AS SEEN ON TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s by Karal Ann Marling. (Harvard University: $24.95; 328 pp.) It's difficult to know what kind of a thing TV is--a "modest malignancy, wicked and bristling," as Norman Mailer put it? Or the world's greatest advertisement for capitalist democracy? Marshall McLuhan certainly right in insisting that the content of the medium is far less important than its neural ubiquity. Randomly scattered among my own earliest memories are various '50s TV shows; such a fact makes history--personal as well as political--iconic, perhaps a dangerous condition when the icons are placed in our living rooms by unknown powers for largely commercial purposes. The very title of this book implies a bizarre reversal of referentiality.
Marling, a specialist in cultural iconography, here presents no overarching thesis, but she has dug deeply beneath the shiny surface of the factitious '50s in examining such historical milestones as Mamie Eisenhower's make-over, Elvis' army haircut, TV dinners, Betty Crocker's portrait, paint-by-number kits and tail fins. The result--beyond a diverting trip down memory's shopping aisles--is a detailed and eye-opening look at the marketing of cultural attitudes in the guise of products. And you thought it was only Silly Putty in that little plastic egg!