A World of Diminished Sensation

I have been reading a journal by Rodney A Smolla entitled “The Life of the Mind and a Life of Meaning: Reflections of Fahrenheit 451.” In his paper, he remarks that “our world today is increasingly a world of diminished sensation.  We trade physical reality for virtual reality.”  He talks about how we are so connected to our technology that we see everything via our laptops, and we lose the physicality of books.  For example, we don’t go to the library like we used to–we forget the journey of the senses that takes place when we open a book, smell the paper, feel the texture of the pages.  We don’t have to make a trip to check out a book, or browse the library shelves for a title that catches our eye. 

I remember when I was a little girl in elementary school.  Every Friday afternoon we went to the school library where the Librarian would gather us at her feet.  We sat cross-legged in a semi-circle around her while she read us a book.  When we were older elementary kids, we took field trips to the public library.  We all signed up for library cards and learned how to find the books we wanted to read.  Then we were allowed to go get them and check them out.  I remember the smell of the library–and every library has the same smell.  Books smell a certain way.  There is a feeling in the air of a library, one of quiet and peace.  If you look around at the people reading in a library, they are all people visiting another place and time.  They are all on a mental vacation. 

Reading is the one of the most important of leisure activities.  We slow down to a disciplined pace, and our thoughts become directed by what we read.  We go along, still and relaxed, yet alive in our minds.  Our minds are moving, reaching, learning, experiencing, and feeling.  We find meaning in reading because reading connects us to the world.  This is what CS Lewis meant when he said that “we read to know we are not alone.”  Yet, this is exactly what Bradbury is warning us about in Fahrenheit 451.  Smolla says that “an overly virtual world will ultimately become sensorially deprived, thought depleted, and meaning impoverished.”  Without books to link our senses to our thoughts, we disconnect from the world, and loneliness follows. 

My husband still goes to the public library.  He spends time there wandering through the stacks and reading in a corner.  I once asked him why he didn’t just order the ebook and his answer was “it’s not the same.”  And he’s right.  It’s not.  It’s not the same at all. 

Dystopia: Depends on Who’s Idea of Dystopia?

I just read a journal article from the Michigan Law Review by American politician Bob Barr who wrote about Huxley’s Brave New World, and offered an intriguing point of view.  What qualifies as a frightening dystopian future for most of us, is not frightening for all of us.  There are those among us, government bureaucrats for instance, who might thrive within and enjoy such a system as the London of Huxley’s vision.  One of the common attributes of the citizens of the world in 2540 A.D.–or A.F. 632 (A.F.= After Ford)–is that they all work steadily to produce extremely average results on a happily consistent basis.  Mediocrity is the status quo in a society that champions unchanging stability–as is the case in Huxley’s future.  Therefore, while people “cursed” with creative or curious minds could not tolerate such a place as Huxley’s world, others who value sameness and balancing the books within social “control” would do just fine.   What is dystopian for one is not dystopian for another.

Theodor Adorno and “The Culture Industry”

I have just finished reading some of Adorno’s essays on mass culture.  The book The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture has an intro written by JM Bernstein who explains some of the more difficult concepts in Adorno’s essays.  He also mentions along the way that some people have found Adorno to be somewhat intellectually elitist in his thinking.  It is true that Adorno is extremely intellectual, and some might consider his writing unnecessarily obfuscated, but he makes a few points that defend a complex intellectualized approach to mass culture.

In his essay “Culture Industry Revisited”, he states that the culture industry plays a prominent, even dictatorial role in today’s society.  Therefore, it has the ability, because of its position, to ignore pertinent questions about its social responsibility–is it truthful, is it providing quality?  After “repressing” the questions posed, it accuses those who question it of being intellectual snobs.  Yet, the culture industry (movies, television, music, novels, etc) wishes to be taken seriously.  This is where Adorno suggests that intellectuality is required.  If the culture industry wishes to be taken as seriously as it claims, and as its role in the make-up of our society suggests it is, then it should make itself available to adversarial argument.  It should have to explain itself, and its critics should not feel intimidated to demand that it does so.  If the culture industry is not held accountable, then they become totalitarian, as Adorno warns in another essay “How to Look at Television”.

