DISPERSIVE PROCEDURES. This article describes television as a superb medium for executing Dispersive Procedures. A typical Dispersive Procedure is when a female refuses a trivial request, such as for a glass of water, ostensibly in jest. It is preliminary to the refusal being made in earnest.
Dispersive Procedures are a class of procedures which serve to inure the Opponent in preparation for a further advance in the Protagonist’s power battle. The Opponent’s natural reactions are dissipated and dispersed.
It was sometime in the middle of last summer, about four or five months after I returned to the United States following a nearly ten-year absence, that I began to be aware of a strange new personal problem. There was something wrong with my eyes. Not my vision, mind you, but my eyes. They were missing things. For someone who makes his living writing, it was a serious problem. I was suddenly half-blind to details.
I can’t say what it was exactly that I missed, because, well, I missed it. But there was definitely something wrong. Without venturing too far into a pretentious and presumptuous discussion of the business of writing, the inability to spot the correct details in any scene is pretty much the dealbreaker when it comes to descriptive prose. If you can’t spot his unusually long incisor teeth, you will miss the essence of Buffalo mayor Anthony Masiello. Anyway, I began to notice a distinct fuzziness in the canvas of existence, and quietly began to worry.
Soon after I began to notice other problems. I had stopped reading books. It began with an inability to read poetry, then progressed to an inability to read fiction of any kind, and then finally even non-fiction books dropped out of the rotation. Periodical reading was the only thing I could handle. As a teenager, if I went more than a couple of days without finishing a book, it was unusual. Now I was a full-grown adult, with presumably a much more mature mind, and in the space of a month I couldn’t even get through Zodiac Unmasked. It was strange.
By the new year I was aware that there was something seriously wrong in my head. I felt bad all the time. The idea of thinking about anything at all outside of a few basic themes (sports, movies, the headline political story of the day) was not only distasteful, but impossible. I felt equally tired in the morning and the evening – it was the same kind of tired – and seldom wanted to go anywhere or do anything outside of work. If I had to exercise at all, the blood coursing through my veins felt poisonous. There were circles under my eyes. I was beginning to look like something out of a Tim Burton movie.
Something had to be done. So I made some radical changes. The first ones were the typical personal reforms of the thirty-something neurotic: health club, quitting smoking, getting up earlier. But it wasn’t until this spring that I hit the one that really mattered. I gave up television.
I’d tried this before, but never quite got it right. Previously I’d give up, say, everything but the football game. Or everything but South Park and The Larry Sanders Show. This year I figured it out: even five minutes of television is too much.
I remember once reading scientist Eric Kandel’s description of the physiological basis of learning, specifically habitual learning or habituation. His studies revolved around snails. You touch a snail, and its sensory neurons release neurotransmitter that in turn provokes the “gill withdrawal” reflex, causing the snail to retract into its shell. But the amount of neurotransmitter in the snail’s synapses is limited. Thus when you touch it again, the snail’s neuro-response is less excited. It doesn’t contract as much or as fast. By the third or fourth time you touch it, it barely moves. Eventually the snail is out of neurotransmitter and is indifferent to your touch. It has learned.
A snail that has been touched too many times looks quite a lot like a person plopped on the couch, watching his second hour of television. This is not a coincidence.
I haven’t watched any tv for more than a month now, and except for a brief period during the war, scarcely at all since the new year. But I’m going to turn it on now and tell you what I see. It’s 12:45 on Friday, July 18:
WWOR, Channel 9 (New York): The Ricki Lake show. Graphic along the bottom announces that the segment topic is “Dirty Dogs.” On stage are two black guys in their late 20s, one shaven-headed, one with rows. They’re laughing, and the audience is hooting. Cut to smug-faced Ricki: She says, “Now, when you refer to women as a taco – do they like that?”
Click! What the fuck!
A half hour later:
E!, WPIX and FSNY, in rapid succession: A Verizon commercial depicts two pregnant men lounging around at home in front of the television, discussing their internet access options. A Hilshire Farm Deli Select meats commercial features a supermarket butcher whose wife calls him up at work to ask him to bring home some of his choice deli meats. Secretly, he buys Deli Select pre-wrapped meat instead of the actual deli meat. At home, he cringes, afraid to admit this to her. Finally, on FSNY: the Time Warner commercial where the bald, cringing husband is berated by his in-charge wife for his fictional decision to decorate their living room with gnu heads.
Jesus Christ! Click!
That was about fifty seconds total of tv, and already my “What the Fuck!” juice was noticeably depleted. It only takes a few minutes to “learn” the one thing television has to teach – the battering to death of your freak-out reflex.
But we need our freak-out reflexes. They’re essential to our sanity. When you cease to be horrified by the horrifying, you really cease to exist as a person. In life you either speak your mind or die. You either keep asking questions or die. If you don’t force life to be a dialogue, you become a lump of putrid flesh waiting for its turn, which is what I was last year.
NY Press, Volume 16, Issue 30, 22 July 2003