Monday, March 31, 2014


Someone is questioning the direction of this country's media culture, and interestingly, it's not a bad article, written by Rob Walker without rancor or stridency. The emphasis is on the characteristic of gravitas, the embodiment and expression of authority and seriousness that used to be par for the course from those with power.

Not so today. With the president getting "interviewed" by Zach Galifianakis and the Clinton family taking selfies, gravitas seems doomed. Walker explains that this is because of the new media, the model of decentralized, more interactive communication that exists because of the internet. But WHY does the new media doom gravitas?

We can figure this out by understanding that gravitas implies power, simply by asking, why be serious about your decisions and behavior if you are irrelevant? There's no reason to do so. Without power, there is no gravitas; it's an element of behavior absent in the disenfranchised. Gravitas is not straight seriousness or misery, but a drawing seriousness that reflects an important process of decision going on. Walker seems to consider it a behavioral trait unconnected to one's hierarchical position, a pretentious seriousness which triggers other people's reaction to take the person seriously, no matter who they are, which is simply untrue. He overestimates the individual and underestimates the context. A serious person in an un-serious situation still gets no respect; they're a stick in the mud, nothing more. But a serious person with power... you'd better take that person seriously. The lesson is, gravitas is a product of power.

And that power requires signals. Back in the day, the aristocracy decked themselves out in jewelry, strong colors, doing everything they could to present a regal appearance. Why? Because they needed to LOOK powerful, which expensive appearances show; the jewels and fine clothes indicate resources to burn. Gold means wealth, and wealth means power, an association so deep that shiny metals seem to appeal to every kid on earth and every man wants chrome pipes on his motorcycle. If powerful people don't send their signals, then they might have to resort to other means - like violence and deprivation - to get people to take them seriously. That breeds a more direct resentment and eventually inefficiency, more inefficient than spending a few bucks on a good robe and crown.

This is all completely necessary to do anything of significance, of course. Coordinated human action requires leadership. Leadership requires attention. Attention is best acquired by having power, which when dealing with people who don't know you personally, means looking like you have power.

Appearances matter. You never saw Cronkite do the news wearing a wifebeater. You wear a damn tie when you want people to really listen to you. But more critically to Cronkite's identity and seriousness was that Cronkite was an anchor on a major news outlet back in the day of three channels and the absolute authority of the nightly news. And that position was one of tremendous power. Cronkite just "fit" his position well.

It's just that his position doesn't exist anymore.

That answers some questions about what's actually been going on. When Walker talks about "new media," he's clearly talking about the post-internet mass media situation, where people have a greater choice of content. So, what do people do with this choice? Clearly, they aren't going to just stick with the seriousness of a Cronkite when lighter fare is available. They would rather listen to the pap of someone like Stephen Colbert as they mock the powerful on prime time, laugh with someone they relate to, rather than shut up and listen soberly to anyone who acts like they mean business. People don't LIKE seriousness. They prefer the pressure-free, easy triviality of pop culture.

Walker's explanation for all this gravitas killing goes back to the sixties, which has its own mythology, namely that it really changed something in the social order. That's a half-truth at best, and if the power of the three-channel news oligopoly had been maintained, then one good newsman with a clear sense of himself could have brought gravitas right back to it. But that three-channel oligopoly wasn't maintained. Now that we have choices, well, fuck gravitas.

Now, don't get me wrong: it's not like people never, ever want to get serious. Obviously, people still get seriously self-righteous when they hear about some injustice the media environment throws in their face, and they enjoy it, as self-righteousness is empowering. The air of power that comes from casting a judgment tastes good, too, and getting the injustice in people's faces is the name of the power game today. It just has to be an injustice that people can do something about, and the victim of the injustice must be someone the audience can relate to.

That's an artifact of old ways, of the experience of group identity and its power. The most important tool in the arsenal for the authority of old was a sense of purpose. From the now-reviled grand ambitions of the Roman Empire to the holy implications of the now-reviled Crusades, old cultures - or at least their rulers - seemed to feel the urge to accomplish something, to dedicate themselves to something, to reach as far as their capability offered. The old orders could do this because, as a matter of the attention economy, they dominated the market. They could shape the entire worldview of their people through religion and regulation of behavior. And their power reinforced itself as their grand ambitions were realized.

Today, that power largely doesn't exist, and getting people behind mass movements which require actual effort is like herding cats. Anyone in the world can look at the powerful and disregard their wishes, which should call into question just how powerful those powerful people are. There is no denying that it is incredibly rare that even the most strident demands - practical, legal, moral - can be ignored, unless those demands are to stop doing something that's an imposition on others, a moral demand in the sense of negative liberty. It's quite easy to say "no" when people demand something.

Or, more simply, you can change the channel. Now that we've given people a choice of who to pay attention to, they avoid those who make them feel comparatively low, and seek out their affable jesters. Thus, we have progress.

The glory of Rome and the will of God are now dead, very dead, but all the better in the minds of certain people, who see grand purpose as overbearing, culturally divisive, promoting conflict, and rightly so. Having an identity creates something worth fighting for, which is evidently a bad thing.

So in this existentialist age, without purpose in culture beyond the individual level, the self seeks value in hedonistic "quality of life." Fun is our purpose. Everywhere, little moral slogans telling us to live, laugh, and love send clear messages to take joy seriously. "Enjoy it while you can" dominates the rhetoric; happiness as a commodity, we may as well try and get the most shit before things close down. Did I say happiness? That's a little deep for what I'm referring to... how about "bliss"?

The new media, lacking its old market power granted by limited options, is not allowed gravitas. It must sell itself as broadly as possible, and in trying to do so, requires lightness and an approachable demeanor. There aren't many people who like to get deep and dark in their spare time. Personal time is expected to be about grinning, relaxed entertainment, leisure time by definition. Our work does the same thing, with every wannabe Apple trying to get their employees to love their jobs by making them pleasant and fun. Members of the Catholic church have seen the most radical examples since Vatican II and the complete removal of testicles from the Catholic order. Members of the opposite sex must be funny as well as beautiful to be worth attention. Friends must entertain. In the process of making this normal, we've created a cultural environment that carves a smile into our face, Joker-style.

Why so serious?

The better question is, why not? Wouldn't our sense of cultural unity be better served by a serious goal? Wouldn't our society benefit in some way?

The academic answer is, no, it wouldn't. This is a utilitarian world. We are satisfying desires, and our culture shall be judged according to its ability to manufacture this lightweight bliss. When people have a goal, when they care, when something matters more than utility, then there's something out there that the mind legitimately sees as worth fighting for. And fighting simply will not do. When people have a goal and care, then there might be something worth organizing a hierarchy to direct people towards addressing it, and hierarchy simply will not do. Cultures that believe in things frequently end up killing people and legitimizing inequality, and to a humanist or Christian moral essentialist, that's evil. The solution? Believe in nothing. Santayana's old saying, "the only cure for birth and death is to enjoy the interval" can't be seen as just another point of view anymore. It's the final solution.

But it doesn't work for people who want meaning in their lives. What worked for them was the cohesion of the old order, and that order is dying. When the hierarchy dies, so does gravitas.