Curry Chandler

Curry Chandler is a writer, researcher, and independent scholar working in the field of communication and media studies. His writing on media theory and policy has been published in the popular press as well as academic journals. Curry approaches the study of communication from a distinctly critical perspective, and with a commitment to addressing inequality in power relations. The scope of his research activity includes media ecology, political economy, and the critique of ideology.

Curry is a graduate student in the Communication Department at the University of Pittsburgh, having previously earned degrees from Pepperdine University and the University of Central Florida.

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Filmic Vision in Blade Runner: A Montage

I haven't had time to write my thoughts on Blade Runner 2049. I've seen the film three times now, and I'm still digesting the film and its implications. In the meantime, however, I've made a short montage of scenes from the original Blade Runner (though set to a piece of the new movie's score). It's something I've had in mind for a long time: a compilation of all the eye imagery, representations of vision, and related elements in the film. There's nothing worse than an itch you can never scratch, so I'm relieved to have finally scratched this one. It's about five minutes long and you can watch it below.

Also, last week I successfully tracked down the IMDB user review of Blade Runner from back in high school. I wrote it in 2003 when I was 17 years old. The review title declares Blade Runner the "epitome of film as an art form". It was cringe-inducing for me to revisit after all these years, but I'm glad IMDB has maintained the reviews. You can read my Blade Runner review (and all my other IMDB user reviews) here

Defining Media Ecology

This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive exams. It was written in response to the prompt: "Define Media Ecology."

Introduction

            The meaning of the phrase “media ecology” will likely depend on the context in which it is used. When the phrase appears in popular discourse, it is often used in a journalistic or editorial context to refer broadly to the array of extant media forms in a sense that could also be captured by similar expressions such as “media environment” or “media landscape”. President Barack Obama used the phrase in this sense in an interview published in the November 2016 issue of Vanity Fair. While his discussing his success in reaching demographically diverse audiences, and particularly younger Americans, Obama referred to “this whole other media ecology of the Internet and Instagram and memes and talk shows and comedy.” Obama characterized his decisions to appear on late night talk shows and the online comedy series “Between Two Ferns” as strategic adaptations to a changing media landscape, one in which young Americans are receiving news and information through social media sites rather than through traditional media channels and news sources. In order to reach a demographic that is largely not tuning in to TV and other traditional media outlets, Obama appeared on “Between Two Ferns” to discuss the Affordable Care Act in a comedy video that went viral online, and ultimately reached more members of a younger age bracket than he might have through a standard speech or news sound bite.

            This essay offers a different definition of media ecology, although one that is not entirely dissimilar to the popular usage of the term. Within the fields of media and communication studies “media ecology” denotes a distinct line of inquiry shaped by certain questions and assumptions. Even in this specialized use of the phrase, media ecology can be understood in many different ways. Media ecology is a perspective on media effects. Media ecology is a tradition of scholarly inquiry characterized by common concerns and related areas of inquiry. Media ecology can also be understood as a body of literature in media and communication studies. The writing and research that make up this body of literature, however, demonstrate many of the concerns about media that are indicated by deployment of the phrase in popular discourse. For example, many media ecologists have focused their studies on the changing nature of public discourse in the context of a rapidly changing media landscape, as well as questions of media usage and relevancy across different demographics of media users and audiences.

            In order to develop a general definition of the media ecology perspective this essay will consider three of the major conceptualizations of the term throughout the literature, as offered and exemplified by three scholars most closely affiliated with the tradition. The first of these figures is Marshall McLuhan, a central thinker in the media ecology literature and perhaps the most influential theorist in the field. McLuhan is a significant figure in the development of media studies, and several of his insights and aphorisms about media effects serve as foundational elements of the media ecology perspective. The key aspect of McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of media as extensions of human faculties. The second figure is Neil Postman, an intellectual, educator, and founder of the program in Media Ecology at New York University. Postman trained and inspired a generation of card-carrying and certified “media ecologists.” Postman’s use of the ecological metaphor is tied to his idea of media as environments. Lastly, Lance Strate is a graduate of the NYU media ecology program and a founding member of the Media Ecology Association. The MEA is a scholarly and professional association that works to continue, refine, and expand the media ecology tradition. Strate’s understanding of the ecological metaphor is defined by his approach to media as media.

            Media ecology is an intellectual perspective concerned with the impact of communication technology on human culture and behavior, particularly in relation to environmental and ideological effects attributable to the inherent characteristics of technological forms. Across the theories surveyed here (as well as many others not mentioned in this essay) these various perspectives that comprise media ecology share these features in common.

McLuhan and the Toronto School: Media as Extensions

            Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As a graduate student he studied at Cambridge and was particularly interested in the trivium, the part of the liberal arts comprised by logic, grammar, and rhetoric. McLuhan wrote a dissertation on the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe, a somewhat obscure figure who was a prodigious pamphleteer. McLuhan held several academic posts before settling at the University of Toronto. His interest in classical literature and print culture, as well as education and pedagogy, lead him to an interest in how emerging electronic modes of communication would impact traditional literacy and learning. His first book, The Mechanical Bride, looked at the role of the mass communication media in producing popular culture, with a particular focus on advertising. McLuhan wrote in the book that for the first time in human history thousands of the best-educated minds were actively engaged in the business of influencing the “collective mind”. McLuhan used Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Descent in the Maelstrom as a recurring literary reference but also significant analogy for his purpose in writing the book. In Poe’s story, a mariner is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and finds himself drawn into a whirlpool. The mariner studies the effects of the whirlpool on other objects (barrels, ropes, and other detritus from the sunken ship); by observing the maelstrom’s effects on each of these objects, the mariner is able to comport himself in such a way that he manages to swim away, rather than be carried under and drown. McLuhan makes an analogy between the situation of the mariner and the threatened by a whirlpool of pop culture and mass media messages. His second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, posited an array of sweeping societal effects ushered in by the Gutenberg printing press. McLuhan argues that the introduction of movable type printing had major ramifications for European consciousness and culture. Specifically McLuhan highlights the uniformity and repeatability of the texts produced by the printing press, connecting this uniform and repeatable character to the rise of nationalism, new specializations and regimentation in society, and associated feelings of alienation. It was in this book that McLuhan first used the phrase “the global village” to refer to the linking and homogenizing effects of the mass media.

