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America’s descent into carnival and spectacle
Native mystery and transcendence displaced by the grotesque infantilism of the permanent now
“The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.” – Emerson, The American Scholar, 1837
What has happened to the United States of America? Masculine pronouns aside, Emerson’s nearly 200 year old description of grotesque social dismemberment sounds eerily contemporary.
In addition to increasingly violent political division, all of the nation’s major institutions, from Congress to news media to the presidency, have suffered a historic loss of public confidence, with approval ratings as low as 7% for Congress in 2022. Those who think the country is “on the wrong track” hover between 75-85%.
In the looming $20 billion 2024 election spectacle, forecast to be the most expensive in US history, nearly 60% of voters do not want either of the two leading presidential candidates – Trump nor Biden – to run. Adding to the already divisive turmoil and confusion, there are now said to be 72 “gender identities” besides male and female.
Simultaneously, an annual $2.3 trillion, 24/7 global media entertainment spectacle sells permanent apocalyptic crisis and a reductive, infantilized vision of humanity as a form of environmental pestilence cum reality freak show.
The balance, space and time required for the cultivation of human dignity are not just lost in the onslaught, they are viciously derided. Those who resist the deranged and frenzied imperatives of officially sanctioned nihilistic media narratives are burned at the virtual stake.
THE ONE DIMENSIONALITY OF MASS MEDIA
In his 1964 book, “Understanding Media,” Marshall McLuhan coined the term “mass media” and described these media as a phenomenon “not of the size of their audiences, but of the fact that everybody becomes involved in them at the same time." McLuhan described mass media as "make-happen agents," not as "make-aware agents." They fan division and spectacle with reductive, moralistic narratives demanding that people take sides, with McLuhan noting "…that the moralist typically substitutes anger for perception."
The great difference between the era before mass media and after is the sense of time. McLuhan observed that in the age of mass media,
“Travel differs very little from going to a movie or turning the pages of a magazine. ...People... never arrive at any new place. They can have Shanghai or Berlin or Venice in a package tour that they need never open. ...Thus the world itself becomes a sort of museum of objects that have been encountered before in some other medium.”
With the rise of the internet, social media and artificial intelligence, a sense of time is being obliterated. As invasive mass media are pumped 24/7/365 by anonymous global entities directly into previously private spaces, the time is always now.
People who live in a world without time also live in a world without history. They have no way to orient their lives and their experience.
In a culture shaped by mass media, there is nothing to anchor the values that define life’s meaning. Time experienced as vast, geologic and impersonal, rather than immediate, electronic and personal, ceases to exist.
The perpetual now requires constant titillation of its restless audience, producing a frenzied and violent Roman spectacle rather than a functioning democracy.
AMERICA LOST IN TIME
My sense of time was permanently shaped by a youth spent on the vast plains of eastern Montana, and later in the myriad and magnificent Rocky Mountain ranges west of the Continental Divide, hiking and fishing in the same mountains and streams so beautifully described in Norman Maclean’s novella, “A River Runs Through It.”
The sense of something larger than oneself, something other and numinous reaching towards infinity, was palpable in clouds drifting across an endless sky; in surging mountain rivers in spring, the veins of the earth, rushing relentlessly to their ocean destiny; in wind rustling mysteriously through the treetops of dense wilderness forests.
Native poet Richard Hugo once said that in Montana, failure doesn’t mean a damned thing. This was so because the ephemeral flotsam jetsam of contemporary culture was dwarfed by the immanence of the infinite in the land and sky, by beautifully violent river runoffs cleansing all in their path, or conversely, by existential stillness in the heart of wilderness nights.
It is frequently said that being alone in nature, in the mountains or on the plains, makes one feel small amidst the infinite. I have found the sensation to be the opposite. Although nature is utterly dominant and unequivocally other, it is also profoundly beautiful, a gift that opens something vast in the viewer. The sense of place and perspective is liberating, the ego finally unburdened from its incessant insane demands, the soul momentarily glimpsing eternity.
In a 1920s letter to fellow writer Waldo Frank, novelist Sherwood Anderson described this once common experience.
"Is it not likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost...? Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies.... I am old enough to remember tales that strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our people. The flavor of it hangs over the best work of Mark Twain.... I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet...."
The experience of nature as an enormity outside ourselves is so commonly encountered in American literature and philosophy, and especially in contemporary environmentalism with its virulent (“shrill”?) anti-humanism, it is easy to mistake it for helplessness or to overlook the reality on the other side.
“At the core of personal life there seems to be something inviolately impersonal, akin in our fashion to the mode of being rose, or rock – known and owned by all weather.” (pg. 184)
Once this connection is made, it is impossible to return to unmoored anti-humanism or suicidal nihilism. Humanity is part of nature. We are both inhuman and moral beings. To deny either is to fall into the void. And that void is staring us in the face right now.