Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dark and getting darker

There are no easy answers to life’s questions. Maybe that’s why fewer and fewer people seem to care about searching for any. It’s much easier to follow sports, or invest in reality-based television. Your investment allows you to experience a common bond with thousands of other people and while it leads to groupthink, there is a certain comfort in conformity.

Concern about the dumbing down of the masses isn’t new, at least in America. Writers and thinkers have been conscious of this for decades, if not longer. One of the classic books on the subject, Richard Hofstadter’s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life spoke to these issues 40 years ago. Things haven’t gotten measurably better since Hofstadter. Others more recently, notably Morris Berman, have waxed eloquent about the ramifications of America’s functional illiteracy and our nation’s cultural decline.

As a consequence of letting others do our thinking for us, we’ve seen book reading fall out of favor (with all due respect to Harry Potter), political civility and discourse at all-time lows and the supply of social capital continue to decline. None of this bodes well for democracy and many of the institutions that exist to further it, here in the “homeland” (an Orwellian term if there ever was one) and abroad.

Consumin’ is what we do. When two buildings melted to the ground, our president sent us to the malls. As James Mitchell, cultural critic said, “There is barely an empty space in our culture not already carrying commercial messages." Nowhere is this more evident than the world of sports. While billboards and signage has always graced ballparks and other venues, now every pause and segue is brought to you by some corporate behemoth. George Steiner had it right when he said that we live in a “systematic suppression of silence.”

Back to Hofstadter, this is not new. However, we’ve taken a turn for the worse, in my opinion, as the intellectual is ridiculed and knowledge becomes suspect and something to scoff at. We now need everything spoon fed to us—our news, our entertainment and our politics.

Berman has a new book, a blog and if interested, here’s a review of Dark Ages, America: The Final Phase of Empire. From the review is the following paragraph that helps sum up what I see as pervasive in our culture--the tyranny of the individual.

The ethos of American individualism is Berman’s particular preoccupation. It has frontier roots but is also an effect (as well as a contributing cause) of the victory of automobiles and suburbanization over mass transit and European-style city planning. "The relentless American habit of choosing the individual solution over the collective one," Berman writes, underlies "the design of our cities, including the rise of a car culture, the growth of the suburbs, and the nature of our architecture, [which] has had an overwhelming impact on the life of the nation as a whole, reflecting back on all the issues discussed [in this book]: work, children, media, community, economy, technology, globalization, and, especially, US foreign policy. The physical arrangements of our lives mirror the spiritual ones."

In one of his comments on the blog, Berman mentions that he doubts any more than one percent of Americans know what a metaphor is and the inherent difficultly of living with that, as conversation becomes more and more of a challenge—unless of course you want to talk about sports.

In wrapping up this somewhat disjointed post—there’s some unresolved tension in the thoughts and ideas that Berman has me pondering and I’m trying to process, but I’m not sure what the resolution is at the moment and maybe there is none to be had.

I’m thinking back to some of the prior reading I’ve done from writers like Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul and others; I was struck by the following passage from an essay on Herbert Marcuse that I located at the website of Logos, a quarterly journal with some interesting topics pertaining to modern culture, politics and society at large.

The essay on Marcuse, written by Arnold Farr, is titled, “Democracy, Social Change and One-Dimensionality: Reviving Marcuse.” Farr is citing Marcuse and his essay, “Social Implications of Technology,” where Marcuse has this to say about technology:

Technology, as a mode of production, as the totality of instruments, devices and contrivances which characterize the machine age is thus at the same time a mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination.

Farr adds his commentary on Marcuse, utilizing the dialectic between the liberation that technology always promises and the oppression that often gets delivered, discussing why most Americans get so uptight when technology is criticized.

Also, with respect to technology, many people are given just enough of the benefits of the technological society that they are afraid of rebelling for fear that they may lose what they have. Even the poorest homes have a TV set.

Farr's commentary on Marcuse's critique of technology would be one that I’d be most comfortable with and concur that it is more accurate, citing the negative implications of technology and not granting it the status of savior of mankind that it most often gets credited as being; catalyst for consumption maybe.

