (Oxford: $22.50; 416 pp.)

September 29, 1985|Lorenzo W. Milam | Milam is the author of several books on media, including "Sex and Broadcasting" and "The Radio Papers." and

Joshua Meyrowitz is not unlike our garrulous old Uncle Ferd, who told such fascinating stories about the politicians, the women, the kids, family history. He held us spellbound, all those Sundays around the hearth. It wasn't until we grew up that we found out that Ferd took most of his tales from other folks and that those he made up on his own weren't all that fascinating. That's the way "No Sense of Place" works.

Meyrowitz's premise is that all of us exist in "front room" and "back room" and "side room" spaces. We have behind-the-scenes places where (for instance) we and our friends use terrible language, utter vile jokes and scratch our arm pits. When we go out in the world, we clean up, act nice, honor our parents, don't spit or pick our noses. His thesis is that television has savaged all these convenient divisions.

The process began, if you can believe it, with "Leave It to Beaver." "There the parents are shown as cool and rational with their children, but, when they are by themselves, they display doubts and anxieties, and they agonize over 'what to do with the kids . . . .' " The program violated the traditional step-by-step learning process of enculturation. It showed parents as doubting, fearful and human (something books and schools would never do). Since naive children were invariably watching, June and Ward Cleaver became television's modern-day version of Fagin.

Meyrowitz excels in giving capsule summaries of sociological history: how the role of women has changed in Western civilization; how earlier politicians could be homely (Jefferson had freckles, Washington had "craters" all over his face) but--since they were always distant from their audiences--would not be penalized for it. Or, again, he gives a fine summary of the creation of the very concept of "childhood," a thesis drawn from "Centuries of Childhood" by Philippe Aries.

In addition, however, he peppers his book with details that may not have anything to do with television. We are told that "male police officers in the 44th precinct in the Bronx recently complained about the lack of electrical outlets for their hair dryers. . . ." Or that "to this day, Orthodox Jewish males thank God every morning for not 'making me a woman. . . .' " Or "more than one-third of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) audience is female . . ." and, even more surprising, 20% of Playboy's television audience is composed of women watching alone. . . ."

With all this detail, there are strange omissions in "No Sense of Place." There are almost 500 listings in the bibliography, yet no references to some of the early and key commentators on television such as Michael Arlen, whose articles in The New Yorker made "the living room war" so familiar an expression. There is, as well, no mention of the superb critical articles that appeared in the '50s and '60s in The New Statesman, The London Observer and Saturday Night Magazine--articles far ahead of the American literary magazines and newspapers in taking television seriously as a force for change.

Still, "No Sense of Place" is a workmanlike and honorable piece of scholarship. It makes valid points about television vis-a-vis print, politics, children and women in 1980s America, even when it tells us more perhaps than we'd ever want to know about the differences between books and television programs and about all the implications of the differences. Grover Cleveland had "the entire upper left jaw and part of the palate" removed while he was President. With the media set of the time, the public was blissfully unaware of Cleveland's travail. Given more recent accounts of journeys with scalpel and colon scope through the chief executive's bowel and bladder, such 19th-Century restraint seems all to the good, and that seems to be Meyrowitz's point.

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