Prescriptive Versus Descriptive

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‘9/11 ripped the bandage off US culture’

As a work of cultural criticism, The Terror Dream is comprehensively shocking. But didn’t the extreme disconnection between reporting and reality that it exposed present the author with a problem? If the country’s cultural narrative was driven more by fiction than fact, and failed to reflect the truth of post-9/11 America, why base a whole book upon such spurious material?

“Because we live in a culture that’s so . . . you can’t . . .” She casts a hand around the hotel bar helplessly. “I mean, this is sort of miraculous, to be sitting in a room where there’s not some massive flat-screen TV yelling at us. It’s almost a sci-fi feeling, this kind of constant bombardment of programmed thought.” Its effect is not as simple, she stresses, as “monkey see, monkey do”. “But it certainly has a warping effect on how we think about the world, and how we think about ourselves.” Journalism became not descriptive but prescriptive – “and that had an enormous effect on our political life, our policy, our nightmarish policy, our misbegotten military strategy”.

This echoes my (not very original) view of modern mass (largely American) media as prescriptive and ideologically committed; the news has evolved to be less the recounting (mirror) of events couched in narrative form, and more a tableau where the details are exaggerated at the behest of some dark aesthetic. Still a mirror, but now reflecting the prejudices of it’s creator rather than that which it claims to represent.

In one respect, she concedes, cultural criticism today is less relevant than it used to be. “The culture used to move relatively slowly, so you could take aim. Now it moves so fast, and is so fluffy and meaningless, you feel like an idiot even complaining about it.” But on the other hand, “I think a reason that a lot of people feel politically paralysed is that it used to be clear how power was organised. But those who have their hands on the levers of popular culture today have great power – and it isn’t even clear who they are.” They may be commercially accountable, in other words, but not democratically.

In my youth I would often contemplate the highly accelerated nature of mass media, and it’s effects on culture. It was it’s instantaneous nature that occupied me the most. A good analogy for me was how, in bygone days of yore, the passage of time was a function of the sunrise and sunset. These days we measure the same phenomenon (illumination) through the flick of a switch.

Analogous to this, the instantaneous nature of media and popular culture lends authenticity to the mediated as immediate, and as a consequence we are prone to mistake the mediated for the truth.

J.K.

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