            McLuhan’s breakout book and most lasting contribution to media studies came in 1964 with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This book also presented McLuhan’s ideas about media as extensions, a concept that would become a fundamental aspect of the media ecology perspective. Central to McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of sense-ratios, and the idea that the characteristics of each communication media altered the relation of the five senses to each other. Key to this concept is the dichotomy between aural space and visual space. Before the invention of written language humanity lived in acoustic space, defined by the primacy of spoken communication. Acoustic space, McLuhan says, engages all of the senses at once (besides hearing the spoken communication you also visually register the source of the sound, and the sonorous even has an embodied/tactile element, etc.). By contrast, the printed word of typographic space engages primarily with the visual sense. In McLuhan’s terminology, acoustic space is characterized by an “all-at-once-ness,” a simultaneity of sensory engagement. An additional component of this aspect of acoustic space is that spoken language is not recorded or “frozen in time” as written language is, further contributing to this temporal notion of “all-at-once-ness.” Typographic space is characterized by a linear, segmented, “one-at-a-time-ness.” Just like reading the printed word, typographic space (or typographic consciousness) comprehends discrete elements in a linear fashion. McLuhan believed that the advent of electronic media signaled a return to acoustic space. The flow of images and disjointed nature of channel surfing introduced by television disrupted the linear character of typographic culture. Television enables a stream of images and information from different times, places, and sources, thereby retrieving the “all-at-once-ness” of acoustic space and inaugurating the electronic global village.

Understanding Media also included McLuhan’s first use of the expression “the medium is the message.” Through this phrase McLuhan sought to convey the idea that the lasting significance of any communication technology is not the specific content it transmits, but rather the change of pace and scale introduced into human affairs by virtue of the technology’s inherent characteristics. This articulation represents a further development of the ideas first put forth in Gutenberg Galaxy. The electric lightbulb is an archetypal example for McLuhan, as it has no specific “content” per se, but its introduction into society lead to significant changes as artificial light made possible a range of activities to be done indoors and times of the day that would not have been practical previously. As evident by the book’s subtitle, McLuhan saw all media and technology as extensions of human faculties, either physical or psychic. The wheel is an extension of the foot, as it “extends” the capacity for human travel by enabling the covering of distances beyond what is capable by mere human locomotion. Clothing and housing are extensions of the skin and body, increasing capabilities for shelter and protection. The technology of written language is understood as an extension of the eye, as it enables a “seeing” of things not actually present but represented in the language. Every extension, however, is accompanied by an amputation. McLuhan says that in response to the shock and disorientation of these extensions changing the sense-ratios, the central nervous responds by “numbing” other areas in order to cope. Radio may extend our aural senses, but there are associated deficiencies in other senses, such as the visual. These extensions and amputations have psychic and physiological effects. This represents a key use of ecological metaphors in McLuhan’s media theories, one based on the self-regulating perspective on ecological systems, where a change in one part of the system results in changes in other areas in order to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis.

            There is an additional component of McLuhan’s use of ecological metaphors. He argued that not only did media alter the relationships of the five senses to each other, they also altered the relationships between different media. Thus the introduction of popular radio broadcasts impacted how news was reported, and also affected the use of sound in motion pictures. When media combine, McLuhan said, the form and use of each are altered. Furthermore, the pace, scale, and intensity of human affairs are affected, as are the sense-ratios of the users. McLuhan used the ecological metaphor again in reference to a holistic implementation of various media technologies so as to compensate for ways in which they might “cancel each other out.” Specifically in relation to using media to facilitate classroom learning, McLuhan suggested using different media for different purposes in such a way that the media complement each other and provide the fullest sensory engagement. McLuhan’s writings on the societal impacts introduced by communication media proved very influential. Walter Ong, whose MA thesis was supervised by McLuhan, went on to write Orality and Literacy, a book comparing differences between oral cultures and literate cultures through a broad historical survey. Orality and literacy studies remains an important aspect of media ecology-related communication studies. Elizabeth Eisenstein cited McLuhan in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change. Her work investigates social and cultural changes in literate western European society following the introduction of the Gutenberg printing press, and has been credited with bringing needed clarity and scholarly rigor to McLuhan’s notions of oral and literate cultures. McLuhan came to be retroactively associated with a group of other scholars who had been working at the University of Toronto around the same time, although all members of this loose affiliation had worked separately from one another. This group became known as the Toronto School of Communication Studies. The influence of these scholars would eventually lead to another school arising from similarly minded thinkers in the United States, which would become known as the New York School.

