August 22, 2006

Mi, a name I call myself

An interesting story via the BBC's "Newshour" this morning: some Britons are concerned that immigrant British Muslims are increasingly self-segregating with regards to their media consumption, eschewing the mainstream UK television channels in favor of satellite programming from Pakistan, India, and the Middle East. The fear is that, in doing so, they're "not becoming attuned to British ideas" and are thus more susceptible to radicalization.

I think that analysis is both simplistic and overblown (with an important caveat; see below)—I've always considered mass media to be resultant phenomenon, not a causal one—but it got me thinking: what would a similar self-censorship in favor of classical music do to somebody's worldview? My sense is that classical music fans tend to forsake other styles to a greater extent than other entertainment consumers; I mean, nobody raises much of a fuss when a top 40 radio station changes its format, but tamper with a classical station, and fans organize like communists (with a distressingly similar success rate).

Like most practicing musicians, I'm demographically odd in that I'll listen to just about any style. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that I limited my recorded media menu to the glories of German Romanticism—Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, etc. What would that aesthetic nutrition information panel look like?

  • Using aphoristic rhetoric to approach the sublime (Schumann)
  • Projecting individual emotional crises onto the physical environment (Schumann, Brahms, and Mahler)
  • Using strict constraints to intensify emotional experience (Brahms)
  • Putting the exceptional individual beyond the strictures of conventional society (Strauss and Mahler)
  • Equating the aesthetic validity of order and chaos (Schumann and Mahler)
  • Equating the respective emotional catharses of love and death (all of them, to varying degrees)
  • World domination (Wagner)

    Now there's a profile that'll land you on the no-fly list. But of course it doesn't work that way—which is another reason why trying to draw sociological conclusions from entertainment predilictions is a tricky business. Even the most "passive" viewer/listener brings a host of individual assumptions and emotional experiences to the process of seeing and/or hearing, making all but the most innocuous generalizations risky. From another angle: sure, some of those British Muslims pulling Al Jazeera off the satellite dish might be ripe for radicalization, but that's not going to change just because you convince them to watch "EastEnders" instead.

    Hey, what about that caveat? Well, one of the consequences of the unstoppable advance of technology has been the fragmentation of mass media. As such, I think the power of television, radio, the movies, you name it, to be some sort of societal common ground has been diminished. What still alleviates that is our everyday interactions with the outside world and other people—but, given the proliferation of cell phones, instant messaging, and always-on internet connections, it's not hard to imagine a society where every interaction is mediated electronically. And if that happens... that loner down the block who always blasts "Ride of the Valkyries"? I'm keepin' my eye on him.
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