Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 3, No. 2, 1990
Communication and Tradition: Essays after Eric Michaels
Edited by Tom O'Regan

TV as Cultural Technology: The Work of Eric Michaels

Tom O'Regan

Stories about technology play a distinctive role in our understanding of ourselves and our common history .... technology is thoroughly cultural from the outset: an expression of the very outlooks and aspirations we pretend it merely demonstrates. James Carey, Communication as Culture, p. 9. 1 Eric Michaels's work happily combined a cultural analysis of TV with an analysis of other structural, industrial and political elements of the media complex. TV and video technology are central to the argument of both For a Cultural Future2 and The Aboriginal Invention of Television. 3 Broadcasting policy occupies much of "Aboriginal Content: Who's Got it, Who Needs It?"4 and Invention, the organization of Aboriginal production teams is the central topic of "The Social Organization of an Aboriginal Video Workplace",5 the politics of transmission and information provision underlie "Constraints on Knowledge in an Economy of Oral Information" and "Information Management and Disclosure: Warrumungu, the Ruined Ritual".6 He was not averse to 'textual analysis' in "Bad Aboriginal Art",7 "The Indigenous Languages of Video and Television in Central Australia",8 and For a Cultural Future. And all this was firmly anchored to an ethnographic study of a particular audience community - the Warlpiri people at Yuendumu in Australia's Northern Territory. In doing all these things - from 'anthropology of TV' to 'technology, text and policy' I see Eric's work as contributing to the study of TV as a 'cultural technology'. Eric's writings suggest ideas, directions for research, and questions that should be asked in the study of TV generally - not just TV in remote Aboriginal communities, but TV in Western metropolitan, suburban and country settings.

Eric's practice involved a description of TV as a synthetic medium (made up of diverse objects, strategies, audiences, and styles). His analysis could, at times, look like every possible branch of TV studies - policy analysis, textual analysis, production studies, technological issues, folklore, 'effects' research, audiences - with a couple of wildcards thrown in - like questions of literacy and infomatics all understood within the context of a politics of cultural intervention. Eric pushed the connections between these different branches of TV study thereby redisposing TV analysis towards the holistic description of TV. Eric's work is thus not simply an eclectic collection of the different approaches to the study of TV - it is an attempt to create out of this diversity an integrated practice of TV analysis adequate to the diversity of the object. Eric's essay "A Model for Teleported Texts", published in Continuum for the first time, is his most self-conscious interrogation of the nature and direction of the integration he has undertaken most completely in For a Cultural Future, The Aboriginal Invention of Television and his remarkable PhD thesis: "TV Tribes".

I take Eric's self-understanding of his project as providing an 'anthropology of TV' to indicate the holistic rather than eclectic ends of his project. But I am not sure that, apart from Jay Ruby and the readers of the journal he edits - Visual Anthropology, anyone else would understand the call for "an anthropology of TV" in quite these terms. It certainly is true that Eric saw himself as doing 'anthropology' (after all his PhD thesis is entitled "TV Tribes") but it was a peculiar anthropology. Indeed a continuing aside made to me by anthropologists consulted over this project is that "You know Eric was not really an anthropologist". I take this to be none other than the recognition of the 'public face' of anthropology and the set of expectations generated about its practice and the sort of objects it investigates against which Eric's work took a calculated distance.

Because I want to address the kind of questions Eric's work raises for someone coming from 'media studies' not anthropology I will propose that TV be understood here as a cultural technology. In proffering this equally, and potentially more, misleading designation of Eric's work as an example of the study of TV as a cultural technology it is not my intention to counterpose an 'anthropology of TV' to 'TV as Cultural Technology'. What I want to suggest rather is that by taking 'TV as a Cultural Technology' aspects of Eric's work of concern to someone interested in explaining the diverse institutions and spaces of TV can be stressed. So too by raising the question of TV as a cultural technology I want to see how 'textual' issues of 'reading', 'comprehension' and 'the making of productions' can be usefully thought on a continuum with ethnographic 'audience' research, the institutional analysis of regulatory and corporate regimes of TV and video including its distribution structures. Like Jay Ruby I would agree that the institutions of textual criticism in 'media studies' have produced remarkably little understanding of televisual use and comprehension; but unlike Jay Ruby I do not propose a definitive turning away from 'aesthetic' and 'textual' questions in favour of broadly ethnographic sociological investigations. Rather following the contours of both Eric's and David Bordwell's work I want to propose that integral to the consideration of TV as a cultural technology is an "historical poetics".9 Additionally Eric's notion of culture as an information system enabled him to place TV as an element in a broader communication ensemble. Examination of the social relations of TV are thus usefully biased towards specific relations with other communication structures rather than to the general social relations that TV / society understandings have tended to be posed in. TV thus needs to be thought of in relation to other 'cultural technologies' - be they the 'mass media' of radio, cinema, video and the press or the other communication technologies like the telephone, the fax, the mail, print, and the diverse forms of interpersonal communication whether dialogue and performance rules in particular familial and kinship settings, or the 'dialogue' between police, welfare and bureaucracy with Aborigines. Consequently audience communities are understood as being necessarily within, rather than outside the field of the 'cultural technology' of TV. This also means that audience communities would be described as much in relation to their communication relationships within which TV persists as in relation to their social attitudes and values. Rather than stressing 'poetic forms' as distinct from other more utilitarian forms and resources of reasoning - the continuity between reasoning resources in diverse cultural technology sites would be gestured to.10 Again this suggests how a social specification can become married with a technological description.

