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Exploring the quick fix
By Steven Martinovich
Judging by his latest book, Todd Gitlin would appear to be a man out of his time. Where Marshall McLuhan seemed to celebrate the media culture, eventually becoming one of its fixtures, Gitlin believes the ever-present roar of the torrent drowns out who and what we really are. It turns us into little more than image tourists and consumers searching for the next fix before the present one wears off.
Although himself a prominent member of that torrent, Gitlin's Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives is a book length attack on those things that have transpired to create a society in love with little more than sensations. Not only do we consume those transitory sensations, he bemoans at several points, we seek them out. We implicitly vote for a lifestyle of sound and images.
"The dirty little secret is that ours is a civilization that revels in the experience of speed. We share a yearning for the kinetic sublime. Excepting the phobic among us, we revel in sensations of bodily speed: the sound of engines revving, the feeling of forward movement, the look of the earth passing beneath the wheels, the sensations of the wind through our hair, the blast of air...This is -- hush! -- fun," argues Gitlin.
Given Gitlin's self-proclaimed status as the voice of the Sixties Generation, it shouldn't be surprising that he drags out the usual suspects as being responsible for the river that engulfs us. Says Gitlin, it is caused by a "fusion of economic expansion and individual desire." In other words, the free market and choice have conspired to create a disposable society that doesn't value the considered and measured public broadcasters more than the purveyors of instant satisfaction.
Referencing German sociologist Georg Simmel, Gitlin argues that the money economy is among the factors that creates "impersonal social relations." Not surprisingly, Gitlin dates a desire for disposable feelings to the same time that capitalism began its ascent as a philosophy. "It seems that, in much of the West in the seventieth century and accelerating thereafter, feelings became associated ever more with the sense of the internal, subjective life set apart from the external world," he states at one point.
It's a compelling argument if you choose to ignore the role that Gitlin's generation played in the fostering of subjectivism and the fact that the desire for more speed - and by extension, a desire for faster access to information - has always been a facet of human behavior, the later point Gitlin readily admits to.
By failing to address the first point, Gitlin's effort is a wasted one. It was his generation and his activism that weakened much of traditional institutions that promoted social cohesion and community building. What we used to look to as community has now been replaced by the shared experience of watching what Rush Limbaugh once referred to as "the endless parade of human debris" that's featured on Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones.
Given that exploring the effect his own generation had on our culture is one of those exercises that that would have raised uncomfortable questions and even more uncomfortable answers, it's not surprising that Gitlin decided to place the blame on society and the system that serves it. The free market, however, is morally neutral when it comes to the tastes of its participants. As long as the basic requirements are met -- there is a seller, a buyer and a free exchange -- the system feeds the appetites of those involved.
While Media Unlimited does offer insights into the torrent that washes over us, even occasionally penetrating observations, his decision or inability to probe how and why we consume the way we do without stooping to blame the market and our desires ultimately hobbles his effort. The next time Gitlin looks at his television screen hopefully he'll see more than the sounds and images being broadcast, he'll see his own reflection.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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