Monday, December 25, 2006

Television Advertising Teaches Us How to Think (in an Era of Secondary Orality)

Every television commercial is a lesson in the ways of thought under secondary orality and, as advertising icons spread out to other venues, they act as constant reminders of the secondary orality way to process experience.

Theatrical television is based on literary conventions. Film school students can tell you how every movie is divided into three acts--just like a stage play. One hour theatrical tv programs extend the dramatic arc to four acts, each about 11 minutes long. The drama progresses via thought processes that are linear, based on literacy-based cause and effect logic. TV Ads teach us to think like pre-literate peoples, using the type of non-linear thought processes that Claude Lévi-Strauss divided into "empirical" and "transcendental" deduction.

Empirical deduction occurs whenever a myth attributes a function value or symbolic meaning to a natural being because of an empirical judgment durably associating the being with the attribution. From a formal point of view the correctness of the empirical judgment is irrelevant. (1)

Empirical deduction begins with some observation of reality. It then treats that observation as if it were an abstract concept. This type of mental process can occur using two different types of association. First, through the use of a metonymic association, some observed characteristic or habit of an animal is treated as if it stood for the entire animal. If this characteristic is found elsewhere in the environment, it too is associated with that animal. The metonymic association then becomes a metaphoric assertion. Lévi-Strauss’s term for such uses of metaphor is “imaginary association.”

An imaginary association…results in the attribution of curative powers against snake bite and tooth decay to seeds shaped like fangs. (2)

The metonymic association (fangs of a snake) is used to make a metaphoric assertion (fang-shaped seeds cure snake bite). In classic television advertising we see this type of reasoning regularly. The air bubbles in Baggies sandwich bags make the bag look like an alligator’s skin, so an alligator is used as the product mascot. The Volkswagon “bug,” the Turtlewax turtle, and the old Exxon tiger are further examples of this type of association.

In current advertising, the associations are more subtle. For example, many ads feature automobiles that will never in real life leave a paved road "roughing" it through forests or deserts, avoiding natural obstacles and endowing the driver with the "freedom of the wilderness." The irony of these images is that the car or SUV, which often is given an animal name, is actually the embodiment of culture that provides the driver with protection against the storm. This is why Marshall McLuhan could refer to the automobile and driver as a knight in shining armor:

The car gave to the democratic cavalier his horse and armor and haughty insolence in one package, transmogrifying the knight into a misguided missle. (3)

"Transcendental" deduction operates at another step removed from reality. The characteristic attributed to an animal or an object is removed from any grounding in empirical observation, and is determined by its relative position in the culture's symbolic structure as a whole. Lévi-Strauss states that:

It does not necessarily rest on a true or false, a direct or indirect empirical base; rather, it stems from the awareness of a certain logical necessity, that of attributing certain properties to a given being because empirical deduction has previously connected this being with others on the basis of a set of correlative properties (4)

Lévi-Strauss has borrowed the notion of redundancy from communication theory to explain the rationale behind this procedure. Imagine that you are the story teller of a culture that relies on oral communication for the transmission of its body of knowledge. Let us assume for the sake of argument that you are fully aware of the hid­den structural associations that your stories are portraying. How would you insure that the information contained in those tales would survive the erosion of time and the individual idiosyncrasies of future story tellers? One way would be to take the basic message or messages and repeat them over and over again using different formats and imagery. Though the stories would seem to be about different heroes, animals, events, and so on, the underlying struc­ture would be more or less the same throughout. Furthermore, future story tellers would internalize these structures so that they would tend to reject any alterations which went against the general pattern.

That's why, in our secondary orality culture, ads want to insinuate themselves into every aspect of our lives: Not just as an accepted part of television and radio and magazines but also in movies and broadway theaters, in our schools and workplaces. Can our places of worship be far behind?

The type of thought manifest in television advertising represents the symbolic realization of the lesson of the medium itself. A medium of images and sounds, TV's biases toward the non-discursive are represented and reinforced in the narratives of advertising.

