4. Performativities of the media
and medial agency

Writing in 1973, Hall (1980) carefully differentiated the “structures of thought” within the production process of television from those informing television’s interpretation by audiences. Arguing that televisual representations of violence are not violent, but messages about violence, Hall complains that researchers tended to analyze television violence as if they were unaware of the fact that “the dog in the film can bark but it cannot bite!” (131) For Hall, television production encodes “dominant” or “preferred” meanings received via one of three kinds of decoding:

  • hegemonic interpretations, which accept the encoded framework of reference and operate “inside the dominant code.”
  • negotiated readings, which inflect dominant referential frameworks with “their own ground rules.”
  • oppositional readings, which recast the message entirely within an alternative frame of reference (136—138).

These engagements are carried out through “performative rules” of competence and use, requiring attention to the practices of interpretive work performed by receivers (134).

 The tendency Hall noted on the part of television observers in the 1970s to conflate the decoded message of violence with the act of violence encoded in the message was continued in a specific way in the 1998 broadcast of Daniel Jones’ suicide. That steps were taken to prevent a similar event from being broadcast again after the fact [1] indicates that viewers putatively unable or unwilling to properly receive this event were perceived to be so harmed by it that its very broadcast produced the conditions for its prevention after the fact. However, there are several reasons why Jones’ act calls for a somewhat different approach than that derived from Hall’s notion of cultural decoding.

First, while Hall believed that audiences are ultimately the source of ideas encoded into television production, those audiences are alienated from the means of production, and will draw on a rather different set of experiences to decode them. For Hall, there is an asymmetric relationship rather than an identity framed between producer and audience. However asymmetric the relationship between broadcast production and audience in the age of reality television, Jones dictated the terms and conditions of this event, even though belonging more clearly to one or more reception communities than to any professional or alternative production organization. Second, Hall’s three types of decoding not only take as fundamental the distinction between audience and producer, but further that discursive struggles form the terrain for the interaction of these two terms. We can accept Hall’s distinctions between production and reception but only to observe that Jones radically undermines their structural opposition.

Jones’ self-destruction in staging the capture of what I argue is a life story produces more than discursive struggle. It also reproduces that which Hall’s interpretive framework finds unthinkable and which contemporary reality television threatens as its limit: the final effacement of the material, intellect, affect, and spirit of the body which originates the mediated event. Following Hall, we might say that the broadcast of Daniel Jones’ suicide was not the suicide itself. But such an account would emphasize, wrongly, the interpretation of the event over the event itself. In this case, both have to be considered together and in terms of one another, precisely because Jones’ authoring of this media event took place from a position outside the network system. Jones authored, or at least invited, media coverage of his own death not as a television producer but as a television receiver who had observed the rules governing the generation of the media event.

Jones engaged the performativities of violence, of information, of mediation generally, to author from outside the system of “live media” even as he was captured within its televisual frame. If the coverage of Jones’ violent death was, indeed, shaped within a larger framing of discursive violence, that discursive violence itself became part of the meanings of the event, as I demonstrate below in a discussion of the varied responses to Jones’ death in the form of Internet postings and letters to the editor.

In this case, a body takes a direct action amid networks of historical and discursive violence—and our mediated communications or knowledge thereof. So this event, tied to a reviled body as its origin, is hard to “localize” in a collective investing of identity. Here, as the body performs the very abandonment to which been subject socially, a correspondence of act and reception beyond Hall’s encoding or decoding frameworks takes hold. This event goes beyond merely discursive struggle in an economy of pre-emption. This correspondence of act and reception suggests that even broadcasters attempting to retake control of a message stolen away from them (in Hall’s terms, dominant readings decoding an oppositionally encoded event) are in important ways already implicated in the exceptional event itself. The dominant framework of production and reception here is reversed as reception becomes an act of authorship. In this reversal, television’s power to assert the historical is undermined as a life is, literally, historically inscribed.

Section 5, full text:
The sacrifice of autobiography

Section 5, abstract

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