Friday, November 28, 2008

Happy 100th Birthday Claude Lévi-Strauss!

Here is my quick take on Claude 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.

I know that structuralism has been 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.

So as Professor Lévi-Strauss enters his second century, I wish him a Happy Birthday or Joyeux Anniversaire!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Television's "Good News"

University of Maryland study finds television causes unhappiness.

There is a posting in Tuesday's entertainment section concerning a recent University of Maryland study on television. Commenting on how the study asserts that television makes viewers unhappy, Alex Strachan writes:

"The study's conclusion is that TV has addictive qualities, and that viewers addicted to TV share behavioral traits with those who are prone to substance abuse, "since addictive activities produce momentary please but long-term misery and regret. People most vulnerable to addiction tend to be socially or personally disadvantaged, with TV becoming an opiate."

The point Strachan misses is that the purpose of television is to make us unhappy and then to provide solutions to our discomforts through advertising. As former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson pointed out nearly 40 years ago, the viewer is not the consumer of television, he is the product, offered to advertisers at a cost per thousand. (see his book, How To Talk Back to Your Television Set).

Without the bad news of "News", the end-of-the-world melodramas of "Dramas" or the embarrassment provoking unlikelihoods of "Comedies," advertisers would not have the properly conditioned audience to pitch their products to.

That is why Marshall McLuhan, also almost 40 years ago, called advertising television's "good news" or "gospel."

So Strachan's concern over which came first, the unhappy viewer or the television is misplaced. Sure unhappy people may naturally gravitate toward television, but why they do so has less to do with chickens and eggs and more to do with the underlying purpose of television broadcasters.

And as for the University of Maryland's study, as I haven't read it yet, I won't comment except to note Charles Schultz's take on the impact of television on children:

Charlie Brown: Do you think television is harmful to children?

Linus: I don't know. I've never had one fall on me.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Google Searches Can Also Track Intellectual Outbreaks

Simple steps to avoid an epidemic of Media Ecology.

An article in yesterday's New York Times discusses how Google queries can anticipate the rise in reported flu outbreaks and beat the forecasts of the CDC, sometimes by weeks at at time.

A similar technique could be used to track Media Ecology activity through Google queries. We have known since the early 1970's that there is a correlation between the rise of reported flu queries and Media Ecology activities. Sometimes, the rise in temperature, the muscle aches and feelings of nausea due to the latter are attributed to the former.

Using the data gathered from Google searches, we can anticipate an increase in Media Ecology activity before it occurs and take steps to prevent it. While there is currently no preventive vaccine or cure available for Media Ecology activity, a few basic steps of mental hygiene can reduce the severity of the outbreak:

  1. An outbreak of Media Ecology activity often is preceded by a discussion of the works of any of a number of scholars, including Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, Walter J. Ong, Neil Postman, Lewis Mumford, Alfred Korzybski or Suzanne Langer.

    This may be followed by secondary discussion of Paul Levinson, Lance Strate, Robert Logan, Joshua Meyerowitz or James Carey. Should you encounter a group discussing any of these authors, immediately change the topic to sports, the weather, politics or religion. A good lead in is: "Yes, technology may have influenced the course of human evolution, but weren't weather patterns, available raw material resources and the ineluctable modalities of warfare more significant?"

  2. While there is no evidence that Media Ecology activity can be picked up on toilet seats, it is advisable to always have a supply of alternative reading material available, including old issues of Consumers Reports, copies of Mad Libs or almost any graphic novel, except any by Douglas Rushkoff or Neil Gaiman.

  3. Media Ecology activity is easily spread among college students and can then be brought into the home during semester breaks or over weekends. One approach is to make enormous quantities of food available when anticipating a home visit and make sure the student's mouth is always full. Others suggest planning a trip to areas of the world not currently experiencing any Media Ecology outbreaks and leaving before the infected student arrives. While Canada has long been off limits, recent outbreaks in Mexico have put that country in doubt. However, many Caribbean islands are still considered pristine.

  4. Media Ecology activity is most detrimental to the very young and to the elderly. Special steps should be taken to shield these groups from exposure.

  5. Avoid enclosed areas where Media Ecologists are known to converge. For example, this weekend at Fordham University in New York City, the Media Ecology Association is co-sponsoring an Institute of General Semantics Symposium, "Creating the Future: Conscious Time-Binding for a Better Tomorrow." It is anticipated that the reported incidents of Media Ecology activity will rise exponentially by the conclusion of this symposium.

