Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Media and bodies

The issue of visibility is, as Dave notes, important for thinking about new media in general and especially thinking about it historically. Bloggers have helped make visible certain moments or kinds of information (two prominent examples: Presidential sexual follies; racist remarks made by public figures) that may not have become part of the public discussion in an earlier era. In doing so, they have also made visible the ways in which mainstream media had always decided on what was or was not newsworthy, allowing for a more public critique of news institutions as well as politicians.

At the same time (as Fernando points out) we need to realize that media of any kind both open up and foreclose certain opportunities, encourage certain ways of acting and discourage others, bring some kinds of information to the fore and hide other kinds. One of the things that the Internet hides is the physical specificity of the bodies that use it: their visibility. Sherry Turkle has famously celebrated that aspect of Internet communication. By removing physical presence from an interaction, people were allowed to be whoever they wanted to be. If you a middle-aged male accountant from Wichita, you could pretend to be a surfer, or a biker, or a Buddhist monk, or a woman, or a space alien. No-one would be the wiser: a kind of postmodernist play of identity became a very real possibility. But this feature also meant that it was easy to forget that most of the people using the Internet in the 1990s (the VAST, VAST majority) were white, youngish, middle-class American males (which might help explain why, for example, the dominant political ethos was essentially libertarian). When we look at how the Net was organized, the ways it was used, the kind of discourse that built up around it, we need to keep in mind what sorts of bodies were in charge, and maybe also look at how they used something like a notion of visibility (or related terms like “openness”), to both publicly present themselves and to strategically hide certain elements of their lives.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


In a recent post, I argued that too many histories of the media focus too much on the discourse surrounding the media, and neglect the material qualities of the media themselves. I maintain this position, but in the last few weeks, I've been thinking about how some of the best historical work in media studies has succeeded largely because they de-center the object of analysis. In other words, much as works of history of communication technology that focus almost exclusively on, say, newspaper reports about a certain medium (many inspired by Carolyn Marvin's When Old Technologies Were New, a truly superior work) fail to deliver much because of their tendency to recapitulate tired ideas about utopian and dystopian expectations (Marvin, and Carey before her, always did better than this), histories that focus almost exclusively on the technology as a thing in and of itself reify the 'set-aside-ness' of the communication technology in question, and this leaves us with some pretty weak historical work, too.

A colleague recently suggested to me that Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought--a history of the U.S. from 1815 to 1848--did a better job with the history of the telegraph than many other books that took a more telegraph-centric look at things. The point: Howe (a bona fide historian) does better talking about the telegraph because he's not talking about the telegraph itself, or even about the discursive domain surrounding the telegraph. It's a superior piece of media history because it's not trying to be the history of a medium, which allows it to be a multivariate and broad exploration of all kinds of things happening in the U.S. as the electrical telegraph was coming into being (keeping in mind that the original 'telegraph' wasn't electrical, or American). So, all those issues in economics, culture, military history, race, gender, class, politics, power, regionalism, and literature get pulled into the analysis.

So, maybe it works like this:
--histories about technologies themselves are often too limited in scope
--histories about the discourse around the technologies have become a kind of one-note reminder of the constructedness of all things (an idea that is important, but not really sufficient in all cases to explore or exhaust a particular area of study)
--histories that go broad and don't focus on a communication technology are the best

To write good histories of the media, maybe we need to stop looking at the media.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Internet: Technological Revolution or Business as Usual?

The other day while I was waging a pitched battle with my five year old son over something that seemed crucial at the time but is totally unmemorable now, my eight year old daughter came careening up with a copy of Entertainment Weekly, the issue with the “Comic-Con ’08 Preview.” She held up the page with the panels from Ender’s Game and asked in a tremulous voice, “What is happening?” Since I’m a certified media studies person sensitive to issues of kids and media, of course I turned on a dime, forgot about my fight with Wyatt, and settled in on the sofa for a nice snuggly media literacy session. Right? Wrong. In my frantic state, I flung my hands in the air (like I just don’t care) and said “I don’t know! I can’t tell you! I just don’t know!” And then, I barked, “And that’s a grown up magazine anyway, you shouldn’t be reading it!” End scene.

