"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Entertainment Without Empathy–Is Pop Culture Turning Us Into Dummies?

I grew up in the heyday of comic books and had stacks of Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel by my bedside. 

Every Saturday I walked down to Jimmy’s Smoke Shop on Main Street – the store with the best collection of comics, girly magazines, and gag items like Whoopee Cushions, hand buzzers, and fly ice cubes – and bought the latest issue of my favorite reads.

At the same time as I was following the adventures of superheroes, I was getting – thanks to my Summer Reading List -  a steady diet of the classics.  I remember wanting to be Superman a lot more than David Copperfield, but saw nothing weird about flipping between literary adventures and pop ones.

Noah Berlatsky writing in The Atlantic (6.6.13) suggests that ‘iconic’ superheroes are taking over from the more real and relevant characters of serious fiction, and that we are losing the vital intellectual and emotional nutrient that literature can provide.

Art, we're often told, encourages empathy. By watching or reading about different people, or different situations, we become able to understand and sympathize with a broader range of perspectives. Fiction connects you to other people—or as Chuck Klosterman said, "Art and love are the same thing: It's the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you." There was even a study last year that found that "experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes."

Comic book characters, on the other hand, are completely divorced from their creators.  These figures are merely pop icons – action heroes with no soul.  They have not struggled and overcome.  They have no sketchy past or bouts with alcohol. They have never been out of work or had to do the dishes.  They have never won nor lost in love.

Ever since DC paid Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster $130 for the rights to Superman back in 1940, superheroes have been carefully and deliberately separated from the living, breathing folks who thought them up, to the point where the vast majority of people probably only vaguely realize that those living, breathing folks even existed.

Who cares? Except for maybe a few men who never made it out of adolescence, I don’t know of many adults who cannot appreciate the difference between the two.  My son was an avid reader of comic books in the 80s, played with He-Man figures, and for a while each day became Stinkor, Claw-Man, or Skeletor.  As far as I can tell, none of this fantasy distorted his sense of empathy, appreciation for literature, or mathematical reasoning.

Berlatsky then goes on to relate how producers of some television shows like The Avengers, have decided to break the human link entirely.  Instead of real, live actors, the show will feature computer-generated characters.  These, say the creators, will be larger than life and will give a greater kick than the real thing.

Exploiting superheroes, then, has long been an exercise in disconnection—prying Superman apart from Siegel and Shuster, leveraging Captain America or Iron Man away from Jack Kirby, splitting Watchmen away from Alan Moore. Which is why, per Sneddon, it's not a surprise that Marvel appears to be threatening to dump the actors who powered its incredibly popular Avengers film in favor of cheaper substitutes. Hulk is bigger than any puny actor playing Hulk.

Berlatsky concludes by remarking that these super-heroics could be used to create some kind of empathy if one had the gumption.  Star Trek has always had some potential, he says, but ends up in Into Darkness with a facile and “compulsive rejiggering/pastiche/homage of The Wrath of Khan, complete with radiation poisoning and iconic screaming.”  Rather than add some moral weight to its metaphorical references to 9/11, it remains purely a comic book blow-‘em-up fantasy.

Berlatsky’s plaint is a familiar one – America is losing its soul to popular culture.  We are a country more characterized by Las Vegas glitz, Hollywood, Beyoncé, boob jobs, ADHD-type social mediation, throw-away fashion, Ronald McDonald and Happy Meals.  In their quiet moments, re-reading Swann’s Way with a good port, pseudo-intellectuals smile at America’s fancies and inanities.  If we were only more like the French, they muse. Why have we never had a Sartre, Camus, or the New Wave?  How principled and stalwart the French are, resisting the viral invasion of Hollywood, keeping La Belle France uninfected by the American disease of crassness.

This argument, of course, denies the real vitality of American culture and the ineffable connection it has with millions of followers from Africa to the Arctic. It our culture is derivative, it is irresistible.  As much as we would like to think so, most of the world cares more about Iron Man than Kant.  This popular culture and its transformation of the real into the virtual is actually more seminal than any Left Bank reflections on being and nothingness.  It is more important to look at the process of popularization of culture than its current expressions.  America is leading the way towards a virtual-dominant world where the very concept of reality is changing.  The not-too-distant day when a virtual, computer-generated world is indistinguishable from the ‘real’ one will be historic. Personal fantasy, idealization, and make-believe will flourish.

At the same time, the very enterprise which is making virtuality the popular expression of the times, will also make all the world’s ‘serious’ information available instantaneously.  For those who want empathy, there will never be a better time. What more rewarding for real intellectuals than to travel in a virtual world populated by King Lear, Willy Loman, and Oedipus?

What matters are these soulless, hollow, fungible icons, and the assurance that they will continue forever as around them all the mere humans effervesce like ghosts. This art isn't about empathy or love. Instead, it's about worship, about pledging fealty to our invented, charismatically uncaring, gods. Our corporate fictions offer the blank joy of not caring, whether about creators, actors, strangers, or ourselves.

With one final kick at corporate greed and its devilish distortion of empathy and good, Berlatsky dismisses popular culture for its airheaded divorce from meaning.  It has no meaning other than to entertain, and by resorting to pure entertainment – i.e. hollow men in tight body suits blowing up evil villains – it dumbs us down to sludge level.  Where are the moral considerations of evil? Or the consequences of action? Or gender issues?

On any given Saturday night, perhaps 100 million Indians are walking out of movie theatres, dazed by the glitz, glamor, action, and drama of Bollywood.  If both this pervasive and compelling popular culture can co-exist with the most esoteric and sublime of world philosophies, then we Americans can handle both The Terminator and Richard Ford.

In fact, Indians have actually merged popular culture with serious meditation. There is nothing more pop and Bollywood than the public expression of Hinduism with its hundreds of gods, fantastical representations of them, festivals, parades, and films.

There are a lot of important issues facing us today, but “Empathy-free Entertainment” is not one of them.

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