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Friday, May 9, 2014

The Sound of Silence: Influence in the Visual Age

My latest reading has been Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and the follow-up written in the1950s. I took an interest after a reader mentioned ‘soma’ in a comment, which led me to read the book (I recall back in high school that this novel was on our reading list, but I somehow managed to avoid it along with most other classics).
Huxley’s second book has raised many issues (as did BNW), most especially the matter of influence on perception and decision-making. Huxley’s analysis of influence, which is surprisingly prescient considering it is almost 60 years old, is not entirely without anachronisms, and by that I am not focusing on his technological and social references, which it is to be expected that they would be out-moded. Rather, it is about how these technological matters have come to change how we are influenced.
Huxley assumes that man is influenced largely by audio messaging. He consistently returns to the idea that modern man in influenced by what he hears, and how audio recordings can be used to retrain or condition people to accept certain messages.
My sense is, after spending some time studying the effects of internet pornography and computer-based addictions, that technological advances have altered our senses to the point where we are now largely visual creatures. We use our sense of vision far more than any of our other senses, perhaps combined.
Vision is by far the most complex of the physical senses (perhaps in a later post I will get into the topic of ‘complex’ versus ‘physical’ senses). It embraces numerous layers of sensory analysis and regions in the brain. So, it is already ‘dominant’ in the respect: vision occupies a lot of territory in the brain.
Yet, our technology has tilted the brain even more in the direction of favoring vision over the other senses. Computing is, above all else, a visual activity. While we use cue sounds and have a wide array of audio headsets, we largely rely on the computer monitor to complete our computing tasks. Man’s natural favoritism for vision has found its perfect companion.
Reading, typing, looking at pictures, watching videos, playing games... these are all visually-dominant activities. Even the massive explosion of the MP3 and exceedingly small audio devices of escalating quality hold no match for the ‘Arms Race’ in consumer electronics to provide better and better screens. TVs and personal computers boast more about their video quality over and against their audio capabilities. Speakers are more of a luxury item, whereas the video card of the PC reigns as the supreme necessity.
And so it is that our ‘plastic’ brains are constantly being encouraged to ever-increase the areas of the brain devoted to vision. What this also means is that other senses, like hearing and smell, become less important and even distractions. After all, man has a ‘limited bandwidth’ in regard to how much sensory input he can consciously handle. Once the limit is reached, everything over the limit is stuffed or missed.
While some may make the argument that subliminal influences can be achieved through this ‘unattended baggage’ of the sensory variety, what is absolutely certain is that the things we actually pay attention to are far more influential. What we concentrate on naturally influences us in a stronger way because these messages, whatever they may be and however we feel about them, are taking up more space in our limited minds.
This brings me to the matter of addictions involving vision, primarily pornography and video games. In both cases, the addict enters into a behavior that involves a very dominant part of his brain. Modern media has expanded and enhanced his visual powers, leaving him far more prepared for the onslaught of images that the internet has made possible.
Part of this ‘conditioning’ of modern media is how we use visual images to shut down our higher reasoning and critical thought. We ‘veg out’ in front of the TV, or demand that movies be so visually powerful that we forget that they are entirely fiction (especially in the age of CGI). Years of TV watching has helped us reflexively turn off reasoning and even careful observation of the messages behind the sensual tsunami that HD video brings us through our LCD and Plasma screens.
Our politicians must be visually pleasing. Our reactions to them and our opinions of them are less about what they say then how they say it: we judge them by how they look. If we listen, it is hardly attentive, as we often become angry at them for doing things they promised to do, while failing to fire them when they break their promises. After all, we voted for them not necessarily based on their performance records, but how their images make us feel.
Religion in America is no stranger to this phenomenon. The sermon is expected to be more about its musical qualities, like cadence and intonation, rather than whatever heresy or madness is being spewed. We like sound and fury rather than ideas.
The modern Orthodox Church is no exception. People demand semi-transparent iconostasi and Royal Doors wide enough for a truck to pull through... because we want to see, even if that means watch a priest’s vested hind-quarters for hours on end. Canned lights, lots of them, are a prerequisite to any new parish, while oil lamps are hung above the icons because we like the shiny lampadas but hate how they block the view. We don’t need their illumination... Mr. Edison took care of that for us.
