Glimpses Into Our Age

1. Positivity: A Collection of Images. Media images and adverts are not ciphers, as many are apt to think; they are carriers of meaning, subtle suggestions of what is socially good, cool, or ideal. They emit semiological energy into the cultural atmosphere, affecting our estimations of things, our sense of what is real and relevant. If there is a single dominant motif of this imagery, it is positivity: the suggestion of happiness in visuals, the garbing of all commodities in the silk of cheeriness.

2. "Figures In A Landscape." This portrait by Sidney Goodman reflects the apparent estrangement people feel in a postmodern world. Mother, father and child sit at an icy remove from one another in a typical suburban backyard, against a bruised and gloomy backdrop. The suggestion is that for the average nuclear family, contemporary life feels a lot like prison.

3. In Search Of The Glamorous & Heroic. "The contrast between what is glamorous now and what was glamorous in the days of Cary Grant and Norma Shearer says much about how American society has changed," notes Carina Chocano. In the past, glamour required "wit, urbanity, intelligence and a talent for adapting to change. And it was all wrapped up in very adult sequined dresses, martini glasses and flutes of champagne."

But today wit, class, intelligence and urbanity have been devalued, and all that seems to matter is money. "What does it mean to be glamorous anymore?" Chocano asks. "Is Paris Hilton glamorous? Is Donald Trump? Is Trump's late-model wife?"

If it is no longer easy to identify someone who meets the old criteria of glamour, neither is it easy to find many people who fit the description of "hero". In America today, writes Gregory Foster, "who you are and know is much more important than what you do or stand for." Celebrities abound, but they are distinctly different from heroes: the latter "are transcendent, mythic, seemingly superhuman figures who combine greatness with goodness." They have not only size and reputation, but stature as well. It is stature that distinguishes a Nelson Mandela from a Bill Clinton, or a Vaclav Havel from a Bob Dole.

According to Professor Foster, we "live in singularly unheroic times"; so "ambiguous in form, effect, and importance are the circumstances we regularly face that events no longer seem capable of making the person."

But is this so? Is it modern "events" that preclude the sprouting up of heroes? Or is it that people today consciously choose to lead an "unheroic" life? "Unheroic" here would mean a life bereft of convictions; a safe, banal, conforming, self-interested life -- one whose highest aim is simply to succeed in the marketplace. Such a life would require that people accept rather than question established norms; that they go along to get along; that they avoid making waves or rocking the boat.

The hero, by contrast, is willing to risk something big -- a career, a reputation, money, esteem -- in order to affirm some ideal or principle. "Heroism feels and never reasons," Emerson wrote. It "works in contradiction to the voice of mankind...When the spirit is not master of the world, then it is its dupe."