Postman and the New York School: Media as Environments

            Neil Postman was born in 1931 in New York City. He earned a PhD in education and wrote prolifically about learning and pedagogical practice. In 1969 he co-authored Teaching as a Subversive Activity with Charles Weingartner. In the book, Postman and Weingartner posited an inquiry-based method of pedagogy. They outlined a set of ideals and practices that should guide teachers, as well as specifying techniques that should be avoided, with the goal of inculcating characteristics of “good learning” among students. In 1971 while at NYU’s Steinhardt School of education, Postman founded the graduate program in Media Ecology. Postman thus coined the phrase, although the exact origins of the term are somewhat disputed. Postman seems to have believe at times that McLuhan used the phrase “media ecology” in Understanding Media, though in fact that term does not appear in the book although the ecological metaphor of media effects and relationships is clearly present. Marshall McLuhan’s son Eric has suggested that he and his father came up with the phrase during the year McLuhan was teaching at Fordham University in 1967; Eric has said that McLuhan then mentioned the term to Postman, and Postman “ran with it.” Graduates of the Media Ecology program have mentioned to me anecdotally that Neil Postman used the phrase precisely because of its nebulous nature. “People will ask you, ‘What’s media ecology?,’” he told students, adding, “Then you get to define it!” In 1982 Postman authored The Disappearance of Childhood. In this book Postman argued that the notion of childhood was a relatively recent social phenomenon. Historically “child” had merely designated that someone was a “daughter of” or “son of,” but it had since come to refer to a stage of development before adulthood. Postman pointed to the role of the printing press in this change, arguing the introduction of literacy created a “world of adult secrets” that was only accessible to literate adults. This also led to changes in learning, as literacy now became a necessary part of education. As his argument here indicates, Postman was primarily interested in the social effects of communication technology, rather than the sense-ratio effects that McLuhan emphasized.

            In 1985 Postman’s best-known book was published, titled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman begins the book by comparing the dystopic visions of George Orwell’s 1984, where a totalitarian government controls an austere state, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the populace self-medicates themselves into a blissful narcotic state. Part of Postman’s argument is that Huxley’s vision is much closer to contemporary society than Orwell’s, and he compares the soma drug of Brave New World with the effects of television consumption on the populace. Following McLuhan’s maxim that “the media is the message,” the first chapter of Postman’s book is titled “the medium is the metaphor.” Postman states “form excludes the content” in arguing that each medium of communication can only sustain a certain level of ideas or discourse. When literate culture (and oratory based on written language) predominated, public discourse consisted of statements and propositions that an audience would evaluate as true or false. This sort of exchange contributed to public communication based on rational discourse. Postman highlights the introduction of the telegraph as a turning point in the nature of public discourse. The telegraph made possible communication and information exchange virtually unbounded by geographic distance. The near-instantaneous transmission of information was revolutionary. This brought about several significant changes to the character of discourse. For one thing, Postman states, just because Maine could now talk to Texas doesn’t mean that they had anything worthwhile to say to one another. In other words, the mere possibility of persistent communication came to be seen as a necessity for persistent communication, in a manner that devalued and degraded the quality of the discourse. Part of the reason for this degradation lies in the inherent characteristics of the telegraph to transmit certain quality and quantity of information. Another significant aspect of this development is the great increase in information that the telegraph contributed to. Postman points to the persistent communication of the telegraph (along with the mass reproduction of images around the same period of time) as resulting in a deluge of information. In response, there was a shift from audiences discerning the context of information and evaluating it, to instead collecting information (often irrelevant information) largely independent of any context. Television represents a further change in the nature of public discourse. Postman states that he is not against television as a means of entertainment, but rather his concern is that the very nature of television reduces all serious discussion to the level of entertainment. All television content is packaged and presented as a commodity, leading to a leveling of all televised content in a way that further contributes to the lack of rational debate in public discourse. Postman references politics as a key arena where these changes play out, as election campaigns become “battles of advertisements,” where candidates are turned into images and brands that then craft sound bites to sell a generalized notion of what they think the country lacks, just as advertising functions.

            Postman may have been the first person to offer a definition of media ecology, stating: “Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” He said that media ecology is concerned with how media affect thoughts, feelings, and values. He also said that the role of media technology in influencing human affairs is directly implicated with the species’ prospects for survival. In 1973 Christine Nystrom became the first graduate of the Media Ecology program, writing a dissertation titled “Toward a Science of Media Ecology.” Nystrom characterized the sweeping social changes indicated by McLuhan and Postman as a transition from a compartmentalized Newtonian world to a more holistic world defined by interrelatedness and interdisiciplinarity. Other graduates of the Media Ecology program would continue the process of defining media ecology, and further contribute to the field’s interdisciplinarity.

Strate and the Media Ecology Association: Media as Media

            Lance Strate graduated from the Media Ecology program in the 1990s. While at NYU he had worked with Neil Postman on several published studies, and Christine Nystrom had served as his dissertation advisor. In 1998 he was a founding member of the Media Ecology Association, inaugurated at Fordham University, and served as the association’s first president. The association holds an annual conference, and mains a strong presence at related scholarly events. They also publish a journal, Explorations in Media Ecology, named for the “Explorations” publication that McLuhan was involved in at the University of Toronto, and where many of the key concerns of media ecology were first articulated.

