Sunday 3 August 2008

smell the rat

I have just spent a Sunday morning reading the paper, and now I wonder why. How much of my life has been spent ploughing through the so-called 'news'? What am I after? It's certainly a very eccentric mode of reading - partial, skimming, distracted, occasionally lingering when something catches my attention and engaging in a more focused way before moving on. A reading environment designed for the minimal attention span ... After so many years I know the geography of the papers well, and make for those sections that may be interesting. I follow a slightly schizo trajectory, unwittingly creating unlikely conjunctions and collages in time, space and matter: arts, sport, politics, conflicts and injustices, telly pages, obituaries, anomalous occurrences etc., and a swift scanning of other stuff via the shorthand of images and headlines: ARREST OVER SHIP-CAT KILLING / BIRD FORCES PLANE TO LAND / DOG OWNERS TOLD TO STOP USING STARFISH AS FRISBEES / CHEDDAR MAN ATTACKED BY BULL etc etc. Sometimes I cut out an item, and put it in a teetering pile of cuttings: usually Mafia references, Italian politics (the latest installment in Berlusconi's dexterous avoidance of criminal prosecution etc.), climate change and weather anomalies, animal stories, book or film reviews. In truth I don't do very much with this vast collection of fragments, a piecemeal archive of where my attention has hovered in the past; it tends to gather dust and offer sustenance to an assortment of tiny paper-munching creatures ...

Most of the time I leave the newspaper feeling dissatisfied. I tend to feel as though I've been 'had', and am left wondering quite what is the nature of the habitual impulse to give over chunks of countless days to this activity. There's certainly something about not wanting to 'miss' things. Even a rather peculiar sense of responsibility, or 'civic duty', an unspoken sense of 'needing to know' in order to be 'in touch' with the world in which we live and thus to be able to take some sort of position (i.e. to wave yet another opinion, often little more than a re-staging of a received, second-hand thought). Of course this 'rationale' falls apart instantly with even the slightest of reflections, revealing its fatuousness and perversity. We know how ideologically loaded and coded every newspaper is. Their titles claim otherwise, inevitably, although all are loaded and rather laughable truth claims: the Guardian (of truth, objectivity, reasoned debate), the Observer (unproblematic reflection of what is), the Times (just as they are), the Independent (free of ideological agenda), the Mail, Telegraph and Express (communicating information swiftly and directly to you the reader), the Sun (a ray of illuminating clarity oh yes). We know that it's not 'knowledge' that is gleaned from this sprint through information and opinion; in itself most journalism offers little more than simplified constructions of 'truths', each of them presented as a realist narrative, like old-fashioned 'history'. These narratives are elaborated from particular vantage points, with assumptions, agendas and blind spots naturalised and (semi-)concealed. So should we not learn to read the paper critically as a kind of post-modern fiction, an elliptical cartography of fears and desires afloat in the cultural and psychic 'air', in themselves constitutive of that very 'air'? To treat them not as registers of 'what happened', but more as a kind of textual seismograph of some of the narrative shapes and shadows at play in our culture?

In particular I have come to view with suspicion the triggers that are employed to attract attention and make stories, and their affective repercussions: their tendency to fuel the paranoid, the conspiratorial, the prurient and voyeuristic, the outraged, and at the same time to induce a sense of a radical lack of agency, an impotence in the face of the 'world'. What is gained from accessing the detail of an unprovoked stabbing frenzy and the subsequent beheading of a sleeping passenger on a Canadian bus? Or of the discovery of a British girl's torso in a suitcase in Brazil? Or of the shooting of a honeymooning couple in Antigua? Or of the threat of a new wave of CJD cases in Britain? Or of 'evidence' that even 5-year olds are at threat from self-harm? What is the nature of the 'pleasure' in reading these stories, all of them from the past few days? What do they feed, and cause to proliferate? Potentially such narratives of violence, horror or fear are reanimated in some form or other in every reader's consciousness. They are seeded in us and inhabit us; their dis-ease becomes part of our psychic landscapes, part of the tone-poem our cortex hums to us, part of our sense of what it is to be here now. And meanwhile, all sorts of other things in our worlds are 'missed' as we fail utterly to be here now, our attention forever elsewhere, addicted to distraction ...

The writer Annie Dillard is critically perceptive on this, as on so much else. She asks: "Why are we watching the news, reading the news, keeping up with the news? Only to enforce our fancy - probably a necessary lie - that these are crucial times, and we are in on them. Newly revealed, and we are in the know: crazy people, bunches of them. New diseases, shifts in power, floods! Can the news from dynastic Egypt have been any different? [...] The closer we grow to death, the more closely we follow the news. Year after year, without ever reckoning the hours I wasted last week or last year, I read the morning paper. I buy mass psychotherapy in the form of the lie that this is a banner year. Or is it, God save us from the crazies, aromatherapy? I smell the rat, but cannot walk away. It is life's noise - the noise of the news - that sings "It's A Small World After All" again and again to lull you and cover the silence while your love boat slips off into the dark". (Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, New York: Vintage, 1999, 31-2).

© David Williams

Photo at top by Lewis Hine: '12 year old newsboy Hyman Alpert, been selling for 3 years', New Haven, Connecticut, 1909

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