by Michael DeLang
For decades he had acted in the belief that his intellect and sensibility led him to reject a world whose products were unbearable to either intellect or sensibility, but were always available to criticism by the same. But now... he was forced to concede that all his clear thinking and stubborn adherence to the principles of 'sober ratiocination' counted for nothing, since as long as this town, which he took to be representative of the world, persisted in maintaining its lethal reality, that earthy muddy smell he found such a particularly terrible trial would persist in emanating from it. It was no use struggling; he had to understand that his customary mode of wit was of no help to him here, for the phrases he thought of failed abysmally to establish his proud superiority over the world; the meaning of words had faded like the light in a run?down flashlight; the objects words might have referred to crumbled under the weight of the fifty or so years that had passed and given way to the unlikely trappings of a ... stage?set in the face of which every sober word and thought confusingly lost its meaning... In an empire that was prepared to sweep away... not ignorance or opposition but whatever did not fit,...he had nothing to do... He had lost all interest in what was happening out here, in what calamity would follow the tide of rubbish, in fact he had lost interest in everything except how someone that had blundered into the arena might seek safer soil 'before the performance was over', how he might disappear like 'a gentle melody in the midst of cacophony' and be hidden away indoors, secreted where nobody could find him; and this thought kept nagging away like some faint persistent recollection that at least one figure representative of him -- 'some strangled, orphaned vaguely poetic sensibility' had, once upon a time, really, quite physically existed.
—Laszlo Krasznahorkai, The Melancholy of Resistance
(Swans - October 24, 2005) Several years ago, I sharply cut down on the time I was spending gazing at the television set. It was due to no specific conscious plan or objective. I was just finding myself with less time for it and a declining level of interest. During this time of limited viewing, I must have seen something that disgusted me so much that I just simply shut it off for the last time, convinced that if there were anything of any value at all being broadcast, it was just too insignificant for me to bother searching out. Then, last fall while I was visiting some friends in Phoenix who were kind enough to put me up during my stay, I was re-exposed to television news broadcasts. It was my hosts' daily ritual to sit with a cup of coffee before the TV and gather in the morning news before heading off to their jobs. On returning home from work in the early evening, the TV again was turned on to catch up on any updates pertaining to roughly the same stories to which they were treated in the morning. Usually a tolerant, easy?going, go with the flow kind of a guy, I was a little surprised to find myself unable to even stay in the room during these television sessions, I had to remove myself to another part of the house until we got together for dinner. What drove me away wasn't as simple as the offense one sometimes takes with a particularly obnoxious commercial which prompts a change of channels or the turning off of a car radio. There was something more profoundly disturbing in the experience; a more jarring assault on my consciousness, opening a subtle, but real, rift in the fabric of my perception and understanding. It was sufficiently unsettling to me that I felt compelled to try to analyze the experience and its underpinnings in an attempt to better understand where it had come from and what it might mean. In the course of my investigation and analysis I began to develop the sketch of a theory that I believe to be relevant to the apparent disconnect I would sense whenever I found myself exposed to broadcast news. As part of my investigation and ongoing experiment, I have now also turned off my radio, no longer read newspapers or magazines, and have abstained from visiting web sites whose content is related to current events. My wife tells me that the position I'm taking is unnecessarily extreme. But when she says that I've thrown out the baby with the bathwater, I'm only reminded of the classic line from Lynch's cult nightmare, Eraserhead, "If it even is a baby, Mother."
Towards the beginning of our history as social beings, men and women conducted their lives according to information about the space around them as acquired through the medium of their own senses. Some actions may have been influenced by the power of mythology and superstition, but for the most part they lived in a finite, definable space and reacted to what they saw, heard, smelled, and felt within that space. It was a small space, but they knew it well and their means of gathering information about it proved reliably sufficient for survival. As bolder members of the tribe occasionally wandered far beyond the small space inhabited by the tribe and returned with stories of their travels and experiences of unfamiliar things, men received their first dose of mediated information. These tales may have sparked a curiosity regarding a world beyond the village, but likely would have had little other impact on how men interacted with or understood the realities of the space they occupied. Much of this mediated information brought back by travelers may well have also been met with a cautious measure of skepticism. But that initial spark of curiosity regarding the beyond spurred further travel and exploration, and, in time, as tales overlapped and corroborated other received information gleaned from returned travelers, we began to adopt a point of view that recognized and accepted the existence and reality of a world greater than that we inhabited. Goods began to be exchanged, trade routes were established, and the greater world began to have a practical and tangible impact on the everyday lives of even those who chose to stay at home. Still, our behaviors and actions continued to be governed largely by perceptions connected to our provincial surroundings. Centuries later, the emergence of the telegraph and mass distributed newspapers greatly increased both the, volume and the currency of our access to mediated information about the larger world. The occasional gap or discrepancy that arose between the mediated data and that of direct experience could be, and was, bridged by reason, and the empirically derived perspective continued to hold sway. It proved to be a sensible balance which served us tolerably well for a number of decades preceding the advent of the electronic age.
