“All of the Meanwhiles”: Signal Intrusion, Time Travel, Abrasion, Rupture.
Broadcast signal intrusions are rare. Only three have ever occurred in the United States. The first was in Florida. An HBO broadcast of The Falcon and the Snowman was intruded upon by a consumer complaint. Subscriptions, Captain Midnight announced, were too expensive: “Showtime/ Movie Channel Beware!” The second and third happened in 1987, two separate broadcast signal intrusions within hours, same town. The news on Chicago’s WGN. Then, WTTW’s Sunday night broadcast of Doctor Who. They have the quality of a threat, the paroxysms of a global crisis: capitalism’s death drive producing etchings of its own ruinous-ness. They appear disjointed, allusive, stupid, and eruptive. A kind of release, like gas or treasure, the old tie that binds entrails, hell, and gold. Or, pulled from the evening air, and wedged into a prior schedule. But not like commercials are. Commercials are always expected. But advertisements and intrusions share the quality of a superimposition. Here’s a starship; now we’re talking peanut butter. Intrusions are more like graffiti, a means to reassert presence and expression. “We” re-inscribe the signal to show that “we” “own” the signal. Or, does the interruption become “that text” that Barthes says “we write in our head when we look up”? A distraction from the text and a nullification of the text’s authority? Is a signal intrusion a brief moment where textual authority and hierarchies are subverted? Paroxysm, an unplanned knock, superimposition, re-inscription, nullification, and translation: they wear a mask of Max Headroom and translate a thing in transition, attempting, we think, to remake Max’s anti-capitalist “disguise” into its actual content; they intrude on a text, too, that is transitional: eras and planets, and faces that change even as the characters and situations remain. Dr. Who rewrites Holmes and Watson, which is itself a rewriting of Poe’s Dupin: a pile up of texts and allusions. Interruption and anachronism: time travel.
The pirating incident is a form of/ a text for modeling time travel in that it interrupts via pause, like the half-alien/ half-human Evie Ethel Garland from the syndicated television program Out of this World: a text from childhood, a thing that holds our attention, in part, because of its amazing enactment of fantasy. Evie touches her fingers together and time stops around her. This allows her to physically alter her space beneath others’ notice. She’s an agent inside the text who can interrupt the flow of time, but she can still act inside of the new time created by the interruption: the Max Headroom mask talks to the viewer from an impossible time (a space inside of stopped time)—isn’t this part of the terror generated by the event, too? And how unsettling would it be, in the paused moment, to not know where or how this document for insertion was created (did the pirates make a video—say, two weeks before—to simply lay down in the television-space they opened up? Or were viewers imagining themselves to be seeing something created live, as in: the pirates are directly transmitting the talking-mask for all the “newspaper . . . nerds”; they are doing this in our time?). The thrilling and upsetting delivery to our living rooms is of course still achieved, whether they do it in another time (pre-made video) or alongside of us (we were in our homes while they were in their storage space; we/ they were there all along).
Spaces, viewpoints, and texts seem to insert or obtrude. In fact, looking up from the text is a rupture, a leakage of the private into public. But it’s not displeasing, nor necessarily penetrative. It can be touching. Barthes argues for textually received pleasure through “abrasion”: “the abrasions [we] impose upon the fine surface” of a text provide us with pleasure. But who is acting upon what here? If the pirates are doing the abrasion, they are asking us to join in. The medium simply demands it. Part of the interruption is defiance of expectation. We are in an intimate/ private exchange with the Dr. Who episode; we are alone or gathered round, but it is most commonly a domestic space. Then “Max Headroom” (a familiar head made unfamiliar, made uncanny?) comes in and violates the space. The pirates have abraded episode, and in doing so have delivered to us the (new) pleasure of a defiled surface. And because in our watching we are collaborators, we too are committing the abrasion. What pleasure is greater than this? We are—especially if we were originally viewers who thought the text to be “live”—inside of their theatrical, paused time. The abrasion is upon our living rooms; we’re in the show! The abrasion bridges, then, the BBC, the dying empire’s psychedelic time traveler TV show, the Chicago network and studio that airs it, the mask’s storage space, and our own lives: all of these spaces begin to touch. We are all folded into a private act (note that contemporary news coverage of the event labeled the spanking device a “marital aid”) leaked public or a public act leaked private; we’re bound by the abrasion, we’re linked in dead surveillance, we’re eyes on the abrasion that is emitted and that gathers us in its scarring force.
Intrusions, and overwritten texts, are far more a feature of everyday experience than they were in 1987. Though, that period’s anxieties surrounding media’s negative dis-/ interruptive effects pervade its art. For example, we see dis-/ interruption re-imagined by Max Headroom’s fictional “blipverts.” Blipverts are thirty-second advertisements that have been condensed to three seconds, so viewer-consumers don’t notice them. There’s no intrusion. Viewers desire to have no “break” from programming. Of course, this innovation just disappears the field upon which the program has been set. The real foundation is the commercial; the viewer-consumer is placed into relation with that field: a brand. By making the advertisement invisible, the consumer has nothing to resist, is not confronted with the product. The loop becomes too small to see. The consumer has no “time to switch channels.” The blipverts in Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, though, are lethal. They cause some to explode, but only the most perpetual viewers: “The only people who are that inactive are pensioners, the sick, or the unemployed,” states one executive at Network 23, a dystopian transnational typical to the era’s cinema (e.g. Omni Consumer Products from RoboCop or Weyland-Yutani from Alien).