Such a designation holds together better an analytic study of the diversity of the 'TV phenomena' than alternative approaches which strive for levels of social and cultural generality rather than historically verifiable interconnections. The social focus would thus render the object, the social relations of TV, in its technological and distributive materiality. Proposing TV as cultural technology is thus to propose TV as a site holding together diverse though interconnected projects. The audience-object the ratings construct is quite different from the audience-object of TV producers, which is in turn different from the discrete and overlapping audience communities for TV reception; so too the diverse strategies - from regulatory to commercial placement strategies, from political campaigns to textual strategies for attention grabbing are identifiably different. These different objects and strategies are integral to what can be usefully called the 'media complex' of TV. It is within this complex that these objects are coordinated, divisions of labour are constructed such that seemingly opposed 'objects' are brought into productive tension, the failure of producers' to manage the demand for and 'response' to a specific program can nonetheless be turned into a profitable industry. Eric's essay "A Model for Teleported Texts" argues precisely for this kind of treatment of TV. Further he promotes a model of sufficient generality to serve as a model for two different televisual inventions, two 'media complex': Warlpiri and 'European' read Australian and US TV.

TV as a Cultural Technology

Eric Michaels provided an extended discussion of the relationship between on the one hand culture and media technologies; and on the other hand between culture and texts created by working with these technologies. As such he understood these technologies as inherently cultural forms. Thus the 'same' physical technology could take on identifiably different cultural forms. That is the same visual image could have different meanings, be circulated in different ways, be viewed under different conditions - in short be a different 'text'. Video, for example, could at one and the same time be inserted into a production, distribution and archiving system with its headquarters in Hollywood and its local branch office in the video library represented among others at Yuendumu by schoolteachers and the policeman's wife - and also be inserted into an 'oral' system with its centre the ancient 'dreaming' tracks of the Warlpiri and be subject there to various mortuary laws prohibiting the 'seeing' of the dead and the various restrictions on who possesses and views that knowledge under what conditions in the case of 'indigenously produced' videos.

This is not simply a difference in the 'use' of a neutral technology - it is an identifiably different 'technological invention'. It is for this reason that Eric entitled his major research monograph The Aboriginal Invention of Television. At stake was not so much a 'use' of TV as a fundamentally different TV. Works like For a Cultural Future and "The Indigenous Languages of Film and Video in Central Australia" developed this 'difference' as a difference in 'writing' and comprehending TV.

To discuss 'media technology' this way you need a modifier to indicate its location within a specific cultural setting. Hence my designation cultural technology and Eric's 'an anthropology of TV'. Eric further understood technology as a matter of 'information'. The different TVs - European and Warlpiri - entailed identifiably different information systems. These different information systems were located through the textual analysis and ethnographic research on the comprehension of video texts and through the organization of the distribution and production systems evolved for those same texts. The concept of 'information' enabled Eric to address both aspects simultaneously - as a species of the same informational dynamic. Thus the container technology and the textual artefact circulating within the container were situated on a continuum. In this way Eric came to understand the container technology as integrally associated with distinctive modes of text comprehension and production. Thus Eric could propose that the distribution of texts, particularly electronically produced texts, was integral to the analysis of textual form. Consequently the 'politics' of TV in remote Aboriginal communities was understood as a clash between different cultural (read informational) systems - a European and an emergent Warlpiri one. The struggle at a policy level was therefore understood as one between the 'satellite dreaming' of a Warlpiri spokesperson in which Yuendumu was understood as the nodal centre for dispersed dreaming tracks and the centrally delivered broadcast information system in which Yuendumu was at the periphery of a centre with its headquarters in Sydney and Los Angeles. These analytic priorities shaped Eric's policy and political lobbying. For Eric it was a matter of a politics of cultural rights to the maintenance of emerging and distinctive Warlpiri distribution systems, to Warlpiri conventions of comprehension including language, and to the sphere of broadcast regulation accommodating remote communities' cultural rights.

