[As I'm entering the final stages of writing The Dissertation (tm), I will be posted snippets online. You know, for purposes of fair use and the hope that seeing my own handiwork in a different context may help writing better. In this first installment, you'll find a section from the Introduction chapter, where I lay out the general theoretical approach. Comments welcome.]
In studying communication and media we are confronted with the problem of how to describe what we experience, in the broadest sense, in the midst of experiencing it. Succinctly speaking, the former necessitates a consciousness that negates the latter. Moreover, for the same reason that we cannot escape our own media technological moment in order to describe it, we also cannot enter into one from which we are spatially, temporally, or epistemologically removed. Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form, a classic text in the fields of architecture and art history, reminds us that “it is essential to ask of artistic periods and regions not only whether they have perspective, but also which perspective they have.” (41)
Yet, despite this difficulty, understanding the conditions of our environment is fundamental to our existence. Whether taken from a media ecological or philosophical point of view, “life goes on in an environment; not merely in it but because of it, through interaction with it.” (Dewey 13) Identifying the characteristics of the world around us and developing the necessary faculties to successfully participate in, navigate through, and negotiate with it is crucial to the process of human life. The function of the faculty dealing with communication is to understand the conditions of its contemporary media technological environment. In saying something about the way we say something, communication and media technology are not mere ‘symptoms’ relating to a larger cultural logic. Rather, communication serves both a reinforcement of and as a response to the conditions presented by an environment.
This perspective creates an enormous responsibility. To be sure, if by describing contemporary communication we are simultaneously shaping it, then we must take into consideration the teleological direction of our approach, and our underlying assumptions. For example, approaching television as a ‘mass-medium’ rather than an individualized experience will reach a different conclusion and, more importantly, provides ammunition for different political agendas. Likewise, discussing the ongoing ebb and flow in media ownership from a purely anecdotal point of view brings about different conclusions than an exclusively economic or empirical perspective. (Noam 2009) Clearly, we may have already made up our minds about what we are about to say, whether we are aware of this or not. Unfortunately, a neutral approach to something as complex as media technology and communication is an oxymoron. The essence of communication lies in the externalization, the expression, of experience: “communication is the process of creating participation, of making common what had been isolated and singular.” (Dewey 244) What the current study attempts to make common is not some ultimate truth, but to express a particular experience through and in contemporary media technology. Because in the same way that we cannot transpose a ‘way of looking’ at communication onto a medium from the past, we also cannot impose it onto those of the future. With every new form of popular expression, existing ones seek to adopt it and thereby conserve their own existence. McLuhan correctly pointed at the “transitional awareness” implied by the “horseless carriage,” “wireless”, and “moving pictures.” (McLuhan 159) The initial inability to comprehend the changes of the media technological environment is not merely a coincidentally recurrent phenomenon, but perhaps even more so a politically colored interpretation. The Church’s resistance against the popularization of the printing press had very little to do with the preservation of the spiritual connection between mankind and the divine. Rather, the institutionalization and ongoing expansion of a list of forbidden books, testifies of the energies spent on trying to control ‘what is made common’ and regaining exclusivity over access to Heaven. (McLuhan; Andersen) Although in an entirely different context and era, the idea of ownership of cultural expression by way of trademark and copyright, and enforced by international law, finds itself humbled by the momentum with which music and movies are reproduced, redistributed, and reinterpreted in the 21st century. (Siva; Drahos & Braithwaite) And in this struggle, by merely labeling it ‘piracy,’ incumbent authorities have already skewed the playing field in their favor. For this reason, we must properly contextualize our efforts. As expression and experience influence each other one is easily caught up in the politics or social agenda of a particular group or time period. To uncover the deeper underlying principles of communication we must look for the architectural blueprint that lies at its basis. Quite literally, the shape, nature, conditions, and process of communication all speak about society’s perspective on communication, on what to ‘make common’ and what not. A building emerges amidst the various tensions of a society, constructed after the available materials, its perceived function, and so on. Its outcome is tenuous and complex, as it may very well be destroyed and re-appropriated by an entirely different socio-political interpretation. Nonetheless, “walls, enclosures and facades serve to define both a scene (where something takes place) and an obscene area to which everything that cannot or may not happen on the scene is relegated.” (Lefebvre 36) In the same way, how we communicate tells us about the role of communication. The clever acoustics of the Roman amphitheaters or the comfortable darkness of the cinema both facilitate and structure communication and tell us about how about its role in society. The disappearance of the ‘distracting’ conductor and musicians in Wagner’s Festspielhaus, focused the attention of the audience onto the illuminated stage. In this way, Wagner created a “mystic gulf” between the audience and the stage, giving performances a dreamlike character and reinforcing the mythic content of many of his operas. Leaving the physical characteristics behind, we can then begin to think about the epistemological blueprint that shapes and organizes communication.