This is an analysis of modern entertainment culture in terms of Plato’s allegory of the cave, and it owes a lot to a conversation i had with lily. As such, it will probably make more sense if you have read the allegory. (you’ll have to scroll down about 5 paragraphs to get to it. If you’re not familiar with it i highly recommend reading it just because it’s possibly the best and most important thing ever written about the relation between knowledge and freedom. And also it’s pretty short, shorter than the essay below)
Plato creates, in “The Allegory of the Cave,” a story which illustrates the difficulties inherent in breaking free of a life where one has been chained to an idea of reality, and also to show the comparative richness and shallowness of the free and chained life, respectively. The allegory continuously uses light as a metaphor, with the captives initially looking at and judging shadows contrasting against the freed prisoners looking directly at the sun; the gradient of awareness which the allegory explicates applies as well to life today as it did 2500 years ago, but the shadows have grown larger, as have the fires which they silhouette. The chains have grown as well, from the simple ignorance of Plato’s time into a manufactured culture of images, one in which the participants who are most deeply entrenched cannot recognize more complexity than a caricature. This is the culture that has been growing inÂ the first world since the early 1950′s, and which has today created “the myspace generation,” an entire generation who have become so good at recognizing and analyzing shallow images, so good at caricaturizing themselves and the objects of their affection, that the shadows projected into the world via myspace have taken on a life almost as meaningful as the experience of the so-called “real world.” The ascent from the cave is just as applicable to the ascent from a life of consumption to a life of production in today’s society as it was to an ascent to a life of thought in Plato’s day. Mindless entertainment has been the norm for all of my generation’s life; dragging any person away from submergence in that culture is just as difficult, and is met with just as much resistance, as the journey out of the cave. But just as the shadows have grown deeper, the chains stronger, and the ascent steeper, so has the sun grown brighter, and the world more rich in color. If only we could tear ourselves away from the internet which is no longer primarily used as disseminator of information.
We live in a world with an overabundance of things to know and experience, there is, however, very little incentive to go out and learn; we are continuously shown enough that the superficial kinds of knowledge which permeate our culture can – through a process of aggregation which leads to a sort of mental obfuscation – seem like a body of worthwhile knowledge which one can derive benefits by actively thinking about. The content of entertainment culture is meaningless outside of itself, but it because it is the core culture which we are exposed to it has taken on a much more significant role than it warrants. We have been, from a very young age, taught and indoctrinated with the information of entertainment culture and the tenets of entertainment consumption. We want to be entertained, we know that others want to be entertained: we don’t care about things that don’t entertain us, we want to entertain others so that they will care about us. Enlightenment in this culture is a matter of how much you fit into the world of chains and shadows. Appearing different, whether through lack of knowledge about the shadows or lack of grace in wearing the chains, is a sign of ignorance, and due to the conflation of even somewhat related concepts that occurs when every complex idea is caricaturized the ignorance is interpreted as stupidity, as the opposite of enlightenment.
Our assimilation into this culture is so complete that by the time we are old enough to craft a personality for ourselves – to think – we want to be shadows. Just as the puppets in Plato’s allegory create a shadow reality for the captives, the images on the TV screen and the internet define the reality that we inhabit. Since our reality consists primarily of shadows of constructs, and to a lesser extent on shadows of people, we want to fit in by becoming shadows ourselves, we strive to become caricatures of ourselves. We think that people are their shadows, we do not realize that people are themselves, we do not even recognize ourselves as anything but shadows. In fact, we do not want to recognize ourselves as anything but shadows:Â if reality is all shadow and shadow play, everything which is not shadowed by culture is unreal. Thus, by suffusing our sight with a manufactured iconography the entertainment culture has manufactured participants in its own image, and dedicated to its proliferation.
A person with the ontology described above will be as unlikely to search for enlightenment outside of culture as a person raised in Plato’s allegorical cave to search for enlightenment in the world outside. It is not merely the mannerisms or casual likes and dislikes of a person, but rather it is the soul – not the religious, spiritual soul, but rather the soul as Plato and other more modern philosophers conceive of it as the essence of one’s being – that becomes enmeshed in society and that is shaped by it. The more entwined one is with her culture, the more that she views herself and the world in terms of it, so she is exceedingly unlikely to remove herself from her entanglement voluntarily and will probably resist every attempt to take her from it with utmost force. The journey upward will, however, hold even more surprises and benefits for a modern human than could even have been imagined in ancient Greece.
