Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
12Aug/130

Can We Survive Entertainment?

Arendtquote

"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.

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.

tv

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.

honey

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?

-Lance Strate

4Oct/111

Thinking Challenge Submission- Steven Tatum

I would like to conduct a poll: “If you had to describe political life today with one word, what would it be?” My hunch is that popular responses from both sides of the isle might include variations on ideological gridlock, frustration, partisanship, self-interestedness and impotent.  In any case, with the approval ratings of congress at an all time low, there is a general sense that there is something seriously wrong with politics today.  I worry that we are growing increasingly tolerant of our dysfunctional at worst, frustrating at best, political life.  Is this just the way it has to be?

While much of Hannah Arendt’s essay “Truth and Politics” is devoted to an examination of the disintegration of political life that sounds all to familiar to a contemporary reader, she concludes by defending what she calls “the actual content of political life.”  For Arendt, associating with others in public with the goal of making something new together can give rise to feelings of joy and gratitude.  So what has gone wrong?  Why is it that any attempt at political engagement today leaves us frustrated, resentful, and cynical?

I believe Arendt makes a strong case that the quality of our political environment has deteriorated because of our understanding of what it means to tell the truth.  One easy way to see what Arendt is talking about is to consider comedian Stephen Colbert’s understanding of what truth is and where it comes from.  When he coined the word “truthiness” in 2005, he went a long way toward explaining our society’s attitude toward truth.  In Colbert’s satire, the proper source of truth is not reason or fact, but conviction and instinct, “know[ing] with the heart.”  Extending these themes in his address at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Colbert argues that truth exists only in the “no facts zone” of personal conviction.  By this definition, truth is no more than our personal understandings of the way the world appears and how it works.  In other words, truth is just a very strong opinion.

It is precisely this tendency to blur the lines between truth opinion that Arendt believes undermines the “common and factual reality” which gives meaning and balance to our lives together in public.  In a world where opinions are held to be true and truths debated with as if they are opinions, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the truth, and the common ground on which we stand erodes even further.  A disinterested truthteller, who tries to make facts known to the public with no motives besides the desire to establish the existence of a common world, finds him or herself in danger of being swept up into politics.  If one political group or another notices that the truthteller’s facts either to support or oppose their personal convictions, the facts themselves can be disagreed with as matters of political opinion.

Consider the climate change debate in this country.  When scientists presented evidence that the global climate is changing and that human activity is a main cause, liberal environmentalist politicians quickly adopted their findings as justification for regulation and investment in alternative energy sources.  When criticism of climate researched emerged in the scientific community the political right capitalized on the doubt, which is a normal part of the scientific process.  Once science blurred with political opinions, it was subject to debate just as any other political opinion, and we could no longer look to science as a source of unbiased truth.

To the extent that we locate the truth with one political interest or another, we find ourselves in danger of destroying the concept of truth altogether.  This is essentially what Colbert shows us.  Truth has disappeared from our world.  This should be shocking.  And yet when Colbert dismisses books and their cold facts and celebrates truth that comes from the gut, we laugh.  It’s as if we always knew that this was the case, but no one was audacious enough to say it.  When a funny guy on comedy television announces it point-blank to everybody, even to the White House Press Corps, he made us aware of our unconscious worry that politics was really a farcical struggle for power that had nothing to do with what was true. We laughed because he showed us we were right all along.

Hannah Arendt isn’t laughing.  She understands that people living in a political environment that is not grounded in apolitical facts will eventually lose faith in the existence of any truth whatsoever.  Without the firm ground of truth, we literally lose our bearings in the real world that we share with others.  In search of stability, we tend to strengthen our belief in a consistent narrative of opinions and lies that provides a satisfying explanation for the way things are.  Since, for example, many climate scientists found themselves sucked up into political debate and subsequently lost their authority as truthtellers, we are left to orient ourselves by whichever political ideology that matches what we want to believe.  In this situation, conversation between opposing groups becomes nearly impossible.  Without reference to a shared factual reality, and individual or group that is convinced of his/her/its political opinions literally lives in a different world than someone who holds a different opinion.

I believe this loss of the ability to communicate with one another is largely responsible for the loss of the joy and gratitude that political life offers.  As we feel more and more that we are living in differing realities, the opportunities for coming together, affirming the existence of a common world and taking action to make our new contribution to it become fewer and fewer.  By associating more and more with people who share our political opinions, we make it more difficult to exchange opinions with someone with whom we are likely to disagree.  How, then, in today’s political climate can we reclaim some of the joy in doing something together and gratitude for living in a world in which we act with others?

Obviously we won’t find that all our differences will vanish if we just start talking with one another.  The emphasis on civility in politics today may change the tone of debate, but it will not help us find common ground.  In fact, speaking nicely to one another may just make it more pleasant to stay in our separate worlds, convinced that our view is the right view, but polite enough to let others believe in their views.

One thing that can begin to reverse the trend of defactualization is increasing our awareness of the limits of political action and our sensitivity to the non-political experiences in our lives.  If we were a little more willing to lay aside our political views and temper our conviction enough to experience facts and events as they are without the filter of political interpretation, we would begin to recognize that however powerful our capacity for understanding may be, the world of facts and events that stretches into the past defies our attempts at total explanation.  Neither can we change or undo what has happened.  Ultimately this contemplation of reality leads to the experience of wonder at things as they are.   This experience of things as they are is the experience of truth.  We make sense of this experience by selecting certain facts and events to incorporate into our own narratives and opinions.  But the world as it is always serves as our starting point for political debate and the renewal of our world.

Arendt underscores the importance of maintaining institutions devoted to this contemplation of things as they are.  Philosophers, scientists, artists, judges, and reporters must forfeit their roles in political life in order to be faithful truthtellers.  But unless everyone cultivates their own sensitivity to the world that we share as it is, either through solitary contemplation or through dialogue with someone who has a different perspective, we will cease to live in one common world and all attempts at renewal will fail.  Nothing less is at stake here than the continuation of the world of human affairs.  As political debate reaches into more and more aspects of our lives, from health care and taxes to which television channels we watch and which newspapers we read, we lose more and more of the already rare opportunities to lay aside politics and be alone long enough to be overtaken by the world as it is.  If everyone experienced a little more non-partisan care for and commitment to the world and a little less conviction that we know what is best, we might rediscover the joy and gratitude that Arendt tells us are meant to come with the task of renewing our common world.

 

Steven Tatum