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Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy

#75: Nov. - Dec. 2009 (Non-Fiction)
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etudiant
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Much of what is put out by the entertainment industry today shares a certain similarity with popular choices of the 1930s, I believe. Back then people didn’t really want to see average life on the screen, because during the depression that was pretty grim. Fantasy was more popular- big song and dance numbers, romantic escapades. Later movies came to be more of a mirror of real life. Like you said DWill, the “All in the Family” TV show from the 60’s talked about what was real and relevant. But today, looking at the movie listings, escapism is surging once more. Many movies represent the lives of individuals who seem surprisingly affluent, and likely represent a small minority of the populace. Another, darker, side of escapism may be the endless ultra-violent pictures being made today. A way to vicariously vent subconscious rage and angst?
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Is there anything else on TV by way of drama that you think is worth watching?
I really like law and order the original. There is the big problem at the beginning, a little bit of mystery, and they solve it all in an hour and the bad guys go to jail. They are not as bad as Perry Mason as far as there is a strict separation of good and bad. They try to make the audience question a little bit. But in most cases it is still pretty cut and dry. Life is not always like that. It is much more complicated and messy.
I think that many people don't even want to see the real world. If they faced reality, then they might have to do something about it, and it's easier to be complacent than it is to be active. In this world of reality TV and sound bite / headline only news, our culture is dying around us because so many people refuse to face the facts and do something about it.
Yes, I agree.
Much of what is put out by the entertainment industry today shares a certain similarity with popular choices of the 1930s, I believe.
That is an interesting point. Maybe many people are feeling hopeless. I have heard many people say that. I wonder if that has been part of maintaining the inequalities in society. Taking away hope is disabling. I suppose that is very conspiracy theoryish. I don’t necessarily think these things happen consciously though. I don’t think someone sits down and plans out how to maintain power. It may even be instinctual. And we all do that. We all feel the need for some sort of power in our lives and relationships. Yet, as conscious human beings I think that we have the capability to stop and think about our relationship to power. We can choose to change behavior, institutions, and power structures. Ultimately we as a group can choose a positive, empowering way to live together. But I think that it is hard to see that changes can be made.
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I started reading the book today and already got through the first chapter. It has some interesting, well-expressed ideas, even though I've seen some of them before.

When reading a book about contemporary society, it's helpful to compare it to ones own direct experiences. I don't pay much attention to celebrity stuff and watch less TV than most Americans. Still, I regularly watch a few reality shows: Survivor, Amazing Race, and sometimes Dancing with the Stars. My wife and I relax by watching strangers go through these larger-than-life but artificial experiences, even if its junk TV. We passive absorb other people's emotional turmoil, as a distraction from the repetitive day-by-day lives. However, the overall influence of the celebrity / TV word is our lives is less than what Hedges depicts, probably because we partake of it less.

The chapter's discussions of politics caught my attention, due to my interested in the subject. I reach articles, blogs, and books about politics, but I never watch TV news, besides the occasional Daily Show. Obama's charisma and vague focus on "change" hardly mattered to me at all. The real-world impact of the President being a Democrat and supporting policies vastly superior to Republican policies is far more exciting. It's annoying that the popularity of politicians depends on such superficial factors, since many voters respond primarily to the images on TV.

