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The Table Video

Jonathan Merritt& Alissa Wilkinson

Listening with Our Eyes: Pop Culture & Civil Discourse - Alissa Wilkinson

Associate Professor of English and Humanities, The King's College / Film Critic / Author
July 13, 2017

In the past, we framed our public discussions around common texts: books, journal articles, sermons, and speeches. Today, our important public discussions often center on issues raised by different shared texts: TV shows, movies and other forms of pop culture. When we become better at understanding why people are watching shows—not simple explanations dependent on content, but how they touch on desires and needs—we find new ways to become good neighbors, and new sites in which to practice civil, not shrill, discussion.


Okay, so I want to talk about listening with our eyes, which is a funny concept, and I want to talk about how pop culture helps us conduct more civil discourse, and disagree better with one another, and particularly the way that we need to think about how we interact with pop culture, and how we disagree about it. This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I write for a Christian audience, but I don’t just write for a Christian audience, I try to write for people who maybe don’t have faith anymore, or who have never encountered people of faith, who want to understand what is going on in our popular culture, This is something I’m kind of obsessed with, so you’re going to listen to me geek out for a while.

Oh, and contrary to what Rich Mouw will tell you, I am not the person you should talk to if you wanna find out what you should watch this weekend. Let’s first talk about what popular culture is very briefly. I’m a college professor, so we have to set up our terms first. If you look up the definition popular culture, it is the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images, and other phenomena that show up in a culture, particularly western culture, that’s usually the one we’re talking about. In my case, we’re gonna talk mostly about things that are in our mass-media, like TV and movies, but the important part here is that these aren’t rarefied objects that nobody experiences, these are things that permeate our everyday culture, and even if you haven’t watched them, you’ve heard of them.

I have never watched The Bachelor, but I get what’s going on in The Bachelor, I have the basic concept. Similarly, you may never have watched, I’m kind of obsessed with The Blacklist right now, maybe you’ve never watched it, but you’ve probably seen a commercial, you’re aware of the concepts. Where I come from, we see the posters on the walls in the subways, here, it’s billboards, right? So you’re aware of these things, and they’re in our collective imagination. Things to remember about this form is that in general, it’s usually a narrative, they’re usually stories, telling us a story, and they involve lots of things.

It is a story, but it’s also many other elements. There’s acting, there’s direction, there’s writing, sound design, there’s music, editing ,cinematography, all these things go into the making of TV and movies. So often we think of it as just a story, but it’s not just a story. There’s tons of different choices that a film maker or a TV director makes when they’re making their work. Also, they are a work of art of some kind. Sometimes we don’t talk about them that way, because we think art means some kind of paintings on a wall, in a museum, but this is more just generally, it acts like art, that’s what it does to us.

Whether it’s high, or low, or any of that thing, I’m not interested in that. I think of movies and TV shows as works of art, for the masses, generally. What do we know about works of art? There are two parts to a work of art. You have the concept of the work of art, and then you have the form of the work of art. This is something that philosophers have been talking about forever. I really liked C.S Lewis’ little book, An Experiment in Criticism, if you haven’t read it, you should definitely pick it up. He calls this the Logos and the Poiema, or Hans Rickman called it, the content and the, or the communication and the form. The content is the something said, Lewis says. I think of this as the Wikipedia summary of the story.

If I want to say what is this about, and I do this frequently, I don’t know what this is about, so I go to Wikipedia and I read the plot summary, and now I have a, it’s a synopsis, right? I know what that’s about, the story. Sometimes, this is also the message of it, this is a movie about being antiwar, or prowar, this is a movie about feminism or something like that. That all kind of belongs to the content. Then we have the form, which is what Lewis calls the something made of the work. The shape of it, the beauty of it, the contours of it, the craft that goes into making it. With movies and TV, part of this is how we step through the story.

We go through the story at the pace dictated by the people who made the story. You can, I don’t know if you’ve seen The Departed, which I think is a pretty grand movie, it’s based on a Taiwanese movie that I can’t remember the name of right now, but if you watch it, the two back to back, you realize that most of The Departed gets squeezed into the first 10 minutes of the Taiwanese movie, and so they’re very different movies, they act very differently, same story, different form. The form is what provokes these emotions and visceral reactions in us, the heart pounding thing, or you cry, that’s because of the way the story is told.

Most of us don’t cry at a Wikipedia summary, probably, kudos to you if you do, you have more empathy than I do. The form is the thing perceived by our senses, our eyes, our ears, our nose, maybe, Smell-O-Vision isn’t a thing anymore, it was, once. It’s only by being a Poiema, by having form, Lewis says, that a Logos becomes a work of art at all. It’s only once that summary, that synopsis takes on some kind of form, with all of these sensory pieces to it, that it starts to become a work of art. Otherwise, it’s just information.

