Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Community, Consumption, and the Canon (Part 1)

What makes a community? And what sustains it? Important questions in any age, and certainly in ours, for whatever glue it is that holds us together has never seemed more brittle.

One way to understand this topic is to think of community as a group of individuals with a shared sense of what is beautiful. That is, a community is identified by its common gaze. Augustine thought along these lines when he suggested, in City of God, that “a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.” The bonds of community are forged not by something nebulous like “good will” but by real things in the world, when they are admired in common.

Think about it. The earliest communities held the landscape in a common gaze. The mountain that towered over a prehistoric village quite literally bound its inhabitants in a shared sense of awe, a natural response to their surroundings. You could even argue that the earliest religions emerged from this pull that natural features had on communities. We see this today, with our modern concept of national landmarks—we still think it is important to set aside and officially recognize certain parts of the landscape (mountains, geysers, beaches, glaciers) that draw our attention, and our wonder.

You could argue that the smallest unit of community—a family—is bound together by something similar to a common landscape—those peaks and valleys and rivers that make up a lifetime of shared experience. Though members of a family may live separate lives for much of their adulthood, they are nevertheless united by those formative experiences which they faced together, and those particular moments that they recognized as beautiful. I’m using the word “beautiful” liberally here; I don’t simply mean objectively stunning specimens, such as a thundering waterfall or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. By “beauty” I mean to imply those things which invite our gazes to linger, those certain experiences that draw our attention more than the rest. “Beautiful” things, in this understanding, don’t necessarily have to be pleasurable: a family trauma, for example, can draw a family’s collective attention as well as a vacation in a stunning natural setting can. Both kinds of experiences bind individuals together as a community.

Understanding community in this way helps us see how consumerism works against it. By its nature, consumerism must divide and conquer, to maximize its profit. You never see advertisements directed towards a group, or a family. For a company to possess real security in the free market is have its talons firmly sunk into individual lifestyles, into the habits of people. Cigarettes. Earbuds for your playlists. Personal screens for your shows. The more inroads industry makes into our daily routines, the more successful it is, and the more distant we become from each other.

This struck me a while back when I was playing pub trivia with some friends. The final question asked us to rank the top viewed TV-show finales of all time. One would think that the most recent TV shows would have had the most viewers, since TV ownership and the total population have both increased in the past decades. However, the most-watched finale was 1983’s M*A*S*H, with 106 million viewers, followed by shows like Cheers (1993) and The Fugitive (1967).  Seinfeld (1998) was not far behind. Why did the older shows have more viewers than modern ones? The reason, when I thought about it, is actually pretty obvious: there were fewer shows in the days before companies like HBO, Netflix, and Amazon entered the market. More people watched the same show because there were fewer options, plain and simple.

If you wanted to watch the M*A*S*H finale, you had to watch it at the same time as everyone else—there was no DVR, of course. The stats are staggering: sixty percent of American TVs (60!) were tuned in (that’s sixty percent of ALL television sets in the country, on or off), and of all the TVs that were turned on during the time the finale ran, 77% were tuned to M*A*S*H. The only numbers that approach those statistics now are huge sporting events like the Super Bowl, and even then, you need to look to the local markets of the teams playing to see so many people tuned to the same event. 54% of all Boston TVs were tuned to this past year’s Super Bowl, 81% of those that were on.

If the strength of a community depends on shared experience, we are in big trouble. I remember riding in a fifteen-passenger van to cross-country meets as a high schooler, long rides, usually to places 3 or 4 hours away, and we passed the time in various ways. Some kids read, some listened to music on Walkmans or Discmans, but for the most part, the hours we spent together were full of laughter, inappropriate stories, annoying songs, and the like. Back then, people in a shared space had no choice but to be present to each other. In my time as a teacher and coach I’ve gone on similar bus rides. Now they are eerily silent. Everyone—and I mean everyone—has his own screen and headphones, the world’s library of music and videos and games available to each thanks to data plans or the Wifi available on some of the swankier busses. Being together no longer means sharing a common experience.

If Augustine’s thoughts on the nature of communities are true, we can’t be surprised that ours have fragmented in the consumption-driven modern era. In substituting private for shared experience, consumerism works to undermine our common culture by actively turning our attention away from those “objects of love” we share. When you think about it, you could spend weeks at a time only speaking to another human being when you are handing them payment for a service: the check-out lady at the supermarket, the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru clerk, the kid at the dry cleaners’. Someone can live what by all societal standards looks like a happy, well-adjusted life and not encounter another human outside of commercial exchanges.
What will turn us back to real community? It all hinges on cultivating common "objects of love." That’s where the canon comes in. In an upcoming post I’ll try to make the case that reading and discussing the great works are essential to any hope we have of sustaining what’s left of our intellectual community. Stay tuned.

(Part 2 here)

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