9.24.2007

The Medium is what, now?

I have read Understanding Media more than once. I consider myself bright--not a genius, certainly, in the solving a Rubik's Cube while blindfolded way--but I like to think I'm somewhere on the right side of the bell curve. Nevertheless, I do not fully understand the distinction, such as there is one, between technology and medium, to say nothing of the distinctions between medium, genre, format, and form. I hereby invite my betters to enlighten me with respect to all things McLuhan.
In the thin tissue of lies that my dissertation proposal is rapidly turning out to have in fact been all along, I wrote a line that has since become a bit of a sliver in my eye: "Following Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, 'old' literary forms became the contents of the 'new' organizational technology called 'the novel.' Rather than read an epic, a comedy, and a romance, for example, one could read Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, a 'comic epic-poem in prose.'
Statement of the obvious that it is, I have begun to wonder if I'm not grossly misapplying McLuhan's understanding of media to matters of genre. To allay this fear requires a better understanding of media than I have.

Certainly the novel as it came to be understood in the latter half of the eighteenth-century (at least according to Watt and his ilk)--a realistic middle-class prose narrative, to be reductive about it--behaves and/or causes the sort of behavior attributed to a new technology (I'll overlook for the moment the most obvious of these being "newness" to which the novel repeatedly laid claim). The new realistic novel mediates, as I suggested above, older forms, and as McLuhan says specifically a new medium will always have an old medium for its content. Writing is a new medium that has speech as its content; print is a new medium that has writing as its content. The novel contains (and by containing, changes) the romance, poetry, essays, letters, sermons, what have you. They are mediated by the novel at the same time they constitute it--which is where I run into the perilous form/content quagmire. Is it the content that makes the novel what it is? Or is it something else? Or is content AND something else? And if the novel is a medium having another medium as its content, then what do these other literary forms mediate? How is the romance a medium, when one could argue that it's print that constitutes the medium and content that makes the romance?

Certainly Dr. Johnson seems have fallen into what McLuhan calls the "somnambulism" of the content-worrier; it's the mixture of vice and virtue that bothers him about Tom Jones. To me that reads as a man concerned about a supposedly "neutral" tool fallen into the wrong hands, like General David Sarnoff claiming at the University of Notre Dame that the goodness or badness of a technological instrument depends on the use to which it's put (McLuhan 23). If guns shoot our enemies, they're good. If they shoot our enemies, they're bad. The gun in itself is neither. The novel is out there; Johnson simply wanted Richardson behind the trigger rather than Fielding. If novels present pure pictures of virtue a la Clarissa, they're good. If they portray moral ambiguity a la Tom Jones, they're bad. This interpretation of Johnson's statement could construe "the novel" as a technology used to represent and comprehend the real world. The bigger deal--the medium being the message part of this affair, as the rise-of-the-novel folk might tell you--is that it's the "real" world that's going to be represented, as opposed to some idealized nonsense with noble heroes, mustache-twirling villains, and perhaps the occasional dragon.

I am thinking specifically here of Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752), in which the female protagonist, Arabella, is both so comically and frustratingly addled with French romances that they utterly define her reality. The characters around here, with whom the readers are clearly meant to identify, are appropriately befuddled, bemused, or beleaguered by this epistemological and ontological aberration. In technological terms, and borrowing from the lexicon of a medium oft-cited by McLuhan, this could be construed as the difference between black-and-white versus color television. The medium is the same--television--but there's a critical technological development that permits more "realistic" portrayal of an image (setting aside considerations of cinematographic aesthetics, etc.--I'm just trying to draw out a distinction; the analogy breaks down a bit quickly). We are meant to snicker at Arabella, just as we frequently snicker at someone who refuses to live in the now--the "now," as it so often is, being technologically defined. Email, cellphone, computer instead of letter, landline, typewriter. Realistic novel (Female Quixote, Tom Jones, Clarissa) instead of romance. (My friends snicker at me because I still watch television the old way--that is, with commercials--because I don't have TiVo.) The realistic novel is a technological improvement over the romance so long as realism is defined as the desirable quality. It does a better job of representing the "real" world.*

Another way of phrasing the question might be to ask how "technology" can be broken up--are there subtechnologies, the way there are subgenres. Is genre itself a subtechnology? If genre is a way in which we organize information, and if organizing information is fundamental to the self, and if technology is an extension of the self, is not then genre a form of technology? If language is technology, as McLuhan says, and if language organizes (and perhaps restricts) thought (as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis very problematically suggests), then why shouldn't genre be thought of the same way, if our understanding and communication of information is at least in part and perhaps significantly determined by genre conventions? As it was with Arabella until she got some new tools?

