Sunday, October 17, 2010
Lately I have been passing through Times Square on a regular basis, which has prompted me to reflect on the title of this blog and its meaning in our world today.
The screen has eclipsed our society more than we tend to realize. The screen is both the skin and the skeleton of our times; it is not only what we are perceived through and what we perceive each other through, but it has become part of the central infrastructure of our era. The screen itself has become the culture and the territory within which and through which we live and learn. As both means of communication and production, the screen plays a pivotal if seemingly passive role in the local and global status quo. Like money and the commodity form, the screen mediates all of social and economic life, representing anything and everything, a vehicle for all existing symbols, connecting and dividing us in ways that abound in metaphysical subtleties. All the time screens are reaching deeper into our lives -- on the streets, in our homes and our pockets, in our work-places and in our classrooms, in our desires and our fears, in our ideologies and in our subconscious. Like all technology, the screen expresses the psycho-social-economic condition of the world which has created it. But the screen also has unique dimensions, which have immediate and long-term consequences.
The pedagogy of the screen. There is a pedagogy of the screen which pervades our society and in particular ways controls the way in which it understands itself. The pedagogy of the screen is not limited or confined to those who uncritically embrace it, but includes the work of those who resist messages that the screen often displays. It is possible to fight your boss without understanding capitalism. Similarly, in struggling against what is on the screen, it is possible to miss the qualities of the screen itself. The pedagogy of the screen has certain characteristics and implicit imperatives which we can identify. They are all on display, not only in Times Square, but all over the world.
To plumb the depths of the superficial : To interrogate the image; to shore up its deepest dimensions and ambiguities, to engage in profound abstraction, but without departing from the superficial.
To disguise perspective as depth : The screen enables expression to explore new terrain, it allows us to see from a multiplicity of angles hitherto unimagined. The panoply of perspectives the screen makes possible could even be theorized as democratic or revolutionary, but its results as a pedagogy do not confirm this. Perspective alone is not profound; more often, meaning and purpose are lost and forgotten in the abundance and velocity of angles and frames.
To privilege the artificial over the tangible : The screen has somehow inherited the philosophy of Plato, who insisted that the tangible world is less real than the ideal world. Not only through advertisement but equally through news, shows and movies, we learn through the screen to yearn for what we do not have and to forget what has already been given us. Simultaneously,
To deify the distant at the expense of the present : To value what is far away and to discount what is near. Or, in different terms, to invert the reality of the immediate: Once what was urgent was defined by proximity and/or intimate relation to our own lives. The cumulative effect of the screen is to make the experience of immediacy in our lives ever more conditioned by realities ever more distant from our own.
To seek empowerment through the analysis of disempowerment? We may critically analyze our screens using psychoanalysis, political economy, feminism, and more, and pry into the depths of manipulation and power that the screens display. Many are working to mobilize this knowledge to challenge this power and manipulation. It is important but tricky work. This kind of knowledge has peculiar properties, listed above and below, of which we must beware. Knowledge must be dynamic, but more often than not the knowledge of media power is inert, relatively powerless upon the terrain of its enemies. Students of the media must risk becoming too invested in the infrastructure and world-view of the screen to challenge it fundamentally.
To disguise or muddle the difference between entertainment and research : Media studies, as an academic discipline or, more widely, as a personal hobby exercised by billions, usually makes no clear practical or theoretical distinction between entertainment and research. We can critically analyze advertisements and music videos, but we are still consuming advertisements and music videos.
To do the same for the difference between surrender and resistance : Just as the line between consumption and research is blurred, so the line between surrender and resistance is lost in revolutionary analysis of an oppressive screen. No matter what our politics are, when we are surfing the web or flipping through channels, we are collaborators.
To unite knowledge and inaction, both mental and physical : The pedagogy of the screen requires that we be still and silent. While armchair philosophy has been with us since time immemorial, the screen has taken us to a new level, which we might call La-Z-Boy philosophy. The act of reading, while presupposing physical inaction, at least requires and engages the imagination of the reader. The screen, on the other hand, substitutes for imagination. This is not hyperbole; the brain-wave patterns of a person watching TV is very similar to a sleeping person. The screen unites education and consumption, knowledge and passivity. Ultimately this leads to the final deadly imperative of the screen:
To paralyze praxis : The crucial bridge between theory and practice, mediated by the screen, paralyzes their unity as praxis. The paralysis or immobilization of praxis is the most frightening aspect of the pedagogy of the screen, with implications that stretch into the distant horizon of human evolution.
The title of this blog is not intended to be ironic. I hope it is obvious that this is not a call for the random destruction of technology. After all, your screen allows you to read this indictment of it. This blog and these words are only available online and through screens, so this indictment must also be of itself, and of myself. Nothing on a screen is innocent. But the individual screen does not represent the world of the screen any more than the individual private property owner represents capitalism. The screen is more than the sum of its [toxic] parts; it is also an outlook, a weltanschauung, a discipline, a pedagogy, a status quo. This blog is a call to smash the world-view, even as we are living and breathing it, to seize the depth and immediacy and reality of life, to reclaim the territory and cultures that have been colonized by the screen. This is a call to cut out the screen as the ultimate middle-man of both economy and consciousness, to free our minds so our asses can follow.
>From One Man’s Meat, “Removal [July 1938]”
by E.B. White
“Lately I haven’t had time to read the papers, as I have been building a mouseproof closet against a rain of mice. But sometimes, kindling a fire with last week’s Gazette, I glance through the pages and catch up a little with the times. I see that a mother is ready to jump from a plane six miles above the World of Tomorrow, that a sailor has read Anthony Adverse standing up, and that Orson Welles (or was it Booth) sighs for the waning theatre.
The news of television, however, is what I particularly go far when I get a chance at the paper, for I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by the television—of that I am quite sure.
It must have been two years ago that I attended a television demonstration at which it was shown beyond reasonable doubt that a person sitting in one room could observe the nonsense taking place in another. I recall being more amused by what was happening in the tangible room where I sat than by what appeared in the peephole of science. The images were plain enough, however, and by paying attention I could see the whites of a pretty woman’s eyes. Since then I have followed the television news closely.
Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God. Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound “effects” are taking the place once enjoyed by the sound itself. Television will enormously enlarge the eye’s range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images—distant and concocted. In sufficient accumulation, radio sounds and television sights may become more familiar to us than their originals. A door closing, heard over the air; a face contorted; seen in a panel of light—these will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang the door of our own cell or look into another’s face the impression will be of mere artifice. I like to dwell on this quaint time, when the solid world becomes make-believe, McCarthy corporeal and Bergen stuffed, when all is reversed and we shall be like the insane, to whom the antics of the sane seem like the crazy twistings of a grig.
When I was a child people simply looked about them and were moderately happy; today they peer beyond the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings, and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.
(Thanks to Andrew for this quote)