(1) Levi-Strauss, C. (1971). “The Deduction of the Crane,” in Structural Analysis of Oral Tradition, Maranda, P. and Maranda E.K., Eds. (p. 3). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

(2) Ibid. (p. 3)

(3) McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (p. 17). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

(4) Levi-Strauss, C. Op. Cit, (p. 3)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

From the Kenyon Review: On Steiner's 'New Literacy'

Lance Strate and his recent book, Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study, get a nice mention from Jerry Harp in the current Kenyon Review online discussing a George Steiner essay that appears in their Winter, 2007 issue.

I think Harp is wrong to conflate Jacques Derrida's deconstructionism with Marshall McLuhan's famous aphorism "the medium is the message." My reading of McLuhan is that he was very concerned with the demeaning of meaning that the electronic media represent and which Derrida's work celebrates. Though McLuhan was pegged as a "media guru," implying that he was in favor of the changes being wrought by the new media, he was not necessarily an advocate of the brave new world that electronic media were creating. If anything, McLuhan believed we must understand how new technology upsets our existing sensory balance so that we can devise methods to counteract it.

Most misunderstood, perhaps is McLuhan's meaning of the term "global village." Common understanding has been that a "global village", whether brought about by television, or more recently by the World Wide Web will somehow result in a era of good feeling and common understanding. As McLuhan and Neil Postman have both pointed out, the increase in communication seems to have resulted in more people returning to tribal norms as a source of identity, which often has lead to an increase in violence and intolerance.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Rise of Product Placement

Why has product placement become an attractive alternative to the standard commercial messages which interrupted televised narrations but did not enter the narrations themselves? It has been argued that economic factors and competition from new media are forcing advertisers to reevaluate how to get their messages across. In fact this is just the tail wagging the dog. It has always been inevitable that the "content" what we call "ads" would move from the confines of the 15 or 30 seconds spaces between the old content presented by our traditional media to become involved in all forms of entertainment, from movies to television, to the theater, to news reports, to our literature.

As the mythic avatars of our culture, advertising icons want to insinuate themselves into every aspect of our lives, and we subconsciously want them to do so. As Nicholas Johnson noted, television programs are not the "products" of American television. We, the viewers, are the product and we are sold to advertisers at a cost per thousand by the television and cable networks. Advertisers spend a great deal of money testing and researching which symbols or narratives will strike what Tony Schwartz calls a "responsive chord" with the public. Through their psychological research, advertisers have become very sophisticated in their understanding of what motivates our purchasing behavior.

Think about how the average person in Homeric Greece related to the Iliad or the Odyssey. These performance/poems weren't just the "literature" of Greek culture, separate from their general experience. Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan and others have pointed out that the Iliad and Odyssey constituted cultural "how-to manuals" or "mythic encyclopedias," preserving for a culture without writing the proper ways to conduct ceremonies, the proper relationship of Greeks toward their gods and the proper things to believe about just about everything in their world.

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss noted that such mythic encyclopedias reconcile or deny the inevitable contradictions within a culture's system of beliefs. My research on television advertising suggests that many television ads deal with nature/culture issues, wrestling with the same types of concerns that Lévi-Strauss discerned in the mythology of South American cultures. Ads are part of a system that explains the contradictions of our culture, or denies that those contradictions exist. The iconic imagery presented by ads is not "art", out there to be appreciated only by an educated few. They are part of all our daily lives and as such they constitute our culture's mythic encyclopedia. By doing so, they promote well-being and peace of mind of members of the culture.

Commercials portray people suffering from the assaults of dirt and disease, using the sponsor's product to mediate and restore order. Foods of all types, raw and cooked, fresh and "aged' or "cultured" are touted, not just as basic nutrition, but as enablers for social occasions. Personal care products promise to help overcome individual shortcomings and enhance sexual attractiveness.

To help them better grasp this concept, I like to ask students in my classes the following question: Why do women in our culture wear makeup? The acceptance of this cultural norm is so deep that this question is seldom asked. We see all sorts of ads in all our media showing women wearing the public mask that the use of makeup represents. A woman's need to wear makeup is constantly promoted and reinforced by all of our media, but seldom are the particulars of purchasing, applying and wearing makeup examined in such minute detail as they are in our advertisements. Why do women need to do this? Why, before going out in public do they engage in rituals associated with eyes, skin and mouth? Perhaps, it is argued, that applying makeup minimizes individual variances from the beauty norm and thereby enhances one’s sexual attractiveness. Then why don't men need to wear makeup? What allows them to forgo the rituals? Certainly in other times and other cultures the use of makeup by men was perfectly acceptable.

