Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"If someone tells you this is difficult, it is class propaganda by the enemy!"

We are obsessed by being entertained. If media can hold your attention, if they can entertain, then you can be sold products through advertising. If you like playing games on the internet, you can be sold services, too, or "apps." Entertainment, neither in form or content, transgresses our expectations. If it is shocking, it is only by intensifying our expectation: sport becomes more violent, boxing gives way to cage fighting.  

We might expect this of sport and soap operas, but we all know that it is serious topics that perform as entertainment, too. The television news is like this: explosions, shootings -- all a drama. I remember my uncle telling me as a child about the coverage of the 1st Iraq war, "We all watched those planes dropping bombs onto buildings, and I thought, 'those are apartment buildings, people live there.'" All of this in support of toothpaste commercials and that new Fiat (there's a dealership in Berkeley now).

These are the types of media I grew up with, which exist as pure enjoyment, that are unchallenging, whose truths are all self-contained, a fantasy world you enter into, that do not tell you anything about yourself that you do not already know.  And more, we select media because we know that it will not challenge us. 

This what Roland Barthes called "readerly" texts, ones that confirm our prejudices and embody our desires. But he described a second category, the "writerly" text, one that can be transgressive and truly shocking, that can attack our beliefs and make us uncomfortable, that can rend the fabric of our settled and self-satisfied perceptions of reality and through this opening allow us to attain new truths and understanding.  This is the ultimate goal of great art, but we don't like it, because it interrupts our gluttonous self-amusement.  

Well educated people are subtly aware of this, and it causes them to be ashamed of themselves and their indolent minds and lack of moral courage.
So we have invented new forms of entertainment that will deal with this dilemma, this crisis of conscience caused by these forms with their appearance of "writerly" content.  One example is the provocations of contemporary art: sharks in embalming fluid, the photographs of Robert Maplethorpe, etc.  The late Robert Hughes called these, "...not a critique of decadence, they are merely decadent."

And this takes another subtler form, to another medium,  radio, and for that we must come to NPR.  The hosts on public radio not only play to their audiences desire to be merely entertained, they are in essence the internal voice of the passive listener. Slavoj Zizek says that canned laughter in television does not tell you when to laugh, it laughs for you. In this way reports about Iraq give way naturally to discussions of the complications of providing your dog or cat with health insurance, or an elk in Yosemite that has its own blog. Indeed Terri Gross listens for you, and asks inane questions on your behalf.  To some aging protest singer she will yawn, "I mean, um, 
for you, was that time, like a good thing or a bad thing?" 

These serious entertainments, form subverting content, function to suppress discourse in our society. The excuse is, of course, that real discourse is too difficult. And so I will end where I began:

"If someone tells you this is difficult, it is class propaganda by the enemy!"

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