The walls of the Kentucky Coffeetree Cafe are lined with shelves filled with high quality used books. One afternoon while Chris and I took a break between sets, I glanced at one shelf and saw a book called Eyewitness to History. It is a collection of excerpts from first person accounts written over the years, e.g. one fellow’s report of his dinner with Attila the Hun. The British title of the book was much better: The Faber Book of Reportage.
What caught my eye, though, was that the book was edited by John Carey, the fellow who wrote The Intellectuals and the Masses, a book I enjoyed and blogged about. Carey is very much a defender of mass culture against the disdain heaped upon it by the elite. His interest in reportage was partly spurred by this, since the explosion of news in the late nineteenth century was largely a phenomenon of mass culture, and one that was despised by those with more refined tastes. It all sounded promising, but since the Coffeetree copy was priced at $7.95 I cheaped out and ordered it through Better World Books, snagging an unread library hardback for just $4 including shipping.
I wasn’t surprised to find that the eight page introduction was more than worth the price of the book. You can read it at Google Books if you like, for free. In it, Carey points out that the news of the day is a very recent phenomenon, and represents a major change in how man views life.
Arguably the advent of mass communications represents the greatest change in human consciousness that has taken place in recorded history. The development, within a few decades, from a situation where most of the inhabitants of the globe would have no day-to-day knowledge of or curiosity about how most of the others were faring, to a situation where the ordinary person’s mental space is filled (and must be refilled daily or hourly, unless a feeling of disorientation is to ensue) with accurate reports about the doings of complete strangers, represents a revolution in mental activity which is incalculable in its effects.
To early-modern man the current situation would have been incomprehensible. Ben Jonson’s play The Staple of News (acted around 1626) turns on the self-evident absurdity of news-gathering as an activity. History has not supported Jonson’s judgment.
Carey then points out that the news has become such a fundamental part of our modern lives that we can barely imagine what people occupied themselves with before news came along. His answer is surprising.
It is hard for communication-age man to imagine what pre-communication-age man found to think about. But if we ask what took the place of reportage in the ages before it was made available to its millions of consumers, the likeliest answer seems to be religion.
Well, there’s a novel take on things! But Carey is not suggesting that before the news we all wandered around in a pious, godly haze, unconcerned with worldly things. Instead, he means that religion supplied at least three of man’s basic and pervasive needs.
Not, of course, that we should assume pre-communication-age man was deeply religious, in the main. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that he was not. But religion was the permanent backdrop to his existence, as reportage is for his modern counterpart. Reportage supplies modern man with a constant and reassuring sense of events going on beyond his immediate horizon (reassuring even, or particularly, when the events themselves are terrible, since they then contrast more comfortingly with the reader’s supposed safety). Reportage provides modern man, too, with a release from his trivial routines, and a habitual daily illusion of communication with a reality greater than himself. In all these ways religion suggests itself as the likeliest substitute pre-modern man could have found for reportage, at any rate in the West.
So, man needs to (1) know that reality is bigger than his immediate sphere of operations, (2) find relief from the mundane details of his own life, and (3) participate in matters of greater significance than his daily routine. The bigger, more important sphere of operations used to be heaven; now it is the world at large.
I found this idea helpful in understanding why modern Christianity has become so obsessed with worldly affairs, some to the point where they have decided that worldly affairs are exactly the business of heaven, and the proper work of a Christian is to bring governments and cultures into line with their reading of the Bible. Perhaps so. But this leaves unanswered the question of why God was content to leave his people puttering around aimlessly for so many years, only very recently giving them the go-ahead to get on with reconstructing the world.
Carey makes one other religion-related point, namely that both religion and reportage are profoundly focused on death.
When we view reportage as the natural successor to religion, it helps us to understand why it should be so profoundly taken up with the subject of death. Death, in its various forms of murder, massacre, accident, natural catastrophe, warfare, and so on, is the subject to which reportage naturally gravitates, and one difficulty in compiling an anthology of this kind is to stop it becoming just a string of slaughters. Religion has traditionally been mankind’s answer to death, allowing him to believe in various kinds of permanency which make his own extinction more tolerable, or even banish his fear of it altogether. The Christian belief in personal immortality is an obvious and extreme example of this. Reportage, taking religion’s place, endlessly feeds its reader with accounts of the deaths of other people, and therefore places him continually in the position of a survivor—one who has escaped the violent and terrible ends which, it graphically apprises him, others have come to. In this way reportage, like religion, gives the individual a comforting sense of his own immortality.
I think this is right, but I also think Carey’s reason for it stops too short. Looking at both the news and modern Christian thinking, the commonality is not just focused on mortality but actually covers the whole human condition, a cynical “There but for the grace of God go I …” sort of thinking. A central purpose of reportage is to reinforce our sense that we are better off than others in just about every way—smarter, richer, fatter, happier. And a central purpose of the modern Christian obsession with theological study is to reinforce our sense that we are closer to God than most, not just the heathens but also those who just don’t quite grasp doctrine and practice with the depth and subtlety that we’ve obtained for ourselves.
Carey has one other important thing to say about reportage, which I will cover in a later post.