I would argue that there is a structural opposition within our culture that, in opposing men and women, dictates that one needs makeup while the other doesn't. In her opus, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia explores at length some of the root causes of this opposition. Paglia discusses in great detail how the great works of art of our culture have reflected these oppositions and in other writings she traces how modern advertising pays homage to these artistic precedents. I would add that one of the ways the characteristics of this structure is disseminated and maintained is through the structure of the entire body of advertising in our media. Not just the images, but the narratives of advertising perpetuate this male/female opposition.

We still can't see that modern advertising, in all its manifestations, performs the same functions in our culture that the Iliad and the Odyssey performed in ancient Greece, or that tales about frogs and honey bees and jaguars perform for native South Americans. To me, this is a prime example of McLuhan's assertion that we are numb to our technology's impact.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

My 15 Seconds of (Radio) Fame

(Updated Below)

I just heard on the radio the content of a call I made a few weeks ago to one of the talk show hosts on Air America Radio. They are now using it as part of a promo for the network:

Announcer: The following is an actual call to Air America Radio.

I think we liberals tend to celebrate and then say "OK. We're done.
Let's go back to our own private lives." I think we need to be wary of
conservatives, or radical conservatives, or fascists. The structures are still there for them to come back. And next time they come back they'll be smarter and they'll have taken into account the mistakes they made this time.

Announcer: All it takes is a telephone and the call is free. Talk to
all of America from anywhere in America on Air America Radio.

That was me. That was my voice. Is this my 15 seconds of fame?

UPDATE: I posted this announcement on a listserve I subscribe to and received the following comments:

Your quote fits nicely into what Aristotle in his Rhetoric described as the procedure for addressing a friendly address where everyone already agrees with the speaker--as there is no need to persuade, the goal is to deepen their commitment, move them from thought to behavior, spur them on to action, or in modern parlance, energize the base.

Of course. That was always my intention.

I just wonder if there really is any greater tendency for liberals to withdraw after achieving success than conservatives.

They didn't include in my on-air quote my learned discussion concerning conservative control of a consolidated media, or the big dollars supporting conservation think tanks, or the conservative gerrymandering of congressional districts. That is what I was referring to as the "structures" that are still there favoring a conservative comeback. I also regret that I wasn't able to mention the term "media ecology" in the time allotted.

There's probably a disclaimer somewhere (on a website) that makes your intellect their property when you choose to call in. Still, it would be nice if they told you before it goes on the air.

Next time I call in I'll make sure that I retain the intellectual property rights to anything I say.

BTW, I received a response from my cousin that this doesn't constitute my 15 seconds of fame, it is just a promo for my 15 seconds of fame to come.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

On My Dissertation Title: "Myth as Advertising"

I chose my dissertation title, Myth as Advertising, quite carefully after considering many alternatives, including Advertising as Myth. I understood Myth as Advertising to mean that we should considering modern advertising as the form within which the traditional functions of myth could be expressed. The title "Advertising as Myth" implied that modern advertising is composed of pleasantries at best or untruths at worst, and that to consider advertising as myth would allow us to somehow unmask its falsehood by comparing it to all those pleasant but obviously fantastic fairy tales of cultures more primitive than our own.

It is not fruitful to compare the content of modern advertising to classic or primitive myths. The meaning of a image or symbol might be the same, or we might be mislead by labeling. The Keebler elf is not an elf in the classic fairy tale sense of the term, nor is the Jolly Green Giant a fairy tale giant. Just calling them those names doesn't make them so. We can be mislead by being too literal. If we are, we commit the same error as early linguists who thought that meaning could be discovered in the sound of a word, "liquid" vowels having to do with water, etc.

Myth in primary orality cultures served a purpose other than to put children to bed. Without writing, these cultures used stories as ways to think about things. A frog that was master of water to the South American Tupi Indians was more than just a frog. (see Claude Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked). It was also an intellectual peg on which to hang a memorable thought. Sometimes this led to incorrect correlations, forced upon the culture by the overall structure of their stories. But the end result was to allow the consideration of all the elements of that culture's reality as one seamless, uncontradicted whole, to identify the individual's place and purpose in that reality and to justify the mode of existence required by the particular physical environment.

