Sunday, December 14, 2014

Big Brother, Little Sister

Lately, some European artists protest as if only those who were born into or who affirm a particular identity can claim entitlement to act as, speak for, or depict that identity's experience. The somewhat forced diction of my first sentence indicates the similarly awkward expression of this reductive claim. Sharing on FB an article I found from the imploding New Republic (another story that fits in neatly), Exhibit B: Really Useful Knowledge and Europe's Art Censorship, my friend mentioned Ray Bradbury's novel as part of the warning about closing off alternatives, refusing controversy, and socially dumbing down our sensitivities.

Lots to discuss; a few excerpts to spark reflection. Ross Douthat, the resident conservative columnist at the New York Times (not imploding, but as a Sunday-only home subscriber, I note it's going to cost $9 weekly for that and digital access; my dad exploded, my wife recalls, when he saw we paid $3.50 for the treasured old-school paper--it sure was thick not that long ago--less than two decades ago.), discussed the impact of "vertically integrated media" as in the takeover of The New Republic by a Silicon Valley VC:
So when we talk about what’s being lost in the transition from old to new, print to digital, it’s this larger, humanistic realm that needs attention. It isn’t just policy writing that’s thriving online; it’s anything that’s immediate, analytical, data-driven — from election coverage to pop culture obsessiveness to rigorous analysis of baseball’s trade market.

Like most readers, I devour this material. Like most journalists, I write some of it. I’m grateful that the outlets that produce it all exist.

But among publications old and new and reinvented, it’s also hard not to notice that John Oliver videos — or, more broadly, the array of food and sports and gadget sites that surround Klein’s enterprise at Vox Media — aren’t just paying for the policy analysis. They’re actively displacing other kinds of cultural coverage and interaction, in which the glibness of the everyday is challenged by ideas and forms older than a start-up, more subtle than a TV recap, more rigorous than a comedian’s monologue.
That last snippet caught my attention. A few days after it did, Obama regaled The Colbert Report crowd, surely his demographic as any show on Comedy Central by default, with his ten-minute entertainment, pumping Obamacare while keeping his voters clapping. This made my wife and probably millions of fellow Dems happy, but shades of Nixon on Laugh-In saying "sock it to me," this left me disturbed. This capitulation, which others such as my son and his friends at dinner just applauded as a wonderful demonstration of how Our President handles the media and the message, to what the hipper and I guess alas younger folks "want" unsettles me even as it appears inevitable.

In turn, Tiffany Jones in concluding her article on "Exhibit B" cautions against what happens when "we" as in the same cohort Obama and Colbert and (at least most of) Silicon Valley appeals to make demands as to what "they" want to see as art, and what they want art to stand for, past or present:
The premise of art is that one can think up and convincingly construct for others, across time and place, a different life, another experience which becomes real to the reader or viewer because it has been written, painted, performednot because the audience has been there, seen it, or done it themselves. Just think of all your favorite productions, books, or paintings and how they differ from your personal experience but seduce you into believing in them.

At their core, these calls for censorship dictate that only certain groups or people can create art because only they have the experience. Underlying these protests, then, is the idea that we, the audience, are not capably of empathy, and that the purpose of art is not is not to create and convince people of other worlds but to reflect the reality as the self-selecting chosen ones see it. It is an exclusive and divisive outlook, and it is one that ultimately negates the basis of art.
Fahrenheit 451 as read by Tim Robbins, as reviewed by Dave Itzkoff, revealed a subtlety I admit I was surprised to find in that author. I met him when I was in college and he spoke; he seemed very eager to promote literacy and love of the written word at our literary festival, but he also seemed to like himself a lot. Still, he signed my paperback of The Martian Chronicles (it was out on t.v. as a miniseries in the days we watched such on networks en masse, before DVR, DVD or even VCR).

Itzkoff wonders if Robbins is "phoning in" his reading of the book, and whether such a delivery of what remains a paean to the printed word should rather be preserved as Bradbury intended it. He goes on to consider the power of the moral, as the printed word did not capitulate to censorship (as perhaps art is in "Exhibit B" under pressure of P.C. dogma and a growing refusal to challenge certain religious oppositions to explicit or daring content, as well as the burgeoning industry bent on coddling us all against anything deemed disturbing, graphic, unsettling, or merely confronting our congeries of what we bundled up and thrust about as "identity" against presumably all who are less enlightened than us). Itzkoff concludes his review of Robbins' audiobook with a rousing recall to take up books, again:
But Bradbury knew, 60 years ago, that more seductive, less effective forms of information conveyance were coming to tempt even the most diligent and dedicated acolytes of the printed word, and that it was not a distant stretch from dismissing books as quaint and obsolete to banning them outright. As Captain Beatty explains to Montag, recounting how audiences’ attentions drifted from books to television, cartoons, “super-super sports” and “three-dimensional sex magazines”: “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.”

To the end of his life, Bradbury seemed surprised that he had to keep explaining that the novel was not about the dangers of government censorship or authoritarian rule; as he told his biographer Sam Weller, “ ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is less about Big Brother and more about Little Sister.” By this he seemed to mean all the small discouragements and impediments that take us away from our intellectual pursuits, whether peer pressure, encroaching technology or apathy. Fortunately, a few thousand years ago, we gave ourselves a sustainable and still reliable mechanism to provide shelter from these distractions, as well as the option to use it or not. It is a choice as simple, and as significant, as the decision to light up a mind or to extinguish it.
As for me, I close this brief scan of how the media play into our pleasures by considering the BBC series Black Mirror, as Layne and I binge-watched in three sittings its six parables to date about the pressure technology poses to break our cherished identity and control over our privacy and intimacy in the name of ethics; about a pair of contestants for an American Idol type of contest eerily extrapolated in a manner only half-explained, the better for it to grip you; about how memories can be recorded for instant recall; about the way that a loved one's words and voice, and then presence, might be resurrected and recreated; about how a pursuit for justice might well mingle with a fun day's excursion; and about how nihilistic, entertaining alternative candidate, as a cartoon, might be manipulated by shadowy powers that be. None end happily, but that is no spoiler, only true to life.

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