spatial concepts of TV
Running Head: SPATIAL CONCEPTS OF TV
Spatial Concepts of TV as Place:
Toward a Critical Phenomenology of Mediated Human Geography
Kim Golombisky, doctoral candidate
University of South Florida
Contact: Kim Golombisky
School of Mass Communications, CIS 1040
University of South Florida
4202 E. Fowler Ave.
Tampa, FL 33620
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Spatial Concepts of TV as Place:
Toward a Critical Phenomenology of Mediated Human Geography
Television viewing literature reveals six conceptualizations of TV as place:
home theater, family hearth, imagined community, armchair tourism, fantasyland,
and social worlds. The author observes space and place are largely missing from
communication study, suggests communication technologies like television do
alter the ways people organize and experience place and space, and recommends a
critical phenomenology of media geographies to locate and displace our
communication-dependent and evolving spatial concepts.
Key Words: television, critical geography
Spatial Concepts of TV as Place:
Toward a Critical Phenomenology of Mediated Human Geography
Viewer reception studies and television family ethnographies offer some
evidence that viewers engage with television as if it were a place or a number
of simultaneously layered and shifting places. In this essay I import human
geography's concept of place to examine the place-based metaphors television
literature uses to describe the viewing experience and to suggest that
communication technologies may interact with the ways we organize and experience
We normally think of place as a location humans can occupy. But having a place
experience has never required our physical presence. We have shared places of
the imagination through storytelling, art, and ritual since time immemorial.
Moreover, we experience physically occupiable places through a filter of learned
perceptions. In recent time, communication technologies have enabled us to
materialize and share imagined landscapes through media, to interact with
distant places without physical travel, and to maintain social relationships
with real and invented people in other places. So while a place may be a
physical location, whether naturally occurring or human-built, a place
experience requires only the sentience of being there, physically or
imaginatively, as well as language with which to communicate it.
Despite this distinction, the idea of television as a place still may be
unclear. So it will be helpful to consider three premises underlying human
geography: (1) Humans are spatial creatures who learn to sense, move through,
construct, and share their day-to-day lives in three dimensions. We have bodies
that we move through a material world, which exists whether or not humans are
there to name it or incorporate it into a symbolic system. (2) Humans are
emotional beings who develop feelings for and attachments to their habitats;
they are territorial. Yi-Fu Tuan's (1974) Topophilia describes this "affective
bond between people and place or setting." (3) Humans are gloriously inventive
in their capacity to imagine "geographies of the mind" (Lowenthal, 1961;
Lowenthal & Bowden, 1976). Our conceptual spaces and places are not necessarily
limited by or to the material world, three dimensions, or direct observables.
Furthermore, we communicate these imaginings with each other and translate them
into built technologies that alter the physical dimension and spatial nature of
the world as we understand and experience it.
For communication studies, the implications of this geography are significant.
What and how we communicate with each other largely depends on how we perceive
our worlds, and our perceptions are largely structured through transaction
between the physiology of our bodies as discrete complexes of mobile senses and
our cultural knowledge that teaches us how to evaluate and articulate what we
sense. Add the rapid evolution of transportation and communication technologies
to that formula and the possibilities for social life change faster than we can
appreciate our options (Harvey, 1989). Put differently, we adapt so efficiently,
we're hardly aware that we've adopted new ways of being in, feeling for, and
A number of cultural geographers and communication scholars have described a
new human geography of the media (Adams, 1992; Burgess & Gold, 1985; Hay, 1993;
Moores, 1993b) in which communication technologies change the "situational
geography" of social life (Meyrowitz, 1985). They have called for more
transaction between human geography and communication as well as more emphasis
on "the material and symbolic expressions of the 'everyday' lives of 'ordinary'
people and the places in which we live" (Burgess & Gold, 1985, p. 32).
Television as one of the most pervasive and invasive of contemporary media
offers an excellent site to begin exploring these media geographies.
In the next section, I introduce the concept of media geographies, then I
discuss place. Finally, before offering some concluding remarks, I review six
concepts of TV-as-place that appear in the literature:
(1) Home Theater (Spigel 1992a, b): TV is a home theater where we critically
view the world on stage safely from the privacy of our home places.
(2) Family Hearth: TV is an "electronic hearth" (Tichi, 1991) where we organize
and perform the ritual and meaning of domestic social relations.
(3) Imagined Community (Anderson, 1983): TV is a liminal place where we affirm
our memberships in imagined communities at wider and fluctuating scales of
(4) Armchair Tourism: TV is a vehicle of transportation we use to travel to
(5) Fantasyland: TV is a fantasy destination, a virtual reality in and of
itself, a place where we vacation from our ordinary circumstances.
