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The lost art of thinking in today's image-driven postmodern society

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker (1889)
Maksim / Wikimedia Commons

Entertainment is everywhere. It has become a necessary component of the air we breathe. Or as the veteran evangelical minister and seminary chancellor Chuck Swindoll notes,

Entertainment is everything today. So important, in fact, that we have television programs and magazines devoted solely to the subject. All of which makes it real difficult to be committed to substance rather than the superficial. This includes reading widely, probing deeply, seeing with discernment, rejecting the false, learning the facts. In short, thinking!

Entertainment, of course, is not necessarily evil. But like all the other privileges every one of us is entitled to enjoy, if it’s not handled rightly so as to serve its main purpose (i.e., to give us a refreshing break from the boredom created by the monotony of our daily errands), without moderation and without forcing ourselves to strike a balance, entertainment may inflict irreparable damages not only to our character as individuals but also to society at large. Sadly, this appears to be exactly what entertainment has done to us; or to be more exact, this is what we have allowed entertainment do to us.

This rather sad phenomenon so unique to our time surfaces in the way a vast majority of people in our so-called postmodern society handle the arts, which for the most part are now dominated by the entertainment industry under the spell of the film-makers of Hollywood. Reflecting on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s prediction on the very page of history in which we live, Christian apologist and philosopher Ravi Zacharias has this to say:

Long before our electronic means of entertainment, expounding the relationship between life and art, Fyodor Dostoevsky predicted that at first art would imitate life, and then life would imitate art, and finally, that life would draw the very reason for its existence from art. I believe he was quite prophetic, and if Shakespeare’s analogy is taken to be true, we have indeed erased the difference between the two theaters of life and drama; if anything, the theater has upstaged our real world.

It took only a relatively short period of time after Dostoevsky’s days for his prediction to come to pass. We now find ourselves living in what social critic Neil Postman called not too long ago as “an image-driven culture,” a socio-cultural reality where, as Swindoll’s puts it, “even the news broadcasts are under increasing pressure to entertain more than inform.”

“It is a world without much coherence or sense,” said Postman, in view of the television-oriented culture of his time,

a world that does not ask us, indeed does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining. Of course, there is nothing wrong with playing a peek-a-boo. And there is nothing wrong with entertainment. As some psychiatrist once put it, we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them.

Unfortunately, our generation's engagement with the entertainment business has caused not a few of us to lose the art of thinking. Here then is what may be fairly called as a great reversal in the contemporary world – where life has suddenly found its reason for existence in the arts rather than the arts imitating what is there to be found in life. What has then become of us is, in Zacharias' words, “a generation that thinks with its feelings and listens with its eyes.”

In this arrangement, the entertainment industry (side by side with the cyberspace) delivers a variety of mixed messages and philosophical ideas and ideologies embedded in glaring images and powerful sound bites most of which are deliberately interwoven to challenge the prevailing religious or philosophical pre-conditioning of a given audience. This has so far resulted into the emergence of a new culture most particularly finding its home among the younger generations. Most of these young ones are now being gradually converted to a variety of philosophical and religious ideas however logically irreconcilable, causing them to lose the capacity to stay long enough to pay attention to messages delivered in conventional fashion oftentimes devoid of any visual aids.

We are therefore witnessing today the emergence of an image-driven generation quickly replacing that of a text-oriented one. To recall what communications theorist Marshall McLuhan popularized more than a decade ago, we have now entered a point in history where the medium itself is the message.

Where the medium is the message, most especially in the context of this so-called great age of information technology, there technically follows only a relatively small allowance reserved for thinking. For before we know it, the medium has already done its thinking for us. Our primary role in this arrangement is practically reduced to that of simply watching and listening; to be stricken with awe from time to time as the film is rolling; to be involved emotionally as the story unfolds line after line; sometimes to be shocked or be caught by surprise, depending on the degree of our emotional involvement at the moment; but very seldom to think.

References:

  • William E. Brown, “Theology in A Postmodern Culture: Implications of a Video-Dependent Society” in David Dockery, ed., The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1995), 318-19.
  • Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: MIT, reprint 1994), 7-21.
  • Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin, 1985), 77.
  • Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 1994), 73.

