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Modernity as an hysterical experience

The Letter, Issue 3, Spring 1995, Pages 53 - 66


Gerry Sullivan

From Marshall McLuhan to Baudrillard there is a significant strand of what has come to be called postmodernism which offers an apocalyptic vision of the effect of media on modern culture. It is considered that the multiplicity of representational images, originating in photography, accentuated by the effect of the cinema, and culminating in the ubiquity of televisual images, has on the one hand had the effect of devaluing the status of any particular image, however profound or sacred its origin, whilst, on the other hand, inciting a craving for ever fresher and ever more revealing images.[1]

It is considered that the effect of these developments is to undermine the basis of literate culture, by shortening the attention span of individuals to an extent incompatible with the continuance of a widespread acquaintance with the heritage of this culture. As a corollary of this, it is assumed that the consequence of a severe shortening of the attention span of individuals is a degradation in their capacity to form rational judgments. This in turn leaves them open to general manipulation through the mass media, whether this takes a propagandistic, inflammatory or concupiscent form.

There are elements of truth in this vision, but it is by no means as clear-cut as the more apocalyptic of its adherents would hold. Indeed, if the plaints of these social and cultural commentators are placed in historical series and context, an entirely different light is thrown on their import.

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