(6) Social Worlds: TV is a paraplace, whose borders with our physical social
worlds are so transparent that we fail to recognize distinctions between the
In 1985, the same year Joshua Meyrowitz linked television viewing with "no
sense of place," British cultural geographers Jacquelin Burgess and John Gold
argued "an urgent need for theoretical debate about the ways in which
environmental meanings and experience are shaped": "The very ordinariness of
television, radio, newspapers, fiction, film and pop music perhaps masks their
importance as part of people's geography 'threaded into the fabric of daily life
with deep taproots into the well-springs of popular consciousness' (Harvey,
1984, p. 7)" (Burgess & Gold, 1985, p. 1).
Burgess and Gold called for an examination of the media's "ideology of places,"
"their qualities," and "the emotional experiences that they generate" (1985, p.
1). They observed that certain research tracks in human and cultural geography,
cognitive psychology, mass communications, media studies, cultural studies, and
even literary criticism all seemed to be converging toward but unsuccessfully
getting at the ways communication technologies interact with places and place
experiences. Their review of the literature found scholarship interested in: (1)
media flow, concerned with communication technologies' spatial patterns and
biases in telecommunications infrastructure, information and economic activity;
(2) media content, studying visual and textual place imagery; and (3)
environmental and cognitive psychology, positing mass media as secondary, or
somehow inauthentic, sources of people's environmental knowledge (Burgess &
Gold, 1985). Burgess and Gold noted the absence of critical-interpretive
audience studies focusing on human and cultural geographies, although, as I'll
show, qualitative television audience research has a surprising geographical
Regarding media flow, scholars elsewhere pondered the geo-political
consequences of globally connected post-industrial economies and the networked
information society (Brunn & Leinbach, 1991; Castells, 1985; Ernste & Jaeger,
1989; Hepworth, 1990). While promising a democratized global village, the wired
society seemed paradoxically to be producing neo-parochialism as well as rather
undemocratic concentrations of corporate power, class dis/advantage, U.S.
cultural imperialism, and spatial biases in Western news sources, content, and
Regarding media content, Burgess and Gold (1985) noted promising work
deconstructing the cultural symbolism in "landscape iconography" (pioneered by
Pocock & Hudson, 1978, and Pocock, 1981, but exemplified by Cosgrove, 1984, and
Cosgrove & Daniels, 1988). But Burgess and Gold criticized the genre for
focusing on fine art and literature while ignoring mass media and popular
culture. Another kind of work, interested in place images and boosterism, had
begun comparing real places with their idealized media positioning in tourism
and economic re/development marketing (see, for example, Burgess, 1992; Burgess
& Wood, 1988; Gold & Gold, 1992; O'Brien, 1988; Zube & Kennedy, 1990). During
the same period, the growth of media-savvy environmental activism and green
corporate discourses also became the subjects of both traditional mass
communications content analyses and cultural studies (see Burgess, 1990).
But, to date, the most interesting media geographies, coming out of cultural
geography, have attempted to unravel the complex maneuvers among competing
groups' efforts to define places through the media (see Anderson & Gale, 1992;
Frawley, 1992; Harrison & Burgess, 1992; Zonn, 1990). This work asks how the
meanings of places are made, contested, and remade, and how people employ
communication technology, mass media, and popular culture in that process.
While looking at media flow and content is unquestionably useful, neither
patterning nor imagery gets at the notion of space and place itself as everyday
living. We tend to assume that while place may be a cultural product, it is a
cultural product embedded in space that is naturally occurring and immutable. I
suggest we begin with a concept of space that is flexible, and then ask what
that means for social life.
Although scholarly interest in space and place has become somewhat trendy, it
is the reciprocating but elusive relationship between contemporary communication
technology's influence on place ideologies and these ideologies' incorporation
and expression as mundane consciousness, practice, and experience that begs
further investigation and critical insight. What I am trying to get at is a
certain unarticulated, taken-for-granted contemporary sense of how the world
works, a "structure of feeling" (Williams, 1979) if you will, which we develop
by navigating our bodies through material structure and artifice, which in turn
is always filtered through subjectivity, language, and symbolic interaction. We
may be working communication technology--and communication technology may be
working us--to shift our basic understanding of space and place.
At the same time that Burgess and Gold called for a micro media geography of
everyday life, James Carey (1989), building on the ideas of Harold Innis (1951,
1972) and Marshall McLuhan (1964, 1967), was outlining a macro geography of
culture that recognized a fluid, space-dependent idea of communication. Innis,
McLuhan, and Carey call attention to parallels between the evolution of
transportation and communication technologies--designed to restructure human
relationships to time and space--and revolutions in consciousness and culture.