Information is good, and we teachers try to impart information all the time, but the form is what turns it into a work of art. When content connects with us, it’s often on our rational level. I read the story, and I think that’s interesting, and what I mean is in my head, I am interested in this. Or, I read a message and I think yes, I agree with that argument, or I disagree with that argument, that’s working in my brain. Then we have the form, which works on what some people call the aesthetic register, I often think of this as the way it connects with my body. It’s the gut reaction that we talk about. In narrative art, that form is what kind of, there is something going on beyond our brains when a movie connects with us.

Your heart races, that’s not rational, or you cry at fake people a on a screen, moving around, doing things, that’s not rational, right? Or maybe, you cheer, or whatever. All these things, they’re connecting with you in a level that’s past your brain and into something else, into your body. This comes from the shape and tempo of how the story is told, as well as many other things that filmmakers have at their disposal. That brings up the question why do we go see movies at all? Why go see a movie, why not just stay home, it’s much cheaper to read Wikipedia summaries of stories, rather than go see the movie, why do we even bother? I think the easy answer is that for most of us, is we go to feel something, we want to feel. Feeling is a sense, feeling is not here, it’s here, it’s literally one of our senses.

We want to feel happiness, we want to laugh, or we want to feel sadness, and we want to cry. We go to sad movies, if you think about that, that’s really strange, that we watch things that make us sad, most of us don’t go around, seeking out sad experiences. Or we want to feel scared, if you watch horror films, every horror film has the same plot. Family moves into house, there are ghosts, and then somebody dies, that’s a horror film. So why do we go see the exact same movie over and over again? Because we want that jump moment, we want to feel terror. We want to see beauty and feel that quick intake of breath when you see something truly gorgeous.

Or you want to feel tense, you want to feel awe, something, you want to feel something when you go to the movie. I read Wikipedia summaries for horror films, precisely because I don’t want to experience that jump myself. I’ve never seen The Ring, but I know exactly what happens in it. So, what is going on here? Really what we’re looking for is some kind of catharsis. Catharsis is a feeling of cleansing, of being made new, of having something, exercise perhaps, or to feel an emotion, but to feel it in kind of a low-stakes way. This isn’t real, this crash didn’t really happen, this ghost doesn’t really exist, that’s what we’re feeling, we seem to be wired for this.

Lewis says we couldn’t have this experience, unless it was good to some end beyond us, it must be good for us, ’cause it’s hardwired into us, by God. Why do we go through the work, instead of just reading the summary? It’s so that we can engage a story with all of ourselves, our full humanity. We’re not just brains, we’re also bodies, we need both of those things. That’s why we experience art, because we want, as our full kind of human selves, to experience other people’s stories.

We go to the movies to feel something, and we’re seeking catharsis. Okay, all that settled then. In many ways, as Evan was saying, pop culture is kind of the common text of our time. There isn’t a easy frame of references anymore, we don’t all, perhaps, know the intricacies of shared text that people might have read in the past, even books don’t really form this anymore . The audience is certainly sinking, but still, we’re talking about eight million people watching a show, that’s called a small audience, but that’s a large audience, eight million people is a lot of people. That has its ups and downs, but what it means is that one thing we all are engaging in and disagreeing about in our culture is often popular culture, and in fact, popular culture is something that often shifts our national discourse in different ways.

Shows that have changed they way people think about various social issues, even though maybe that wasn’t something they set out to do initially. Sexual morals, or race, or the place of religion in the public square, all these things are affected by the way we talk about popular culture. What’s interesting to me is that the real acrimonious disagreements that we have, particularly Christians, with the rest of the culture, and believe me, I’m right in the middle of this all the time, are about all the controversial movies.

These disagreements about controversial movies tend to focus, in my experience, on the Logos, or on the content of the thing, very little on thinking about the form, or the Poiema of the thing itself. When we criticize, and this is not just a Christina problem, by the way, this is a problem in criticism generally, where we kinda find our thing that we’re interested in, and then we just criticize it based on whether it matches up with our idea. Is it feminine enough, or was it pro-war or anti-war enough, or did it portray God like we believe God is. Those kinds of things are how we tend to talk about controversial movies It’s totally valid and important for us to think about this level of a movie or a TV show.

