Bits and Pieces

After reading a good book there are bits and pieces of insight and even wisdom that float to the top — bits and pieces that deserve special attention and deeper thought. I always underline them and return to them later — which is why I read real books, not electronic substitutes. This way the books become a part of me and I also become a part of them. Readers of these blogs will know that I often return to Christopher Lasch, one of the deepest thinkers I have read who always teaches me something about subjects that interest us both. In reading The Minimal Self — which I have referred to in earlier posts — I have quoted several insights that I think deserve special attention. I post other bits and pieces here:

ON THE SURVIVAL MENTALITY

(Lasch is convinced that we as a culture have entered a survival mode of existence that resembles in important ways the techniques used by the inmates of the death camps during the Second World War. In this regard, he noted):

“. . . It is the survivors [of Auschwitz] who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any numbers of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment — the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and to live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow victims — they also insists that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. It is the survivors who try to ‘give meaning to survival,’ while those who come after them and live under conditions seemingly more secure see meaning only in survival itself.”

ART AS REFLECTIVE OF CULTURE

“. . .modernism in its most ‘advanced’ form no longer explores new frontiers of sensibility, new dimensions of reality, but, on the contrary, undertakes a strategic retreat from reality and a regression into a realm . . .’in which mental and perceptual operations are so basic that they cannot sustain any but the most undifferentiated emotions.’ It is hardly necessary to add that in ‘advanced’ art this embodies the survival mentality characteristic of those faced with extreme situations: a radical reduction of the field of vision, a ‘socially approved solipsism,’ a refusal to feel anything, whether pain or pleasure. . . . the weakening of the distinction between the self and its surroundings — a development faithfully recorded by modern art even in its refusal to become representational — makes the very concept of reality, together with the concept of the self, increasingly untenable.”

ON CHILDREN AND THEIR UPBRINGING

“Our culture surrounds children with sexually seductive imagery and information; at the same time, it tries in every possible way to spare them the experience of failure or humiliation. It takes the position that ‘you can be anything you want to be.’ It promises success and gratification with a minimum of effort. Adults spend a great deal of time and effort trying to reassure the child of his importance and of their own love, perhaps in order to allay the suspicion that they themselves have little interest in children. They take pains not to remind the child of his immaturity and dependence. Reluctant to claim the authority of superior experience, parents seek to become their children’s companion. They cultivate a youthful appearance and youthful tastes, learn the latest slang, and throw themselves into their children’s activities. They do everything possible, in short, to minimize the difference between the generations. Recently it has become fashionable to minimize gender differences as well, often — once again — with the best of intentions.”

TRUE CONSERVATISM

“A truly conservative position on culture rejects both enforced conformity and laissez-faire. It attempts to hold society together by means of moral and religious instruction, collective rituals, and a deeply implanted though not uncritical respect for tradition.”

THE ‘HELPING PROFESSIONS’

“All these institutions operate according to the underlying principle that a willingness to cooperate with the proper experts offers the best evidence of ‘adjustment’ and the best hope of personal success, while the refusal to cooperate signifies ’emotional problems’ requiring more sustained therapeutic attention. . . the shift form the authoritative sanctions to psychological manipulation and surveillance. . . [has given rise to] a professional and managerial class that governs society not by upholding authoritative moral standards but by defining normal behavior and by invoking allegedly non-punitive, psychiatric sanctions against deviance.”

Gone is the moral high ground of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke so eloquently. It has vanished within the self in which all of reality has been reduced to the “world-for-me.” We are now living in an age that centers on the self, the reductio ad absurdum of solipsism.

Film As Art

I remarked in passing on a recent post that there is a basic difference between film regarded as art (as it was in many countries other than in this one at least until recently) and film as entertainment (which is what it is regarded as in this country, for the most part.) I think this distinction warrants development and some support. Besides, I am sick and tired of writing and reading about the current political race!

Years ago I was director of a Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux.” (It is not important to know when this was, let’s just say it was after the Flood.) At that time we used a number of films as points of departure for discussion in small seminars after the film was shown. Note, please, that the film was not shown in class time. The topic for that term was ‘Good and Evil,” a broad topic, you will agree. A good friend of mine in the theatre department who knows everything there is to know about films recommended “The Shop On Main street” and that was shown to the Freshman class in several showings at the Campus Religious Center. I was present at the first showing of a powerful film with subtitles about the deportation of Jews during the early 1930s. After the film had been shown, I heard one young man turn to his neighbor and say: “Subtitles suck.” That was his assessment of the film, a film as gripping as any I have ever seen, before or since.

