Dear Dirty America


Expressionless In Front of the Cathode-Ray Tube, Rather Than In A Rapt Audience

Expressionless In Front of the Cathode-Ray Tube, Rather Than In A Rapt Audience
November 02
08:17 2013

I’m not above splashing long Kurt Vonnegut passages on this blog when I see fit.I started reading Timequake on a whim. Like so many other fans of Vonnegut’s work, I could read or listen to hours of his rambling. The way he synthesizes scattered modern day philosophies and our fragmented sense of culture into coherent, digestible chunks of information is inspiring.In Timequake, he writes of the importance of theater, and the shared experience had by a rapt crowd sitting together and witnessing some of the most beautiful moments in a handful of profound plays. He couldn’t get the same experience and heightened sense of connection from being at home in front of the TV:

Now I find myself maundering about parts of plays hardly anybody knows or cares about anymore, such as the graveyard scene in Our Town, or the poker game in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, or what Willy Loman’s wife said after that tragically ordinary, clumsily gallant American committed suicide in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

She said, “Attention must be paid.”

In a Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois said as she was taken away to a madhouse, after she was raped by her sister’s husband, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Those speeches, those situations, those people, became emotional and ethical landmarks for me in my early manhood, an dremain such in the summer of 1996. That is becaues I was immobilized in a congregation of rapt fellow human beings in a theater when I first saw and heard them.

They would have made no more impression on me than Monday Night Football, had I been alone eating nachos and gazing into the face of a cathode-ray tube (18, Nook version).

Is our TV / Internet / online culture diluting our shared art experiences?

Chuck Klosterman makes a similar argument when he claims that America will never have another Johnny Carson, not because the universal algorithm cannot produce another similar human being, but because we don’t want another Johnny. It’s all about wanting more options, more choices, even if we know that will make us less happy, and less connected.

So instead of Johnny Carson being the late night show that everybody watched — and if you were watching another program, Klosterman argues, then you simply weren’t watching Carson. The emphasis was always on Johnny. It was a cultural experience, physically separate, but culturally one.

I recently listened to four senior citizens speak about how Laurence Welk was one of the last great American experiences, in that everybody in the house gathered around the television (a pretty new device at that time, at least for these four folks), and they watched the music show. And they knew everybody else in the country was watching that show.

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