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Some Musings About TV, Books, Meaning, and Freedom

March 15, 2009
Dennis, Wide Awake, Watching TV

Dennis, Wide Awake, Watching TV

To those who still warn us about the evils of TV, I can only say that TV is not the enemy! Ah, yes, I am well aware of what Marshal McLuhan wrote about TV, especially about how it alters the brain. I was a big proponent of his views for many years. Since then a lot of research has been done. A Manchester University study found, for example, that watching television exercised both sides of the brain, making information easier to understand. The researchers pointed out that the brain assimilates information best through sound and vision, which is why TV has such a powerful influence. Other studies have shown when it comes to young children excessive TV viewing undermines the basic principles of how young children learn—through sensory involvement.

No, TV is not the enemy. The enemy is our own stupidity and laziness in using the TV as a means to pacify our children instead of getting them involved in actively using their bodies, minds, emotions and creative imagination. Passivity is the problem—not TV.

Some will tell us that that reading is better than watching TV. Well, might it not depend on what we read and what we watch? But the issue is deeper than that, of course. Reading abstract words (not ideograms or pictures) from left to right in our books conditions the brain to a certain way of thinking and perceiving. What’s more, think of all the garbage that is published and read today and that fills our minds and the minds of our kids. Think of the emphasis in our schools on memorizing what we read in order to pass tests and earn the respect of our educators. Learning how to read well certainly makes us more functional citizens of today’s world, yet few of our books really help us think, ponder, and explore. Interestingly, very few people complain about reading books, except those books that upset their so-called moral values. Very few people criticize those who sit for long hours on their butts reading, without any real sensory involvement. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve always loved books, especially those that challenge me, that make me think and look and listen and sense in new ways. But to offhandedly say, as many people do, that reading is better than watching TV skirts the real issues involved.

When I was a young boy there were few TVs around, and we didn’t get one till I was about eight or nine. I often listened to radio shows while I did whatever else I did. The shows were based on the various comic book characters, such as Superman, and one could write in (and send 35 cents or whatever it was) to a post office box to get secret decoder rings (to get an idea of what would happen on the show next week) that also had a secret compartment, a magnifying glass, and a tiny pen. For a kid, this was amazing stuff. It excited my imagination. And, of course, the ads (designed for kids) that went with the radio shows were very seductive.

I can remember when we got our first TV how our family and friends circled around it watching news and a football game. There weren’t many viewing choices in those days. And I can remember later on how my mother and I watched TV together at night before bed, occasionally making comments, until my mother fell asleep. It was always a funny moment when I would wake up my mom and tell her that she had fallen asleep, to which she invariably said: “No, I was watching.” A very touching moment for both of us, a moment that brought us closer by virtue of what we both knew to be true.

What should we do with our so-called free time, with or without others? Should we always be productive? Is there room for imagination and dreaming, as well as inner and outer work on ourselves? Are we whole human beings overflowing with the sometimes messy flow of the life force, or do we envision ourselves as though we were a literary (left to right) character in a book on the well-trodden path to some goal in the future? Our conditioning is so deep and unconscious that we don’t even realize how much reading from one word to the next, one sentence to the next (especially the kinds of sentences that are short and predigested for easy consumption) one page to the next, and so on shapes the way we look at ourselves and the world. And, for those who read a lot of fiction, it is perhaps even more pernicious, since so much of it is based on what is going to happen in the end. When you read great writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, however, you are plunged into a multi-sensorial world in which linear time ceases to be as important as what is happening right now. One can have these experiences with Henry Miller and other great writers as well. Each of the pages of such writers are filled to overflowing with the mystery–the big questions–of life itself.

I raise these questions and issues because I believe that the dilema that many of us face is a lack of real meaning in our lives, and the resulting unconscious tendency toward identification with and addiction to whatever we do or experience, not just to alcohol, drugs, sex, TV, books, radio, and so on. In his book America Anonymous, my son, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, writes that “as we obsessively search for new and innovative ways to escape the reality of the present moment and make ourselves feel ‘better,’ we’ve created a schizophrenic culture where nothing is ever enough, where stillness is equated with boredom, and where we need increasingly intense experiences just to feel alive.”

