Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Humor Contest: The Best Media Ecology Joke, Ever!

I don't know if anyone besides me is reading this blog. One way to find out is to hold a contest and offer fabulous prizes. Another way is to hold a contest and not offer fabulous prizes. I've decided on the latter. If it doesn't work, I may resort to the former.

So, submit the best Media Ecology joke you've ever heard, and you may not win a fabulous vacation for two, a fabulous car or a fabulous signed copy of Understanding Media.

I'll start it off:

Several students of Media Ecology consult a famous psychic in order to contact Marshall McLuhan and finally get a clear explanation of his writings. The seer goes into a trance, but says nothing for several minutes.

Losing patience, one of the students cries out, "Dr. McLuhan, are you there? Why won't you speak to us?"

A deep voice replies, "The Medium is the Message!"

Of course, as McLuhan noted, "Jokes are grievances." So come grieve with me. All entries become the possession of A Model Media Ecologist. All decisions are final.

Friday, January 26, 2007

American Idol

In ancient times they sent youths and maidens to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Today they send them on American Idol. This "contest" is a modern analogue to ancient fertility rites and human sacrifice rituals, an American secondary orality cycle of death and resurrection reenacted each year around the Spring solstice and Easter.

Using our sacred talismans, our cell phones, we "vote" for (or pray to) the best candidate. The losers are cast into the pit. Like Heracles, the winner of American Idol has his/her mortal part burned off to ascend to Olympus as a god or "idol" in its original sense.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

In The Guardian: John Naughton on "Media Ecology"

This past March, John Naughton posted an essay in The Guardian where he discusses Neil Postman's concept of Media Ecology. (Thanks to Dennis Haarsager and his blog Technology 360 for this citation.)

In discussing the rapid development of the World Wide Web, Naughton suggests that Media Ecology is a better approach to understanding technological change.

"The conventional approach involves what computer scientist John Seely Brown calls 'endism' - the perspective that sees new technologies as replacing older ones. Thus when the CD-rom arrived, people predicted the demise of the printed book; television meant the end of radio and movies; TV news the end of newspapers. And so on.

None of these extinctions came to pass. But although the CD-rom didn't exterminate the book, it did change forever the prospects for expensive reference works. (Remember Encyclopedia Britannica?) So the interactions between new and old media are complex. That's what led cultural critic Neil Postman to propose the notion of media ecology. The idea is borrowed from science: an ecosystem is defined as a dynamic system in which living organisms interact with one another and with their environment. These interactions can be very complex and take many forms. Organisms prey on one another; compete for nutrients; have parasitic or symbiotic relationships; wax and wane; prosper and decline. And an ecosystem is never static; it's in a state of perpetual ferment. "

I like that fact that Neil Postman's notion of media ecology is getting some coverage, but I think Naughton missed the fundamental idea behind Media Ecology. Naughton's article seems to focus on the content of the media, or the particular business model that a medium supports. As I understand Postman, the idea of a "media environment" is not meant only to evoke a Darwinian competition among species of media. Media come and go, although, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, if they adapt, older media can exist quite nicely along with new media. For example, in order to accommodate television, radio in the 1950's changed from a primary source of entertainment and news to a provider of background music. Furthermore, sometimes this is beneficial to a medium. There is a good case to be made that we never would have had FM radio without the competitive pressure of TV. And perhaps "movies" would never have evolved into "cinema."

Postman's more important idea as presented in the term "media ecology" is a play on the word "medium." In biology, a medium is an environment within which a culture can grow. In a similar manner, a communication medium fosters the growth of a certain type of human culture, favoring some individuals, neglecting others; promoting certain beliefs and assumptions and obsolescing others; changing the way we use the combination of our senses to interpret all the messages. As Postman put it, in the adoption of any new medium of communication there are winners and there are losers. He wasn't referring to competing media, but rather to members of the society, some whom the new medium benefits, and some whom the new medium harms.

