Art and Communication, Modernity and Mass Media: Some Thoughts from Milan Kundera

I’m reading The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera. The first section, “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes,” is pretty brilliant. Kundera’s thesis is that in the wake of the Scientific Revolution, the novel emerged as the fundamental plumb-line of the inner life. Art, with its vagaries, and not Bacon’s empiricism (which left even its mater out in the cold) emerges as the way in which people (at least in West) explore these depths and consider the myriad claims on Truth (or truth) presented by modernity.

There is some oversimplification here, of course. Kundera uses poetic and historic license, but that’s what people do when they write any kind of history. Nonetheless:

“Once elevated by Descartes to ‘master and proprietor of nature,’ man has now become a mere thing to the forces (of technology, of politics, of history) that bypass him, surpass him, possess him. To those forces, man’s concrete being, his ‘world of life’) die Lebenswelt, has neither value nor interest: it is eclipsed, forgotten from the start.

My annotation:

“This seems to be the fundamental problem of our collective psyche, our collective spirit: our collective inability to communicate, despite possessing countless technical (technological) means.”

Bypass. Surpass. Possess.

That is the business model of the never-ending news cycle, and of the ever-looping social feed, and of the echo-chamber feedback, and of sycophanticism posing as collective wisdom.

Kundera, writing in the context of the Cold War, says:

“Like all of culture, the novel is more and more in the hands of the mass media; as agents of the unification of the planet’s history, the media amplify and channel the reduction process; they distribute throughout the world the same simplifications and stereotypes easily acceptable by the greatest number, but everyone, by all mankind. And it doesn’t much matter that different political interests appear in the various organs of the media. Behind these surface differences reigns a common spirit. You have only to glance at American or European political weeklies, of the left or the right: they all have the same view of life, reflected in the same ordering of the table of contents, under the same headings, in the same journalistic phrasing, the same vocabulary, and the same style, in the same artistic tastes, and in the same ranking of things they deem important or insignificant. This common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time. And this spirit seems to me contrary to the the spirit of the novel.”

I was reminded today that as a young man, George Saunders fancied himself a bit of a Randian Objectivist. In maturity, Saunders rejected “the spirit of our time” for the “spirit of the novel.” I have worked on doing the same thing, and while my practical politics are nothing like they once were, I have kept a certain secret fairly well. I went to college to become a political hack, and instead was saved by the kind of education without which I could not begin to understand most of what Kundera is saying. My pursuit of hack politics, and then, thankfully, of real political philosophy, and then of theology, and then of fiction is, if I understand myself correctly, a pursuit of something real.

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