My 12-year-old knows about the most graphic scene in the film Alien, even though she’s never seen the film. She knows the accusations against Bill Cosby, even though she doesn’t know anything else about him. She has absorbed all kinds of sordid information about the world, even though she says she doesn’t want to know it, and doesn’t know how she acquired it. All this is from a child who lives in the Irish countryside, watches less television than most, is not allowed to use the internet unsupervised and who sees mostly black-and-white films with me.
I understand completely; most of us know things without knowing where we first heard them – where did you first learn about porcupines, for example, or Iceland? Our modern media – corporations, political factions and advertisers -- take advantage of that, flooding us with images and factoids and hoping some of it sticks. Generally, it works; we carry all kinds of attitudes and certainties about the world that we picked up from some screen, and that are now part of our world-view, even if some of it is false. We didn’t ask for the information, can’t verify it, and can’t explain how it came to be part of us. Such processes are out of our hands now.
If I asked you to picture Moscow, for example, or a Mexican village, or the Amazon rainforest, you’re probably picturing a set of images from the mass media – again, you picked them up somewhere, and now they pop into your thoughts unbidden when someone says the right word. When I picture Moscow, for example, I picture a snowbound Kremlin from a thousand international spy thrillers, and I bet the same is true of most Westerners. I’m not picturing pre-schools, or shopping malls, or trailer park barbecues on a hot summer day, even though all those, I’m told, are also part of Moscow.
I could correct my thinking about that drop of information, of course, but I can’t correct the entire flood of media influence that surrounds us. I could probably name a few Kardashians or tell you something about how Breaking Bad ended, just from passing magazines at the shop in the nearby village, or hearing the radio station over the loudspeakers in the parking lot. Look up your e-mail on a computer, and you get video advertisements, pop-ups, fake news and spam. Briefly glance at a television and you see adverts for products you don’t need, trailers that spoil the best parts of upcoming films, and graphic images you can’t un-see – and I see televisions now in pubs, restaurants, doctors’ offices and bus depots.
I’ve talked about how living in rural Ireland lets you see this in fast-forward, as the country has undergone about a century of change in a few decades. Our adult neighbours grew up here with small television screens and radio, and their parents grew up with local folk songs and storytellers. These days this country is hooked up to the same Hollywood media as most Western countries, and teens in villages here get the same memes, pop songs, and self-destructive fads as teens across the world.
All this swimming in self-referential loops of pop-culture flotsam makes actually enjoying any media far more difficult; any line or image dramatic enough to draw attention is repeated, discussed, spoiled, clipped out, placed on internet lists and regurgitated until it takes its place in the flood of cultural white noise. The film Alien would be one example; if my daughter sees it someday, the originality will be gone, and only the luridness will remain.
Another is the shower scene of Psycho; everyone I know has seen it many times in some form, but few people I know have seen the film itself. They never got to know the character of Marion Crane, or felt real emotion at her tragedy, or experienced the shock at this fundamental violation of the conventions of storytelling.
Many such pop-culture references these days mock the original work, so that anything original or sincerely moving gets parodied, made into memes and GIFs, and fed to the crowd-sourced online Spoofinator. The same goes for politics, or sexuality, or religion, or any of the subjects that modern culture treats with reflexive insouciance. Such idle jabs fill the airwaves, television dial and blogosphere, as political factions, religious groups and subcultures all try to buy our attention with the currency of petty insults.
Let’s be clear: this knee-jerk irreverence is not satire, even if we call it that. Genuine satire works when the perceptive deflate our awe of the powerful, and when it works – as when Aristophanes satirised Athens’ brutal war to the very people who had lost brothers and sons – it is genuinely painful. In the case of our mass media, many of the people doing the jabbing are powerful themselves, and can pay for the most exposure and best put-downs.
When people from various religious and political bubbles snark at each other, they form a circular firing squad, tearing each other down from the anonymous safety of their computer screen; it’s cowardice, not activism. Nor does any of it carry the genuine catharsis of irreverence, for irreverence has no power when it’s all there is, when there’s no reverence left in our culture to push against.
The ubiquity of media means that Hollywood culture imposes its will on us whether we want it to or not, and we interpret real events according to fictional templates. Our movies, television programmes, even advertisements take the form of morality plays, whose characters tend to fall into basic types: Tough Cop, Unstable Scientist, Sexy Woman, Fanatical Preacher, Slick Executive, Smart-Aleck Kid, Bumbling Dad. Those characters, in turn, fill slots in the plot: Hero, Sassy Sidekick, Unnecessarily Evil Villain or Exaggerated Fool. Plots follow a set path on a certain timetable: the Set-Up, the Point of No Return, the Climax. At the end, most characters Learn a Valuable Lesson: Follow Your Heart, or True Love Wins, or Break Free of Society’s Rules.
Some of us notice one or two of those messages only when they violate our subculture’s taboos: that is, when we find it sexist, or anti-Christian, or racist, or anti-American, or anti-whatever-we-favour. Then we consider it propaganda – and of course it is, but everything we see is propaganda. We merely notice it because it’s propaganda against things we favour, just as we complain about “media bias” when it’s a bias other than our own. Most of the propaganda we see every day, however, is invisible to us – we grew up with it, and are no more aware of it than we are the nitrogen wafting around us.
But stories from 50 years ago, or 500 or 5,000 years ago, though, had different categories of people, and taught different lessons – say, Honour Your Oath, or Be Content with What You Have. They acknowledged that a few people held power, and all others serve them, while our culture pretends otherwise. They did not assume that they were the pinnacle of creation, or that the future would be richer than the past. They did not think of men and women as interchangeable. Look at stories by Sophocles or Shakespeare, Jane Austen or Frank Capra, and you see very different worlds, often with ideas that bristle our sensibilities, but also with wisdom that we have abandoned.
A reasonable approach might be to grow up learning from a variety of writers, from the old and new alike, and many people throughout history have done so. In all those eras, however, the stories came from a book, or actors on a stage, or neighbours. For us, they are a flood of images and stories in which we swim from childhood, and our images of the world – of who we are, how people should act, and what our future might be like -- are woven together from what we’ve seen on screens. They were made to be the most addictive and diverting sensory input ever seen, and they drown out everything else.
Which brings me to the most frustrating thing about the flood of Hollywood media around us: we didn’t give permission for this to happen. We don’t have the right or ability to turn it off, and as much as we try to withdraw from it, we can’t eliminate it and remain in the modern world. My daughter’s teacher gives her assignments that require the internet, I get talk radio broadcast on the bus, and I get television at the doctor’s office, filling my head with jingles, gossip, and images I didn’t want. As much as we claim to love our various freedoms, we have sacrificed the freedom not to know.
I don’t care very much if my daughter knows about a horror film or a celebrity scandal; those bits of information, in isolation, do no harm. I care about the constant avalanche of images and noise around us, and how it gets into our heads and shapes our passions without our consent. I care about how it creates a slow tectonic shift of culture under our feet, moving us to the positions most convenient for the people in power. I care about finding a way to raise children while trying to hold back this tide, standing like Canute against the sea.