The young man, who shall not be named, had confused film as art with film as entertainment. He came to the show expecting to be entertained. Instead, he was asked to pay close attention, read, and think about what he was seeing. Apparently, he could not do the latter.

I don’t want to pick on that young man. He might have simply tried to be funny. I clearly am not to know. But the remark does raise the issue I want to discuss: how does film as art differ from film, as entertainment? The answer is deceptively simple: film as art requires the engagement of the spectator’s feelings along with his or her whole mind, intellect and well as imagination. It demands their full attention. It raises issues and requires that we make an effort to connect and interpret. It doesn’t reward a passive audience that simply wants to sit back, stare, and eat popcorn.

The implication, of course, is that film as entertainment does do the latter. And that is all that it does do. It hands the spectator a finished product, complete with special effects and noise enough to drown out any ideas he or she might have about what is happening away from the screen. It makes few, if any, demands of the spectator.

Think about Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho,” where the line is thinly drawn but still apparent. The shock of the ending is suggested rather than shown. This is key, as it is in almost all art. Hitchcock still, at that time, required of his audience that they participate in the making of the work of art, which was the film. They never saw a woman stabbed in the shower or a madman/madwoman attacking the hero at the end off the film. But they thought they saw it, and if they had any doubts the music helped them out. They put the pieces together and made up these scenes for themselves. And in the process they were involved in the horror that was “Psycho.” From that time forward, in American film history (with a few exceptions — by such film makers as Woody Allen) — the films became more graphic and less taxing on the audience. As the American audiences became more and more jaded and used to the sensational it became imperative on the part of filmmakers to become more and more vivid in their presentations, demanding less and less of their audience. That was that way the audiences wanted it. That was what we gradually became used to. We became lazy and easily diverted. Film had become entertainment. We got what we wanted.

The interesting thing to note in this process is that it parallels the gradual immersion of the American public into electronic media and the rule of thumb in television and movie theaters everywhere: give them that they crave. Give them all our production crews and special effect people can give them. This was a breath of fresh air to the special effects people who were learning new tricks at every turn and were perfectly capable of scaring the pants off every passive spectator in any theater anywhere in this broad country. I daresay it became something of a contest, with the winner taking home the trophy. And if today’s tricks didn’t work, there’s always tomorrow. The sky’s the limit! And the audiences paid large fees to be entertained and came back for more. In the meantime, their imaginations wilted and the true film makers, who shrank in numbers, played to smaller and smaller audiences.

This brief history is somewhat simplistic, but essentially correct, I think.

Death of Affect

The title of this post is words borrowed from J.G. Ballard and they put me in mind of the fact that one of the things that sets our era apart from preceding ones is the various movements that have resulted in the widespread death of millions of innocent people. We use words like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe those movements, but those words hardly describe the systematic elimination of whole groups of people — such as an estimated 22 million souls under the various programs initiated by Joseph Stalin in the last century. And it behooves us to mention the current use of drones by this country to “take out” terrorists while killing thousands of innocent civilians. Indeed, the inclusion of ordinary citizens in the death count in recent wars is something relatively new in human history. In order to distinguish these events from the systematic “removal” of eight million Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazis the term “Holocaust” was coined in the mid 1960s and it does a fairly good job of establishing the uniqueness of the events surrounding the “Final Solution” that was carried out by such people as Adolph Eichmann under Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s.

The term “Holocaust” enjoys special status and has not (yet) been borrowed or stolen by historians or social scientists in their efforts to describe other such events — such as the more recent “ethnic cleansing” in Eastern Europe. But it matters not. What happens is that we hear the word, or the words, so often that we become inured to them. They cease to have any real meaning.  How can any of us imagine, for example, what the words “twenty million” even mean when applied to the death of civilians who have done nothing whatever to deserve those deaths, except that they were different? We cannot.

Eventually, the words cease to have any real meaning and, worse yet, the events that those words are supposed to describe cease to have any reality for us. Those are things that happened to other people somewhere else. We adopt what has been called a “survival strategy” that protects us from such harsh realities. We exhibit “selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live one day at a time,” as Christopher Lasch said in describing the mindset of those in the death camps who had given up all hope. After all, if a nation decides to systematically “remove” its own citizens what recourse does anyone have? The only option is to focus exclusively on one’s own survival. Nothing else matters.

