The Victory of Visuality

The Semitic deities are the gods of the ear, the Indo-Germanic gods are the deities of the eye. The prophets of Israel demanded that the people lent them an ear, shouting, “Hear O Israel”. Jehovah spoke to Moses and Job, but never showed his face. In stark contrast, the Greek Gods were into appearing in spectacular forms, like some heavenly Hollywood stars. But another breed of the Indo-Germanic gods, the Norse gods, did not do much talking and listening, they were spectators rather than listeners. Their Mr. Big, the god of war and wisdom, Ódinn sat on his magic throne where he could see the whole world in one vision.

For a long while it seemed like the Semitic gods had prevailed in their wars against their visual Indo-Germanic colleagues. But today’s victory of visual culture could be called “the Indo-Germanic revenge”; today we “worship” visuality as we sit reverently at the feet of Ódinn’s throne, watching the whole world on a super-wide TV screen.

Despite being a great admirer of the old Norse mythology, I have my misgivings about today’s dominance of visual entertainment. So in this article I will discuss the darker side of this kind of entertainment and popular culture in general. I will try to show that visual entertainment (and possibly other types of comparable popular culture) can hurt the reading skills of youngsters and lead to what I will call a “new barbarism”.

Let’s consider whether or not the entertainment industry has been the cause of a world-wide cultural decline. The signs of this decline seem to be everywhere: people buy fewer books because their time is increasingly consumed by visual entertainment. It has also gotten increasingly difficult to sell “serious” books. Thus, the manager of a major German publishing house said in an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit that a book such as the essays of British intellectual George Steiner sells perhaps 9,000 copies today, but a book of that caliber would have sold about 20,000 copies twenty years ago (Die Zeit, September 16, 1999, No. 38.).

From other sources we learn that classical music is in dire straits; according to the New York Times (October 10, 2001), the market shares of classical music are down to 3% from the ordinary 7%. The audiences also get older; the young generation seems “vaccinated” against classical music by “the EmptyTV” (MTV) — that moronic meeting place of noise and visuality. Indeed, American high culture is suffering. Neil Postman has famously maintained in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, that before the onslaught of popular culture, Americans were generally reasonably well read. But nowadays, they are, well, busy amusing themselves to death.

Long after Postman wrote his book, a survey among students of 55 top US Universities, including Harvard and Princeton, showed that 99% of the respondents knew that Beavis and Butthead were cartoon characters — only 23% that James Madison had played an important role in shaping the US constitution (Associated Press, June 29, 2000). There is no business but show business!

According to a recent article in Newsweek (May 10th 1999), American teenagers spend on average 3 1/2 hours a day, completely alone, more often than not absorbed by computer games, internet surfing or the television. I admit that there is an abundance of excellent visual entertainment; witness such sophisticated cartoons as Dilbert, South Park and The Simpsons. The problem lay not in the triumph of entertainment as such, but in the victory of visuality over the written and spoken word. We are experiencing what might be called “culture’s visual turn”, a turn for the worse, in my mind.

The situation is no better in other countries. Surveys in Norway, Germany and Iceland show that youngsters read much less than before, “thanks” to the visual culture. In a recent article in a Norwegian newspaper, scholar Jarle Elvemo maintained that decrease in literacy among young people can be explained with the increased dominance of visual culture (Dagbladet December 11, 2001). Young people in these countries and most other affluent countries of the world spend up to 30 hours a week in front of the tube or the personal computer, so they simply do not have the time to read. [Broddason (1999): 175-191.] It has been said both in Norway and Iceland that the youngsters, who are taken by Anglo-American popular culture, have an impoverished knowledge of their mother tongues.

Young Germans seem to have the same problem. According to the German weekly Der Spiegel, there has been a sharp increase in problems of linguistic development among German three or four year old in just a decade. Scholars think that the reason is the sudden increase in opportunities to watch TV and videos and play computer games. The number of Germans who have problems with readin, has also risen dramatically; the reason seems to be that people read much less than before. Spiegel even speculates in the possibility that the present development could lead to a new barbarism (Der Spiegel, no 41, 1998). Should we call it “a barbarism with a talking head”, a head which babbles on TV in American English?

Interestingly enough, the well known British author Doris Lessing talks in a recent article about a new breed of educated barbarians. They do brilliantly in their own field but have no general knowledge because they have never read anything outside their own field [Lessing (1998): 47-50]. Could the explanation be that the “new barbarians” are so taken by visual entertainment that they do not have time to read books outside of their own field?

