A Message to Teachers and Students

from Ken Sanes

ImageAs I note on another page, essays from the Transparency website have been used as assigned readings probably in many hundreds of college classes in the United States and other parts of the English-speaking world. I counted about 150 classrooms that have used it in assigned readings, but the total is undoubtedly a good deal higher. In addition, students have used works from the site as a basis for papers and class assignments.

I think one reason these writings are useful is because they are based on the idea that media, politics, and popular culture can be made transparent to our view and understanding. In line with that idea, the site looks at movies and television, news and political rhetoric, theme parks and advertising, and other creations of contemporary culture. The choice of subjects raises the interest of students while, I hope, the message expands their understanding. 

More specifically the site focuses on three issues:
* the way media in various forms has immersed us in a culture of manipulated appearances;
* the need for media criticism;
* the fact that many of the stories told by the media express our desire to ascend to a higher level of ethical existence -- to become whole and complete, and lead a good life in a free society.

Here is a brief overview of each of these overarching ideas:

* Some of the work on the website reveals the way simulations -- fakes, imitations, illusions, manipulated images and "virtual realities" -- now dominate popular culture, for good and ill. The column, The New Culture War, provides an overview of some of this. So does the section  on The Truman Show, and a summary I published as a letter in Salon, which reveal how the movie tells the basic story of our time, about a character who has to escape from a kind of virtual reality to be free. An article I published in the Boston Globe in 1992 is also one of many others that provide an overview of how simulations are now made to seem like something authentic, both to mislead and entertain us, and how we have ended up immersed in a culture of false appearances.

Much of this is collected in a table of links titled, "The Age of Simulation," while "Simulation & Postmodern Society" offers longer pieces that put together what is said about simulation from around the site in a more systematic way.

* The site also tries to dig deep into the soul of contemporary culture to discover what it reveals about the human condition. What it discovers is that many of the stories that are told in the media contain an ethical vision that expresses our desire to create a new society, a new identity, and a new order of nature that embodies our highest values. As noted, they put us in touch with our desire to feel whole and complete, and live a good life in a free society.

Various pages in the section under TV & Film Theory summarize these ideas, including a page titled "The Real Self in a Virtual World: Popular Culture as an Expression of Human Nature," which talks about the central narrative of popular culture: "This plot or central narrative is about how we are all trapped, not only in our own psychodynamics, but in a realm of fallen society in which collective neurosis and the misuse of power keep us from becoming ourselves."

In line with these ideas, essays on the television program, M*A*S*H, examine the way the series depicts a society of life that is in conflict with a society of death. The essay, "Groundhog Day: Breakthrough to the True Self", describes how that movie evokes our own desire to become whole. A long essay on situation comedies, titled Situation Comedies
And the Liberating Power of Sadism, discusses how sitcoms tell us it is okay to be imperfect and even a little foolish. We can let our anxieties over our own flaws melt away in laughter, they tell us.

But the site also discusses the way those in power manipulate our desire to lead a good life and feel whole, in order to sell us candidates, products and ideas. For example, the essay, The Fake Heaven of Claritin, shows how our desire to live in a paradise is manipulated to sell us an allergy medication.

Also in line with these ideas, a long essay on the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is one of many on the site that show how works of popular fiction contain a number of domains of meaning that converge on a single ethical vision. It examines the way the movie offers disguised depictions of birth, families, the mind, the power relations of society and ancient myths, all of which tell the same story about our desire to progress to a higher level of ethical development.

* The site also looks at the news media. Among the pages on this, one that offers an overview of how the media operates in an image-based culture is "The Electric Horseman: Escape from the Desert of Images," which is about a Robert Redford movie. The movie, about a man who rebels against being turned into a living media image, depicts a lot of the dynamics of the new kind of image-based culture we live in, and how the news media fits into it.

There is also an opinion column titled, How Andrew Cunanan Became a UFO, about how the media sensationalized the hunt for a killer. The page, Orson Welles and the Invasion from Mars, looks at how a fake news story panicked a large number of people -- and foreshadowed the age we live in.

Among pages more directly on the news media, Principles of Media Criticism offers a partial summary of what I believe media criticism should consist of. There is also part of a book titled Image and Action. Some of it is technical and detailed, but it also has pages that provide very accessible insights, such as the essay, The Ethical Reporter, and the essay, Sadism, Insensitivity and Grandiosity, about how the news media does harm to those it covers. A page with a collection of links simply titled Media Criticism gives quick access to a lot of this.

In addition to these and a lot of other essays, there is also a page that will let you examine what others have said about the site and how individual pages have been used in classrooms. It provides a good guide that can make it easy to home in on what may be of most interest.

Ultimately, the goal in presenting all of this is to help fulfill the classical and humanist vision in which education is a process in which we learn to know ourselves. When we accomplish that, we find that (clichéd as it may sound) the truth was inside us, waiting to be released.

As you navigate the site, please keep in mind that the homepage provides easy one-click access to most of what is here. (Many of the section heads on the homepage are also links that lead to more detailed table of contents pages.)

You are of course free to link to any of these pages. If you want to make reprints for classroom use please contact me. It sometimes takes a few days for me to respond. If you need additional information or want to offer thoughts and suggestions, or communicate something else, I am at editor@transparencynow.com. 

Thank you, and I hope you find something of value on the site.

Ken Sanes

Note: I also have a second website at kensanes.com, titled Poetry and Fiction About the Human Condition, that offers a more existential vision of life.