Popular culture isn’t just about television, it is also about movies, novels, music, fashion, fads, and common attitudes.  But television is generally in the homes of most people on a daily basis.  It has a more far-reaching influence than many other forms of media.  In essence, television programs tell society what is important and real.  A good example is the hit television show “CSI”.  In this show, the CSI’s solve crimes, arrest people, carry guns, and save the day.  Actually, in truth, CSI lab workers never leave the lab.  Field workers only collect evidence.  CSIs assess the evidence and report it to the investigators.  Some of these tests take weeks, even months to process.  And most of the tests shown on CSI don’t actually exist in real life.  However, this television show presents itself as realistic and trustworthy, even though the cases are fiction.

Television also tells society how to feel, and this is done very subtly.  Recently, I watched an American news program that investigated the case of Amanda Knox, who was arrested, tried, and convicted in the Italian courts–with her boyfriend and another man–of participating in the murder of her British room-mate while at university in Perugia, Italy.  From start to finish, the press around Amanda Knox has been tangled and thick with innuendo, popular opinion, and hearsay.  This girl lied, then falsely accused another man, then retracted, then lied some more, and basically acted like a guilty person.  The man she accused, however, told his story, stuck to it, and never wavered.  And he wasn’t afraid.  Later it was proved that he was exactly where he said he was at the time of the murder.  But American television produced a show that suggested the following: the lead investigator was incompetent, the crime scene investigators mishandled evidence, the court allowed hearsay into evidence, the Italian investigating team rushed to pronounce the case closed, and Amanda had to prove her innocence more than the courts had to prove her guilt.  By the end of the show, I felt like there had been a miscarriage of justice, until I realized that most of Western society had watched the trial. No doubt the Italian investigators were under extreme pressure to follow every lead carefully, yet the news program nearly convinced me that Amanda was wrongly accused.  As for Miss Knox’s guilt or innocence or appeal process, I have no opinion.  My point is that I found myself feeling precisely the way I was meant to feel.

Adorno claims that this persuasion happens consistently in television.  The public begins to believe, and before our eyes, stereotypes appear, like the wrongly accused innocent young girl stranded in a corrupt foreign country.  North American society begins to believe that justice is not possible anywhere else, or that no other country is as incorruptible as we are.  Another sad idea is that most of the people of North American society who are accused of a crime overseas are actually innocent.  When such a belief is prevalent, it is also automatic, and this affects society’s ability to recognize what is just.  This is only one example of the power of television to influence society.

From now on, after reading Adorno, I will watch television with different eyes.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (The Movie)

I just watched the movies “Hunger Games”, and “Hunger Games: Catching Fire”.  I must say that they were both beautifully filmed.  The sets were amazing, the costumes were very well done, and I think they nailed it with their choice of actors.  Donald Sutherland was his usual wonderful self, and perfect as the evil President Snow.  Stanley Tucci with a purple “do”…excellent.  Of course, it was sad to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, although he was very good, as he always was, and for people who haven’t read the book, they will have no idea about his character’s allegiances until the end.  Not even a hint.  It was very well done. 

Now that I have seen Jennifer Lawrence’s interpretation of the character of Katniss Everdeen, I found her version of this character much more likeable.  That said, I don’t think Katniss Everdeen is meant to be particularly likeable in the first place.  She will never win Miss Congeniality, and I think that’s the point.  She’s a teenaged girl produced by a miserably impoverished community, and accustomed to hunger, desperation, and filth.  She’s tough, uncompromising, not given to girlish dreams, and a survivor.  Like she says to Haymitch, “Nice people don’t win the games.” She knows who she is, and she knows she’s not a very nice person–but she is a good person.  Jennifer Lawrence helps soften the character just enough so that audiences don’t cut themselves on her edges. 

