Understanding events by giving attention to context is our intellectual birthright. It isn’t just poets who widen the frame to see life and all of its interconnected possibilities. Even a new automobile driver must learn to read the totality of the landscape in order to stay ahead of potential problems. Those whose business it is to document trends in the culture provide the clearest examples of pulling back to see beyond the small pieces to the larger whole. This skill was especially evident in the work of ground-breaking critics of film and painting like Pauline Kael and Robert Hughes. And it remains on continual display in the works of any number of contemporary novelists and essayists.
Even so, I’m struck with how digital news from many different sources slices and dices single occurrences into tighter frames of reference that have the effect of training us to ignore a wider view. Because so much internet journalism is short-form rather than long-form, we are encouraged to look at events that hook us by their recency rather than their significance. Many news sites update every few minutes to catch the latest atrocities and verbal assaults that have surfaced. Our media atomizes these moments, even though moving from one event to the next in a flash sabotages the mind’s capacity to glean significant and larger patterns. Our growing thirst for the recent is the equivalent of looking at a pointillist painting just inches from the canvas.
Here’s one specific form of the problem: the mindless juxtaposition of upbeat advertising immediately in front of videos of human beings abusing each other. This is a good test of what we can call the consciousness of incongruous juxtaposition. Imagine an elevator ride that includes successive visits to floors where the doors open onto scenes of people who are in dire need of help. Presumably we would feel compelled to respond because we are momentarily “in” each place as well as the elevator. But such a ride should be psychologically uncomfortable, forcing us to witness successive traumas partly beyond the bubble of our own world.
The point is that our media tends to destabilize the relationship we have to the outside world. And more than a few media critics have noted that the constancy of this fact seems to dull our abilities to react appropriately to the incongruous.
Like or not, we now live in an age where we must decide how much we want to open ourselves to various forms of human depravity.
Consider a few samples that our consciousness of incongruous juxtiposition, all presented in the last few years in the popular Huffington Post:
-A house explosion that critically injures two in New Jersey is caught by a dash cam a half a block away, preceded by a 15-second ad for Boeing Aerospace. -A closed circuit camera catches a fiery blast at a Russian railway station that kills 16 people, brought to us courtesy of Starburst Candy. -A video of gruesome ISIS killings of a number of men in Libya, also preceded by an ad for Starburst Candy. -A video of a man attacking a British police officer with a foot long kitchen knife, preceded by an ad for Airnb, with a child in a posh living-room taking her first steps.
You get the idea. In each case the ads book-ended the stories. Images of mayhem are utterly at odds with the upbeat messages for a range of products and services, all following in quick succession.
Why don’t we notice? Irony is more than a nice literary trope. It’s one product of a mind that is fully alive to the tensions that exist in any culture. Even so, desensitization is perhaps the price we pay for franchising our time to others using “clickbait” to draw us in.
In truth, news in print and on tape has almost always been supported by advertising that is immediately adjacent to content. But most outlets used to edit stories in ways to buffer ad messages from horrific content. Even minimal sensibility for what advertisers used to call “complementary editorial” has disappeared on some sites, suggesting declining sensibilities that would normally recoil at awkward juxtapositions. It’s testimony to our growing numbness that we usually miss the ironies of using the good news of advertising to sell peeks into the Seventh Circle of Hell. Imperial Rome may have had plenty of bread and apparently a lot of grisly “circuses.” But they’ve got nothing on us.
Comment at Woodward@tcnj.edu