Forcing someone away from the screen is the first step, and just as difficult if not more so than all of the other steps which follow. People love their screens; having a television, and probably a computer, is one of the requirements for living in modern America, and the more thoroughly enmeshed in entertainment culture that one is the more inconceivable it is to live without it. An oft repeated story from my life serves to demonstrate that it is not just that the thought of it is painful: I do not have a television in my house, and generally speaking when people find out about this they are flabbergasted. Sometimes they assume that I do not have the money to buy one and pity me, sometimes they just pity me, but in general the immediate response is:Â “how do you watch TV?” Those exact words have been aimed at me almost as regularly as “how tall are you?” Modern life is inextricably bound up with television, at least in the minds of the participants of television culture. The screen is the new god of culture, it is the source and goal of life and in many cases – whether directly or indirectly – of livelihood. Growing up with TV as the focus of life means that people do not any more know how to live without it than they know how to sew a field, or harvest a crop, or tell the difference between poison ivy and more benign forms. This is to be expected: if one grows up without needing a skill, then that skill will not be developed.
The screen fills the mind with images and colors where there would otherwise be thought or learning. The screen fills the time with entertainment where one would otherwise be forced to create or do. The screen fills the body with lethargy where otherwise there would be vitality and desire. The screen fills the soul with a deadness that it does not even know is there.
The first reaction to actually losing the screen is a need for some new sort of distraction, anything to fill the void that has not yet been filled with thought, creation, vitality, and life. Losing the source of distraction from the harsh beauty of reality means that the prisoner, with nowhere else to direct her gaze, is forced to look at herself – at reality – for the first time. Forcefully freed of her bondage, she is shocked, she is upset, and in some considerable amount of pain. There is at first a need to understand her own existence. She has been in chains her whole life, she does not know how to walk, and she will need to be dragged up the steep ascent, gaining new depth of understanding as she goes, with new pains and pleasures for each stage.
The first thing she will see as she is being dragged up out of the cave is the fire which is the source of her former distractions. In this new analogy the fires can easily represent the underlying structures of society: the corporations, the government, philanthropic and narcissistic organizations. These are all things lying just underneath the surface of society but which are for the most part ignored and unknown; their inner workings a mystery and their outer workings hidden in the umbra of entertainment culture. Becoming aware of oneself means becoming aware of these organizations because of how much of them is in everybody; as the old adage has it “you are what you consume.”
Once she ascends into the light of the sun the pain will be continue, with more details apparent. In this case the metaphor expands its applicability by orders of magnitude. Being exposed to the entire world at once, and for the first time, is exactly what happens when someone lives for the first time without a screen in front of their face. Generally, though, it illustrates a deepening of understanding, something that is the hallmark of good learning. At first, she will see the reflections of true things, this could be thought of as her coming into contact with vague ideas and concepts related to the operation of the social, or physical, or metaphysical, universe. She could, perhaps, start reading books that have something to say, and start thinking about the concepts that they touch upon; or maybe she starts walking in the park and realizes that she cares about the birds and trees and their connection to one another and to the world. The precise thoughts that she touches upon are not important, what is important is that she will certainly, with time to think, start thinking. Which leads to her apprehending – in the language of the allegory – the objects themselves. This is the stage where direct and real knowledge is desired and sought after, in which she starts actively learning instead of through a process of osmosis. This could be through any of the branches of knowledge, if she grows interested in books she may start studying literature, or criticism, or philosophy. If she grows interested in the birds and the trees perhaps something more scientific, something like biology or ecology. No matter what though, without a distraction to prevent her from learning she will certainly do it. And then, as she progresses down the path of knowledge she will gain more and more awareness of the ways in which every branch of knowledge is intimately related to every other. She will start to see knowledge as the moon and stars, points of light occupying the same plane. And the more clearly she sees them, the more beautiful they will be and the more she will learn about them all and the more bright they will become, and the webs connecting them will grow wider and brighter. Eventually a dawn will come and she will see with clarity the world around her and the sky above, filled with the sun. And the light from the sun will illuminate all of the shadows, the gaps in her wisdom.
The woman who has made this journey will see how full the world is, and how much there is to know and reason about. She will know that her peers still locked in the cave do not even know what they are missing, and she will want to help them. But to try and help them is to reach the final barrier, and the final source of pain, and of course, the source of the greatest possible reward. To help them she must learn to deal with people not as caricatures, but as full and self-willed entities. Unfortunately, nobody in the cave wants to be thought of that way, nor do they want to think of themselves that way. If she returns to the dimness with no consideration for all of her old culture-games she will be ridiculed and out of place. They will be seen for the shadow play that they, the prizes bequeathed for success will be seen as ridiculous, and she will not want to re-learn the old culture that she left so long ago. But her new-found wisdom will have also developed her conscience, which will not let her be, and she will try to help them. And, if she does not practice the old mores and grow skilled in them, she will be seen as a fiend, ostracized, and killed. This fate is almost as likely today as it was for Socrates, since the entertained person, never having had any reason to seek enlightenment, is just as ignorant of the nature of the world around them as the Athenians who sentenced him to death.