Has anyone else here read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, which was published in 1985 but raises many similar points about the effects of TV on society?
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etudiant wrote:Another, darker, side of escapism may be the endless ultra-violent pictures being made today. A way to vicariously vent subconscious rage and angst?
I think that this is completely the case. Hedges purports that wrestling reflects the rage and the struggle of the people on a large scale. I think that movies reflect the dreams and hopes of the populace on an even larger level. These movies (and let's not forget videogames) are made for the purpose of the vicarious vent. This vicarious venting leaves no room for anger to build up at the appropriate sources. Instead of hating a government that does not take care of its people or a corporation that is destroying our environment, people expend their anger on the bad guy in the movie theater or the game.
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never say a common place thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars..." ~ Jack Kerouac
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JulianTheApostate wrote:Has anyone else here read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, which was published in 1985 but raises many similar points about the effects of TV on society?
I did read it, I think pretty close to the publication date. It's amazing to me that that was almost 30 years ago. I do not recall specifics of the book, but do recall being impressed and influenced by it. It might be really interesting to put Postman's book alongside Hedges' for comaprison.
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Krysondra wrote:
etudiant wrote:Another, darker, side of escapism may be the endless ultra-violent pictures being made today. A way to vicariously vent subconscious rage and angst?
I think that this is completely the case. Hedges purports that wrestling reflects the rage and the struggle of the people on a large scale. I think that movies reflect the dreams and hopes of the populace on an even larger level. These movies (and let's not forget videogames) are made for the purpose of the vicarious vent. This vicarious venting leaves no room for anger to build up at the appropriate sources. Instead of hating a government that does not take care of its people or a corporation that is destroying our environment, people expend their anger on the bad guy in the movie theater or the game.
Everyone will have his or her own opinion as to which form of popular entertainment is the worst. My impression of wrestling is that it is mainly carnival that the fans don't take seriously as violence; there is a lot of the fun of melodrama in it for them. A client at work who is devoted to it says cheeerfully that it's all fake. There have certainly been, and are still, worse entertainments than this. Maybe I'm influenced by the Mickey Rourke movie "The Wrestler," which is kind of poignant and pictures wrestling as essentially harmless.

Movie and videogame violence mystifies me. I mean I just don't see any thrill and in fact action movies, whether they're showing things getting blown up or people getting blown away, bore the crap out of me. After one action sequence I'm finished and want the movie to be over. Superhero flicks are probably the worst offenders. Action movies are also bigger fantasies than anything else out there. A human being just doesn't go around wisecracking as someone is trying to blow his head off.
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I came across an article on the net that offers an illuminating viewpoint on many of the topics in the Hedges book.

As I was reading this, I thought of some of the authoritarian countries in the world where political opposition or overt critical dissent are not permitted. If there is no legal, accepted, and organized channel to express one’s views, then the next option seems to be the street. If the lid is kept on the pot long enough, it will boil over, spilling any which way. I think we have seen a good example of this recently in Iran. Real opposition is not permitted, and has been successfully squelched until recently when anger over a rigged election boiled over, and people simply poured out into the streets, demonstrating. This is not a long-term prescription for stability, to say the least.

In the US there are effectively two political parties, neither of which has questioned or seriously challenged the status quo over about the last twenty years at least. Even Barak Obama, riding a groundswell of enthusiasm for change, is now trying to squeeze through a health care plan that still leaves private insurance companies a feeding spot at the trough. It seems changing momentum is very hard indeed, even when voted for.

In Canada we have three main federal political parties, although the left-leaning one is often roundly ridiculed because of its mildly “socialist” policies, in the media and elsewhere. By socialist, I mean ideas like a national health plan, public transit, women’s rights, etc. They are sometimes compared to vodka swilling, aging Russians, nostalgic for the good old days of communism. Such is the rigidity of the public mindset.

Some food for thought.


http://www.truthout.org/091509A
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Re: Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy

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I finished Hedge's book and as for the 2nd chapter, dry crackers were not enough. One thing I find interesting is that Hedges is applying his theory only to America. Fair enough if he feels that that is where his area of expertise lies. But I would apply it to other countries as well. Germany is certainly no exception. Until 3 years ago, German universities were free of charge and accessible to any student who had the grades good enough to be accepted. Suddenly there are semester fees (granted, nothing like in the States, but nevertheless a shock to the German Social way of thinking) which many students can't afford and several universities have been selected, deemed, to be "elite", thus doing away with small faculties such as some of the Nordic languages, anthropology, Mesopotamian Archaeology, etc. All Humanties, of course.
The television shows are hardly European on German television,, the shows being bought from the US and dubbed. We have gone from a rather high quality broadcasting system to raunchy voyeurism. The shows that are not bought directly are simply taken over and presented as copies with German actors, etc. At least we do have a couple of channels that present serious, more intellectually stimulating fare.
One thing Hedges did mention was that good drama, a good play or theater, is intellectually stimulating, so he doesn't ban all forms of entertainment outside of reading. I do find it interesting, however, that he doesn't go off on a tangent and attack smut lit , bookstores that aren't worthy of the name, authors who churn out one trite book after another and are lauded for their "literary achievements", etc. Afterall, what good does it do if in the 20% of American families that are left (he claims 80% have not bought a book last year) buy "junk literature", porno books, etc. What types of books does he include in his statistics? Book is not simply book.
My other problem with Hedges (although I must admit here that I certainly agree with his "be -literate- and -think" -else -we'll -end -up -dead- as -a -culture-concept) is that he plays the "game" and then complains about it. I'm thinking here of his son's SAT scores and his hiring of a $7000 tutor to remedy them, enabling his son to "play the game".
All in all it is a good book, a book of warning (although those who need to read the warning obviously won't). And I especially agree with his warning that language is important. Especially foreign languages which are systematically being deleted from education (convenient: if you can't communicate with other people, you can't be "contaminated" by their ideas, nor can you complain to them or compare news, etc).
Gods and spirits are parasitic--Pascal Boyer

