Mar 242007

In a recent post, I wrote that attention tends to leak out of circulation in the Attention Economy when it goes to the dead. As competition for attention increases, trying to stem this phenomenon and make use of the otherwise missing attention become increasingly important. A number of different strategies have developed:

(1) Discrediting the dead for being dead;
(2) Stressing  the importance of now, this moment;
(3) Channeling” the works of the dead by some sort of disguised appropriating or even plagiarizing;
or (4) Seeking to take over or control the attention particular dead stars may still get.

Let’s take a look, starting with the last.

The dead can be appropriated, simply by being interpreted, edited, written about or otherwise represented by the living. This is nothing new of course, but it is probably increasingly prominent. Putting out the “latest” biography or critical appreciation of a dead poet, philosopher, artist , scientist, politician or other star sets up a gateway to the star, which many may not get past. President John Adams, for numerous readers, will now be linked to the biographer David McCulloch, even when they haven’t actually read his John Adams.

An aside: the Digital Millennium copyright law, which assigns works to their author for life plus seventy-five years (rather like a ridiculous prison sentence) does no real favor to the dead or even to living authors. What an artist gets out of having attention is a reshaping or realigment of living minds to hers —most specifically her mind at the time she created the work in question. Heirs yet unborn when the work was made are not particularly likely to have similar minds or to align closely with said author. The result is the worst sort of appropriation. Much better to join the public domain and let true fans —if any— guard one’s immortality. I have a proposal for a better copyright law which I will return to soon.

More intense is an artistic taking, say a movie remake, a theatrical revival or a re-imagined and somehow updated version of an old story, song or art work, often mentioning the old artist, but signed by and a product of the mind of a living one. Novels such as E.L. Doctorow’s  Ragtime, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, or Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, will for many of us remain the chief source of knowledge about many of the historical or quasi-historical figures mentioned.

Another way to fight the dead is simply to overwhelm them with output from “now.” While it is a hoary adage that “nothing is as old as yesterday’s newspaper,” “it’s so last year” applied to clothing styles, haircuts, songs, bands, novelists, etc., seems relatively new. As a ploy to conserve attention for the living it seems fairly successful.

Another aside: Of course the way blogs — including this one — tend to be set up lead to the same thing. The latest entry is what is on top; you don’t read a blog as you might read someone’s diary, journals or notebooks — when published, that is, in chronological order, earliest first. Instead the latest entry in the blog is on top. Few would choose to dig to dig further when they have other blogs and the like to race through. Using a blog reading “tool” such as Google Reader reinforces this newness, since on the reader, only the latest entries even exist, but that is exactly what users are convinced they want.

A bolder, more head-on approach in the recent past was to attack the entire notion of, say, a literary “canon,” which was the idea that to be considered educated one had to know of certain works — say the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, on down to Shakespeare, Moliere, Goethe, G.B. Shaw, etc. — to mention only playwrights — all of whom are among the aforesaid dead white males.

It is common to acknowledge white racism or male sexism. Accusing the dead of cultural imperialism might seem a little stranger, but the young have had little problem in stigmatizing deadness as a source of “irrelevance.” We can take  “relevant” to mean: “capable of listening to me, or understanding me — because at the very least you live in the same times I do.”  This has the effect of discouraging attention flows to the dead, leaving more for the living to fight over in more direct fashion. Among historians, who are forced, professionally, to pay some heed to the dead, the strategy has been to revile the “great man” theory of history; we will not talk about the stars and attention getters of the past whose names have come down to us. Instead we will talk about previously unknown people, as interpreted and essentially re-created by contemporary historians; in this way, the historian clearly becomes the real star, history being just a set of raw materials one is pretty free to shape as one wants.

A major precedent for the change in how to do history is what has become standard in the sciences: relatively frequent paradigm shifts. What this means is that no one need read the works of dead scientists, what we know of them is only what current scientists have chosen to remember and appropriate. Scientific success comes from publication, which draws attention from readers who will cite the publication in turn. The more revolutionary the article one publishes, (as long as others can figure out how to make use of it) the less making sense of it requires prior reading of earlier materials. At times earlier science may be appropriated, but without really being attended to. During the last twenty-five years of his life, Albert Einstein pursued a lonely quest for what he called “the unified field theory.” Other physicists thought he had gone off the rails. Then, about twenty-five years after his death, contemporary physicists invented what they called “grand unified field theory,” and suddenly pronounced that Einstein had been vindicated. This did not imply that those physicists had pored over Einstein’s actual work, since the similarity was only in the broad idea, in fact in little more than name. Einstein had been appropriated more than vindicated.

In every field, the elimination of the past sets present attention getters free to pursue whatever methods they like to get attention, without the dead weighing on them as forerunners, betters, or pointers of the way. Visual artists, for example, currently move in every conceivable direction at once, no longer having to proclaim or imply that they are taking the whole history of western art one step forward on some sort of path to ultimate art. Instead, just go.

One kind of work of the dead that can easily be appropriated is the religious text, supposedly of divine origin, but usually in need of interpretation to have much of any meaning at all. Anyone can thus claim to be a correct interpreter, a prophet, the voice of god, whether it be bin Laden, Pat Robertson, the Dalai Lama, or Rabbi Michael Lerner, (the editor of Tikkun.) But the “ old-time religion” as an antidote to the onrushing totality of the new  (and to the current attention getters who seem to have capacities that “ordinary people” cannot equal) becomes a significant counter-action. There is too much new, so everything new should be suspect, all the more reason to cling faithfully to the voice of god, especially in strict and old-fashioned interpretations, that require detailed hewing to prescriptive laws. In the face of everything changing and anything goes, the easy opposition is that nothing should change and nothing new should go except their particular prophet’s current interpretation, which they attend to as “faithfully attuned” to the actual truth.

  One Response to ““Dead White Males” and Other Competitors for Attention: Culture Wars, Paradigm Shifts, and Avoiding Being “So Last Week””

  1. I wonder how this says about the theme common to many religions of “venerating your ancestors”. Basically a codified norm of paying attention to the dead. (Worship is in essence a form of attention, I would argue.)

    It seems that the past thousand years or so saw the rise of methods 3 and 4. (Jesus and Mohammad were arguably channeling other dead, and many others channeled them afterwards.) And the last hundred years or so have seen the rise of 1 and 2. (Rock and Roll, carpe dium, etc…)

    [Glad to see you're writing again.]

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