"The state of affairs, which indeed is equaled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture; its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed; there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say. "
-Hannah Arendt, "Mass Culture and Mass Media"
I recently completed work on a book entitled Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited, to be published by Peter Lang. And as the title implies, the book takes up the arguments made by Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published nearly three decades ago, and considers them in light of the contemporary media environment, and the kind of culture that it has given rise to. I bring this up because the passage from Hannah Arendt's essay, "Mass Culture and Mass Media," is a quote that I first read in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Interestingly, Postman used it not in his chapter on education, but in one focusing on religion, one that placed particular emphasis on the phenomenon of televangelism that exploded into prominence back in the eighties. To put the quote into the context that Postman had earlier placed it in, he prefaced the passage with the following:
There is a final argument that whatever criticisms may be made of televised religion, there remains the inescapable fact that it attracts viewers by the millions. This would appear to be the meaning of the statements, quoted earlier by Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, that there is a need for it among the multitude. To which the best reply I know was made by Hannah Arendt, who, in reflecting on the products of mass culture, wrote:
And this is where Arendt's quote appears, after which Postman provides the following commentary:
If we substitute the word "religion" for Hamlet, and the phrase "great religious traditions" for "great authors of the past," this question may stand as the decisive critique of televised religion. There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, by doing so, do we destroy it as an "authentic object of culture"? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?
In returning to Postman's critique of the age of television, I decided to use this same quote in my own book, noting how Postman had used it earlier, but this time placing it in a chapter on education. In particular, I brought it up following a brief discussion of the latest fad in higher education, massive open online courses, abbreviated as MOOCs.
A MOOC can contain as many as 100,000 students, which raises the question of, in what sense is a MOOC a course, and in what sense is the instructor actually teaching? It is perhaps revealing that the acronym MOOC is a new variation on other terms associated with new media, such as MMO, which stands for massive multiplayer online (used to describe certain types of games), and the more specific MMORPG, which stands for massive multiplayer online role-playing game. These terms are in turn derived from older ones such as MUD, multi-user dungeon, and MUSH, multi-user shared hallucination, and also MOO, multi-user dungeon, object oriented. In other words, the primary connotation is with gaming, not education. Holding this genealogy aside, it is clear that offering MOOCs is presently seen as a means to lend prestige to universities, and they may well be a means to bring education to masses of people who could not otherwise afford a college course, and also to individuals who are not interested in pursuing traditional forms of education, but then again, there is nothing new about the phenomenon of the autodidact, which was made possible by the spread of literacy and easy availability of books. There is no question that much can be learned from reading books, or listening to lectures via iTunes, or watching presentations on YouTube, but is that what we mean by education? By teaching?
Regarding Arendt's comments on the dangers of mass education, we might look to the preferences of the most affluent members of our society? What do people with the means to afford any type of education available tend to choose for their children, and for themselves? The answer, of course, is traditional classrooms with very favorable teacher-student ratios, if not private, one-on-one tutoring (the same is true for children with special needs, such as autism). There should be no question as to what constitutes the best form of education, and it may be that we do not have the resources to provide it, but still we can ask whether money should be spent on equipping classrooms with the latest in educational technology, when the same limited resources could be used to hire more teachers? It is a question of judgment, of the ability to decide on priorities based on objective assessment, rather than automatically jumping on the new technology bandwagon time and time again.
The broader question that concerns both Arendt and Postman is whether serious discourse, be it educational, religious, or political, can survive the imperative to make everything as entertaining as possible. For Arendt, this was a feature of mass media and their content, mass culture. Postman argues that of the mass media, print media retains a measure of seriousness, insofar as the written word is a relatively abstract form of communication, one that provides some degree of objective distance from its subject matter, and that requires relatively coherent forms of organization. Television, on the other hand, is an image-centered medium that places a premium on attracting and keeping audiences, not to mention the fact that of all the mass media, it is the most massive. The bias of the television medium is towards showing, rather than telling, towards displaying exciting visuals, and therefore towards entertaining content. Of course, it's possible to run counter to the medium's bias, in which case you get something like C-SPAN, whose audience is miniscule.
The expansion of television via cable and satellite has given us better quality entertainment, via the original series appearing on HBO, Showtime, Starz, and AMC, but the same is not true about the quality of journalism. Cable news on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX does not provide much in the way of in-depth reporting or thoughtful analysis. Rather, what we get is confrontation and conflict, which of course is dramatic, and above all entertaining, but contributes little to the democratic political process. Consider that at the time of the founding of the American republic, the freedom to express opinions via speech and press was associated with the free marketplace of ideas, that is, with the understanding that different views can be subject to relatively objective evaluation, different descriptions can be examined in order to determine which one best matches with reality, different proposals can be analyzed in order to determine which one might be the best course of action. The exchange of opinions was intended to open up discussion, and eventually lead to some form of resolution. Today, as can be seen best on cable news networks, when pundits express opinions, it's to close down dialogue, the priority being to score points, to have the last word if possible, and at minimum to get across a carefully prepared message, rather than to listen to what the other person has to say, and find common ground. And this is reflected in Congress, as our elected representatives are unwilling to talk to each other, work with each other, negotiate settlements, and actually be productive as legislators.
