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The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby: Part Eleven: A Book Review

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Chapter Ten of Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, is titled "The Culture of Distraction." To which I say: Distraction from what?

She writes:

"The intellectual shortcomings of past and present newspapers are, however, beside the point, because the real difference between today's video and yesterday's print is not content but context---a context in which the proliferating visual image and noises of the video/digital age permeate the minute-by-minute experience of our lives" (1).

Still quoting:

"That all of these sources of information and entertainment are capable of simultaneously engendering distraction and absorption accounts for much of the snakelike charm" (2).

Again, what I would like to know is: Distraction from what?

Jacoby points out that the difference between these media and things like newspapers and books, is that you can pick up and put down the latter at will. She says that we can never really block out the ever-present ambient noise of iPods, pictures flashing on the homepage, text messages, video games, and the latest offering of 'reality television' (3).

These media may serve as distracting agents, taking us away from fully conscious engagement with the human beings in our vicinity. But I am interested in ultimate causes---or at least in coming as close to ultimate causes, as I can, and/or is possible.

Therefore, the question that comes up is this: Is the "culture of distraction" a cause or result of America's turn to anti-intellectualism?

Whichever it is, the same additional question is indicated. If the television/Internet-social media/video culture of distraction is a cause of the American age of unreason, then what caused the initial need for or want of distraction?

If the culture of distraction is a result of America's turn to anti-intellectualism, then we must know what it is that our anti-intellectualism makes us so wary of looking at.

Does that make sense?

I hope so.

Stay with me!

There is a Slovenian philosopher called Slavoj Zizek, and he has an interesting theory about television. Do you know why sitcoms feature the laugh track? he asks. Dr. Zizek says it is not to stimulate us to laugh at the appropriate places, in a Pahlovian manner.

No, Zizek says, the reason that sitcoms have the laugh track is to make us, the television viewers at home, feel relieved as though we had laughed.

Let's sit with that for a minute. Dr. Zizek says that the laugh track on television sitcoms has the purpose of making us television viewers, at home, feel "relieved as though we had laughed."

I feel its only fair to let you know that, while Slavoj Zizek speaks English, among several other languages, I understand, quite well, English is not his first language. You should keep that in mind as we proceed with our dissection of his interesting insight.

On the surface, this remark is a head-scratcher. After all, does Slavoj Zizek mean to say that we all walk around all day constipated with laughter, unable to laugh, and then when we get home, we do not even let out our laughter mechanically, that is to say, physically; but we let it out abstractly and thereby find "relief"?

Let me back up a little and tell you how Dr. Zizek sees this working. You come back home from a hard day's work, he says, and you take off your hat, coat, and shoes, and unwind. You turn on the "boob tube" and you have it on. You tune the TV to Friends or The Big Bang Theory, or whatever. As the shows proceed, you do not necessarily laugh physically, out loud.

The laugh track laughs for you. Dr. Zizek is insistent on this point: The laugh track laughs for you! It is as if your humor response was temporarily located outside of your own body, for some reason.

But are we talking about "humor"? That brings us back to the idea that we are walking around all day, "constipated" with laughter; and, of course, that doesn't make any sense. We are left with the question: Distraction from what? Relief from what?

Know that for our purposes, "distraction" and "relief" are synonyms. Just for our purposes, here.

What are we seeking relief and distraction from?

Well, it seems to me that a partial answer was provided by one Charles McGrath. He wrote an essay titled "In Fiction, A Long History of Fixation on the Social Gap." This essay was one of several in a publication called Class Matters: Correspondents of The New York Times, which was published by Times Books (Henry Holt & Company) in 2005.

First of all, Mr. McGrath explains that class has largely been erased in movies and television today. Neighborhoods like those depicted on the television shows One Tree Hill and Wisteria Lane, for example, are places where "the pecking order of sex and looks has replaced the old hierarchy of jobs and money" (4).

Charles McGrath writes:

"This is progress of a sort, but its also repression, since it means that pop culture has succeeded to a considerable extent in burying something that used to be right in the open. In the old days, when we were more consumed by social class, we were also more honest about it" (5).

In the years before the Second World War class consciousness was marked in movies and novels (6). McGrath gives a few examples of previous class consciousness in movies and literature.

Then he would have us know this:

"The poor are noticeably absent, however, in the great artistic flowering of the American novel at the turn of the nineteenth century, in the works of writers like Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Edith Wharton, who are almost exclusively concerned with the rich or the aspiring middle class: their marriages, their houses, their money, and their stuff. Not accidentally, these novels coincided with America's Gilded Age, the era of overnight fortunes and conspicuous spending that followed in the wake of the Civil War" (7).