The next day she and I were in the Video Library rental place. I was trying to find a copy of Eastern Promises and she was lurking around in the comics section. I’m not that up on recent graphic novels but I’ve seen a few in the past that freaked me out. So I kept throwing glances over there and worrying that she would come across something horrible, but at the same time I was feeling ashamed of my censorship cop behavior and wanted to give her some freedom. She’s a sensitive person – she came home from Wall-E in tears – so part of why I reacted so inappropriately to the Ender’s Game question came of frustration at the futility of trying to protect her from weirdness. But at the same time she heads for the comics like a moth to the flame and has to be pried loose, so why should I hold her back from her appreciation of art? This was my internal struggle, but luckily she stayed near the kids’ shelf and all was well.

On our way home, I tried to do the right thing and address what happened with the Entertainment Weekly magazine. I told her I was sorry I was so abrupt and dismissive, and then I tried to explain what was happening in the panels – basically a boy was having a microchip removed from the back of his neck, and part of the whole alien mythology (myths are stories we tell that express our hopes and fears) is that people get abducted by aliens and get chips in their necks, so the aliens could monitor us, kind of like what we do to migratory animals, and this story looked like a play on that, and blah blah blah … the usual kind of over-explanation that makes her glaze over … finally she interrupts me and asks, but why does he seem so CALM about it?

I guess, because of Novocaine. What’s novocaine? It’s a drug doctors use to numb your skin so surgery doesn’t hurt. Oh. And that was the end of the conversation. Apparently she wasn’t too worried about the alien chips aspect of the thing.

So what’s my point in posting this evidence of my poor parenting skills? Just this: I think another reason why I tack back and forth between “The impact of the Internet is immeasurable!” and “Eh, there’s nothing new under the sun,” is because as far as the mundane details of my life are concerned, hardly anything troublesome comes of the Internet. It’s incredibly easy to monitor. We rigged it so she can’t go anywhere we haven’t already vetted. On the other hand, just about everything I have trouble handling, in terms of assessing its “effects” on my child, comes from print and television, and it’s usually stuff that I brought into the house! I have trouble handling the idea that my darling sunshiny innocent daughter will encounter a world of perversion and darkness. Putting her on the PBSKids website is probably one of the “safest” things I can do with her – it’s a better electronic babysitter than the tube ever was. It’s like a padded-wall playpen in the middle of a madhouse, but it's probably too young for her now and I have to let her grow up. This is a question of boundaries and barriers, and what audience I’m locating my kids in. Also, regarding Fernando's observations about Radway and Callejo: I'm not "using" media properly, if that means taking advantage of its complexities and using it to the utmost (and taking advantage of the teaching moments it provides). I'm far more wary of "real" than virtual space when it comes to the absolutely most important things in my life.

Monday, July 21, 2008

All Over the Place

I have remained blog-silent for so long (actually, forever) that now I feel I’d like to say a lot, and I am afraid I am going to be “all over the place.” I’ll try to get to the point, and I will restrict my comments to the recent exchange between Mark and Dave (below)...

When I first read Mark’s post on the democratic potential of the Internet, it made me think not so much about whether the Internet is or not a revolutionary democratic medium, but about the frequency and use of this type of discussion (perhaps Dave would call this a meta-level thought). No doubt, that thought was prompted by the fact that I was also reading at that time two texts that I use in class. One was the concluding chapter to Janice Radway’s “Reading the Romance.” The other, a portion of Javier Callejo’s “La Audiencia Activa” (probably the best piece of audience research ever produced in Spain).

