Around the world, from North India to South Africa, there are dozens of television and radio shows that tightly weave social themes into entertaining narratives, a technique often referred to as “entertainment-education.” Writers develop fictional characters that model positive or negative behaviors, and through their stories and struggles, audiences learn about issues ranging from domestic abuse to personal bankruptcy. Unlike American daytime soaps, these shows usually air during prime time to entire households. Successful soaps tend to be smartly written, sexy and replete with plot twists and love triangles. In the best-case scenario, the show becomes popular, and viewers begin to incorporate some of the themes into their lives.
However, said Singhal, the intentional placement of educational messages in mass media is relatively recent. Within television, many experts pin the origin to a Peruvian telenovela called “Simplemente María” (“Simply Maria”), which aired in 1969. The show, which ran five nights a week for two years, followed the story of María, a humble farmer who migrated to the city and began working as a maid. Through hard work and determination, she learned how to read and sew, and eventually became a famous fashion designer. The show became so popular that when María married her literacy teacher Esteban on the show, 10,000 fans gathered outside the church where the wedding sequence was being shot, dressed in their Sunday best and ready with gifts for the “newlyweds.” Enrollment in literacy classes shot through the roof soon after the show aired, as did sales of Singer sewing machines.
The state of the world today is not pretty. It is timely to revisit the works of Antonio Gramsci and his fellow intellectuals on cultural Marxism. Whatever is happening has been foretold, long before bailouts and censorship became a staple in our vocabulary.
So what is cultural marxism?
It includes the disarmament of the public, the invalidation of self-defence and the incitement of fear.
It includes not only censorship of various kinds, but also the erosion of privacy, the debasement of the schools.
It includes the dogmatisation of the universities. It includes the concentration of wealth, the concentration of ownership of corporations and the concentration of control of the media.
It includes the promotion of immaturity and the reduction of society to a mob of narcissistic adult children to further the interests of the ruling class.
I am certain that without having to mention specific events, many have already come to your mind. Perhaps the most chilling prediction of cultural Marxism is how people today believe that they are privileged, simply because they have not been visibly marginalised.
Classical Marxism drives those at Foxconn’s iPad factory lines into jumping off buildings; Cultural Marxism drives people to the line at the Apple Store into a culture of commodity fetishism.
Power, in Gramsci’s observation, is exercised by privileged groups or classes in two ways: through domination, force, or coercion; and through something called “hegemony,” which means the ideological supremacy of a system of values that supports the class or group interests of the predominant classes or groups. Subordinate groups, he argued, are influenced to internalize the value systems and world views of the privileged groups and, thus, to consent to their own marginalization.
If we take as generally accepted principles of modern urban morality that it is desirable and acceptable to pursue pleasure for its own sake, precluding harm to others, and that each should be left to his own devices in life, then I propose that the cultural phenomenon of the ‘Foodie’ exposes a want for a hierarchy of pleasures in urban reasoning.
The ‘Foodie’ can reasonably be taken to be one who really likes food and pursues fine vittles at some expense. However, there is a little more to it than that. Barring drunken expeditions for tacos and pizza, as intoxicated states of mind are outside the realm of this consideration (however, desiring and achieving intoxication are well within our purview), ‘Foodieism’ seems to fetishize the consumable. More specifically, if we accept ideas from Marxism, Foodieism is a perfectly understandable evolution of advanced capitalism in a context of opulent food. It is supremely American in its focus on convenience, instant gratification and repetition. Looked at from this perspective, the pursuit of fashionable foods is something done purely for-itself, without any purpose other than personal satisfaction.
“No shit,” you’re saying. Well, every discussion needs a starting point. When I say that Foodies fetishize consumables, that does not mean they idolize every cupcake, meatball, and slider. Perhaps in the beginning that is what it is; hungry pursuit of tasty food. But when it becomes something of a lifestyle choice or an exhaustive hobby, then the (dare I say) obsession shifts to the idea around the food: Consumption itself. The hunt for a good morsel, the thrill of exploration, and perhaps most importantly the self-satisfaction of being able to say “I had the best X yesterday, and you wouldn’t believe where I found it…” become more important that whatever you actually ate.
