Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Michael Bettencourt

All right, this assay will probably turn out boring and didactic, and it doesn't have an organic connection to theatre, which I try to keep as the standard through-line of all my essays, but what follows has been on my mind for many months, and I am just acting as the message's messenger.

March 19 signals the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war (if "anniversary" can be used to describe a half-decade of mayhem).  Yet who would know this date by watching the "content" streamed from the infotainment cosmos?  My wife, the Marvelous Maria, and I have now taken to adding a tagline to anything stupid we happen to see on the television, or in any medium (which means we're adding it very often):  "And we are at war."  This pronouncement is our way of sending out a small sound-wave of reminding to a society that seems, even in the midst of a coming economic downturn, bent on amusing itself to death and avoiding anything like mature, adult, rational behavior. (Even the recent bombing of the of the military recruitment center in Times Square couldn't provoke a public discussion about the war, and the never-ending fable-making called our presidential selection process treats the war as a second-tier discussion topic.)

"Amusing itself to death" is not my phrase but comes from Neil Postman's superb 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, a must-read that scarcely shows any datedness even though it's almost a quarter century old. (Factoid: Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame made an album "Amused to Death" in 1992 based on Postman's book.)  One of Postman's points is that, having been drenched for decades in televisual communication, which must reduce all ideas to the lower bandwidth of entertainment, we no longer care to, or know how to, engage in rational argument and complex thinking.  Though he focused primarily on television, because our current universe of small screens (phones, iPod video, etc.) didn't exist then, his point still holds since these new small-screen venues are just bastard offshoot species of the television.

So what happens when the fifth anniversary of a war arrives (even heralded by a bomb blast) in a culture tutored on entertainment and non-rational, non-linear modes of processing information?  Nothing.  Such is the pitiable state of our democracy and our ability to act as citizens.

But to stop here and go round and round like a carousel kvetching and mourning misses the point because this state of being did not arrive by accident or flower because of inherent faults in "human nature" or happen because of some divine fate.  This condition exists as the outgrowth of a particular historical form of capitalism resolving its internal and external pressures, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not, but, like gravity (or, perhaps more fitting, pulsing dark matter), always there, exerting its push and pull.

Without that capitalist frame of reference, without understanding how the specific historically based capitalist pressures ooze into and shape everything in our culture, from the most private religious experience to imperialist acts of war, then we roam around in a fog, unable to understand the things that mold our selves and spark why we do what we do.  And the only way to gain this understanding  — to banish the fog — comes through study, argument, writing, reason — in short, through a return to the 18th and 19th centuries, when the written word and its corollary in rational argument were the only Internet available.

Sound Marxist-like?  Yes, of course, if by "Marxist" one means an analytical approach that focuses on historical, contingent explanations for the current state of affairs rather than appeals to spirit, "human nature," and other bogus essentializings.  But also "Marxist" in locating the discontents of civilization in the economic imperatives that sculpt social relations coupled with a moral charge to bring peace and justice to a system based on violence and exploitation (what Richard Rorty noted as reducing the cruelty in our lives).

So, why so little news of war in a society that's been prosecuting a war for five years and, instead, the constant call to download this and that entertainment item to whatever small screen or ear-budded music player one happens to command — in other words, why such a societal urging to make one's field of view so physically and intellectually narrow (small screen, private concert) instead of an opposite insistence to broaden out and become intimate with the whole world?  Whatever the answer to this "why?", it needs to be rigged on this capitalist frame because we are all the spawn of this system, like it or not, and the first order of business in escaping from one's parents is to know them.

But will the people answer this "why"?  I don't hold out much hope for this happening, at least not in any cumulative society-wide way, because crafting an answer requires a lot of uncomfortable work in the company of others with little guarantee of a supportive payoff, and that mode of self-discipline, self-regard, and self-sharing has been killed off several times over in our society.  This society no longer seems to know how to nurture a "citizen mentality," which must carry this regenerative paradox in its heart: an almost irrational commitment to the power of rational argument, a faith that employing a historical, materialist non-faith-based view of human society can convince people to change their lives, an unskeptical acceptance of skepticism's ability to clear the motes from one's eyes.

The system in which we live is rapidly disappearing this way of thinking about the world and our place in it — it's not in any of our educative systems, be it school, art, or politics, which means it's certainly not in our children. Replacing it is a mindset that information must be "entertainmentized," that value means money, that the private trumps the universal.  That's how we can fight a war for five years and still have the infotainment buttered across our newspapers and magazines and websites and television by the corporations that command our lives, our fortunes, and our destinies.

In the introduction to his book, Postman compares the dystopias created by George Orwell in 1984 and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World.  As he points out, Orwell believed our enslavement would come from totalitarian oppressors inflicting pain, but Huxley believed the opposite: that our enslavement would come from the oppressors inflicting pleasure:  "In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."  In the end, under the current capitalist regime that authorizes our lives, Huxley got it right.


©2008 Michael Bettencourt
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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april 2008

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