The concern about the "digital divide" highlights Postman's notion, but also requires further elaboration. "Digital divide" is a term used to talk about how those who don't have easy access to high speed Internet service are at some sort of disadvantage. It assumes that the harm comes due to the inability of some part of the population to enjoy the benefits of computers and the Internet. This is not what Postman meant. Obviously, whatever benefits a new medium grants would not be available to anyone lacking access to that medium. However, once the medium takes hold, it is free to enforce its hidden biases. Those individuals who can best adapt to those biases will most benefit from the presence of the new medium. For example, to be a star reporter in the newspaper era, you needed to be able to write well and to work under the pressure of deadlines. Those same skills may be of negligible benefit to a reporter of television news, but being photogenic and able to speak well in public are definitely advantageous. This is a simplistic example of Postman's winners and losers.

A "medium" is not just the box that we plug into a wall or the printed matter we hold in our hands. It encompasses the entire infrastructure to support the medium, including the choices and compromises a society makes to use the medium. Printing fostered individualism, the Protestant Reformation and nationalism, but it would not have happened without an infrastructure of paper and ink manufacture and the development of a distribution network, nor could it have succeeded without a vast education system designed to promote literacy.

Still, it is nice that Postman's "Media Ecology" is finally getting attention.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Kucinich: Congress To Take On FCC

Let's hope that this note in FMQB is the start of a trend. It is clear that without true media reform there cannot be political reform in our election process or governance.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) made an surprise appearance at the convention to announce that he would be heading up a new House subcommittee which will focus on issues surrounding the Federal Communications Commission.

The Presidential candidate said that the committee would be holding "hearings to push media reform right at the center of Washington.” The Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee was to be officially announced this week in Washington, D.C., but Kucinich opted to make the news public early.

In addition to media ownership, the committee is expected to focus its attention on issues such as net neutrality and major telecommunications mergers. Also in consideration is the "Fairness Doctrine," which required broadcasters to present controversial topics in a fair and honest manner. It was enforced until it was eliminated in 1987.

That being said, I don't think that any of the patron saints of Media Ecology believed that consolidation of media ownership was the main item of concern. It is an item of concern, but not the main event. Any technology will influence a society regardless of ownership, or commercial sponsorship or quality of content. In fact, the better the content, the more people who view/listen/use the medium and the greater its influence.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was also on hand at the conference and took broadcasters to task for their current content, speaking of "too little news, too much baloney passed off as news.

So we can applaud the actions of Denis Kucinich in beginning a divestiture of media ownership, reestablishing equal access for others than the party in power and holding political and journalistic sources accountable for the truth in their messages. We'd all like to see this.

However, as Neil Postman pointed out, the medium of television does not lend itself to in-depth, rational political discourse. Our evolution from a literary culture (sometimes called a rational one) to a secondary orality culture is still of concern.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Structural Study of Television Advertising

Anonymous asks:

I do not understand why you want to relate advertising to mythology. Yes, I know that McLuhan refers in his subtitle to folklore, which he does not really explain, so far as I recall.

Apart from McLuhan, I would not have spontaneously thought to relate advertising to mythology. So what exactly prompts you to make this connection?

Because you are a graduate of the NYU Media Ecology program, perhaps you have been influenced by the thought of Neil Postman. Postman sees advertising as bringing irrational influences into decision making about buying things. He notes that the theory of capitalism is that capitalism is supposed to rely on rational decision making. But advertising influences us to make decisions based on non-rational influences.

So are you connecting advertising with mythology to suggest the non-rational influence that advertising can bring into decision making about buying things? Or does Levi-Strauss suggest a connection between advertising and mythology?

You say, "advertising operates in our culture the way mythology operates in primary oral culture." I'm sorry, but this claim is far from self-evident to me. How does mythology operate in primary oral cultures in your estimate (or in Levi-Strauss's estimate)?