  6. Should you begin to feel any of the symptoms of Media Ecology, bed rest, fluids and aspirin-lots of aspirin- are recommended. Symptoms may persist for up to two weeks, with feelings of lethargy and agoraphobia continuing for up to a month after that.

WARNING: Do not under any circumstances attempt to consult a Ph.D. They will only prolong the course of the disease.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I'm Binding My Time

'Cause that's the kind of guy I'm.

Lance Strate has posted the program for this coming weekend's Institute of General Semantics Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture and Symposium at his blog "Lance Strate's Blog Time Passing." I highly recommend that you immediately stop reading this post and click on the link to view the schedule. I'll wait.

Well, what are you still doing here? Really, go to Lance's blog and then go to the IGS site and register to attend. The link is here.

No. I don't know what they're serving for dinner.

Now that you've read the schedule you've probably noticed that I will be giving a talk at 9:10 on Sunday as part of the symposium. My topic is "Things Come in Fours," and if you want to know what it is about, click here.

OK. That's it. See you Friday night.

Really that's all I'm going to post today. Go away.

You're still there aren't you?

Have you ever wondered where blogging would be if Christopher Latham Sholes had never invented the typewriter? Or if Michel Eyquem de Montaigne had never invented the personal essay? Or if Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg had never invented printing using movable type?

Isn't Wikipedia wonderful?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Claude Lévi-Strauss Celebrates his 100th Birthday This Month!

Yes, Claude Lévi-Strauss is still alive and will celebrate his 100th birthday in a few weeks.

Beyond his well-known scholarly accomplishments, I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Professor Lévi-Strauss' personal longevity is a testament to the positive benefits of the pursuit of structural anthropology on long life and good health. Just carrying around his four volume, 2200 page oeuvre, "Mythologiques" will improve your muscle tone and cardiovascular capacity.

In his Times Literary Supplement article (available here), Patrick Wilcken notes that Lévi-Strauss' three dimensional approach to myth analysis is like a Klein bottle:

"Mathematically generated, but with an organic feel, the Klein bottle’s bulbous, undulating form is self-consuming and conceptually difficult to grasp. It has no true inner or outer surfaces. Like Lévi-Strauss’s oeuvre, it eternally feeds back through itself."

What Wilcken is referring to is the recursive nature of Lévi-Strauss' technique. A myth cannot be understood by itself, but only as part of the complete body of a culture's mythology. According to Lévi-Strauss, such an analysis is necessary because the reasoning taking place within a myth defies what we understand as logic. It is not linear thinking, but rather a metaphoric leap of faith that finds connections where there aren’t any and achieves the reconciliation of the irreconcilable.

The Klein bottle may be an apt metaphor for the recursive nature of Lévi-Strauss' technique. I like better his other metaphor of mythology as a culture's musical score of which we only see a bar at a time and which we must reassemble in complete "musical notation" form to fully grasp.

Lévi-Strauss' work came at a time when anthropologists in general were abandoning the belief of James George Frazer and the other pioneering anthropologists that pre-literate peoples were somehow more primitive, more childlike or less intellectually capable than modern man. His attempts to define the structures of aspects of pre-literate societies demonstrated a complexity of thought and a subtlety of mind equal to our own.

Some critics get hung up on discrepancies within the structural methodology which Lévi-Strauss used to explain mythology, totemic systems and kinship systems. Other criticism focus on how a particular interpretation doesn't fit the recorded ethnography for a culture. While the methodology itself, or its particular application may be subject to review and revision, what is important is that Levi-Strauss demonstrated that there is a universality to the human mind, and given sufficient symbolic material, all peoples, whether within an oral culture, a literate culture or our post literate culture still retain a commonality with can be explored through our symbol systems and perhaps understood in terms of the underlying structures transmitted via the stories told.

Our own "modern" culture also has a mythic "score," but being part of it, it is difficult for us to see. The distinctions between "raw" vs. "cooked," "nature" vs. "culture" and "modern" vs. "primitive" that Lévi-Strauss finds in his studies of North and South America native populations drive the narratives, beliefs and social customs of 21st century populations as well.

Happy Birthday Professor Lévi-Strauss!