Walter Ong (1981), a McLuhan protege, hypothesized communication and
consciousness in the human "sensorium," whereby we attend to some forms of
sensory perception more than others. Ong traced the shift from pre-literate oral
traditions with their emphasis on hearing to literate cultures' emphasis on
seeing. He categorized television among the "spatial media," which not only
prioritize a spatial "visual field," but also spatialize sound itself. Here the
speech act conceptually shifted from being the location of thought itself to
being the vehicle by which thoughts, now conceived of as formulated in the
interior space of the mind, are transmitted across external space. This
transmission view of shapes much of contemporary Western communication theory,
according to Carey, who advocates a ritual communication model emphasizing the
ways people negotiate, adapt, and transform their shared perceptions of reality
Tuan (1991) also describes the essential roles of language and narrative in
"the making of place" and criticizes geography, with its emphasis on the
economic and material forms of place-making, for ignoring the constitutive
nature of words. According to Tuan, language plays a significant function in the
visual, aesthetic, and moral formation of place. He wrote that speech "can
direct attention, organize insignificant entities into significant composite
wholes, and in so doing, make things formerly overlooked--hence invisible and
nonexistent--visible and real" (1991, p. 685).
Tuan, also, contrasts place-making through communal rituals against
place-making through exploration as an act of possession. He offers the example
of Australian Aboriginal traditions, which associate their continuous mythic
"Dreamtime" with material location, a completely unreadable process of
cataloging the world to outsiders: "Aboriginal ancestors literally "have sung
the world into existence" (1991, p. 687). To European colonists, place-making
meant physically transforming nature as well as naming and mapping location and
boundary on paper. Today, in highly technocratic cultures, Tuan notes, world
views are thoroughly saturated with technological knowledge of space and places.
In general, there has been much lamenting about a postmodern sense of
placelessness (Entrikin, 1991; Relph, 1976; Sack, 1992), that links mass media
and commodification with leveling specific places into generic ones and with the
loss of authentic place experiences. This concern for placelessness in itself
points to the definitionally elusive but apparently keenly felt attachments we
have for place and the comfort we derive in some ability to define ourselves by
our locations in space.
But Jameson's (1991) "mapping" solution for the problem of "postmodern
hyperspace"--what he calls a "mutation" of space transcending the body--amounts
to an adventurous re-colonization of space, not unlike explorers penetrating and
charting virgin territory (Kirby, 1996). Rose (1993) and Kirby (1996), among
others, point out that this form of subjectivity, an "Othering" of the
landscape, comes from a Western geographic imagination and visual perspective
reserved mainly for white able-bodied heterosexual males of some economic means.
It does not account for other forms of spatial subjectivity, which do not define
the self against the landscape or seek to dominate, confine, or control space.
Kirby (1996) reminds us that Jameson, as a visitor lost in space at the
Bonaventure Hotel, may feel disoriented, but hotel workers, who manage to run
the place, don't experience Jameson's vertigo.
At the same time, Jameson isn't alone in his fascination with space. Our
current preoccupation with spatial argot and metaphor belies an experiential
bias toward the "visual field" as a "container" for knowledge (Lakoff & Johnson,
1988), a show-me state of conscious in which the visible and visualized are the
highest-order forms of reality. Critical theory proliferates spatial metaphors
such as cultural and political terrains and fields, subject positions and
standpoints, and the mapping of various sites and locations (Kirby, 1996).
Viewing these mapping projects not as a loss of space, but as evidence of its
conceptual shift, I want to argue for a critical media geography accounting for
interrelationships among technology, consciousness, language, perception, and
practice, though I'm aware of the difficulty in examining these phenomena
without reinforcing a bias toward spatialization--especially oppressive
forms--in the first place. On the one hand, space is omnipresent, inescapable.
On the other hand, vocabularies and metaphors attempting to describe the
complexity of space also illustrate how our spatial experience is linguistically
mediated. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore mediated geographies if we are to
understand communication processes, which always are intimately meshed with the
About Place and the Place Experience
To fully appreciate how television may be so like a place that people in
interact with it as if it were, some elaboration of what constitutes a place is
in order. Place refers to human geography's interest in "variations in the
human-environment relationship" (Archer, 1995). While we are born into and live
out our lives as creatures of place, place is a purely human construction giving
form to the where of everyday life. Physically, we are always someplace, but our
places vary infinitely according to physical and social environmental factors.
Historically, in Western scholarship, a place has been a humanly defined
location on planet Earth. For undifferentiated space to become a place, there
needed to be human intervention in the way of naming, marking, bordering, or
Today the problem of place stems not only from exploration off planet Earth and
our ability to communicate with others in places where we physically are not,
but also from our ability to articulate and experience imagined spaces through
art, literature, and technology. These imagined spaces experientially seem very
place-like, and, in everyday life, any experience is a real experience. So while
a place continues to be locationally defined, a place experience presents some
interesting challenges to those interested in human-environment relationships
(Burgess & Gold, 1985).