Then, maybe, the drive behind Foodieism is not unlike sex addicts, who crave the feeling before actual copulation, the pursuit and anticipation of it, rather than the act itself. The shift from the object to the feelings around its consumption occurs either through fact of personality, or more reasonably in the case of Foodieism, the superabundance and ease of acquisition of good cuisine. The very fact one can be a Foodie in this environment rather than a gourmet undermines the value of a fine meal on its own and accelerates one along the Foodie cycle: Pursuit, Consumption, Boast.
“So who cares? Let people do what they want. You totally over analyzed this.” Granted. I am not saying there is anything wrong with Foodies or Foodieism, I am just curious about it as a social phenomenon. Whatever anyone wants to think about revering the types of food Foodies pursue and fetishizing consumption is up to them. What is of interest here is how it exposes the relevance of ordering pleasures.
Consumption for pleasure rarely brings about any bad, except when performed in excess. This is true of all pleasures, which according to the Epicureans are good in themselves but depend on how they are produced to bring either happiness or disturbance. Eating to bring nourishment to the body and repose to the mind is one of the great pleasures of life; why not enjoy it to the fullest with fine food? What is key here is that eating is a necessary, natural desire, with the fundamental purpose to maintain one’s organism. It has an objective outside of itself, and all enjoyment in partaking in it is secondary to its main function. This is where there is a corruption in the American attitude towards eating, made fashionable in Foodieism. These treat eating as a pleasure in-itself (as mentioned above), which as a confusion on the nature of the desire is a slippery slope towards treating pleasures and desires with the wrong attitudes. A good example is the confusion on the nature of money: Money is purely a means, and to pursue it as an end in-itself usually leads to a corruption of the soul. This is not something many would disagree with. Think of Wall Street fatcats.
While this sounds very patronizing and archaic, it has a timeless element common to human experience. There are countless pleasures available to us, but not all created equal; just as it would be foolish to think shooting heroin is a pleasure equal to philanthropy if they provide equal amounts of happiness, is it unwise to think the American attitude towards eating is healthy or sustainable. While it may not lead to a ‘corruption of the soul’ as Aristotle would put it, it certainly facilitates a distortion of the proper place of eating in human life.
Would it be so bad to propose an ordering, or ranking, of pleasures and desires? Surely this is something nearly everyone is familiar with and partakes in, as the commonsense heroin vs. philanthropy example shows. The Epicureans divided desires and pleasures into the natural and unnatural, the necessary and unnecessary, and static or in motion. Without going into detail about these, it is enough to say that the natural, necessary and static pleasures can be considered the best and need not be moderated. Natural, necessary and in motion pleasures, such as eating and drinking, are also very good but need to be moderated. A lack of moderation leads to insatiable, unlimited desire for pleasure.
Take something along these lines as a guideline, then, to order your own pleasures. There is no absolute framework of desire and happiness, obviously, and we are fortunate to live in an age where people are free to decide things on their own (the second premise in the first paragraph). “To each his own” does not negate the need for ordering; it rather means that each must think hard about what their ordering principle would be and how pleasures would fall under that, to devise a personal hierarchy that is best. This is different than just doing what one wants to, since that implies impulsive non-reflexive behavior; it rather means that one should have reasoned out and reflected upon why they do whatever they want to, i.e. the ordering of the pleasures of choice.
After such a mental exercise, I would not be surprised if many people did not change anything. The Foodies will probably continue along their cycle, and that’s fine. The pull of das man is strong. All I want is that people rationally and disinterestedly examine themselves and what they find important, pleasurable, and necessary. That and a burger.
By PICO IYER NY Times Published: December 29, 2011
ABOUT a year ago, I flew to Singapore to join the writer Malcolm Gladwell, the fashion designer Marc Ecko and the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in addressing a group of advertising people on “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow.” Soon after I arrived, the chief executive of the agency that had invited us took me aside. What he was most interested in, he began — I braced myself for mention of some next-generation stealth campaign — was stillness.
A few months later, I read an interview with the perennially cutting-edge designer Philippe Starck. What allowed him to remain so consistently ahead of the curve? “I never read any magazines or watch TV,” he said, perhaps a little hyperbolically. “Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that.” He lived outside conventional ideas, he implied, because “I live alone mostly, in the middle of nowhere.”
Around the same time, I noticed that those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.
Has it really come to this?
In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.
Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen.
Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago. Even Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers. (The average office worker today, researchers have found, enjoys no more than three minutes at a time at his or her desk without interruption.) During this period the workers were not allowed to use the phone or send e-mail, but simply had the chance to clear their heads and to hear themselves think. A majority of Intel’s trial group recommended that the policy be extended to others.
THE average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen, Nicholas Carr notes in his eye-opening book “The Shallows,” in part because the number of hours American adults spent online doubled between 2005 and 2009 (and the number of hours spent in front of a TV screen, often simultaneously, is also steadily increasing).
The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, though one girl in Sacramento managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month. Since luxury, as any economist will tell you, is a function of scarcity, the children of tomorrow, I heard myself tell the marketers in Singapore, will crave nothing more than freedom, if only for a short while, from all the blinking machines, streaming videos and scrolling headlines that leave them feeling empty and too full all at once.
The urgency of slowing down — to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
When telegraphs and trains brought in the idea that convenience was more important than content — and speedier means could make up for unimproved ends — Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages.” Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Thomas Merton struck a chord with millions, by not just noting that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest,” but by also acting on it, and stepping out of the rat race and into a Cistercian cloister.
Yet few of those voices can be heard these days, precisely because “breaking news” is coming through (perpetually) on CNN and Debbie is just posting images of her summer vacation and the phone is ringing. We barely have enough time to see how little time we have (most Web pages, researchers find, are visited for 10 seconds or less). And the more that floods in on us (the Kardashians, Obamacare, “Dancing with the Stars”), the less of ourselves we have to give to every snippet. All we notice is that the distinctions that used to guide and steady us — between Sunday and Monday, public and private, here and there — are gone.
We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.
So what to do? The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual. All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.
MAYBE that’s why more and more people I know, even if they have no religious commitment, seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi; these aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to connect with what could be called the wisdom of old age. Two journalist friends of mine observe an “Internet sabbath” every week, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, so as to try to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation. Finding myself at breakfast with a group of lawyers in Oxford four months ago, I noticed that all their talk was of sailing — or riding or bridge: anything that would allow them to get out of radio contact for a few hours.
Other friends try to go on long walks every Sunday, or to “forget” their cellphones at home. A series of tests in recent years has shown, Mr. Carr points out, that after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” More than that, empathy, as well as deep thought, depends (as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have found) on neural processes that are “inherently slow.” The very ones our high-speed lives have little time for.
In my own case, I turn to eccentric and often extreme measures to try to keep my sanity and ensure that I have time to do nothing at all (which is the only time when I can see what I should be doing the rest of the time). I’ve yet to use a cellphone and I’ve never Tweeted or entered Facebook. I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.
None of this is a matter of principle or asceticism; it’s just pure selfishness. Nothing makes me feel better — calmer, clearer and happier — than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music. It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: it’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”
It’s vital, of course, to stay in touch with the world, and to know what’s going on; I took pains this past year to make separate trips to Jerusalem and Hyderabad and Oman and St. Petersburg, to rural Arkansas and Thailand and the stricken nuclear plant in Fukushima and Dubai. But it’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.
For more than 20 years, therefore, I’ve been going several times a year — often for no longer than three days — to a Benedictine hermitage, 40 minutes down the road, as it happens, from the Post Ranch Inn. I don’t attend services when I’m there, and I’ve never meditated, there or anywhere; I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness, recalling that it’s only by stepping briefly away from my wife and bosses and friends that I’ll have anything useful to bring to them. The last time I was in the hermitage, three months ago, I happened to pass, on the monastery road, a youngish-looking man with a 3-year-old around his shoulders.
“You’re Pico, aren’t you?” the man said, and introduced himself as Larry; we’d met, I gathered, 19 years before, when he’d been living in the cloister as an assistant to one of the monks.
“What are you doing now?” I asked.
“I work for MTV. Down in L.A.”
We smiled. No words were necessary.
“I try to bring my kids here as often as I can,” he went on, as he looked out at the great blue expanse of the Pacific on one side of us, the high, brown hills of the Central Coast on the other. “My oldest son” — he pointed at a 7-year-old running along the deserted, radiant mountain road in front of his mother — “this is his third time.”
The child of tomorrow, I realized, may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what’s new, but what’s essential.