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01 January 2008

Talking about... Media

Talking about... Media

Whether we are talking from a pulpit or over a garden fence, Tony Watkins helps us to give relevant answers to the big issues raised by contemporary popular culture...

What do we see when we look around us? A landscape or a cityscape, of course. But more than this we see a mediascape. The background of our lives is not simply a physical environment, but a deluge of television programmes, music, websites, films, advertising hoardings, radio stations, magazines and podcasts. For a very significant portion of our time, we focus not on our surroundings, or even on the people within them, but on the spectacle of images and sounds that constantly clamour for our attention.

Many writers have reflected on how the media deluge impacts us. French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who died last year, claimed that we are so overwhelmed by the media that it can separate us from reality. Most of our information about events in the world comes as representations of reality through television, radio and print, and we are not in a position to know whether they are true or not.

In his book Mediated: How the Media Shape Your World, Thomas de Zengotita says that our lives are "composed of an unprecedented fusion of the real and the represented".

Interpreting the world

This is the territory being explored by Douglas Coupland in his latest novel The Gum Thief, a book about a diary which includes extracts of a novel about a writer peeking at a rival's manuscript. Coupland seems to be suggesting that we can never get away from representations of reality - we even represent reality to ourselves, in our heads, as we interpret the world around us.

It's no surprise then that the most popular programmes on TV are not current affairs or documentaries but soaps

One of the reasons we love the media, especially visual media, is that they present us with a dazzling array of representations of reality. Zengotita says that it's a kind of flattery: we are constantly being addressed, constantly offered a "God's eye view" of the world that allows us to sit in detachment and safety while watching terrible things unfold before our eyes. He suggests that this is the underlying reason for the narcissism that characterises Western society.

The all-pervasive media affect us in many other, often complex ways. Marshall McLuhan famously declared that "the medium is the message". What he meant was that the media themselves influence us at the level of emotions and attitudes, regardless of what is being said. McLuhan's insights are remarkable given that he was writing in 1964, well before the media domination of culture with which we are now so familiar.

He noted that people usually focus on the benefits of technologies, including media, without giving thought to the inevitable downsides. Every technology offers us some extension of our capacities but, according to McLuhan, they also cause some amputation. For example, cars enable us to travel quickly over long distances, but they reduce the amount we walk, isolate us from others and cause other obvious problems.

Television extends our opportunities for entertainment and our knowledge of the wider world, but it tends to make us exercise less, it stops us talking and its fast-moving nature makes us less able and willing to engage with reasoned arguments.

It's no surprise then that the most popular programmes on TV are not current affairs or documentaries but soaps (Coronation Street and Eastenders leading the way as they have for years) and reality TV (shows like Strictly Come Dancing, I'm A Celebrity and X Factor). Serious factual programmes don't lend themselves to exciting viewing. Unless, that is, they go down the line of the TV crew in the film Strange Wilderness, which heads off to the Andes in search of Bigfoot and is prepared to do almost anything in a bid to boost its ratings.

Critical mass

Apart from computer games, television is the most criticised of all media. TV's detractors decry its inability to present a careful consideration of a subject and the emphasis on images not words. It's a valid criticism, but life is not all about presenting rational arguments. Music, whether popular or classical, is even less effective at doing so than TV. Cherry Ghost's album Thirst for Romance may be deeply influenced by existentialism, but it's far from being a presentation of existentialist ideas. Yet we don't criticise music for this; rather we acknowledge that music is more about emotions, and perhaps about raising questions, prompting us to reflect on a particular issue.

In its broadest sense, art is not about giving a series of statements to be argued over. We don't condemn a sculptor for being unable to do so; we don't criticise a poem or the lyrics of a song or even a novel for making allusions rather than being straightforwardly prosaic; we don't complain about films that fail to provide a rational explanation for the ideas at their core. So why do we censure television for the same failings? Why do we expect more from it than it can deliver?

The real problem, it seems to me, is that so much television is poor quality. For the sake of filling endless schedules and keeping within limited budgets, programme makers are all too prepared to churn out poorly written dross. They also rely on sensational or shocking content, or feed off our fixation with appearance and self-gratification.

Yet programmes like Doctor Who, Spooks and Heroes, or the BBC's astonishing natural history output, show what television is capable of: powerful, emotional and thought-provoking.

All media should be able to impact us profoundly, each in its unique way. I believe that we need to filter out the background roar of the media onslaught so that we can find the pearls hiding in the pigswill.Tony Watkins

  • www.ToolsForTalks.com provides a one-stop shop to help teach the Bible in the language of contemporary culture. The site contains quotes and illustrations taken from the latest films, music, magazines and TV - updated weekly.
  • Tony Watkins is resources and training co-ordinator for Damaris Trust

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