Here's another question with respect to language and technology. Language, let us say, is a technology. That's the thing itself--language, the capacity, the organ, the phenomenon, however you think of it. What then, is French, or English, or Latin? Each has its own rules, permits or proscribes different constructions. It's not enough to say that English is a kind of language. Is format the appropriate term? A way to convert data to information for observation and interpretation? Should I be thinking of genre in terms of format, rather than technology?


*It's worth mentioning that there's reason to interpret Arabella's initial technogeneric (you should absolutely throw rotten vegetables at me for that not-long-for-this-world neologism) recalcitrance as ironic. Her memory for the romances she reads is beyond belief, and her deployment of romantic tropes is such that it may be (has to be?) Lennox satirizing via exaggeration the establishment's concern that this is precisely the effect romances and novel-reading would have on young women. If girls really went about thinking that romances were real, they wouldn't last terribly long because we'd lock them up as lunatics. Arabella is ridiculous; we know she's ridiculous, and that ridiculousness is Lennox telling men that whatever the dangers of bad novels and romances might be, women aren't that ridiculous because that kind of ridiculousness just isn't possible.

3 comments:

Xopo said...

Dear Scriblerus, Most interesting questions and nice array of references, ey? You lost me at "And if the novel is a medium having another medium as its content, then what do these other literary forms mediate? How is the romance a medium, when one could argue that it's print that constitutes the medium and content that makes the romance?" I'm not really here to answer your main question but to ponder with you. I do not think language is a technology, it is a medium, but I don't think we could think of it as a medium as we would think of a genre as a medium. In other words, I think a genre is a medium as far as it shapes reality--in the case of the novel--in a specific way and thereby establishes specific kinds of relationships between readers and writers, viceversa. For my dissertation, I'm aligning print with other technologies such as vivisection and breeding. I'm arguing that print technology like breeding, for example, mediated the relationship between animals and humans. So, I did a bit of research (non-Macluhan) and a bit of thinking about the word "technology" and insofar as it is an art a rational, purposeful human development, I would think that language does not fit the profile. But I do like the idea that different languages can behave like different genres. Now to go back to the main question you raise, I think medium is something created by technology, it is a tool, right? At least that's the way I conceive of genres as mediums. The novel is a medium created by print technology. Writing is always a medium. It gets tricky if we think of writing before print but not so much since pencil and pen are the tools of a technology which generate the specific medium ode, law, apology, etc. The main technology here is WRITING as a human invention. Circles, circles, pretty circles. Anyway, I think the technology can generate the medium but the medium can't generate the technology. I'm not sure if this is helpful or simply nonsensical. But it is fun.
See you soon, I hope.

Scriblerus said...

Your dissertation sounds fascinating--very sophisticated stuff. At the moment I feel like I'm wielding a broadsword in a world of rapiers.

The medium having another medium as its content is straight out of the McLuhan. I think what I was trying to get at was remediation--if the novel (a genre) has for its content another medium (a different genre, like romance), what happens to the content of romance (which, according to Clara Reeve in the The Progress of Romance, was largely epic)? And is it epic, then--another medium, inasmuch as it's another genre--that gets us back to, I don't know, oral tales? (again, I'm channeling the very problematic Reeve text, and trying to contextualize this in an admittedly Whiggish sense of historical "progress" that assumes both beginning and end--not because I think the world works that way, but because so many at the time did).