Traditionally we think of three ecological building-blocks humans combine into
limitless varieties of places: (1) the natural physical environment occurring
without human engineering, as in space, nature, and natural resources, (2) the
human-built physical environment occurring as a result of human engineering, as
in our material landscapes of architecture and technology, and (3) the
human-built social environment occurring as a result of human-to-human
relationships, as in society and culture, (Archer, 1995). But there is a fourth
ecology: human-imagined environments occurring as shared mental constructs such
as plane geometry, an expanding/contracting universe, subatomic physics, or
All four ecological building blocks incorporate communicative aspects. The
first three--the natural physical, the human-built physical, and the human-built
social environments--communicate sensory information to human beings. Next,
human-built physical and human-built social environments also contain
human-built symbolic information that in turn becomes the means by which we
learn to judge the aesthetic and functional value of natural environments.
Finally, and perhaps most important, we imagine environments by appropriating
elements from the other three corporeal environments, and likewise what we
imagine we also can communicate with others and use to transform corporeal
environments. Even so, regardless of the usefulness of ecological typologies, we
tend to live holistically in singular, unified places, not in conceptually
fragmented environments. And because there is transaction between people and
places, and because people are mobile and social, there is diffusion among
characteristics of places.
With regard to the place experience, we shall be interested in a purposely
self-conscious vocabulary of orientation referring to four other--mainly
visual--aspects by which we tend to judge our interaction with places:
perception, attitude, scale, and perspective. Tuan (1974) defines perception as
purposeful sensory human activity "in which certain phenomena are clearly
registered while others recede in the shade or are blocked out" (p. 4).
Perception refers to our physical selves as holistic sensory organisms
interacting with the totality of our environments, although, it's obvious that
Tuan's own metaphor leans heavily on sight. Tuan defines attitude as "a cultural
stance, a position one takes vis- -vis the world. It has greater stability than
perception and is formed of a long succession of perceptions, that is, of
experience" (p. 4). Attitude refers to the socially and linguistically
constructed ways we learn to organize our sensory perceptions.
Scale refers to how we judge the size of a place, what it encompasses or
excludes. Places may exist within other places: We may be simultaneously in our
home, city, country, and so on in ever increasing spheres radiating out from our
own locations. Within our individual cognitive or mental maps, we tend to locate
ourselves at the center of our own imagined scales of life (Gould & White,
1986). Indeed, the humanist tradition hollows out the material body to
spatialize the mind itself as an emotional center of being, the most private of
places we inhabit.
Perspective refers to viewpoint on places relative to our own particular
position. Thus we have locational prepositions (pre-positions) defining where:
up, down, over, under, between, among, and we have adverbial notions of
distance: how far there and how near here. But we don't always measure distance
visually, grammatically, or mathematically; we may use affect to judge distance.
We may feel socially closer to neighbors on one side of the house or the nation
than on the other. The people of an English-language Caribbean nation can feel
closer to the United States or to Great Britain than they do to a neighboring
Spanish-language Caribbean island (Lyew-Ayee, 1991).
In everyday life, we use sensory perception and cultural attitude to gauge
scale and perspective from our own lived places. We use perspective to adjust
and shift, shrink or enlarge, our own multiple scales of life throughout the
day, much as we would adjust depth of field on a camera. We may be regional
residents by one set of customs and locals by another. We may be nationals while
watching the international news but become provincials a moment later during the
Transportation and communication technologies literally evolve our ways of
gauging the scales we live in and the perspectives we view the world from.
McLuhan (1967) predicted electronic media would enlarge our scales of life in a
global village, and Meyrowitz (1985) observed electronic media provide us
opportunities to see the world through others' perspectives. For nearly 30
years, human geographers have been interested in communication technology, mass
media, and mediated communication because they seem to collapse or compress time
and space (Abler, 1971; Forer, 1974; Giddens, 1984; Harvey, 1989; Janelle,
1969); they "sever the link" (Meyrowitz, 1985) between physical place and
human-to-human interaction (Adams, 1992; Meyrowitz, 1985); and they provide new
possibilities for inventing combinations among natural, built, and imagined
environments. I have additional questions about how these technologies interact
with what I will label our perceptual attitude toward places, that is how we
learn to see places, and even more, how this way of seeing influences how we
sense, interact, interpret, and experience places.
That leads us back to the idea that people may interact with television as if
it were a place or a number of simultaneously layered and shifting places.
