July 21, 2013

Henry Geiger - The Present And The Long View (1979)

Henry Geiger (1908?-15 February 1989) was the editor, publisher, and chief writer of MANAS Journal which published from 1948-1988. Abraham Maslow called him “the only small ‘p’ philosopher America has produced in this century.”
MANAS was an eight-page philosophical weekly written, edited, and published by Henry Geiger from 1948 until December 1988. Each issue typically contained several short essays that reflected on the human condition, examining in particular environmental and ethical concerns from a global perspective. E. F. Schumacher's influential essay on Buddhist economics was published in the journal.
Below is an excerpt from, "The Present And The Long View" by Henry Geiger. Source: MANAS Journal, Volume XXXII, No. 8. February 21, 1979. 

The first part is about Homer and the Greeks, and the negative influence of television and advertising in modern culture. The second part is about the need for decentralization and local economies.
The ancient Greeks, being human, were very like ourselves. Yet being Greeks, they were also quite different. For one thing, they managed to keep their technology at a manageable level. Their civilization had its flowerings, but it did not, as we recall, occur to Pericles to speak in his funeral oration of machinery or laborsaving devices in recounting the glories of Athens. Perhaps we should ask, as a scholar asked recently, why the Greeks developed as they did, and why, in contrast, "the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution made the Occident what it is now." This difference has been a source of pride to the modern world, but a few thousand years from now, when our machines have rusted away, we shall probably be forgotten while the Greeks are still well remembered.

Yet we are much like the Greeks in patterning our lives according to a tribal encyclopedia. The Greeks learned how to be good Greeks by listening to Homer, while we are instructed by television. Homer gave fairly complete directions on how a Greek ought to go about things—how to build a house, cook a meal, navigate, and fight a war. His epics became the manual of Greek culture, teaching both law and ethics. It was for this reason, as Eric Havelock remarks in Preface to Plato, that Plato dealt with Greek poetry and the poetic tradition "as though it were a kind of reference library or as a vast tractate in ethics and politics and warfare and the like, . . . reporting its immemorial function in Greek society down to his own day."

Why was Homer so effective in molding the Greek mind and character? Because the Greeks sang his verses to each other, endlessly. The Homeric literature was a total curriculum, the all- pervasive paideia which, as Havelock says, "cannot be narrowly identified with schools and schoolmasters or with teachers, as though these represented a unique source of indoctrination, as they do in a literate society." The transmission was virtually automatic:
All memorisation of the poetised tradition depends on constant and reiterated recitation. You could not refer to a book or memorise from a book. Hence poetry exists and is effective as an educational instrument only as it is performed. Performance by a harpist for the benefit of a pupil is only part of the story. The pupil will grow up and perhaps forget. His living memory must at every turn be reinforced by social pressure. This is brought to bear in the adult context, when in private performance the poetic tradition is repeated at mess table and banquet and family ritual, and in public performance in the theatre and market-place. The recital by parents and elders, the repetition by children and adolescents, add themselves to the professional recitations by poets, rhapsodists and actors. The community has to enter into an unconscious conspiracy with itself to keep the tradition alive, to reinforce it in the collective memory of a society where collective memory is only the sum of individual memories, and these have to be continually recharged at all age levels.
How did a young Greek learn Homer?
To identify with the performance as an actor does with his lines was the only way it could be done. You threw yourself into the situation of Achilles, you identified with his grief or his anger. You yourself became Achilles and so did the reciter to whom you listened. Thirty years later you could automatically quote what Achilles had said or what the poet had said about him. Such enormous powers of poetic memorisation could be purchased only at the cost of total loss of objectivity.
This was how the Greeks of the Heroic Age shaped their character, and why Plato became the determined enemy of the mimetic poets. They never gave the young Greeks a chance to think for themselves. Plato had Socrates say, over and over again: You can't call your soul your own unless you think about what is good to do and be, not just accept poetic direction blindly with a flood of emotional sanction. Socrates opposed this hallowed process and lost his life for his pains. Plato created the forms of modern intellectuality by opposing it, but could not save Athens from decline. Not enough Greeks were ready for Plato's emancipating heresies. They enjoyed their Homeric moods and passions, losing themselves in the exploits of their great ancestors.

The Greeks had Homer to make up their minds. We have the advertising agencies and their television harps. Homer provided better programs, admirers of the Greeks will say, and he did indeed, but fifteen years ago, in Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan warned that attempts at improving the TV programs entirely miss the point.
Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the "content" of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as "content." The content of a movie is a novel or play or an opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content.
There is truth in the claim, even though it may not be the whole truth. Content is not a negligible matter, yet the fact remains that when you are watching a movie you don't have time to think. You'll miss something, maybe something good. The audio-visual impressions come at you in rapid succession and if you want to enjoy the show you just soak them up. The spectator is passive; he eagerly submits to the embrace of the film. Some embraces may be welcome—as for example, of the warm sunlight on a chilly morning, or the voice of a great singer adding vocal perfection to a song you enjoy. When people chant, "We shall overcome," you know what they mean and respond willingly to the longing of their hearts. But not all embraces invite with the same high intent. Some are seductions. So there is reason in McLuhan's argument:
Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without walls for their human users. A. J. Liebling remarked in his book The Press, a man is not free if he cannot see where he is going, even if he has a gun to help him get there. . . . That our human senses of which all media are extensions, are also fixed charges on our personal energies, and that they also configure the awareness and experience of each one of us, may be perceived in another connection mentioned by the psychologist C. G. Jung:
"Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence."
Mr. McLuhan didn't go on with these warnings, or at least he didn't take them much further, but fortunately others have been assuming the Platonic obligation. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television appeared two years ago and is currently being serialized by Mother Earth News. The author, Jerry Mander, seems fully equipped to continue the warnings. He begins the second of the four arguments by saying that "television has been used to re-create human beings into a new form that matches the artificial commercial environment."