Most attempts to assign meaning to the content of television programming operate under the same mistaken assumptions that plagued linguistics in its early years. The first linguists mistakenly assumed that meaning could be found in the particular sounds of a language, so that words having to do with water would always use the so-called liquid vowels and consonants, and so on. It wasn't until linguists realized that the sounds of a language have no meaning in and of themselves that they were able to arrive at a viable hypothesis concerning the structure and function of languages. Similarly, until scholars concerned with interpreting the mass media realize that the meanings of our popular culture are to be found in the structural configurations and not in the isolated images and symbols, attempts to discover those meanings will be stymied.

In my dissertation I showed how the seemingly random and isolated elements of television advertising conform to a general overall structure, and I suggested that this structure is similar to one that the French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, has identified in the myths of primary orality cultures. In order to better explain what I mean I will first give an example of the similarity between the type of logical processes evident in myths and in advertising, and then I will outline briefly what I believe is the general structure of television advertising.

Lévi-Strauss has determined that the logical processes that go into the creation of a myth can be divided into two categories, “empirical deduction,” 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."(Levi-Strauss, C. “The Deduction of the Crane,” in Structural Analysis of Oral Tradition, Pierre Maranda and Elli Kongas Maranda, eds. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), p. 3.

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." (Ibid, p.3)

The metonymic association (fangs of a snake) is used to make a metaphoric assertion (fang-shaped seeds cure snake bite). In 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 was used as the product mascot. The Volkswagon “bug,” the Turtlewax turtle, and the old Exxon tiger are further examples of this type of association.

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 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." (Ibid, p. 4)

The functioning of transcendental can best be illustrated by using Levi-Strauss’s own example.

According to the Tupi Indians of South America, the tree frog and the bee are opposites. The frog is the master of water because it lives in water that collects in hollow trees, and seems able to find such habitats even during the dry season. However, the bee also lives in hollow trees, but in honey rather than water. Because honey is not water and water is not honey, the two creatures are seen as opposites. (This version of the argument has been simplified for the sake of brevity, and therefore leaves out other determining factors, such as high/low, etc.) The Tupi also see the jaguar as an opposite of the tree frog. While the frog is present master of water, the jaguar (for reasons excluded here) was the former master of fire, which it gave to mankind. These comparisons, which are based at least in part on some empirical observation, now lead to a third comparison which transcends the objective reality:

"If the frog is opposed to the bee, which has honey instead of water (while the frog itself has water instead of honey), we may now introduce transcendental deduction to conclude that the jaguar (opposed to the frog by empirical deduction) must be like the bee and therefore, possess honey in some fashion." (Ibid, p.6)

This line of reasoning explains why Tupi mythology makes the jaguars the first owners of the honey festival. The association “bee equals jaguar” is forced upon the Tupi by the empirical associations they have given the frog, bee and jaguar. Levi-Strauss says that this type of intellectual process is typical mythic thought. Much that appears illogical and contingent in a myth can ultimately be attributed to this combination of empirical (metonymic-metaphoric) deduction and transcendental deduction.

That this type of thinking is also present in the construction of television advertising has not yet been noted.

Generally, the pro­cess of structural analysis involves the comparing and contrasting of many var­iants of a tale in order to determine what is important and what is not. Levi-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 tribe that relies on the oral 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.

"…mythic thought transcends itself and, going beyond images retaining some rela­tionship with concrete experience, operates in a world of concepts which have been released from any such obligation, and combine with each other in free asso­ciation: by this I mean that they combine not with reference to any external reality but according to the affinities or incompatibilities existing between them in the architecture of the mind." (Levi-Strauss,C. From Honey to Ashes: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Vol. 2, translated by John and Doreen Wcightman (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 473.)

This point about the use of images in mythology is particularly pertinent to a discussion of television advertising. People in general perceive the television image, not as a referent, but as the object imaged. They do not take into ac­count the fact that in the very act of reproducing the objective world on film or videotape, a transformation occurs. The images become symbols that can be charged with meanings above and beyond the concrete reality of the objects they mimic. One of the consequences of this process of symbolization is that the meanings given to each object are affected by the meaning given to all the other objects in the system.

