IS BEING TELEVISED:
The Case for Popular Culture as Public Sphere
Timothy M. Dale
The Gil Scott Heron song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” begins with the lines “You will not be able to stay home, brother. / You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.” As a call to political action, the song takes on the laziness and corporatism of popular culture as inimical to real political change. The song declares a litany of popular culture and media institutions as irrelevant to “the revolution” and suggests that the revolution will require real activism that is impossible within the confines of popular media, music, television, and film. Written before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the proliferation of cable programming, product placement, and reality television, the lyrics of the Heron song are even more accusing of modern popular culture. Has modern popular culture removed us even further from the possibilities of political activity and prevented us from effecting change in society? With this question, we should consider Heron’s warning seriously: if I have “plugged in” and “turned on” my satellite dish, DVD collection, computer, and iPod, have I “copped out”?
The answer depends on how we understand political activity and the public sphere. A traditional understanding of the public sphere is that political discourse is possible only in the realm of traditional political spaces. According to this view, the classic political spaces of picket lines, the halls of government, and conversations at cafés are where the action is. The trappings of popular culture are at best diversions and at worst insidious mechanisms