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Book X of the Republic and Plato's Argument on Poetry

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Book X of Plato’s Republic marks the end of the dialogue with the most radical and total exclusion of poetry, since the idea was introduced in Books II and III. The only poetry to make it past the gates would be in the form of “hymns to the gods or celebration of good men” (607a). Poetry has the potential to mold insidious desires and establish a rule of pleasure and pain, which would run counter to the rule of law and reason. Alexander Nehamas identifies the difference between an imitator and the imitative as the distinctive crux upon which Plato decides to eliminate poetry. There is nothing wrong with imitation as such, in fact the imitation of good characters is essential in the education of the young, imitativeness on the other hand is “the desire and ability to imitate anything independently of its moral quality and without the proper attitude of praise or blame towards it” (pg. 215). As such, poetry “introduces a bad government in the soul of each individual citizen” (605b7-8). Not only does it allow the appetitive part of the soul to indulge without restraint in images of sorrow, pain and pleasure alike, but this process is also supported by a deformation of the reasonable part, which becomes indulgent towards the appetite. In a kind of alchemical, or magical twist, poetry, and television as Nehamas’ argument extends, manages to convince us that the image, or object is the same as the real thing. Because the distinction is ontological, it is imperceptible to our lived experience.

Living vicariously through the images one consumes is the real detriment to both poetry and television as the mass media of two separate historical junctures. Before sounding conspiratory, this argument does not make a claim to any form of social control, but rather to the proliferation of a gluttonous public that is resigned to a life in the cave, feeding on false images of reality. Nor does the argument claim that there is a readily available, truer reality that can easily be grasped if we forgo the television set. Rather, we will never know unless we try and we will not build genuine connections to it. It is somewhat ironic that television, this smorgasbord for false prophets and idols, has increasingly gravitated towards the monopolization of the word real. In the time of the writing of Nehamas’ essay, television programs shared many of the characteristics of its most contemporary descendants, but one would have hardly foreseen the meteoric rise of reality television. Fights, verbal abuse, petty drama, mundane absurdity, larger than life buffoons, a survivor, desperate people eating cockroaches, some of the worst aspects of our collective unconscious, the cultural destruction of this spinning ball of fire we call Earth, and none of can look away from reality TV. The ugliness of success makes us readily admit our moral and intellectual superiority, at the same time that with great appetite we feast on its image. Much like Plato identifies, reality TV allows us to have our cake and eat it too. Its visual nature makes it ever so easy for the imagination to place itself in the thick of it. To get rid of this spell, “we shall behave like lovers who see their passion is disastrous and violently force themselves away from the object of their love” (607e4-6).

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There is something to be said about a culture feeding on its own collective decay. As an evolutionary step of television more broadly, reality TV is a foreseeable development of a media and culture that becomes more and more self-conscious. What it feeds us are not merely second or third hand image of reality, but in a way meta-images. It contains and acknowledgement that a world so overdetermined by television in the last 40 years has lost all reference to the real outside the cave. Reality TV nowadays extends much further than Pawn Stars, or Cake Boss or the Kardashians, it is also found on Facebook, Twitter and the like. There is no outside this cave.


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