It's a commonplace of connected culture that we can share things instantly. I can take a picture in one minute and my friend a thousand miles away can see it that very same minute. I can post a picture here almost as quickly.
This is supposed to connect us and make us closer, allegedly, and it does in a way. Sharing is a nice way to link a few people and communicate something visual between individuals.
What's ironic is that the more we share, the less shared experience we have. The more choices we have of things to look at, the fewer and fewer things we all see...for some value of "all": everyone, or a majority, or a large minority of those in a culture, country or community.
Gods and Heav'nly Essences
When I was at Dartmouth, everyone in English 5, freshman English, read John Milton's Paradise Lost. It was a tradition—they'd been doing it since 1492. (Whatever. Dartmouth was founded in 1769. Force-feeding Milton to hapless freshmen probably dates from the mid-1800s. Somebody knows, but not I.)
Before I was a critic I was a critic. I protested to Mary Hill, an English teacher in high school, that Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was a ridiculous book to have high school students read. None of us had been married and most of us—more than would have admitted it—hadn't even had sex. So what did we know about the complications of adultery and affairs? At Dartmouth I protested Paradise Lost. What a silly book to make everybody labor through. Couldn't they pick something better?
Maybe my attitude had something to do with the fact that I was an English tutor, and had to tutor a physics scholarship student from China who spoke only limited English. It would have been hard enough trying to help her understand Raymond Carver or William Carlos Williams, but the difficulty of Milton's poesy on top of her difficulties with English was almost insuperable. (The experience shook my confidence in my abilities as a teacher, too.) Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that I'm naturally a rationalist materialist by cast of mind, and get exasperated with invented cosmogenies.
O Prince, O Chief of many Throned Powers,
That led th' imbattelld Seraphim to Warr
Under thy conduct, and in dreadful deeds
Fearless, endanger'd Heav'ns perpetual King;
And put to proof his high Supremacy,
Whether upheld by strength, or Chance, or Fate,
Too well I see and rue the dire event,
That with sad overthrow and foul defeat
Hath lost us Heav'n, and all this mighty Host
In horrible destruction laid thus low,
As far as Gods and Heav'nly Essences
Can perish: for the mind and spirit remains
Invincible, and vigour soon returns...
Sure it does. Yawn and yawn and yawn it goes, that book.
My English 5 professor, Darrel Mansell, who later proved a bitter disappointment to me, explained that the college simply wanted to provide something that constituted shared intellectual culture amongst all, or most, students—some common basis or foundation not only that everyone knew, but that everyone knew everyone else knew. He claimed it didn't matter so much what it was.
This later hit home to me when I and some friends were lolling around in the hall of Middle Fayerwether, our dormitory, late one weekend evening. There were six or seven of us sitting listlessly on the floor holding plastic cups of tepid beer, all of us nearly terminally bored. We couldn't find anything to talk about. When the conversation had stalled into complete silence, one girl, Allison, piped up and said, "I know. We could talk about Milton!" We then, and I'm not kidding, talked about Milton. Let's hear it for shared experience.
My friend Jim Schley extended Milton the credit he deserved and read him closely and sensitively, and found many felicities in Paradise Lost. Jim is a surpassingly compassionate reader. Bull-headedly, I skipped the book and winged it on the quizzes.
To compensate, I read Caxton's Malory on my own:
It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that held war against him long time. And the duke was called the Duke of Tintagil. And so by means King Uther sent for this duke, charging him to bring his wife with him, for she was called a fair lady, and a passing wise, and her name was called Igraine.
So when the duke and his wife were come unto the king, by the means of great lords they were accorded both. The king liked and loved this lady well, and he made them great cheer out of measure, and desired to have lain by her. But she was a passing good woman, and would not assent unto the king. And then she told the duke her husband, and said, I suppose that we were sent for that I should be dishonoured; wherefore, husband, I counsel you, that we depart from hence suddenly, that we may ride all night unto our own castle. And in like wise as she said so they departed, that neither the king nor none of his council were ware of their departing. All so soon as King Uther knew of their departing so suddenly, he was wonderly wroth. Then he called to him his privy council, and told them of the sudden departing of the duke and his wife.
The heck with God leading th' imbattelld Seraphim to Warr; this is a story. Made-up BS makes me wonderly wroth. There's little enough time in one life to learn about the real world and things that exist.