I'm picturing nesting dolls, here--containers containing containers, and mediating them as content. Of course, one sort of has to imagine each doll as transparent--the novel's mediation of romance doesn't prevent it from also mediating epic. It's not as if each is discretely contained. You can "see" straight through the outermost shell that is the novel to whatever is the "smallest" contained medium--be it print, writing, or language. Everything is severally remediated. This is, as I say, freakishly teleological, but I'd like to wiggle my way out of that by saying I haven't the foggiest what the telos might be, and as usual I'm inclined to think
of it in terms of fractals (which nesting dolls happen to remind me of). Within the limitations of a given technology, you will always get iterations--the pattern will repeat, over and over again, because the outcome is technodetermined. As long as we only have print, only print can organize print. It may or may not make a hash of it, but as long as that's the only game in town we're stuck. I'll need other print genres to do the business--encyclopedias, novels, catalogues. Have to contain this mess somehow. But the modes of organization themselves become unwieldy the more there is to be organized. So here my web address is scribleruslives.blogspot.com because plain 'ole scriblerus was taken. Same way twenty years ago you only had to dial seven digits anywhere in Chicago to reach my house; then, one day, you had to dial ten. Given enough people--I mean, a LOT of people--I imagine one day we'll have to dial eleven. twelve, thirteen numbers. By that time we'll have run out of oil and water, of course, so, well, there's that.

This is what I'm saying happened in the 18th, across multiple genres--and the work eventually failed across all of them. But I digress.

You wrote "The novel is a medium created by print technology." How?
I agree, for the reasons I've suggested above--though of course as our McKeons, Hunters, Warners, Watts, Doodys, and so on, it's considerably more complicated, and possibly stupid, as Mary Poovey would tell me, to write out the human element. Can't just say it's a pattern repeating of its own volition, and she's correct, although, frankly, I think there's something to be said for it.

I might take issue with your defining technology as a rational, purposeful human development and excluding language. Seems to me language is all of those things, but as it's McLuhan and not I who classes language a technology because it is an "extension" of the human I'm perfectly happy to throw my hands up over the whole affair.
As to technologies generating mediums but not the other way round, I think I'm prepared to agree with that. I just get confused when a technology IS a medium--like writing.

"I do not think language is a technology, it is a medium, but I don't think we could think of it as a medium as we would think of a genre as a medium. In other words, I think a genre is a medium as far as it shapes reality--in the case of the novel--in a specific way and thereby establishes specific kinds of relationships between readers and writers, viceversa." Surely this is exactly what language does, in a Lacanian symbolic-order kind of way? That's what the Sapir-Whorf business was about, I think. Language shapes reality, and establishes specific relationships between readers and writers (hearers and speakers, which in the broad context of language are the same thing. Or possibly not). Language might work on a more fundamental level, but then it's put to work at a "higher" level of organization by the novel. Not sure I like "higher" here--I'm just saying the novel (genre) uses language (genre) to do something specific that language can't do by itself.

I had more to say but none of it made any more sense than what I've already said. Where can I read more about what you're doing?

Xopo said...

Dear Scrib, I wish I was not as exhausted as I am. I had been planning to reply to your reply tonight but, alas, this night finds me quite brain-dead. Nevertheless, I will answer to the question "how is the novel a medium created by print technology?" Well, yes, of course, it's stupid to think it was created by technology and not by humans, and given that my current focus is on humans and animals, and specifically, how a human viewpoint in the novel can be differentiated from an object viewpoint or animal viewpoint in it-narratives, it's ridiculous to enunciate such a claim without hesitating. What I actually mean is that the novel was a medium made possible by print technology. Which seems like a totally obvious thing to say. But what I mean by this is that the novel, I think, could only have emerged as it did in eighteenth-century Britain because print was the only game and, most importantly, the newest game in town. It takes me back to my interests in Barker and Mme Cavendish: that they conceived prose fiction in the way they did is to an extent a result of the experience of print they had. In Barker print, as a form of technology that allowed her to patch together and then circulate this patch-work of pieces of, is a driving force. It helps create these mediums and also, I think, inspires. Maybe a totally banal example will help me clarify my point. On a totally banal note, Linklater, the film director, is only able to create the kind of movies he now makes because of the technology that makes them possible. He has created, to a certain extent, a genre of his own, which is completely defined by the technology he uses to film it and produce it. He is using science fiction--most recently in A Scanner Darkly, a great film by the way, based on Dick's novel by the same name--but the technology is helping him take the genre another way. It is a new medium insofar as our experience of both film and science fiction are altered by it. See my point? Maybe not, and I don't blame you, I think I'm not making sense. But it's been useful to think through this right now...I must think more, and do so more clearly.
Anyway, I will be posting on my dissertation this weekend, I hope, so you can give me your thoughts.