The Four Post-Modernizations

Sixth Question:
Can the Symbolic Culture Survive?

In the long run, the symbolic culture faces the problem of surviving in the presence of a competitor which is much better established, easier to join, and for most people frankly more satisfying.

One can join the aural culture as soon as one can understand a story, around age three; and usually one does. Children can be taught to read that early, but most aren't, and all need years of education before they can be hooked into the symbolic culture. The delights of the aural culture are tangible, obvious, easily attainable and approved by elders and peers; those of the symbolic culture are not. The recruiting problem is real.

Lest I be thought to be exaggerating, it is worth noting that competition from the aural culture has already caused the near-total collapse of the older symbolic culture of print. Thus Twitchell, himself Professor of English at the University of Florida:

How can [literature] live when nearly 60 percent of adult Americans have never read a book and most of the rest read only one book a year? How can it survive when the average postadolsecent American spends forty hours, and at least thirty dollars a week being entertained by nonprint media? The notion of a solitary artists, bent on expressing a unique truth to an attentive audience, is daily growing less important. The concept of author, of authority, of story possession dissolves when our Homer does not know what to tell except by checking the electronic scoreboard.
Carnival Culture, p. 268

Offered the choice, people vote with their feet and their wallets for the aural alternative. That this shift is most extreme in the United States does not make it a North American tribal peculiarity; would that this were so. Perhaps the only country where aural media have not significantly harmed print culture is Iran, and unless the rest of the world adopts similarly extreme measures, they can expect to follow America down the road to Geraldo Rivera (né Mr. Jerry Rivers).

In every country in which a commercial channel exists, American programming has pushed out the indigenous culture. Although France and Italy have attempted to limit the amount of foreign material, such limits will prove impossible to enforce [because of new sorts of satellite broadcasting]... [Who] will be providing the global programming, the software for the pipes and satellites? The usual suspects: Time Warner, Murdoch, Sony, Maxwell, Paramount, Disney, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Bertelsmann A.G. What will be the operating code? Return on investment. What will be seen? John Periss, director of the worldwide advertising concern Saatchi and Saatchi, claims, `The idea that American television will vulgarize the high temple of European culture is nonsense and dreadful snobbery.' But if we have learned anything from the collision of American popular culture with other cultures, it is that such `nonsense and snobbery' is true.

During the course of the century print has given way to the aural culture, retreating into academe, joining there such other relics of bygone ages as Classical Greek and the Hussite theological faculty of Carolus University. The transition from literature, to academic literature (meant to be taught, not read), to literary criticism, to literary theory, has been swift and painful. The logical next step, theorizing about aural media, is already upon us. Indeed, it's rather easy, now that the way has been cleared by McLuhan & co. The fate of even literary theory is not hard to guess.

To many in the academy today (usually older colleagues), the acknowledgement of endless interpretation, of relativistic readings, seems nihilistic, typical of a loss of nerve ...One obvious reason for this loss of concentration is that to the new generation of professors - the generation raised on the electronic midway - print is not the primary interest in their personal lives ...It would be curious to see how much time assistant professors actually spend reading Donne, Swift and Austen (once the tenure articles are written) and how much time they spend ``watching the tube.'' Deconstruction, structuralism, feminism, Marxism, and all the ``isms'' not yet named have made their way into the monastery not only because the novitiates [sic] have their fingers on the remote-control button, but because the monks do too. [pp. 270-272]carnival-culture

Print is not the only victim of the aural culture, for it devours oral cultures with equal glee, and they do not have even the dubious protection of academe. American aural culture's only real competition is its cousin produced in Hong Kong. (India's movie industry is actually larger than either, but its market is confined to the subcontinent, and it is unclear how it will react to the introduction of satellite television.) No doubt in time they will arrange a mutually profitable modus vivendi. In the meanwhile, understanding why the aural displaces the oral, the written and the symbolic would be, at the least, interesting.