This essay will survey Eric's study of TV as a cultural technology. I begin with an examination of the broad schematic division Eric maintained between Warlpiri Aboriginal and European information systems as a division between oral and electronic (print) cultures. I then turn to two closer arguments. First there is Eric's argument for the distinctiveness of Warlpiri produced video and Warlpiri 'understandings' of Hollywood - a cultural poetics of text and comprehension. Second there is Eric's argument for the distinctiveness of video distribution in the Warlpiri information system with this video distribution system being counterposed to the 'electronic culture's' video library model - a cultural politics of dissemination. Third there is Eric's distinction between a 'cultural future' and a 'lifestyle' future in For a Cultural Future as the stark alternatives for the Warlpiri. These passages raise forcefully the nature of the organization of audience communities within the different inventions of TV. These are the passages which most directly relate back to Eric's PhD thesis "TV Tribes" about a fundamentalist Christian boycott of TV within Amarillo, Texas. Finally I consider the implications of Eric's position for the current state of TV and video criticism within media studies and the cultural study of TV.

Oral Culture versus Electronic/Print Culture

To understand Warlpiri video tapes and Warlpiri readings of American (Hollywood) 'fictional genre' on video Eric saw this Aboriginal cultural system as a variant of a more general form: an oral culture as distinct from the European 'electronic' print culture. It is against this backdrop that Eric's utilized an 'ethnographic' method to map community production and viewing rules. His is not a typical 'ethnography'. He came to his task of assessing the impact of new communications technologies on remote Aboriginal communities with a particular hypothesis in mind. The Warlpiri were seen to possess an oral culture and the new communications technologies were seen to have a fundamental 'print' culture bias. The problem as Eric saw it was not simply the collision of two 'cultures' (European and Aboriginal - the traditional way of seeing the issue) it was also the collision of vastly different 'information systems'. As a consequence the relationship of Aboriginal subjects to these new technologies took on an added and charged significance. What was being played out at the site of Yuendumu was nothing less than an unequal struggle between an oral Aboriginal culture on the one hand and a European print culture on the other. It is against the backdrop of this struggle that Eric produced an 'ethnography' describing how Francis Jupurrurla Kelly - the representative of an oral culture appropriated 'print culture' artefacts (such as video) for the maintenance and rejuvenation of the 'oral culture'. Eric's claims here go to the heart of how oral and print cultures are to be understood.

Cultural politics as a consequence of these notions took a definite turn. For Eric Warlpiri cultural rights were rights to the maintenance and negotiated transformation of a fundamentally oral culture. Aboriginal cultural rights were therefore understood as the right to a radically different information order. These were rights to continue to organize the production workplace according to kinship and avoidance rules, rights to maintain and reproduce indigenous forms of comprehending and making visual texts, rights to organize the distribution of texts according to a logic of traditional corridors of information which respect the selective nature of information, and rights to maintain the strict control over viewing conditions so as to ensure avoidance rules, mortuary rules and that the right people were seeing the text under appropriately managed conditions.

Let us see how Eric manages this 'oral'/'print' culture divide. His most complete discussion of this matter is contained in his 1985 paper "Constraints on Knowledge in an Oral Information Economy". In this paper, Eric debunks the "popular conceit" that the "information age" we are entering bears "a resemblance to oral, non-industrial societies".11 He argues that any resemblance between the electronic global village undergoing a change from a print to an electronically organized culture and the traditional oral information economy like that of the Warlpiri people at Yuendumu is at best superficial. He demonstrates this by showing how an 'oral culture' places a different kind of value upon information than does the economy of 'the information age'. Contra McLuhan 'oral cultures' were not societies in which "information was broadly shared and equally accessible". Quite the reverse was the case. Effectively there was no "egalitarianism of knowledge". As Eric explains it:

Where print or electronic media do not exist, the work is of utmost utility for its users. Precisely because information is inseparable from its author (the word cannot be detached from its speaker), authorship takes on privileged status. The connection between speech and speaker can also confer particular manipulatory advantage on the choice of hearer. One who has the right to speak has the right to speak to some people and not others. In fact, from a communicational standpoint, Aboriginal social structures both embody and elaborate the constraints on who can say what to whom. This system allows speech (or designs or other information) to accrue particularly high value, indeed, to become capital of a particular sort that individuals, and communities in ceremonial exchanges, can manipulate to social and economic advantage.12

The Warlpiri Aboriginals were not a community which levelled, or provided easy access to information. Quite the reverse in fact. Information was jealously guarded. Instead of egalitarianism there was hierarchy. As Eric so humorously put it: a (Western informational) "future modelled on their (Warlpiri) information management systems would more closely resemble a vast gerontocratic bureaucracy than a hippie commune writ large".13 Traditional 'oral cultures' are thus precluded from serving as models for contemporary change in the Western developed world. Contra the popular conceit the fundamental reorientation of our contemporary communication ensembles towards an 'electronically' organized information system should not be thought of as a return to 'orality' as such but rather as an intensification of an already existent tendency within 'print'. In the electronic village printing in the sense of archiving, storing, and the indiscriminate making accessible of information had not disappeared - it had become electronic. Electronic information was in this sense another form of writing. The fundamental division between 'oral' and 'print' cultures remained - this time dressed in terms of the difference between traditional 'oral' culture and a 'printing culture' which drew upon 'oral' resources in the minimal sense of speech resources. In such circumstances Eric rightly stressed that the difference between these two cultures was not 'speech' versus 'writing on a page' but the different way in which information was handled within each cultural system. "Information" needed to be taken "as the unit of analysis for cultural systems".14

Eric insisted upon a schematic division between 'oral' and 'print'/electronic cultures. This was most schematically developed in The Aboriginal Invention of Television, p. 130.

1. Television information is equally accessible through the society of viewers; Aboriginal knowledge is highly restricted to identified classes of people (eg initiated men or senior women)

2. Television information is widely dispersed geographically through satellites; Aboriginal knowledge is highly localised.

3. Television (or any mediated storage/retrieval system) creates an external, archival, impersonal authority; Aboriginal knowledge is personal (mentally stored), with face-to-face retrieval and transmission, and not subject to contradiction by an external, impersonal authority.15

TV therefore was not considered as impacting because of any unique properties it might be held to possess (eg its immediacy, its visual dimension). Rather it impacted upon the traditional culture of the Warlpiri because its principles of its organization were so congruent with other Western approaches to information handling. TV was merely more critical in the context of remote Aboriginal communities because "it will be the first effective and accessible information system carrying western content to many Aborigines who did not become fully literate or have other access to European story, drama and information. Print, for example, would have carried many of these influences had Aboriginal society become fully literate first."16

TV was clearly representative of a different style of information system itself evolving as it did from 'literate print' to a 'telecommunications electronic'. As such it became generally representative of the clash between the two. Thus Eric could argue that TV was in the front line for the electronic/print culture's assault upon traditional society and would represent a quite specific threat to Aboriginal tradition "if no special provisions" were made for Aboriginal needs. The threat it represented was:

1. Usurping of the prerogatives of senior people....

2. Challenges to the localism of knowledge that is the basis of autonomy and (in the case of traditional content) of the exchange system. ......

3. Challenges to the authority of the dreaming (the law). ....

4. Violations of mortuary rules which prohibit recalling the names, images or property of deceased persons.

In For a Cultural Future Eric counterposed two fundamental biases of space and time within European and Aboriginal 'cultures':

The bias of mass broadcasting is concentration and unification; the bias of Aboriginal culture is diversity and autonomy. Electronic media are everywhere; Aboriginal culture is local and landbased. Only local communities can express and maintain linguistic autonomy. .... The problem of language signals a more general problem of social diversity that introduced media pose for indigenous peoples everywhere: how to respond to the insistent pressure towards standardisation, the homogenising tendencies of contemporary world culture.17

