A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
Book reviews are more often than not ways to relegate and marginalize ideas that ought to supplant front-page news. They constitute a point of entry to an issue the recent elections raise. Just as the British media failed squalidly to adequately explore the consequences of Brexit before the referendum, so the American media, relying on polls, misinformed and misdirected the American public prior to November 8.
Our definitions of news, drawn by a corporatist press for the purpose of peddling an official and elitist narrative, is a constant danger to us. Poetry, art, mathematics, physics—these disciplines and many more—are the cutting edges of our civilization. What we call news is the noise of society, the distractions. News is the white noise, interrupting and interfering with our real understanding of what is going on, what matters.
That’s why the media relegate the real news to feature segments. That’s why they work so hard to commercialize books, as if their marketability were a measure of their merit. Does anybody think Zeno’s discourses of divisibility and indivisibility would be best-sellers? But they have endured and to this day they shape our most outré thinking about physics, just as physics has shaped the modern world.
Take Spooky Action at a Distance, a new book by the physicist-journalist George Musser. Not a single story written or aired during the recent campaign was as important as this inquiry into the nature of the cosmos. Do objects interact only by bumping into each other or do they interact at unimaginable distances? That’s the question Musser and the physicists he writes about are asking.
If the answer is that there is a spooky action at a distance, then Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is out the window and our world changes in a twinkle. What did anyone say or do during the campaign as important as this?
By relegating Musser’s book and the inquiries of his physicists to the book review section the press is telling us there’s a plethora of matters more pressing and important. That’s because the press, like the rest of corporate America, is driven by money and can’t immediately discern how the interests of physicists stand to make anybody a fast buck. That’s a business ethic, not journalism. We could relegate contemporary journalism itself to the business pages. It’s no more relevant to what’s really going on than the best-seller list is to literary merit.
Another example of news as distraction is the recent government finding that homeopathic medicine is a sham. This finding is reminiscent of the medieval doctors who called the Arab concept of antisepsis magic or the Vikings who upon encountering agile Arab ships called their sail-masters magicians because their lateen rigs—standard in today’s sailing ships—could sail 15 degrees off the wind, while the Viking longships with their square sails needed a following or quartering wind to maneuver.
The Arab surgeons surmised that airborne germs accounted for the high rate of mortal infections. But Christian doctors of the time pooh-poohed this discovery as magic.
Homeopathic physicians from ancient times have used naturopathic and homeopathic medicines, but as creatures of big corporate money, in this case the pharmaceutical giants, the federal regulators have now declared homeopathy a fake, and the press has dutifully fallen in line, mindful that Big Pharma is a far bigger advertiser than the homeopathic community.
The underlying motive is fear: Big Pharma, the health care industry and their insurers fear that holistic medicine, which is embraced by homeopathic physicians, may dilute the flow of dollars into their coffers. The end result is that the public is misled and ill-served.
When men like Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are elected to high office it’s because the press in its role as talking parrot has given their drivel more exposure than the facts of their lives. The press will say its investigations are legion, and maybe they are, but legion is not perspective; it’s not context. The press may sound cogent and persuasive—that is, after all, its stock in trade, to sound authoritative—but no matter how many inquiries the press pursues they’re nothing compared to its consistent failure to connect the dots between developments, the connections that would frame the entire picture, the context that would help the public understand how what is happening now follows from what happened months, years, decades, even centuries earlier.
Take for example the current refugee crisis. The press floods us with incident reports, never failing to quote some Republican seeking to nail Barack Obama for the crisis, never telling us that the fateful decision of the Bush-Cheney White House, buttressed with persuasive lies, to invade Iraq in 2003 is directly responsible for precipitating the crisis, destabilizing the Middle East, Western Europe, and even North America. Here omission amounts to censorship.
And because the press religiously refuses to connect those dots, the public bounces from one incident to another until its collective nerves reach near breakdown, as indeed is happening in the wake of the last harrowing election. The press, using military and sports terms to headline events, harrows the public routinely, making such terms as bomb and strafe seem clichéd when they’re used to describe war.
Context is the antidote to nerve-wracking news, but the press relegates context to its op-ed pages as if it were an occasional condiment. Information (news if you will) devoid of its history is not only mere incident reportage, it’s inherently misleading. It is the background that empowers us to understand what is happening. Without it, news is what leaks from a cracked vessel.
Intriguingly, this is exactly what George Musser speaks of in his book about spooky action, the term Einstein used when he heard of experiments that entangled electrons and then separated them, shipping one to Paris and another to Tokyo, only to find they behaved identically across the world from each other.
The press, like Einstein, is committed to locality: how else to sustain its corporatist worldview?
The audacity of editors, literary or journalistic, insisting they know what’s au courant is reason in itself to suspect an agenda.
Making Faces, a current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, examines Hollywood’s role from 1910 to the 1970 blaxploitation films in defining how our differences should be presented and reveals good reason to suspect that tastemakers at any given moment are aware of only a handful of relevancies while at the same time laying claim to a broad authoritative mandate. The exhibition’s startling message is that what once seemed irreducible diktat now looks not only ephemeral but absurd. MoMA’s own tastemakers might well squirm a bit in the hard light of this visual argument.
Anyone who insists on knowing what’s relevant or what’s right is a tastemaker, and to be a tastemaker means excluding a broad spectrum of other tastes and other interpretations. Inevitably this self-appointment takes on the same institutional characteristics that led Albert Camus to distrust all clubs and institutions on the grounds that their charm and their authority rests on their ability to banish and relegate. While claiming to embrace, their existence depends on doing the opposite.
The Dadaist artist Francis Picabia said, “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction,” a statement that flies in the face of the current press obsession with flip-flopping, the implication being that we change our minds to abet our ambitions, not to whet our appetite for knowledge. The entire infrastructure of the corporatist press is based not on acquiring further knowledge but on presenting developments to buttress premises, turning reportage into argument rather than inquiry, argument that comports with the preconceptions of the people who sign media paychecks.
The press doesn’t so much describe the Zeitgeist as impose an authorized version of it. This essentially fascist insistence on knowing what’s right and what we need to know is emblematic of the day, a day whose illusory nature poets challenge. Their job, among others, is to pierce the veil of illusion woven by the press in the factories of the rich, accounting for the enduring hostility of the popular press to poetry.
Editors should be asking poets what is relevant, not telling them to address what is relevant as if the editors, like the popular press, already know. Wisdom is founded on the acceptance of how much we don’t know; that being the case, the press has no claim to it.
Copyright 2016 Djelloul Marbrook