Deep Reading and the Fetishization of Live Experience
The NY TIMES has an article on Twitter and new technologies being used in religious environments that describes a recent church service:
While hundreds of worshipers watched the traditional dramatization of the Crucifixion from pews in the church, one of New York’s oldest, thousands more around the world followed along on smartphones and computers as a staff member tweeted short bursts of dialogue and setting (“Darkness and earthquake,” “Crucify him!”).
This is not only a silly use of technology – one that went awry in the second hour as people began to tweet inappropriate material – but a fundamental misinterpretation of the purpose of religious experience.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr asked the question, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“
The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.
I found an article (in a quick google search) from as far back as 1997(!) called Deep Thinking and Deep Reading in an Age of Info-Glut, Info-Garbage Info-Glitz and Info-Glimmer that posits:
According to Birkerts (Gutenberg Elegies, 1994), the search for truth requires deep reading and deep thinking. While the arrival of new electronic information technologies threatens to overwhelm us with info-glut and info-garbage, the post-modem school will raise a generation of highly skilled “free range students” capable of simultaneously grazing the Net and reading deeply. To achieve this goal, schools must make a dramatically expanded commitment to questioning, research, information literacy and student-centered classrooms. Students will need a radically different skills array to negotiate this new information landscape.
And in a blog post entitled, “The Benefits of Deep Reading: Neuroplasticity in Action” Maureen Hall suggests:
Deep reading and discussion of a common text allows for opportunities where people can get to know themselves better and get better acquainted with the world in which they live. In turn, this participation holds the opportunity for increasing emotional intelligence which helps us to better live in this world.
It is readily apparent that we are being transformed and those of us in the “live experience delivery business” – be it religious or artistic or cultural – should pay heed. Not only will this change be affecting the nature of the work we produce, curate and present, but it will continue to affect the audiences we attract – or hope to attract.
Let’s start with audience. Literacy is a major marker for class difference now but it will grow only greater in the future. And not because more people will be illiterate – I don’t think that will be the case. Literacy – in the general sense – will probably increase with the return of global affluence. But “deep reading” and the sort of intellectual capacity it requires will become an ever more specialized skill. Those who devote themselves to developing complex modes of cognition will continue to accrue power and capital. Not only that, as the gap widens between the deeply cognitive and the visually engaged less-literate masses the likelihood of sustained social mobility will decrease. That suggests a widening gap between affluent cultural consumers and the vast majority of entertainment consumers.
Imagine, for instance, that A.D.D. and A.D.H.D. are not so much disorders but precursors of a larger cognitive shift in the general populace. The keyboard and mouse are soon to vanish, touch-screen and gestural computing will become more commonplace and GUIs will become more elaborate, the notion of text-based interfaces will become as antiquated as the papyrus scroll. We are being called upon to process ever-increasing volumes of visual data so it only makes sense that this mode of cognition should be on the rise amongst the video-game, home computer, twittering, texting young folks of today.
So people will become alternatively literate. They will be able to create and interpret visual and aural media with ever-greater ease; and “deep reading” – the ability to created and process complex sentences and complicated trains of thought, to construct and deconstruct reality through semantics and semiotics and convey your findings – will wane. Without the words to describe nuanced states of emotion or states of being, without the words to convey complicated thoughts, those thoughts and emotions might vanish. Or they may only be the province of those who can process them. The vast majority of people will become subject to only the roughest and broadest stimuli, they will respond only to the most obvious sensations and react with the broadest, simplest emotions.
In the most basic equation this means that audiences for unmediated live performance may very well diminish, at least as we offer those experiences in the current context. Big Broadway shows and middlebrow entertainment that offers easily digestible experiences will face one set of challenges but truly challenging live performance will be facing an almost existential threat as audiences wither and vanish. It is incumbent upon us, then, to re-contexualize – or re-emphasize – the role of live performance in culture, to suggest that these art forms are experiential modes of deep reading and not merely distractions or entertainments. We need to fetishize live experience, to stay focused on what it is about people, together, in a room, having a group experience with a live artist performing – that is different, unique and valuable.
And what is that? One element is the collective imagination and suspension of disbelief that allows us to agree to see the invisible. One element is being in private space in a public setting. Another element is the thrill of the vicarious. Another is the practice of attention – the need to focus on the minutiae of representations of human behavior, either obvious or abstract, that encourages us to extrapolate meaning and making connections. Not least among the unique propositions of live performance is the physical transportation into the unreal, the transtemporal, the embodied experience of sacred space. While virtual worlds provide a simulacrum of transportation, it is the live experience of physically embodied imagination that is transformative, that suggests that we can transcend known reality or enter more deeply into reality without the assistance of techne. Whether in a concert, a dance performance or a theater piece, great work surprises us with visions heretofore unseen, brings us in both physically and imaginatively, transports us and leaves us changed. We need to aspire to this level of artistry and we need to appeal to audiences, affirming that this is a necessary and valuable human experience, one that will make their lives better and richer, that will provide more than just a fleeting thrill but actually offer tools for better living.
We may be able to make this work – even the most experimental difficult work – appealing to mass audiences if we suggest that this is not merely entertainment – though entertainment is important – but these are powerful experiences that anyone can have, and should have. It is in society’s best interests to subsidize profound experiences, to make live performance affordable, and, to some extent, offer it to people as experiential education. The act of being in an audience is, in itself, a mode of civil engagement, and we need to affirm that participation in public events is a precursor to deeper involvement in civil society and public life.
It has been said that there is no more “science fiction” there is only the possible and its eventual realization. But to use the language of sci-fi – imagine live performance venues as centers for consciousness expansion. It is almost like Timothy Leary’s quixotic vision for the ritualization of psychedelic experience among the Brahmanic classes taken to a whole new level. But rather than “Turn on. Tune In. Drop Out.” What we are suggesting is “Turn Off (your machines). Come In (to a live art venue). Engage (with society and other human beings in an unmediated encounter.).
And what are the implications of these shifts in cognition and audience in terms of the work being presented? That is harder to say. I would like to suggest that this is a perfect moment for experimentalism. I also would suggest that we need to be infinitely more prudent and circumspect in the implementation of technology in live performance, not playing catch-up or trying to be “with-it” (like the church twittering a service) but be very clear about when to use techne and when to leave it out. This is a good moment for visual theater, work that demands deep reading but can also be accessible on a purely visual level. We should be fostering work that moves beyond narrativity or, when it is narrative, is deeply complex in the way it lays out the narrative. This is also a good moment to explore duration and attention, to experiment with overload and deprivation, noise and silence – all manner of extremity in experience. For those people who are exploring “story” we need to find ways to challenge the idea of “story” – to tell multi-perspective narratives that are not glib or simplistic but that demand focus and attention.
And most of all, regardless of the work itself, we are responsible for building programs around the work – before and after – that provide the metadata needed for deep reading.
In brief, we are at a challenging crossroads. With modes of cognition shifting away from deep reading and into hypermediated, virtual, visually-based literacy, we face both enormous challenges and unprecedented opportunity. If we are in the business of delivering live experience then we need to examine what is unique about it. And we need to push artists beyond the inward gaze of expressing purely an idiosyncratic personal vision and into a way of approaching work that acknowledges the audience. I think about Jerome Bel and how he has a singular creative voice that is unmistakably his but at the same time is deeply attuned to the audience/performer dynamic, deeply attuned to an awareness of what it is to be a group, gathered, together. I think of that moment in The Show Must Go On when the house lights dim and we are sitting together listening to “The Sounds of Silence” and then the music goes out and we are listening to the sounds of silence.
These are just a few quick thoughts upon which I hope to expand. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.