Of course, we do learn things from the pop culture that we engage with. I would like to suggest that this is not enough, and it’s especially not enough for Christians. Christians believe that God made us both mind and body, that he gave us rational capacity, and he also gives us desires, and that both of those things are involved in the way that we come to know God. We know God through our minds, but we also love God through our souls, and our bodies, and our whole existences. Art is the thing that engages with both of those capacities, and most people do watch a show or film again because they’re hoping, because it connects with them, that’s the word we use, they’re hoping to be moved, or experience something.

We watch explosions, and ghosts, and romances, and scenes of seduction, and war, and death, and all these things so that we can feel something, we want to be connected with it, we’re looking to fulfill a desire of ours when we get to that screen. Also, we’re doing something else. Lewis says, in his book, not to lean on Lewis all the time, but I think this book is pretty great, “The nearest I have yet got … “, sorry, I can’t read that. “The nearest I have yet got to an answer “is that we seek an enlargement of our being. “We want to be more than ourselves … “We want to see with other eyes, “to imagine with other imaginations, “to feel with other hearts, as well as our own … “In love we escape from our self into one another.”

Lewis actually sets this up, this experience we have, of wanting to understand or experience someone else’s life, as a sacrificial act of love that we do for another. We temporarily give up ourselves, just for a bit, and experience what it must be like to see the world through someone else’s eyes. We do that in not just a I’m gonna read the argument this person writes, but I’m going to see, and hear the way they hear the world.

So, what we, when we focus on content, to the exclusion of form, we actually end up with what I think of as criticism without a heart. What we wind up experiencing is a focus on these questions. What does this movie say? So, for instance, every Disney movie says exactly the same thing, which is believe in yourself, don’t let anyone else tell you who you are, that kind of thing. We focus on that, that’s an important thing to look at, or What happens in this show? Do these people do actions that we disagree with, is there objectionable content of some kind, is there a language, all these things that we look at, we pull out and inform parents of, certainly, in my work, but it’s not the only thing that’s in a movie, right?

What need does this fill? Is a much better question than these two, I’d like to submit, or at least, it’s the neglected question, because what we’re really asking here is why this thing popular? Rarely, I mean certainly there are things that are popular because they have racy sex scenes in them, or big explosions, but even then, the question we should be asking, perhaps, is why do people want that? What is it that need is, what need is that fulfilling? What need is that audience looking to fill when they see this? Now, I need to be clear that the popular culture object itself may be a bad, or false fulfillment of that desire. It may promise them something and give them something else, it may act as an idol.

It may fulfill a disordered desire, a desire that is way out of whack with the way that we’re created to be, and it may not satisfy, or it may only satisfy briefly. But, or it may, in the process of fulfilling those needs, create or awaken new ones, or prompt us to get our desires out of order. So that’s, all those things can be happening in a work. But, when we don’t ask this question, what happens is this. We make really bad diagnoses of what is going on in a film or a TV show, so we start to say that this is popular because of this content. So when you say something is popular because of what you call objectionable content, then what you’re saying is that people that watch this are bad, basically, that there’s, they’re invalid, you’re invalidating them in some way.

You’re not seeking to understand what it is that they’re looking for there. We say, basically, you are bad because you like x. The flip side of that, the more insidious one, is that we puff ourselves up. I don’t watch that, so I’m not bad. I’m better because I don’t engage with this thing, I’m better than you. So, just to wake you all up a little here, is a great example of a film that has been controversial, on many different levels, certainly not just in the Christian media, and a lot of the arguments I heard about this were, this is 50 Shades of Grey, in case you didn’t know, about, this is about degenerate morals, it’s about abuse, it’s about, you know, sort of the denigration of gender, all those things.

But, and that’s a valid thing to say, perhaps, but it’s so not complete. What would happen if we said why are, I mean, this is wildly popular, this is going to be the second highest grossing R rated film, behind The Passion of the Christ, and The Passion of the Christ still holds that place, largely because churches bought block tickets, so, churches were not buying block tickets to this one. [laughing]

So, if we ask that question, and the answer we’re giving is the content one, then what we’re saying is, what we come up with is well, people are just, people are awful, people, our culture’s super into BDSM, the culture’s going to hell in a handbasket, that’s what we come out saying, which is not a super helpful answer. You can certainly say that, but I don’t know what, what are you looking to do by saying that? Another interesting question, that I found myself, I haven’t seen the film, but I read the Wikipedia summary, and some criticism on it, to try and understand it, and, what’s appealing about this work, perhaps, to these audiences, is that it seems to be the story of an ordinary girl, who has nothing special about her, who then is able to overcome, and even kind of control a big powerful man, which ii almost exactly the story of every fairy tale.

