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I love television. I love movies. I love plays. Depictions of human endeavors, however expressed, through whatever dramatic vehicle, are as engaging as they are enlightening, as “sweet and useful” as any good Horace could want. Plus, the thespian arts have the ruddy hue of populism about them. Even the simplest soul, intimidated by letters and undone by syntax, can appreciate his own picture played out before him in a thousand pixels of light.

But now that my love is confessed, I will speak against my heart, or at least issue it a warning. For recently I came upon a cautionary thought that stretches back as far as our country’s most famous observer, and down as far as what it means to live in a democracy, and even to call oneself human.

Alexis de Toqueville, that dispassionate objectivist, admired our great country for de-centralizing power—keeping decisions about life as close to the citizen as possible. According to Ben Berger, whose book, Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement, is forthcoming this summer, the nascent American government acted as a type of new technology.

Like all technologies, which extend our natural abilities and make us stronger, faster, smarter, “democracy extends citizens’ movement beyond their previous boundaries in feudal and aristocratic hierarchies…[constituting] a technology of freedom.”

But as the author points out, Toqueville foresaw a problem that might arise when having one’s own house, barn, fields, etc. leads to a disproportionate attachment to the same. A fixated determination to maintain our possessions can create solipsism.

And the tendency seems built into human nature, a proclivity that must be carefully guarded against. Otherwise, the self might become a tyrant, isolated and strangely infantilized to the point that in the end, it would ironically surrender its freedom in exchange for the continuance of personal comforts.

In this way, the “independent impulse”—to have your own say about how you live and how your resources are spent—is perverted into an unhealthy attachment to ease, threatening the entire system. This phenomenon can find its counterpart in the strangest of places. For many who have lived under totalitarian regimes, freed and given their right to self-rule, grow wistful for the days when all was provided for them, regardless of how shabby and middling.

“At least I was safe and protected then,” says the former slave. “At least I got three meals a day,” says the former inmate. “At least I wasn’t responsible for planning and thinking and doing it all on my own,” says the former child.

Contentment, its preservation and enhancement, can displace a desire for all else. The idealistic goods of civic responsibility and scholastic pursuit can be willingly sacrificed for the immediate gratifications of the maw.

And the latter are always more appealing because they are more direct, more sensual. To put it crudely: fireworks and pizza will draw a crowd faster than the most informative of philosophical lectures, even those that promise profound truths.

Juvenal satirized the bread and circuses provided by roman emperors in order to placate a rowdy populace; cheap benefits not only make the masses forget their condition, but also forget that they’re supposed to care about it. So if we are not mindful, rather than determining what is really best, the question becomes “which way will give me what I enjoy?” and more precisely—“which way will remove the whole bother for me, so that I can get on with having a good time?”

How all this leads back to the visual arts is this: Just as democracy requires care—the hard work of civic participation, and an often discomforting engagement with communal undertakings—lest the very thing that is so great about it, autonomy, degenerate into self-absorption, so does the mind require some type of resistance, lest those entertainments that enthrall us with their sparkling changefulness turn one means of knowing truth and beauty into a caricature of itself.

For it is a truism that modern life is largely visual; even the most important aspects of our culture are assessed upon their “telegenicity” and “punch.” The path can even be traced. According to Berger, the average shot length of American movies stood at 27.9 seconds in 1953. In 2007, it was 2.5 seconds.

Not only do we require novelty—something bigger and more engaging than the last thing that popped out of the box—but the speed at which these changes must occur is ramping up like a coke addict’s frenzy for a higher high.

Dramas of actual depth cannot compete with a craving for ever-larger astral explosions. Spectacle displaces substance, and sequels—rote, swift, and vulgar—will be all we have left. Further, if good drama can’t keep up, how can the aural arts even get out of the blocks? Books of any quality might as well go burn themselves.

“You cannot do political philosophy on television,” Berger quotes critic Neil Postman as saying. “Its form works against the content.”

But without it we would be cocooned within our provincialities, stuffed with our own homemade pumpernickel and glued to our own three-ring acts. Temperance is one answer to all of this, of course, but it’s not just a matter of temperance. The greater enemies are sloth and risk-aversion. In seeking to eliminate all friction in our lives, we wind up never leaving the house—never participating in the world in which we live.

Similarly, we tend to avoid that which taxes our brains, opting for amusements that shock us most and shock us fastest—whether in Act I or on page one.

If to exercise the body we must accept discomfort, pushing beyond pain, to exercise the mind requires a related effort, an involvement that rejects the passive, formaldehyde bath of strobing visuals. A human is more than his eyes—certainly more than his ocular reflexes—and to be human means breaking free of this dangerous trap.

Odysseus had to sail past the lotus eaters, restful and delicious as their land was, lest he be dragged down to an everlasting sleep. It seems modern man’s plight is avoiding that which bedazzles as much as that which sedates.

Still, either way, the alternative is an incapacitating torpor—a heedless stasis—a deadly lie that wears the mask of peace.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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