Monday, November 5, 2007

I never did plan to go anyway... to Bosnia

One of my (many) favorite Bob Dylan songs, Black Diamond Bay, chronicles the rapid fragmentation and descent into ruin of a small island resort that is, over the course of the song, covered by a volcano. In the final verse, Dylan pulls the perspective away from the frantic last minutes of the resort inhabitants and into the living room of the television spectator with the verse,

"I was sitting home alone one night / in LA watching old Chronkite / on the seven o clock news. / Seems there was an earthquake that / left nothing but a panama hat /and a pair of old greek shoes. / didn't seem like much was happening, / so I turned it off and went to grab another beer. / Seems like every time you turn around, /there's another hard luck story that you're gonna hear. / And there's really nothing anyone can say. and I never did plan to go anyway / to black diamond bay."

This song came to mind when I read Keenan's Publicity and Indifference, because way that Dylan mirrors the indifference that Keenan discusses in his article. This verse's first line, "I was sitting home along one night.. watching old Chronkite" accurately challenges the perceived notion of some that television is the "means by which we shoulder each other's fate" (6). Television and the global media was viewed at first (and still is) by some as an agent of unity that would bring connectedness and a sense of community to those joined by a common circulation of images; television, it was believed, would collapse the distance between the suffering and the safe. Dylan suggests that he does not feel connected through the television, but remains alone. This is because while global media is a useful tool to sustain communities and organizations that derive their collectivity through other commonalities (such as doctors without borders) it does not itself create a community because it does not connect its viewers to its subject: there is no inherent meaning in the images it displays.

Dylan notes that it "seems like every time you turn around, there's another hard luck story that you're gonna hear," suggesting that the deluge of stories and images transmitted through the global media area all empty and void of meaning—there is nothing distinguishing the Darfur genocide from the etheopian famine from the congalese electoral violence from the plight of illegal immigrants from brush fires in the western part of the country from a hurricane moving up the coast of one's very own region. The pure information has no power. The reason being, in my opinion, that the media has lost sight of its literary foundation.

In the classical literary tradition with which I am perhaps more familiar than other traditions, hundreds of names are slaughtered in works such as Vergil's Aeneid; hundreds of names, but only a few actual people. The purpose of literature is to create a symbolic man that IS every man. The pure images of death are not themselves emotional, but when the vile Turnus slays the young boy that Aeneis was supposed to protect, the reader can feel the implications of the action reverberating through their own lives and relations. Literature creates a symbol that gives its message an interpretive meaning and an effect.

Dylan's final line, "I never did plan to go anyway, to black diamond bay" illustrates this principle. It is not the business of the individual to care for those of no relation to them. The brush fires in the western states are simply a news item... unless one lives in the at risk area. Dylan's disconnection from the plight of Black diamond bay stems from his lack of personal connection. The news does not give its readers symbols or messages that they can internalize, and so the reader responds to tragedy as much as to just another name being cut down in a Trojan battle. The news must create a symbol. Keenan's article discusses the eternal cameramen in Bosnia, "waiting at a dangerous crossroads to see somebody killed" (12). The endless imagery of death does not create a symbol, and cannot galvanize public support. As far as motivating a country through symbols, 9/11 is the 800 pound gorilla in the room that cannot be ignored. Much of America was up in violent arms at the outrage of 9/11, undoubtedly fueled in part by that one powerful image of the falling towers, and what it represented about American identity coming under attack. There were not 3000 Americans in those towers—there were 300,000 Americans. I speak slightly out of my depth on this issue, but similar images seem to have come through the Viet-Nam war era. Famous photographs and icons that fueled opposition to the war still linger in history textbooks throughout the nation. The media is a new face on an old game, and when newsmen start thinking less like authors and more like chroniclers, then they should not be surprised when the real impact of their art gives way to a slowly growing database of information, inert but useful in the hands of later authors.

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