Geographer Paul Adams has suggested "a place need not be physically enter-able
or fixed in space" (1992, p. 123). "Place can be anything the self can conceive
as place" (Adams, 1989, p. 51). People invent their places (Anderson & Gale,
1992). Adams has argued for experimenting with temporarily suspending the idea
of place-tied-to-location if we are to understand contemporary social relations
in a technologically mediated world because being in the same location is no
longer a necessary condition for sustaining human-built social environments
(Adams, 1992). Instead, Adams offers a place definition similar to communication
context, but he prefers the term "place" because it "encourages more serious
thought about television as a home" (1989, p. 11):
The idea of 'television as place' adopted here refers to (1) a bounded system in
which symbolic interaction among persons occurs (a social context), and (2) a
nucleus around which ideas, values, and shared experiences are constructed (a
center of meaning). (Adams, 1992, p. 118 )
Place is a useful expansion of our ideas about communication context because it
focuses our attention on transaction and variation in human-environment
relationships, the embodied sensory nature of perception, the social
construction of attitude, and shifting scales and perspectives in social life.
As Doreen Massey (1985, p. 12) reminds us, "Space is a social construct--yes.
But social relations are also constructed over space, and that makes a
difference." If we live our lives in space and place, then to exclude that from
the study of communication seems to be missing a constitutive part of the story.
Place manifests, or perhaps more correctly makes visible, how we live the where
of everyday life, and in the case of television, where we locate ourselves
doesn't always require our physical presence. Place is a landscape we may occupy
sentiently, whether or not we are there corporeally, and space itself is a
highly complex and fluid construct constituted through historically specific
material, social, symbolic, and linguistic components.
In general, I have tried to sensitize readers to the spatial consequences of
communication and to the communicative aspects of space. Specifically my goal is
to review the literature's conceptualizations of TV as place(s). This review
does not examine the social ramifications of experiencing TV a place(s),
although that is certainly the next step. Rather, my hope is to point out an
astonishingly persistent geographical attitude in the way we characterize
TV as Place
In many ways, television reconstitutes the experience of place. Television
viewing combines and reformulates the natural, human-built physical, human-built
social, and human-imagined environments into infinite variations. Television
allows us to locate ourselves in the world by tacking back and forth our scales
of life and perspectives on the world. At times, TV seems to realistically
mirror the circumstances of everyday life; at others, we gauge everyday life
against what we've experienced on TV. It can be a context for social
interaction, a nucleus of common culture, an agent of socialization, and even an
imagined destination. This implies tremendous flexibility, and, indeed, TV has
increased the numbers of ways we can interact with places.
The literature reveals six categories of TV-as-place which invite critical
examination: home theater, family hearth, armchair tourism, imagined community,
fantasyland, and social worlds. As with all typologies, this is an artificial
device for organizing ideas that at times seem more related than distinct, which
is precisely the point. Television profoundly influences human-environment
relationships, but it's difficult to articulate these influences or find
theorists who agree on the consequences. "As a spatial configuration, television
is as bold as it is baffling, provocative but lacking ready reference" (Tichi,
1991, p. 3). Nevertheless, audience reception studies and family TV
ethnographies show researchers and subjects talking about TV as if it were a
number of shifting place experiences. What makes this especially significant is
that these studies were not explicitly geographical.
Lynn Spigel's (1992a, 1992b) "home theater" describes early marketing efforts
to position television as public theater reproduced in the privacy of the living
room. Television's introduction into the home transformed the human-built
physical environment we live in (Spigel, 1992a, 1992b). The result is a
vestigial formal living room and a new less formal public room called the den,
family room, or more recently the great room, specifically designed to house the
primary home entertainment center and arranged to accommodate our viewing
pleasure. In effect, television altered the home's interior architecture,
material furnishings, and functional arrangement beyond the TV set itself.
TV as "home theater" conceptually relocates the theater performers and the
scene of their performance into the middle of our family rooms (Spigel 1992a,
1992b). The stage or place of the action becomes our homes (Spigel 1992a,
1992b), but our perspective remains that of a theater audience. Here TV offers
private one-way views outside the material house with vistas extending around
the world and beyond. In our homes, TV can be a place called home theater where
we, as voyeurs, privately watch the world perform.
Traudt and Londt (1987, p.152) captured a father's revealing talk about TV as
"a window" that "widens your perspective." Regarding his children's viewing
habits, he said, "There's a world out there type of thing ... so let 'em watch."
Relocating the action of television theater to be experienced in the home
corresponds with the later 1980s phenomenon cocooning, spending more time at
home to escape the stress of direct interaction with the world outside.
Cocooning describes what Moores (1988) has called "withdrawal into interior
space" by safely bringing home selected, controlled aspects of public places.
