What distinguishes memory from imagination? Certainly our memories inform our imagination. When we imagine what might have been, in contrast to what was, we go beyond our memories to paint a picture of alternative states of affairs. That’s what happens to Ed Lindsay, a long time resident of a boarding house, who long ago was in love with Vinnie Broun, another resident. They planned to marry but never did. Now, prompted by an old radio, a 1935 console that he retrieved from storage, he remembers his promise-filled youth, and the sounds issued on the radio that he and Vinnie listened at the time. But he does more than remember. He imagines that he is hearing live broadcasts of Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra playing “Getting Sentimental Over You” and other radio shows that graced the airways in decades long past.
When Ed attempts to share the broadcasts with others, all there is is static. The radio only “works” when he’s alone. So is Ed making a mistake, or is he exhibiting a form of mental illness? In On Certainty Wittgenstein observes that we someone violates shared norms and background assumptions, we can’t explain their behavior in terms of making mistakes. Mistakes presuppose a shared framework. The shared framework for the folks Ed is trying to convince is one in which Tommy Dorsey is dead and live broadcasts of his music ceased long ago. Ed is not simply making a mistake. He’s way out there.
Another source of static between Ed and his fellow residents is the “new” medium of television. The episode opens with the residents glued to the TV. Ed erupts with a furious rebuttal of the medium. As he switches the channels, it doesn’t matter what’s on a little screen. The residents are mesmerized by all of it. It becomes clear only later that what Ed really objects to is the presentness of television, in contrast to radio. TV is just there, while radio requires the active participation of the listener’s imagination. Serling describes Ed’s preferred medium as “strange and wonderful time machine called a radio.” Of course, in episode, TV is the new technology, and radio is outdated. But Ed is on to something about the difference in the modalities of the media. Serling is using television to critique television, presaging our recognition that the medium may not be the message, but we ignore the relationship between different modes of the presentation of information and the different modes of cognition, at our peril.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, On Certainty (Harper Torchbooks, 19xx)