I was washing dishes in my cousin's small temporary abode one Sunday night, when I heard something about the notion of time on the radio. I turned it up, despite objections, in a home tiny for 3 people, where each room is presided over by a big screen, as is increasingly the case in U.S. American habitats. The fragments I heard over the whining child, the passifying mother, the running tap, and the smooth clang of dishes, made me run to my computer to find the radio show discussing different realities of time: not just perceptions of it. This is a somewhat familiar and radically attractive subject for me, as the most recent lecture by my favorite philosopher is on the same topic (Judith Butler's “One Time Traverses Another”).
I listened to that one hour segment on time thrice: each time while doing something else, so loosing essential pieces, and enjoying repetition. Then I began to listen to other segments of the same program. I've always adored radio, which has helped me learn more than one language. But I hate the snippets of violence reports that often passes for news, so I've been shying away from spontaneous and arbitrary crime descriptions lately. Today, as I ate my dinner, jet-lagged after a flight across the Atlantic, I listened to the radio again, this time discussing another big subject close to me, philosophically: matter. And I noticed that I was doing something while listening that I do not do (nor does anyone else I know) while watching television or films: I was thinking.
Let's say that there could be several reasons for this. One of them might concern the difference of the sense of hearing compared to hearing and watching at the same time. Not only does video engage both senses since it consists of moving pictures, the speed is an added element that is likely to contribute to overwhelming the viewer and thus passifying us into the well-documented torpor induced by watching it. (Everyone is probably familiar with the evidence that shows slowing down of all vital signs, etc.)
I think that there is a direct connection here with a lack of thinking. Along with the slowing down of vital signs, thought itself seems to be slowed down, pushed out of the picture by the overabundance of stimulation that video increasingly strives to achieve since studies show that TV watchers and movie goers become equally more spellbound and placid when the images change faster and more drastically (hence the ever-increasing predominance of explosions and violence on screen, that doesn't so much make experienced watchers squirm in their seats, as plasters them in place, stultifying, and I would add stupefying, into eye-wide horror or suspense).
But if video is such a negatively impacting thought-killer (if not soul killer, which can also be argued from a secular perspective), and we reject overwhelming conspiracy hypothesis, why has its popularity risen to such a seemingly all-consuming level? Or, if the answers to this question are all too obvious, perhaps we better ask: is video really all bad?
20th century philosopher Walter Benjamin thought that film was the new revolutionary art form, in the first decades of its birth. And no doubt, varying forms of what I have called “video,” as an umbrella term for film and television, can offer radically positive and inspiring—I'm searching for a noun here—thought? Yes, perhaps even that. Elisa Santucci-Nitis, a contemporary philosopher, points out that Benjamin did not simply reject oversimplifications like good or bad, he also wrote that it was technology that held the key to revolution that could bring real equality to people. So the value of technology in general, and video and radio specifically, certainly depends (not on how they are used but) on what we do with them.
In today's globalized society, especially in rich countries that have been called “overdeveloped societies,” video and commercialization have jointly taken the place of religion as social dominators. And video seems to work as a better passifyer than any drug, even if most things can be understood to work on the model of addiction, precisely because it pushes thought so far off screen...(which may be essential to the present modus operandi which depends on environmental devastaion and structural injustice).
But what I really wanted to talk about was: radio. And how in today's environment, some radio programs manage to offer serious nurturance for thought, not just junk food for escapist illusions. What if thinking were essentially dialogical, that is, what if unlike the assertions of most privileged philosophers, thinking is not a narcissistic activity conducted in the privacy of one's own mind, but rather requires a dialogue? At a time of increasing, often excruciating social isolation, radio could then sometimes offer that interlocutor, that other mind, in conversation with which our own thought can unfold. (And to what extent this thought would remain “our own” will have to remain an open question, at least for now.)
Oh, and the program I was talking about with segments that got me listening again is: Radiolab, which has been a delightful companion and inspiration for this fragment of thought about what else video might be killing besides that radio star we never even knew, and in all likelihood, for the better. (Who needs celebrities anyway, when one can think of real stars together?)
Maya Nitis, PhD in Media and Communication
Berlin, January 2014