Feeding the Panglossians

Kerr and Miller

Feeding the Panglossians

Kerr and Miller

Feeding the Panglossians
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 15 1998 6:48 PM

Kerr and Miller

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My dear Sarah,

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Our angles are not all that different: I too have written plenty about books, although I have indeed done plenty on the electronic media; and it's only lately that I've concentrated (so to speak) on "the creeping ... dominance of the corporations"--although it's not so much their "creeping economic dominance" (your phrase) that I've discussed, but their oblique aesthetic sway, and its most pressing civic, socio-political, and economic consequences.

Thus I urge you to regard my argument as coming not out of an alien discipline, or from another planet, but from your own--for I too am a literary type (if I may put it crudely), trained in letters, not in economics or communication. (Let me say that I quite liked your recent piece on Sheridan.) It is really on that philosophical and humanistic basis that I criticize the Gabler book, which--let me speak bluntly--sucks not just because it overlooks the economic sphere (although that is a serious problem), but for much deeper reasons pertinent to that evasion.

Let's start with what I said about his business being entertainment: I didn't mean his stint on Sneak Previews, which I would never hold against him. (Intellectuals should do that sort of thing, if they can do it with integrity.) Rather--as I suggested in my final paragraph--I meant this book of his, which (I quote myself) appears to be "itself a perfect instance of the very trend that it purports to analyze." There is, in other words, a certain kind of maundering, inexplicit belly-aching re "the media" that we hear and see and read throughout the media. It's what they in the media like to call either "soul-searching" (if they want to dignify it) or "hand-wringing" (if--like Gabler--they prefer to snicker at it). It's salable because it's obvious, simplistic, takes no risks, and makes no waves; and that's why I consider it a form of "entertainment." In this capacious category you can put, e.g., the works of Allan Bloom and William Bennett, and, say, nearly everything Jeff Greenfield says on television. It sounds deep, sombre, "critical," but leaves all monuments and temples standing--and in such faux-critique there is perhaps a certain entertainment value, and therefore money to be made, which is what I meant.

Now, as to the argument "that entertainment has jumped the rails and crashed into people's lives," altering our very consciousness, etc., I agree whole-heartedly that this is "not infertile territory." Damn right: I'd say it's not just not infertile, but a crucial realm of inquiry--which is why I am so very hard on Life The Movie. For grossly over-simplifying this important question, and thereby providing the Panglossians with yet one more occasion to laugh off the whole discussion, Gabler deserves not praise but censure.

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You'll note, I hope, that here I'm seconding the all-important observation in your last: that one must not, in going over Gabler's book, do "the contrarian dance where the reviewer says Writer X is upset, and while your gut tells you he may be onto something, a quick look at history shows that things have always been this screwed up, so don't worry, be happy." As one who's often been dismissed in just that way, I take your sharp and elegant perception very seriously, and only wish that Gabler had as well.

So let's get down to it. What is in Life The Movie that is worth our serious (re)consideration? I don't think it's the point about how camera-ready people have become here in the culture of TV--a point that intellectuals from (say) Christopher Lasch to Jean-Luc Godard have made long since, and more incisively than Gabler has (although you wouldn't know it from his book). Rather, there are other, deeper aspects of the problem that he either overlooks or coarsens, and that, perhaps, we two should talk about.

First, there is the global move by countless media conglomerates and advertisers toward what we might call a total influence: i.e., from merely standing out within the environment, however vividly and massively, to posing or appearing as the environment itself. One could argue that this represents only the latest, largest version of the sort of take-over of audience consciousness that theorists of rhetoric have urged from Aristotle on; and one might certainly find antecedents of the current practice (as manifest in shopping malls, theme parks and Celebration, Fla., for instance) in, for example, company towns like Pullman and department stores like Marshall Field. Herein we see the architectural or even urban version of the sort of bright hermetic spectacle that is TV--a good example of the sort of shift that Gabler wants to talk about, but really doesn't, inasmuch as he ignores the primary agents of such change in favor of his usual ascription of the blame to "us" and "our" alleged overwhelming, all-consuming thirst for "entertainment."

Second (and do remember that I don't regard these final paragraphs as proffering an exhaustive overview), there is the curious and all-pervasive shift whereby the great mass-cultural works that people used to thrill to, think and talk about, etc., have been turned into mere sites on the mass-cultural landscape: Psycho, once a frightful and disturbing work, a new and deep experience, is now a thing that everybody knows, and so the pleasure is the pleasure of mere knowingness and nothing harder or more taxing or--most importantly--unique to Hitchcock's film. Such is the case, it seems, with everything out there that is well-known to most of us: 2001 (everybody knows "The Dawn of Man,"; the slowly rising, falling bone; the Strauss theme), The Godfather (everybody knows Brando's jowls and accent, and "Make him an offer he can't refuse"), Virginia Woolf (everybody knows her face from Barnes & Noble's shopping bags), and on and on and on. Thus we all seem to have been transported from a culture of true aesthetic/narrative choices to a more homogenous culture of ironic recognition: the "post-modern" culture of Quentin Tarantino, sampling, Disney's architecture, and so on. Gabler doesn't go this deep--nor, interestingly, does he (if I remember rightly) use the word "ironic" once, which is, I'd say, a strange avoidance, or oversight, in a book on fin-de-siècle mass culture.

Well, I've gone on long enough. I look forward to your next, ma soeur .

MCM

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Sarah Kerr is a regular contributor to Slate. Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of media studies at New York University and author of Seeing Through Movies. This week they discuss Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, by Neal Gabler (Knopf; 303 pages; $25).