By Martin Bosworth
Matt Zoller Seitz yesterday linked to Boston University professor Ray Carney’s voluminous film and media Web site, who in turn had posted an excerpted essay from Mark Edmundson’s “Why Read?” Edmundson, in this particular excerpt, uses his student evaluations as a metaphor for the commercialization of universities and the detached indifference of the modern generations:
More and more, we Americans like to watch (and not to do). In fact watching is our ultimate addiction. My students were the progeny of two hundred available cable channels and omnipresent Blockbuster outlets. They grew up with their noses pressed against the window of that second spectral world that spins parallel to our own, the World Wide Web. There they met life at second or third hand, peering eagerly, taking in the passing show, but staying remote, apparently untouched by it. So conditioned, they found it almost natural to come at the rest of life with a sense of aristocratic expectation: â€œWhat have you to show me that I havenâ€™t yet seen?â€â€¦.
I think Edmundsen is dead on the money with much of what he says, but the idea of bread and circuses as a sop to the masses is hardly a new one–ask the Christians getting fed to the lions if you disagree. 😉 I also think that, were he to write his book in 2006 or 2007, he would see that the same Internet he derides has also opened doors to expression the likes of which people could not possibly conceive of.
Video sites like YouTube not only democratize entertainment, but they also give a sort of “escape valve” to people who want to express themselves passionately, no matter how silly or trivial the subject matter may be. Everyone who puts up a video of themselves doing something dumb, or a silly cat trick, or a badly spliced video homage to their favorite show, does so because they have something they need to express or share. The Internet enables people to create entirely new identities and personae, uncoupled from what Jim Harper would call “meatspace.” This enables them to say whatever is on their mind, and do as they wish, without fear of embarrassment. (It also provokes some truly reprehensible behavior, but that’s another post.)
And what are blogs, wikis, bulletin boards, and the like but the ultimate form of self-expression? Even something as trivial as telling your friends what a shitty day you had helps us escape the (imposed?) idea of coolness and self-containment as the apex of a social identity. We want to feel. We want to share. We want to express. And every time we are told that this is not what people do, we simply find another way to do it.
Edmundsen is right to be cynical and depressed about the state of the younger generations as unthinking consumer drones who are excellent at group think, but fail at critical thinking–something Sam has railed against on many occasions himself. 🙂 But I don’t think he gives us enough credit for seeing through the shams of commercialism and building our own means to share our passions with the world.
Remember, it’s never the cool hipsters sitting on the sidelines who are remembered. The heroes of history are the ones who dared to stand out, to stand up, and put their idea out there, for better or worse.