Monday, February 05, 2007

A Polish travel writer, speaking of his newspaper assignment to travel abroad for the first time, to India, in the mid-1950s, had this to say:
"My first reaction was astonishment. And, right after that, panic: I knew nothing about India. I feverishly searched my thoughts for some associations, images, names. Nothing. Zero."
This sentiment belongs to a different generation. I can imagine no person born after 1980 harboring such a blank slate for a place. Or, if some person did, and ever had any reason to become aware of that blankness, they would be quick to rush to the internet, or television, or video store, or maybe even a bookstore, to quickly acquaint themselves with the world's collective knowledge on the subject.

We are assailed by images. No unconquered frontiers exist. At the collective level this is certainly true, but even at the individual level it's becoming rarer. By the time we're 18 we've seen the deprivations of African poverty, newly minted Chinese millionaires, meth addicts in Peoria, tar oil fields in Alberta. We are Dresden under a fusillade of pixels and negatives.

I see two major problems with this. One is that the images that we see are highly crafted and stylized, and they almost never represent reality. They might represent some sliver of reality, but partial reality is just a style of equivocation. Secondly, new experiences can never really be new. A trip abroad will always be preconceived before its actual conception. Before traveling to India, I know exactly what to expect, or at least what I'm supposed to expect. Our ongoing experiences with new things are shaped and determined by prior exposure to them through images.

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