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Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Slow Flight from Television


Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s La télévision (1997) portrays the efforts of an academic to avoid television while on sabbatical writing his book.  As he struggles to focus his attention on his work, Toussaint’s narrator questions the bodily and social effects of limiting one’s horizon of experience to the televisual, and contrasts his own slow sensual perception to the chaotic hodgepodge of images broadcasting on the television.  For Toussaint, the great loss in televisual culture is not critical thinking or rigorous public discourse, but rather the slow and simple pleasures of the senses: thinking, reading, listening to music, making love, etc.  Whereas all these activities evoke the slow pace of leisure, watching television is an exercise in making sense of images that move faster than the time it takes to process them.  The result is mental and physical fatigue, a negation of the body and its senses, and isolation from the immediate events in one’s local milieu.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that this is a novel set against a televisual horizon of expectations, la Télévision pits the written word against the televised image, distinguishing the slow time of the narrative from the fast pace of TV programming.  The stylistic choice of long, complex sentences, stream of consciousness narration, and emphasis on anthropological places in the description point to a desire to reconnect the reader to his or her body and physical surroundings.  The novel focuses on the ordinary events so often forgotten amid the media preference for the spectacular and the extraordinary.  Toussaint manages to take the book’s reputation as a slow medium and transform it into its strength, proving that what makes novels seem outdated in today’s fast-paced culture may indeed be valuable and essential.

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