However, near the program’s end, we see Blank Reg, the cyberpunk proprietor of Big Time TV, an underground network, watching as the truth of blipverts is revealed. Just before the network’s chief executive and chief scientist are forced to confess their crimes on live TV, Blank Reg switches channels. “What a load of bollocks,” he hisses before switching over to a broadcast of Max Headroom reciting his stale jokes. Even without the commercial “break,” the viewer has lost interest.
Of course, the Internet is cacophonous. Signal intrusions like the interruption in 1987 now occur daily. They are tonally similar, similar in their alignment with absurdity, similar in their reliance on mimesis, similar in their anti-corporate (?) tendencies. They occur, though, not on one scale—the scale of broadcast television—but on an amorphous global/ micro scale. They gestate, or creep outward, or they explode and they make themselves always available for further reproductions, alterations, abrasions, superimpositions, translations, and intrusions. Think of the recent assassination in Ankara. Shocking images are disseminated across the Internet. They are immediately altered. Violence is turned into a set of “iconic” images, which are, in turn, immediately and at a small, though global, scale rendered into memes. You can comically manipulate the assassination with text, though typically with allusion: image-as-non-sequitur. Put Archer’s head on the assassin’s body. Put Freddy Mercury’s head on the assassin’s body. Put Left Shark’s head on, and on with endless fictional and nonfictional faces as masks. The absurd replaceable head as superimposition, as translation, as paroxysm, as sign for the broadcast signal intrusion.
And now the “program” is hand-held. The body carries the screen. When the pirate broke into the Sunday night show, he arrived in the home. The defacement/ abrasion-chain was made upon the screen-within-the-domestic-space (admittedly an often individualized arena, but one in which multiple persons can be/ are often assumed to be present). Now, though, an intrusion upon/ into/ revealed by a screen can often be assumed to be individual—the intrusion comes into/ onto your hand. It’s a Cronenberg movie. It’s the dystopia. It’s a chip placed into your skin without your consent. It’s the CIA watching you through your TV. It’s not that all.
And what of the head as a tool for social control: biometrics, knowing, and individualization-aggregation for the reconstitution of people as information? Data. Closed borders. Ratings. The face becomes a site for inference, representation, and systemic control: who may enter, who may not, knowing each from each. Our real heads are real cages, as artist Zach Blas shows us in his Face Cages. Or as he demonstrates through Facial Weaponization Communiqué:
Facial Weaponization Suite protests against biometric facial recognition–and the inequalities
these technologies propagate–by making “collective masks” . . . from the aggregated facial data
of participants, resulting in amorphous masks that cannot be detected as human faces by
biometric facial recognition technologies.
Here, Blas obscures the specific face by transforming it into an aggregate face that resists the force of capture by using the very tools of capture. The face-as-floating-head constructed by state power and commercialization is undermined by more floating heads: full of glitches, opaque, unreadable, collective, and “faceless.” In other words, “We propose to make the face our weapon. . . . A face is like being armed.”
What of Max, in the pilot, the series, and as an ad-man, who is pure thought, an image of a person’s brain remade as a glitchy identity, dodging away from the uncanny? He’s the promise of a robot: disembodied, geographic, virtual, data-composed, and “disruptive.” He’s an inaccurate image of a currently lived reality: Max is data, as we are the data that stick to our bodies and replace us. “I’m talking ratings,” furiously declares one Network 23 executive. Another replies, “And I’m talking people.” But of course, the first quickly retorts, they’re the “same thing.”
Interruption and intrusion are different from disruption. To interrupt is to break between, to shoulder into an ongoing system, not to refabricate it (though remaking does happen); interruption shuts it down. Intrusion is a thrusting into; it’s linked to distraction, which is a pulling apart. Intrusion relates to invasion and usurpation. The 1987 intrusion is totally superimposed, like Deleuzian philosophical time (“all of the meanwhiles are superimposed on one another”); it’s spasmodic, and it translates a text that is itself already hopelessly transliterated. Most importantly, the masked and headless intruders got away with it, just like a mirror, which also always seems to “get away with it.”
The signal intrusion is not merely inter-/ im- in nature; it is also a translation. Watching TV is a kind of reading. The signal intrusion is a translation. Watching a signal intrusion is a different kind of reading. We agree with conceptual writer and artist Tan Lin: “TV watching is not idle time. People philosophize [while] watching TV; the more TV people watch, the more philosophizing they do.” Lin says that channel surfing is a way to meditate. What does it mean, though, when the image shifts against your will, without your lucid pointing of your remote control (here is something, though, about the media in the hand) at your screen? But let’s repeat the sequence/ the circuit: reading, translation, signal intrusion, translation. What the translators “get away with” has to do with their headlessness/ facelessness in the act.
