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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OK, many thanks for both part 1 and part 2 as theoretical constructs re the relationship between mythology and different media. But I'm looking for a how-to guide or recipe re how to see through or "interpret" Faux News on a daily basis or Fox News for Dummies. In other words, a WordPerfect "reveal codes" for Fox News.