There are two aspects of liveness: temporal and spatial, i.e. experiencing something as it happens vs. being in a location where something happens. Liveness can thus apply to the concept of being seated in the same theater as a production of a play, or watching a sporting event taking place on the other side of the country. The definition above, offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, focuses more on the temporal, however the two are in many ways intertwined. The idea of being in the same place at the same time as the production of a communication message is growing increasingly antiquated. While it could be argued that day-to-day interactions are also losing their liveness (consider self check-out lines and the ease of ordering things on the internet), it is constructed, performance-oriented activities that are most affected.
Attributes & Characteristics
|Spatially Live||Spatially Not Live|
|Temporally Live||Attending a concert, sporting event, theater||Watching sporting events on TV|
|Temporally Not Live||Pilgrimages to Holy Site||A recorded television episode|
Liveness dates back to the beginning of human interaction. It includes everything from conversations between two people to 50,000 spectators watching gladiatorial battles at the Colosseum. Despite its prevalence throughout history, however, it is difficult to discuss liveness without looking at what it is not.
Liveness is the absence of writing. It is encoding and decoding happening simultaneously. Another attribute of liveness is difference. One could see the same play with the same cast three nights in a row and see a different show each time. Unlike recorded or written work which contains the same words or images each time one looks at it, liveness offers a unique presentation each time. Compared to other modes of mediation, liveness is less controllable. A performance one night may be longer than the next; a performer can make a mistake or intentionally cause problems; and technological failure or other forces outside the performers can interfere with the intent of the representation. There is an uncertainty to liveness that disappears when one begins recording events and making them more easily manipulable. This variation on pops and hisses gives liveness a certain ethereal, magical quality. When viewing something, the spectator becomes a part of the experience in a way consumers of recorded, more static content cannot. Of course, liveness also brings with it a risk. If things are different enough in a live performance from what is intended it can change the message or cause other problems.
Compared to other forms of mediation, liveness is, essentially, unmediated. Whereas cinema is "the manipulation of optic nerves and their time," and acoustic recording uses "sound tricks, montage, and cuts" (Kittler 115), liveness is free of such interference. It is the senses working on their own to experience that which can only be constructed and articulated by a message sender in the presence of a receiving individual. This does not mean that everything live is not lacking in artificiality, rather that the extent to which it can be constructed is restricted by the capabilities of technology and sleight-of-hand style trickery that can be applied instantaneously.
Liveness is experiencing a long and slow death that began with the written word and has continued into broadcast technologies and internet communications. In fact, the very acknowledgement of liveness as a mode of mediation is suggestive of its dying nature. Until an alternative to liveness developed there was no concept of live. It just was. It was the only way to communicate. With the introduction of other modes of mediation, live is now often used as a retronym of sorts, made necessary to distinguish it from the alternatives that have developed. The problem here is not so much arguing the deadness of liveness, it is rather to justify liveness as a mode of mediation as in many respects it is the lack of mediation that is being displaced by new and creative ways to mediate all forms of communication.
As mentioned, however, time and space are two different aspects of liveness. The development and evolution of broadcast technologies serve as an example of the way these two attributes have become disconnected and how both have fallen away.
Broadcasting: A Case Study in the Death of LivenessThe introduction of broadcasting was not the beginning of the demise of liveness, but it has been the nail in the coffin, so to speak. Broadcasting is, by nature, a medium based on spatial distance between those who are encoding and the (larger) group involved in decoding. In some respects this was the first step away from liveness in that it disconnected viewers from the concert hall or theater but allowed them to see and/or hear entertainment across great distances as the events were happening.
From the dawn of radio through the early days of television, liveness was considered a marker of quality. It was considered to be the thing that set radio and television apart from film or recorded music and thus was highly praised. The stress placed on liveness is evident in early advertisements and discussions of television, and many lamented the shift to more recorded programming. As the Ford Foundation said in 1966, "the greatest assets of television are liveness and immediacy. Much of the vitality has been drained out of television with the increasing use of tape" (Lederberg). Part of this appraisal of liveness is tied to notions of authenticity. Live programming is more real. It is coming directly from the sources, whether they be sporting events or theatrical productions or musical performances. It was real, uncensored, unmediated content.
Of course, despite the enthusiasm for live programming, from very early on much of the programming was recorded and as time passed it became the norm. There were a number of reasons for the eventual transition to recorded programming, including financial, industrial, and technological factors, however all of the reasons pertain to certain aspects of liveness.
For one, if something is live it is only visible once. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it limits those who can see it, and it is difficult (or impossible) to view it again. Also, as mentioned earlier, there is a risk inherent in liveness. Anything can happen which can be good. Exciting things can happen, particularly in live sporting events, which give people a sense of being in community together having experienced it at the same time. But liveness can also facilitate less ideal material. For broadcasting this has led to most programming, even live programs, being delayed for a few seconds to allow producers to censor material if need be. It also becomes difficult to standardize things in live television. It is difficult to insure time will be regulated properly. Participating in live performances can also be very tiring, making it more difficult to repeat events or perform repeatedly in different functions without adequate breaks.
Today on television and radio there is very little that is live. Recorded music fills radio time and scripted, recorded and edited work fill the TV schedule, and even that is beginning to be removed one more level from temporal and spatial liveness. Often now people discuss "watching something live" when they mean to say "watch as it is being broadcast" rather than recording it for later viewing or accessing the material online or through some other avenue. Also, many things that were once broadcast live are being recorded and played back a more financially lucrative time. NBC's decision to tape-delay popular Olympic events is an example of the failure of liveness' role as the dominant paradigm of the day.
Although once the only conceivable way to communicate with other individuals, liveness has become a novelty of sorts. People can still attend concerts and theater events, but many of those things are increasingly being shown, recorded, in movie theaters, or broadcast on television. In many ways, liveness today is a remediation of recordings. As Auslander says in Liveness, "Initially, mediatized events were modeled on live ones. The subsequent cultural dominance of mediatization has had the ironic result that live events now frequently are modeled on the very mediatized representations that once took the self-same live events as their models" (10). The electronic nature of the sounds are constructed in a recording studio and then reconstructed on a stage. While there are still live concerts, they are often live re-enactments of recorded content.
The issue of authenticity arises here again and is elaborated on by Auslander in his discussion of Milli Vanilli and the controversy erupting around the discovery the public performers were not those singing on the album. Suddenly, liveness is no longer trustworthy. Where once it was the only way to communicate, and later was seen as a more real or ideal form of mediation, it has now become another form of construction to be viewed skeptically. Liveness as the world once knew it is gone. In its place is remediated representation of recorded content. While it was once just how people exchanged ideas, it has now become something to be named; it has become a mode of mediation because it is in opposition to the new mediation paradigm of perfected recordings of text, sound, and visual images.
- Auslander, Phillip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
- Kittler, Frederich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.
- Lederberg, Joshua. "Innovation Throws Us." The Washington Post 4 Dec. 1966: E7. PDF.
- "Live, adj., n., and adv." OED Online. March 2010. Oxford University Press. 26 April 2010 <http://dictionary.oed.com/>.