GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 23, 2010

The Grammar of the Political Economy of Media

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:08 pm

We all know Marshall McLuhan’s catchphrases: “the medium is the message,” “global village,” “the content of one medium is another medium,” etc. I don’t know of any theory of media that has superseded McLuhan’s, a vulgarized version of which has become a kind of cultural commonsense; and yet it’s hard to take McLuhan completely seriously. I suspect that the problem lies in the prophetic rhetoric—a similar problem interferes with my taking someone like Emerson (undoubtedly an influence on McLuhan) completely seriously either—which almost never ages well. You read McLuhan and expect the world around you to change almost instantaneously; then you realize that the text you are reading is half a century old and maybe things haven’t changed all that much after all. Or, maybe they’ve changed so much that you don’t notice the change since the reference point against which you might measure it has vanished (I find it hard to imagine not doing all my writing on the computer and gathering all my news over the internet even though I know actually did work and live otherwise, and not all that long ago). One thing I am certain of, though: to the extent that the global village McLuhan saw coming into being exists it is constituted by hatred of the U.S. and Israel. In other words, desire and resentment lie deeper than any media, and so does the difficult historical work of channeling and shaping them through institutions; in yet other words, the problem with McLuhan is that if he has any anthropology it is a kind of mystical, Gnostic one: to say that media are the extensions of our organs and senses is to imagine a single “Man,” in relation to whom all the individual men and women and the relations between them are mere epiphenomena.

Once we allow for that, though, it seems to me that McLuhan is a perfectly good starting point for an originary theory of media. Instead of saying that the media are extensions of the senses and organs, why not modify that to read extensions of the originary gesture? We could then give some precision to McLuhan’s vague notion of the content of one medium being another medium—that sounds right, especially when we throw in a few intuitive examples (the content of writing is speech; the content of movies is the novel, etc.), but I think that notion would break down if we tried to burden it with the tasks a serious theory of media would have to take on. What do we mean, after all, by “content”? McLuhan doesn’t say, leaving us with a commonplace of literary criticism. But what if “content” is simply those objects, or more broadly, “fields” (what I call fields of semblances) that have been produced in tandem with a particular medium but that draw upon mimetic tensions that can no longer be deferred within that medium? We would then be able to set aside the teleology and utopianism of McLuhan’s account: writing may not have been invented to defer rivalries that speech no longer could, but once it had been invented in some form, for whatever purposes, it could be put to work serving the new hierarchical orders that needed not only bureaucracies but forms of legitimacy that the permanence of writing and the exclusiveness of its knowledge could provide. And, of course, there need not be only one set or kind of rivalry involved—the more the new medium spread, the more uses that would be found for it.

Part of McLuhan’s point, though, is that we don’t simply use media—they transform us. In originary terms, though, this means they create new arenas of desire and resentment. What McLuhan calls “cool” and “hot” media need, I think, to be reconsidered in these terms. The hot media are those that provide a lot of data and hence produce passivity in the audience—like a Rembrandt painting, for example; the cool media provide little data and hence require extensive audience participation—like a Klee drawing. And McLuhan doesn’t apply the terms simplistically—he realizes that “heat” and “coolness” depend upon the total media environment—so, radio is much “hotter” when introduced into the largely oral world of post-colonial societies than in the literate West. But it is nevertheless very strange to hear TV described as a cool medium, since it has for as long as I know (and this must have been the case when McLuhan was writing) been caricatured as the most passive medium around, producing nothing but couch potatoes. Perhaps McLuhan could have dismissed this as a literary prejudice, but looking back at TV from the 50s to the 90s—with its extraordinarily limited genres, conventions and formulas—from the standpoint of today’s world of interactive and interfolding media, isn’t that “prejudice” amply confirmed? Didn’t TV shows succeed by saturating their viewers with “data”—the data of its narrative conventions and stereotypes, but also that embodied in the invariably maintained stage/spectator point of view?

It seems to me, rather, that “cool” and “hot” name different types of desire, desires that are conducted by media entering societies at give historical junctures. “Hot” desires are those for exclusive control over precisely delineated objects, “cool” desires are for sharing and communion with others. For McLuhan, the hot media are the ones that lead to specialization (print leads to the heightening of vision, and a very specific kind of vision, closely linked to interiority), while the cool media are more eclectic. But books can play into pedagogical relations in various ways, can be tied to various forms of orality and collectivity more or less closely, and so on. I suppose War and Peace would be as hot as you can get within the hot medium of print, but only for those who can perceive all the levels of data the book organizes—for a semi-literate reader today, it might not be very different from reading Finnegan’s Wake—the intense interiority and desire to leave the village and family and enter the market as an individual has given way to a vast array of possible linkages and desires within an advanced market. Nor does McLuhan seem very interested in the market—along with work, and money (which he does see as an important medium), he seems to take for granted that the market will disappear in the instantaneity produced by the new media.

