On button. Red light we learn the meaning of.
In 1976, the Soweto student protests are erased from the
black and white television that arrives that year in the front
room and from then a line is drawn between what happened
and did not, what is real and is not.
Each night, the children eat hurriedly in the next room, our
eyes already sidling through the door to the blank screen.
Just before six, waiting on chairs facing the new centre, we
watch an intuition pulse through black and white snow. It
flickers then hisses and turns into the high whine of the test
pattern that on the dot of six becomes a face.
Prayer starts the evening as prayer will end it at midnight
with the Epilogue.
The continuity announcer’s lips slide suddenly into sidelong
fractions till we jiggle the bunny aerial and prop it upside
down against the wall behind the screen.
My parents make a timetable. No watching after the 8
o’clock news, so after the news becomes a genre for grownups.
No TV on Sundays when the state teaches you to become
Telefunken, Fuchsware, Tedelex – the names next to the On
button change as our TVs break over the years. The single
channel alternates between English and Afrikaans, then the
government creates new stations in Zulu and Xhosa. We are
trained into separate realities.
The first time I see a black woman on TV is in an advert for
dishwashing liquid in which a white woman praises her domestic
servant for choosing a new detergent. “Betsy, you’re
so clever,” to which the black woman responds shyly, “Oh,
madam.” Even as a child, I can see this is not about cleaning
dishes, but some other kind of labour.
We watch to become ourselves.
TV teaches us good black voices. The black people reading
the news sound as though they are sitting inside glass, and
come from nowhere we know.
In 1982, my mother buys a Phillips video cassette recorder
with semi-remote control at the Rand Easter Show and one
day someone trips over the 12-foot cord and after that the
VCR only works with the cord plugged in.
In Live and Let Die, my eyes widen when James Bond has sex
with Rosie Carver, a desire apartheid seemed to make almost
biologically impossible. I press rewind on the semi-remote
and watch again.
My brother buys an Apple computer with a green screen and
orange cursor he hooks up to the TV. We play tennis and the
ball sounds hollow but urgent, our fingers sore from slamming
the arrow keys, the beginning of games that hurt and
where only the screen makes a sound.
In the early days of the internet I navigate with arrow keys
and DOS and in 1994 choose my first email name, gab. Messages
sent to it still reach me today. In 2002 I move for a
year to England, the centre of the real, and have to queue in
person at the bank because their online world seems not to
exist. Down here, we rejig every technology and accelerate
the virtual in the absence of the physical.
But capital is watching and tells us airtime is as necessary as
oxygen, a perfect philosophy of the real. In our houses ghost
technologies run down the prepaid electric meters.
Precise injuries of the neck, thumb and eye create a new kind
of body. The machines we hold close prompt infinite new
desires and an infinite hunger for newness.
We don’t notice when the category of the evening disappears
– the word for after 5, an Off button that once brought the
day’s work to a close.
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