The following arrangement compares three examples of television advertising in terms of their under­lying structure:

This arrangement shows that although these three advertisements seem to be about entirely different types of products, with different characters and events, their underlying structures are the same. The interesting thing about this correspondence of structural elements is the equivalent function assigned to dirt, children, and arthritis (illness).

Finally if we generalize the structure of the Wisk, L’Eggs and Ben-Gay ads, we arrive at this arrangement.

With this sort of (albeit very brief) analysis it is possible to see that, at least in many television ads, there is a similar underlying structure. In addition, it is possible to discover the same sort of interest in the distinction between nature and culture that Levi-Strauss found in the mythology of primary orality cultures. As you can see, my concern isn't with the intention of the advertisement to sell a product or service. To me this is just McLuhan's juicy meat distracting the watchdogs of our minds while the real effect of television content takes hold. This effect involves a definition of what is "nature" and what is "culture" and what values we assign to each.

Also, if we look at television content writ large, we can, perhaps arbitrarily separate three broad categories: entertainment, news and advertising. Within the larger structure of television, advertising deals with defining social vs. antisocial (or cultural vs. natural) behavior on a personal level. Entertainment shows deal with the same dichotomy on an interpersonal level. News programs are the same opposition on the public level.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Why Advertising Is Becoming Ubiquitous

(Updated below)

The trend in advertising toward a ubiquitous presence in our lives, as documented in this New York Times article, is a natural outgrowth of the mythologic function of advertising. As advertising becomes truly ubiquitous, and therefore environmental, and before it becomes completely invisible to the average eye, it is a fitting focus for Media Ecology. The question one might asked is why the total penetration of advertising into all venues is considered an imposition. If advertising is our culture's mythology, as I have claimed, why is it perceived as an annoyance?

Reason #1: Due to a misunderstanding of its true nature and impact, to date advertising has been segregated in minutes between programming or spaces in magazines and newspapers. We find advertising annoying because it interrupts our stories, sporting events and news reports. That will change with product placement supplementing and then replacing separate commercial breaks (Think "The Truman Show").

Reason #2: The structure of current advertising is (sometimes) warped by a corporate agenda. Sometimes the conscious attempts by corporate advertisers to bend the message to fit their agenda works against the underlying mythology. This gets our attention, but is also disquieting. Some things just won't work in our current culture. Imagine an ad that tries to convince men to start wearing makeup. What aspects of our current conception of sexual roles would need to change for this to become a reality? Would Avon or Maybelline be willing to take this on to increase profits? What other factors would work against this? The point is that corporation advertising must operate within certain pre-determined structural boundaries to be successful. Sometimes corporations try to push that envelope and it doesn't work.

Reason #3: We haven't yet become numb to its influence. As advertising changes our culture, we adopt new "corporate" identities. We already proudly display corporate logos on our clothing and artifacts. We gain parts of our personal self-image and identity by assimilating corporate images and icons. (In Supersize Me there is a scene where children more readily identify Ronald McDonald than George Washington or Jesus Christ.) Identity change is an uncomfortable process, and as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, can lead to things like social uprisings and war.


Anonymous asks:

Would it be fair to say that the ubiquity of advertising suggests that we are living in the Age of Advertising?

Would it be fair to say that the Age of Advertising does not vaunt reason (logos) alone as though it were everything?

Would it be fair to say that in this respect the Age of Advertising is seriously at odds with the Age of Reason?

Would it be fair to say that the Age of Advertising reminds us of the non-rational factors in life that Plato (thumos and eros) and Aristotle (ethos and pathos) mentioned?

In my paper “The Heart of the Matter” which will soon be published under “Proceedings of the 2005 Media Ecology Conference,” I examine the implications of the Greek concept of

which is transliterated as either “thumos” or “thymos” and translated as “mind,” encompassing memory and consciousness.

Classical Greeks believed that consciousness resided in the lungs and was expressed in speech, the dominant communication medium of the age. Thoughts were breaths that originated from a divine source, hence the origin of the word “inspiration.”

