Television and Literacy

I wrote this article in response to a friend’s claim that television was always a narcotic for him, that it cured his hives, lulled him into semi-consciousness and proved more effective than any chemical. Because it touches on reading and the power of literacy, it seems worth posting again here on my own blog.
It was published on the Reality Sandwich blog in 2007.

TV and Power?

Psychiatrists and doctors will point out that hives can result from either allergies to food or stress. Television is indeed similar to a drug and one that can lull a consciousness from being alert and imaginative (and nervous) into the nepenthe of a dullard. The hives that Mr. Hossaini suffered vanished with his distractions – the television programs he watched equalling the effect of the sedative his doctor prescribed.

However, there are some distinctions to be made about a visual medium evolving “alongside consciousness”, based on the brain’s difficulty in distinguishing between orality and literacy. In this week’s New Yorker, Caleb Crain in ‘Twilight of the Books’ writes about the history of literacy and how television may in fact be damaging our abilities to retain and process information. Proust elaborated on Ruskin’s comparison of reading to a conversation with the “wise and noble” by noting that it went further than that. Reading, Proust said, was “to receive a communication with another way of thinking…while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power that one has in solitude and that conversation dissipates immediately.”

Research suggests that abstract thinking is the result of being literate, while the oral mind-set “embed their thoughts in stories…Cliche´and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk”. This reminds me of my years spent in the highly illiterate broadcast world, where TV is not only the object of work, but also the main topic of conversation; recountings of the previous evening’s serial dramas or comedies almost the only culture around the water cooler. If you didn’t watch television religiously, you couldn’t become a member of the sect and you would have no idea about the storylines. If one ever tried to involve these ‘orals’ in discussions that might be investigative or analytical or even more dangerous, anything resembling high art or culture, the immediacy of being an outsider (and an outcast) would be obvious to all. “As the scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed, it is only in a literate culture that the past’s inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.”

Crain says that the antagonism between words and moving images begins early; “babies know on average 6-8 fewer words for every hour of baby DVDs and videos they watch daily…. and that conflict continues throughout a child’s development.” Perhaps this is why painting has persisted as an art form alongside literature. Our brains can’t process both in a medium at once without making us stupid. Television and film can be wonderful, but apparently the combination of content and imagery isn’t as interesting for our brains as words and visuals in their respective separate and distinct mediums.

Imagination, Einstein said, is more important than knowledge. What studies have found is that visuals combined with words, is more than we can handle, at least in this phase of our evolution. Hossaini has an intriguing question to make, but at this point I wouldn’t stake any claim on consciousness evolving alongside television. Instead, it might be suggested that the opiate of the medium has dulled our consciousnesses to the point of no return. Reading skills have worsened dramatically in the past few decades and we all know what’s happening to book sales and newspapers. The Internet however, Crain notes, doesn’t seem to ‘be antagonistic to literacy’. But if streaming media overtakes it with networks like YouTube and Myth TV, these synergies could vanish.

The opportunity to watch opera, poetry, paintings and dance on television is akin to seeing animals in a zoo. It will never replace the excitement or thrill of interacting with a musician or poet directly in a ‘live’ performance or even replace standing before a painting in a museum. Obviously this is one reason some actors still prefer the energy of the stage to film. When I lived in rural and remote Nova Scotia more than 30 years ago, I was stunned by the (mostly oral and illiterate) community’s involvement with music. Celebrations and livestock fairs were punctuated by amateur and excellent fiddlers, singing, bagpipe playing and dancing. Everyone got together and made music. They didn’t watch much TV – this was still an agrarian culture with summers spent bailing hay and slaughtering sheep. I was struck by the way they kept a heritage vital through one form of art that everyone, young and old, was involved in. I question that the community (or music) would have existed if everyone had sat around and done little but be glued to a monitor.

I found Daniel Pinchbeck’s notes on Mr. Hossaini’s piece interesting. The idea of transformation, especially in terms of ‘conditioning into a consumerist belief system’ is obviously what advertising has been doing since television’s founding. Whether it’s our only hope will be determined by the power elite and who owns the airwaves (legally we the viewers do). But as Ralph Nader claims, corporate control of money is now governing the world, and not governments.

Mr. Nader’s recommendation for holiday reading in 2007 was: The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning, by Peter Gabel (Acada Books.) Law Professor, Law Dean and college President, Peter Gabel gets down to fundamentals about the “politics of meaning.” This is not a muckraking exposé but rather a relentless push on readers to examine their isolation and alienation from one another, their neighborhood, workplace, and community without which a functioning democracy cannot evolve.

Finally, I would ask what concepts or innovation television has spawned except perhaps, the technology of its own being. Why the need for transcendental television when it so readily accomplishes that task?

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