Ideas Have Consequences Book Club: Chapter 5 – The Great Stereopticon

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In this chapter, Weaver demonstrates that media today entombs us in Plato’s Cave — a dark hole with only a refracted, controlled picture of the world and people who cannot perceive truth.

The vested interests of our age, which, from all kinds of motives, desire to maintain traditional values or to get new values set up in their place, have constructed a wonderful machine, which we shall call the Great Stereopticon. It is the function of the machine to project selected pictures of life in the hope that what is seen will be imitated.

Our society is unified in a common culture today not through religion, as in premodern cultures, but through state-run education and through the channels of information and entertainment. Weaver claims the cultural unity from mass communication and information has a greater influence even than the schools. As someone who isn’t on Facebook, who doesn’t pay attention to the news, who doesn’t care about sports, and who doesn’t watch tv, and who hasn’t been to the theater in years, I certainly sympathize with his point. Turns out that often people don’t have much to say other than rehashing what they’ve been watching.

For the average reader [the media’s presentations] is a construct with a set of significances which he no more thinks of examining than did his pious forebear of the thirteenth century […] think of questioning [the church’s] cosmology.

Because Weaver was writing in the 40’s, his media is outdated, but his point still holds. He examines 3 outlets: newspapers, movies, and radio.

  • Newspapers: News media thrives on conflict, and “are under strong pressure to distort in the interest of holding attention.” When I do listen to political news, I get the feeling most of it is really about stirring up false drama in order to get on the news for publicity’s sake. Indeed, Weaver comments on “public relations” departments being set up: “writers skilled in propaganda prepare the kids of stories those institutions wish to see circulated. […] It is easy, of course, to disguise such an office as a facility created to keep the public better informed, but this does not alter the fact that where interpretation counts, control of source is decisive.”

  • Movies: Weaver cuts right to the heart of the problem of movies: “the beliefs with underlie virtually every movie story are precisely the ones which are hurrying us on to perdition. The entire globe is becoming imbued with the notion that there is something normative about the insane sort of life lived in New York.”

The thing that needs to be censored is not the length of the kisses but the egotistic, selfish, and self-flaunting hero; not the relative proportion of undraped breast but the flippant, vacuous-minded, and also egotistic heroine.

  • Radio: Weaver discusses points about the radio that were a short-lived phenomena of WWII and what we now think of as “old timey” radio. Comparing his critique of radio with what radio is today made me wonder if some of our complaints about smart phone technology and the like won’t also be irrelevant in another generation. It’s new now, and it will take awhile to adjust, but the adjusting will happen. However, a few things about radio he had to say are part and parcel with the medium and not just a cultural use of them: “The radio is, last of all, a prime instrument for discouraging the thought of participation. It is the natural monopoly of communication. For turning whole populations into mute recipients of authoritative edicts, what better means could there be?

Underlying all media outlets is the foundation of publicity/popularity and advertising, which means the lowest common denominator and the easy answer will be catered to. They promote “the idea that the goal of life is happiness through comfort. It is a state of complacency supposed to ensure when the physical appetites have been well satisfied.” So we lose the assumption that life is about discipline and sacrifice and develop a strong antipathy toward abstract ideas. After all, the philosopher is “a notoriously poor consumer.” It is not a mode to be encouraged if our goal is an ever bigger and brighter economy.

My Commentary: On the Written Word

I want to address briefly Weaver’s bringing up of Plato’s distrust and dislike of written communication, in conjunction with Weaver’s quote: “Has the art of writing proved an unmixed blessing?”

I think this point has a quick and easy Christian answer that we should not forget. The answer doesn’t shut down the discussion, but it should influence it.

  1. There is no such thing as an unmixed blessing in a fallen world (except salvation).
  2. God chose written communication as the means for us to know Him long before Plato was born. Because of this, we know that any “Good Society” in this world will most definitely be dependent upon the written word.

How does that change the discussion? Or does it?

Your Posts

10 Responses

  1. Dana

    I own one other book by Professor Weaver:
    A Rhetoric and Handbook

    It is a text for a course he taught at the University of Chicago. Here’s a line from the concluding essay addressed “To the Student”

    To write well, one must be alive at every point of one’s being, with the result that composition, more than any other subject, is a training of the whole man.

    Blessings fm GA ~

    • Mystie Winckler

      I like that! I’ll have to use it when I start teaching writing again. :)

  2. Dana

    That should read ~
    Here’s the concluding line from an introductory essay entitled *To the Student*

  3. Pilgrim

    I have tried to add my link but I am not sure it showed up. I agree that mixed blessings abound. I guess that is why education is so key- to help us know how to think about and use these things correctly. We are told to handle the Word rightly which means that it can and will be used wrongly. I think this study is helping me to better understand just how far reaching the impact of wrong thoughts can be.

    • Mystie Winckler

      I agree. I also think this chapter helped me see that media exposure often (and is meant to) override education. So a good education is only going to be effective to the degree media exposure is limited and controlled.

  4. Pilgrim

    The link did show up and it is NOT 4:19 am where I am – it is 6:19! I am not a martyr.

    • Mystie Winckler

      I am not sure why links aren’t showing up right away for the people who enter them. I get an email notification that says it was added before any of the “it didn’t show up” comments have been made. Strange.

      Also, all times are Pacific. :)

  5. Pilgrim

    Sorry all. It appears that my mom somehow deleted my post. When I get a chance I will try to recollect my thoughts and re-post. I guess I need to learn to save them elsewhere – but she is letting me borrow her computer.

    • Pilgrim

      Appears it was my error – not hers. I think it is fixed now. Thanks for being patient with this new blogger.

  6. Brandy @ Afterthoughts

    Plato’s insinuations about writing have always struck me because it is so very *human* to write–just as it is human to produce some sort of art or to build a shelter. Etc.

    So I suppose it logically follows, then, that technologies are *natural* in the sense that it is very human to invent them. Hmmm…