Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Way we Read Today

Today's title may have been appropriated from the title of a lecture that Harold Bloom gave at Stanford several years ago. I am not sure of this, but I am more certain that both of us appropriated the idea from the same source, Anthony Trollope's novel, The Way We Live Now. Bloom's Stanford lecture was delivered not too long before the appearance of his book, How to Read and Why; and my only disappointment with this book is that he did not include any pieces of non-fiction among the wealth of case studies that he did provide. Perhaps that is why I have directed my own attention to non-fiction, knowing full well that I could never compete with Bloom on his own turf!

Where popular fiction is involved, Bloom revels in being a merciless iconoclast. His attack on the Harry Potter books attracted enough attention to land him a spot on NewsHour; and it was probably in that spirit of deliberately going against the grain that I voiced my own discontent with Bill Moyers' current approach to righteous indignation, which I accused of being both hollow and vain. I wrote this in response to a video clip from Bill Moyers' Journal that had been posted on Truthdig; and I took a lot of flack for having the temerity (and vanity) to make the accusations I did. Here is one of the more coherent attacks I received:

The issue is Moyer’s uncanny ability to cut through the propaganda to provide in depth, and always factual, analysis that speaks truth to power. If you cannot appreciate the brilliance of a Bill Moyers then you either lack the intellectual capacity to comprehend or you are simply jealous that your communications skills will never, in your life time, rise to the level of an intellectual giant like Bill Moyers.

I found this an interesting example of what happens to our general capacity for discourse when a "sacred cow" gets attacked, if not gored. Because Moyers is not afraid to speak "truth to power," he has been elevated to a pedestal to facilitate his adoration, if not worship, by all those to cleave to the fundamental principles of sound (and liberal) Enlightenment thinking. The extent of Moyers' analyses cannot, by virtue of their delivery as television "editorials," entail very much depth. If you want depth, you need to read (and probably re-read) more extensive content, the kind that cannot be readily grasped as it flows to you from a loudspeaker. Furthermore, any analysis that Moyers delivers is, by its very nature, an interpretation of his observations of the world in which he is situated. Following that strategy of Karl Weick that I discussed yesterday, Moyers assumes the "truth" of his worldview (which has the status of a theory) and applies that truth to teasing out the "meaning" of his observations. This is elusive stuff. The issue is not whether I (or anyone else) has "the intellectual capacity to comprehend" it but that there is an audience out there blinded by the impoverished "channel capacity" of television that thinks they can comprehend it through this particular medium. Again, the proper domain is that of written texts that can be read and re-read; and even then, for all the "intellectual capacity" that can be mustered, the "stuff" of it all will still be elusive!

Am I jealous of Moyers? To some extent I suppose I am. We all write for an audience (even when rehearsing); so I suppose I have some jealousy that Moyers can attract a larger audience than I can (by virtue of which he also receives more compensation for his efforts than I do). However, when I tried to defend my position on Truthdig, my prevailing emotion was frustration; and the frustration was mostly for Moyers' attracting so much attention for doing little more than rehashing a set of observations about the news media without adding anything of substance to what had been accumulated over the last decade. In literature there is a long-standing argument (in which Bloom has participated vigorously) over whether any text should be read in the context of other texts (not all of which need be other texts of literature, such as biographical information about the author); but in non-fiction I feel strongly that we ignore context at great peril. Unfortunately, television news is far too shallow a medium to give context its due; so I guess my real frustration is that, by virtue (vice?) of the extent to which we now rely on television as a source of "news and information," we have lost most, if not all, of that ability to read in context. The perils that we face do not need to be repeated, whether they involve the quality of our government or the quality of the planet to sustain our very future.

No comments: