When I read Camille Paglia’s The North American Intellectual Tradition delivered in 2000 in honor of Marshal McLuhan I immediately felt that she was right to call for a new theory of media. More recently, McLuhan’s son when asked why his father was making a resurgence answered that it was because his father’s predictions had come true. McLuhan was always the key figure in my own understanding of media based as it was on the study of English literature and psychology and I have never been able to acquire much enthusiasm for the Postmodern approach to media that has become so prevalent in the academy. Hence Paglia’s words made perfect sense to me:
What has been forgotten is that there were major intellectual breakthroughs in the 1960s, thanks to North American writers of an older generation. There was a rupture in continuity, since most young people influenced by those breakthroughs did not enter the professions. The cultural vacuum would be filled in the 1970s by jargon-ridden French post-structuralism and the Frankfurt School, which dominated literature departments for a quarter century.
It’s time for a recovery and reassessment of North American thinkers. Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler and Norman O. Brown are the linked triad I would substitute for Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, whose work belongs to ravaged postwar Europe and whose ideas transfer poorly into the Anglo-American tradition. McLuhan, Fiedler and Brown were steeped in literature, classical to modern. They understood the creative imagination, and they extended their insights into speculation about history and society. Their influence was positive and fruitful: They did not impose their system on acolytes but liberated a whole generation of students to think freely and to discover their own voices.
I also noticed something else about our understanding of media since 9/11. We just have not had the theoretical tools to explain the revolution in media that has followed that attack. In particular the emergence of the Blogosphere and its effect upon us or for that matter the effect of al Jezzera on the Middle East. Anyone familiar with McLuhan would know these changes in the media environment are having major and complex consequences. We are, as McLuhan would say, hypnotized by the red meat of content and anesthetized to the changes new forms are having upon us. We fight over the content left and right, paroxysms of powerful emotion course through the Muslim world driven by their new mass media, but much less is said about how the changes in the media environment are changing all of us. McLuhan predicted this kind of media driven process but he didn’t live long enough to track the specific impact of the Internet. When Donald Rumsfeld said, “We are losing the information war,” it was clear he saw there was a problem but that he had no theory to explain it. Rumsfeld’s lack of answers, I would argue, stems directly from the lack of theoretical understanding Camille Paglia describes.
Paglia also suggests Norman O Brown and Leslie Fiedler as thinkers that can make that understanding more robust. I am not particularly familiar with them at present although I will undertake to remedy that. I know that my understanding of literature is underpinned by psychology – particularly the work of Freud and Jung. However, I think initial progress can be made on understanding the Internet by adding a new thinker to the ones Paglia suggests – in particular by putting the work of Eric S Raymond together with the work of McLuhan. Raymond is known as the philosopher of the Open Source software movement. His work gives insight into the dynamics of networked media which are surprisingly different from the familiar mass media of the industrial age. For example, mass media are easily controlled by a few gatekeepers while a networked media environment makes central control almost impossible. McLuhan alerts us to the importance of changing Media environments. Raymond tells how this new toy of ours – the Internet – is changing the rules for everyone. Like Linus Torvalds’ Linux kernel that’s my starting point for trying to build the new theory of media called for by Camille Paglia. I’ll welcome all the help I can get.
I am starting newmediatheory.net as an invitation to form a community of like minded individuals who would like to help develop this new media theory. While I would not exclude entirely the insights of postmodernism, initially the proposed theory is not particularly concerned with debating or interacting with Postmodernism. Certainly not until the feasibility and direction of the new theory are clearer. For anyone interested in taking this invitation seriously – again Paglia’s talk in its entirety is to be found here and is the best place to begin. In my next post I’ll be adding references to previous posts I have made at yankeewombat where I have been exploring McLuhan’s and Raymond’s ideas. In addition to McLuhan’s Understanding Media (I recommend the 2003 critical edition edited by Terrence Gordon) and Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bizarre which is available free on the web here.
My email is lgude*at*newmediatheory*dot*net