There is rarely any news. We are instead entertained, easily, by the lives of celebrities, sporting events, restaurant reviews, by introspective novels about our internal lives, our true selves. And we are never shocked, either in form or content by the information we do receive. Our entertainments never transgress our expectations. When our entertainments are called shocking, it is only by intensifying our expectation: sport becomes more violent, boxing gives way to cage fighting. Life in San Francisco, a friend told me, was under a decree: “You can’t have a meal; it has to be a feast. You can’t have a good time; it has to be a blast!”
We accept this of sport and soap operas, but we all know that it is serious topics that perform as entertainment, too. The television news is like this: explosions, shootings – an evening’s drama. As a child, I remember my uncle telling me about the coverage of the first Iraq war, We all watched those planes dropping bombs onto buildings, and I thought, ‘”Those are apartment buildings, people live there.'” All of this in support of toothpaste commercials and that new Fiat (I’m told there’s a dealership in Berkeley now).
Guy Debord’s book, Society of the Spectacle, defines spectacle in one sense as the convergence of real power and representations of power. When the military in their uniforms flank the sidelines, and fighter jets fly overhead, and millionaire minstrels perform the only work that a racist nation feels black men are fit for, with ads on the field for Lockheed-Martin, all to pour narcotic and numbing entertainment into the empty vessel called the American sports fan who stares into their television and occasionally applauds what they see on the box – a little Nuremberg rally in your own house every Sunday – we have a haunting image of American life and power in 2014.
(If that sounds strident, let me confess that it gives me pleasure when the University of Michigan defeats Notre Dame. I, too, contain multitudes, and we all like, Whitman, must be allowed our hypocrisy.) This is the media I grew up with, which exist as pure enjoyment, unchallenging, whose truths are self-contained, a fantasy world you enter into, in which that good grows and evil withers, that does not tell you anything about yourself that you do not already know. And more, we select media because we know that it will not challenge us.
Roland Barthes called these media entertainments, “readerly” texts, those that confirm our prejudices and embody our desires. But he described a second category, the “writerly” text, one that can be transgressive and truly shocking, that can attack our beliefs and make us uncomfortable, that can rend the fabric of our settled and self-satisfied perceptions of reality and through this opening allow us to attain new truths and understanding. This goal is the inspiration of great art, but we don’t like it, because it makes us uncomfortable and interrupts our gluttonous self-amusement.
Well, people are sometimes aware of this, and it causes them to be ashamed of themselves, their indolent minds and lack of moral courage. So we have invented new forms of entertainment that will deal with this dilemma. In the crisis of conscience caused by this era of destruction, we are soothed by the appearance of counterfeit “writerly” content, for instance, the provocations of contemporary art: sharks in embalming fluid, the photographs of Robert Maplethorpe, etc. The late Robert Hughes called these, “…not a critique of decadence, they are merely decadent.”
Non-news takes a subtler form in the medium of radio, in particular, NPR. The hosts on National Public Radio not only play to the desire of the audience to be amused, they are, in essence, the internal thoughts of the listener. It isn’t a man or woman talking to you; they are you, the voice of your internal monolog through the speakers in your car. In this way, reports about Iraq give way naturally to discussions of the complications of providing your dog or cat with health insurance, or an elk in Yosemite that has its own blog. Terri Gross listens to guests for you and asks inane distracted questions on your behalf as you drive along half-aware. To some aging protest singer she will yawn, “I mean, um, for you, was that like a good thing or a bad thing?”
News is something you need to react to. It tells us something is wrong. Sadly, we have become convinced we can’t change the world. In a sense, we don’t have news anymore, on TV or in print, because “news” implies that you can do something to respond. And we feel the terrible events that happen all around us every day are all beyond our control. News channels and papers only present stories that, when not meant merely to depress our will to act or inflame our emotions, function as Party propaganda. Each crisis is held in a narrative that heavy implies that a resolution of any problem can only be achieved by the viewer’s loyal support for either the Republican or Democratic Party.
There is another view of the news. I have observed men and women in West Marin who cannot conceive of their own death. They have lived for decades desperately pressing the supposed frontier of existence; the belief that self-expression and the worlds we create in our heads are the ultimate purpose of being, a world with no future beyond ourselves. This ecstatic narcissism defines our culture. Its cynicism knows no bounds. So as age leans upon our dull cold bodies, some of us are entranced by apocalypse, which offers a perverse satisfaction in its “news”. It assures us: It is not we who will die. It is the world that will end.