But I can’t see that media studies, however privileged a field in today’s academy, has advanced much beyond McLuhan’s propheticism—it has been taken over by victimary forces on one side (and annexed to “cultural studies”) and by the arid discourses (highly specialized and hence crippled forms of literacy, we might say in McLuhan’s terms) in the social sciences on the other side. It has probably become an excuse for not advancing an anthropology, because, after all, what would be the content of an anthropology if “man” is nothing more than his extensions or various forms of “outering”? So, one is left with descriptions, either impressionistic or positivistic (through the use of polls, surveys, etc.) of the various “effects” of various media on something like “ideology,” “social roles” or “power relations.”

So, let’s turn inward, first, and apply McLuhan’s terms to originary grammar, and move outwards penetrating his analysis of the media with originary thinking. The content of the ostensive is some dangerous mimetic convergence; the content of the imperative is the inappropriate ostensive; the content of the declarative what we might call a suspended imperative—the imperative which is not fulfilled, which is prolonged into the interrogative, which is not enforced but nevertheless not retracted, which is held in reserve pending the presentation of a reality in which the resentment of the center can disperse the desires concentrating in that imperative. In each case, “material” would be a better word than “content,” since nothing is simply contained here—something is not only reshaped, but reshaped so as to reverse or divert its original aim; nor is the form contained in the content—that is, the ostensive did not “inevitably” give rise to the imperative, nor the imperative to the declarative; rather, in each case we see a improvisation, an invention, or even simply an error that serendipitously gives rise to the new form.

A more promising approach to thinking about the media, then, might be to correlate different articulations of media with different articulations of grammar—so, not print and radio, and TV and the internet, but print, say, as it restructures its environment in the move to the computer keyboard, in a space bounded by the migration of visual media to the computer, a still vibrant radio, and so on. The author Ronald Sukenick did a lot of thinking and experimenting with the implications of writing in a multi-media environment, for example in terms of breaking with the Gutenbergian convention of straight lines of homogeneous print going straight down the page. The question for writing, then, would be how to import ostensive elements into a primarily declarative medium, and to do so in order to strengthen rather than vitiate its fundamentally declarative character. Rather than a new unified sensibility, we would have the spontaneous organization of competition and reciprocal appropriation between and within the media, which originary thinkers could speak about in terms of interpenetrating ostensive, imperative, interrogative and declarative fields.

Of course, what we would most wish to bring such analyses to bear upon would be the electronic media—how primitive the TV now appears in this new world of constantly circulating video and print, how ineffectual its traditional organization through the large “networks” now appear! I suppose most of us will continual to watch TV, and there is still a huge gap between the shows produced by professionals and what amateurs would be capable of (there are some very good shows today, probably better than there have ever been), but it’s hard to see how long the current system of production and distribution can continue, now that you can watch pretty much any show you want whenever you want and for free. It seems hardly worthwhile to waste the energy on analyzing TV shows in terms of their cultural “meaning” or “impact”—“Seinfeld” was probably the last “important” show, or at least the last important scripted one.

In the political economy of signs, then, we would perhaps look for which entrepreneurs can conquer territory within the division of labor by introducing an ostensive or imperative dimension to a primarily declarative medium; or a declarative overlay to a primarily ostensive or imperative medium. The conservative media seems to me particularly advanced in this regard, with its dense network of TV (FOX), talk radio, blogs, websites like Pajamas Media, Hot Air, and Breitbart’s sites, which all interact and intersect with each, deploy all the media and all the resources of all the media, are populated by a core of personalities and thinkers who move from one site to another while continually bringing on board new voices. It is tight enough to be coherent and open enough to allow for lively debates and to prevent the creation of a “bubble” that would filter out unwelcome or unanticipated news from the world. It is an enormously effective way of producing events, and the content of events is nothing other desires given enough scope to make a shared object visible, resentments organized so as to make that object divisible and available, and at least the possibility of love for an inexhaustible source of presence embodied in a sign.

The media today interact with each other at an unprecedented rate and under the control of individual users to an extent unimaginable even ten years ago: I can watch a cable news show, down load a clip, set it to music, change the words of the song so as to make the modified song a parody of the figure discussed in the news clip, place that remixed video on YouTube and have hundreds of commentators discussing it and thousands of users circulating it—all within a couple of hours. (Well, I can’t do it—but plenty of people can.) And the whole sequence may very well end up a topic of discussion on that very news show the next day. The content of one media event, then, is another media event, and the most eventful events are the ones that do the most translating of the terms of one media into another. Circulating last year was a video which somehow had Congress members singing their speeches (the voice was maintained and the words kept the same—they were somehow “made” to sing), giving the debate the appearance of an opera; right now “The Day Obamacare Died” “Sung by Barack Obama” is making the rounds—just about any of us could think of a dozen examples. What is privileged in such productions is a particular characteristic of sign use—the ability to stretch one form so as to accommodate an unfamiliar content, or to modify a set of rules so as to lead to a very different set of results, to let one domain of culture comment upon another. I think these are the aspects of sign use most closely tied to human freedom, or, perhaps, those aspects that guarantee freedom’s ineradicability. This is not to deny that more traditionally “real” events (a terrorist attack, a financial crash) can break through these intricate intermedial “ecosystems” and redirect the attention of those systems beyond the power of media entrepreneurs to interrupt. But we may have gotten to the point where those who have not acquired fluency in “intermedia” will be increasingly ill-equipped to address those crises when they break through and must, in turn, be assimilated to the ecosystem.

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