The story in movie version is as chilling as in the book.  In “Catching Fire’, the audience begins to understand that the people of the Capital tread the same thin ice as the people in the Districts–they just have nicer clothes.  No one is safe from the whims of President Snow.  Very much like a Roman Caesar, he will ruthlessly eliminate anyone who poses a threat to his power, from “slave” to “Senator”. And the Tributes are not unlike the gladiators in the coliseum.  The 75 years since the war in Panem is like the Pax Romana. During the Pax Romana, the Romans built paved roads throughout the empire with hotels every 25 miles–a day’s journey–and tourism was born.  The wealthy Romans traveled in style with their entire households, staying away for sometimes 5 years at a time.  The Egyptians sold them miniatures of the pyramids–and so travel souvenirs were invented.  The Roman empire was a wonderful place to live–if you were a rich Roman who had not in any way pissed off Caesar.  However, during this time they were also feeding Christians to lions, crucifying criminals, and enjoying the spectacle of blood sports.  They were a strange contradiction–so civilized and so barbaric–like the Capital.  Very interesting that Collins chose to pattern the Panem Capital after the Roman Empire.  It’s been done and redone, but in the “Hunger Games”, it doesn’t feel old.  

Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”

The sixth in the series of novels I am reading on Dystopian futures.

This book envisions a future where all books, except comics and instructional manuals, are banned.  Found books are burned, and if they are discovered in a home, that home is burned with the books.  What is most interesting, is that the banning of books in Bradbury’s universe is not the result of an evil government out to control the thoughts of people, but the result of people turning from the written word to the poor substitute of mass media.  It was a gradual thing, so gradual that the scholars of the world didn’t speak out until it was too late.  Then came the “Firemen” who burned instead of extinguishing.  The remaining books were hidden away by a few people who still remembered why books are valuable.  These people, when the war came and destroyed the cities, had memorized the words of Shakespeare, Milton, Locke, Lincoln, Ghandi, and Christ, to name a few–and became these books.

The confused and terrified antihero of the book is a Fireman named Guy Montag.  He is changed over several days by a teenaged neighbor girl who loves flowers and pretty words, and makes him realize in a moment that he has no love in his life and he is miserably unhappy.  When he steals a book from a house he burns, his change becomes permanent, and he can’t go back to burning.  He actually reads the book, and Bradbury captures Montag’s inability to actually think critically.  He can’t keep his mind still.  He doesn’t know how to concentrate on what he is reading.  He’s all over the place.  And this is something that I considered as Montag read–with all his stunted thoughts, dropped ideas, and lost direction.  Of course.  Because we learn to learn.  Learning to read is one thing.  Comprehension, reason, digesting a book, pulling meaning from it and knowing how it applies to the world, that is something else entirely.  Montag could read certainly.  He just couldn’t comprehend what he was reading.  But that is how everyone was in his world–Montag wasn’t a moron.  He was just intellectually empty.

Bradbury’s world is bizarre.  What would the world look like without books?  It’s a strange place where all the knowledge that has been passed down through the generations of humanity has been lost, and all that remains of the genius of Man is the art of war and his knowledge of how to build weapons of mass destruction… He has since burned with fire “the better angels of his nature.”  So nothing matters any more other than work, sports, and television–namely interactive soap operas.  Today, Bradbury would have called it “reality television”.  However, so-called Reality TV came after he wrote his book–a book that, when looking out at our culture today, is disturbingly prophetic.

What is most disturbing is that it was no secret that the war was coming.  Armies were organized and sent to war.  Fighter planes flew over the skies.  Everybody saw, but nobody noticed.  No one cared past their wall-sized televisions what was going on in the world–their televisions, while keeping them informed, also removed them from the reality of their dire situation.  The truth of their imminent destruction could not actualize inside them because they had no intellectual depth, and no connection to the real world–out there.  So the bombs came and blew them all to kingdom come and they didn’t even try to save themselves.  They didn’t understand the difference between fact and fiction.

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