An author is not always the best interpreter of his own work.
In a recent interview in the LA Weekly News speculative fiction master Ray Bradbury claimed that most people have misinterpreted his seminal classic Fahrenheit 451. According to Bradbury, F451 was not about censorship and the threat of a tyrannous government. It was about the way television will make us into a nation of non-readers, which means being non-reflective, hedonistic and conformist.
Bradbury now asserts that Montag and other readers in his future dystopia were pursued because they refused to conform to the television-induced stupor of the general population, not because they subverted book burning. Books were burned, not as an act of suppression, but because they were irrelevant.
As books are burned and reading becomes a crime, what do the literate rebels in Fahrenheit 451 do? They each memorize a book, and on their deathbeds they pass that work on orally to a descendent. Bradbury rightly intuited that as electronic media superseded print, the values and concerns of our culture would change. But, being literate himself, Bradbury couldn’t imagine that a society without literature could be anything but childish and shallow.
Borrowing from Northrop Frye, I would like to suggest that often the author of a work doesn’t always fully comprehend its significance, but I would like to go one step further. Sometimes, authors are more intuitive than they themselves realize. Fahrenheit 451 may or may not be a book about government censorship, but the more important idea that Bradbury offered way back in 1953 was that electronic media would return us to an oral culture, or as Walter J.Ong later termed it, a condition of secondary orality.
Media Ecologists identify three major eras in the development of human cultures: orality, literacy and secondary orality. Their basic premise is that the dominant medium of an era creates a communication environment that determines the nature of the culture. Pure oral cultures existed before writing was invented and had to devise various tricks and mnemonic devices to pass hard-won knowledge from generation to generation. Rhymes, rhythms, parables and puns helped preserve oral culture. Personal skills that were valued included memory, voice and the ability to weave an encyclopedian epic from standard poetic pieces. "Rhapsodist" was Classical Greek for "weaver."
When writing was invented, information could be preserved outside of human memory, and essential cultural activities of orality like story telling and singing became pastimes. Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic became the tools to educate our children. It then became of concern which medium was used to preserve the writing. Durable media like stone were long lasting, but hard to carry around. Portable media like papyrus and later, paper were easy to transport, but didn’t last nearly as long. Writing not only allowed the preservation of culture, but also the distribution of that information far beyond its source of origination.
In secondary orality, the major institutions and beliefs of a culture are once again driven by modes of thought and practices based on oral communication, not literacy. Linear thinking gives way to gestalt thinking, logic is replace by intuition, and we begin to think with our “guts” rather than our heads. Computer hardware takes the place of human brain cells for information storage, but oral activities like singing return to center stage. The tools of cultural transmission may be the same as those of primary orality, but the arts are informed by a legacy of writing.
So, is Ray Bradbury an early Media Ecologist? One could say that all writers of speculative fiction are practicing speculative Media Ecology. In Bradbury’s case, he could predict that a new social environment would be created by the adoption of a new medium of communication without fully grasping the influence of electronic media. He certainly got it right in his later work, The Martian Chronicles, where the Martian environment completely transforms human settlers into new Martians. It is significant that by the end of Fahrenheit 451, the TV-addicted culture has destroyed itself in war and the secondary orality rebels move to rebuild society. Their ultimate supremacy signifies the ascendancy of secondary orality, not its defeat.