In Plato’s time, writing was beginning to supplant speech as the dominant mode of communication and the popular concept of the seat of consciousness and memory began to move from the lungs to the heart. We still speak of ‘learning by heart’ when we want to memorize something. “Reason”, as Plato defined it, was an indication of this shift from speech to writing. He could split reason (“logos”) from feeling (“thumos)” and sexuality (“eros”) as a result of this shift. This differentiation was something that wouldn’t occur to Homeric Greeks.

In our age we see the beginnings of an era of secondary orality. The exact parameters of are still working themselves out, but considering the celebrity and authority granted to our entertainers (that is our singers and actors) it may be that we will see a decline in logos considered as an aspect of consciousness.

The connotation of the term “Age of Advertising” is that we are somehow controlled and defined by beliefs and values dictated by corporations.

My claim is that the advertising of our age is a manifestation of the universal human tendency to apply categories to the elements of our environment and then reconcile the inevitable contradictions that arise. In other words, advertising operates in our culture the way mythology operates in primary orality cultures. I might also add that, compared to the subtlety and complexity of these early mythic systems, our advertising is truly primitive.

This may not involve the type of reason espoused by Plato and Aristotle, but may be a result of a type of intellectual activity of primary orality cultures which Claude Lévi-Strauss called a “science of the concrete.”

Friday, January 12, 2007

McLuhan's Debt to Lévi-Strauss

I came across this very interesting reference to Claude Lévi-Strauss in a letter Marshall McLuhan sent to the Journal of Technology and Culture in 1975. In it he credits Lévi-Strauss (and Ferdinand de Saussure) with providing the structural basis for the development of his Laws of the Media.

Very interesting!

From Technology and Culture, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), 74-78

McLuhan's Laws of the Media

Marshall McLuhan

To the Editor:

I have been experimenting with developing a series of "Laws of the Media," which I submit herewith for comment and discussion by the readers of Technology and Culture. My purpose is to invite criticism, directed not at me or at my rhetoric, but rather at the substance and contents of my thoughts. It seems to me that historians of technology–and kindred students of the sociology and philosophy of technology, economists, practicing engineers, and the like–might enjoy and profit from attempting to disprove my "laws."

So, cognizant of the seeming paradox that a "scientific hypothesis is one that can be disproved," I have put my "Laws of the Media" in a "disprovable" form, hoping that in the course of disproving each of them, many new discoveries might occur.

How did I arrive at these "Laws of the Media"? By a structural approach. The structuralists, beginning with Ferdinand de Saussure and now Lévi-Strauss, divide the approaches to the problem of form into two categories: diachrony and synchrony. Diachrony is simply the developmental, chronological study of any cultural matter; but synchrony works on the assumption that all aspects of any form are simultaneously present in any part of it. Although I have used the simultaneous approach in arriving at these Laws of the Media, any one of them is susceptible to the diachronic approach for filling in the historical background and details.

Since electric speeds of information constitute a sort of simultaneous structuring of experience, synchrony, representing all directions at once, is, as it were, acoustic; whereas the diachronic, representing one stage at ta time, is visual in its analytical pattern. Few People seem to be aware that visual space and order are continuous, connected, homogeneous, and static. In these regards, visual space is quite different from any other kind of space, be it tactile, kinetic, audile, or osmic (smell). Visual space alone can be divided.

You will note that, although these are called Laws of the Media, only a few of them deal with communications media narrowly conceived. Instead, I am talking about "media" in terms of a larger entity of information and perception which forms our thoughts, structures our experience, determines our views of the world about us. It is this kind of information flow–media–which is responsible for my postulation of a series of insights regarding the impact of certain technological developments. I call them "laws" because they represent, as do scientific "laws," an ordering of thought
and experience which has not yet been disproved; I call them "laws of the media" because the channel and impact of today's electronic communication systems provide the informational foundation upon which we order, or structure, these experiential perceptions.

In formulating these laws, I have utilized what is sometimes called the "scientific method." That is, I have proceeded by induction, even though in the process of induction one discovers many things that could not be merely inducted. The Laws of the Media have been shaped by studying the effects of the media, so there is always
a hidden ground upon which these effects stand, and against which they bounce. That is, the law of the medium is a figure interplaying with a ground. As with a wheel and an axle, there must be an interval between the two in order for the play to exist.

