Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Norman Ball Resolves Television in Six Easy Payments: Here's Installment One with Kirpal Gordon

KIRPAL GORDON: First of all, Norm, welcome to Giant Steps Press as author of our latest title, Between River and Rock: How I Resolved Television in Six Easy Payments available on Amazon, Kindle and in just about every other e-format.
NORMAN BALL: Thanks, KP. It’s great to be aboard the good ship GSP.

KG: Reading your book-length essay on TV, technocracy and the internet was like revisiting the birth of Giant Steps Press. We formed because we’re after work like BR&R, books that cause readers to question the status quo via humor, candor and, for lack of a better phrase, “raids on the Unspeakable” (Thomas Merton) or visitations from the supernatural. I also love your illustrations, many of which appear here. They are an irreverent mixture of high and low culture, like the book itself.
NB: To me it's all sort of the same--high, low, tech, po. In fact, I'd love it if this book helped lateralize the debate and collapse divides, all in pursuit of a less-fractured union. I'm glad you said ‘supernatural’ first. I was no great Ginsberg aficionado prior to the writing of this book. Yet he suddenly appeared all over it like an unbidden insurgency. I came away utterly convinced that the ‘Whitman of his generation’ appellation is well-earned. From 1947-66 he was like the interwar voice of America. Speaking of America, I challenge you to find anything funnier than this Ginsberg recitation. America loves to construct  its icons with the seriousness of a dam project. So it's easy to forget that Ginsberg was funny as hell. By the end of the poem--after a chaste, attentive start--people are laughing their asses off. What's wrong with that?

KG: Nothing at all. On that score you’ve done our readership a great service by providing such a sterling interpretation of his opus, the often misunderstood "Howl." In fact, you trace a through-line from Blake and Keats and the Romantic tradition in England all the way to the present in order to create an antidote for American couch potatohood. It sounds like you had something of a conversion experience while reading the Beats and other beware-of-media literati like Don DeLillo.

The Author's Father
NB: Thanks, Kirpal. It’s funny. I’ve always had a natural aversion to TV. Maybe it’s part-Oedipal as my dad (Emmy-awarding winning TV pioneer John Ball) (PDF) was all about it, though in his own conflicted sort of way. It’s the universal slack jaw of the TV-watcher that confirmed my suspicions of TV as being an energy sink. The Beats, for example, had ants in their pants. Sheer mobility made them bad actors for the TV room. They kept to the road and avoided the spell. An admixture of high gas prices and HDTV informs the dull sustenance of the couch potato. You heard it here first. OPEC and Sony killed the Beats.

KG: Speaking of gas, your lampoon of Route-66 (the TV show) and its attempted neutering of Kerouac’s On the Road is a hoot. To you TV is the Great American Expropriator. Nothing is too sacred that it can’t be flattened, profaned and turned into an ad for jeans. I’m guessing your eye to the politics of American media technology was greatly served by your father’s work in close captioned TV? While working with him in DC you saw the selling of cable and community TV’s future up close. Before that, you’d been weaned on the BBC, yes?

NB: Yes, I cut my teeth quite literally on Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men before emigrating to the States at the ripe old age of four. So I sort of internalized two television worldviews. I’m a walking TV dialectic. In fact I discuss the origins of the BBC in the book. As you bring up antidotes, I'm swallowing more Keatsian pills with each passing day. We start with this Vale of Soul-making, really a  laboratory whose ingredients are spirit and intellect. From there, we rub against earth’s afflictions, producing that stuff called soul. The mediated world diverts us from this direct Keatsian process. Indeed there are powers within our society that encourage this diversion for a host of reasons. Let's just say false consciousness is big business. My father was immersed in TV. But he hated it. He’d also be scratching his head over Keats, Rilke too. Poetry was not his bag. I also spent two decades in telecom in a variety of roles. During the writing of this book, I got the distinct privilege of corresponding  with George Stoney (the Father of Public Access Television) before his death last year. If you can believe it, George began his career in the FDR administration as a socialist firebrand (he was born in 1916)! He was a fascinating blend of social activism and technical know-how. He was lucid to the end and will be sorely missed.

KG: You got the Sixties' New Left philosophers down cold, too, and I found myself concurring with Adorno, Marcuse and Norman O. Brown: TV isn’t just prone to manipulation and distortion; it’s a diversionary device by design. Even the weather’s all wet. Everything is a lie and that’s the truth!

NB: I should hasten to add I'm not a Marxist. Actually I'm a homesick capitalist who mourns the current deformation that strives to drape itself in capitalist narrative, corpo-fascism. Jerry Mander was unequivocal. TV should be tossed into the dumpster. On the Weather Channel the postures of the on-the-scene reporters are often exaggerated during torrential rains and high winds to inject entertainment value and a sense of danger. So yes, the storms are suspect too.

KG: Be very afraid but don’t switch the channel because the sexy weather gal is about to have a wardrobe malfunction? Like Marcuse’s Domination Principle regarding “the establishment,” TV seems capable of absorbing any joke we can foist on it.  As you point out, it’s a shot of mad, greedy, tyrannical Moloch all the way. Yet your lampooning of our entrapment (cultural entrancement?) is more than just a hoot and a howl. I don’t think I’ll ever view “the tube” or surf the Net the same way again, and that’s the secret power of your book.

