Friday, January 18, 2008

Trying to be the antidote

As soon as I finished the title essay of George Saunders' collection The Braindead Megaphone, I knew that I wanted all my students to read it. I can't think of a more timely call to communicate well -- and to refuse to settle for the media status quo.

Saunders is one of my favorite writers. I rarely go a week without thinking about or saying the phrase "celebrating my preferences," the disturbing organizing principle of his stealth sci-fi short story "My Flamboyant Grandson." It's an example of Saunders' ability to encapsulate in a pithy, evocative concept aspects of our culture that are hard to describe -- in this case, the mandate from the advertising industry to define ourselves by our consumption -- and "The Braindead Megaphone" coins a phrase that's just as vital to understanding this early twenty-first century moment.

I gave the essay to two different groups of students this week, and asked them to identify Saunders' main points. The responses I got showed that his description of the sea of media in which they swim had hit a chord. "Media make us dumb," they said. "Journalistic responsibility is in decline. Truth is buried by trivia."

When I asked them if they were victims in this process, innocent bystanders, or part of the solution, they uniformly argued that they were part bystander, part antidote. They aren't fooled that Brittney Spears is actually important despite the tons of ink and airtime devoted to her, so they've escaped the trap; they're too busy as college students to watch much TV anyway, so they feel removed from the problem.

Yet when I inquired what it meant to be the antidote against what Saunders calls the "Megaphonic tendency" of the mass media -- its need to shout over any other substantive conversations that might be going on, to force us to respond to it against our will, to reduce all information to its entertainment and therefore monetary value, to move us as a population away from careful thought and toward anxiety and sloganeering -- the students were stumped. They had expended their attention agreeing that the media is in the toilet, and failed to notice (or perhaps preferred not to notice) that Saunders was expecting them to do something about it.

I directed their attention to the last page of the essay, and instructed them to bind these words upon their foreheads and their upper arms and their doorposts, to meditate on them day and night, as I have done since I read them, as I do every time I prepare for class or read student work, as I do every time I sit down to write in this blog, poor as it may be. And, I dare say, as you should do, dear reader, because you are somewhere and at some time a writer, a responder, a person with a keyboard connected to the greatest publishing apparatus ever built.
Every well-thought-out rebuttal to dogma, every scrap of intelligent logic, every absurdist reduction of some bullying stance is the antidote. Every request for the clarification of the vague, every poke at smug banality, every pen stroke in a document under revision is the antidote.
This battle, like any great moral battle, will be won, if won, not with some easy corrective tidal wave of Total Righteousness, but with small drops of specificity and aplomb and correct logic, delivered titrationally, by many of us all at once.

1 comment:

the secret knitter said...

In my high school journalism class we had a guest speaker from the local daily who asked us what the purpose of a newspaper is. Of course he got the high-minded and romanticized answers about serving the public and such, but he corrected us and said its first purpose is to make money. That's obviously true even if we tend to hold idealized notions of the media, although those have been eroded in the general public's view over the twenty years or so since I heard this.

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are given credit for being more newsworthy than the programs they spoof, but their real value is in critiquing the absurdity of TV news. The montage about "the gloves are now off" in the Democratic race showed that the shopworn phrase has been pulled out for a year in describing Hillary vs. Obama.