            Strate has contributed not only to the institutionalization of the media ecology perspective, but also its ongoing definition. Strate writes: “Media ecology is the Toronto School, and the New York School. It is technological determinism, hard and soft, and technological evolution. It is media philosophy, and medium theory, and mediology.” This part of Strate’s definition refers to the Toronto school associated with McLuhan, and the New York School associated with Postman. In referring to technological determinism, it also references one of the most persistent criticisms of the media ecology perspective, that the theory is inherently deterministic (see Curry Chandler’s “Marshall Arts: An Inventory of Common Criticisms of McLuhan’s Media Studies,” in Explorations in Media Ecology). By doing so, Strate seeks to acknowledge determinism as part of the media ecology legacy, and one that is commensurate with the theory rather than an internal contradiction that undermines it. Strate also references other strands of media theory that can be traced to media ecological roots, including “medium theory” which was coined by Postman and Nystrom’s student Joshua Meyrowtiz in his book No Sense of Place. His definition also includes other strands of scholarship that are typically included in or conflated with the media ecology perspective: McLuhan studies, orality-literacy studies, and media philosophy and history.

            In a 2008 article, “Studying Media AS Media: McLuhan and the Media Ecology Perspective” Strate builds a definition of media ecology around McLuhan’s maxim “the media is the message.” The medium is the message, Strate says, because the medium precedes the message; communication cannot exist without a channel, information cannot exist in a vacuum. As these variables change, so too does the message being communicated. Furthermore, Strate states that the nature of structure of technology is ultimately more significant than our intentions in using it. The materials we use, and the methods with which we use them, will ultimately determine our outcomes. The symbolic form of our communication is the lasting significance of that communication, rather than the specific and individual messages that are conveyed. In all of these ways, Strate argues that “the medium is the message,” and therefore that the media ecology perspective entails studying media as media. It is in this sense that Strate meaningfully distinguishes media ecology from other perspectives in communication and media research, which also acknowledging and affirming the various intersections and related fields. Strate suggests that the differences in definition surrounding media ecology are an inherent strength of the perspective, rather than a weakness.

Public space, the public sphere, and the urban as public realm

This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive examinations. It was written to address connections between theories of the public sphere and concerns about public space, and to conceptualize the urban environment as a public realm. 

Introduction

Questions of space have always been implicated with the concept of the public sphere, but the idea of space has been conceptualized and applied in various ways within this context. Carragee’s challenge for scholars to address the nexus between public sphere theory and the study of public space has a solid foundation in the pertinent implications for civic life, attempts to connect academic perspectives and planning disciplines, and his own analysis of the impact of urban design on the character of public interaction. I agree with Carragee’s assertion that a vital public sphere requires vital public spaces. I am less inclined to agree with his claim that communication scholars have been silent on the issue, as there have been moves to address the communicative implications of the built environment through approaches such as material rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider how scholars of communication and other fields have approached this nexus, and how this line of inquiry might be extended.

To properly address this question about the relationship between public space and the public sphere it is helpful to define our terms. Both “public space” and “public sphere” have been used by different actors to signify differing meanings. The Habermasian formulation of the public sphere posited a novel form of social interaction facilitated by a network of institutions comprised by physical locations and mediated discourses. Following this model, scholars have understood the public sphere as a discursive space rooted in place-based communication as well as mediated exchanges. Catherine Squires has defined the public sphere as “a set of physical and mediated spaces” in which people come together to identify, express, and deliberate interests of common concern. Nancy Fraser has characterized the public sphere as “a theater” for social interaction where political activity is actualized through the medium of speech. The public sphere can also be understood as a particular kind of relationship among participants. This relationship is mediated by these historical forms of sociability enacted at specific points in space and time. Kurt Iveson refers to public spheres as “social imaginaries” that are always in the process of being formed. The public sphere has also been understood procedurally (or processually), as a normative ideal founded on a set of principles intended to guide interaction.

The meaning of “public space” may seem obvious, but this term too has been conceptualized in a variety of ways. Notions of “public space” can be rooted in the physical characteristics of a location, the institutional structures and policies affecting a place, or the types of uses and activities undertaken in the space. Seyla Benhabib offers a procedural definition of public space. Understood procedurally, “public space” is any space that, through public address at a particular time, is transformed as a site of political action through speech and persuasion. In Benhabib’s formulation, “public space” is not merely “open” space, or physical, absolute, geographical space. More to the point, public space is never merely space in this physical sense. This represents an approach to public space that contrasts with Carragee’s view of public space as material, empirical, and concrete, as opposed to the public sphere which he sees as more conceptual and virtual. In Benhabib’s procedural definition these realms are not so clearly distinguished from one another.

This essay will further explore influential notions of public space, the public sphere, and their relationship to one another. The first section will review significant and influential approaches to this nexus as represented by three prominent theorists. The second section looks at how the contemporary city has figured as a key referent in discussion of public space and the public sphere. The third section considers how the introduction of networked communication technologies has complicated understandings this relationship. Finally, I conclude with some contemporary issues facing work in this area.

Three Models of the Public Realm: Arendt, Habermas, Sennett

Hannah Arendt was a political theorist who wrote about power, authority, totalitarianism, and democracy. In one of her best known and most influential works, “The Human Condition,” she surveyed different conceptions and enactments of human activity beginning in ancient societies. The second section of this book is dedicated to “the private and public realms.” According to Arendt, life in ancient Greek society was divided between the private realm and the public realm. The private realm was the sphere of the household, and the public realm was the site of “action”. Activity in the private realm was preoccupied with bodily necessities, whereas the public realm was free of these necessities and in which one could distinguish oneself through great works and deeds. Arendt further proposes a dichotomy of human life based on the concepts of “zoe” and “bios”. Both words are etymologically linked to mean “life,” but Arendt is distinguishing human activity into two modes: animalistic (zoe) and humanistic (bios). This distinction between zoe and bios is connected to Arendt’s notion of life in the market versus public space, which she also refers to as the private realm (oikos) and the public realm (polis). Arendt considers the market an impoverished place where subjects are treated as animals, mere consumers driven to satisfy bodily and selfish needs. In the context of the oikos, one’s human identity and individuality is of no importance: in order to purchase a commodity, you need only pay the appropriate price, regardless of who you are. In the public realm, by contrast, the individual identity of each subject does acquire prominence. Through public discussion subjects or speakers are recognized as unique human beings who are inexchangeable with anyone else. Without language, human beings live on the level of “laboring animals,” merely concerned with continuing their lives. Through the medium of linguistic communication, humans open themselves up to the existence of others as well as the existence of a world that is shared with others. This then is the key idea in Arendt’s distinction between the private and public realms: people live privately as animals, and as humans only in public. Arendt valorizes the types of relations in ancient cities such as Athens, but she distinguishes between the built environment and the polis. She says that the polis, properly understood, does not refer to the physical city-state but to the relations that emerge from acting and speaking together, regardless of where the participants are. “Not Athens, but Athenians, were the polis.”

Jurgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “the sphere of private individuals come together as a public.” Similar to Arendt, he also considers this “public” relation as rooted in and a consequence of discourse and communication. Habermas’ notion of the public sphere is based on an empirical study of voluntary social associations and literary practices that emerged in Europe in the 18th century. The emergence of a “debating public” and an ethos of local governance were tied to the development of “provincial urban” institutions. These included coffee houses, salons, and theaters. Habermas’ study of the bourgeois public sphere is not only an account of specific historical phenomena, it also represents a normative ideal for rational-critical debate and deliberative politics. As such, Habermas’ theory has been interpreted as distinctly aspatial, not concerned with physical spaces but rather only an abstract discursive space. Several critics have argued that in order for Habermas’ theory to function as both a historical social explanation and a normative political idea, as his study proposes, it must be founded in an understanding of situated contexts of specific communities.

Richard Sennett is an urban sociologist who has written extensively on city design, public life, and civic engagement. His first book, “The Uses of Disorder,” argued that excessively ordered environments stifle personal development, and that people who live in such environments end up with overly rigid worldviews and insufficiently developed political consciousness. Sennett calls for practices of city design that allow for unpredictability, anarchy, and creative disorder that will foster adults better equipped to confront the complexities of life. In “The Conscience of the Eye” Sennett suggests that the built forms of modern cities are bland and neutralized spaces that diminish contact and wall people off from encounters with the Other. His remedy for this condition is a creative art of exposure to others and city life that should instill an appreciation for and empathy with difference. “A city,” Sennett says, “should be a school for learning to live a centered life.” Sennett’s book “The Fall of Public Man” outlines the decline of public life since the 18th century. In the 18th century, Sennett argues, public and private space were more clearly delineated than today. The disappearance of public space in the 20th century is attributed to a rise in intimacy and narcissism associated with industrial capitalism. In an essay titled “The Public Realm,” Sennett situates his approach to public life in relation to Arendt and Habermas. Sennett describes Arendt’s model of the public realm as inherently political and based on public deliberation in which participants discard their private interests. He calls Arendt the champion of the urban center “par excellence,” as the population density of urban centers provides the condition of anonymity that he sees as central to Arendt’s ideal. Sennett considers Habermas less interested in place than Arendt, as his theory includes mass produced texts such as newspapers as sites for the public sphere. For Habermas, Sennett states, the public realm is “any medium, occasion, or event” that facilitates free communication among strangers. Regarding his own approach, Sennett defines the public realm as “a place where strangers can come together.” He emphasizes that the public realm is a place, traditionally understood as a location on the ground, but Sennett states that developments in communication technologies have challenged this sense of place. Today “cyberspace” can function as a public realm as much as any physical place. Sennett also argues that “the public realm is a process.” As is evident in the arguments from his books summarized above, Sennett believes that shared spaces that accommodate unplanned and unmanaged encounters between strangers are beneficial for personal and social development. His emphasis on incompleteness and process, as opposed to fixity and determination, recalls Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonistic Pluralism. Mouffe challenges the ideal espoused by Habermas that the deliberative ideal should be consensus reached by rational individuals. She argues that for freedom to exist the intrusion of conflict must be allowed for. The democratic process, Mouffe says, should provide an arena for the emergence of conflict and difference. Similarly Sennett says that daily experience doesn’t register much without “disruptive drama.”

The Modern City as Public Realm

In her book “Justice and Political Difference,” political theorist Iris Marion Young writes of city life as a normative ideal for communicative and political interaction. Young states that urbanity must be understood as an inherent aspect of life in advanced industrial societies, and that the material of our environment and structures available to us presuppose the forms of interactions that occur in these spaces. By “city life” Young refers to a type of social relation that she refers to as “a relation among strangers.” Urban experience, and in particular urban spaces, provide ideal conditions for the exposure to difference lives that a politics of difference should be predicated on. Young states that public spaces are crucial for open communicative democracy.

In “City of Rhetoric,” rhetorical scholar David Fleming argues that the city is the ideal context for the revitalization of the public sphere. He proposes an ideal space of relation that is between the intimacy of friends and family, on the one hand, and the mutual suspicion of strangers on the other. Fleming argues that the built environment and public space of the city is perfectly situated between users, relating and separating them at the same.

