The belief in context, though, is best viewed symbolically as a duality against the information or knowledge of content. Belief has always had a powerful opponent in knowledge. Just as the belief in context has been a persistent one throughout history, so too has been the knowledge of content. In many ways, the duality between belief and knowledge, context and content, has been the central battlefield of all philosophical systems. These dualities fight against each other like two great Greek gods. One gains dominance for a while and then the cycle changes and the other gains dominance for a while.
Mankind being both a part of culture and a part of nature is pulled in two ways by the great battle. The pull of culture is powerful and its power greatest in western culture and particular in the postmodern world and the increasingly segmented American culture. The pull of content forces focus on objects so that the world is seen in pieces and chunks rather than through the relationships between objects. Content is a powerful duality and can be described as something that induces a trance. Major culprits of trance induction are modern media and technology which produce an overload of information.
A common thread linking many media and communications scholars is the idea that modern media places its audience in a type of trance state. The original and leading suspect for inducing this collective trance is television. One of the first to place the blame on television was Gerry Mander with his Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. The arguments of Mander have been elaborated upon by an entire new generation of television critics such as Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death and Todd Gitlin's Inside Prime Time. Perhaps the major book about the effects of television on behavior has been Joshua Meyrowitz's No Sense of Place. Suspicion that the internet might also contain the elements of trance and addiction have been argued very persuasively by MIT professor Sherry Turkle in Life On The Screen.
An interesting theory by Dennis Wier, Director of the Trance Institute in Bruetten, Switzerland, is that trance states are far more common than is generally thought. In his book Trance: From Magic to Technology, he notes that "Trance is used not only by psychologists, therapists and hypnotists, but also yogis, magicians, witches, advertisers, politicians, lawyers, addicts and psychotics." Wier proposes a paradigm for examining trance whenever there is a "sustained cognitive object loop of sufficient length of time to cause dissociation." Wier notes that a cognitive object is any thought and when a thought is repeated often enough, a trance results. With this definition Wier finds that we all experience trance without defining it as such.
One can locate these repeated thoughts within the constant bombardment of advertising slogans over the perpetual muzak of media. In an article "Media Trance" in Adbusters Magazine, Taylor Stoehr suggests the replacement of daydream space by media resulting in trance. "I suggest the media," Stoehr writes, "have the power to entrance because they usurp the mental space of daydream and meditation, which are among the natural forms of passive attention to inner and outer worlds."
Another perspective on the trance of modern culture is offered by Nelson Thall, Director of Research for the Toronto based Center for Media Sciences and former president of the Marshall McLuhan Center for Global Communications. Thall also sees culture being put into a type of hypnotic trance. He views the problem as an "overload" of information content. Writing in the Center for Media Sciences June 1998 internet post he notes:
"To survive today, we must strive to understand the power of technologies to isolate the senses and thus, to 'hypnotize' society. Today, on the vere of the millennium, there are a great many problems that 'ordinary man' faces with in living in an Information Age. In the Information Age, the transfer of data and information is so overloading that man is deluged with so much to deal with that he instinctively shuts down and stops processing. We all crash like a computer when we are deluged with information. The problem is that Information overload hides or disguises truth, which hinders the ability of the citizen to distinguish information from disinformation and misinformation. There are many problems that ordinary man faces with when living in an 'Information Age.'
In effect, the problem of information overload is part of the key problem we have identified as the segmentation of post-modern culture. Increased segmentation leads to increased information with little or no synthesis based on contextual relationships. Products attempt to find smaller and smaller niches. Interestingly, many of these products are in fact branded information.
The important fact that few seem willing to admit is that there is little economic incentive in our system for synthesis of information. Rather the system rewards niche brands and products that differentiate themselves. And the problem extends to all areas of culture from business, religion, entertainment and academics. For example, as we have previously pointed out, our universities are increasingly segmented into niche disciplines and branded theories. One promising trend may be more interdisciplinary dewpartments and courses but the danger is that these too may become a type of brand precluding further synthesis.
The trance of content might be compared to the teacher in Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra who begs the reader to stop being a pupil and find oneself:
"One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.
And why, then, should you not pluck at my laurels?
You respect me; but how if one day your respect should tumble?
Take care that a falling statue does not strike your dead!
You had not sought yourselves when you found me.
Thus do all believers-.
Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves;
and only when you have all denied me will I return to you."
