Where Is Our Whizbang Miracle?
I’ve been reading Vonnegut’s Timequake, and a few passages have intrigued me. Vonnegut reminisces about his favorite plays (that passage here), and the memorable moments spent in a theater, rather than in front of a TV screen. And then he writes:
In the early days of television, when there were only half a dozen channels at most, significant, well-written dramas on a cathode-ray tube could still make us feel like members of an attentive congregation, alone at home as we might be. There was a high probability back then, with so few shows to choose from, that friends and neighbors were watching the same show we were watching, still finding TV a whizbang miracle (18, Nook version).
Are we more or less connected today? I suppose there’s still that connection with popular culture between people, like when you go to a party and everybody is talking about the latest Lady Gaga stunt, or the most recent Katy Perry video, or even the last Barack Obama speech, but there’s something very hollow and egoistic about that mass media entertainment.
There’s just so much of it. Like fast food pouring out of the McDonald’s assembly line. Because of the multitude of options both online and on TV, there is no longer a nation of people passively participating in the same suspenseful moment of a skillful drama. Which began at seven o’clock, and will run for an hour. And you can’t watch it online if you missed it.
Also, whatever scattered sense of community or connection we might get from most people having seen the latest Gaga video, because there is so much mass entertainment to be consumed, there are only pockets of overlap. We weren’t tied, as a people, to the time and place of the experience. We each enjoyed (or hated) it as we had time to watch it.
However many more choices for entertainment and art experiences, it’s not that there is more diversity in 2013, than in 1950 or ’60. It’s just that the main mono culture beast is much more fragmented. It manifests itself in almost infinitely, but equally glitzy TV shows, pop music groups, radio songs, and books about the same nonsense, told in the same way.
Even more powerful than a nation collectively sitting on the edge of their seats in their own living rooms scattered across our great American expanse, is the experience of the play. Our doe-eyed stares at the TV as it rapidly flicks images at our eyes creates a trance in which we consume our dramas, but attention is not paid, like it would be in a theater with a rapt audience watching it unfold live.
That’s what makes play moments memorable. Also because the actors are in a “timequake”, as Vonnegut puts it, going through the motions, the dialogue, the actions, again and again, with knowledge of how the story ends, yet forced to reenact it in the same way every time.
Chuck Klosterman touched on a similar sentiment about shared cultural experience, and how for many Americans, 400 TV channels seems better than 200, or 10, but in the long run, it leaves us feeling alone and disconnected (even though we were alone and disconnected anyway).
From his Here’s “Johnny” article, where he ponders the idea of Johnny Carson, versus the actual man, Klosterman delves into the long term danger of having too many choices, and why there’ll never be an American as ubiquitously famous as Carson:
In the present tense we always want the maximum number of alternatives; in the short term, choice improves our lives, and we’re completely aware of that. The problematic rub is that–over time–choice isolates us. We have fewer shared experiences, and that makes us feel alone. The proliferation of choice makes us feel vaguely alienated, and that makes us depressed. But this relationship is not something we’re conscious of, because it seems crazy to attribute loneliness to freedom (218).
“Johnny Carson” was the last thing that everybody understood, even if they didn’t try (217).
I do not know one person who grew up during the 1960s or ’70s who wasn’t intimately aware of who Johnny Carson was and what Johnny Carson did. In a way, he seemed more famous than everybody. It did not matter if he was entertaining or not, and it did not matter how much you liked him. Even if you were consciously watching something else at 11:00 P.M., you were ultimately just not watching The Tonight Show…. “Johnny Carson” was, almost in totality, the entire construction of watching television late at night (217).
Charles Bukowski nailed the American culture best when he said the choice between Nixon and Humphrey was like choosing between eating warm or cold shit. I suppose that’s our dilemma these days. You’ve got a lot to choose from, so that’s good. But either way, you’re choosing between a lot of Nixons and Humphreys.
[photo is sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor, called “Inertia Underwater”]