Don Mitchell has written about the “disappearance of public space” in the modern city. In a similar vein to influential critiques of the Habermasian public sphere, Mitchell states that the ideal of public space “open to all” has never been an existing state of affairs, but the ideal of public space circulates to powerful effect. For instance, Mitchell says, the circulation of the “open” public space ideal has served as a rallying call for successive waves of political movements to utilize space for activism and inclusionary ends.

Mediated Spaces and Mediated Spheres

Since Habermas’ formulation the idea of the public sphere has included elements of mediation. Habermas directly implicates the mass media in “The Structural Transformation,” citing the role of literature and the press in establishing the bourgeois public sphere, and the impact of television and other commercial mass media in diminishing the public sphere. The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s spawned enthusiasm from some regarding the deliberative and participatory potential of the medium. To some, the Internet seemed to realize all the ideals of Habermas’ public sphere. It was universal, non-hierarchical, based on uncoerced communication, and enabled public opinion formation based on voluntary deliberation. By these principles, and many others, the Internet looked like the realization of the ideal speech situation. Iveson suggests that the procedural understanding of public space allows various media to be understood as “public spaces” because they facilitate the formation of publics. Other scholars have considered media as new “spaces” for interaction. Sheller and Urry have compared new media to Arendt’s “space of appearances,” suggesting that in the digital age this “space” may be a “screen” on which public matters appear.

Still other scholars have voiced opposing accounts of the relationship between virtual spaces and the ideals of the public sphere. Don Mitchell has argued that the Internet can never meet or surpass the street as a public space, saying the infrastructure of the medium precludes certain uses and political opportunities. Public space remains crucial because it makes it possible for disadvantaged groups to occupy the space in a way that is precluded in virtual space. This space is especially important for homeless people because it is also a space to be and live in; a space for living rather than just visibilization. Iris Marion Young also addresses the distinction between physical space and virtual space with her concept of “embodied public space.” She says that media can facilitate public address and formation, and in this sense is not dependent on physical space. To the extent that public space is shrinking, or that individuals are withdrawing from public space, there is a democratic crisis. She uses the term “embodied public space” to refer to streets, squares, plazas, parks, and other physical spaces of the built environment that she deems crucial to allowing access to anyone and enabling encounters with difference. These spaces allow varieties of public interaction that are fundamental to her notion of city life as a normative ideal.

Jodi Dean has persistently criticized the “inclusionary ideal” promoted by the internet as an ideology of technocracy that she calls “communicative capitalism.” Dean’s article “Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere” challenges claims that the Internet can enable the ideals of the public sphere. In the public sphere ideal, communicative exchange is supposed to provide the basis for real political action. Under conditions of communicative capitalism, these exchanges function merely as message circulation rather than acclamations to be responded to. Political theorist Robert Putnam posited a decline of social capital in U.S. communities since 1950 in his book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam cites evidence of civic decline indicated by decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, and committee participation. The book’s title refers to the fact that while the number of Americans who bowl has increased in past decades, the number of people who participate in bowling leagues has declined. He attributes this fall in social capital to the “individualizing” of leisure time enabled by television and the Internet. Sherry Turkle has similarly argued for a technologically-promoted decline of physical proximity and interaction in the book “Alone Together.” Iveson has responded to such criticisms by arguing that the “stage” and “screen” (or “print” and “polis”) should not be seen as mutually exclusive arenas. Rather, he points to examples where movements of co-present interaction were facilitated through, managed by, or arranged around mediated forms of interaction.

Conclusion

There are several areas where continued research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere could be productive. First, it is important to consider how networked technology and mediated communication have changed the use of public space. Have the dispersed networks of power, access, and participation diminished the potency of public space for realizing political agency? Are these changes reversing Arendt’s formulation of the public and private realms? Has the logic of the market short circuited the function of the polis? Have new uses of public space emerged, and have traditional uses disappeared? It is now common for bodies to occupy physical space while their gaze and consciousness are directed not at their environment but at their various devices. How does this change our understanding of and approach to public and shared spaces? What does mean in relation to Mitchell and Young’s arguments about the role of “embodied public space”? In light of pervasive mediation in daily life it is important to affirm the fundamental importance of physical locations as public space.

Secondly, it is important not just to consider physical and virtual space in a dichotomous relationship, but also how they interrelate. How are digital technologies and mediated communication intersecting with the use of public space, and vice versa? To be clear, the phenomena at the core of this question are not new. Habermas’ model of the bourgeois public sphere concerns the relation between mass media and association in public space. More recently, the political uprisings collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring” brought attention to this issue. After social media and text messaging were use to organize demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt that eventually led to the removal of president Mubarak, pundits and media theorists began referring to this social movement as the “Twitter revolution.” Again, it is important to differentiate between the means of communication used to exchange information and organize bodies, and the site of political protest as represented in this case by Tahrir Square.

Finally, the implementation of information technology into the built environment is raising questions about the role of technologies in public space and civic life. In a November 2016 article, urban media scholar Shannon Mattern considered this issue in relation to the implementation and subsequent shuttering of the LinkNYC terminals in New York City. The LinkNYC initiative involved replacing telephone booths throughout the sidewalks of Manhattan with kiosks that provided access to electricity and wireless internet service. The city government promoted the terminals as places where tourists could access maps and online information and New Yorkers could charge their cell phones. The resultant “misuse” of these terminals, exemplified by people using the service for watching pornography or illicitly downloading media, resulted in the program being suspended indefinitely. Mattern uses this example to argue the importance of “vital spaces of information exchange” in our public spaces. She suggests that ideologies of “data solutionism” have influenced planning commissions to the detriment of small, local, and analog data perspectives that she considers essential to urban life. Mattern encourages city planning boards and project committees to include librarians and archivists in their ranks in the interest of such spaces of information exchange. At stake, Mattern argues, is the nature and well-being of our democracy.

