Friday, April 4, 2014

P&PC's New Acquisition: The Poetry of Motorola's TV Trays

The P&PC Office is certainly going to use them to serve hors d'oeuvres and other tasty treats at this weekend's National Poetry Month Black-Tie Benefit, but we wanted to give those of you who won't be on hand a preview of our most recent acquisition: a set of four promotional TV serving trays that were either sold or given away with Motorola televisions, phonographs, and other entertainment devices in the 1950s or 1960s. Each tray is about sixteen inches long with rounded corners, has a wood-grain veneer, features a colorful cartoon scene by commercial illustrator Vernon McKissack, and includes—what else?—a quatrain like the one accompanying the jazz scene pictured here:

Clap your hands and lift your feet
And dance around to that solid beat
This real gone jive that lets you laugh
Sounds groovy too, on a phonograph.

In addition to the simple fact of the poetry printed on 'em, we were initially attracted to these trays for how this particular one incorporates jazz-related slang for commercial purposes and (of course) for that super-spectacular pun on the word "groovy," which is used to describe both an immaterial social vibe as well as the material substance of the vinyl playback format. Listening to jazz is "groovy" in more than one way, ya dig?

While preparing our franks-in-blankets and deviled eggs, though, we've also become increasingly interested in how Motorola is using the trays to stage a media conversation between the phonograph, music, poetry and print, illustration, and even the television itself, as the television is (we think) simulated by the trays' wooden frames. Indeed, the original box pictured here—which has a cut-out television screen window through which one can view the top tray inside—suggests we are intended to read the rounded wooden tray frames as the rounded wooden frames of old televisions. In a sense, then, the "box" of that television ties together word, picture, music, and phonograph—a claim for the power and unique thrill of what was then the newest new medium of the twentieth century.

As Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin might describe it in their 1999 book Remediation: Understanding New Media, the jazz scene is characterized by what they call "the twin preoccupations of contemporary media": an interplay between the experience of "immediacy" and the experience of "hypermediacy." On the one hand, the tray (and by extension Motorola's phonograph and television) cultivates immediacy by promising to immerse us in the "live" moment of the improvised jazz performance, thus offering us a "transparent presentation of the real." On the other hand, we are (as Bolter and Grusin say) "challenged to appreciate the integration" of media forms—print, music, image, phonograph, and television—and thus enjoy not the representation but the "opacity of media themselves." That is, not entirely unlike the artist whom the poem tells us is looking "through the window" at the musician playing in the flat next door, we become immersed in the moment by looking through one medium or interface at another. But even here, as the poem explains, the enjoyment of immediate experience hinges on, is accompanied by, or is in a sort of inevitable relationship with a corresponding "opacity" suggested (like the pun on "groovy") by yet another pun: the "fidelity" of the poem's last line, which links the "high fidelity" of the audio playback experience with the authentic experience of live listening. Relying on the pun's cultivation of multiple meanings to direct our attention away from the transparent "content" or "message" and toward the pleasure of multiple media interconnections and media interplay, the tray uses the opacity or thickness of language as a medium to trope the opacity of media more generally, focusing our attention not on the "content" or the "message" being conveyed, but on media itself. (Why else use the triple rhyme of "melody" and "fidelity" if not to call attention to language itself?) Here's that poem:

This master piece will have to wait
Maybe until it's quite too late
Cause who can deny that vibrant melody
Coming through the window with such fidelity.

The lack of a question mark at the end of this verse turns query into fact: what comes "through the window"—a phrase that (for us) recalls the cut-out "window" on the box cover and thus also what comes "through the window" of the television screen or the invisible window of the phonograph—has more fidelity to reality (immediacy) than any of the other media taken in isolation. Like the sketches on the studio floor (or so the logic goes), all other media are incomplete or unfinished except for television and phonograph, which have the power to combine previous media in creating the most immediate of immediate experiences.

Based on this interplay between immediacy and hyper- mediacy, Bolter and Grusin argue that "Although each [new] medium promises to reform its predecessors by offering a more immediate or authentic experience, the promise of reform inevitably leads us to become aware of the new medium as a medium." Such is the case with the phonograph and television and Motorola's TV trays. For despite offering TV and the phonograph as more immediate or authentic experiences than the verbal, pictorial, or painterly, Motorola only simulates the phonograph and TV on the TV trays themselves; TV is only figured by, not actually present in, the box's cut-out window and the frame of cheap wood, and the phonograph is only mentioned by name, not pictured. Thus, we become aware of "the new medium as a medium" because of the difficulty of representing the phonograph or TV in any other media but themeselves. Oddly, by choosing this print-based format to "advertise" television and phonograph, Motorola is unable to actually dramatize the newness of those media, whether it be their immediacy or hypermediacy; we don't experience the media that Motorola wants us to buy but, instead, have to imagine them for ourselves—just like the child in the tray pictured here who has to look up and away from the media limitations of the book to imagine the scene it describes.

And maybe this is the whole point of the TV trays and the dynamic between immediacy and hypermediacy that the poems point us to and help to cultivate—not to replicate television or the phonograph, but to get us, as consumers, to imagine what the television and phonograph can do. If advertising is designed not to sell a product but to cultivate in a consumer the desire for a product, then the desire produced by the inability to experience television or phonograph via the simulation of older media (the cut-out window on the box, the wooden frame around the scenes, the puns on "groovy" and "fidelity") has an easy fulfillment: simply "grab a partner and do-ce-do" out to the store to buy the real thing.