October 9th, 2008

Of All of the Din Joints in This Town. . .

I am sitting, somewhat unhappily, in the student union of one of the biggest universities in the country, barely keeping my head above the roiling sea of sound. Across from me is a "video wall" that frames a large window featuring one television channel, with four smaller ones tuned to other signals. This large window has been showing a CNN program hosted by Rick Sanchez in which viewers are urged to "join the conversation." I know that some of you take this sort of content for granted, but it still startles someone like myself who watches little television of a non-sporting nature. As audience input scrolls across the bottom of the window, where my reflexes still expect to find "real" news, Sanchez focuses on a series of comments, conveyed to him via Twitter, Facebook or MySpace. Sometimes dramatically enlarged text from computer screens appears in his stead, proffering this user-generated comment in yet another form. Periodically, one of the cameras in the studio pulls back to show another camera filming an oversized monitor, the point, I presume, being to remind us how rapidly the many layers of mediation with which we are being confronted can dissolve messages into the medium that conveys them.

No one but me is watching the windows. Instead, most of the students around me sit hunched over their cell phones or stare into the illusory distance their noise-cancelling headphones carve out of the fragmented heteroglossia that dominates the space. The rest of them, by contrast, loudly jest with each other like eight-graders engaged in cafeteria cut-down wars. "This is just like that scene from--" My only point of comparison is from the realm of science fiction. But the experience of the noise-to-signal ratio in this space makes films like Southland Tales seem like our era's equivalent to the patient mimesis of Flaubert. Hell, if you'd asked me a year ago whether I'd be witnessing a candidate like Sarah Palin or even Barack Obama take the place of that picture's two tickets, the fictional Eliot-Frost for the GOP and the once plausible Clinton-Lieberman for the Democratic Party, I would have cautioned you to curtail your smoking. I'm not going to go all doom-and-gloom and tell you that this environment constitutes total communication breakdown. I still see hope for sorting meaning from the heterogeneous matter that threatens to bury it for good. That said, panning gold out of this foolishness requires a stronger lower back than I have brought to the proceedings. I guess it's time to double up on that ab-building regimen. If I work hard enough, I might even end up with an Abbildungsroman.