Comments

  • NWO 4 years ago

    I am confused at your use of the term new world order, which is a political term that refers to the emergence of a bureaucratic collectivist one-world government. I'm not sure what that has to do with religion, except that religion is a common tool to "opiate the masses" into believing whatever is told to them - ironically much like the Government controlled media.

    I do agree with that the masses are stupefied through TV, celebrity worship, etc.. but don't blame technology. That is just another tool to cram the idiocy of celebrity news down our throats, but there is so much more that technology has to offer.

  • michel foucaulol 4 years ago

    We're not a postmodern society (which is one that is pieced together from the scraps of other foregone and/or imperially conquered societies/cultures), but a hypermodern society, one that extends the values of post-enlightenment modernity to the extreme. We don't want to see our reality through pastiche representation, we want to see the scientific reproduced through a given medium. Instead of pop-culture round up shows (which critiques society by collaging samples from throughout our culture) we get reality T.V (which critiques society by showcasing and focusing in on the worst parts of our "real lives"). Postmodernity romanticized the power of the collective, while modernity (and, subsequently, hypermodernity) romanticizes the power of the individual (namely through the proliferation of neoliberalism). What IS interesting is the pace at which this switch of ideologies has occurred, whereas it took 100+years to get from enlightenment to modernity, it took 40+years from post to hyper.

  • Edwin- Christian & Postmodern Theology Examine 4 years ago

    @NWO - The term "new world order" is used here in the broader sense to refer to a socio-cultural rearrangement spearheaded by whatever thought-pattern or philosophical system is shaping the global landscape at a given point in time. Because it entails a clash between worldviews, it also impacts the religious aspect of human existence. I agree, religion (but not Christianity) may in many ways be called the opiate of the masses. However, examined closely, this same Marxist category may also apply to entertainment.

    In reference to technology, a discerning reader will find that I don't actually blame it for whatever damage it has so far brought to humankind. What is to blame for whatever is wrong in the world is what the Bible calls human depravity. Technology is simply like a knife. Whether it will do us harm or good depends on whoever uses the knife. A chef will use it as a tool to prepare a sumptuous dinner. A criminal will of course use it to hurt/kill anyone for his own good.

  • Edwin-Christian & Postmodern Theology Examiner 4 years ago

    @michel foucaulol - Let me take response to your comment from 2 of my first articles for this section of Examiner.com assigned to me as the Christian & Postmodern Theology Examiner. But first, let me clarify that whenever I use the term postmodern & apply it to the socio-cultural landscape of our time, I almost always qualify it with the term "so-called." Consider a portion of my very first article for this section:

    "Postmodernism, sometimes called as the sibling rival and stepchild of modernism, embodies a great deal of the present operation of the spirit of the age in the 21st century world. People in this century, whether they know it or not, are living in parentheses between the modern and the postmodern, as philosophers Steven Best and Douglas Kellner put it, 'in an interregnum period in which competing regimes are engaged in an intense struggle for dominance.'” - from my article titled "Addressing the postmodern way of thinking on theological grounds," published Nov. 09, 2009

  • Edwin-Christian & Postmodern Theology Examiner 4 years ago

    @michel foucaulol - "Understanding the postmodern way of thinking is notoriously slippery, messy and difficult. As theologian-philosopher Kevin Vanhoozer puts it, 'Those who attempt to define or analyze the concept of postmodernity do so at their own peril ... In the first place, postmoderns reject the notion that any description or definition is "neutral." Definitions may appear to bask in the glow of impartiality, but they invariably exclude something and hence are complicit, wittingly or not, in politics. A definition of postmodernity is as likely to say more about the person offering the definition than it is of "the postmodern." Second, postmoderns resist closed, tightly bounded "totalizing" accounts of such things as the "essence of the postmodern." And third … "there is no such phenomenon as postmodernity. There are only postmodernities."' - from my article titled "Understanding the postmodern way of thinking" Nov 8, 2009.

    FYI: Thomas Oden's word for it - "most-modern."