Thursday, October 14, 2010

Retribution for a World Lost in Screens

From TruthDig via
AlterNet, my favorite journalist with a Master of Divinity from Harvard, Chris Hedges, lets loose on our decadent culture of illusion:

A print-based culture, as writer Neil Postman pointed out, demands rationality. The sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the “analytic management of knowledge.” But our brave new world of images dispenses with these attributes because the images do not require them to be understood. Communication in the image-based culture is not about knowledge. It is about the corporate manipulation of emotions, something logic, order, nuance and context protect us against. Thinking, in short, is forbidden. Entertainment and spectacle have become the aim of all human endeavors, including politics, which is how Stephen Colbert, playing his television character, can be permitted to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. Campaigns are built around the manufactured personal narratives of candidates, who function as political celebrities, rather than policies or ideas. News reports have become soap operas and mini-dramas revolving around the latest celebrity scandal.

Colleges and universities, which view students as customers and suck obscene tuition payments and loans out of them with the tantalizing promise of high-paying corporate jobs, have transformed themselves into resorts and theme parks. In this new system of education almost no one fails. Students become “brothers” or “sisters” in the atavistic, tribal embrace of eating clubs, fraternities or sororities. School spirit and school branding is paramount. Campus security keeps these isolated enclaves of privilege secure. And 90,000-seat football stadiums, along with their millionaire coaches, dominate the campus. It is moral leprosy.

The role of knowledge and art, as the ancient Greeks understood, is to create
ekstasis, which means standing outside one’s self to give our individual life and struggle meaning and perspective. The role of art and scholarship is to transform us as individuals, not entertain us as a group. It is to nurture this capacity for understanding and empathy. Art and scholarship allow us to see the underlying structures and assumptions used to manipulate and control us. And this is why art, like intellectual endeavor, is feared by the corporate elite as subversive. This is why corporations have used their money to deform universities into vocational schools that spit out blinkered and illiterate systems managers. This is why the humanities are withering away.


This might as well be part three for me. On Monday, I wrote about how the American Empire is well into its final days, even though belief in that empire lags decades behind the depressing reality. On Tuesday, I wrote about how the Republicans, all in lockstep, deny the well established reality of global warming, and ended the post by connecting this phenomenon with an overall non-partisan American denial of reality in general, fueled by the seductive and all encompassing media-created "reality" of illusion, in which we are all drowning.

And today, I've stumbled upon this really nice Chris Hedges essay that really fleshes out what's going on with this heads-in-the-ground mass behavior: in short, television, and other media, are destroying us, and there is very likely no way to prevent it.

I've become increasingly depressed over the last sixteen years since I earned my bachelor's degree in the study of radio, television, and film, and for the longest time I wasn't sure why. In the last few years it's all been sort of crystallizing for me. Because of my study of RTF, I can see the puppet strings, the Great Oz behind the curtain working his arcane machinery in order to create his big green and frightening face, the capitalist systems of exploitation deeply embedded in the consumer products known as music, TV, movies, sports, and news. I can see how the actual functioning of the media, the technology itself, the motives of owners and operators, affect the people to whom these media products are exposed, how these seemingly ambiguous morality tales affect our priorities and thinking.

For many years I could only feel it, just an unpleasant nagging at the back of my neck. Now I see it. Mass media is a horrifying wrong turn for our culture. It has become a narcotic. And we're all hooked. It manages and controls how we think. It gives us good vibes all the time. It makes us ignore the physical reality that is now starting to nibble at our feet. Soon physical reality will swallow us whole.

This is especially sad for me. I mean, it's just awful that mass media have essentially replaced genuine culture and intellectual life in this country, but long ago I chose mass media as a career. Movies and television made me want to be an actor, made me want to study and understand these media. Well, now I'm an actor, but I'm disgusted by what the media does with actors. I understand movies and television, pop music, too, better than I could have ever imagined when I was twenty one. And I'm horrified.

So instead, I wait tables and think every now and then about getting serious with auditioning. But why bother? It's the same thing with voting and participating in civic life. Why bother? It's all so meaningless. Actually, it's worse than meaningless. When an actor is successful in film and television, he's heavily contributing to this eradication of civilization. When you vote and participate in civic life, you're blessing an unjust and irrational system of governance.

Who would have imagined that being an American would turn out to be so grey and dismal?