Once upon a time, the CBS network news anchor Walter Cronkite was dubbed "the most trusted man in American." And while his version of the news conformed to the biases of the television medium, still he tried to engage in serious journalism as much as he was able to within those constraints. Today, we would be hard put to identify anyone as our most trusted source of information, certainly none of the network news anchors would qualify, but if anyone deserves the title, at least for a large segment of American society, it would be Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. And while there is something to be said for the kind of critique that he and his compatriot Stephen Colbert provide, what they provide us with, after all, are comedy programs, and at best we can say that they do not pretend to be providing anything other than entertainment. But we are left with the question, when so many Americans get their news from late night comedians, does that mean that journalism has become a joke?
Cable television has also given us specialized educational programming via the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel, and while this has provided an avenue for the dissemination of documentaries, audiences are especially drawn to programs such as Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, Moonshiners, Ancient Aliens, UFO Files, and The Nostradamus Effect. On the Animal Planet channel, two specials entitled Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence, broadcast in 2012 and 2013 respectively, gave the cable outlet its highest ratings in its seventeen-year history. These fake documentaries were assumed to be real by many viewers, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue a statement stating that mermaids do not actually exist. And it is almost to easy to mention that The Learning Channel, aka TLC, has achieved its highest ratings by turning to reality programs, such as Toddlers & Tiaras, and its notorious spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Many more examples come to mind, but it is also worth asking whether Facebook status updates and tweets on Twitter provide any kind of alternative to serious, reasoned discourse? In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman wrote, "As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'" Does the constant barrage of stimuli that we receive today via new media, and the electronic media in general, make it easier or harder for us to think, and to think about thinking, as Arendt would have us do? Huxley's final words in Brave New World Revisited are worth recalling:
Meanwhile, there is still some freedom left in the world. Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom. But some of us still believe that, without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them. (1958, pp. 122-123)
It's not that distractions and entertainment are inherently evil, or enslaving, but what Huxley, Postman, and Arendt all argue for is the need for placing limits on our amusements, maintaining a separation between contexts, based on what content is most appropriate. Or as was so famously expressed in Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." The problem is that now the time is always 24/7/365, and the boundaries between contexts dissolve within the electronic media environment. Without a context, there is no balance, the key ecological value that relates to the survival, and sustainability of any given culture. For Postman, whose emphasis was on the prospects for democratic culture, we have become a culture dangerously out of balance. For Arendt, in "Mass Culture and Mass Media," the emphasis was somewhat different, but the conclusion quite similar, as can be seen in her final comments:
An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; this durability is the very opposite of its functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The "thingness" of an object appears in its shape and appearance, the proper criterion of which is beauty. If we wanted to judge an object by its use value alone, and not also by its appearance… we would first have to pluck out our eyes. Thus, the functionalization of the world which occurs in both society and mass society deprives the world of culture as well as beauty. Culture can be safe only with those who love the world for its own sake, who know that without the beauty of man-made, worldly things which we call works of art, without the radiant glory in which potential imperishability is made manifest to the world and in the world, all human life would be futile and no greatness could endure.
Our constant stream of technological innovation continues to contribute to the functionalization of the world, and the dominance of what Jacques Ellul called "la technique," the drive toward efficiency as the only value that can be effectively invoked in the kind of society that Postman termed a technopoly, a society in which culture is completed dominated by this technological imperative. The futility of human life that Arendt warns us about is masked by our never-ending parade of distractions and amusements; the substitution of the trivial for greatness is disguised by the quality and quantity of our entertainment. We experience the extremes of the hyperrational and the hyperreal, both of which focus our attention on the ephemeral, rather than the eternal that Arendt upholds. She argues for the importance of loving the world for its own sake, which requires us to be truly ecological in our orientation, balanced in our approach, clear and true in our minds and our hearts. Is there any question that this is what is desperately needed today? Is there any question that this is what seems to elude us time and time again, as all of our innovations carry us further and further away from the human lifeworld?
Ronald Dworkin died yesterday, Thursday. He was 81.
For much of my early career as someone engaged in the question of justice, Ronald Dworkin was one of my imaginary antagonists. Reading Dworkin was eternally frustrating. I was consumed with the inevitable temptation to take on Dworkin’s unwavering apologies for legal power. Dworkin was the great defender of the morality of the state, an idea that I had a hard time accepting. He was an advocate for legitimacy of legal rule, which often seemed ungrounded and illegitimate. Above all, his magnum opus, Law's Empire, is a celebration of the imperial grandeur of law, when law often seemed to my youthful and often angry eye to be rather the embodiment of power, interest, and money.
