A couple days ago I flew across America, and sat next to a woman who watched “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” from San Diego to Washington DC— five full hours. Though I try to keep up with a lot of the world, I didn’t even know there was a channel devoted to the infamous Kardashians, and that of all that might be watched on the airline television service, the Kardashians would qualify as one of the most important windows onto the world.
Of course, only in a culture where we are amusing ourselves to death do they matter— at least “matter” in the way that they have come to in the year 2015. As human beings, they are worthy of their own honor, but being famous for being famous should only work in the parody of Andy Warhol’s small universe. That it has become the air we breathe is scary.
But if not a tragedy, there was an irony in my experience on the plane. The woman was traveling with her daughter, visiting an unnamed university along the ocean in California; the daughter will begin school there in the fall. While the mother was enamored with the Kardashians for hours— watching them go in-and-out of the hospital (getting plastic surgeries, I guess), and having parties at their mansion —the daughter was apparently working on a paper, her computer on her table the whole way. In the last half hour, I heard the daughter say to the mother, “You see, right here: it’s about women in the media, and the way they are sexualized.” I didn’t hear more than that.
And I gulped. For whatever interest and passion the daughter had in the subject, the mother seemed— without a blink —to be completely taken in by a family best known for its women who offer themselves to the world in overtly sexualized ways, making both their womanliness and their sexuality into something terribly trivial.
If we remember Postman’s astute observation in “Amusing Ourselves to Death”— comparing and contrasting the visions of Huxley and Orwell about the future of the modern world —“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
Reading is not salvation; other things matter more. But reading is a window into thinking, into our ability to consider, to think things through, to expose ourselves to a wider world; in a word, to muse. Huxley wrote his book in 1931, Postman wrote his in 1984. They were both seeing into the world that is ours, a remarkable far-sightedness, really. What was true generations ago is only more true in ours, so full we are of information about anything and everything, e.g “keeping up the Kardashians” being only one face of our amusing-ourselves-to-death culture.
If we have ears to hear, we should remember that in Huxley’s brave new world, “People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” And very simply, of course, “a-muse” means “to not think.”
(Photo from my flight across America, looking down on the Painted Desert of northeastern Arizona.)