The Decline of Literacy and the Rise of the Spectacle
November 11, 2016
Although I intend this blog to educate about psychoanalysis, Tuesday’s election of Donald Trump dramatically reveals a lack of a capacity for dialogue that, in turn, directly relates to any form of depth psychotherapy. I can hardly address the many angles of complexity regarding the election. I focus only on what it reveals about lack of inter-subjective dialogue.
The election brings to mind ideas promoted by Chris Hedges, an American journalist, and Jurgen Habermas, a philosopher. Hedges warns of a decline in literacy in American culture and, along with it, an attraction to the spectacular. He believes these trends represent the beginning of the end of the American empire. The year 2016’s pre-election activity painfully exemplifies the spectacle overshadowing the literate. Many Americans failed to think, to reflect, to deliberate about their many complex concerns. They failed to engage in real, thoughtful dialogue. Instead, they responded to melodramatic, unsupported, even impossible rants like: “build a wall” or “destroy Isis” or “lock her up” or “China is stealing our jobs.” These were proclamations, monologues. Perhaps inherent in political processes of any type, the democrats used similar rhetorical methods. Ms. Clinton’s paucity of press conferences, for example, or the incomplete explanation for the email security breaches, similarly discouraged in-depth exploration of issues.
Many persons failed to listen to even parts of their own minds, perhaps asking but not answering: Why is she crooked? How does he lack the temperament? The news medias’ ever-increasing proliferation of talking heads, shouting at one another from ever-smaller split screens, modeled a type of dissociation: The commentators rarely dialogued with one another; they talked at rather than with one another.
Habermas likely felt horrified witnessing these news-entertainment shows. He began writing when most countries offered one or, at most, two television channels. Even then, he had concern that people would gaze excessively at their TV screens instead of speaking with one another. He anticipated the trend towards turning inward spreading globally, like cancerous metastases. It has occurred on a greater scale than he ever could have imagined. Instead of talking to one another, people watch the television or go online or stare at their cell phones. They post pictures on Instagram; they look at each others’ Facebook pages; they read tweets. These means of communication are impersonal and, generally, unidirectional. Checking a button indicating you “like” a photograph hardly qualifies as a conversation.
These election results painfully highlight the absence of dialogue, discussion, or even conversation—internal or external. Habermas attributes much of humanity’s difficulties to the propensity of human subjects to treat others as objects rather than as fellow subjects. Paralleling Buddhist philosophies, and the work of Martin Buber, he espouses greater subject-to-subject communication, e.g. intersubjectivity.
Problems with internal or external dialogue are the province of depth psychotherapists. Psychoanalytic psychotherapies bring persons’ internal conversations—their internal dramas—into the inter-personal realm. Such dialogue reduces dissociation processes. It expands consciousness. As a direct result, most patients leave psychoanalytic psychotherapy with a greater understanding of their overall needs, feelings, attitudes. They develop clearer perceptions of self and other. Furthermore, they enjoy a greater sense of agency, a capacity to to speak their minds and, also, to listen to others with greater care and sensitivity.
Depth psychotherapists work with only one person at a time, so their impact on increasing inner and outer dialogue is limited. Nonetheless, as world-impacting events such as the election of Donald Trump powerfully remind us, the need to talk, to connect, and to have real, meaningful discussions is crucial. Perhaps one positive result of the election is a call to WAKE UP. A population that elects a man who espouses racist, sexist, and xenophobic attitudes, who has never held public office, who has few friends, and who reads little demonstrates an alarming, societal incapacity for meaningful dialogue. Learning to speak clearly, listen carefully, and respond meaningfully to one another would move the world forward in a more peaceful and harmonious fashion.
Submitted with curiosity and concern,
Buber, M. (1970). I and thou. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Scribbners.
Habermas, J. (1991) The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Trans. T. Burger. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Hedges, C. (2009). Empire of illusion: The end of literacy and the triumph of the spectacle. New York: Nation Books.
Like this post? Subscribe to Psychoanalyzing Life.