Berman’s dismal assertion (while probably anecdotal) concerning awareness of metaphor is troubling.


weasel said...

I'm with that splendid late Chicago trotskite James T. Farrell on this:

"America is so vast that almost everything said about it is likely to be true, and the opposite is probably equally true."

We are apparently thicker, yet there are more college graduates than ever before (ahh, but are their degrees really any good?).

It is alleged we read less, but in absolute terms more books are sold per head of population than in 1900 (ahh, but are they all trashy dime novels?).

New technology is killing traditional language skills, yet more people write emails and even author blogs than used to write letters or aspire to have their journals published (but isn't it just bad spelling and emoticons?).

I bet we'd find in most cultures in all epochs that intellectualism has always been a minority pursuit and yet humanity has always managed to muddle through. Perhaps the problem is that the less-than-analytical have the vote? Surely you cannot be bemoaning the right of even the uneducated to avail themselves of the basic human right of universal sufferage? (WINK- just joshing, Jim).

What does appear to remain remarkably constant- across eras, cultures, and continents- is the tendency of folks to adopt the grumpy "its all gone to hell in a hand basket" attitude they decried in their parent's generation. I bet there were gaggles of elderly early homo sapiens shaking their heads and complaining about how the youngsters spent all their time with that wheel thing, when in their day they had relied on their feet...

Jim said...

I'm not familiar with Farrell--I'll have to look him up.

I'm honestly not trying to be "just another Luddite," tilting against technology, for the mere sake of being "grumpy."

Technology is inanimate and in that context, neither positive, nor negative. However, the reliance on technology to teach, inform and educate, IMHO, hasn't been a good thing.

The fact that more people are writing emails, blogging and publishing might be a good thing--I think statistically and gauging with other measures, a case can be made that we aren't better off than we were, but I guess it depends on the perception of the beholder.

Since I've been filling my "spare time" with some re-reading of one of my favorite writers (surprise), Neil Postman, I'll leave you with his quote, from an interview conducted in 1992. (subsititute "Iraq" for "Iran" and and "the Iraq War" for "hostage crisis") and see if he does a better job of illustrating some of my concerns.

The reckoning will come when we face the question of what kind of society can you have with an extremely ignorant public. Take an example. For over a year stories about Iran were broadcast during the hostage crisis but the public couldn't even answer simple questions such as where Iran is and what language Iranians speak. In a sense the reckoning has already come. According to some figures we have sixty million illiterates in America and in the last presidential election something under fifty percent of the eligible voters participated. This is a world wide scandal. No Western democracy has ever had such a poor showing in political elections. So there is evidence that television, and particularly the news, has led to a general dumbing down of the culture. And that is a kind of reckoning I think is very serious.
(we'll have to continue this over beer, possibly downeast?)

weasel said...

I think the decision not to vote may have more to do with the inante wisdom of the average voter who can't parse the difference between the liars and snake oil merchants both main parties offer up every four years. And also the fact that there are a lot of stupid people (I am itching to buy the book The Economist references in this column.

I don't disagree that there is a a great tide of ignorance sloshing around in our national touch tank; I just don't see how that makes this era any different from any other in human history.

People don't know where Iran or Iraq is on a map: dummies. Much like at the time of the great humanist revolution of Jefferson and crew in the 1770s, the majority of people thought the world was literally created in 6 days, and had grandparents who had or still actively believed in witchcraft.

It is all to easy and tempting to look back on the past- recent or ancient- as a golden time due to the distorting effect of who is writing the history. Our literature, reportage, and record keeping is by default the work of the literate and above average intelligent, so the unconcious bias of their intellectual class is going to shine through.

It is like the Oscars- studios and actors set great store and build careers on a win for some movie crafted with pathos and intelligence, while in the real world (and more importantly for the studio's coffers that pay for "good" films) the vast idiocracy spend $8 a throw to watch "Saw II".

Definite beer conversation, I agree.