Wednesday 13 March 2013

The mass media versus religion: a neo-McLuhanite analysis


Each medium is a message: the mass medium - the whole thing - is a message.

The whole thing includes print media (books, newspapers, magazines), broadcast media (radio, TV, movies) and the internet media (blogs, social media, interpersonal communications and messaging media) - all form a single vast web of engagement...

that stands in opposition to religion, that occupies the same ground as religion.


And that ground is the social, public, shared system of evaluation.

The mass media occupies the ground of religion and displaces religion as the primary social, public system of evaluation for all transcendental Goods: the Goods of truth, beauty and virtue.


The 'message' of the mass media is that it is the mass media in which transcendental evaluations are made (and therefore not religion)


The medium is the message: There is a sense in which the form of communication is the meaning of a communication - or, the nature of the communication system is the primary property of the system.

Or... behind the fluctuating diversity of individual stimuli, behind the contrasting depictions and urgings, the inter-media competition, the fashions and trends... the mass media has a constant tendency.

The tendency is a mass effect: the bigger the mass media, the more powerful this tendency (regardless, again I emphasize, of the specific content of the media).


The meaning of the mass media is what is constant and unified about the function of the medium - and not whatever is intermittent and changeable and diverse.

So, the fundamental nature of the mass media can be seen in its net effect on the human condition.


The mass medias tendency is by now far advanced and readily observable...

The mass media 'wants' from humans not just wholesale passive consumption, but active participation in media processing, in the evaluations, which participation itself enlarges and expands the mass media.

So, the near-perfection of mass media would be when humans were plugged-nto the system of communications and receiving inputs, processing them and generating outputs the tendency of which was to generate more inputs...


The perfection of the mass media is not to have passive consumers, but to to use the sensory apparatus and brains of active consumers as information processors to generate more and ever-more mass media.

In other words, the tendency of the mass media is to co-opt the human mind to increase the communication network that is the mass media. 

It is happening at this moment, to me and to you...

A blogger reads other blogs, and draws on the experience of the mass media and of his life and experience to make blog posts which grab attention and tend to stimulate the writing of further communications such as comments and postings on other blogs - which are then read by the blogger and stimulate further blogging and so on.

The blog network operates to co-opt more and more human brains, and serves as the system of evaluation for... anything and potentially everything.

The blogosphere can become and has become for some the centre of life; such that the rest of life becomes implicitly subordinated to sustaining engagement with the blogosphere - earning money to feed oneself, so as to blog, read comment, blog some more...


But of course blogs are only a tiny part of the mass media - and the diversity of the mass media serves to disguise what is going so - so that we feel that reading a newspaper is different from attending a musical concert is different from visiting a place or having a human relationship - yet in the mass media world all these are merely grist to the mill.

We need to multiply the above scenarios for blogs by several orders of magnitude.


The media world is one in which religion and holidays and other people (and everything else) is primarily something to contribute to the mass media; in which peoples' primary motivation in doing anything other then consume the mass media is that they have something 'interesting' to contribute to the mass media.

In which the evaluations that people make concerning truth, beauty and virtue are themselves calibrated to promote engagement with the mass media.

So what people do apart from the mass media is done on the basis of evaluations from the mass media, since these things are being done (implicitly) in order that they may be contributed to the mass media.


(You think I exaggerate? Recall that the main link to the mass media for many people is the mobile phone. How much of what people do now is done in order that they have things suitable to contribute to the other mobile phone users. Modern life is subdivided into tweetable-units.)


This (here, now, you, me!) is a world in which religion is just grist to the mass media mill, marriage and family are grist to the media mill, our surface opinions and deepest convictions are grist...

We are all hack journalists now; thinking the thoughts and living the lives of hacks.



FHL said...

post 1 out of 2

Sorry, but I will not be able to give you the reply I promised on the issue of free-will. As to why, Kierkegaard explains it best:

"...if I made my maxim a point of departure, then I would be unable to stop, for if I did not stop, I would regret it, and if I did stop, I would also regret it, etc. But if I never start, then I can always stop..."

It was probably silly anyway.

But as for this post: One oft-neglected issue concerning the mass-media is that by shifting value from the personal life to the realm of ideas, it destroys almost all opportunities for repentance. To be a "good person" nowadays is to hold the "good ideas."

And I'm not talking about just the liberals.

It is not all that unreasonable to think that the majority of online conservatives assume themselves to have repented when they shift their worldview from the liberal mindset to the conservative Christian mindset. But ideas are often easy to hold, especially if they are controversial and you're a glutton for attention and pride, and while someone may be considered "brave" for holding a certain intellectual position or changing his mind, promoting an idea which you find easy to argue for against your opponents does not sound much like a repentance.

Why does the sexual revolution proceed almost completely unopposed? My guess is because to oppose it would require an internal private repentance, concerning sins that one has personally committed and is still committing. It would require a life of repentance, and private prayers, not just one "I saw the light!" red-pill moment!

FHL said...

post 2 out of 2

From St. Augustine's Confessions, Book VIII: "And I had thought that I therefore deferred from day to day to reject the hopes of this world, and follow Thee only, because there did not appear aught certain, whither to direct my course. And now was the day come wherein I was to be laid bare to myself, and my conscience was to upbraid me. 'Where art thou now, my tongue? Thou saidst that for an uncertain truth thou likedst not to cast off the baggage of vanity; now, it is certain, and yet that burden still oppresseth thee, while they who neither have so worn themselves out with seeking it, nor for often years and more have been thinking thereon, have had their shoulders lightened, and received wings to fly away.'"