We have trouble understanding the workings of our own culture because we are immersed in it. Take any television commercial and break it down into its underlying structure. Many commercials are merely declamatory and they assume we have internalized our culture's doctrines. Others are didactic, and demonstrate how a product will help us solve a problem. That we weren't aware that we had the problem is irrelevant. My research has shown that more often than not, that problem has to do with the forces of nature or disorder impinging upon a cultural event or ordered activity.

The 60 second commercials from the 1960's and 1970's were more obvious, as I documented in my dissertation. A couple is preparing for a dinner party. The husband discovers that he has "ring around the collar" which threatens the evening's activity. Using Wisk the wife banishes the ring around the collar and the social event proceeds as planned. There are countless other examples.

A convenient dichotomy of nature vs. culture, disorder vs. order, "raw" vs. "cooked" is used in advertising to reinforce cultural assumptions and expectations through the apparently mundane operations of a laundry detergent, a medicine, a perfume or cosmetic, a properly prepared food. Again, intellectual pegs in a secondary orality culture upon which to hang memorable thoughts.

This is what I mean by Myth as Advertising. Advertising is a means by which our culture manipulates and massages its many images and symbols. Ads come and go quickly and are far more efficient for this purpose than longer books or movies. Just as bacteria go through many generations per day in their continuous adaptation to a changing environment, advertisements mutate quickly to encompass the continuous change of our media environment.

A Model Media Ecologist

Under the tutelage of professors Neil Postman, Terry Moran and Christine Nystrom, it was the practice in the 1970's at New York University's Program in Media Ecology Conferences for each doctoral class to pick one member to deliver a "State of the Class" address.

My "Class of 1977" at the fall 1976 conference decided to do something different. I had access to a Sony reel to reel black and white Betamax recorder and a camera, and so instead of one class member giving a 30 minute address, each of us in the Class of '77 prepared up to five minutes on video tape of our own personal metaphor for what is Media Ecology. A Model Media Ecologist was my contribution. (I still have the complete video of the Class of '77 if anyone is interested.)

I sang it to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan's "A Modern Major General." I also used a lot of props to add visual humor to the comic lyrics. For instance, when I sang the line "I also know the difference 'tween me and a theologist" I put on a clerical collar. There are copies of the original video floating around and I recommend viewing it to get the full effect.

I'm proud to say the Casey M.K. Lum has included A Model Media Ecologist at the beginning of his history of Media Ecology, "Perspectives on Culture, Technology and Communication The Media Ecology Tradition" published by Hampton Press. No, I don't get any royalties, although I think I should.

For those of you who haven't already downloaded A Model Media Ecologist from itunes, here are the lyrics (modified slightly to bring them into the 21st Century):

A Model Media Ecologist

I am the very model of a Media Ecologist
I also sense the difference 'tween me and a theologist
I've read a bit of Mumford and a little of McLuhan
I also have a fair idea what Watslavik is doing.

Of Levi-Strauss and Jacques Ellul I seem to have a smattering.
The work of Ames and Cantril I am very often flattering.
I'm versed in Systems Theory and in models mathematical
Which I'll dispute with you until the start of my sabbatical.

I know how Shannon-Weaver strove to overcome their channel noise.
I'm well aware that Hayakawa hung out with the Senate boys.
Although it would be better to have been an anthropologist
I am the very model of a Media Ecologist!

I can recite the history of radio and telephone.
As well as why it is Korzybski's ghost is never left alone.
I've studied silent language and the biases of media,
Of Structuralistic notions I'ma real encyclopedia.

I've learned proxemics, kinesics, linguistics styles polemical.
I know why Greeks were oral and why monks were academical.
Then I'll recite five verses from a Bible made by Guternberg,
And guess the probability you know the work of Heisenberg.

Why TV is immediate, massaging your right hemisphere,
While functioning discursively is bound someday to disappear.
Although it would be better to have been an icthyologist,
I am the very model of a Media Ecologist!
When I can tell the difference 'tween "dub" and "dupe" and "master tape";
When I can tell a hot film splicer from a waffle plate;
When showing films or video no longer gets the best of me;
When I can show awareness of the workings of 'lectricity;

When laser beams and holograms no longer seem so magical;
When my attempt to splice a tape does not turn out so tragical;
In short when I've a smattering of modern day technology,
Then I'll feel better saying I know Media Ecology!

