A Short Lament


Have moving pictures been good for us? Milan Kundera does not think so, and I think he is right. Without them, our increasing material comfort, our docility and consumerism might have made us merely ordinarily stupid–passively less mindful of what Heidegger called our lifeworld–but we have, thanks to movies, television, and commericals, become avidly, remarkably stupid. We have changed history. I think the forces behind this change will likely overwhelm us, that we have reached a point of no return.

But first here is Kundera, from his wonderful little book Encounter:

What the brothers Lumiere invented in 1895 was not an art but a technology that made it possible to capture, to display, to keep, and to archive the visual image of reality, not a fraction of a second, but in its movement and its duration. Without that discovery of the “moving photo,” the world today would not be what it is: the new technology has become, primo, the principal agent of stupidity (incomparably more powerful than the bad literature of old: advertisements, television series); and secundo, the agent of worldwide indiscretion (cameras secretly filming political adversaries in compromising situations, immortalizing the pain of a half-naked woman laid out on a stretcher after a street bombing).

Milan Kundera

When Kant wrote that we construct experience from a combination of “received” external reality and internally imputed structures including, at the most basic level, phenomenal time and space, he did not think he was writing a self-help book. He thought he was resolving an argument between (mostly English-speaking) empiricists, who thought all our experience was derived from sensory impressions of external reality, and (mostly French- and German-speaking) rationalists, who thought the internal operation of reason played the leading role in structuring our experience. Kant was just doing metaphysics, decribing the boundary between our minds and reality.

But (ignoring some oversimplifications that my philosopher comrades will zealously point out), seen from today, Kant also offers wisdom, an improving idea cast in the glaring light of TV. The moving picture robs us of the essential thing Kant espied–our engagement with reality. We can now lie back and have much of our mental work done for us.

If you think I am going to follow this up by pointing out how our lack of mental engement has led to rampant media bias and our political “bubbles,” you are wrong. Those things are minor tragedies, made possible by the original sin of prostrating ourselves to the moving picture. We decided to starve our souls before we got around to mutilating them.

In the 1980s, Kundera already had a sense of what was happening to us: “the sense that we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying.”

I wonder what Kundera would think today. He is still alive but very private, almost secretive. He hasn’t written about the state of things recently. He probably has observed us, seen us hooting and howling a demonic farewell to the pathetic weakness people once felt, the need for art, nuance and irony (we are far beyond missing them), and he has probably passed over us in silence.


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