Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Numbing of the American Mind: Culture as Anesthetic

I recently finished reading Don Carson's book Christ and Culture Revisited. On the second to last paragraph Carson had a footnote referring to a Harper's Magazine article written by Thomas de Zengotita entitled "The Numbing of the American Mind: Culture as Anesthetic." Having recently become fixated on cultural issues over the past four months the article sounded intriguing and right up my alley.

I was able to locate the article online and read it. I highly recommend that you too read it. de Zengotita is a big leftist--he writes for the Huffington Post, so I certainly do not endorse everything he has to say--even in this article. But the thesis is a compelling and important one.

de Zengotita's central thesis is that our culture creates, and disseminates so much information at such breakneck speed that we have become numbed to life and to living. He frames his argument around the events of 9/11 and the months following.

He writes:

...if we were spared a gaping wound in the flesh and blood of personal life, we inevitably moved on after September 11. We were carried off by endlessly proliferating representations of the event, and by an ever expanding horizon of associated stories and characters, and all of them, in their turn, represented endlessly, and the whole sweep of it driven by the rhythms of The Show.

And that's just one thread in this tapestry of virtuality. The whole is so densely woven and finely stranded that no mind could possibly comprehend it, escape it, govern it. It's the dreamwork of culture. It just proceeds and we with it, each of us exposed to thousands, probably millions of 9/11-related representations--everything from the layout of the daily paper to rippling-flag logos to NYPD caps on tourists to ads for Collateral Damage. Conditioned thus relentlessly to move from representation to representation, we got past the thing itself as well; or rather, the thing itself was transformed into a sea of signs and upon it we were borne away from every shore, moving on, moving on."

This moving on is symbolic of how desensitized to our surroundings we have become. He argues, "When you find out about the [a quadrapelgic using his mind connected to a computer] moving cursor, or hear statistics about AIDS in Africa, or see your 947th picture of a weeping fireman, you can't help but become fundamentally indifferent because you are exposed to things like this all the time..."

He continues his argument:

Which is not to say you aren't moved. On the contrary, you are moved, often deeply, very frequently--never more so, perhaps, than when you saw the footage of the towers coming down on 9/11. But you are so used to being moved by footage, by stories, by representations of all kinds--that's the point. It's not your fault that you are so used to being moved, you just are.

So it's not surprising that you have learned to move on so readily to the next, sometimes moving, moment. It's sink or surf. Spiritual numbness guarantees that your relations with the moving will pass. And the stuffed screen accommodates you with moving surfaces that assume you are numb enough to accommodate them. And so on, back and forth. The dialectic of postmodern life.

de Zengotita is clearly continuing the same line of thought that Neil Postman had been on in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I HIGHLY recommend) among others. His concern, like Postman's is that we have sold ourselves to technology without realizing the great moral cost.

I forget what Carson even said about de Zengotita's article, but he did not any deeper than a reference to the article. I want to see Christians deal with these kinds of issues because I believe that de Zengotita and Postman have diagnosed part of the problem that we have as evangelists. Our culture (and world, really) do not have the attention span or the minds trained to think through long term ramifications of their own behaviors. There is no true evaluation of the human condition--we've bought the easy answers and sold God down the river without realizing that, like Esau, we've sold our birthright.

It is these kinds of things that raise questions about how Christians should interact with our broader media culture. The quantity and content of the media around us is truly antithetical to the Christian Gospel. I don't simply mean hostile, but opposite--another gospel, meant to deceive and re-align your loyalties.

I used to think that Christians raising questions about watching TV, movies, using cell phones, using the Internet were alarmists, reactionaries, luddites, and fuddy-duddies. But I have started to believe they are prophetic and only to be ignored at the peril of your own soul.

Can you honestly say that you have been unaffected by the TV and movies you watch? Do you truly understand how you have been transformed through these mediums?

One of de Zengotita's most insightful metaphors is about our interactions with real nature--for example, when you encounter a wolf in the wild:

You won't see wolves, you'll see "wolves." You'll be murmuring to yourself, at some level, "Wow, look, a real wolf, not in a cage, not on TV, I can't believe it."

That's right, you can't. Natural things have become their own icons.

And you will get restless really fast if that "wolf" doesn't do anything. The kids will start squirming in, like, five minutes; you'll probably need to pretend you're not getting bored for a while longer. But if that little smudge of canine out there in the distance continues to just loll around in the tall grass, and you don't have a really powerful tripod-supported telelens gizmo to play with, you will get bored. You will begin to appreciate how much technology and editing goes into making those nature shows. The truth is that if some no-account chipmunk just happens to come around your campsite every morning for crumbs from your picnic table, it will have meant more to you than any "wolf."

