A Short Call for the End of Two Trends
by Milton Bearle-Freidman
I. "The Future is No Longer Dangerous."
"But the observant dwellers in our cities or remote country villages, pestered as they are with advertisements of those who practise palmistry, and of those who predict the future by crystal-gazing or by the fall of sand, of followers of the sporting prophet, and of far more presumptuous and more dangerous impostors, or confronted by the silent, indomitable belief of the rustic in the witchery of his ancestors, may well hold the opinion that the stock of superstition is a constant stock and permeates now, as it did in Elizabeth's time, every class of society."
-from the Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Volume VIII: The Age of Dryden; Chapter XV: The Progress of Science; Witches, Astrologers, and Alchemists
We constantly throw out notions and predictions about what is going to happen, whether as individual, localized events, or as larger-scale "trend" predictions. The scope of these can be anywhere from the next hour to the next century, and there's no control or hesitancy put forth by commentators or writers or bookies or whoever when speculating on what the future will hold.
And why should there be? What's wrong with dreaming about what is to come? What's wrong with speculating? Well, certainly not as much as some things. But I think there is a problem.
As the poet says: "It is the business of the future to be dangerous." We really don't know what's going to happen, and the future is little different from the weather—we think we can guess where it's heading based on past performance, but every event is different. This is as it should be. I, for one, want to be surprised by events, and when we have few expectations we take less for granted and our reactions become quicker. It would be stupid, of course, to turn a blind eye and be surprised by everything—certainly following trends to their conclusion is a vital part of politics—but the culture of prediction we have fallen into is simply a thin excuse to hide from the dark future we face, a future which rushes towards us faster and faster each day.
Look at our magazines, our TV shows: "Hot upcoming stars!" "The new crop of gadgets!" "Next summer's blockbusters!" I won't deny that the producers of culture feed it to the commentators on culture with events like the E3 expo, Macworld expo, pre-screenings, pre-release interviews, press junkets, etc. Look at the phenomenon of movie trailers. When done right, it can get the viewer very excited about an upcoming film. But when done wrong, it can completely spoil a film's premise and surprises, and now major-studio directors have to consciously plan their movies around how much of the plot will be revealed in the trailers—and what's worse, they have no control over this initial presentation of their work. That's almost entirely produced by the marketing department. Though this is more a function of the amount of money put into a studio production than a "culture of prediction," it is frustrating.
Predictions, however, go beyond this expected level of hype to encompass uncontrollable, human events. As a nice transition, look at the Academy Awards, and the press covergage leading up to the event, all of which seems to focus on who should or will win. The should is fine, but the will gets strange, because they're usually right. Why would I want to watch when I already know who's supposed to win? To see if the predictions are wrong? Not likely. Then we look at media coverage of elections, which is all about the "horse-race" aspect, as pointed out ad nauseum. But it's true. The focus on politics, which is admittedly necessary to sustain daily interest, is essentially a form of prediction. But in this case the prophecies are largely self-fulfilling. If the New York Times says George W. Bush is dead in the water because of some gaffe, how likely is it that he's going to pull free from that? As the Times theatre critic doubtless knows, journalists have to be careful what they deem "finished" or "worthless," as the act of pronouncing it tends to make it so. While there are exceptions to this rule (Bill Clinton, for example), they are few and far between. In our supposedly "neutral" media there can lurk much normative judgement—opinions masquerading as the inevitable (also a constant criticism).
Eventually we get to the sort of large-scale "trend" predictors that have filled up our cultural coffee can like so much hardened lard here at "the new millennium." What will our lives be like? How will we work? "Is there any hope for the poor?" (as Time asked, charmingly.) Here's a better question: who knows? No one, not at that scale. Any right answers will simply be wild guesses.
And there, strangely, is the problem. With so many predictions, though most are wrong, some will inevitably be right. And when some predictions come gradually true, by the time the actual event or trend arrives, we'll be so sick of hearing the hype that it won't be shocking or interesting, and so profound cultural shifts can often be glossed over.
Look at "the Internet revolution." Came out of nowhere, a true cultural shift without any predictors (unless you count us crazy BBSers). But then came the prophecies, and now we're numb to such novelties as set-top boxes, freely distributed music, video-on-demand, photo-realistic games, etc. The reality, moreover, rarely lives up to the hype. So we get numbed, and it all becomes cheap.
So blanket predictions can hit their target for positive or negative trends. In the case of positive trends, the letdown that hype produces can be disappointing, but not really dangerous. With troubling trends, however, it is a different story altogether. Constant prediction makes the shocking seem expected, and the horrible seem normal. Normative prophecy dulls our perceptions and makes us bored of tragedy. It's like when you've watched too many slasher movies: you just think, "Oh, another grusome death. I saw that coming."
