Lannes Et Pacifique Critique Essay

Johnson posits a number of mental mechanisms that are toned and strengthened by the labor of figuring out the rules of high-end video games and parsing the story structures of subtle TV shows. Playing physiologist, he asserts that the games address the dopamine system by doling out neurochemical rewards whenever a player advances to a new level or deciphers a new puzzle. These little squirts of feel-good brain juice aggravate a craving for further challenges, until the Baby Einstein at the joystick has worked himself into an ecstasy of problem-solving that, Johnson tells us, will serve him well in later life (though he's vague about exactly how). Johnson calls the relevant intellectual skills "probing" and "telescoping," and defines them as the ability to find order in bewildering symbolic territory. Wandering through labyrinths full of monsters keeps a person on his toes, that is, and this is good preparation for modern life -- perhaps because modern life so closely resembles a labyrinth full of monsters.

So far, so good. But when Johnson purports to discern a silver lining in programs like "Joe Millionaire" and "The Apprentice," he has to resort to trickier tactics. After reminding us that his argument doesn't depend on the content of the shows being particularly interesting but relates instead to the intricacies of their formats, he suggests that reality TV engages viewers' "emotional intelligience" by confronting them with a staged array of rapidly shifting social situations and densely interlocking human relationships. When an "Apprentice" team leader chews out an underling who is well liked by other contestants, it lights up an ancient corner of our brains responsible for assuring our survival as members of communities and tribes. Our minds run a series of lightning calculations having to do with tones of voice, facial expressions, ethical principles and psychological verities as we weigh the chances that the team leader will implode or the underling will revolt. And what will the Donald think? That's a factor, too.

Though I side with Johnson in his contention that emotional intelligience is an authentic, important competency, and while I'll admit that "The Apprentice" delivers up enough half-baked strife and intrigue to absorb our inner office-politicians, I'm not sure why such a regimen is good for people except in the sense that it isn't actually harmful. As elsewhere in the book, Johnson's contrarian contempt for the knee-jerk vilification of pop culture seems to push him further than may be warranted into defending and elevating artifacts that are neither here nor there. My grandmother's love of lurid true-crime magazines, with their blow-by-blow re-creations of small-town rapes, roused her emotional intelligence, too, telling her to avoid dark parking lots and pockmarked men with certain styles of mustaches, but, really, what of it? Stimulation is not a virtue all by itself.

Johnson seems to feel it is, though. In temperament, he's like a cerebral Jack La Lanne. He admires exertion for its own sake -- in this case, neurological exertion. The faster the synapses fire the better, no matter to what end, even if the body supporting them is growing sluggish and obese and the spirit animating them is chronically neglecting its family members in order to TiVo "The Simpsons." Johnson is a cool and neutral thinker, concerned with process rather than purpose, but the provocative title of his book, by alluding to some unheralded moral dimension in the consumption of today's pop culture, is mischievously misleading -- a way to snag the attention of the squares who refuse to acknowledge the benefits of doing anything other than reading the Holy Bible by candlelight.

Considered purely on its own terms, Johnson's thesis holds up despite these quibbles. Our own internal computers are indeed speeding up, and part of the credit for this must surely go to the brute sophistication of our new entertainments, which tax the brain as "Kojak" never did. The old dogs may grump about cultural illiteracy and the erosion of traditional values, but the new dogs have talents, aptitudes and skills that we, as we drowse by the fire, can only dream of. Their sheer agility may not bring them wisdom, but our plodding didn't either, let's be fair.

Walter Kirn, whose most recent novel is "Up in the Air," is a regular contributor to the Book Review.

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