After Looking Away

Posted: December 22, 2007 in Consumerism, Culture, Technophilia

As children, everyone learns not to look directly at the sun. Intrepid kids might dare to test themselves for a few seconds, but for the most part, we all recognize that while the sun is the source of light, warmth, energy, and indeed everything that makes our world go round, we can’t fix our eyes on it. Nor do we need to pay much attention to it, as its regularity and reliability are part of processes far longer and greater than our human scale. If one does look at the sun, or even goes out in bright sunlight for those with high photosensitivity, a sort of light blindness occurs after looking away: the afterimage that temporarily blots out normal sight. Such is the effect of other types of glare.

Most of us know of someone who seems to live in his or her own world, inside an isolation bubble, perhaps of his or her own making. Sometimes that’s merely the result of being focused; other times, it’s a decision to remove certain things from one’s information environment to avoid influence and/or contamination. Refusing to look at some horrific crash scene might be the best everyday example. (News networks get quite of bit of wire feed that gracefully isn’t broadcasted to the public for that same reason.) A more specific example might be those who refuse to watch TV (possible malware site).

I often refer to the dominant culture as an entity of questionable character. I find that television, radio, movies, most books, magazines, many blogs, fast food restaurants, sports, and even schools all spin a seamless, omnipresent story about ourselves that is part of the socialization process but more importantly that creates a version of normalcy more in common with light blindness than an ethical, healthy perception of reality. Most of us are firmly ensconced within this media bubble (what Joe Bageant calls the hologram) and only have infrequent opportunities to achieve an independent vantage point from which to see the bubble for what it truly is. Traveling and living abroad are such opportunities, though foreign cultures are increasingly being transformed into our style of normalcy.

All of this came back to the forefront of my thinking recently. Like most Americans, I was for a long time uncritical of the imperatives of the dominant culture. I thought I’d get a car, a good job, a wife, a few kids, a nice house, and generally just get along in life untroubled by the disasters imposed by industrial civilization. So I’m familiar with that structure of thought and the modes of inculcation. But I’ve cut myself off from a lot of it for a period of years now. I don’t watch TV, listen to radio, or read the newspaper. Most of the news filters down to me anyway but without the incessant instructions to buy this by the advertisers who support the media. I also find that I’m able to be more critical of movies and news sources (blogs mostly) to which I do attend, where the cultural imperatives are buried a little deeper since the economic arrangements aren’t quite the same.

One of my ongoing projects is to get to be a better runner, so I’ve been spending more time on the treadmill. If I’m out on the trail or the track, I don’t get so bored; but the treadmill is stultifying. So I often turn on CNN and read the closed captioning while I run. (Omigod are those people orange or what?!) Oddly, some of the commercials are closed captioned, too, but those that aren’t are interesting from a distanced vantage point. It’s often said that TV is a predominantly visual medium, and watching TV commercials (or indeed the news) without sound reveals that to be true. I don’t need any of the voiceover or soundtrack to make sense of it. Ads are typically full of text (unlike most other programming) and the nontext images play like familiar vignettes recycled from other fuller versions of standard narratives. The automobile and pharmaceutical ads are among the most formulaic types, always promising a much improved life if only one buys that particular brand. I recognize all the high points, since I was inside the bubble for so long. And even now that I’ve looked away for an extended period, I realize that the afterimage is still burning strong on my retinas, especially considering my close proximity to the glare all around me.

  1. grasshopperkm says:

    So well said. You might be interested in this: the first time I tried to comment on this post, I pushed a wrong key. A flash-repeat-flash ad for on-line poker made me blink and turn away, fearing a migraine trigger.

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