Today, people are both harder and softer than they were before. Tracking the lives of people can be difficult, but we can more easily track the art that they create.
In terms of sensitivities, people are much less sensitive to images, especially moving images, than they once were. They need a lot of movement and stimulation to feel anything when looking at something. In older movies, you see a lot of long, tracking shots, or still scenes which are more similar to the perspective of a play spectator than that of a stedicam operator. Visual art is noisier. Magazine advertisements rarely have long copy anymore. Instead, they tend to have spectacular, erotic photos, usually with some kind of oblique teaser or legal fine print.
The sort of verbal allusions which were possible in ads from the 1960s and ’70s (see below for a famous one) tend to be avoided now. The kicker line is “we pick the lemons, you get the plums.” People would not read to the end, now, and the text would be too small for them.
I bet that if you took a survey of the American people today, most would not know what a plum is, and few would be able to identify that lemons and plums both grow on trees. The level of literacy is just much lower.
When we think of men and women of the younger generation, their sensibilities tend to be formed, if they’re formed at all, by some mixture of the internet and television (with the majority going to the television, despite the furious pumping of internet stock-jobbers). Their senses are trained to the format of the 30 minute TV program, around which their lives revolve. The shows are 20-24 minutes long, there will be 6-10 minutes of ads, and the ads will be typically cut into formats of 30, 60, or 120 seconds with some rare ones lasting longer.
Further, when young people are texting and Facebooking, they are often doing it about television. When they’re not doing it about TV, they’re just showing each other pictures of their private parts, which really ought to just be renamed ‘parts for public use’ given the changes in mores.
America and most of the rest of the West has ceased to really become a cerebral culture. The leadership class in particular tends to prefer the conference, the blog post, the white paper, and the skimmable article to the book. It’s also not possible to be a real leader of a culture in which the typical person watches five hours of television a day unless you also partake in the highly stimulative audiovisual culture yourself.
This culture tends to frustrate the highly cerebral and literate. It has frustrated me all of my life, in part because I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t like me, and wanted everyone else to be more like me. I also came from an abnormally literate household even among my family’s peer group. It seemed to me just a matter of effort, nagging, and cultivation. The solution to me seemed ideological. Which it isn’t; not directly. And the problem to me was personal, redefined as political, and coming from vanity, along with a sense of equality.
So, we have a culture in which more text is being published than ever before, but the majority tends to be indifferent to printed text, regardless of the medium that it appears on. A minority of people consumes text voraciously. They tend to be smarter and more knowledgeable, because text is a denser medium, with the book being the most efficient means of transmitting knowledge from one person to many people ever yet devised.
Yet those people are often disconnected from their peers and the world of the body, because to disconnect from television is to become a bit of a pariah, in the same way as not being a member of a local church would have made you into a pariah or even an apostate in previous centuries. These visuals also deaden the imaginative mental habit which is necessary to make the enchantment of text work its magic on the heart and mind.
We also have to note that our public spaces are ugly and soul-destroying, looking sometimes like photographs of the Soviet Union, but with mostly smoother roads, more propaganda, and more ugly franchises catering to the degraded. This is why the screens are so dazzling to people. When the world is hideous and degraded, even a gaudy flash of something human is enough to captivate the attention.
Given that it’s not possible to change the sensibilities and habits of the people of the West entirely away from the quick-cut television experience which their entire lives orbit around, there are limits to how much written words alone can achieve in terms of moving the broader population.
My hope would be to encourage the better 20% to return to more literate habits. The best way to encourage this is to downplay the egalitarianism which encourages the high to slouch and the low to pretend to something that they’ll never achieve.
We also have to consider that we have become excessively articulated, too literally depicted, in a way that blots out meaning. We can flash 30 photographs a second at our eyes to create the illusion of motion and life, but even thousands of meaningless pictures flashed in front of our eyes may have less meaning than a single one.