So it also is with the content of culture and the trance its objects hold over culture. Its a one way spell rather than a two-way relationship. A relationship similar to the one between teacher and student. The objects of consumer capitalism gain the "respect" Nietzsche's teacher talks about but this respect slowly and subtly evolves into a type of religious devotion. The product/objects of culture of post-modern culture in fact replace past relgious artifacts and sacred items.
Only when we lose our trance on content will the mystique of context flow back into the world and surround us again. It is not something that can consciously be searched for and found by taking on the strategy of a particular form of knowledge. Rather it is more of a stance, an attitude, a philosophy one needs to take.
The confusion of our time can be seen symbolically as the ending of one of the greatest ideas in western culture. This is the heliotropic myth or the centuries old belief that all history is a succession of great civilizations developing, like the movement of the sun, from East to West.
The heliotropic myth is explored brilliantly in The Myth of the West: America As The Last Empire by Netherlands historian Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt. In this idea, America is the last empire and the fulfillment of history. The expectation of a final completion of history, Norholt argues, gave meaning and coherence to our civilization. The mythic yearning for a better world drove our ancestors to distant lands and ever further westward. Now, at the end of the twentieteh century, with all the western horizons gone and realities of life not so utopian, we no longer dare to believe in the values of the west and prefer to live with an extraordinarily cultural relativism, better known as post modernism.
In effect, the heliotropic idea was really the western idea of the linear nature of time in opposition to the eastern cyclic view of time. It was the belief in the ideas of "progress" and "change" rather than the concepts of "repetition." It was a belief in a movement increasingly away from unconsciousness and nature towards culture and consciousness rather than a belief in what Mircea Elide has characterized as an "eternal return."
Do we attempt to perpetuate the heliotopic myth with the dream of a new beginning west over the Pacific in China? Do we, though, come full circle with China arriving at the symbolic uroboros snake symbol of arriving back at where we began? For China may symbolize both a new beginning and also an end in the new millenium.
In The Illusion of the End, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard observes the notion of the end as part of the fantasy of linear history. He observes that today we are not approaching the end of history but moving into reverse and into a process of systematic obliteration of history. In this sense, we are wiping out our past, effacing all signs of the Cold War. We are engaged in a huge process of historical revisionism and seem to be in a hurry to complete the process before the end of the century. Our secret hope, he says, is to begin again new.
Professor Eli Noam reminds us, the emerging key question of our new electronic age is not how to produce information but how to reduce it. Reduction rather than production may be the real promise of symbolism and a contextual perspective towards popular culture. The linear development of history has chopped up life into smaller and smaller pieces until the pieces are so small they can't be chopped up anymore. There is a growing nostalgia for the connection to a "mystique of context" once again. Perhaps context will in fact return despite all our conscious efforts to keep breaking things into content.
Whether we develop methods for analyzing all of the contentual "products" of popular culture may be less important at this time than the simple realization that there is a context to life, something outside ourselves, our culture, that may influence the growing content of information. Realizing this will at least create a duality to the "trance of content" that holds western culture in a spell. Once the duality is realized truth has a chance to emerge again and find its way out of a paradox. The path to a new world may be in acknowledgement and acceptance of the cycles of life rather than the constant creation of more and more content which serves to blind us to symbolism and its dynamics of cycles, sequence and synchronicity.
The modern world of content becomes like the backlot of a film company with everything little more than false fronts of buildings with only the emptiness of desert and sagebrush behind them. But it is a noisy backlot with much yelling and screaming. As David Shenk notes in Data Smog, in a culture awash with date, there is a tendency to resort to histrionics to get messages across. Information messages become wrapped in titillating packages. We talk louder, wear more color, say more shocking things, show more cleavage. Society becomes more crass and filled with trash TV, hate radio, shock jocks, tort litigation, PR stunts, sexually explicit films and noiser and more evasive ads. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School observes, there is the "normalization of hyperbole" in culture. All of this is needed to get through the increasing filters people use to block out all the information.
As Shenk observes, "rather than the world becoming a cozy village, we are instead creating a Tower of Babel, a global skyscraper." Instead of gathering us into the "town square, the new information technology clusters us into social cubicles" with "fewer and fewer central spaces, and not even a common channel." Shenk notes that we seem to have "inadvertently constructed an information economy that works directly against crucial democratic tenets."
Only a few today see the falsefronts and the emptiness behind the glut of information and with its loud hyperbole. But the number grows a little each day. And the dream that culture can flow with cycles rather than fight against them becomes more and more a reality. It may just be one of the real goals of America to see and accept this relatively simple proposition that the East has known for so long.