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Dan McCaslin: Cities, Cinema and Loss of Vitamin N

Our obsession with technology impedes our ability to connect with nature — but we can rise above it

Rock Monster at Rattlesnake Canyon with human alterations and animism. Click to view larger
Rock Monster at Rattlesnake Canyon with human alterations and animism. (Dan McCaslin photo)

While traveling through southern Germany serving as a “roadie” for my son’s bluegrass band, I reread Walter Benjamin’s 1936 short essay, The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction (see 4.1.1. below).

Benjamin was a German Jew and cultural critic who committed suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis, and his seminal essay about the emerging cinema — almost as big in Weimar Germany as in the United States — retains a freshness and prescience about films and “screens” even today, more than 80 years later.

“The distinguishing features of film lie not only in the way in which man presents himself to the camera, but in how, using the camera, he presents his surroundings to himself,” he said.

While rightly extolling the many virtues of film (a new art form then), Benjamin acutely notes another role film and cinema play — and here we can connect film and “the movies” to hiking our beautiful backcountry trails in the 21st-century world.

Although film increases our comprehension of “the inevitabilities that govern our lives” (e.g., The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short), cinema’s popularity also reflects “our pubs and city streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our factories and railway stations (that) seem desperately imprisoning” (Page 28).

I would update this insight to state that the 21st-century obsession with Amazon and Netflix films, as well as cinema-going, confirm Benjamin’s comment and his observation that “film” came along “and exploded these dungeons.”

Benjamin, of course, couldn’t envision our multiple screens on iPhones and iPads, the ginormous 50-inch flat-screen TVs in our apartments and homes, at our offices and in our schools, the sports screens in most restaurants and public spaces, or the miniaturization of our collective vision.

After visiting Cologne (Koeln), Heiligenhaus, Munich and other towns, I assure readers that nearly all young and middle-age Germans also have their iPhones glued to their ears or their eyes fastened restlessly to public screens (not yet invading restaurants, however.)

Our 21st-century electronic gilded cages seem even more “desperately imprisoning” than the central Europe theaters that Benjamin lamented (this aspect of film was not his key point). He was well aware that Germany in the early 1920s had fewer than 100 film theaters, yet by 1928 there were more than 5,000, with the number growing.

He also wrote, “The (film) audience empathizes with the performer only by empathizing with the camera. The audience thus assumes the camera’s stance ...,” and thus forgoes direct personal experience. This experience could be obtained by attending live dramatic performances, by making music and/or attending concerts, or by hiking in the nearby mountains.

Richard Louv and many others have noted the loss of direct personal experience with nature prevalent in America and Germany today (Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life).

The metaphorical “Vitamin N(-ature)” is inexorably reduced in our children’s lives: Visits to national parks are down, and the federal government actively attempts to reduce or limit national monuments (e.g., Carizzo Plain). In Los Angeles, and now in Santa Barbara, more and more screens intrude into school instruction as genuine teacher face time with students diminishes.

Isn’t it just a lot easier for Mom and Dad to show the kids a fantastic National Geographic video about Yosemite National Park or Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument (also under consideration for protection removal) than to take the kids car camping there themselves?

Oh yes, we’re all very busy, sure ... and often the technologies that promise to save us time end up costing us more time. How many apps can my partner download onto her phone and actually utilize effectively compared to the hassle and number of such apps?

And this includes apps to manage the apps!

What about those feelings of awe produced by Tangerine Falls or on a simple day hike to Inspiration Point along Tunnel Trail?

What about that beneficial “haunted feeling” philosopher Charles Taylor writes about, or the loss of any access to “higher times” that in earlier ages depended upon direct personal experience with peak moments in the field or during live musical performances — did any readers catch the Old Crow Medicine Show performance at The Granada last month?

I’ve worked with students old and young — especially young ones in German public schools and at the local Crane Country Day School — since the early 1970s. “Vitamin N” is not just a metaphor.

“Animism,” the idea that everything has some life in it down to the smallest pebble, is a route to godless mysticism (compare lead photo). The homo sapiens species eliminates the potential for this reverence at considerable risk.

Direct immersion in nature, joy and suffering on the trail, intense experiences in three-dimension physical reality are evolutionary requirements for our species.

In the late 19th century, Karl Marx famously termed religion as “the opiate of the masses,” and Friedrich Nietzsche shouted “God is dead!” in oracular terms.

Today, our obsession is with the silver celluloid frame, with tweeted phrases on tiny screens, with the latest serial shooting or Corey Seager’s three home runs. Today, as we learn that most kids spend nine hours per day staring at screens, I contend that “the screen” is the opiate of the masses.

4-1-1

» Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit) is an essay in cultural criticism that proposes that the aura of a work of art is devalued by mechanical reproduction. I used the Penguin Great Ideas translation of Benjamin by J.A. Underwood (2008).

» Richard Louv, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life (Algonquin Books, 2016).

» Gabriel McCaslin’s bluegrass quintet, The Munich String Band, can be followed online by clicking here.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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