From here inside the home, our formal carefully managed front-stage behaviors
give way to informal back-stage behavior (Goffman, 1959). Cocooned private
viewing reflects a decline in public social life in general, and positions TV
viewers as social witnesses. This does not mean, however, that we are inactive.
To the contrary, witnessing television's action from a backstage region provides
us, individually and collectively with our viewing partners, the freedom to
become more actively critical of the performance (Meyrowitz, 1985). As a viewer
in Morley (1992, pp. 105-107) explains:
They're trying to bring...their personalities into your home...we're supposed to
side with them...they're trying to get the audience involved. Unfortunately, it
does tend to have the adverse effect on me ...
Still, for viewers, critical interaction with television may feel like social
Layered with the human-built material environment of the TV home, the
human-built domestic social environment organizes itself around the site of the
set much like an "electronic hearth" (Tichi, 1991). As one German viewer said,
"We've had the television as long as we have had the flat. It makes the flat
nice and cozy" (Rogge & Jensen, 1988, p. 105).
"There is more to watching TV than what's on the screen -- and that 'more' is,
centrally, the domestic context in which viewing is conducted" (Morley, 1988, p.
47). We don't always sit quietly and alone to watch TV. While it's turned on, we
also do the work of family social life, and in that work, TV often seems to be a
central place of "rule making, decision making, and conflict and dominance
patterns" (Goodman, 1983, p. 31). It is the "gathering place and staging area of
family activity" (Lindlof, Shatzer & Wilkinson, 1988, p. 158).
While operationalizing the contemporary "family" is problematic, television
households across cultures reveal some surprising similarities (although I do
not wish to minimize very real differences). In domestic social life, our TV
hearths can be the place of daily time regulation, space/traffic organization,
background ambiance, household ritual, gender and generational performance,
avoidance and affiliation maneuvers, power demonstrations, extra-household
hospitality, and status/wealth signification. In short, television draws to it
all the interpersonal activity we usually associate with the family social
context. Television plays "an important part in the symbolic construction of
'home'" (Moores, 1993a).
It's significant that gathering the private family together as a social unit
should occur at the same site where the household joins a broader public family
called society. "What distinguishes media objects from many other domestic
artifacts is their capacity to join the private world of the home with larger
public worlds beyond the front door" (Moores, 1993a, p. 9). The internal affairs
of the electronic hearth exist simultaneously and in the same location as the
outward-viewing home theater, contrasting one scale of life against another
While the television industry's ideas of audience, market, and public are
largely institutional nomenclature organizing statistical data into phantom
human collectives (Allor, 1988; Ang, 1991; Bird, 1992), it seems that through
our individual media habits we do affirm our memberships in communities that
enlarge our personal scales of life. Here the perspective is not the private
division between self and others; it is expanding the boundaries of personal
place to encompass wider social spheres and affiliate with others. These types
of collectives have been described variously as imagined communities (Anderson,
1983), interpretive communities (Fish, 1980; Lindlof, 1988), and even virtual
communities (Rheingold, 1993), although here I will offer my own distinctions,
especially regarding place and TV:
Imagined communities affirm citizenship in traditional land-based, bordered
territories. Individual citizens visualize their mass media use, including
television, as a ritual of membership and participation within their bordered
political states. Imagined community members never actually communicate with
their compatriots but remain convinced of their existence within clearly mapped
lines of demarcation as they watch, for example, the news (Anderson, 1983).
A British viewer (Moores, 1993a, p. 110) describes this shifting scale of
When I'm watching Sky--because it's from a European satellite--and when I'm
looking at some of the other continental stations that are available, I very
much get the sense of being a European.
But the trouble with television is that it spills. It doesn't respect maps,
state lines, or borders. More recently, TV content doesn't spill over borders so
much as it is actively traded across them. A number of scholars wonder how the
television geography of spill and trade interacts with state and political
identities associated with imagined communities (Moores, 1993a, 1993b; Morley,
1992; Rath, 1985).
Interpretive communities resemble imagined communities in that media users feel
membership in and attachment to broader collectives of people using the same
media. But we can distinguish interpretive communities in two ways: territory
and communication. Interpretive communities do not necessarily correlate with
land-based political territory; they can (re)create new territories. These
communities are closer to Carey's (1969) special interest groups in that their
territory stands on common interest in the content of the medium itself.
Interpretive communities may exist without direct communication with other
members, as in fan clubs by mail. Or they may exist with limited or fleeting
interpersonal contact as in fan club conventions. But in the case of TV, the
norm seems to be direct interpersonal contact with other members such as taping
and sharing programs of common interest among social networks or group viewing
as a social occasion (Lindlof, Shatzer & Wilkinson, 1988).