In a discussion of Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, excerpted/ anthologized in Currently and Emotion (a text openly seeking instigation of disruption), poet Lisa Robertson writes of “the invisible place of reading” as examined by Arendt. “The activity of thinking is an unanswerable one.” & “Reading resists being seen.” Robertson makes what she says is an “unproblematic segue from thinking to reading because the two activities are . . . folded into one another.” The signal intrusion is a translation. Watching TV is a kind of reading/ thinking. In a discussion of Caroline Bergvall’s work (further on in Currently), poet Laura Goldstein writes that translation is “a constant act of the performance of reading, writing, and displaying language”; the unseen activities of reading and thinking are made seen. The signal intrusion translates Dr. Who. In that act, it makes visible its own thinking. And because of the nature of the medium and the fact of the abrasion, we’re asked, too, to serve as translators, but our co-translators are faceless. And, so, we’re left holding the bag, so to speak. The rupture seems, in a deeply terrifying way to us, to expose the viewer: as if someone installed cameras in your bedroom, your bathroom, or god forbid, right in front of your lifeless face, as you watch/ read the TV.
A young woman interviewed in the news coverage of the event remarks, “I thought it would be just a slight mess up, but that, that in the middle of the tape, I’m going to have to tape over it.” She was making a record of her reading the TV, a kind of log. This taping of programs, especially in the old VHS mode, might be understood as a translating act, too; it certainly makes seen her viewing of the program. And then, for her, the intrusion spoils the record. The thing is marred, and she will be relegating the act again to the unseen when she erases via “taping over,” though we can assume a kind of buzzing palimpsest remains somewhere.
Over and again, cinematic science fictions from this era, such as Max Headroom, project bleak futures: ultra violence, virtuality, crassness, and the decay of the commons: “We could go porno. Early.” However, these fictions are meant to 1. suggest a possible future and 2. offer a critique of current trends, in order to 3. resist or correct the social decay. Because they project dystopia forward while suggesting the contemporary root, these texts are “about” anxiety, which, Freud suggests, is just remade guilt. What do these creators and audience feel guilty about? The white authorities must know/ forget/ deny what they’ve done. They don’t want to talk about it. And here is a now/ future where snuff is on your satellite (Videodrome). And here is a future where a person is data, corporations function as governments, and the world drowns in blood (Robocop, etc., etc.). What does it mean that murders are now available on social media? That these images are soon saved and disseminated via YouTube? Has the future come to pass? No. The future was always here in the distant past of right now. The intruders’ broadcast, though, does not project forward. They are not showing “things to come.” They represent the now and the always has been. The intruders show us bad jokes, ridiculous sex, consumerism, spasm, threat. They aren’t selling anything. They’re the screen looking away from the screen. These aren’t satirists; this is anti-allegory. Anne Boyer: “Fed a pabulum of the very bad and told it is the only food, it is no wonder so many people fearfully covet the apocalypse.” The pirates offer, just as any apocalypse-text does, an escape hatch. But unlike, say, the more composed “pleasures” of Art Bell’s throaty voice over the radio or a think-piece on how children will no longer know what snow days are, this text simply arrives with its eyes on us and our eyes on it: it comments on surveillance without evaluation. It hoaxes. It cajoles. It provokes. Its emergence foretells the end. It comments on empire even as it is birthed by such.
The broadcast signal intrusion is, at least in part, an intersection of multiple imaginaries. Think of what is being interrupted. While this is “public” broadcasting, a space that is ostensibly aligned with the common good against the degradation of public life, the ways in which such spaces are ultimately aligned with larger state and corporate forces need no real explanation here. The intruded upon episode of Dr. Who, “Horror at Fang Rock,” is a story of phobic invasion, modeled—another interleaf—on Lovecraft’s multiply derivative teratological representation of reactionary anxiety in “The Colour Out of Space.” Media and genres slide around, foamy and disassociated. It’s difficult not to imagine these different texts (intrusion and thing being intruded on) in conversation with each other, even though they are on different, yet colliding, platforms. It’s hard to find solid ground, to know the time. We see the start of the twentieth century as represented by 1977: i.e. the height of Imperial England just a month before Never Mind Bollocks, further disturbed by the narrative’s much broader lens, which includes cosmic time, anachronism, and allusion. Doctor Who is from the distant past as well as the distant future. But the sets and effects, the technology and usage, everything is of its period: it’s a mish-mosh. And here is a flat surface, a fortuneteller’s head in a carnival box, the mechanical hand passing to you the appropriately non-specific information.
Olivia Cronk is the author of Skin Horse (Action Books, 2012) and Louise and Louise and Louise (The Lettered Streets Press, 2016), and co-editor of The Journal Petra.
Philip Sorenson is the author of Of Embodies (Rescue Press, 2012) and Solar Trauma (Rescue Press, forthcoming), and co-editor of The Journal Petra.