Even if the readers of Technology and Culture might not agree with my underlying structure, approach, and methodology, I hope they will examine these sample apothegms for their validity on a historical basis. I am not primarily a historian, so my reference base in not historical. However, I should like to test the validity of my
laws in terms of history. In other words, do my Laws of the Media–derived from my inductive approach to synchronous form–correspond to historical data as viewed from the vantage point of historians of technology? Does the history of technology "prove" or "disprove" my postulates?

I should appreciate hearing from readers of Technology and Culture in response to the above questions. They might write me directly, or they might address me through the pages of this journal. Perhaps in this way we can get a dialogue going, from which we might all profit greatly.

A sample of my proposed “Laws” of the media follow (the four steps of the process are named in the first “law” and assumed for the rest):

I. Cable TV

a. Amplifies quality and diversity of signal pickup.
b. Obsolesces diffusion broadcasting
c. Retrieves early transmission broadcast pattern of point-to-point (ship to shore)
d. Reversal is flip to home broadcasting

(Other examples clipped)

Marshall McLuhan, Director
Centre for Culture and
University of Toronto,
Toronto 5, Canada

Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test

Anonymous asks: OK, if Fox News "constitutes a violation of the traditional definition of news and requires adjustments in how we consume reality", what are those adjustments? What type of sunglasses to we need to view Fox News so that we don't end up drinking the kool aid?

My answer to your question has two parts.

First, we do drink the Kool Aid, but it isn't necessarily Fox News's Kool Aid. It is the nature of mythology that it appears both trivial and enigmatic, if it appears at all. Just as Media Ecology teaches us that current users are numb to the true impact of a medium or technology, paying attention to the content alone, we are by definition numb to the all-encompassing mythology of our culture. Mythology is taken for granted. It is “assumed.” It is not questioned. Only members of another culture (and comedians) ask questions about a culture’s mythology, just as early missionaries or anthropologists asked questions about the mythology of Native Americans before dismissing the answers in favor of their own mythology. Edmund Leach noted that:

“The second major source of Lévi-Strauss' thinking on this topic comes from arguments taken over from the field of general information theory. Myth is not just fairy tale; it contains a message. Admittedly, it is not very clear who is sending the message, but it is clear who is receiving it. The novices of a society who hear the myths for the first time are being indoctrinated by the bearers of tradition—a tradition which, in theory at any rate, has been handed down from long dead ancestors.” (Leach, E. Claude Lévi-Strauss. New York: Viking Press, 1970. pp. 58-59.)

The purpose of a body of mythology is to bolster the beliefs of a culture by dealing with the inevitable contradictions that will arise in any complex society. Myths deal with contradictions by denying that they exist at all or by developing some explanation that obscures the true import of the contradictions.

“Nature is not itself contradictory. It can become so only in terms some specific human activity which takes part in; and the characteristics of the environment take on a different meaning according to the particular historical and technical form assumed in it by this or that type of activity. On the other hand, even when raised to that human level which alone can make them intelligible, man's relations with his natural environment remains objects of thought: man never perceives them passively; having reduced them to concepts, he compounds them in order to arrive at a system which is never determined in advance: the same situation can always be systemized in various ways.” (Lévi-Strauss, C. The Savage Mind, p. 95)

By this definition, a culture cannot be aware of its own mythology for that mythology to be effective. It could be argued that the artists, political leaders and educators within a culture may be aware of the unconscious influence of the prevailing mythology, but this doesn't need to be the case. The best artists, politicians and educators may be those who have most completely internalized the mythology.

Second, because we are not a homogenous population, the Kool Aid doesn’t affect us all the same. This is the true value of a culturally diverse society and why you can’t fool all the people all the time. One person’s mythology is another person’s mendacity. Because there are so many differing media currently jockeying for our attention, different people bring differing sensory ratios to the table.

