October 15th, 2007 | Published in Foundation
One of the things I am learning by trying to come up with a new media theory is that starting the job has made me more aware of my assumptions. Today I want to begin digging into those assumptions. Given my background in literature and the psychology of Freud and Jung I see a lot of the issues surrounding media as connected to our inner life and the processes by which we struggle to become aware of the less conscious aspects of that inner world. I was attracted to the work of Marshall McLuhan in the sixties because he spoke of this inner world with great depth even if not always with great clarity. I have spent a lot of my teaching career trying to make his ideas clearer to myself and my students.
McLuhan made extravagant claims about the structure of media because he was trying to jolt us into awareness of the unconscious effects structure has on our inner life. He famous ‘the medium is the message’ is one such claim – another, less repeated and even more obscure, is that light bulbs emit ‘pure information’. Always, he tried to dramatically direct out attention to structure and its effect upon us. Here he is speaking of the impact of various media on the development of Western culture:
The Gutenberg Galaxy provides the necessary background for studying the rapid rise of new visual values after the advent of printing from movable type. “A place for everything and everything it its place” is a feature not only of the compositor’s arrangement of his type fonts, but of the entire range of human organization of knowledge and action from the sixteenth century onward. Even the inner life of the feelings and emotions began to be structured and ordered and analyzed according to separate pictorial landscapes, as Christopher Hussey explained in his fascinating study to The Picturesque. More than a century of this pictorial analysis on the inner life preceded Talbot’s 1839 discovery of photography. Photography, by carrying the pictorial delineation of natural objects much further than paint or language could do, had a reverse effect. By conferring a means of self-delineation of objects, of “statement without syntax,” photography gave the impetus to a delineation of the inner world. Statement without syntax or verbalization was really statement by gesture, by mime, by gestalt. This new dimension opened for human inspection by poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud le peysage interieur, or the countries of the mind. Poets and painters invaded this inner landscape world long before Freud and Jung brought their cameras and notebooks to capture states of mind. (Understanding Media pp271-272)
McLuhan was most comfortable in that shadowland between conscious and unconscious inhabited by literature. There are six references to Freud, four to Jung in the name index of my 1994 critical edition of Understanding Media from which the above quote is taken, but there are many more to Joyce, TS Eliot, and Baudelaire. McLuhan understood the relationship between literature and psychology in a similar way to Freud who once said ‘the Romantics discovered the unconscious, I systematized it.’ (Still searching for a citation.) McLuhan put this idea forward in another of his more well known aphorisms when he said that artists are the antennae of society who intuitively grasp the future before the majority.
Here again is McLuhan talking about the non-obvious effects of new media at time similar to our own in that irrational forces were loosed upon the world – in this case he is discussing the impact of radio on the comfortable orderliness of the visual world he described above:
Had Spengler taken the time to discover the origins of both number and Euclidean space in the psychological effects of the phonetic alphabet, The Decline of the West might never have been written. That work is based on the assumption that classical man, Apollonian man, was not the product of a technological bias in Greek culture (namely the early impact of literacy on a tribal society), but rather the result of a special tremor in the soul stuff the embosomed the Greek world. This is a striking instance of how easily men of any one particular culture will panic when some familiar pattern of landmark gets smudged or shifted because of the indirect pressure of new media. Spengler, as much as Hitler, had derived for radio a subconscious mandate to announce the end of all “rational” or visual values. Spengler and Hitler and many more of the would-be “irrationalists” of our century are like singing-telegram delivery boys, who are quite innocent of any understanding of the medium that prompts the song they sing. (pp 153-54)
Even when we know we are caught in this kind of moment of change it is devilishly hard to see what will be obvious in a generation or so. By way of example, I think of Donald Rumsfeld demonstrating that he had considerable awareness of this kind of problem yet was powerless to deal effectively with it. It was to his credit that he knew he “was trying to fight a 21st century war with a 20th century army” but he still found himself forced to admit “we are losing the information war.” In what must have been a painful time, he knew well before it became public about the shameful behavior of American troops at Abu Ghraib. But he found no way to preempt the storm of negative publicity he surely much have known would eventually erupt. It was left to the perpetrator’s attorneys to, in classically 20th century fashion, release the photos which made the incident the single most damaging engagement of the information war.
When new media are generating new structures beyond the settled awareness of the times ironies abound. Neither Rumsfeld nor his 20th century military noticeably showed awareness that their fighting men were blogging and being avidly read, not only by friends and family, but also by a whole new audience in the blogosphere. That audience was a 21st century audience that wasn’t just passively reading the milbloggers but linking and citing and discussing and opening new fronts in the information war. Counter to what might be expected of the tension between the front lines and the home front, most milblogs were more positive about the war effort than public opinion. Above all they were credible, and would turn out to be one of the Coalition’s greatest assets in the information war. Obviously if the soldiers were largely negative about the war the results would have been very different. I want to finish this post by noting that the accidental quality of periods of intensive change arise because, as McLuhan repeatedly pointed out, our own inventions change both the world and ourselves faster than we can adapt. We go numb. We become somnambulists. Being an optimist I hold considerable hope that a world changing technology like the Internet will not just baffle us but also enable us to adapt more quickly.
Crossposted at Yankeewombat)