Joey's "going commando" lead to a state of American cultural Enlightenment?
Adorno's "How to read a television show," the American cultural industry of television, different definition of Enlightenment, and the departing NBC network show "Friends"
One of the most complex words in the English language is Enlightenment. Consider the many levels of meaning that have been attached to the word, throughout history and in the many dictionaries that line the shelves of modern libraries. To begin with the Internet, as all searches for meaning must begin in the 21st century, according to an Internet site identifying itself as "brainydictonary," the definition of "Enlightenment" is a noun that means the "act of enlightening, or the state of being enlightened or instructed." Enlightenment relates to the expansion "of conscious states, expanding consciousness, expansion of consciousness, consciousness expansion. (Brainydictionary, 2004)
However, the expansion of the mind on a personal level is a relatively recent meaning attached to Enlightenment. Another equally reputable cite maintained by PBS states that the Enlightenment, as an historical period, was an intellectual movement, beginning in England in the seventeenth century which "then spread to have eventual influence over all sections of the world. This historical definition of the Enlightenment takes a dim view of medieval darkness in contrast to the presumed neo-classical spirit of rationality and light. The historical period of philosophical Enlightenment is "rooted in an intellectual skepticism to traditional beliefs and dogmas," that swept away "the supposed dark and superstitious character previously, with "the power and goodness of human rationality." (PBS Glossary, 2004).
Another word that is perhaps just as complex as "Enlightenment" is the word "Friends." A friend can be a close associate, but it can also be casually applied to one someone one merely knows through the social context of work or at school. One may know such a friend by sight, but only have a false intimacy with the face of the "friend." The word friend can even be deployed sarcastically, as many television and movie villains are won't to do.
Friends" is also the title of a popular NBC sitcom ending this year about a group of close "Friends" whom Americans have come to view, with a click of the remote control at 8pm EST on Thursday nights (and in syndication in many areas, it should be noted) as their living room or bedroom "Friends," even though they have never met the characters of Joey, Phoebe, Rachel, Monica, Ross, and Chandler in life. This begs the question -- who really are these "Friends" in this modern television era?
Some have suggested that the sexual content of the show "Friends," and the political nature of its topics, spanning unmarried mothers, lesbian weddings, surrogacy, and the difficulties of finding and establishing a coherent family network in a confusing world are groundbreaking for a sitcom comedy. They have suggested that "Friends" offers as a television show a potential source of Enlightenment for modern consumers of network fare. Others might take a more dim view of the sitcom stressing its formulaic nature.
Perhaps one potent metaphor for the controversy over "Friends" potential to enlighten the viewer as to these topics may be found in a relatively early episode. As a kind of revenge against his then-roommate the fastidious Chandler, the jock-like character of Joey puts on all of Chandler's clothing. He proudly announces to his roommate that he is "going commando," that is, he is not wearing any underclothes. The sexual implications of this could be read as homoerotic -- on the other hand, the shame comes from the fact that this heterosexual man is shaming another heterosexual man by coming into contact with his clothing in a state of nakedness.
Thus, is "Friends" enlightening? Does it strip us of our ideological tropes or clothing, forcing us as an audience to come in contact with uncomfortable political and sexual ideology in prime time? Or rather than 'going commando' naked of our cultural assumptions, is it merely the illusion of titillation and nakedness, covered up with even more clothing than before -- much like Joey himself.
Surely "Friends" does not conform to the 18th century sense of reason as "the most significant and positive capacity of the human." "Friends" deploys anything but reasonability, in this European view of the historical Enlightenment, where reason enabled one "to break free from primitive, dogmatic, and superstitious beliefs holding one in the bonds of irrationality and ignorance." (PBS Glossary, 2004). But one could argue that rather than "Friends" realizing the "liberating potential of reason," by which "one not only learns to think correctly, but to act correctly as well and "through philosophical and scientific progress, reason can lead humanity as a whole to a state of earthly perfection," the sitcom suggests that through feeling one becomes Enlightened. In such a view, "Friends" offers a kind of American Enlightenment of correct feeling rather than correct rational thought.
Such a reading suggests that, through the medium of non-familial friendship, humans become equal and, therefore, deserving of equal liberty and treatment before the law. Rather than advocating that "beliefs of any sort should be accepted only on the basis of reason, and not on traditional or priestly authority all human endeavors should seek to impart and develop knowledge, not feelings or character," feeling such as exhibited through emotion and the sense of connection generated through sexuality, love, and shopping becomes the means by which the characters become most fully human -- Rachel irrationally leaves her conventional fiancee in the first episode. She then gets a job at a coffee shop but finds her true heart's passion working as a buyer for Bloomingdale's. She has a child out of wedlock with an old boyfriend and finds herself by irrationally following her heart's desires. Similarly, Ross finds himself. He breaks out of his stultifying intellectual world as a paleontologist by irrationally and with feeling pursuing a high school flame. (PBS Glossary, 2004).
The German 20th century cultural theorist Theodor Adorno never had the pleasure of singing along to the tunes of Phoebe, as strummed upon her guitar in the Second Cup. However, it is unlikely he would have viewed the cultural effects of the show, despite its espousal of tolerance of lesbianism and out-of-wedlock sexuality and reconstructed families, as Enlightening in either the traditional European sense or even in the sense posited above, that the true pursuit of feeling is potentially Enlightening, if one spurns sexual and cultural societal tropes. Adorno, in his seminal essay on culture, "How to Look at Television," notes that "the effect of television cannot be adequately expressed in terms of success or failure, likes or dislikes, approval or disapproval," of the audience, rather one must examine television's function as a cultural medium and the hidden, sub-textual intent of its purveyors and producers upon television's mass consumers. (Adorno 158)
Adorno suggests that television's proximity to the intimate environment of the viewer's home and its use of stock characters merely shows how television characters can insidiously indoctrinate the audience in cultural tropes, "in the same way" as advertising or political propaganda "without being made aware that indoctrination is present." (167) The external tropes of sexual and personal liberalism might be present in the sitcom "Friends." But this is what makes its indoctrination all the more insidious. Adorno would argue that the show is always an indoctrination of cultural values that empower advertisers and producers, rather than consumers. One such value, in Adorno's view, might be of the shallow importance of buying things. Consider the show's almost sensual portrayal of the character's rich apartment lives, beautiful clothes, and even the fetish-like rendering of such urban, exclusivist institutions as coffee shops that purvey expensive beverages and pastries. Monica is a chef at an overpriced restaurant. Rachel sells expensive clothes. Chandler has a faceless office job and even Joey is part of the media itself, an actor.
The way the spectator is made to look at apparently everyday items, such as a night-club," while watching television" states Adorno, conveys "a kind of meaning that virtually excludes adequate experience no matter how obstinately the veneer of such 'realism' is built up. This affects the social and psychological function of drama" (165) People view their own consumer experiences as inadequate, even their own physical beauty, after viewing friends. The sexual liberalism advocated is not toleration, but merely another bauble, not to be imitated within one's value structure, but simply another form of gloss that makes the character's lifestyle and clothing seem more enviable.
To read it though Adorno's gaze, the sitcom of "Friends" may seem like a positive adjustment of what is real, may seem liberal in its overtly expressed ideology, but in reality it is still a simulacrum of created false connections with strangers and the values of commercialism as all television is designed to sell, sell, sell its advertisers and itself as a product. It creates the illusion that television and the drama is a "foundation of experience, that they [these experiences] can be translated…