Radway devotes a significant part of her conclusions to discussing whether or not reading romance novels has any practical utility for improving the social and family situation of women. Callejo, in turn, discusses how participants in the focus groups he conducted often accused other members of the family (usually those in less “powerful” positions) of being addicted to television (constantly watching useless programs, not doing anything worthwhile with their time, etc). Radway is speaking from what seems by all accounts a genuine concern for the well-being of women, while Callejo’s subjects seem to be using television to play power games within the family. However, I feel that there is a line of continuity between Radway’s discussion and Callejo’s subjects’ comments. They are all talking about how we do not use the media properly or how we do not extract all the potential of those media to change our personal, family or social situation. They are all judging “others” in terms of their media use. I think that the issue of the democratic potential of the Internet (note that “democratic” is equivalent to “good”) belongs to the same kind of discourse. And I have to confess that I feel uncomfortable with it. The same way I don’t like it when people tell me some media is bad for me, I don’t like it when people say “it’s great, but people don’t use it properly or enough”.

Technology opens up possibilities (or closes them off). And the fact that those possibilities are allowed is precisely what leads to the discussions and debates mentioned above. If you only have a land line and you do not answer a call, the caller will probably assume that you are out. But if you have a cell phone and you don’t answer a call, the caller will probably feel you are not a good cell user (after all, cells only exist so you can answer calls at any time from anywhere). It is the possibilities that the technology opens that allows others to criticize, evaluate or ponder your behavior: are you a good reader, a good TV viewer, a good Wikipedia contributor, a good citizen? (I have to confess that ever since this blog was started I have felt the need to live up to the possibilities it opened to me, and I have been somewhat anxious about not living up to those possibilities… I am starting to feel more relaxed now).

And, when the technology increases our possibilities to do things, can we say that something new is happening or is it just the same old? Well, I think the answer is rather arbitrary. If we define and name a certain animal in a certain way, and then we find a specimen that matches the description in every respect but one, we have two options: make our definition more complex to account for the observed variation or use a new name to refer to this specimen which is only slightly different. In my opinion, the name is not that relevant. What really matters is that we carefully study these animals and their behavior.

And this leads me to Dave’s latest post (which, by the way, reminded me of Dominique Wolton’s “Eloge du Grand Public”). I think what Dave is describing is a more complex world. While the audience is fragmenting, there are also certain events (contents, products?) able to attract unprecedentedly large audiences. Both things (fragmentation and agglutination) are taking place at the same time. And this is so because the technology is opening up possibilities and some people (not all, there are still too many lazy bums!) are taking advantage of some (not all, that would be impossible for anyone) possibilities. And that is enough to make our world much more complex and blur previously clear distinctions.

I don’t know if I made sense, but I feel better now :)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Obligatory New Yorker post

Feels like it’s already old news, with the backlash to the backlash going full strength, but here’s my two cents’ worth anyhow.

The unspoken heart of the debate is that lots of people are simply too stupid to read cartoons. Specifically, New Yorker cartoons. Which are, let’s face it, often kind of hard to figure out: Seinfeld managed a whole episode on this. You need to do some work on them. You often need a not inconsiderable amount of social capital to figure out what they’re alluding to. This is part of their appeal. At least for me. I kind of like patting myself on the back when I finally get the joke, and if I were completely honest, I’d have to say that I also enjoy the vague feeling of superiority I get knowing that some folks just wouldn’t get it, if they were of a mind to read the damned thing (which many of them are not).

This is relatively mild snobbery, all things considered, made even milder by the sorts of subjects that New Yorker cartoons often address: trophy wives, jokes made at the expense of cultural stereotypes about cowboys and science fiction movies, etc. But this year, attitudes toward the often silly controversies of Presidential-year politics, which tend to be standard fair for satirists, have changed because of the perceived stakes. Don’t you understand? The response to accusations of humourlessness seems to be, There are whole wide swathes of idiocy growing out in the Heartland right now! They don’t believe in evolution! They elected a cretin to fill the position of most powerful human being on the planet! Then they re-elected him!! We just can’t trust them to handle this sort of humor responsibly! Or, as a friend of mine put it to me yesterday on the subject: “What is some farmer in Iowa going to make of this?”

