On Berger's Ways of Seeing
First Broadcast Fifty Years Ago This Week, Jan 8 1972
I’ve spoken about John Berger’s Ways of Seeing so many times – whenever I present my audio tribute, Ways of Hearing, I start with Berger – and yet I have never put anything down in writing. Perhaps that’s fitting for a project that leans so heavily on images, and dialogue with them. But to memorialize the 50th anniversary of Berger’s original broadcast (Jan 8 1972), here are a few monologic, prosaic thoughts...
When Ways of Seeing first beamed into British sitting rooms, televisions were ubiquitous but still relatively new to middle class homes. And what Berger used them for was to problematize image. The television is a magic box, bringing the world inside – but a world of images only. What else could any viewer conclude after Berger’s bravura first episode, which begins as he slices into a Botticelli - just to have the camera cut away and reveal a studio rather than a museum, a reproduction rather than the original, a simulacrum rather than reality.
Berger’s love of images is matched by his distrust of them, and that double stance of the critic is the other unavoidable lesson from Ways of Seeing. He plays the BBC expert – yet continually undercuts the very notion of connoisseurship. Do we take him seriously? Of course, he’s on television. But what do we do with an authority who tells us not to trust authority? It’s a basic lesson from higher education, at least I hope it is. But again, it’s not usually offered alongside tea and biscuits in the parlor.
This democratization is, for me, the heroic idealism of Ways of Seeing. Berger used mass media not to disseminate information – but to disseminate criticism.
Television may be “cool” in McLuhan’s terms, demanding some degree of input from the viewer, but it is still far from a medium of criticism. Which is why, I think, Berger’s popularizing effort ultimately ended up as a book. A popular book, yes. But still… a book. The television broadcast Ways of Seeing, in fact, largely disappeared from view. There was no release on home video, no DVD, hardly a way even for teachers to screen Berger’s original formulation of the work until YouTube put pirated copies online alongside every other scrap of video ever created. In that context, one among millions of videos, it could never have the meaning it originally had on broadcast television. True to form, like all reproductions, the copies on YouTube vary greatly in quality, and none can claim authenticity.
Yet while the video degraded, the book never lost its currency. It found its way to school curricula, and perhaps more importantly to the autodidact. It is, at root, an autodidact’s text: DIY criticism. Save the Benjamin for your reading list. Let everyone discover Ways of Seeing on their own – cause they will. They do!
On a book tour for my own Ways of Hearing, I didn’t need to carry a copy of Berger’s text with me because there was one in every store I visited. I started each talk by going over to the art section and pulling it off the shelf – a bit of Bergerish showmanship, perhaps, but how better to demonstrate the import of that text to our culture at large. It is “perennial backlist,” to use the booksellers’ term (and publishers’ dream).
Like so many others, I discovered the work first as a book – in the US, there was little-to-no chance of seeing the BBC broadcast. When I finally found the original television series, I was surprised how much it differed from the text. The first episode, in particular, dramatically twists the television camera around and aims it at the viewer. That episode’s many alienating and self-referential devices – pointing out that as you look at images on the screen, “Your wallpaper is around them, your window is opposite them, your carpet is below them” – still hit.
Those contextualizing gestures are what I went after with my podcast. Could I yank out those earbuds, even while using them to communicate…?
As for why I also turned my time-based broadcasts into a book, well – I had Berger’s example too firmly in mind to ignore the fact that a podcast, no matter how widely disseminated it may be at the moment, will soon melt into the white noise of all other audio online. Books endure. Earbuds, podcasts… they will likely become historical curiosities even quicker than broadcast television, VHS tape, or DVDs. Technological change is only speeding up. Which is why I didn’t follow Berger in one respect: the text for my book matches the podcast exactly.
Berger’s book is deservedly a classic, and likely familiar. On this fiftieth anniversary of the original television broadcast, so long kept out of view, tune in and see if it doesn’t make 1972 new again.
Listening to: Music for Airports