"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?
As a regular faculty member for the Bard Prison Initiative, I can attest that one of the most appealing aspects of working with incarcerated students is their wide-ranging curiosity and perceptiveness. The men I know are eager to discuss topics that both deepen and expand the content of their classes, and they are quick to draw connections between their classes and current events. Their ability to make these links has a lot to do with the avid, even voracious attention many of them pay to the news on N.P.R., the major television networks, and almost any publication they can get their hands on. Such interest is a matter of both intellectual and existential significance: as a few of my students have related to me, the news offers one way to relieve their sense of isolation and to maintain a modicum of contact with “life in the street.” But their ability to draw connections also depends on an expansive moral and political imagination, one that consistently relates distant happenings to the details of their own lives.
A few weeks ago the students in “Migration and Diaspora in Global Perspective,” the class I am now teaching at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, wanted to know my thoughts on Palestine’s recent elevation to nonmember observer status at the U.N. The onslaught of questions began almost from the moment I entered the classroom. How would the vote change relations between Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority? Would the Palestinians be able to challenge Israel’s military incursions and settlement policies in ways that were not available to them before? Why did the U.S. oppose Palestine’s observer status when so many other states in the General Assembly favored it? How should we interpret Germany’s decision to abstain? And just how significant was this vote anyway? Was it a merely symbolic gesture, or would it have a real and decisive impact on the future?
I was not entirely surprised by the students’ interest, and I suspect that our class was responsible for at least a bit of it. Not long before, we had spent the day watching and discussing Cherien Dabis’s debut feature film Amreeka (2009), which traces the journey of a Palestinian mother and son from their home in Bethlehem to an Illinois suburb. The film’s U.S. distributor, National Geographic Entertainment, has marketed it as a classic immigration story, and the packaging for the DVD plays on well-worn themes of new arrivals’ disorientation, homesickness, and gradual adjustment. But the film also draws on Dabis’s own childhood memories in Omaha, Nebraska to cast an all-too-knowing eye on American life during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and two key scenes deftly portray the power dynamics that unfold daily at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. Beneath the anodyne surface, then, Amreeka packs a subversive punch, and my students appreciated its shrewd take on both the Israeli occupation and the U.S. War on Terror.
But my class is hardly the only reason why they are concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few of the students feel a degree of personal connection to ongoing events in the region because they were born and raised as Jews or because they converted later in life to Judaism or Islam. Others adopt a more distanced perspective but nevertheless regard the conflict as a pivotal geopolitical impasse about which they should, as informed students and citizens, have some knowledge.
And still others interpret the conflict as an almost paradigmatic instance of injustice, one that crystallizes the colonial legacies, entrenched political interests, and enduring economic disparities that define our contemporary world.
Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resonates strongly with many of the students’ own experiences of stigmatization and hyper-visibility on ethnic and racial grounds. In one way or another, virtually all of the African American and Latino students in my class—and they represent the overwhelming majority—can relate to the profiling, ID checks, body and vehicle searches, and policing of space that are an integral part of the Israeli occupation. Many of them can also sympathize with Palestinians’ more general condition of disenfranchisement, their desire for “a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective” (to invoke an evocative phrase from Hannah Arendt). In many instances, they cultivate such sympathy by drawing metaphorical links with their own histories and memories of exclusion.
On the basis of such connections, many of the students in my classes (and the Bard Prison Initiative more broadly) take a keen interest in struggles for cultural and political change in other parts of the world. They respond strongly to readings and films that deal not simply with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also with apartheid in South Africa and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. At the same time, they display considerable curiosity—and not a little generosity—toward other groups that adopt and re-work political traditions and cultural practices they typically claim as “their own.” For example, African American students are often struck by the ways that Northern Irish Catholics adopted elements of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they display a good deal of appreciation for the manner that Palestinian youth take up the aesthetics of hip-hop for their own purposes today. They do not typically claim exclusive ownership over these cultural and political formations, and they do not condemn moments of cross-cultural appropriation as illegitimate poaching or theft (although, I must admit, it can take a moment to digest white Irish Catholics singing “We Shall Overcome”).
I welcomed the questions the students posed that day, and I worked hard to answer them as best I could. But I was also aware of the distinct challenge they posed to me as a teacher and fellow observer of the world. How could I convey my own understanding of the recent U.N. vote while also acknowledging the lingering uncertainties and disagreements that it inevitably reflected? How could I draw attention to the complexities of the current conflict and not merely confirm, in an uncritical way, the sympathy that most of the students already felt for the Palestinian cause? And how could I suggest that we should be thoughtful about the connections we draw between other people’s experiences and our own?
I, for one, am acutely aware that I cannot facilely equate my own societal positioning and life history with those of my students. Are there limits on the imaginative links we might forge with people in other times and places?
Our discussion that day barely scratched the surface of these larger issues. But I left it with a new appreciation for both the difficulty and the importance of this kind of candid conversation. As challenging as it might be, such exchange is significant precisely because it bridges the political and the personal, the distant and the close-at-hand.