As a clash between two different information systems - the problems of social homogenization and standardization (what the tradition within which Eric's research came from called 'mainstreaming' - the reduction of ideological differences). Such was the issue for TV. But European inscriptive practices were evident elsewhere as well. In the everyday practices of journalism which, except with reference to libel laws, deny subject rights to individuals in the name of 'public' information and the public's general (and non-specific) right to know. These practices could ride rough-shod over and take a special (structural) delight in revealing that which is hidden and so on. (A structure of betrayal). And also, and perhaps most importantly in the clash between aboriginal forms of knowledge and European procedures - particularly with respect to Aboriginal land claims. If the problem with TV was a direct 'symbolic' assault on prerogative etc (and therefore the re-creation of the Aboriginal subject as 'black' white) in the Land Rights courts the problem was of a different order. Inscriptive practices, and the rules of evidence of the law here require an approach which must in order to recognize Aboriginal privilege and prerogative 'ruin' the tradition: insisting upon the public disclosure of that which is restricted. Eric put it most succinctly:

The Aboriginal information management tradition .... involves principles that stem logically from the dependence on oral communications technology, and features unique properties of information ownership elevated in significance beyond the value of material ownership for capitalist societies. In some sense, then, Aborigines, by being required to inform the courts regarding their own rights to land are being asked to pay, and to pay quite dearly, for that land. Moreveor, the public accounting of information may affect the subsequent value of that information in ritual exchange, so that these costs may prove real and not be recoverable. ("Information Management and Disclosure: Warrumungu, the Ruined Ritual", p.2).

By contrast the courts are involved in a different kind of problem. They conceive of information quite differently:

The courts conceive of information quite differently, as something that is free, at least by rights, to them. Their information mangagement problem is addressed more to the creation of a discourse which tames the dynamics of language and limits its ploysemy so that meanings (of testimony and of previous decisions) can become more constant over time and place than the context sensistivity of natural language usually permits. (p. 3).

Print' culture directly clashes with oral systems here. Electronic culture is not, contra McLuhan, seen to be ushering in a new age of 'orality' - to say as much would be to overlook the 'printing' involved in broadcast transmission.

Video - but also writing, print, photography, film and sound recroding - preserve information through time and favour its dissemination through space. Both secrecy and mortuary rules are subverted by the bias of mass media. The local negotiations which assure athority, autonomy and social reporduction of Warlpiri Law, are likewise compromised by modern inscriptive practices. (p.35)


1 James Carey, Communication as Culture, p. 9

2 Eric Michaels, For a Cultural Future: Frances Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu (Sydney: Artspace, Art and Criticism Series, v. 3, 1987).

3 Eric Michaels, The Aboriginal Invention of Television in Central Australia, 1982-1985 (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Institute Report, 1986).

4 Eric Michaels, "Aboriginal Content: Who's Got it, Who Needs It?", Art & Text, nos. 23-24 (1987), pp. 58-79.

5 Eric Michaels and Francis Jupurrurla Kelly, "The Social Organization of an Aboriginal Video Workplace", Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 1 ( 1984), pp. 26-34.

6 Eric Michaels, "Information Management and Disclosure: Warrumungu, the Ruined Ritual". This essay appeared in a collection of essays Eric Michaels assembled in July 1986 under the title "Aborigines, Information and the Media: the Aboriginal Encounter with Introduced Communications Technology" for consideration by book publishers.

7 Eric Michaels, "Bad Aboriginal Art", Art & Text, no. 28 (1988), pp. 59-73.

8 Eric Michaels, "The Indigenous Languages of Video and Television in Central Australia", in Martin Taureg and Jay Ruby eds., Visual Explorations of the World: Selected Proceedings of the International Visual Communication Conference (Gottingen: Rader Verlag, 1987).

9 The David Bordwell writing I am particularly referring to here is his recent book: Making Meaning: Rhetoric and Inference in Contemporary Film Criticism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989), passim. But see particularly the last chapter "Why not to read a film", pp. x-y.

10 See Lena Jayyusi, "Toward a Socio-logic of the Film Text", Semiotica, 68, nos. 3/4 (1988), pp. 271-296. As Jayyusi puts it:

We watch a film from within the natural attitude of everyday life, and we understand it much as we would understand the order and properties of the everyday social and natural world - cause/effect, action/consequence, action/motive, logical connection, temporal duration, etc. Our understanding of a film text trades off our knowledge of the structures of everyday activity and practical reasoning. (p. 291)

11 "Constraints on Knowledge", p. 505.

12 Ibid, pp.505-506.

13 Ibid, p. 510.

14 Ibid, p. 510.

15 The Aboriginal Invention of Television, p. 130.

16 Ibid, p. 130.

17 For a Cultural Future, p. 13.

New: 10 November, 1995 | Now: 15 March, 2015