So, a couple of things. First, as the son of a farmer, I am pretty certain that not many of them are going to be looking at the covers of The New Yorker magazine. Second, while I can attest, from personal experience, that farmers believe in lots of stupid things (university professors too, for that matter, which is a topic for another day), it’s not quite clear to me what the mechanism of persuasion is supposed to be here. It’s one thing to believe that Barack Obama is really a Muslim, and was just going to that Christian church in Chicago for 20 years as a kind of front. But if you do believe that, it’s probably because a relative that you trust, or a blogger whose views you like, or an email from a friend, told you so. Not because someone sketched a caricature of him. We all share the same media culture, and we all use the same sorts of modality cues. Like for example: photograph—documentary account; cartoon—fictional account. Nobody, not even farmers, takes a cartoon as veridical evidence of anything. They might not understand it, but they’re not going to be convinced by it one way or another.

The thing is, at this point, I think the level of suspicion on the part of educated and liberal groups in this country—not even of the fundamental decency of their opponents, but of their basic intellectual competence—is now so strong that they seem to be able to imagine that ordinary rules of epistemological judgment no longer apply. And while I often fume about the elitism of the chattering classes, in this case I am a little more sympathetic: not to the particulars, but to the mistrust that helped spark the outcry. I just can’t get over the fact that some people (many of whom will be able to vote in this year's election) actually believe that a wealthy, preppy, Ivy-league educated lawyer is really a radical, American-hating terrorist in disguise: a conclusion that they’ve come to without any help from David Remnick.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


There are few more discredited approaches to history than those that rely on nostalgia. Nostalgia is rightly condemned as bad historiography, and often as a kind of psychological malady. I'm very much 'with' this, and I think there are few things more likely to get me ticked off than a book/article/essay concerning the 'decline' of anything. In particular, I hate it when people talk about the decline of public intellectuals. But that's a whole different thing...

The potentially nostalgic idea I want to introduce here concerns mass communication. In particular, I'm interested in how mass communication may have been very good at doing some things, even if it was very bad at doing other things. We are very much accustomed to the 'bad' things about mass communication. Amongst other things, classic mass communication (think network television in the 1970s, or radio in the 1950s) is critiqued for being a leveling factor, a massifier, a social concretizer (so to speak), and as a top-down force that serves the interests of the (white, monied, U.S.) elites. Almost everyone knows these arguments. Few ideas about mass communication seem to be better distributed than the idea that they are bad because they are dumbed-down, lowest-common-denominator sludge.

I suggest that the vantage point of the early 21st century gives a good starting place for understanding what mass communication was (or is, or could have been). To warp Innis, it is only in the gathering dusk that Minerva's owl takes flight. Mass communication is not in the dominant position it was in (okay, that's arguable), and that gives us an opening to understand what mass communication was 'good' at.

So, what was mass communication good at? Perhaps not much. But two things seem apparent to me:

1) Mass communication was good at making publics. Joe Turow has dealt with this for the last 10 years. Implicitly or explicitly, Turow has done a good job showing us how new media are easily used to separate out audiences, thus undermining at least one potential thing that everyone could have in common. It used to be that almost everyone watched Lucille Ball on television and listened to Perry Como. Audiences are now fragmented and temporary collections of networks of people, and the lines between them are drawn up by people who are rewarded for splitting up culture in ways that allow for targeted selling. [brief note: I am occasionally struck by how deep of an influence George Gerbner had on Turow. Very telling in this stuff.]

2) Mass communication was also good at making counter-publics. The idea of the counter-public, as I dimly understand it, comes to us as a kind of elaboration on Habermas' notion of the public sphere. The critique of Habermas for a while was that his ideal of the public sphere didn't allow for the different kinds of oppositional publics that do not share the bourgeois settings or identities of the classic public sphere. [note: I don't want to get into this debate here] One weird thing about mass communication is that, because television and radio stations were so centralized, when there was anything new or different out there, this was relatively significant. To speak metaphorically, something like a two-party system ('dominant' and 'oppositional') became possible. To speak in examples: college and community radio mattered a lot more before the internet. Precisely because of the scarcity of stations, these radio stations were very effective at organizing audiences, and their position in the system of mass communication lent them a decidedly oppositional cast. At the same time that these oppositional radio stations mattered (roughly the 1980s and early 1990s), oppositional television stations were also culturally important. I'm thinking here of Channel Z in L.A., or New York City's whole community access television scene. There was an audience there, and the programmers of these independent stations were instrumental in pulling this freaky audience together.

