Lost in an instant

The living moment: the final second in which Lutalo Muhammad lostto Cheick Sallah Cisse
The living moment: the final second in which Lutalo Muhammad lost to Cheick Sallah Cisse

In the Rio 2016 gold medal bout of the 80kg taekwondo between Lutalo Muhammad of Great Britain and Cheick Sallah Cisse of Ivory Coast, Muhammad was ahead on points with one second to go. In one second he would win the gold. The clock had been stopped while the athletes got once more into position. It started up again, and literally in a split second Cisse aimed a blow at Muhammad’s head and was victorious. The whole story of the contest, the balance between victory and defeat, took place in a second, in an instant. And then was lost.

I’ve written two posts inspired by the live coverage of the Olympic Games: one on live TV versus on-demand, one on the particular example of BBC Four’s inventive reporting of the Games. This third post is about what happens when live stops being live and becomes recovered live, or archive.

BBC historian David Hendy asked of the second post of this series whether I had read Television and the Meaning of ‘Live’ by Paddy Scannell. I hadn’t, but I’m engrossed in it now. Television and the Meaning of ‘Live’ is actually about the meaning of life, through the prism and metaphor of television. Scannell takes as his guide the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and his enquiry into the nature of phenomena (phenomenology). I’ve never read the man, and all I know of him is that he got rather too involved in National Socialism, only proving the fact that the brightest minds can still make the biggest fools. His great work is Being and Time (1927), which as Scannell explains is an investigation into the meaning of existence focussed on the nature of the everyday, and the position of we humans within that environment. The elementary components of this are place, people and time, those points which fix us in the everyday. This Scannell then applies to television (and radio), in particular the notion of live television and what it means when we switch on a television and we say that it “comes to life”. TV, like life, lives in a constant state of now.

It’s deep stuff: some of it obvious, much of it extraordinarily stimulating. The element of the book that I want to pick up on here is its thoughts about the broadcast archive. In a section on the passing living moment, he writes:

For thousands of years writing, in its many transformations, has been the sovereign way in which the past has been preserved and the words and deeds of the dead generations have been renewed in the life and times of the present. In the last century, two revolutionary technologies of record – the audio- and videotape and then digital recorders – have transformed the relationship between the living and the dead, past and present, as they put on record (for the record), words and deeds – speech-act-events – in their living enunciatory moment. Both technologies were developed in response to the exigencies of live broadcasting; first on radio and then, a generation later, on television. Through these technologies history is transformed. Technologies of writing produce history in the present as the past – the past as moving away from the present. The new audio-visual technologies record history in the making: the future as it comes to presence; history in the making of the immediate unfolding now of concern, realized as such in the enunciatory speech-act-event. The past is no longer preserved indirectly in the trace of the written. It is preserved directly (en direct, as the French say) in its own living immediacy in audio-visual recordings.

For Scannell the special quality of audiovisual technologies is that they can capture the liveness of events, “as they unfold in the immediate now of their coming into being”. Such technologies conquer time, enabling the scholar (Scannell’s particular interest) to stop time, work it back and forth. “The dialectics of immediacy become available to scrutiny and analysis. I can begin to figure out the workings of time”.

Pole vaulter captured on a single photographic plate, from Marey's book Le Mouvement (1894)
Pole vaulter captured on a single photographic plate, from Marey’s book Le Mouvement (1894)

The dream of capturing time encouraged the invention of motion pictures in the first place. The French medical investigator and pre-cinema pioneer, Etienne-Jules Marey, in the early 1880s, developed a camera capable of capturing motion as a series of images on a single plate, later on a strip of sensitised paper. He called such work ‘chronophotography’, literally ‘photographing time’. Marey was able to capture a precise moment in time, to study the nature of movement but also (as the name of his science indicates) to study time itself.

But he did not capture time at all. As I wrote in an essay once, “Marey’s work portrays not time itself but the idea of time”. The movement is lost as the moment is past, and what is captured of it is only an illusion – held on a glass plate, a strip of plastic, a magnetic tape, a digital signal – and nothing of the true nature of the moment at all. We can only lose time, never hold on to it.

Scannell stresses the practical value (to the scholar) of being able to replay this illusion of time, the unfolding now forever recoverable, turning time present into history. But nevertheless the replaying of live is not live. It has lost its nature, and with that a great deal of its interest. The focus of these posts has been on sports – something of great interest to Scannell (who focusses on football – Heidegger loathed television but made an exception whenever the football was on) and to Marey, whose assistants made chronophotographic records of Olympic athletes at the Paris Games in 1900. Who wants to see archived sports films? Only the specialists. You don’t get repeated football matches. The millions who watched the Olympic Games live will be replaced by a few thousand who will bother to look up the dwindling number of online videos from the Games while they still remain on news sites. The moment is past. The story is over. We know who won.

The live recording, of a sports event or whatever, tries to persuade us that what it represents is still live, that it still matters. It never succeeds. Even if we don’t know who won, we may tell from changes in film or video quality that what we are seeing is a record from the past, or simply because it is no longer being shown in a live context. It is no longer what it thought it was; instead it is a reminder of lost time, of the irrecoverableness of the past.


The International Olympic Committee has this week launched The Olympic Channel, a combination of online live TV channel, video showcase and archive. Setting aside the TV channel, the site is a monument to dead video. It is a collection of short video packages that seek to encapsulate moment of past Olympic greatness, bound up with the usual messages about the spirit of the Games. It is hard to say who the audience would be for such fare, except maybe physical education coaches looking for something to inspire their charges. The majority of us don’t care, because we know who won, and we only watched when this footage was live because we did not know at that point who would win. The point of live is that it leave us in a state of anticipation, full of questions. The recording nullifies these.

Scannell asserts that writing technologies produce history in the present as the past, while audiovisual technologies record history in the making. The one shows the past receding away from us; the other shows the future as it became now. They view time from opposite directions. This is a beautiful observation, but I’m not sure that it stands up in reality. Our point of interest, our point of view, change when what is live becomes what was live. Of course we can apply our imaginations to reinvigorate the moment. We can forever watch Lutalo Muhammad with one second to go until glory, and try and identify that precise instant when hope and expectation died. Its contemplation turns a second into an infinity. But live cannot be recreated as live. We can imagine it as live, but it will be the idea of live. Our archives do not record the moment, but something that has changed because it has joined our archive. However much we may look at it for what it once was, the moment when the future became now is forever lost.



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2 thoughts on “Lost in an instant

  1. Wouldn;t have expected you to head into Heidegger. But your response, via Scannell, makes a strong case for seeing him as a useful prophet of the ‘live’ (pun intended). As ever, a really stimulating post.

    1. A little outside my comfort zone, certainly. I tried to write something more broadly on how Scannell interprets Heidegger though live television, and failed utterly. So I focussed on that which related to archiving, the mysteries of which never fail to intrigue me.

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