He's right--isn't he? I clearly remember seeing elephants up close on a (sort of) safari in South Africa. I immediately compared the experience to watching elephants on television. But his point is bigger than this--his point is how mundane such experiences become to us.

How long can you sit outside in stillness and silence? How long can you sit and read your Bible without wishing you were doing something else? How long is too long for your pastor to preach on Sunday morning? How long before you get fidgeting during a prayer?

He continues:

Being numb isn't antithetical to being totally stressed, 24-7--and asking for more. Over-scheduled busyness might seem like the opposite of numbness, but it is just the active aspect of living in a flood of fabricated surfaces...The numbness of busyness works on the same principle, but it relies upon its agents to abide by an agreement they must keep secret, even from themselves. The agreement is this: we will so conduct ourselves that everything becomes an emergency.

Under that agreement, stress is how reality feels. People addicted to busyness, people who don't just use their cell phones in public but display in every nuance of cell-phone deportment their sense of throbbing connectedness to Something Important--these people would suffocate like fish on a dock if they were cut off from the Flow of Events they have conspired with their fellows to create. To these plugged-in players, the rest of us look like zombies, coasting on fumes. For them, the feeling of being busy is the feeling of being alive.

Partly, it's a function of speed, like in those stress dramas that television provides to keep us virtually busy, even in our downtime. The bloody body wheeled into the ER, every personjack on the team yelling numbers from monitors, screaming for meds and equipment, especially for those heart-shocker pads--that's the paradigm scene. All the others derive from it: hostage-negotiator scenes, staffers pulling all-nighters in the West Wing, detectives sweeping out of the precinct, donning jackets, adjusting holsters, snapping wisecracks. Sheer speed and Lives on the Line. That's the recipe for feeling real.

Do you ever feel this way? Is this a gospel way to live? Is it compatible with Holy Scripture? Does this seem like idolatry to you? We moderns often fail to understand idolatry because we too readily dismiss idolatry as something others do when they create a physical idol representing the god or gods they worship. This of course is an antiquated, but unbiblical understanding of idolatry. Idols in the true sense are things we create in our own image—things that we worship or give us meaning, purpose, happiness. This is by no means a perfect definition, but it is a start.

Idolatry is our fundamental sin against God—out of an idolatrous heart all other sin proceeds. This is why Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." We are prone to make idols and we do not love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, or minds. We too readily fill our minds with the thoughts and images around us—things that take our attention from the One True God to gods we would rather exalt.

So while de Zengotita is concerned we're "moving on" too easily from matters of human significance, I say we're passing over eternal matters without giving any thought to them because we've become unable to grasp heavenly matters—we have conditioned our minds (and consequently our hearts) to be satisfied with this world's candy, rather than God's living water. I'm as guilty as any other, I'm only now beginning to see how readily I would prefer the things of this world over God's eternal kingdom.


Pilgrim said...

"I immediately compared the experience to watching elephants on television."

Oh man. More than a few times I've caught myself saying, "This is just like a movie," or like on the internet, or like a photo. Then I exclaim, "GAH! My referent is backward! The representation is like the reality!"

Psyclist said...

I don't know why I thought of how this is similar to the arguments that playing violent video games desensitizes children to violence.

As the gravity of a threat posed by a animal is not fully recognized, neither is the gravity of the consequence of violent action.

A. B. Caneday said...

"Then I exclaim, 'GAH! My referent is backward! The representation is like the reality!'"

We live in a world of manmade images. When we see President Obama in a video clip or in a photograph, we are not seeing the man. We are seeing only an image of the man. Yet, few actually recognize this. The image has become the reality. No wonder our nation has become so full of idolatry.

Contented with images instead of the real tangible created things, is it strange, then, that Americans are idolatrous people, contented with images of God rather than with God himself?

As I have long and frequently said, Americans are sophisticated pagans, infatuated with images of reality rather than with reality itself. This is the essence of idolatry, as the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 1:21-23--For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles."

The referential fallacy is serious business. Isn't it? If people are willing to exchange the glory of an elephant that can be seen for images made from pixels to look like an elephant, how much easier is it to exchange the glory of the immortal and invisible God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles and houses and cars and ___________?