These are just a few of the issues and questions that I think should inform future research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere. My own work is informed by these questions, and my interest in “smart city” policies and practices of implementation seeks to extend and challenge the conceptual zones outlined in this essay. Related questions explored in my research include: changing conceptions of public and private infrastructure; shifting models of civic engagement; and the predominance of market rationalities and discourses in (re)shaping the built environment. These questions are likely to only increase in prominence in the foreseeable future, and unforeseen developments are always arising. The essential questions of public space and the public sphere, however, will remain of crucial importance in our increasingly interconnected collective lives.

Immediacy, Hypermediacy, and Digital Rhetoric: Two views of Remediation

In Remediation: Understanding New Media (1999), Bolter and Grusin present a genealogy of media forms as it relates to current North American media phenomena built around three key terms: immediacy, hypermediacy, and remediation. The authors use the term “remediation” to refer to “the representation of one medium in another” (p. 45). They are primarily interested in the representation of older media within digital media. Remediation, then, is the central concept, but the authors state that it “always operates under the current cultural assumptions about immediacy and hypermediacy.

            Bolter and Grusin conceptualize hypermediacy as a multiplication or intensification of mediation. The term itself may seem to represent the opposite of immediacy, and the authors make this connection clear: “At the end of the twentieth century we are in a position to understand hypermediacy as immediacy’s opposite number, an alter ego that has never been suppressed fully or for long periods of time” (p. 34). This binary or polar relationship between the two functions so that the absence of one is always implied in the presence of the opposite. “In every manifestation, hypermediacy makes us aware of the medium or media and (in sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious ways) reminds us of our desire for immediacy” (p. 34).

            Immediacy, as the authors use the term, describes “a family of beliefs and practices,” and “the common feature of all these forms is the belief in some necessary contact point between the medium and what it represents” (p. 30). They refer to “the logic of transparent immediacy” to characterize how artists and designers have attempted to create immersive or immanent experiences that provide a sense of immediacy, or non-mediated experience. Computer interfaces become a key concept for the authors when considering immediacy in digital media. “What designers often say they want is an ‘interfaceless’ interface, in which there will be no recognizable electronic tools” (p. 23). This inclination toward invisible interfacing is associated with the essential logic of digital media. “The transparent interface is one more manifestation of the need to deny the mediated character of technology altogether. To believe that with digital technology we have passed beyond mediation is also to assert the uniqueness of our present technological moment” (p. 24).

            Ben McCorkle (Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse) refers not to computer graphics when addressing the transparent interface, but to printed books, writing of the “illusory interface of print as a transparent window into the mind of the author”(p. 149). McCorkle is concerned with communication media and technology as each relates to the practice of rhetoric, and especially the practice’s origins as spoken communication. The rhetorical canon of delivery is being redefined, McCorkle argues, and equated with a medium. McCorkle states that “redefining delivery works based on the logic of immediacy” (p. 153): “Delivery and medium become coequal terms not under the reign of print with its blank aesthetic but with the arrival of electronic and digital writing technologies that are perceived to be more flexible, alterable, and performative than print” (p. 154).

            McCorkle sees the historical transformations of rhetoric as contributing to the process of remediation. Changes in modes of communication brought about by new technological forms and paradigms result in associated changes in how rhetoric is conceptualized and practiced. Digital media, therefore, affect contemporary rhetorical practice. “In the era of digital writing, rhetoric has disembodied the canon of delivery, placing it atop nonverbal texts and, in effect, transforming those texts into surrogates of the performing body” (p. 160). As media forms and technology remediate spoken communication and rhetorical practice, rhetoric in turn remediates media forms and technology, recalling Bolter and Grusin’s seemingly tautological formulation of “remediation as the mediation of mediation” (p. 56).

Resistance is Feudal: A descent into McLuhan’s media maelstrom

McLuhan’s approach to media studies is almost always characterized as deterministic. The entry for McLuhan in the Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory states in part: “McLuhan’s version of technological determinism is extreme […] the most striking feature of his studies of the media is their total failure to discuss the ownership and control of means of communication.” McLuhan addresses the issue of determinism early on in The Gutenberg Galaxy, writing: “Far from being deterministic, however, the present study will, it is hoped, elucidate a principal factor in social change which may lead to a genuine increase of human autonomy.” Rather than tackle the issue of whether McLuhan “really was” a technological determinist, I will take McLuhan at his word regarding the stated goal of his media studies: “Study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes.” So if McLuhan’s goal in The Gutenberg Galaxy is to increase human autonomy in the electronic age, what does that look like in practice and how would it be accomplished?

As noted in one of the introductions to The Gutenberg Galaxy, literature is major touchstone for McLuhan’s work. His frequent use of literary allusions and the stylistic decisions employed in his works have caused some critics to consider his books more literary exercises than scholarship or theory. One such literary reference in Gutenberg Galaxy is the short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe’s story, three brothers on a fishing trip are drawn into a whirlpool. As their ship is pulled into the vortex, two of the brothers drown. The fate of the third brother is described in this excerpt from the Wikipedia summary of the story: “At first [he] only saw hideous terror in the spectacle. In a moment of revelation, he saw that the Maelstrom is a beautiful and awesome creation. Observing how objects around him were pulled into it, he deduced that "the larger the bodies, the more rapid their descent" and that spherical-shaped objects were pulled in the fastest. Unlike his brother, he abandoned ship and held on to a cylindrical barrel until he was saved several hours later.”

