Monday, July 06, 2009

moral mediocrity and the influence of media dynamics

In Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era (which I originally mentioned here), American sociologist Barry Schwartz discusses "Moral Mediocrity" (113–4) as a factor in the ebb of Abraham Lincoln's aura in the second half of the twentieth century. Moral mediocrity doesn't refer to the decline of America's social fabric (as it might in some conservative circles) but rather to the shift from more to less socially conscious cultural patterns, from less to more individually centered ways of being.

In Schwartz's words,
Every society moves alternately from one phase to another, from moral passion to moral mediocrity, from eras of "collective effervescence" wherein the nation's sacredness is felt and its myths and symbols reaffirmed, to eras in which the presence of sacred myths and symbols recedes. During the 1950s, the United States found itself somewhere between these two states: morally passionate, but less so than it had been; morally mediocre, but less so than it would become. (Schwartz 2008: 113)

At any rate, it wasn't Schwartz's comments on moral mediocrity that sent me back to my blog. Rather, it was an observation about heroes and celebrities.
That television has brought into prominence entertainers and athletes whose celebrity has overwhelmed the public's interest in the great figures of history is certain. These celebrities, in many ways inferior to their audience, do the opposite of what great men did. "The celebrity cult," Orrin Klapp observed in 1962, "celebrates the triumph of ordinariness—charm without character, showmanship without ability, bodies without minds, information without wisdom. Hero-worship looks horizontally, even downward, to a 'man like myself.'" Heroes, as Klapp defines them, are no longer great men [sic]. (Schwartz 2008: 114)

Klapp's description of celebrity cult as "showmanship without ability, bodies without minds," and so on is at least as relevant in 2009 as it would have been in 1962. I'm not interested in arguing that society is going downhill, to hell in a handbasket, or anything like that. American culture has always had its strengths; it has also always had its weaknesses, and we have been swapping these for those since the eighteenth century. But our gains in historical knowledge and awareness (with respect to our heroes and their life-sized [rather than larger-than-life] personae) come at the expense of some losses with respect to our moral and societal ideals. Epic heroes may not be historically authentic or socially sophisticated, but they inspire and challenge in ways that real-life people never can. We gain one; we lose the other.

But one of the things I appreciate about Schwartz's analyses (see the bibliography in Structuring Early Christian Memory for more of Schwartz's works) is his ability to move beyond simplistic conclusions to appreciate and comment upon the complex dynamics behind social commemorative patterns. Besides memory, I am also very interested in media criticism (start here for a helpful précis). But one of the perennial problems among media critics is an overly deterministic view of media. Too often scholars assume that changes in media (from oral to written, from written to print, from print to electronic, etc.) result in specific, even inevitable changes in social as well as psychological patterns. So Walter J. Ong speaks of "oral noetics," and Werner H. Kelber of an "oral synthesis." And these scholars stand squarely in a venerable academic tradition (see the works of McLuhan, Havelock, Goody, and many others), but they have overestimated the consequences of shifts in media.

With respect to the passage cited above, Schwartz does not assume that the rise of television caused or resulted in the moral mediocrity mentioned earlier. Television may have enabled Americans to more readily replace traditional heroes with popular celebrities, and it may even have enabled them to do so in larger numbers. But television did not cause people to ditch their heroes in favor of Brangelina. Media dynamics are vehicles as much as they are causes of social changes.

Turning to media criticism and New Testament studies, scholars have been prolific over the last two plus decades identifying and explaining the results of the shift from oral traditions to written gospels. In Kelber's case, the shift from (a written!) Q to Mark is presumed to disrupt the pre-Markan Jesus tradition (Traditionsbruch) and create something entirely new. Arguments such as these strike me as overstated. Yes, media dynamics are important. But perhaps we need to think about how media dynamics facilitated social and cultural transformations that were already underway among Jesus' first-century followers (and their social and cultural milieux) rather than taking deterministic views of oral and scribal media.

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