But nowadays, it is as if personal sins do not even exist! There are only ideas, positions, sides, and teams. Ideas are seen as the only thing that really matters, driving both a person's value in both the material and spiritual regards. To "repent" of a sin is only to repent of a sinful idea.

And there are political ideas and spiritual ideas, as well as economic ideas and racial ideas, and ideas on this and ideas on that, and ideas on such and such and so forth and so on and endless studies to be evaluated and charts to take into consideration and graphs and statistics and polls and oh so many ways to be wrong and oh so many ways to be right and it just never ends!

Now I am sure ideas are important- and I need to say that so that no one can say that I do not have the proper ideas on ideas- but at least in the past a man received a break from the public discussion of ideas in which to focus on personal repentance!

They (and by "they" I include myself and probably you and perhaps many others here) can often be just like the people whom Christ turned away, saying "“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’"

What a terrible thought- that after all this thinking and thinking and thinking of how the left was so wrong and how Christianity was so right, I would only end up being tossed into hell as I vainly screamed: "But I was on your side! Didn't I have the correct worldview?!"

Lord have mercy!

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - All that you say is true in my experience - perhaps the major form of 'backsliding' is not to notice that one has lapsed into merely 'thinking about' Christianity/ Christ/ praying rather than actually living as a Christian and actually praying.

This is why being embodied and mortal beings is a profound help to us - especially in dealing with temptations and assaults from fallen immortal spirits.

The concrete actualities of life in time are, on the whole, a strong counter-attack to the forces of evil.

Arakawa said...

I had to think about this analysis very hard, before deciding to comment after-all.

From what I know, life can be divided into spiritual (oriented explicitly towards God) or worldly (everything else). Monks are able to dispense with most of the distracting aspects of worldly existence, but they are a dwindling minority.

Obviously, a lack of spiritual life tends to be incredibly damaging. (This is near the root of the above complaint about theologians who argue and profess, but do not pray.)

What are the acceptable aims of worldly life, however? These are to cultivate meaningful relations (love thy neighbour and thine enemy) or to pursue a sublime craft of one form or another (aiming at the transcendent goods of Truth, Virtue, and Beauty).

(These, indeed, are the occupations of the virtuous pagans who did not hear the Gospel, so it is possible to suspect that, honestly pursued, even these occupations led to Christ by a different name and so had saving efficacy. Of course, it is always difficult to pursue these things honestly with an incomplete or wrong understanding of what is being pursued.)

So an analysis of the dangers of one's involvement in mass media should probably focus on how it impairs these aspects of proper living, whether it erodes our deep and meaningful relations in favour of a much more shallow engagement with a broader mass of humanity, or whether it acts to undermine our understanding of Truth, Beauty, and Virtue.

In short, is any given interaction made an end in itself, or is it aiming at one of the transcendent goods or the transcendent God? Ultimately, all properly justified actions must wind up basing their justification outside the naturalist universe of mere matter.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A. Yes. But there is something strange about our times, strange and unprecedented - I mean the rejection and inversion of spontaneous values which we could term common sense and natural law.

This is, I think, only made possible on a large scale by the mass media.

When the mass media has become the evaluation system, then common sense and natural law have been displaced.

Arakawa said...

@bgc. I think I can even pinpoint the precise moment in my life (at an early age) when mass media took the upper hand over my 'natural law' understanding.

Two observations:

- Mass media in and of itself was insufficient. For whatever reason, I had a very strong sense of what was 'suitable' for consumption or not that made me basically immune. (A surprising portion of mass media is suitable, but a staggering portion of the things that seem absolutely innocuous were, surprisingly enough, unsuitable. Occasionally, I can turn the sense of the suitable back on for a short period, but I am absolutely baffled by what it tells me each time. For example, my innermost moral compass once unexpectedly powered up and pronounced roller-coasters to be vehemently of the Devil. It took a while to figure out exactly why.) And obviously I had no interest in doing things that I felt to be unsuitable.

- What was required to succumb to mass media was a conscious rejection of the promptings of Natural Law. To, at some point, knowingly eat what was not good for me. For me it came as a result of the fact that having these scruples proved to be incredibly isolating in a social environment. Everyone around me was immersed in the mass media, so it was difficult to relate to them, so I went and deliberately explored the unsuitable, just to be able to participate in everyday conversations involving mass media. This, of course, had Screwtapian repercussions (all of the consequences of the sin, none of the ostensible benefit).

I think that, for me, admitting that I had a better grasp of morality (aside from the gaping blind spot of dishonesty) and a better attention span (better attention to reality, in general) at age seven than I do now, would be a good start towards being able to handle mass media safely.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

I totally agree that mass media is the privileged instrument of the Evil One to destroy everything Christian. However, the Roman Catholic Church (the one fighting form of Christianity as Chesterton beautifully put it) strongly advocates participation in temporal activities, out of love-charity. Combined with prayer and sanctification (theosis), this is a good way to spread examples of Christian behavior and prevent anti-Christians from creating a monolith of error, ethical inversion and apostasy, and pulling most people with them in the void.

There are all sorts of people and associations doing real Christian and charitable work, in intellectual as well as material life. There are even associations of Catholic journalists! Blogging as a Christian and not as an addict to mass media (as seems to be the case for you and most posters here) is therefore a service to truth and to our brothers and sisters in Jesus. Many people would be terribly isolated as Christian intellectuals were it not for this service. Besides, on the mere philosophical plane, providing critical information about truth and error when we can is a necessary work.