Writers of various sorts, you may have noticed, sometimes take a notion to cast aside their particular genre or discipline and Just Write About Life: you know, about Everything-The Big Picture, The Whole Enchilada, What It All Means, and all that.
Long ago and far away, when a writer got that urge there was only one thing to do: Turn to theology. We're talking about your Augustine, your Aquinas, your Luther. They really said it All, and at length, with lots and lots of capital letters.
When the church business lost some of its shine in later centuries, your philosophers did essentially the same thing. Kant, Hegel, and Marx were all great synthesizers aiming for their own special Summa. When Western Homo sapiens started to lose faith-not only in God, but in reason, too-it was the artist's turn. From at least the mid-19th century onward, the mind that sought to wrap itself around the whole of its time, and get it all down, would find expression in The Novel. Here come Dickens, Melville, Eliot, Faulkner, Cather.
This is the age that is dying just now. There are a few Novelists of this sort still around-Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, maybe Joyce Carol Oates. Maybe you can come up with a couple more, but that's about it...which is just as well because hardly anyone reads them anymore.
These days the writer who aims to take in the whole of life and really get the old zeitgeist by the tail should probably become a TV critic. This explains why, with at least a toe in the door of the media crit biz, I've spent a significant chunk of the last few years trying to become a novelist (to little avail, yet). "Right guy, wrong century," the tombstone will say.
Today, at least in our U.S.A., if all of life is not television (a debatable point), then certainly all of life is like television. I was reminded of this the other day when I read Gen. Colin Powell's explanation for the sudden reversals of the 1992 and 1994 national elections. The American voting public, Powell said, is channel-surfing.
That summed it up as well as it is likely to get summed. You can almost see jaded Joe and/or Jane Elector hanging bug-eyed on the couch, punching the remote as first Bush, then Clinton...then Newt pops on to the screen. They go back and forth, hoping that something good has started to happen, or at least that the commercial is over. But nowhere, on any of the available outlets, do they find anything to hold their interest or answer their questions. They just get a quick 15 seconds of titillation that wears off like a crack high, with an even worse crash.
SINCE THE Oklahoma City bombing and the release of the Republican congressional budget plan, the voters have zapped off Newt and resumed the restless cycle. Powell himself may grab their eye and raise their blood pressure for a few minutes sometime soon. Then it's back to Home Shopping.
In the more recent old days, I mean those olden, golden Cold War days, it wasn't like this. Back then there were three networks and two superpowers. You watched them or else. And it paid pretty well, too.
All of that has changed now, in the real world and in the one on TV. But nobody knows what any of it has changed into. As you've read here before (and will again), the broadcast networks, the Big Three plus Fox, are in their death throes as cultural institutions. They are bleeding audience share from every orifice. Yet this year is the biggest advertising year ever for the broadcast networks. They've lost their reason to live. But boy are they raking in the bucks. And despite the decline in audiences, people are still lining up to start new broadcast "networks." (Check the new Paramount line-up, for instance.)
This is happening because no one big American cultural institution is to replace broadcast network TV. The audience is just dripping away to everything from cable to syndicated broadcast bottom-feeding (the talk/scream shows, the "reality" crime shows, the infomercials) to Nintendo to the Internet. Everyone is groping around for the Next Big Thing, just as is so for the New World Order and the Next Real Leader. But no one has found any of those things yet, so far as we know.
But then who knows what Rupert Murdoch is really up to with the MCI merger and all his other global machinations, visible and otherwise? At best Murdoch is Citizen Kane without the guilty conscience. At worst, as hinted in my paranoid rantings of the last issue, he may be to our turn-of-the-century era what Howard Hughes was to the post-World War II era, i.e., the Daddy Warbucks of the secret government.
This lands us back with the grand and shifting alliances of transnational corporate capital in the information age. Which is, of course, where the metaphor of life-as-TV collapses into itself. Today those digital blips and bleeps bouncing around the planet aren't just where the money is, they are the money. That's our mess of pottage whizzing off on that fiber-optic cable, to points unknown. That's our manufacturing economy, our homegrown cultures, and, if you care about this sort of thing, a good chunk of our national sovereignty. And we're supposed to be the winners. Think how the losers must feel.
But people still need to live upon real dirt, and eat things that come from it, and carry on with the folks who are close enough to touch. Beyond that lies the search for ways to reach through and around the electronic media and touch human spirit and flesh and true feeling. That sounds to me a lot like that old-time religion, or rock and roll-I've always had trouble telling them apart. n
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM is back to providing cultural commentary. He has just completed a master's in fine arts, and is living in Alexandria, Virginia.