What’s Happened to Cultural Discourse?

In the Conversations section of the New York Times, David Brooks asks Dick Cavett, once known as “the thinking man’s talk show host,” the provocative and wide ranging question, What’s Happened to Cultural Discourse?

Brooks says there are plenty of political chat shows but virtually no cultural or sociological chat shows on television. “You can turn on the TV at any moment and find 5 shows debating the Tea Party movement,” he writes, “but almost none debating changing parental norms, changing definitions of masculinity, etc. It’s hard to recall the last time a novel generated a national discussion, or even a history book.”

Cavett responds by saying that networks need ratings, and for talk shows big names mean big audiences. This may have been true when The Dick Cavett Show was still trying to catch up to The Tonight Show in the early 1970s, but in the age of cable television and microcasting, some other factors must be at work. Besides, as Brooks points out, “This imbalance also holds outside of TV — on blogs, op-ed pages and so on.” With plenty of bandwidth available for cultural chat, programming executives simply bypass cultural issues as inessential, cutting to the chase of what they imagine everyone is really interested in: their faction’s prospects for taking over the world.

Brooks tries to link the absence of cultural discourse in the public sphere to the Americans’ refusal to engage in a “national project.” This thread, potentially the most interesting, goes nowhere, possibly because Brooks doesn’t set it up very well. He implies that without a national dialogue on cultural issues we can’t subscribe to a common political goal.

I suspect he’s onto something; too bad Cavett wasn’t up to the task of continuing the thread. At the same time, I think there’s already a national consensus on cultural issues, but it’s an entirely phony consensus. There’s a broad consensus on American popular culture: Avatar, the Super Bowl, American Idol and so on. A national debate arose around Avatar as a political allegory, but these kinds of conversations are rare.

American Idol is a more interesting case. The show sparks intense debate about the merit of its contestants. The show’s currency is opinion, just like political talk shows on its corporate cousin, Fox News. The difference is that American Idol is entertainment–something unreal, frivolous, merely pleasurable. Fox News purports to be about the real, the consequential discussions about American life. In fact, Glen Beck and The O’Reilly Factor need American Idol, that exuberant exorcise in phony American populism, to appear serious and consequential. So that all viewers are clear about what’s fictive and what’s real Fox even keeps its entertainment and news entities separate. Interestingly, a third Fox enterprise, its business channel, is doing poorly, possibly because, from a business perspective, the Fox News looks like a purveyor of politically-driven fantasy, something American Idol never would have revealed.

In a way Brooks is wrong about the paucity of cultural debate on television and in the public sphere as a whole. There’s all kinds of debate about it. The E! channel is devoted exclusively to cultural issues, usually expressed in terms of celebrity gossip and matters of style. Of course, E! is utterly vapid, and that’s precisely the point. On television culture must be empty and unreal so that furious discussions of ideology may appear real and consequential.

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