Issue 113, Winter 2010-11

by Alexander Nehamas

In 1935, Rudolf Arnheim called television “a mere instrument of transmission, which does not offer any new means for the artistic representation of reality.” He was repeating, unawares, Plato’s ancient charge that, without a “craft” or an art of his own, Homer merely reproduces “imitations,” “images,” or “appearances” of virtue and, worse, images of vice masquerading as virtue. Both Plato and Arnheim ignored the medium of representation, which interposes itself between the viewer and what is represented. And so, in Achilles’ lament for Patroclus’ death, Plato sees not a fictional character acting according to epic convention but a real man behaving shamefully. And since Homer presents Achilles as a hero whose actions are commendable, he seduces his audience into enjoying a distorted and dismal representation that both reflects and contributes to a distorted and dismal life.

We will never know how the ancient Athenians reacted to poetry. But what about us? Do we, as Plato thought, move immediately from representation to reality? If we do, we should be really worried about the effects of television or video games. Or are we aware that many features of each medium belong to its conventions and do not represent real life?

To answer these questions, we can no longer investigate only the length of our exposure to the mass media; we must focus on its quality: are we passive consumers or active participants? Do we realize that our reaction to representations need not determine our behavior in life? If so, the influence of the mass media will turn out to be considerably less harmful than many suppose. If not, instead of limiting access to or reforming the content of the mass media, we should ensure that we, and especially our children, learn to interact intelligently and sensibly with them. Here, again, philosophy, which questions the relation between representation and life, will have something to say.

Even if that is true, however, though, to compare the Iliad or Oedipus Rex to Grand Theft Auto, CSI: NY, or even The Wire may seem silly, if not absurd. Plato, someone could argue, missed something serious about great art, but there is nothing to miss in today’s mass media. Yet the fact is that Homer’s epics and, in particular, the 31 tragedies that have survived intact (a tiny proportion of the tens of thousands of works produced by thousands of ancient dramatists) did so because they were copied much more often than others — and that, as anyone familiar with best-selling books knows, may have little to do with perceived literary quality. For better or worse, the popular entertainment of one era often becomes the fine art of another. And to the extent that we still admire Odysseus, Oedipus, or Medea, Plato, for one, would have found our world completely degenerate — as degenerate, in fact, as we would find a world that, perhaps two thousand years from now, had replaced them with Tony Soprano, Nurse Jackie, or the Terminator.

And so, as often in philosophy, we end with a dilemma: If Plao was wrong about epic and tragedy, might we be wrong about television and video games? If, on the other hand, we are right, might Plato have been right about Homer and Euripides?

Alexander Nehamas is professor of philosophy at Princeton University. This is an excerpt from a longer article that appeared as an online opinion piece in The NY Times’s philosophy series, The Stone, on August 29th, 2010 Here.

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