Virtual communities take the television interpretive community one step farther
by reconstituting a teleconnected network meeting place for mediated
interpersonal communication among fans who are spatially dispersed. Some of
these modem meeting places are textual, but some are elaborate reproductions of
multi-dimensional life in cyberspace cities with architecture, rooms, and
ongoing social life (Rheingold, 1993).
Paul Adams (1989, 1992) and Stewart Hoover (1988a, 1988b) compare television
viewing with making a pilgrimage to a religious or spiritual landmark where
strangers join a community of the faithful. They both use Victor Turner's (1969,
1974) liminal communitas to describe television as a threshold place neither
here nor there where the armchair pilgrimage involves no travel. Adams and
Hoover describe a ritual suspension of everyday spatial structure in order to
join imagined communities in a liminal place through interaction with
Adams describes a ritualized "bonding together, however transiently" (1989, p.
89) with those we normally would not have contact with. Calling TV "a gathering
place" without location "for vast numbers of people" (1992, p. 119), Adams wrote
that the TV experience is like moving through space to a place that surpasses
ordinary life (1989). Hoover's interpretation, based on depth interviews with
heavy subscribers to TV church or "parachurch," describes a "collective search
for religious meaning that transcends not only geographic, ideological and
cohort boundaries, but class boundaries as well" (1988a, p. 217).
In Adams' and Hoover's armchair pilgrimage, we use television to suspend the
three-dimensional physicality of place to experience a spiritual communion with
strangers. But we also use television as a transporter for armchair tourism to
travel the physical world, as it seems now and as it seems it was in the past or
will be in the future. Unlike the home theater that places the world on our home
stage for us to view critically, armchair tourism experientially transports us
to other places where we participate in being there:
I don't know what it is about it but you just, you end up ... it pulls you in,
like you're almost right there. (a viewer in Schroder, 1988, p.14)
I am there in the action, feeling every blow, running every mile. (a viewer in
Morley, 1986, p. 151)
This involves two dimensions: travel/transport and sentient participation.
Williams' (1974) "mobile privatization" referred to television's ability to
confer "unexampled mobility" (1989). He described TV's ability to make the home
mobile: "It is a shell which you can take with you, which you can fly with to
places that previous generations could never imagine visiting" (1989, p. 17).
Armchair tourism also seems to extend our senses (Lull, 1988, 1990; McLuhan,
1964) in what some theorists describe as "televisual visits," "imaginatively
going places" (Williams, 1974), "presence at distant events" (Meyrowitz, 1985),
"TV tourism" (Moores, 1993a), a "new kind of trophy hunting" (Adams, 1989) and
"brief excursions" (Lembo, 1994).
We have begun to enjoy the armchair travelogue-ability to cross the seven seas,
climb the highest peaks, go down to the deepest deep--all sitting comfortably in
our armchair. (an Indian viewer in Yadava & Reddi, 1988, p.132)
Art and literature have always conferred similar experiential and emotional
properties of being there, but television materializes these far-off places and
adds sound and motion to them in a way neither traditional art nor literature
has. This adds an increased perceptual dimension of reality to armchair tourism.
Also like art and literature experiences, there are times when we participate
in television's worlds as escape into a fantasyland. Here TV is a virtual
reality existing in and of itself that we project ourselves into. As Adams
(1992, p. 119) says, "(P)eople experientially inhabit it."
When I watch that show (Cosby), I think I'm really looking, I forget I'm
watching TV. It's so real. (Press, 1991, p. 99)
Most of the literature on TV as fantasyland comes from research on women
viewers. Similar to Radway's (1987, 1988, 1994) female romance novel readers,
viewers consciously use TV to escape into a fantasy world to resist everyday
circumstances beyond their control; in fantasyland, they participate in
experiences they find more satisfying.
When it's something that's totally unreal you expect it to stay that way. Who
wants to see welfare mothers or working women go home to a bunch of screaming
kids. You don't want to see that on TV. (a viewer in Press, 1991, p. 123)
I find it a real refuge ... because I consider those shows--especially those
continuing shows--a part of my life. (a viewer in Press, 1991, p. 60)
This form of escape can be an active "scenic forum for fantasies and daydreams"
(Rogge & Jensen, 1988, p. 85) or a stress-reducing "sanctuary" (Adams, 1989) for
I was completely hypnotized 'cause for me it was magic ...magical, 'cause you
just turn off. You just--you don't do anything" (a viewer in Press, 1991, p.
With regard to the characters who inhabit these TV fantasylands, viewers seem
to play back and forth between making parasocial friends and companions of them
and projecting themselves into these characters' situational roles.