The point of all this is to draw attention to the distinct possibility that we may already be adopting the same strategy in the face of the facts and descriptions of the mass killings that fill our newspapers and television on a daily basis — not to mention the constant reminders about world-wide terrorism and the violence that has become the order of the day on television, video games and American movies. After a while, those words and those events take on an abstract, unreal existence. We turn into ourselves and focus attention elsewhere rather than confront the terrible fact that there are maniacs who, heavily armed as they all seem to be, can decide who will and who will not live. As happens with medical doctors and policemen, after a while these events become the norm and our feelings shut down.

It is quite possible — he said, risking the charge of conspiracy theorist — that the powers that be in this country (mainly such powers as the N.R.A.) — are quite content that we should become desensitized to the daily mass killings by maniacs with automatic weapons who kill indiscriminately. It’s hard to turn on the television, or turn to the computer, or read a newspaper, without being told about another killing of numerous people by another maniac. And the hope may well be (one I do not share) that eventually we will become so desensitized to this news that we will stop paying attention altogether and cease to be concerned. After all, what can we do in the face of such powerful entities as the N.R.A. that has the Congress in its pocket and tells it how to vote?

This, it seems to me, is one of the most serious problem we face: that we will become so desensitized to the fact of grim and violent death that we will no longer care. It will be something for someone else to worry about. Instead, we worry about more important things, such as how the local sports team is doing and whether it will make the playoffs this year.

Personality vs. Character

I’m reading Christopher Lasch’s book The Minimal Self again in which he analyses with penetrating scrutiny the sickness that pervades today’s consumer society. It is a society, Lasch insists, that puts a premium on appearance over reality, resulting from the fact that advertisers have convinced us that it is only appearance that matters. We “upgrade” when what we are using is no longer in fashion, whether or not it still works. Indeed, he says, it’s not about how the thing works anyway. It’s about how our owning it will appear to others. We must have the latest because our friends will think less of us off we don’t. (Oh, and by the way, make sure to leave your trailer home standing prominently next to your house so folks will know you have one!)

Lasch knows better than anyone that the reduction of the “minimal self,” which  we are fixated on, does not translate into the need to build better character; rather it translates into molding our own appearance so we will be attractive to others. In today’s parlance, he might say, it’s all about how many “likes” we get on social media. Regarding the cult of personality, Lasch notes the following important difference:

“Since [a person] will be judged, both by his colleagues and superiors at work and by the strangers he encounters on the street, according to his possessions, his clothes, and his ‘personality’ –not, as in the nineteenth century, by his ‘character’ –he adopts a theatrical view of his own ‘performance’ on and off the job. . . .. the conditions of everyday social intercourse, in societies based on mass production and mass consumption, encourage an unprecedented attention to superficial impressions and images, to the point where the self becomes almost indistinguishable from its surface.’

Indeed, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. in my memory who was the last to speak not only about the “moral high ground” but also about judging men and women by the “content of their character.” We don’t talk much about character any more (or about the moral high ground for that matter). We don’t seem to care about what sort of person, say, an athlete happens to be. If Tiger Woods is a womanizer and behaves like a wild animal on the golf course we care not a whit as long as he can hit his drive over 300 yards and beat the opposition. Though, in saying this, it must also be noted that in our racist age it is interesting that a black man can be so popular in a world otherwise peopled by wealthy white men who play a game at posh golf courses. That, in itself, may be a good thing.

In any event, the switch from a concern with the kind of people we are to the concern with how we appear to others is based on our consumer culture, according to Lasch, and results in a superficial view of the world — indeed a view filtered through a lens that is focused primarily on the shallow self and how what we do will impress others. We want them to “like” us, whether they like us for the right reasons or not. The “minimal self” is still the focus of our attention, but it is not focused on the deeper self that is formed in the real world meeting both success and failure, growing by way of occasional suffering and struggle. This is a self that can only be found by looking elsewhere. Instead we find a shallow self that purchases goods on the basis of their popularity (“It’s a terrific shirt, sir. Everyone is wearing them today.”) and presents itself as something to be bought on the same basis, a self that cares only about how many friends it has on Facebook.