James Baldwin on Television and What You Learn Channel Surfing

"I used to distract myself, some mornings before I got out of bed, by pressing the television remote control gadget from one channel to another."
James Baldwin, by Boris Chaliapin (National Portrait Gallery)

Today, August 2nd, is James Baldwin's birthday. He was born in 1924 in Harlem. 

A giant of 20th century literature, Baldwin is a spring of wisdom on all things. In his writing, you don't find much about technology, per se, but in a 1983 essay "Nothing Personal" for Contributions in Black Studies, he held forth on television. Or really, more on the experience of channel surfing, the way the images glide past you, one into another, as you enter the machine zone, while somewhere out there, important things are happening ("News -- news? from where? -- dropping into this sea with the alertness and irrelevancy of pebbles").

So, yes, this is about television, but it's also about pre-computing American business and advertising, "teeth gleaming like the grillwork of automobiles," and the implicit message that the meaning of life was to increase convenience while decreasing the variability of our bodies. Baldwin died four years after it came out.

Happy birthday, JB! Wherever you are.

I used to distract myself, some mornings before I got out of bed, by pressing the television remote control gadget from one channel to another. This may be the only way to watch TV: I certainly saw some remarkable sights. Blondes and brunettes and, possibly, redheads -- my screen was colorless -- washing their hair, relentlessly smiling, teeth gleaming like the grillwork of automobiles, breasts firmly, chillingly encased -- packaged, as it were -- and brilliantly uplifted, forever, all sagging corrected, forever, all middle age bulge -- middle age bulge! -- defeated, eyes as sensuous and mysterious as jelly beans, lips covered with cellophane, hair sprayed to the consistency of aluminum, girdles forbidden to slide up, stockings defeated in their subversive tendencies to slide down, to turn crooked, to snag, to run, to tear, hands prevented from aging by incredibly soft detergents, fingernails forbidden to break by superbly smooth enamels, teeth forbidden to decay by mysterious chemical formulas, all conceivable body odor, under no matter what contingency, prevented for twenty-four hours of every day, forever and forever and forever, children's bones knit strong by the foresight of vast bakeries, tobacco robbed of any harmful effects by the addition of mint, the removal of nicotine, the presence of filters and the length of the cigarette, tires which cannot betray you, automobiles which will make you feel proud, doors which cannot slam on those precious fingers or fingernails, diagrams illustrating -- proving -- how swiftly impertinent pain can be driven away, square-jawed youngsters dancing, other square-jawed youngsters, armed with guitars, or backed by bands, howling; all of this -- and so much more! -- punctuated by the roar of great automobiles, overtaking gangsters, the spatter of tommy-guns mowing them down, the rise of the organ as the Heroine braces herself to Tell All, the moving smile of the housewife who has just won a fortune in metal and crockery; news -- news? from where? -- dropping into this sea with the alertness and irrelevancy of pebbles, sex wearing an aspect so implacably dispiriting that even masturbation (by no means mutual) seems one of the possibilities that vanished in Eden, and murder one's last, best hope -- sex of an appalling coyness, often in the form of a prophylactic cigarette being extended by the virile male toward the aluminum and cellophane girl. They happily blow smoke into each other's face, jelly beans, brilliant with desire, grillwork gleaming; perhaps -- poor, betrayed exiles --they are trying to discover if, behind all that grillwork, all those barriers, either of them has a tongue.

Screen capture from Prelinger Archive hygiene TV commercials (Prelinger Archive)
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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