Now we finally seem to be closing in on it! We seek "distraction" and "relief" from the nasty business of class and race. We can derive race from Mr. McGrath's reference to the American Civil War; and that war was all about "race," yes?

But there has always been an intimate connection between class and race in the United States. What I like to say is that class, in some ways, is the origin of "race." For example, the concept of "whiteness" did not exist before the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century; and that concept was created in America.

Before that time Europeans had not called themselves "white." They referred to themselves as Christian, by which they just meant culturally European. Here's the thing: When you are the ruler of a country were ninety-nine percent of the population are white-skinned Europeans, one way to see whose for you or against you, is to apply a religious litmus test.

In a "diverse" environment like colonial America, not only do you not have to use the religious litmus test, you must not do so! That is because for cultural Europeans to have done so under those circumstances would have left them vulnerable, dangerously fragment and divided, relative to the Africans and various indigenous nations.

Therefore, the creation of "whiteness" was a strategic necessity; and the ruling elite created this new, social and political, and "racial" identity by trying to suppress consciousness of class divisions.

But don't take my word for it. The great historian, Howard Zinn, in his classic work, quoted another historian, Edmund Morgan, who wrote:

'Virginia's ruling class, having proclaimed that all white men were superior to black, went on to offer their social (but white) inferiors a number of benefits previously denied them. In 1705 a law was passed requiring masters to provide white servants whose indenture time was up with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, and a gun, white women servants were to get 15 bushels of corn and forty shillings. Also, the newly freed servants were to get 50 acres of land' (8).

Still quoting:

'Once the small planter felt less exploited by taxation and began to prosper a little, he became less turbulent, less dangerous, more respectable. He could begin to see his big neighbor not as an extortionist but as a powerful protector of their common interest' (9).

So here's how it all works: We Americans use television/video/social media, and the like, as a "distraction" and "relief" from the nasty, everyday business of race and class---the two things we hate talking about, more than anything else; but they are the two foundational antagonism upon which this country was founded.

Reality television represents the fantasy, says Charles McGrath, that anyone, including YOU, can be plucked from obscurity to become "the new supermodel, the new diva, the new survivor, the new assistant to Donald Trump." Furthermore, "[y]ou get and instant infusion of wealth and are simultaneously vested with something far more valuable: celebrity, which has become a kind of superclass in America, and one that renders all the old categories irrelevant" (10).

Now let us revisit what the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, may mean by "laughter," as it pertains to the laugh track of television sitcoms.

Its possible that Dr. Zizek is not talking about "laughter," in the sense of people watching the sitcom, and laughing when one of the characters say something that was planned to be funny. Perhaps what he means by "laughter," in this instance, is more like an expression of joy of "living," an artificial feeling of comradeship with the people on the screen---not the real actors but the characters their playing on the show.

Perhaps the "laughter" is joy at feeling part of that community of happy, shiny people, whose lives are so much better and more gleaming and more fun and more perfect than yours. You wouldn't necessarily want to be the actual actors who play the parts because, depending on their level of stardom there are some not quite pleasant aspects of fame to deal with (i.e., paparazzi).

But the people on Friends or The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother seem to have the perfect lives, free of race and class concerns. They always look fabulous, converse with such sparkling wit, dress chic, have cool jobs, cool apartments, and cool friends.

That laugh track is that virtual bridge between you and their world, "where the boundaries of class seem just elusive and permeable enough to sustain both the fear of falling and the dream of escape" (11).

It is good, or even adaptive that the laughter response is located outside of your body. That is because if you were to actually laugh out loud, physically, in "joy" at being a part of the lives of the imaginary people on the sitcoms, other people who were in the vicinity might think your were having a delusion, or depending on the intensity of your joy: "cracking up," as it were. I call this the prohibiting-delusion effect.

You know what? I'm going to leave it there. This book "review"/"text-dialogue" is hereby concluded. I'm not going to offer a conclusion, because anything I could say in a conclusion, I have already said several times all over this series of essays. After all, this is part eleven; and, frankly, I'm anxious to move on to something else.

Thanks for reading, then.



1. Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason. Pantheon Books, 2008. 243

2. ibid

3. ibid

4. In Fiction, A Long History of Fixation on the Social Gap. (2005). In Class Matters: Correspondents of The New York Times. (pp.192-200). Times Books. 192-193

5. ibid, 193

6. ibid

7. ibid, 195

8. Zinn, Howard. A People's History Of The United States. HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2003. (soft cover). 37

9. ibid, 38

10. McGrath, C. In Fiction, 200


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