Here’s the poor girl who’s sort of lost, you know, Cinderella, and everyone hates her, and then she meets the prince, and then she’s swept away, and he loves her, and he comes searching for her. That’s a powerful story, so sure, there’s pieces of this that, many pieces of this, that I would not want people to be watching on screen, but, no wonder it started as Twilight fan-fiction, because this is a fairytale that we tell, over and over in our culture.

We can certainly argue that 50 Shade is a poor answer to this, but now we’ve reframed the question. Now, when we start writing, or thinking about popular culture, we can say, well what are people looking for when they go to this? And what they’re looking for, probably, is sex, but also, is this fantasy that they can live into for a little while, to feel powerful, to feel as if I’m ordinary, but I can still be extraordinary. I want to be in control, that I feel I’m inadequate, and I want to feel not inadequate, this fantasy lets me feel not inadequate. Twilight did exactly the same thing, for scores and scores of people.

So, to totally change that, here’s another movie that also has been very controversial, maybe you’ve seen it, I recently watched it myself, it made sixty million dollars on a two million dollar budget, Hollywood executives dream of making that kind of percentage profit. Maybe you’ve seen it, maybe you haven’t, there are some things about it that I think, I think it’s actually not very badly made, which was interesting to me, but I do think that some of its characters certainly teach us wrong things about, for instance, the idea that all atheists are miserable people, which is not true, but, it was wildly popular, and, in some corners of Christiandom, certainly my students, immediately, as soon as I bring it up, they groan.

Ugh, that movie, and then they tell me all the things that are wrong with it. I’ve heard people say it’s everything that’s wrong with American Christianity. Okay, so what if instead we think about it in terms of what are people responding to in this film? Well, what are people responding to in this film? In some ways, I will make a bold statement, God’s Not Dead is not a whole lot different than 50 Shades of Grey. [laughing]

So in this case, the power relationship, the power differential is a college freshman, and his swaggering, blowhard, very bad philosopher, philosophy professor, who feels the need to say things like, as Socrates said, two thousand years ago, to a bunch of other philosophers, who surely know when Socrates was alive. In this incarnation of the story, the powerful, swaggering professor is put in his place by this young, unassuming, college freshman. He doesn’t know what’s going on, he’s new, he’s like, he’s just, he has to figure it out. The difference in this case is purely just that the freshman has God helping him, and the Newsboys, as well. [applauding] So, he does a lot of the work himself, you see him studying, and trying to figure this out, so the desire that’s there, that’s connecting with audiences, is an audience that sort of wants the same thing, as the 50 Shades of Grey audience, they just want to believe that God will help them to overcome, and become in control and special.

As soon as I started watching it, and thinking about it that way, I became much more hospitable towards this film, because I thought well sure, I want that too. Everybody wants this feeling of I want my inadequacy to go away, I want to be special. So now if I was having a conversation about the film with someone, I’m able to say something like yeah, I totally get how appealing that is, I want that too, what parts of it really connected with you on that level, and I’m experiencing this through the way the story is told, so if you’ve seen God’s Not Dead, it’s sort of told on a slope from down in the dumps to gradually more triumphant, until at the end we’re literally in a rock arena, at the Newsboys concert, for like ten minutes, so that’s the form.

It’s a slowly more triumphant film in the way it’s told. There’s not really a moment where you’re like, he’s gonna lose, never. What we can then do is say you’re not invalid for experiencing this as a feeling of triumph, I want that too. The movie is made to feel, to have you feel that way, here we are, we’re the same. Now I can start actually disagreeing well about it. I can say on the other hand, did you notice the way this character is written encourages us to not feel empathy for that person, well, how did you feel about that, how does that conflict with your experience? So, in order to disagree well with another person, about an important work of popular culture, we have to understand why it’s popular.

We have to actually spend a little time being empathetic towards people who maybe we disagree with, largely, put ourselves in their shoes, discover what desire it fills. Once we’ve done that, then we’ve affirmed the person, and we can talk about a movie or TV show from a place of respect. We can do criticism with heart. What happens here then, is that I haven’t tied up my identity as awesome, with my opinion of the work, and I haven’t tied up someone else’s opinions of a work that I think is bad with their identity.

We’re both humans, we both have the same desires, pop culture is designed to fulfill those desires well enough that we’ll pay money to have other people do that for us, and then we can start to have fruitful conversations about these works. I think that’s a really hard thing to do, and it takes a lot of maturity, but it’s a good starting place. Once we start to learn how to do this in popular culture, we start to have the framework to do it in lots of different areas of life as well, stakes are pretty low in pop culture. So that is how to disagree, from my perspective, about popular culture. [electronic music]