Here's an example—and I admit that it's a speculative example and in some ways negating my own point, but I think it proves it at the same time. Clockwork Orange—the book, the movie—predicted a future in which the government could condition criminals to, in essence, control their actions. The book focused on this more than the movie, but this is more a function of cultural translation and creators' vision than diminution of horror. Then we open Time's "21st lives" and as one of their "jobs that will be obsolete" they list "prison guard"—because the government will implant tracking devices in criminals to prevent them from engaging in criminal activity. And this is presented at least neutrally, and possibly as a positive thing! What will happen when the practice actually begins? Will there be a legitimate outcry? It worries.
Constant cultural prediction is a form of popular superstition, a pseudo-rationalist irrationality that is palatable to neither realists nor surrealists. It purports to be based in fact and soldiers on, despite its constant errors. Meanwhile, when it does get something right, this just diminishes the event itself, possibly stifling resistance that should be there. Journalists need to do us all a favor. When they feel the need to do a long article on what is to come, try one instead on what is actually happening. We have so little of that these days.
II. "The Myth of Rational Choice."
The myth of rational choice in art has but recently become a myth. For a few centuries, it was undeniably true. After the advent of the printing press and the professional orchestra (and dramaturgy), works took a very long time to produce. The tedious business of writing out a manuscript or score by hand, the intense concentration needed to finish a painting or sculpture—all of these necessitated constant choice on the part of the creator. And so when it was finished, we could judge these works of art with the assumption that it was what it was because the creator wanted it that way.
But before that (oh, say, before the 16th century in the West), it was a different matter. Because art was primarily performance-based, it could be created through improvisation, or just on the road to the event. The creation of physical objects such as paintings, sculptures, and tapestries still required work, but these were seen as functional rather than artistic pursuits, like we would see furniture creation today. Thus the idea of conscious choice was much less important, and indeed, commentary on these older works has tended to focus either on their craftsmanship, or how they reflect historical ideas and events.
We see a movement from the transitory nature of art to a notion of art as something permanent and universal. Now that creation of performance-based works such as plays, poems, and symponies could be preserved, artists and critics began to speak of art as the conscious creation of an individual. The shift in technology causes a shift in perception, and the shift in perception causes a shift in creation. Artists now were required to produce works that would be judged not only on their craft, but on their ideas, and not as themselves, but in relation to all other art ever produced, which could now be preserved to facilitate comparisons.
In the late 20th century there has been a similar shift in technology which has allowed the two kinds of art to coexist: that which is consciously produced, and that which is improvisationally produced—or even simply "recorded," as "reality." As we all know, the photograph has made the realist painting obsolete, and electronic media has allowed us to make performance-based art permanent. And while often these instantaneous techniques are used very consciously (sound collages, for instance, or "posed" photographs), they are increasingly being used as tools of randomness—to capture and frame what might not normally be perceived as unique. And yet we still speak of these works as if they were conscious creations of individual artists.
The word "frame" up there is important, of course, and I shouldn't let it pass. Many works of realist art when actually presented are all about framing. Photographers do not show all of their shots, only those they deem "good." Not every foot of film makes it into a documentary. And "reality-based" TV shows only show a very small part—the "interesting" part—of their subjects' lives.
But this has been changing. We see it in webcams. We see it in recent releases of collector's editions of "every take" from jazz recording sessions. There is still some framing going on here, but much less. What comes through is a largely unconscious creation. Improvisational writing, art, music. All of this becomes increasingly difficult to hold to the standard of old, conscious art.
And we see it, most recently and interestingly, in Natacha Merritt's "Digital Diaries." A nearly unexpurgated record of her sexual life captured instantly as digital photographs, Merritt has said that she does not think of herself as a photographer—simply as a recorder. That the subject is herself is irrelevant. The decision to record her life is important, but this is the only really conscious decision. Everything else is happenstance.
Works like these (which are largely visual or auditory), which come about through the new technology, will be the first to allow unconscious art to legitimate itself once again. I have fervent hope that these advances in visual art and music will lead to greater improvisation in literature and other mediums. The ability to post and digest, en masse, what is running through one's head is a fascinating opportunity.
And so I want to make sure that the proper critical methods are in place for dealing with this new mode of creation—in fact, they already are, but they just need to be refocused. Cultural critics already use semiotics to judge what the unconscious implications of popular culture are. We need to realize, though, that "high" art can be just as unconscious, and that at a certain point the choices of the creator no longer matter, or need to be judged. If we can begin to read works semiotically rather than critically, perhaps we can encourage more to be created. I find that something worth fighting for.