I liked Emily. I thought Emily and Bob really had a nice marriage. She had a
sense of humor. (a viewer in Press, 1991, p. 166, talking about the "Bob Newhart
... you get involved with the characters. As though living their lives. Almost
become (them). (a viewer in Hobson, 1989, p. 164, talking about the British soap
series "Coronation Street")
Even though most of our play in imaginary TV places is conscious fantasy, there
is evidence we may pocket aspects of the social environment in TV's virtual
reality to carry back into our material places.
While to some extent we live inside TV, TV also lives outside with us. Just
like among traditional places, there is diffusion between TV places and the
other places of our lives. If television and viewers transact, then we carry our
TV purchases back into our other "social worlds," the places where we "create
and experience culture" (Milkie, 1994). "People appropriate media content into
their larger social worlds in interaction with family and friends" (Milkie,
1994, p. 358). For the most part, we share the social places we inhabit on a
day-to-day basis with others who have learned to see the world in a similar way;
we share a socially constructed "'geography' of the familiar world" (Wilson,
Since its adoption as electronic hearth, television has played an increasing
role in constructing our social worlds. It schools us in the ways of social
life, and it gives us a perceptual attitude toward the world. What's more, the
residue of our transaction with television materializes in social life as a kind
of cultural currency for exchange with others.
But there may be something else we learn from television, primarily a visual
medium, that may be so subtle we've overlooked the possibility altogether.
Perhaps we learn how to experience the world through a particular interpretive
lens. Tuan (1974) hinted at this but stopped short of making a connection to TV:
The world views of nonliterate and traditional societies differ significantly
from those of modern men who have come under the influence, however indirectly,
of science and technology. ... primitive and traditional peoples lived in a
vertical, rotary, and richly symbolical world, whereas modern man's world tends
to be broad of surface, low of ceiling, nonrotary, aesthetic, and profane. (p.
Based on our earlier review of Tuan's (1974) discussion of perception and
attitude, I suggest we learn a perceptual attitude toward our social worlds from
TV. Altheide and Snow (1979, p.16) wrote of a "media logic," a "consciousness"
people learn, "that affects how they perceive, define and deal with their
environment." Jhally (1994, p. 151) wrote, "We don't perceive the strangeness of
TV landscapes. We accept them and they become part of our everyday attitude
toward the real world." I wonder if this perceptual attitude may have visual as
well as other sensory consequences for un-mediated place experiences.
And finally, what we learn from TV, we can use as "cultural capital" (Bourdieu,
1984) or currency to negotiate interaction with others:
... when I'm watching something like the Cosbys you can catch something that
be used in real life. (a viewer in Press, 1991, p. 99)
... At work we constantly talk about "Dallas" and "Dynasty." ... we really do
have some interesting discussions about television (at work). We haven't got
much else in common, so we talk a lot about television. (a viewer in Morley,
1988, p. 39)
Here, TV knowledge becomes a social resource (Lull, 1990) to express social
competence, to converse and build relations with others, and to frame social
experiences for interpretation (Lindlof & Meyer, 1987).
Human geography's concept of place is a useful expansion of our ideas about the
contextual nature of human communication because place explicitly reminds us of
the spatial nature of social life, the social construction of environmental
perception, and the changing nature of space and place in a technologically
mediated society. But describing TV-as-place requires that we go beyond human
geography's traditional definition of place as a spatially defined location
humans can physically occupy. Indeed, communication technologies fuel as well as
reflect changes in our macro and micro constructs and uses of space and place.
There are some intriguing similarities and relationships between television and
more traditional places. The problem is that we cannot physically occupy
television, and television places exist in multiple, real and imagined, and
asynchronous locations. Perhaps as a cultural phenomenon, it may be more useful
to focus on viewers' place experiences with TV. Regardless of the rational
physical-space dilemmas TV poses, people do seem to equate their own interaction
with it as something akin to place experience. If we do interact with TV as if
it were a place, then I suggest this has consequences for everyday social life
that we should consider. We need to spend some time listening to how people talk
about their relationships with television and how they characterize the
importance of places in their lives in general. At the same time, we must be
ready to ask questions about how our shifting understandings and fluid uses of
space and place limit and enable particular forms of social life.
Space does matter and so should be the subject of critical social theory (Soja,
1989). I'm advocating a simultaneously phenomenological and critical geography
of the media to pay more attention to everyday mediated place
experience--without reifying it. The rather difficult goal focuses on space and
place while denaturalizing, demystifying, and de-romanticizing both. While we
have reason to celebrate the ingenuity of people's inevitable spatial
expression, we also must be ready to displace particular forms of
spatialization, especially those that contribute to annihilating natural
physical environments, undemocratically allocating human-engineered material
environments, creating hostile or isolating social environments, and
uncritically reproducing imagined environments. We should beware of imprisoning
ourselves within forms of space where constructing democratic place becomes
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