Marshall McLuhan not only said that “the medium is the message”, he also stated that “the medium is the massage.” We are constantly bombarded by the hidden biases of all the new media in our environment: the internet, cell phones, high definition television, etc. These multiple media insure a diverse population of sensory ratios, and therefore a multiplicity of beliefs and assumptions.

A good example of this is the role the internet played in the recent national elections. Imagine trying not to succumb to the agenda setting, the distortions, the omissions, and the general indifference of the main stream media without some other source of information and commentary. For those of use who read newsblogs regularly, there were other sources of information and other viewpoints. And while we were consuming the content of the new media, the new media were consuming us.

“And that’s the way it is” Neil Postman was able to call Walter Cronkite’s famous sign-off the most dangerous statement on television because his beliefs and assumptions were not grounded in those of the general television culture. The adjustments we can make to Fox News and the like depend on the varying media of communication at our disposal and whether we choose to question the underlying mythology.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

How Reality Cooks (or Rots) on TV

Question from Peg: What would be a Lévi-Straussian analysis of commentary on Fox News?

I have suggested that the similarity between television advertisements and mythology is more than just coincidental, and it could even be said that in a very real sense television advertising is our culture’s body of mythic narratives,.

If we look at advertising in terms of the advertiser’s intent, it could be said that, without going into the personal psyche of any particular advertising executive, they all produce their thirty and sixty second spots as propaganda for their clients. (Their degree of awareness of the mythic properties of their commercials is not important.) This sort of “hard” propaganda can be set into opposition with news broadcasts, whose producers (in theory, at least) strive to balance opposing viewpoints and to present the “news” as objectively as possible. The news reporters themselves are aware of another contrast within the structure of television content. They refer to their productions as “broadcasts” to differentiate them from “shows” which purport to have entertainment value.

In fact, these three very broad subcategories form a triad that shows how the “stuff’ of reality has been sub-divided for the sake of television. I have borrowed this technique from Claude Levi-Strauss who divided edible foodstuffs into three categories: raw, cooked and rotten:

Lévi-Strauss's Culinary Triangle

According to this schema, all food begins as "raw" but then quickly passes either to "cooked" or "rotten" depending on whether it is subject to a technical or natural transformation. Lévi-Strauss used of a triangle diagram to demonstrate the underlying structure of the process be analyzed, in this case the processing of what has been defined as "edible stuff" from its natural state to a state where either it is fit for consumption or it has spoiled and not fit to consume.

We can perform a similar analysis of how the"reality" that makes up television content undergoes a transformation depending on how it is processed by our mass media of communication.

Within this schema, news broadcasts fall somewhere in between shows and ads in terms of entertainment value vs. propaganda, while shows and ads may have little or nothing to do with the objective world, dividing their productions in terms of their intention to entertain or propagandize. (This is not to say that no show ever has propagandistic intentions, or that no advertising executive ever wishes to entertain. But in general, each is more concerned with the demands of his own domain. Program producers must attract an audience, and advertisers must sell their products.)

It could be stated that if the hidden structure of advertising has to do with an opposition between culture and nature, then within the other legs of the triad there are other hidden structures that determine how the particular material is developed and conveyed. I would tentatively suggest that television programming is concerned chiefly with "social versus antisocial behavior on a personal level," while the news deals with this same general opposition at the "public" level. Within this perspective, the various legs of the triad always favor the status quo, since the definition of what constitutes antisocial behavior depends on who is defining social or acceptable behavior.

Part of the reason Fox News is so disturbing is that they continually violate the supposed boundaries between news, entertainment and advertising propaganda.This is why the current concentration of media ownership is so pernicious. As part of a major media conglomerate, Fox News can frame their news reports according to their own views of social vs. antisocial public behavior and so they slip down the television triangle both toward propaganda and toward entertainment. Just as foods which are fit for consumption even though "rotten" (alcoholic beverages for example) constitute a special exception to general culinary rules, news which has become propagandized, or created largely to entertain, constitutes a violation of the traditional definition of news and requires adjustments in how we consume reality.