From McLuhan to Artest

DANIEL HENNINGER

By now, you've probably seen the tape of the fight between Ron Artest and the Detroit Pistons fans. Just kidding. You've seen it.

You've seen it in real time, in slo-mo and — my favorite — super slo-mo. In super slo-mo, Ron Artest's $50-million arm flows into the head of the (apparently innocent) fan like a bird's feather landing lightly on a fireplug. As aesthetics, rather than street fighting, it's hard not to gape and admire. The art director at Sports Illustrated also noticed how TV's compulsion to bathe us in images, no matter the subject, had transformed the fight into something else.

For this week's cover story on "SPORTSRAGE," SI's art director blew up the TV images of the fighting Pacers in a way that changed the brawling bodies into lurid, splattered pixels — something bizarre and not quite real. Like much else in the culture today.

The very next day, after the football players from Clemson and South Carolina staged their own swirling TV fight across the green turf, everyone jumped on Clemson coach Tommy Bowden for suggesting the players had been brainwashed into violence by watching replays of the Artest video. But I think Tommy Bowden had it right. He said almost everything one needs to know about how American culture swooned from the on-court dignity of an Oscar Robertson to the choreographed road-rage and stylish personal exhibitionism you see no matter where you look these days. The only thing Coach Bowden left out were the preceding 18 years and probably 30,000 hours of similar images his players had watched.

Like Tommy Bowden, Marshall McLuhan was laughed at in 1967 with the publication of "The Medium Is the Massage," his aphoristic summary of what electronic media were going to do to us. "All media works us over completely," McLuhan said. The book's subtitle was "An inventory of effects." It's a good time for another inventory, because no one's laughing now.

Much of the "culture" we consume is graphic and electronic. Most of us have watched more screens of entertainment — on TV, in movies, videogames and computers — than any other activity not required to sustain life. A cable company like Time Warner now offers about 500 channels. This is relatively new. It must have an effect. But what is "it"?

It is mostly entertainment. As with movies, TV from the first days was primarily a performance medium. That means it is a medium of exaggeration. It exists to go over the top. Professionals will tell you that like any staged performance, TV requires exaggeration, or sharpened behavior, to succeed. On a TV screen or the silver screen, normal "performance" doesn't "come across." To compensate for the screen's odd, deadening effect, all actors ham it up. Actors from Jackie Gleason to Telly Savalas to John Belushi have all painted their characters in broad, "unreal" strokes — to put them across.

Violence is also one of the medium's most basic tools. Since the slapstick figures of Europe's old Commedia dell'Arte, violence has been a staple of exaggerated effects — the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers and today "South Park." But of course no one in the 17th century watched such stuff every night.

Until recently, only actors trained in artful exaggeration did any of this. Everyone else just watched. Now, from the basketball courts in Detroit to reality TV, amateurs are "performing." Untrained in performance art, the audiences default to what they know — being loud, flamboyant or making fools of themselves. But that's OK with TV, too. On TV, a loud fool is more watchable than a quiet fool.

To hold channel-surfing audiences, much performance on television is more exaggerated than ever. Exhibitionism is encouraged. ESPN's afternoon sports-talk show, "Around the Horn," features sports writers for major newspapers yelling like drunks at the corner bar. Stephen A. Smith, who shouts basketball commentary for ESPN, is the new model, overwhelming a more normal colleague like Greg Anthony.

Not-normal people are becoming the norm. Exhibitionism is routine. Last Sunday, Giants' tight end Jeremy Shockey caught a 15-yard pass across midfield and danced and pranced like he'd won the Super Bowl. It was weird and pathetic. The Giants got killed. But the same commentators appalled at Ron Artest routinely write that sport "needs more characters," meaning more egomaniacs.

Sports figures are in the news now, but unreal, jacked-up, cartoonlike performance and behavior is everywhere in the culture now. Computer assisted graphics produce cyber-streams of hyper-real, speeded-up pictoids of humanlike figures — "The Matrix," videogames like "Grand Theft Auto," automobile commercials. The fashion industry transmits the stagey flamboyance of hip-hop culture and pop-diva culture straight to the street now. Hip-hop artists, having forgotten what's up, morph from pretend criminals into real criminals. This, too, is among the "inventory of effects."

Reality TV recruits its "stars" from the audience, and they scream and vamp on cue. The guy alleged to have thrown the glass at Artest got his 8.5 minutes of fame with Greta Van Susteren. He was obviously thrilled to be there, notwithstanding his ban for life from the Palace of Auburn Hills.

McLuhan said media would change us. He was right. There are simple words to describe what we are seeing lots of now: vanity, anger, impatience, envy, egocentrism, arrogance. Oh yes, vices are not crimes. But standing under a constant electronic shower of them will wash away what might be called the smaller, quieter virtues, such as humility, restraint, modesty, respect, tact, patience, generosity, prudence, piety — that stuff.

Does it matter? Two years after "The Medium Is the Massage," Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black issued a famous dissent in the Tinker case, which elevated the speech rights of very young students and lowered the inclination of teachers to civilize their students. Justice Black warned this would make the schools vulnerable "to the whims and caprices of their loudest-mouthed, but maybe not their brightest, students." So what? They're all stars now.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Daniel Henninger. "From McLuhan to Artest." The Wall Street Journal (December 3, 2004).

This article reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Mr. Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. His column appears Fridays in the Journal and on OpinionJournal.com.

Copyright 2004 Wall Street Journal


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