Now, with internet-based modes of content distribution, the surfeit of 'alternative' voices means that the whole thing has become more muddled. It's the old saw: if everybody's somebody, then nobody's anybody. There are so many voices out there (and so little of a system for sorting them out), that opposition becomes almost meaningless in the cacophony. We've gone from a two-party system (with one party truly dominant) to a billion-option system that has undermined the coordination of cultural opposition. I doubt that this is a permanent or even terribly bad thing. But looking at this purely in terms of how audiences are coordinated, we see a true sense of disorganization in terms of oppositional culture (a culture that, strangely, benefited from its tenuous position in the heyday of mass communication).

Response to the Response, Part 1: History and New Media

This entry is going to be the first in a series of responses to Dave’s post of last week, which has got me to thinkin’:

First, about the noted tendency for many media historians to dismiss the importance of the Internet, or of new media generally, as just the same-old, same-old. I agree that this is annoying, and I also admit to doing some of it myself. I want to offer several different but compatible explanations for what I think might be going on here.

Most media historians, like most other academics, are geeky, and also very often insecure in their geekiness. Part of their insecurity comes from the awareness that they are experts in a subject in which almost all other people have very little interest, and regard as more or less useless. Hence, in their continual effort to prove their relevance, and also in order to preen before their fellow academics, obscure references to historical personages or events or technologies will inevitably pop up. “You tell me that the Internet is inherently democratic, and yet, don’t you know what Forysthe P. Wigglesworth III, nineteenth-American abolitionist, adventurer, and inventor of the epilecticoposcope, had to say about the utopian rhetoric surrounding the telegraph?” Followed by a (not terribly germane) quote from Wigglesworth, and a knowing smile.

Then too, the ready dismissal of new media’s significance is a cheap way to claim political sophistication, or a kind of old school radicalism: oh, I am just too, too historically aware to buy into all that hype.

A more justifiable rationale for this sort of argument, at least seven or eight years ago, when propaganda about the Internet was ubiquitous and rarely challenged, was simple weariness about the claims made on its behalf (Darin Barney has a nice quote at the beginning of his book Prometheus Wired from John Perry Barlow, in which Barlow calls digitized information “the most profound technological shift since the capture of fire.”) A reminder about historical perspective often felt apropos. Nowadays there is less need, although some of us (again I would probably include myself here) do tend to slip back into what has become something of a reflex response.

This is offered more in the spirit of explanation than exculpation. The pattern that Dave describes is intellectually lazy and boring, and because of this essentially helps makes the case for those many people who would rather we just forget all about history when talking about modern media technologies.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Shaun Tan's "The Arrival"

I saw on Crooked Timber that Shaun Tan’s graphic novel, The Arrival, had received a prize from Locus, a Science Fiction literature site, which provoked this blog.
The Arrival
is a constructed around the experience of a newly-arrived immigrant (Tan is an Australian of Malaysian-Chinese descent) in a vaguely surreal city: people travel about in balloon-ships, there is an invented alphabet, and the main character is accompanied for most of the narrative by a sort of friendly tadpole-like creature. Tan's world reminded me a bit of the American children’s book artist David Wiesner. Like Wiesner, Tan tells his story without using words.

The conceit—the new world as a variation on Oz—may strike some readers as fey and little too precious, but it also, to my mind, highlights how certain media can provide us with a distinctive aesthetic experience. At some point in reading the book, I started to think about how a literary novel or even a movie could capture the feeling of strangeness and confusion and wonder and vague foreboding that is the experience of anyone encountering a radically different society. I couldn’t think of how it could be done as well as Tan has managed to do it here.