Sharing vs. shared
When there were only three television networks and broadcast TV was all there was of moving pictures outside of movie theaters, television constituted shared culture. Ed Sullivan and Disney came on on Sunday nights, and a third of America watched. Nobody didn't know Ed Sullivan. Maybe there wasn't an endless menu of choice, but at least the whole society was largely in it together. Britain wisely extended this state of affairs with the BBC.
It was one of the nice things about the old print culture, too. For a while, it was important whose face was on the cover of Time magazine, and, at its zenith, there was one copy of LIFE magazine printed for every 15 people in the United States. It constituted a de facto shared visual culture. It was important what was in those issues because everybody saw it. TV eventually snuffed the life of LIFE.
In an ideal world there would be one—one is all I'd ask—deliberately shared venue for original photojournalism. (Shared in my second sense.) Because we all would agree that such a thing had value, not just the potential for profit. Everyone would get it every week, probably in their in-boxes, and we'd each pay a little something. And original photojournalism, and future history, would get made, and there'd be one thing lots and lots of people all saw and shared. Pie in the sky, I know. The conditions for it don't exist.
There is less and less truly shared culture today, if you take "shared" to mean things that we all experience. There were 1,715 TV series aired in 2014, of which 352 were scripted; you could watch TV all day every day—speeded up—and not see more than a small fraction of it all. LIFE is long gone, the Devil now owns National Geographic, and no picture stories are seen by more than a tiny fraction of the population.
We share everything these days, but there is little we all share.
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Nigel: "You ought not to be so dismissive—after all, Milton coined that very word."
Jim Natale: "Bingo. Very fine writing. You've very accurately described the disorientation of a generation. Fragmentation. Nothing in common around the water cooler. (Plus, speaking for many old English majors, any zingers directed at Milton are appreciated. Difficult to top Dr. Johnson, though: 'Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.')"
Timo Virojärvi: "I believe TOP is the most shared experience for photographers nowadays."
Mike replies: :-)
Charlie Ewers: "Point well taken about shared experience, even when it's a bad experience. If you think Paradise Lost is awful (and it is), try Milton's Areopagetica. Although I myself am an oldish English professor, I would never force my students to read that crap. But whenever I encounter somebody who was in my Master's program, one or the other of us always brings up that monstrosity (which we were all forced to read by an otherwise humane and reasonable rhetoric professor), and some of us can even quote from it. Shared experience indeed."
Edward Taylor: "We do all share in the experience of having nothing in common. At least, we have that in common."
Jason: "On the other hand, it has become easier to find people who share whatever obscure interest you might have."
John Camp: "Ed Sullivan was a shared experience in only an odd way—that is, we all sat in front of the tube, watched him, and only later talked with other people about it. But I'm so old that I can remember a time before television, when people on my street had poker parties, and my mother and father belonged to a ballroom dance club, and there were three or four parades every year that nobody wanted to miss, and everybody went to the All-Iowa Fair at Hawkeye Downs...because we didn't have electronic (TV) sharing. We had a physical, face-to-face 'after work' society when people sat outside to talk, or went for evening walks.
"There was also the fact that most adult males and quite a few of the women had been in the military during WWII, another serious shared experience.
"Sometime in the early to mid-50s, a critical mass of people got TVs, and that face-to-face society disappeared almost overnight. People simply shut themselves away to watch 'I Love Lucy' and 'Ed Sullivan' and 'What's My Line' and all the rest of it. I can remember hardly any of that TV—but I remember that time before TV, running around in the evening, playing war and having apple fights and learning how to talk to people, face-to-face."
Henry Rogers: "I've never tried to read any Milton so can't comment, but I have read both Iliad and Odyssey several times in more than one translation and found the story telling in both such fun that, after retiring, I was prompted to sign up for a beginner's course on Ancient Greek as a result. Although I found it very hard work tackling even short extracts of the original, that was even more fun. Homer, whoever he or they was or were, certainly wasn't using 'the Gods' just as an easy way of explaining happenings for which people didn't have a scientific explanation. They are real characters in the stories and they interact with each other and the mortals in ways which can sometimes be hilarious and sometimes moving. And both mortals and immortals are shown behaving in ways which are not very different from the ways of people running around loose in our world!
"I'd defend Chaucer from Hugh Smith's criticism in much the same way. I first met C's pilgrims around 1951 (in school, of course) and was struck then by his vivid descriptions of people. I'm English and I live in London. Those pilgrims are still around today even if they wear different clothes and use different 'props'! Try the doctor, the poor parson or pardoner.
"I'm not an English Lit type by the way, I'm a techie, a land surveyor to be precise."