A commercial for an orange tube-y snack food shows a hip hop artist waving his fingers across bricks in an urban landscape and a colorful mural appears; he passes a child playing plastic buckets and the boy is now sitting at a red and chrome full drum kit. The plain glass buildings all begin shimmering in color.
Because in America, at least, you can’t enjoy anything, not even a junk food treat, unless you are changing the world. And it’s not enough to have a tasty bite. You have to gorge on a whole fucking bloomin’ onion, loaded nachos, and whipped cream on the dessert, with a table filled with family or friends, or why did you bother to go out?
And it’s not enough to enjoy the 4th of July with a sparkler; you need to listen to the incessant sounds of explosions all over Queens and watch the aftermath of a mass shooting of 30 spectators watching a parade in a small town in Illinois.
And I don’t know about you, but this kind of “go big or go home” bullshit is starting to give Miss O’ more than hives.
What’s the Meaning of All This?
Back in 1964, philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said:
“The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”
Fifty-eight years ago, McLuhan also said, “Ours is a brand-new world of all-at-onceness.” Director Mike Nichols, in an interview in the 1990s, talks about how much McLuhan got right, though McLuhan seemed to be dropped from our consciousness. (I say “to be dropped” because we live in a disposable culture.) People used to receive information at different times, Nichols noted, and in different forms—newspapers, letters, magazines, telegraph, newsreels. News used to reach people weeks or months, or years, after an event occurred. The Emancipation Proclamation, signed in 1863, did not reach enslaved people in Texas until June 19, 1865, and deliberately so—the goal being to keep this from them for as long as possible so the farmers could get another harvest out of the enslaved for free.
With TV, we all saw the Kennedy assassination aftermath play out immediately, for example. Nichols, speaking of the challenges of directing new scripts, pointed out that because exciting real events—from assassinations to the moon landing to wars—come to us in real time, fiction just can’t measure up. And so now instead of deep, simple human stories to sell tickets, we reach for Superheroes and Armageddon for entertainment.
Nothing seems to be enough to sate us. The news media and its audience now hear of mass shootings and barely register an “oh, god,” just before the yawn; you see that it’s getting increasingly harder to satisfy our sensory desires. Overloading on porn and all its vulgar unrealism is why all those Incels (involuntary celibates) can get no pleasure from sex with women. The medium is the message: sex isn’t about intimacy, but rather gratification and power.
“We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”
~ Marshall McLuhan
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man 1964
Miss O’ Wonders
Query: What message are Americans told, by one another, is the message of America?
Query: If your culture’s primary tools (or mediums) are guns, unmediated information highways, evangelical Christianity, and self-proclaimed “influencers,” what is the actual message?
Miss O’s Current Response: The message is that one ideology pushed by a lone individual’s power to kill or influence others is the single most valued aspect of the culture.
It’s a question of lenses.
A philosophy professor of mine once taught about hedonism. He said people misunderstand it, thinking a hedonist is someone who debauches and can’t get enough of pleasure. In fact, Prof. Smith said, “A hedonist is supposed to get an orgasm from bread and water.” Hedonists in fact set up a philosophy with forced, unsustainable expectations for actual humans. Bread and water will never be orgasmic, however nourishing, unless you are first dying of starvation and thirst.
In its latest attempt at a national philosophy, America has set up a forced, unsustainable set of messages for Americans through the medium of video, meaning we all see and hear these messages.
- First, we are supposed to place the needs and desires of the individual above society, unless that individual is Black/brown, poor, and/or a woman.
- Next, we must yield to the power of guns and ones who wield them over any individual’s freedom to speak, assemble, worship, or report news, unless that person is a white male with shit tons of money.
If the medium is an unmediated Medium, is the message that we are living in Babel?
I often spend whole mornings just deleting email junk so I can free up my email storage for more junk.
If the medium is an unstoppable garbage bin of random communications, is the message that there will be respite from the noise of humans and technology?
I have seen tweets of mine go mini-viral and had panic attacks.
I have tweeted, blogged, or posted on my wall things that I find vitally important and not one person agrees with me in even the form of a like.