The barbarism with the talking head has other faces, as well. I think that it might even be responsible for the present increase in violence among teenagers. If youngsters have problems expressing themselves linguistically it might increase their tendency to express their emotions in violent ways, instead of talking things over. Language is the basic vehicle for argumentation. There is no such thing as putting forth an argument only with the aid of visual images. So the triumph of visuality might lead to diminished abilities to engage in argumentation.

However, visuality might also give youngsters certain useful skills. Some psychologists think that the world-wide increase in children’s IQ might be due to the PC-games because some of them are more than a bit like IQ-tests [Aftenposten (May 29, 2001)]. Nevertheless, the victory of visuality might cause a decrease in rhetorical and poetical skills. As Danish scholar Svend Birkets says: “We are losing our grip, collectively, on the logic of complex utterance, on syntax; we are abandoning the rhythmic, poetic undercurrents of expression . . .” [Birkets (1998): 24.] Birkets maintains that the Internet and virtuality are the culprits but I think that the consumption of visual entertainment also plays an important role in the demise of linguistic culture.

True, the inventors of the Nintendo did not intend to “rape the innocent” and “destroy culture”, but such devastation could, in a sense, be the unforeseen consequences of their products. My contention is that wordless video and computer games are cheaper to produce in a standardised fashion than games that require linguistic skills; non-lingual games can be sold all over the world, whereas lingual games have to be adapted to different linguistic communities. And as I suggested, chances are that this new visual, non-lingual entertainment can seriously hurt the linguistic abilities of young people.

Life in the Western world (meaning Western Europe, in addition to the US) is comparably easier than ever before, in that there is now an unprecedented middle class with unprecedented leisure time. The corresponding rise in consumer culture has cultivated the desire for instant gratification among members of this class. Modern people tend to shy away from the intellectually demanding experience of high culture, and therefore become the easy prey of the entertainment industry. I think that this hedonism is one of the reasons why few parents read to their children at bedtime. The hedonistic parents are simply too lazy to do it and instead, they let the telly lull the young ones to sleep.

The “new barbarians” epitomise Max Weber’s grey vision of a future world inhabited by “Fachmenschen ohne Geist, Genussmenschen ohne Herz” (My translation: “Specialists without spirituality, heartless hedonists”) [Max Weber (1920-3): 204]. The triumph of the new barbarians might be the triumph of technocracy (most notably computer technocracy) and the end of humanistic culture. Quite possibly, “the barbarism with the talking head” also will destroy democracy. The new barbarians may be easily manipulated by scrupulous politicians since they (the barbarians) do not possess general knowledge and critical thinking skills and therefore may be gullible. Indeed, the new barbarians will become the village idiots of the global village.

Sociologist Robert Putnam has forcefully defended the thesis that TV and related electronic media are responsible for a sharp decrease in communal living in the US [Putnam (1996)]. Putnam also says that the development toward increased isolation might also increase violent behaviour — people care less about one another because they socialise less. And besides, we cannot rule out the possibility that violent action movies make youngsters more aggressive. All this further strengthens my suspicion that visual entertainment does nothing to make our streets safer. Be it as it may, it seems to me that the culture of narcissism is being replaced by the culture of autism.

For us Icelanders, this turn might spell a cultural catastrophe. Our culture has always been bookish. In fact no nation in Europe buys as many books as the Icelanders. So the fact that our youth reads much less than its previous generations feels like a threat to our traditions. As an Icelander I have always been strongly attached to books. Add to this the fact that I was brought up in the word-loving protestant faith and no one needs to wonder why I have a tremendous belief in the redeeming power of the word. A good protestant is not only sceptical of today’s hedonism, his god is also a Semitic one, a god of the word. Maybe we need some new Semitic gods in order to battle the victorious visual gods of Indo-Germanic provenance.

List of References
Svend Birkets (1998): “Sense and Semblance: The Implication of Virtuality,” in B. Cox (ed.) : Literacy is not Enough. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
Thorbjoern Broddason (1999): “A Wasted Miracle? Literacy and the New Media”,
Christa Lykke Christensen (ed.) Børn, unge og medier (Children, Youth and the Media). Gothenburg: Nordicom.
Doris Lessing (1998): “Love of Reading”. Brian Cox (ed.): Literacy is not enough. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
Neil Postman (1985): Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Viking.
Robert D. Putnam (1996): “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America”. The American Prospect (online), Vol. 7, Issue 24, December 1.
Max Weber (1920-3): Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie. Religionssoziologie I. Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus.
Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr.