What Does It Take To Get Under Your Skin?

This summer I am looking forward to teaching two classes.

At Hunter College,   one summer session compresses a semester’s worth of work into eight weeks. One of those classes is Introduction to Media Studies, which I rarely teach. Every time I do, though, it is an opportunity to move out of the trees of specialization and get a good look at the whole forest.

To tell you the truth, I feel a little bit like the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz. Contemporary media and culture can be a scary forest. Social and technological change is taking place at breakneck speed. Media are pervasive and omnipresent. New technologies and social networks have so effectively penetrated social life that it is hard to find any remaining truly private spaces. Our TVs are computers and our computers are TVs.

And news is so instantaneous that, if some “god-forbid” catastrophic event happens to occur while I am teaching,   it is possible that all of us in class with our various vibrating, digital gizmos will get a glimpse of the event on some tiny screen even before the first responders arrive on the scene of the actual event.  We live in “real-time.”

(It’s actually quite a sight when, in one of my classes, a major news event takes place. Purses and pockets all across the room start to vibrate like a mini-earthquake!)

But one thing in particular worries me about this hyperventilating world: How — in the midst of all this noise, content, yelling, shouting, and reality programming – does someone who cares about an issue or an injustice make that issue heard and understood amidst the cacophony?

Some social problems, for a whole host of reasons, are not easily explained in this media environment. They may be complex, they may require nuanced thinking, or they may not have the kind of compelling visuals that get people’s pulse to quicken. Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes, for example, are serious health problems. But if you are someone who wants to raise awareness or if you want to promote increased government funding, how do you get people all hot and bothered about something that might not affect them?

And so I wanted to share a passage from a wonderful New Yorker (May 18, 2009) article by Nick Paumgarten entitled “The Death of Kings: Notes from a Meltdown.”  (Hunter students can access the article on Lexis-Nexis at the library database page.)

How, he asks, did such a massive financial collapse escape the attention of so many people? Why were people taken by surprise? His answer is one of the best comments on the role of media and the visual image that I have seen in a long time:

We are a visual species. In an economic crisis, in the early stages, at least (and we are likely still in the early stages, in spite of all the recent happy talk), the visible effects are subtle, if they are present at all. Maybe there are empty seats at the game. It is a mathematical predicament, an abstraction that expresses itself in dreary reports that don’t affect you, until they do. Deferred dreams aren’t news. Even the worst consequences-homelessness, hunger, untreated illness, everything short of civil unrest or outright revolution-aren’t spectacles. The history-making developments-the collapses of great or at least large institutions, the government’s deployments of sums beyond imagining, the exchange of gigantic liabilities for even more gigantic ones in the future, the effects these things have on geopolitics-are difficult to picture. People grasp at anecdotal observation: store closures, idle spouses, a rash of attacks by a mugger (a mugger!) with a pipe. The immigrants are going home.

How often do you wait for the compelling visual to get concerned?

And how often is that too late?

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