For my modern hardware training, though I'm plucky and advertury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of last century!
Although it would be better to have been a gynecologist,
I am the very model of a Media Ecologist!

Claude Lévi-Strauss's Contribution to Media Ecology

Here is my quick take on Lévi-Strauss's contribution to Media Ecology:

His approach to the interpretation of so-called "primitive" cultures revealed the complex patterns of thought that went into the development of systems of myth and kinship. His notion that "primitive" intellectual activities were equal to our "modern" systems of knowledge, just applied to differing objects, put the entire body of anthropological writings, going back to James Fraser's Golden Bough into a new perspective. Lévi-Strauss's work, building on the linguistic structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure and the evolutionary approach to cultural studies of Franz Boas, revealed the biases in the use of terms such as "primitive" and "modern" (even though Lévi-Strauss himself used these terms), and paved the way for Walter Ong's distinction between orality, literacy and secondary-orality as more appropriate explanations for differing cultures.

Lévi-Strauss discovered and demonstrated connections between seemingly disparate mythic stories, and offered explanations for seemingly random elements of those stories. His methodology can be used as model for ways to interpret the products of contemporary culture, which, while seeming to be unrelated, actually constitute a system (or systems) of symbolic meanings.

I find the tools Lévi-Strauss provides useful in a number of ways. I also think that his notion of "things that are good to think with" as powerful as Postman's question regarding a new technology: "What problem does it provide a solution to?"

I like Lévi-Strauss's idea that a myth is not a "false" story or idle tale, but rather a dynamic technique which members of a culture use to address cultural discrepancies. To me, this is a compelling explanation for why myths persist in a culture. It may also explain how, if we know where to look, we can identify the mythic systems of our own culture that provide us with a coherent world view in the face of constant change and turmoil.

Myths cannot be considered singly. One must absorb the entire canon of a culture to understand all the connections and interactions. That may be why we can't analyze Greek mythology properly. Too little of it has come down to us, and the versions we read have undergone so many revisions that they may not truly represent the originals.

I know that structuralism has been somewhat in eclipse in academic circles lately; that Lévi-Strauss has been accused of a binary focus that, being Hegelian in origin, cannot apply to current thinking about media. I think that to write off Lévi-Strauss's methodology as a thesis/antithesis/synthesis intellectual game misses the subtlety of his analysis. A closer reading of all 2200+ pages of his Mythologiques shows that, while he may begin an analysis by identifying polar opposites, this is only a starting point. The analysis of a mythic system must account for far more that just a pair of opposites. In the course of his analysis of the myths of the Tupi Indians, Lévi-Strauss moves spiral-like through multiple mythic variations and multiple opposing pairs and by proceeding A to B and B to C, etc., demonstrates internal consistencies within the mythic system that aren't immediately apparent to an outside observer. In other words, Lévi-Strauss provides a useful tool for analysis regardless of whether you wish to extrapolate the function of the method to the deeper structures of the human mind or not.

I also find Lévi-Strauss's methodology completely compatible with McLuhan's Laws of the Media. Where McLuhan, via the Tetrad asks us to consider what a technology or medium enhances, obsolesces, retrieves and reverses into, Lévi-Strauss will start with a pair of opposites "A" and "B", but in the course of his analysis will present examples of what he calls " A' " (A prime) and " B' " (B prime) as recursive iterations of the original pair. Perhaps someone will someday conduct a Lévi-Straussian analysis of McLuhan's system of myths.

Lévi-Strauss is also compatible with Ong's notions of primary orality. Ong discusses how different human thought processes must be without text. Lévi-Strauss gives example after example of exactly how these thought processes work. I don't recall Lévi-Strauss discussing the poetry of the Tupi Indians as a means of perpetuating the culture, but he does demonstrate how interconnected myths can act as intellectual place holders for a non-literate population to help them consider complex systems of thought.

Our current system of myths is not only presented verbally, but also via images, in print, and even in interplay of biases amongst all of our competing media. Since we may be relearning this manner of thinking as we move deeper into secondary orality, Lévi-Strauss provides us with a map of where we may be headed.