Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Humanities and Mass Media

“Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.” —George Orwell, 1984

For at least a decade now, numerous humanists have decried the “crisis in the humanities.” To many people, the idea of a “crisis in the humanities” seems counter-intuitive. The entertainment industry earns greater profits and has a wider reach than perhaps ever before. How can there be a crisis?

But quantity, as we all know, is no reflection of quality. I can fill up on potato chips, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve had a complete meal. On a life-long diet only of potato chips, I’d become bloated and obese, but at the same time my body would be starving for many essential nutrients. In a sense, our mass media-dominated culture is itself on a diet of potato chips: temporarily sated, but not fed in any real way.

I’ll use myself as an example. I grew up on rock and roll music. One of my earliest memories is the cover of my brother’s Meet the Beatles album (I must have been about two). The sound of an electric guitar still gets my heart racing. But for almost a decade now, I’ve pretty much abandoned rock and roll music. Here’s why: rock and roll speaks to the desires and anxieties of youth. It has no application to my life now. Rock and roll all night? I’m 43-years old, married, with a 6-year old daughter. I’m asleep by 10:15pm. And party every day? I have a satisfying day job and responsibilities.

What am I supposed to get out of rock and roll anymore? What is a repeatedly divorced twenty-something going to tell me—who have been happily married for fifteen years—about love? What insights will I gain from a group of teenagers in the latest “boy band” about sex? They probably don’t even know what a clitoris is!

What I’ve said about rock songs can just as easily be applied to most mass media forms. I love spectacle as much as the next person, but a blockbuster about giant robots saving the planet has no relevance for my life. As George Lucas was completing his second Star Wars trilogy, he explained that he wanted to explain the origins of evil, of how Darth Vader became Darth Vader. The only lesson I learned was not to trust a Sith—ok, I can do that, but it’s not a message I can readily put to use. Page-turners are a good way to pass the time, but I already know that criminals deserve to be caught and punished. All these types of mass media are potato chips, which are fine now and then, but my soul needs a steak. I know I’m not alone in that hunger, either.

I began this essay with a quotation from George Orwell’s distopia 1984. In his novel, the totalitarian system deliberately reduces the number of words in order to eliminate the possibility of freethinking. In our mass media-saturated society, we are living an analogous situation. The number of words hasn’t gone down, but the number of authentic narratives has. The common references we can make to astute observations about people, society, the world—ourselves—are disappearing. We can pass the time watching computer graphics and hearing electronic sounds, but in the end they mean nothing. Human beings need meaning.

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