I begin to value myself based on the mediums.
Which medium are we going to amplify? Which message will sound off and win in the end? Is there an end?
Is there anything duller and less surprising, however continually shocking, than American politics? Republicans can only stay on brand by grabbing power and rejecting anything democratic; the Democrats can only stay on brand by rejecting revolutionary progress and staying steady.
If the medium is the message, what is the proper medium for politics? What is the MESSAGE of our political life?
I keep getting stuck on these questions. “Stalemate” comes to mind. “Bartleby the Scrivener,” too.
Because a stable democracy is dull copy for our hundreds of 24-hour cycle “news” outlets, whether on a cable network, local television, or a newspaper, the Big Stories I see are almost never to do with public good so much as public titillation for ratings or sales. (And now this commercial message.)
The collective message is what exactly? Consume mass quantities and die already?
I awoke this morning, the Fourth of July, 2022, as I have every morning for months, in a pit of despair. Between the climate crisis-induced collapse of an Italian glacier and the invasion of Ukraine, along with the naked Republican attempt at every level of government over the past three years to end our constitutional democracy—and a press that does little more than pass the popcorn—it’s hard to write anything, create anything, feel there’s any point. And as I stood in my hallway after the coffee, half naked, holding a bra, vacillating between putting on real clothes to leave my apartment so as not to listen to the lone skateboarder on the asphalt playground who decided to practice his tricks right next to my little abutting porch (knowing that will also be in for an endless night of illegal fireworks); and falling into a ball of lonely weeping, as I do rather a lot these days; I mercifully remembered I have friends. I texted everyone I love and care about that piece of art by Rebecca Morgan, up there, because they all would instantly get it, and they did. And they answered.
My friends Carl and Mark, buddies of mine since 2nd grade wrote back too. Both of them are gay. Carl lives in our home town; Mark lives in Delaware with this husband. In response to our group, Carl said, “Not feeling celebratory. Low key chill here. Cleaning and organizing.” Mark said, “America doesn’t deserve a birthday celebration this year 😤.” I said, “I’m writing a blog.” Carl said, “Excellent. I hope you include my disappointment.” Mark sent his love, calling us, “MY FAMILY.” And that just broke me up. You know? That sudden burst or wave of love. And if I hadn’t broken the grip of depression, pushed past the despair by becoming outer directed, I suppose I would have started drinking wine at 10:30 AM and not really looked back.
And wine is a lousy medium for any message. Here are some better ones:
- Postcards to SCOTUS
Most of our important commentary anymore comes through in the medium of satire, including comics, cartoons, and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and TBS’s Full Frontal. The medium is the message: We treat our existential truths like jokes. The “breaking news” of the NYT is often the equivalent of “What happens to Jolly Ranchers when they stay all day in a hot car?” The medium—the paper of record—is the message, and that message is “accentuate the trivial and don’t mess with existential truth in between.”
Like millions in the world, I write what’s on my mind and post these ideas for free for all to see. I have no mediators. No one, not a partner or friend and certainly not a paid editor, is around to read behind me, suggest where I might improve, strengthen, or refocus. Nor does any publisher or advertiser pay me for my thoughts.
And it’s still only one voice trying to mediate all the other voices and create a message that is coherent and true.
I still don’t know how to do it. Nevertheless I persist.
One thought on “Word Clouds”
“Nothing seems to be enough to sate us,” and your quote from Epicurus, “Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little,” hit me with full recognition. I once worked with someone who commented on our culture with the words “Too much is not enough.” When everything feels urgently important and wants our attention, it’s utterly overwhelming, and trying to mediate the many messages coming our way to create our own coherent message is truly challenging. As a result I’ve been thinking more about the importance of acknowledging my limitations and boundaries are important so I can live from a place of greater wholeness. This is truly challenging.
I appreciated your anecdote about being included in others’ lives and seen as part of a larger family. When we sense we are a part of a larger context, and experience how what we do and say makes a difference to those who we have a relationship with, that helps bring other things into focus. What we say and do matters. We also aren’t alone in trying to sort things out.