For Dworkin, ‘we’—lawyers, judges, and philosophers of Law’s Empire—are engaged in the utopian project of purifying law. And law, in turn, purifies us. In being “subjects of law’s empire, liegemen to its methods and ideals,” we bridle our action and reasoning with the constraints of legal thinking. What law requires, above all, is that our actions be made consistent with the foundational moral principles embodied in and by the community. Interpreted correctly—that is, observing the integrity of the moral world—law leads to decisions that enrich a “narrative story” of who we are. It is a story that, for Dworkin, makes our practices and institutions “the best they can be.”
Law in Dworkin’s writing embodies a “flourishing legal system” and carries with itself the possibility of securing the utopian and political ideals of fairness, justice, and procedural due process. Lawyers, judges, and especially legal philosophers, are the people responsible for dreaming utopian dreams—dreams “already latent in the present law”—and working to bring about those dreams through law and the legal system. Law, therefore, cannot simply be conventional and self-referential; it must hold within it the promise for progressive societal change. Left, utopian politics, Dworkin states, is law. Or, in other words, law is the center of all political and ethical progress in modern civilized states.
It is not hard to point out inconsistencies and tensions in Dworkin’s philo-legalism. Dworkin’s many critics reveled in pointing to law’s promises of equality broken and its ideal of justice contradicted. The law does not always act for good. But that means that those who would defend law’s empire have a choice. They can defend the law pragmatically and politically—arguing that law is simply a tool in the larger political struggle for justice. Or they can seek to weave the entirety of the law—good and bad—into an overarching moral universe—imagining law as an ideal that can and should in its nature propel us fitfully toward a more just world. Dworkin took the latter approach. The more I saw the impossibility of his project, the greater became my respect for the nobility and grandeur of his effort.
Much of Dworkin’s academic work is full of abstract theory. Perhaps his most enduring contribution, however, is a single metaphor. Law, Dworkin writes, is like a chain novel. And judges, he argues, are “authors as well as critics” who participate in the collaborative writing of the novel that is the law. The chain novel—in which “a group of novelists writes seriatim”—unfolds chapter by chapter, each written by a different author. Each author is required both to fit her interpretation to what has come before—i.e. to make an interpretive judgment about the text under the assumption that it was written by a single author—and to judge which of the possible interpretations makes the work in progress the best it can be. The judgment involves a substantive aesthetic choice; Dworkin insists that this choice is not arbitrary. It is constrained by the structure, plot, and style of the text and authors that have come before.
Dworkin’s claim is that in interpreting and authoring the chain novel, each successive author is not limited to the dichotomous choice between finding the meaning in the text and inventing the meaning of the text. Instead, “each novelist aims to make a single novel.” To do so is not simple and will involve a multifaceted engagement with the text and the principles of what has come before. The author must “find layers and currents of meaning rather than a single, exhaustive theme.” And yet, he “cannot adopt any interpretation, however complex.” Each new interpretation and creation must make the entirety of the chain novel fit together in the best way possible.
Similarly, each judge who decides a case must judge with what Dworkin calls integrity. This means that every judge must find in what has come before the “principle” that “is instinct in law.” When a judge does this, “he reports not a simple-minded claim about the motives of past statesmen, a claim a wise cynic can easily refute, but an interpretive proposal: that the principle both fits and justifies some complex part of legal practice, that it provides an attractive way to see, in the structure of that practice, the consistency of principle integrity requires.” Interpretive practice requires an author to distinguish between continuing the novel and beginning it anew. Only judgments that continue the law’s story are judgments with integrity.
Dworkin’s analogy of law to a chain novel can be read, sympathetically, as saying: look, we have this community with these values and within it neutral judgments based on laws are impossible. If we want law, we better figure out a way to make those judgments possible or we are back to justifying law as the rule of those with power. Law as integrity is such a way. You external skeptics can go around saying our community is contingent and constructed but sooner or later you are going to have to choose between nihilsim and ethical engagement.
What Dworkin yearned for was a theory of interpretation that could assimilate the entirety of the past into a common and clear narrative of the present. His model judge, Hercules, was the judge whose power of interpretation was so fecund as to master the mass of judgments, facts, and decisions into a single, best, and just narrative.
That such a herculean task is not possible—and that defending such a stance could serve as a smoke screen for the interests and power behind the law—was something Dworkin refused to concede.
In the last decade Dworkin turned from abstract legal philosophy to popular writing, which often appeared in the New York Review of Books. His writing about current issues and cases was clear, moral, and passionate—if also quite predictable. Somehow, Dworkin always found that judging with integrity required decisions in accord with a fundamentally mainstream-left-of-center point of view.
Whatever his limits, Dworkin stood for the undying idea that law—whatever its shortcomings—should aspire to do justice. For this reason alone, if nothing else, we should celebrate him.
The best obituaries so far are found in The Guardian and The New York Times. But better yet, open up your old volume of Law’s Empire. And if you don’t have it handy, here is a version you can navigate on the web.