There’s a great ad running on PBS for the preschool cable channel Sprout, PBS’s private, for-profit venture with Comcast. In it, an international governing body, obviously the UN, debates some burning issue. Representatives of several nations are bickering in the way that nations do. As the seemingly interminable argument plods on, an innocent, doe-eyed young man of about eight who is sitting in the gallery clears his throat and pronounces, with great preciousness and common sense: “Excuse me. The more we get together, the happier we will be.” The members of the body all nod and moan their approval. Cut to a pleased parent watching the proceedings on television with her enraptured preschool-aged child.
It’s total horseshit, of course, even aside from the maudlin “message.” Anyone who knows preschoolers knows they are wonderfully free of anything resembling common sense. Ask one of them a simple question and you’ll usually receive a convoluted, nonsensical answer. The boy’s axiom about happiness would prompt most of them (or at least my five-year-old) to cry, “That’s boring!” and turn off the tv.
But the ad is delicious nonetheless. For starters, it transmits two messages to PBS’s benefactors. First, it makes clear that PBS is the boy in the commercial. Answering the recent round of conservative attacks on the network’s funding and “objectivity,” PBS is saying, Look, we are not political, though our innocence can solve political disputes. We have no agenda; we only utter the simple, apolitical truisms of childhood. Now let’s get together so that the children will be happier.
The other message addresses the subtext of the criticisms of PBS. Even though conservatives outwardly denounce the network for its bias (the news and documentary shows) and moral depravity (the Buster-cavorting-with-lesbians flap), what really galls them is that PBS is not a money-making operation. Even uber-Christer Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, admits he is bothered more by PBS’s nonprivate business model than by its embrace of deviant sexual activity. The ad winks at the network’s critics, letting them know that its programming and philosophy are fully compatible with market demands. PBS is getting together with big media companies so that capitalists will be happier.
(Clarification: I don’t mean to imply that by participating in a for-profit venture PBS has just now passed over to the Dark Side. Indeed, Sprout merely reruns PBS Kids shows. Despite conservative hysterics, PBS is, to put it in the arch phrasing US journalists reserve for places like China and Syria, state-run television. It’s probably more flexible than most state media, but that doesn’t make it any less a part of the ideological state apparatus.)
There’s another way to read the commercial, a way that speaks to one of the things I want explore in this space (but that I’ll just scratch at now), namely, the relationship between society, parents, and children, or, to put it in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, between social production, the family, and desiring-production. Briefly stated (and skipping all the interesting elaborations), in D&G’s schema the family acts as the agent of social repression, recording society’s norms and laws on its members’ desire and thus instituting the psychic repression that society is unable to accomplish by itself.
In the ad for Sprout, we see a crystallized version of the recording process. The young boy’s statement acts as a proxy both for the socius and for the family, which is evidenced in the UN representatives’ and the parent’s satisfied reactions. In this instance, social production demands that its subjects be politically involved, but only insofar as they offer bromides about peace and cooperation and happiness that, by not addressing the content of the debate or interrogating the nature of the forum, legitimize the ruling structures and their prerogatives. By reinforcing for her child that vague platitudes come “naturally” to children, the parent has played well her delegated role of frustrating the child’s desire for complexity and comprehension.