It was the dawning of the broadcast era, I believe, which upset this balance, and ushered us into what Huxley termed a "brave new world." Radio quickly became a mesmerizing force easily accessible to the general population. Television was supremely magical. The dispatches we received each day from these enchanted sources shimmered with an immediacy and assumed authority that was difficult to resist. The machinery that served us the news took on a cloak of invisibility. Any sense of the process of mediation was lost as the dynamic shifted, tipping away from the influence of reason and experience in favor of an unquestioning acceptance of the received news. Instead of trying to rationally bridge the gaps between direct experience and the mediated "facts," our cognitive faculties began to adapt to accommodate the blind faith we'd developed in our new electronic sources. The very way in which we process the information we receive gradually evolved to eliminate the gaps by simply shutting down our response to any empirical evidence that failed to fit comfortably into the provided tableau. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water being raised to boiling one degree at a time, we failed to note that critical moment when we finally surrendered our powers of observation and reason, shifting our allegiance to a new and fully mediated world. And it wasn't long before the purveyors of our stream of information began to recognize the influence they had acquired over our behavior and thinking, and moved to realize the potential profits and power of their craft. More care was taken with the "packaging" of our news. Issues of accuracy and relevancy became secondary to the primary job of holding our attention long enough to sell the sponsor's product. Concurrent with these changes, our cognitive processes continued to mutate and adapt to accommodate the ever?widening gaps.
Because a majority of the key agents involved in providing our daily stream of mediated information, (editors, copy writers, program directors, broadcast producers, etc.) developed their skills in an already thriving electronic environment, fully indoctrinated, nearly from birth, in their allegiance to the world of packaged illusion, the levels of distortion and disconnect are now growing exponentially. It seems we have created a true artificial intelligence, continually mutating according to an internal algorithm, and feeding on its own impetus, drawing its strength from our collective inability to resist its hypnotic allure. It's a form of mind control, to be sure. But no one is any longer manning the controls. Consequently, we find ourselves daily awash in an amniotic sea of unquestioned and heavily mediated information, riding a relentless tide which is carrying us further and further from the shores on which our human sensibilities once held root and blossomed with meaningful connection.
Tens of thousands of people will, each day and for years to come, be forced to live the daily reality of the loss and devastation visited on them by the 2005 hurricane season. For the rest of us, the disaster ends whenever as the networks conclude that the story has lost its punch, and decide that it's time to hurry us along to the next spectacle or crisis. Or, if our own volition comes into play first, when the thumb lands on the channel button of the remote. I'm not saying that we have, as individuals, lost the capacity to register and act on feelings of genuine compassion. It's just that, as a society, we have become far too accustomed to the conveniences offered by the optional version.
Half A Million Iraqi Children Starve To Death In Wake Of Western Sanctions, click, Semen Stain On Lewinsky Garment Seals White House Scandal, click, America Chooses Character Over Competence; Bush Wins Close Election, click, Massive Vote Fraud Uncovered In Florida; Dems Shrug And Slink Away To Begin Raising Funds For Next Campaign, click, US Economy Circles The Drain; Bush Signs Over Tax Gift To Wealthy, click, Terrorist Hijackers Attack WTC And Pentagon, Thousands Perish, click, Patriots Stun Rams In Most Exciting Super Bowl Ever, click, Bill Of Rights Scrapped By Patriot Act For Security; Mission Accomplished, click, Some Professional Athletes May Use Performance Enhancing Drugs, click, Weapons Of Mass Destruction; Saddam Must Go, Says Bush, click, Michael Jackson Arrested On Molestation Charges, click, Facts Confirm WMD Evidence To Be Fabricated, click, Jury Acquits Michael, click, Trade Agreements And Tax Cuts Push American Worker Into Poverty, click, Saddarn Hussein Captured, click, Bush Wins Re?Election In Closest Vote Ever, click, Massive Election Fraud Confirmed In Ohio; Dems Shrug And Slink Away To Begin Raising Funds For Next Campaign, click, Halliburton Receives Contract To Construct Camps And Ovens For War Protesters And Other Recalcitrant Abettors Of Terrorism, click, Ghost Of Lacey Weds Ghost Of Elvis, Gives Birth To Tiny Bearded Nostradamus. Click, click, click, click, click.
BLOW UP YOUR TELEVISION. Rip out your cables and satellite dishes and smash your radio. Shovel all of your newspapers and magazines into the pile, douse generously with kerosene, and drop a match on the whole mess. When the fire is plenty hot, toss your desktop computer atop the flames. Following the conflagration, when all of the ashes, rubble, and mental debris have been swept away, a solitary relevant question will remain. Where from here? Which way to turn? On what moral or intellectual framework will you hang the conduct of your remaining days once you have come to understand that everything you know is wrong? As for myself, I'm bugling retreat. I've engaged in a complete withdrawal from the marketplace of political and social exchange, retiring to an unfurnished cave whose reduced dimensions are better suited to my new perspective. Many in the ranks of activism and social consciousness will rush to decry my action as a coward's exit. While I'd not deny that there may well exist an element of underlying truth in support of that characterization, I must respond by stating, without equivocation, that after careful consideration, I've made my choice acting on the absolute conviction that any other path I might choose would only carry me on a fool's errand anyhow. In further pursuit of the reclamation of my humanity, I have enrolled in a rehabilitation program of my own design. In keeping with Thoreau's admonition to simplify, I've pared down the regimen to three basic precepts, or steps. First, to act only on information gathered directly through the agency of my own five senses. Next, to respect my neighbor always. And finally, whenever it should occur that his need happens to coincide with my ability, to help him with his load.
[Ed. In the interest of honest disclosure, Michael DeLang has not yet been able to shake his addiction to either Swans Commentary or Harper's Magazine.]