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Messages to the Medium

Hannah Zeavin, interviewed by Daniel Drake

Hannah Zeavin; photo by Geoffrey G. O'Brien

Hannah Zeavin; photo by Geoffrey G. O'Brien

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


“It turns out that posing for photographs with one’s television was a surprisingly common practice” in midcentury America, writes Hannah Zeavin in her essay about TV Snapshots, Lynn Spigel’s book of photographs of Americans doing just that. Spigel’s archive of images and Zeavin’s essay remind us that the TV, in addition to being a device for transmitting mass culture, is a piece of furniture, an element of the home around which our space and domestic lives are arranged.

Zeavin, a critic and academic whose scholarly focus is media history and psychoanalysis, often brings her insights into therapy and family relationships to bear upon topics as diverse as financial scams, surveillance, and Howard Zinn. This week, I e-mailed her to discuss her writing, what TV she’s watching these days, and the difference between critics and scholars.


Daniel Drake: Where did you first encounter Lynn Spigel’s work?

Hannah Zeavin: I know exactly where. In a required seminar I took in my second year of grad school, with Marita Sturken, Spigel was presented as the exemplary methodologist for a kind of American Studies archival work. The book was Welcome to the Dreamhouse (2001), which was on the politics of space—inner space, outer space, and the racial politics of NASA. Spigel showed me how to follow the medium—in this case domestic architectures—to see the kind of world convened by it, surrounding it, in conversation with it. Over the years I have continued to learn from her—by which I mean from her books (I’ve never had the pleasure).

Do you watch much TV? What is your relationship with television?

I was very related to my TV set, in childhood, as a medium and also as an intimate architecture where movies were watched. My father, a scholar of early film, and I watched endless movies during the nights I spent at his apartment. From the moment I could support my own neck, every night was a screening (save for when baseball took precedence): mostly black and white, some pre-code musicals, a lot of Marx Brothers, Keaton, Chaplin, Micheaux. My dad’s TV set was ancient, temperamental, kind of holy. It certainly wasn’t decorated; it was more like the core of an avalanche of tapes, festooned with the materials of research and pleasure (books and more books). He would often fall asleep, and I could then stay up, watching and rewatching, the only spectator but never alone, a rare privacy in a very tiny apartment.

“Television,” or streaming, functions similarly now in my life, not that I watch it in any impressive way. I watch the Knicks and the Mets and sometimes, when I lived in Oakland, the Warriors. When I have a login, I’ll look at the new HBO show, rewatch things from time to time. I wake up early because my body won’t rest long (for the past several weeks I have been getting up at exactly 5:41 AM). But at night I want that feeling of privacy—the opposite of TV’s prior social function—and the feeling of frittering time away like it’s abundant. I need my mind to be functional when I read, so television it is, my mechanism for running down—and extending—the clock, mortgaging that time against sleep.

The presence of TVs in American life has changed quite a bit since the period represented in the snapshots Spigel collects. As you note in your essay, our smartphones present new ways to engage with photography, but I wonder what you think has changed about the television’s physical presence in our lives. It is, for example, no longer a surface on which doilies or photographs can be kept. Is it simply that the phone has taken the place of the glowing appliance? Or do TVs still have some hold on us?

To return to Spigel, we had to make way for TV for it to supplant the radio as that hearth around which the nuclear family might gather. Entire domestic architectures were arranged to do this. Then TV, in the 1970s and 1980s, became much more than broadcasts, it turned into a nexus of home entertainment: VCRs, videogames, and the like. Television really means two things: the episodic content (which was first made for the TV and is now made just as much for a laptop) and the actual furniture itself.

Television ownership follows almost a graph of perfect linear growth in the US—although the TV is now, by and large, up on the wall instead of on the floor—equally among upper and lower classes (with the middle class most clearly favoring it as a form). Looking at the photographs Spigel collected in TV Snapshots, I was taken aback by just how small the television sets of the 1950s were, despite much of domestic life being organized around it, especially when compared to, say, a floating infant. As one of the photographs demonstrates, the screen was baby-sized, literally.

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To say streaming dematerialized the space we made for TV isn’t exactly correct, but I do think the significance of that “hearth” of the set itself has receded. In this way, the TV is no longer the space where interior and exterior collide—as it was in the period Spigel is writing about, when it was an important locus for rewriting and acting out and repairing representation. Yet life is still caught on and off the screens—we just happen to have many screens across which to encounter norms and respond with self-fashioning.

Prior to this essay, I had encountered you primarily as a writer on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. What, if anything, occasioned your turn in this essay to media?

I am first and foremost a media theorist, who happens to be a historian. I tend to be obsessed with questions of mediated relations—what I call distanced intimacy. I think there are autobiographical reasons for this—having to do with early and frequent exposure to distanced relationships, on the phone to whichever parent I wasn’t with, later wrapped up in the telephone cord with friends, then on AIM, even in letter-writing. These forms of care and communication are often figured as lower if not false—meanwhile, my entire life was run by them, and it remains so to this day: the addressee of the lyric poem, the fantasized reader for the novel, the audience for the critic are all forms of distanced intimacy.

I don’t write about those forms of connection, or not frequently. Instead, I focus on two areas, which I then I braid together: the history of psychoanalysis and the history of technology. In my first book, The Distance Cure, which is a social history of teletherapy, that split is overt: “tele” followed by “therapy.” In Mother’s Little Helpers, the book I’m writing now, I’m telling a social history of parenting technology from the home to the clinic to the prison to the commune. There, media provide the overt lede, but the whole book is about how the human sciences framed motherhood as a medium, a fantastically pure one, while technologies for parenting were figured as contaminants of both the baby and the mother-baby relationship.

How do you approach these different modes of writing, your criticism and your more academic work? Or even aesthetic criticism and social criticism?

I tend to think of what we call “public-facing” writing as addressing a different, larger audience than scholarly writing, which calls for a different style and different evidentiary regimes—which is not to say that magazine writing is less rigorous (that’s only an assumption one can have before being well fact-checked). Sometimes, the difference is how explicitly the first person and their material history appear in the argument. Even if the first person doesn’t make itself known in the piece, the critic is always writing the criticism. I think that, despite much work to undo the fantasy of neutrality and objectivity, the scholar is not always understood to be writing the scholarship.

Each of these genres serves its purpose, and sometimes those purposes overlap. They convene under different rules, spoken and unspoken, and demand different kinds of labor, and they imagine different readers. This is now by design. Academic work is accessed—unevenly via libraires—university presses are underfunded (but glorious nevertheless), and the vast majority of academic workers aren’t compensated by anyone for writing for these channels—they’re contingent workers. The role of the editor is different across these genres as well—the careful attention to the run and rhythm of a sentence is rare in academic editing, not because academics are bad writers or don’t care, but because the work, we are told, needs to accomplish something else.

Currently, I am working quite a bit on a new venue to rethink these divisions between criticism and scholarship. Parapraxis is to be a glossy (dare I say it, mainstream) magazine about psychoanalysis, with the most astounding group of thinkers, writers, editors, historians. Making a magazine from scratch allows us to think about every element of production, these notions of purpose, of audience, of access. How do you fact-check the consulting room? How do you really explain Lacan to any and everyone? We’re also trying to make a home for writers to learn and grow. Alex Colston, our deputy editor, is fond of saying that that’s the best thing a little magazine can do, and he’s right. I’ve learned so much from my editors, including my first readers, my co-editors at Parapraxis—not just about style, say, but about how to argue, how to diagnose a problem, as directly as possible.

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