The Case of the Dead Canary
This started out as a stab at writing a “Best of ’17” list. But when I looked back on the year just past, I’ll be damned if I could pull anything from the wreckage that could really be considered exceptional. And the explanation wasn’t hard to find.
Culturally, socially, the land is barren. We’ve so abused the soil for so long that it can no longer sustain new growth.
To shift metaphors, the original title for this was going to be, “What Are the Coal Miners Going to Do When All the Canaries Are Gone?” Because, let’s be honest: Those hyper-alert little birds essential to our survival are pretty much extinct.
Forty years of relentless bludgeoning by pretty much every aspect of the culture has beaten a necessary sensitivity out of us, not only ensuring every new round of entertainment, political bread & circuses, and even simple social interaction will be more brutal than the last, but making us more and more addicted, and subservient, to the forces leading the assault. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s become impossible to be subjected to American culture on a regular basis and still retain the ability to accurately judge its consequences and its worth.
And with the loss of sensitivity has come the loss of other essential qualities like subtlety, nuance, and restraint. Everyone can see the horrific divisions, the rending of the social fabric, that’s played out over the past couple of years, and they all have a vague sense of how bad things have become. But, trained—the phrase used to be “brain-washed”—to believe every situation is a form of conflict, of warfare, to think in terms of Us against Them, they seem incapable of acknowledging what their own actions have done to contribute to this unprecedented catastrophe—and that’s not just out of a convenient myopia. A lot of people—probably most—have just plain lost the ability to adequately assess the situation, let alone figure out a non-(self-)destructive way to address it.
Our entertainment—which sometimes mirrors the cultural landscape, but more often than not helps mold it—shares a lot of the blame. No society has ever been so completely immersed in—and swamped by—its diversions. No entertainment has ever demanded such a complete level of absorption. And no entertainment has ever before become, on a mass level, a form of addiction.
There are so many ways to approach this, but let’s try this one on for size: Western entertainment (which has pretty much become all entertainment) is becoming indistinguishable from being hooked up to a pervasive all-day, every-day shock generator. As each new round of movies, shows, games, music, etc. etc. etc. further blunts our nerve endings, it becomes necessary to up the jolts the next time around for us to feel anything at all.
Administering jolts has become entertainment’s reason to be—and thus our addiction. Last year’s offerings can’t create the same high they used to, so we need a bigger fix to feel the same elation. But there’s little rational about the experience—edification is just a pretext. This goes right to the primal brain, which is quickly and massively becoming the thing that’s driving the society.
Every form of entertainment, whether experienced in a theater with an oversized screen, omnidirectional audio assault, and rolling, jolting seats or on a cellphone through earbuds, is becoming a theme-park ride. We’re drawn and held by the shocks—whether it’s subwoofer-friendly explosions, graphic imagery, relentless conflict, or fetishized portrayals of the unsavory and depraved.
You can’t indulge in dark and edgy and not expect it to keep getting darker and edgier until you’re completely immersed, and lost, in the void. But what does that say about the audience en masse, or the decisions of the individual?
Some part of us knows this whole way of twisting the world is inherently degrading, but we ignore that because we constantly need a new fix. And, like with a drug addiction, it’s a habit that’s instilled when we’re still in our formative years, before we’re capable of mature judgment—and will eventually ensure we can’t make any mature decisions at all.
And it has the same addictive effect as porn. But since we haven’t yet found a way to take porn completely mainstream, we cultivate and indulge in other forms of obscenity instead.
And that helps to explain our pervasive masochism, our obsession with experiencing pain, thinking it will make us stronger when it actually just makes us deader, our obsession with self mutilation and with being punished, which leads us to subconsciously do things that actually work against our own best interests, which then allow us to indulge in the ultimate masochistic battle cry of “Victim!”
To quote Howard Beale (sort of), this is madness.
But these aren’t just isolated incidents, or even a still-emerging threat—this is our world, a malady whose center is nowhere and circumference everywhere. And we really seem to like it that way.
So, what about the poor canaries? The current solution would be to tell them to toughen up—but that, of course, is absurd. A calloused canary is useless, would be just another desensitized and alienated planetary citizen.
Canaries are still essential to our survival, to helping us distinguish reality from illusion in the murk of the cave, and yet we’re gleefully stamping them out in a kind of mass crush video. As much as we might like to think so, we haven’t evolved beyond them—if anything, we seem to devolving in direct proportion to our so-called development. And no one can claim to be fully alive if they’ve lost the ability to feel a whole range of experience, if all they can feel anymore is whatever new forms of brutality the overlords, eager to mold raging but ultimately impotent consumers, deem necessary to feed them.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and