We attempt to escape the present moment in many ways. That needs to be fully seen and felt, no matter what form it takes. At the same time, though, we have to remember that there is always something going on now, and it is our relationship to now (whether it includes TV, sex, radio, discussions, having a drink, thinking, dreaming, bitching, laughing, meditating, traveling to exotic places, posting on Facebook, and so on) that determines whether or not we become identified with it or addicted to it. One could accurately say that each of us is addicted to our self-image, and the habitual thoughts, beliefs, and emotions that support it, yet that is taken as somehow being normal, even though this addiction probably ruins as many relationships and lives as alcoholism, drugs, and the other text-book addictions, although in more subtle ways.

This question is enormous. And G. I. Gurdjieff was obviously correct when he says that one cannot change one thing in oneself without knowing the whole “machine.” Throwing out TVs (as some of my friends did back in the 60s and 70s) or telling kids they cannot watch TV will not help with identification and addiction. There is always something else to become identified with or addicted to. Get rid of one and another one pops up. That is a law of unconscious living. We have to see, feel, and sense this law in action if we are to discover real freedom.

Copyright 2009-2013 by Dennis Lewis

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2009 5:51 pm

    This is such an important topic! I have to agree overall that passivity is the enemy, not TV or any medium itself.

    Still I also have questions about the nature of content on these media, and its role in enforcing passivity or, conversely, inspiring activity within myself. What I bring to the watching experience is at least as important as the stuff being watched.

    Unfortunately most TV producers are unwitting hypnotists and slaves to the ratings game, employing every trick in the book to keep us watching (ads and all). And it’s getting worse all the time because budgets are down and many of the content providers are younger, less literate, and less thoughtful. Result: “Reality TV” — one of the most unreal and toxic genres out there.

    We took an 18-month break from television in my family several years ago when we moved from Rochester to Warwick and then Virginia. Internet newspapers and rented movies on DVD filled the media void. Occasionally I would take a business trip and stay in another city — then I would watch CNN or some cable news outlet in the hotel room. It struck me strongly at those times that the content was of very low quality — a torrent of dumbed-down shouting and opining with little objective or transparent news reporting. Being away from TV for so long had made me much more sensitive and actively questioning about what was being shown.

    The analogy is like when one has been smoking for a long time and then stops for several months. He picks up a cigarette again and for a brief period it feels foul and toxic, cough-inducing. Then very quickly the body’s natural response is sedated and suppressed…and he is hooked again.

    On the other hand, there have been transcendent, wonderful moments while watching certain shows, like HBO’s “Deadwood,” which activated intense reflection for me and my wife on a sustained basis. Documentaries on PBS, like “Frontline,” etc. also have this effect.

    No conclusions, just a few open-ended thoughts. . .

  2. March 21, 2009 10:38 am

    Thank you, Doug, for your helpful thoughts and observations. Maybe others will also join in.

  3. Ace permalink
    July 7, 2010 9:33 am

    Great post, thank you for the insight. I never looked at the issue from this standpoint.

  4. February 28, 2013 6:43 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more!! I don’t have TV now and I miss it. I do watch Netflix and find information, escape from a few moments in time, and etc. I too remember, and miss, the old radio days. I miss the evenings when my father built a fire in the fireplace, Mom made fudge and sliced cold, juicy apples. My big brother and I were dressed in our night clothes. We brought our pillows into the room to rest on while we listened to the radio. Sometimes we’d put a puzzle together or color and my Mom and I did some hand sewing. I can say those were some good moments with good memories. I remember watching our first TV when I was 9!! Mom won it in a contest!! Since there wasn’t a station close by, our picture was mostly snow. I remember when we started receiving colored TV. I do remember hurrying home from school, grabbing a glass of cold milk, heading to my room to do my homework. All the time hoping I’d be finished in time to watch The Lone Ranger!!! Today I have my little laptop computer, my radio, my cell phone, good books, and shows on Netflix. I will be glad when I can have my TV back again. There are many things in all forms of media that are not to my liking and that is when I find the selection button handy! As the old saying goes; one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Trash meaning many things. I won’t go into that now!! Aren’t you glad??!!! Oh, I’m a great grandma several times now. when my grands and greats visit, we do all sorts of activities mostly during the day. When night comes we often watch a movie or something of interest to the little ones. we talk about what is happening, what will happen next, are the people real or acting, and much more. It isn’t sit, watch, go to bed. that isn’t good and offers little food for thought.

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