NB: I'm really not saying anything new in that regard. I'm hoping my cross-weaving of parallel narratives will coax inquisitive generalists like myself into a broadened debate. But yes, TV as vampire is part of the energy sink phenomenon. The Left knew their worker-led revolt was doomed due to TV mesmerism. So they scrambled, added 'New' to their brand name--you know, whiter-whites--and injected Freud because Marx alone wasn’t cutting it. Media is in the business of manufacturing  consent which is as much a psychological phenomenon as a political-economic one. Anyway it was all largely for naught. The proletariat is not about to stream out into the streets with a 70-inch sensaround box singing in the corner. You never know, in the mad rush to the Bastille another prole might sneak in and steal it. Ferlinghetti said it just this year: Ginsberg was dead on the money with Moloch. We sacrifice our children to him every Saturday morning. He feeds them Sugar Craps. They hand him limbs later on as teenage-mutant diabetic amputees. Moloch trades sugar for souls. Appendages are the appendices of the screen era.

KG: The book moves deftly among many topics that you manage to cohere into a single focus: your own immigrant’s tale, growing-up vignettes, insider lit lore, poetic leaps over philosophical matters and riffs most extraordinaire on Milton Berle, Father Knows Best, JFK’s assassination, inventor John Logie Baird, The Housewives of This 'n' That---you name it.

NB: Yes, I named it and then some. My point of origin was really the late David Foster Wallace’s 1993 essay e Unibus Pluram where he notes to his fellow fiction writers the overwhelming effect television has had on his (and my) generation. Ours was the first where television was not subsequently introduced into the home. It was the glowing a priori box in the corner. You can feel the difference in older writers such as John Ashbery in terms of their relationship to TV. At the time Wallace was writing the essay, I was immersed in management consulting circles breathlessly trumpeting the approach of the 500-channel universe. A few years ago a literary colleague who was familiar with my technology background asked if I’d read the Wallace piece. I hadn’t. After reading it, I felt a strong compunction to offer my own State of the Union, sort of a ‘where are we now’ twenty years later. Of course the Internet has happened in a big way since then too, which I cover extensively. The book went on to explode in a hundred directions from there because TV is like the Khyber Pass of our culture. As you mentioned a moment ago, it gets its mits on everything sooner or later.

KG: Your immigrant ‘observer’ status is yet one more mediating screen?
NB: Screens atop screens. The stranger’s eye often sees the obvious with a clarity unavailable to the habituated onlooker.

KG: So what does the title mean?  I know it is a translation from the second of poet Ranier Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies.

NB: Yes. Between River and Rock is part of a line from that elegy where Rilke posits a uniquely authentic human place apart from the machinations of capricious gods, of which Moloch would certainly be one. For me it means many things; the flitting images on the screen, the inanimate passivity of the viewer and the mediating space between. On a more personal level, it is the constant internal negotiation I engage in between my mother the Keatsian spirit and my father the Socratic inquisitor. Finally the book is about a child striking an immigrant's bargain between the fluidic, idealized mythos from whence he came and the hard realities to which he arrived. Like all of us, I am multiple iterations of a split-screen.

KG: So who is the book written for? Who is its target-market audience?

NB: Well it's not a learned treatise nor an academic discourse, that's for sure. It's something between an extended riff and a protracted romp where I drag in various voices from multiple spheres to keep the thread smart, alive and multifarious. The book targets intelligent, non-academic folks who think they’re losing their minds when in fact they're losing their souls, a far worse predicament. People like you and me, I guess. I meet them every day: bright, cowed, vaguely aware of a slow spiritual leak but unable to localize the fissure. Getting back to the slack-jawed TV face, I'm reminded again of lines from the Second Elegy (written in 1923): "suddenly, solitary mirrors: gathering their own out-streamed beauty back into their faces again." This is downright premonitory of the Media Age! I go into some detail about the way people dressed for TV in the 1950-52 era. It's funny to us now but the early adopters of TV would invite others over for a night of TV. Invariably people would dress as though it was a night at the opera. It took us a while to realize that we could veg out on the sofa because TV wasn't 'watching back'. Lassitude permissioned the couch potato in the TV room before spreading to the public space. In many ways, our self-regard got sucked through that damned screen. I believe we must retrieve ourselves from Wallace's "alone, together" isolation and gather our out-streamed beauty back from the beautiful and haughty deceptions that flicker endlessly on our screens. Media means us harm, you know. This is the Keatsian in me speaking, but for reasons that are not entirely clear, soul is real. Soul matters. Soul content can be expanded or it can be relinquished. Media eats soul for breakfast. To me, it’s become very elemental.

KG: What else ya got cooking, present and prior?

NB: As for the not-too distant past, I have two short-form essay collections How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable? (2010, Del Sol Press) and The Frantic Force (2011, Petroglyph Books). The first is more politics-oriented. The second tends toward culture stuff, though both bleed profusely across that demarcation. My new Civil War musical play Sides (more on it here ) is partnered with Richard Stafford's play 'Yours'. Also, a guy by the name of Stephen Crane pitched a small novel of his The Red Badge of Courage into the mix too. (Actually Crane was a pushover as he no longer speaks up for himself and the novel's in the public domain.) Included are essays and commentary from a number of history experts. I'm really excited about it.

(Amazon, Kindle and other ePub forms)

Finally, I have a poetry collection coming out in 1Q 2014 from White Violet Press entitled Serpentrope.


KG: Where can people find you on-line?

NB: Well, returntoone@hotmail.com is a good email; also, Facebook is good for keeping up on things. I have hundreds of video on my Youtube channel and I keep up a Jung-Bowie blog, Red Book Red Sail here.

KG: Thanks so much, Norm.

NB: Thank you, Kirpal.