Television against Democracy

By David Joselit

In a world where politics is conducted through images, the tools of art history can be used to challenge the privatized antidemocratic sphere of American television.





In a world where politics is conducted through images, the tools of art history can be used to challenge the privatized antidemocratic sphere of American television.

American television embodies a paradox: it is a privately owned and operated public communications network that most citizens are unable to participate in except as passive specators. Television creates an image of community while preventing the formation of actual social ties because behind its simulated exchange of opinions lies a highly centralized corporate structure that is profoundly antidemocratic. In Feedback, David Joselit describes the privatized public sphere of television and recounts the tactics developed by artists and media activists in the 1960s and 1970s to break open its closed circuit.

The figures whose work Joselit examines—among them Nam June Paik, Dan Graham, Joan Jonas, Abbie Hoffman, Andy Warhol, and Melvin Van Peebles—staged political interventions within television's closed circuit. Joselit identifies three kinds of image-events: feedback, which can be both disabling noise and rational response—as when Abbie Hoffman hijacked television time for the Yippies with flamboyant stunts directed to the media; the image-virus, which proliferates parasitically, invading, transforming, and even blocking systems—as in Nam June Paik's synthesized videotapes and installations; and the avatar, a quasi-fictional form of identity available to anyone, which can function as a political actor—as in Melvin Van Peebles's invention of Sweet Sweetback, an African-American hero who appealed to a broad audience and influenced styles of Black Power activism. These strategies, writes Joselit, remain valuable today in a world where the overlapping information circuits of television and the Internet offer different opportunities for democratic participation.

In Feedback, Joselit analyzes such midcentury image-events using the procedures and categories of art history. The trope of figure/ground reversal, for instance, is used to assess acts of representation in a variety of media—including the medium of politics. In a televisual world, Joselit argues, where democracy is conducted through images, art history has the capacity to become a political science.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262101202 232 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 51 b&w illus.


$19.95 T ISBN: 9780262514026 232 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 51 b&w illus.


  • An elegant, passionately argued, and crucially important rallying cry...There may be hope that this call to arms for the fields of art history and criticism will not go unheeded.

    Ulrich Baer

    Modern Painters

  • [Joselit's] wonderfully spare text focuses on the first hints of the digital future as it was mapped by commercial network executives on the clunky hardware of the cathode-ray tube and the dumb black boxes that decoded the increasingly privatized information stream of cable TV.

    Caroline A. Jones



  • An ambitious exploration of television at midcentury as it created its mythology of character, its rewriting of politics, and its illusions of feedback, Feedback grips the reader as well with challenging analyses of image creation, proliferation, and circulation today. Drawing on a wild history that includes psychedelia, blaxploitation, video art, guerrilla TV, Nam June Paik, Hubert Humphrey, Lucille Ball, and Melvin Van Peebles, Joselit inspiringly entreats the reader to 'assess the image ecology...and respond to it' and 'use images to build publics' now.

    Maud Lavin

    Professor, Visual and Critical Studies and Art History, Theory, and Criticism, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

  • In Feedback, David Joselit tackles the 800-pound gorilla of commercial television on both political and artistic grounds. Upsetting common dichotomies between artistic practice and commercial strategies, Joselit avoids either dismissing or embracing the commercial medium, offering a truly passionate critique that plunges into the intricacies of how the electronic image engages us, whether in our living room or a gallery floor. A bold work that seeks to generate argument and thought.

    Tom Gunning

    Chair, Committee on Cinema and Media, University of Chicago, and author of The Cinema of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity

  • Feedback is an incisive take on a period when art and life overlapped, and when intellectual activists regarded TV as an indispensable opponent—the number one medium which we had to hijack, or else die from the banality it radiated.

    Andrew Ross

    New York University