Friday, May 10, 2013

From Tolstoy to Twitter

It is a common phenomenon in our modern world for people to be famous for being famous. Their message and public aura inseparable from each other, their celebrity lending their opinions authority. 
As an example of such, a recent poll rated the actors Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock as the two people most trusted by Americans.[1] Social media has vastly magnified this tendency in recent years. If the medium, as Marshal Macluhan suggested, is the message, then in this case the message is the message-bearer themselves.
The Russian-born British thinker Alexander Boot traces the roots of the phenomenon to none other than Count Leo Nikolaevitch Tolstoy.

Tolstoy was arguably the best-known personality of the early 20th century, his influence reaching such widely disparate groups as European anarchists; Russian peasents and sectarians; English writers; Zionist settlers; Indian nationalists; and Mormons.

"Another contribution Tolstoy made to modernity was his pioneering use of barely nascent mass media. Not for him the contemplative solitude of a Kant or a Nietzsche. Tolstoy consciously built up his public personality as an important part of his message to mankind, to a point where the personality became most of the message. The first color photograph taken in Russia was of him. His was the crackling voice on the first Russian phonograph record. His disheveled visage, deliberately modeled on the crude public perception of God’s appearance, flashed through the first Russian newsreels and countless films to follow.
Tolstoy’s disciples Chertkov and Biryukov presaged modern PR techniques by keeping the world’s press informed of every new twist in the great man’s life, while Tolstoy himself never turned down a media opportunity. And the world was already sufficiently corrupt not to sense the incongruity of a back-to-nature prophet ostensibly rejecting modernity, while at the same time chasing publicity wherever he could find it. Nor could the world see that great artistic talent, or indeed expertise in any area, does not automatically make its possessor an authority on everything else. Today this credulity has been pushed to its extreme.
We no longer cringe when a popular actor pontificates on the global ramifications of warm weather or when a tattooed footballer with a useful left foot tells us we “shouldn’t of went” into Iraq.
Such people are of course entitled to their opinions. But only these days do they feel entitled to an audience."[2]

 One could perhaps soften Boot's remark on a corrupt world by noting the novelty factor that such technology certainly possessed, and while Tolstoy hardly ranks among my favourite writers, I'm actually rather grateful that the scratchy old recording does exist. A voice offers me a way to connect with the past that goes beyond the images that I form from text and photographs.
Would the world have been a better place without Tolstoy's contribution? Perhaps. All that could really be said is that the world would have been a different place.


[2]Alexander Boot, God and Man According to Tolstoy, 2009, p. 6. Boot's book is polemic, but it is still the most extensive treatment of Tolstoy's religious philosophy.

1 comment:

  1. “Many public intellectuals have been justly renowned within their respective fields but the point here is that many did not stay within their respective fields…The fatal misstep of such intellectuals is assuming that superior ability within a particular realm can be generalized as superior wisdom or morality over all.”

    – Thomas Sowell in ‘Intellectuals & Society’ (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 11-12.