Religion is the only force in the world that lets a person have his prejudice or hatred and feel good about it --S C Hitchcock

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. --André Gide

Reading is a majority skill but a minority art. --Julian Barnes
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Re: Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy

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I've just gotten started with this book as well as the one by Howard Bloom and at first blush I'm struck by the contrast between their points of view. Hedges seems very pessimistic (I'm wondering to what extent he's going to offer solutions or if he's just griping about a problem he sees as unfixable) while Bloom seems very optimistic. I would guess that Hedges might point to Bloom as one of the cultural figures offering us an overly optimistic viewpoint. I imagine Hedges might characterize Bloom's viewpoint (bearing in mind that I've just barely had time to begin forming an impression of what each is saying :)) as "Just reframe it all and everything will be fine."
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Re: Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy

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(this is what I had previously posted before disappearing)

I agree with much of what has been said already. I realized while reading the book that I felt the same way as Hedges before without being able to articulate it. The one thing I have not been able to do is watch reality television. It annoys me. I keep thinking about the camera and lighting crews on those sets: if it’s so dangerous/difficult/strenuous for those appearing on shows like Survivor, how about the ones who are schlepping around cameras and lights and cables? If any of us were dropped into a jungle or washed ashore on an uninhabited island, or wanted to meet the person of our dreams, we wouldn’t be doing so with a well-oiled industry of professional make-up artists, marketing execs, producers, etc. etc. surrounding us.

And, of course, winning is everything. Morals and compassion have no place in these fantasy worlds.

As Hedges points out: “Appearances make everything whole. Plastic surgeons, fitness gurus, diet doctors, therapists, life coaches, interior designers, and fashion consultants all, in essence, promise to make us happy, to make us celebrities.”

Of course, a large part of the population seems to find these shows very seductive, otherwise those making money off them would move on to something else very quickly. And yet how many realize that it takes an army of people to “manipulate the shadows”, as Hedges describes it: “agents, publicists, marketing departments …. No one achieves celebrity status, no cultural illusion is swallowed as reality, without these armies of cultural enablers and intermediaries.”

As well, it’s interesting when Hedges says that “who are critical, those who are able to confront reality are shunned and condemned for their pessimism“. I found an example of this today at work - I’m a legal secretary and one of the lawyers told me she had made a comment during an informal departmental meeting about the reasons why one long-time partner at our firm has decided to leave. All the others mentioned how this lawyer had been offered such a good deal at the other place, it wasn’t surprising he left (i.e. so much money was thrown at him, he couldn’t refuse). He was a commodity to be bought for the highest price (as Hedges describes), not an individual with feelings of fairness and decency and unwilling to continue with the charade of goodwill masking the nastiness and back-stabbing reality of what was going on in the office.

When she dared comment that perhaps there was more to it than that, that maybe, just maybe, it was because of issues and conflicts here at the office that ultimately made him decide to leave, she was made to feel like a pariah. “Everything is just fine here”, was the standard remark, despite the fact that several people have been jumping ship lately (despite the economy). It is the classic refusal to confront reality that Hedges talks about, because to do so would necessitate, as mentioned by a previous poster, working at change, taking a hard look within to see what the problem is, and then slowly, painstakingly arriving at some kind of solution. Illusion demands so much less of us.
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