Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Modal Ontology of Television: How to Create Social Objects

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Modal Ontology of Television: How to Create Social Objects

Article excerpt



What kind of objects do I encounter when I turn on my television set and start watching? I may watch a football game, a soap opera, or a newscast. I see people doing things. They score goals, win championships, cheat on their husbands, or execute their powers as statesmen.

The question addressed in this article concerns the ontological and modal status of the things we see on television. A football game such as shown on television seems quite similar to the actual game. Many viewers would probably claim that those two things are identical. According to our present approach, however, they are different.

We may watch a 15-second sound bite featuring Bill Clinton on the White House lawn. For most common viewers, this video sequence would appear as identical with what the President of the United States did on a certain occasion. Still, only very few and very naive viewers would claim that the actor David Duchovny works as an FBI agent investigating paranormal phenomena such as described in the television series called "The X-files." In this case, most of us would like to distinguish between the character called Fox Mulder and the actor Duchovny. My point is that one should make a Mulder/Duchovny distinction with regard to television in general. This distinction is not only relevant in the case of fiction. There is an analogous difference between Clinton-seen-on-television and Clinton the President.

In this article, I argue that objects appearing on television are ontologically different from objects seen through a pair of glasses or through a window. In John Searle's terminology, the facts such as they appear on television belong to different types than the facts we encounter when we take part in the events or observe them on location (on types of facts, cf. Searle, 1995, 120-125). My approach to the ontology of television is a presentational and modal one. The former qualification states that anything seen on television is presented by somebody. The latter qualification adds a further condition, stating that objects presented on television appear to us as modalized states of affairs.

As it will be argued, there is no basic difference between propaganda and quality journalism. Things seen in the news produced by the highly esteemed British Broadcasting Company are, essentially, no different from things seen in Nazi propaganda films by Leni Riefenstahl or in "October" by the soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. According to the presentational and modal approach, objects seen on the screen are socially constructed, i.e. social objects (fiat objects), as distinguished from independently existing, physical objects (bona fide objects).

This analysis also contains a proposal to the effect that television can serve as a paradigmatic example of how social objects are constructed. It is inherent to a presentational analysis of television that there is a functional differentiation among the people involved. In this way, we are able to support a notion of sociality which is more sophisticated than the plain collective intentionality as stated by Searle (1995, 24-25).



The Vietnam war in the sixties and early seventies has been regarded as the first television war. It was the first one in a collection of remarkable events made available to common people all over the world by television. More recently, at least the following events have been added to the collection: the Christmas Revolution in Romania in 1989, the Gulf War in 1991, and the O.J. Simpson case in 1995. In each of these cases television made a large audience aware of a chain of events that took place far away.

Furthermore, these events happened under physical conditions that made it impossible for the general television public to be present on location. Common people in remote countries were given the impression that they were involved in a war, in the toppling of President Nicolae Ceausescu's government, or with a murder case in a court of justice. …

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