From media to you
Communicating through the proxy of taste in entertainment.
Last time I went on a date, like any sweaty-palmed gent, I prepared a mental toolbox of conversation starters. I had learned the hard way that no amount of Daft Punk can drown out an awkward silence. So the date kicks off and as we’re driving down the highway, I notice that horrific “lull” setting in. I’m about to toss out my classic, “So have you seen any good movies recently?” when she turns and asks me, “So are you and your family close?”
I was caught off guard and ended up missing my exit, extending the awkward silence until I initiated a U-turn back to where we should have gone: “What kind of music do you like?” I made a mental note that if she said, “Bieber,” I’d cut lunch short. But I’m not shallow; I know we wouldn’t get along because we would be too different.
But the truth is, even after dialoging for hours about each other’s favourite media, you still don’t know them; you only know about them. Contemporary culture seems to pursue social intimacy by discussing third party topics. Rather than talking about our own original thoughts and feelings, we’ve become accustomed to discussing the lyrics of strangers. Instead of telling you how I aspire to be a protector for my friends future family I just say, “I like Batman,” and rely on the movie to tell you what I mean.
Perhaps this is a result of our society’s growing obsession with perfection. We’re flawed beings; therefore, the less we talk about ourselves, the less flawed we appear. In fact, our conversations are becoming increasing impersonal on two levels. First, we’re communicating with the same amount of words but revealing less about ourselves (as exemplified earlier). And second, we’re using the same standard conversational templates on multiple people. It didn’t matter which girl I took on that date, I would have gone through the exact same script with her.
Carleton Professor David Matheson uses the term “limited transferability” as a means of judging our relational closeness. The better we actually know someone, the more difficult it is for us to communicate that knowledge to someone else. Surface knowledge, such as favourite movies, is much easier to transfer.
Don’t get me wrong, the greater the similarity between two peoples’ interests in media, the greater their conversation can be; but without an intentional transition to the self, the conversation is destined to only ever be about media.
On the other hand, small-talk of the past generally consisted of “Nice weather,” and, “Dang traffic.” So it would seem like we’ve at least made some progress.
Art does have the power to facilitate a relationship between us and the sublime—the source of divine beauty—thus provoking an emotional response that transcends the limits of our ability to express ourselves. What we feel is bigger than what we can say. Author Ursula Le Guine describes it as the feeling that one “must enlarge his spirit in order to receive it.” When we experience art together, we share in that bigger moment. Dare I call it a meeting of the souls? Some of my most intimate moments have occurred in utter silence, with only a set of ear-buds connecting my friend and I to each other.
However, our interaction with art only achieves this transcendent unifying revelation when it becomes personal—when it is incorporated into our own life story and given meaning.
So the next time you have a conversation with someone, try to tell them something that isn’t already on your online profile. The next time they mention a song they’ve been listening to lately, ask them, “Why? What does it mean to you?” And if you’re still not jelling, whip out those ear-buds and play something indescribable.