Old churches had chairs facing in all directions, usually following the contours of walls and pillars, a majority with no advantageous view. Why? It is because people used to come to church to hear the word rather than watch a show. Now, we have parishes with stadium seating based less on acoustics than on an unobstructed view. In fact, when we aren’t staring at the non-show on the altar, we stick our noses in service books that were once provided when services were in a non-vernacular language. Now, we have simpleton translations being chanted to a whole congregation reading along because, they readily admit, they can’t manage to listen.
All the while, we complain about lonely we feel. Nobody listens to us. We have forgotten what listening is.
Think about someone you know who has lost his hearing. What do the newly-deaf complain about? The loss of companionship: communication is hard when you can’t hear. How much more is it lonely when you can’t hear what others are saying because you’ve lost the ability to listen. Of course, if you can hear someone’s response to what you are saying, what’s the sense of communication to begin with?
Social media is all visual, which is why we flock to it as a replacement for the companionship we once got from talking to one another. We ‘chat’ by typing, and text to have the effect of a conversation. Once you go down the road a little way, and soon an actual verbal interaction with another person becomes a burden.
This loneliness causes us to suffer so greatly that we drink and use, thereby ensuring that we go further down the lonely path of the self. We are cut off by our addictive substances and behaviors. Visual reality is powerful, but it is not nearly as intimate as such sensations as touch, taste, and sound.
For a long time, we have sought to push back these other sensory experiences, or at least control them. We want odorless homes and static temperatures.
Think about music and how we listen to heavily edited, technically perfect music in our MP3s. Our music is flawless, and so we can listen to the same song sung the exact same way a million times, without so much as a single missed note (unless the album producer puts it in). Live albums are definitely second-preference to studio-recordings enhanced by Auto-Tune. So, we can listen to music without the distraction of having to process the mistakes and variances that live performances have. We don’t even complain about lip-synching and end us screaming through a band’s performance rather than being quiet enough to appreciate the talent of our favorite artists. Meanwhile, concert promoters are looking for ways to enhance the visual aspects of the performance.
This brings me back to the topic of the Church: our services are intensive audio experiences. Be it Byzantine or Bordnansky, a lone chanter or a four part choir, we are singing and reciting texts that, by modern standards are not only grammatically complex, but thematically deep. Unless, of course, you are in one of those jurisdictions that favors translations written less for beauty and more for a condescending opinion of the listener. Simple translations ensure that the inattentive listener can continue to indulge his distraction, and when he emerges from his twilight slumber, he will be sufficiently motivated to drift back off to sleep by the Fifth-Grade essay being passed off as a liturgical text.
We have given up. The war is over, and isolation has won. The sound and the fury are still there, but they are meaningless.
You can make the argument that Orthodox worship is often conducted in liturgical languages that the average listener can’t understand. This is true, but they also were done in dark churches with drawn curtains and closed gates. The services were (and are) mysterious.
The visual world is not about mystery. We find the things we see far less mysterious than the things we can’t. The services are, nowadays, just as unfathomable to the modern listener regardless of the language because the modern listener isn’t listening no matter what the language is. Chances are he reacts more to the general melody, and is overwhelmed by all the rest.
Perhaps there is an opportunity for the modern listener to subliminally pick up on Orthodox theology from a service in the colloquial versus an unfathomable liturgical language. However, I really doubt it. At least I have not seen an appreciable difference in the quality of Christians from either practice.
The visually-oriented service is not simply devoid of mystery, it is also isolating. We have fallen into the trap of thinking that services are about our person attainment of our needs rather than offering up anything to God. We come to watch a show that may ‘inspire’ us, but in the end we are passive viewers. Listening means wrestling with the words, and either rejecting them or falling into agreement with them. This is different from ‘observing’ a liturgy.
So, if we are more visually influenced than auditorially influenced, then the Church has an added task in the process of catechizing and reaching those lost in addiction: we must teach people to listen.

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