Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Value of "Narrow-mindedness"

The Guardian recently published a posthumous article by Susan Sontag, which I also linked to a few days back. In the article, Sontag argued that the novel is in decline, threatened by the preponderance of electronic media.

Daniel Johnson took issue with Sontag today on the Commentary Magazine blog. His argument is: 1) Susan Sontag is old-fashioned. Well, was old-fashioned. This is because she questioned electronic media. Interestingly, if you question status quo thinking on anything but technology, you are considered an iconoclast or an intellectual. However, if you question the status quo thinking on any technology whatsoever, you are called a Luddite. That usually ends the argument. Incidentally, no mention is made of the fact that the actual Luddites were right.

Johnson continues: 2) Susan Sontag is making a false dichotomy between high art and blogging, and 3) The Internet doesn't threaten novel writing. In fact: "the Internet has brought about a renaissance of some literary genres—the letter (email), the diary (blogs), the little magazine (webzines)—that had seemed to be almost endangered species. The advent of narrowcasting has allowed specialized TV channels to multiply, giving artists unprecedented access to their publics. And the insatiable hunger of all mass media for “content” means that there are now more people earning a living by writing than ever before." Right. None of which are novels though. I literally have no idea if Johnson realizes that letters, magazines, and diaries are not the same thing as novels, in spite of the fact that they are all written. I have no idea if he realizes that the gossip columns in People Magazine, for example, are different than the works of Nabokov.

George Trow, who I cited yesterday, said back in 1980 that Television creates a problem of scale: it presents the War against Acne in the same way it presents the Vietnam war. Viewers tend to distinguish that certain things are important, but not why, and not how important in relation to each other. For instance, they might ask, along with Daniel Johnson: "What is the difference between the novel and an email? They're both written, after all."

In other words, everything base is elevated and everything elevated is lowered, and we end up with flatness, an oceanic, indistinct field for the insensate. 'Content'. But no substance. But, who can tell the difference after a few years?

It is this inability to make the most basic distinctions of value that is most obvious in people who have been trained to think by the mass media, and this is particularly salient in Internet writing. The Internet is what happens when people who have been educated by television learn to speak aloud in the television patois. Why shouldn't a community college economics instructor's opinions on global warming be taken as seriously as a climate scientist's? Why shouldn't we take an unemployed actor's ideas on what "really happened on 9-11" as seriously as we would a military expert's? Or a teenaged blogger's, for that matter? Isn't the point of a 'marketplace of ideas' to offer a variety of ideas to a variety of people? Isn't the important thing debate as an end in itself? You say the world is flat, and I say the world is round, and we're both right!

This inability to distinguish is usually defended by appealing to "elitism". It would be elitism to suggest that a great blog is not equivalent to a great novel. It might even be elitist to suggest that graffiti writing isn't equivalent- all but identical really- to novel writing. And yet...

Aristocracies are paradoxical in that they're bad for political rule, and absolutely vital for culture. We need to be able to make distinctions based on coldly (inhumane!) objective standards of taste, in spite of the fact that such standards are not democratic. Aesthetics are not democratic. Intellect is not democratic. No blogger has yet written at the level of Dostoevski, or even at the much lower level of Stephen King. Thus people who read nothing but things they find on the Internet are still often unable to read literature. I teach a generation that is largely unable to follow the arguments presented in books. And yet, they are able to read blog entries and emails. According to Johnson, six of one is worth a half-dozen of the other.

And, yet...

And, yet, there's some part of us that knows this isn't true. Call it 'elitist', or 'arrogant', or 'the argument of a Luddite'. But, even the babies realize that the adolescents, like Daniel Johnson, are ripping them off. They just don't have the words to express it yet. Pablum is content. Content is pablum. And some of us hunger for adult food. But this is not an adult society, and right now, it most desperately needs to be.

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