McLuhan alludes to the vortex in Poe’s story to describe the plight of individuals making sense of a world caught between literary culture and post-literate technology. He writes: “May not it be our job in the new electronic age to study the action of the new vortex on the body of other cultures?” (p. 88). Extending this metaphor, McLuhan is ostensibly equating his approach to media studies with the sailor’s study of the actions of the objects in the vortex. This suggests that by understanding the effects brought on by the interaction of various media in the electronic era we can consciously act and thereby not be drawn under the water, as the sailor in the story survived by acting deliberately and not succumbing to panic and terror as his brothers did.

The notion of conscious acts seems key to McLuhan’s project of increasing human autonomy in the face of wide-sweeping technological determinism. The Gutenberg Galaxy is peppered with references to Finnegan’s Wake, often accompanied by allusions to waking up and regaining consciousness. McLuhan writes about “hypnotic” and “entrancing” effects of media, of the “involuntary and subliminal character” of perspective engendered by print. He says that “the influence of unexamined assumptions derived from technology leads quite unnecessarily to maximal determinism in human life” (p. 280). This returns us to McLuhan’s stated goal in his media studies, of unearthing subliminal assumptions for scrutiny and the basis of conscious decision-making. In essence, the aim of McLuhan’s probes, puns, and provocations could be summed up in a single sentiment: “Wake up!” Returning now to my initial question: how does McLuhan propose that we “wake up” and become more conscious of media effects? The Gutenberg Galaxy ends on a cliffhanger, and with a promise that McLuhan will return in the sequel, but the concluding chapter makes the case that it is the function of art to rouse the sleeping to consciousness, and draw attention from a focus on content to an awareness of form.

Your brain on Kindle; 21st Century media literacy; how Disney shapes youth identity

Neuroscience, in fact, has revealed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from a piece of paper or from a screen. So the more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards "non-linear" reading — a practice that involves things like skimming a screen or having your eyes dart around a web page.

Using the technology approach, the iPhone is the “school” and anyone who uses it adeptly is the master and anyone over 30 is, well, handicapped at best.   New technologies enable this approach because now, hardware and software are available and production has been democratized — everyone is a producer, a collaborator, a distributor and a participant.  While experiential and project-based learning is truly exciting and an important component of media literacy, it is not synonymous because the outcome of the technology approach is often limited to technical proficiency without critical autonomy. Whether using an iPad, a pencil or a videocam, pressing the right buttons is important but not enough!

The information, entertainment and cultural pedagogy disseminated by massive multimedia corporations have become central in shaping and influencing every waking moment of children's daily lives - all toward a lifetime of constant, unthinking consumption. Consumer culture in the United States and increasingly across the globe, does more than undermine the ideals of a secure and happy childhood: it exhibits the bad faith of a society in which, for children, "there can be only one kind of value, market value; one kind of success, profit; one kind of existence, commodities; and one kind of social relationship, markets."

TV still sucks, we should still complain about hipsters, your job shouldn't exist

None of this could be happening at a worse time. According to the latest S.O.S. from climate science, we have maybe 15 years to enact a radical civilizational shift before game over. This may be generous, it may be alarmist; no one knows. What is certain is that pulling off a civilizational Houdini trick will require not just switching energy tracks, but somehow confronting the “endless growth” paradigm of the Industrial Revolution that continues to be shared by everyone from Charles Koch to Paul Krugman. We face very long odds in just getting our heads fully around our situation, let alone organizing around it. But it will be impossible if we no longer even understand the dangers of chuckling along to Kia commercials while flipping between Maher, “Merlin” and “Girls.”

  • Zaitchik's article name checks pertinent critics and theorists including Adorno's "cultural industry," Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” and even Jerry Mander's "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television." Where this article was discussed on sites like Reddit or Metafilter commenters seemed angry at Zaitchik, overly defensive as if they felt under attack for watching "Hannibal" and "Game of Thrones". I thoroughly enjoyed Zaitchik's piece, even if it doesn't present a fully developed argument, because the perspective he presents strongly resonates with many of the philosophical foundations that have shaped my own views on media, particularly the media ecology tradition. A large part of Zaitchik's argument is that even if television content is the highest quality it has ever been, the form of television and its effects are the same as ever:

Staring at images on a little screen — that are edited in ways that weaken the brain’s capacity for sustained and critical thought, that encourage passivity and continued viewing, that are controlled by a handful of publicly traded corporations, that have baked into them lots of extremely slick and manipulating advertising — is not the most productive or pleasurable way to spend your time, whether you’re interested in serious social change, or just want to have a calm, clear and rewarding relationship with the real world around you.

But wait, you say, you’re not just being a killjoy and a bore, you’re living in the past. Television in 2014 is not the same as television in 1984, or 1994. That’s true. Chomsky’s “propaganda model,” set out during cable’s late dawn in “Manufacturing Consent,” is due for an update. The rise of on-demand viewing and token progressive programming has complicated the picture. But only by a little. The old arguments were about structure, advertising, structure, ownership, and structure, more than they were about programming content, or what time of the day you watched it. Less has changed than remains the same. By all means, let’s revisit the old arguments. That is, if everyone isn’t busy binge-watching “House of Cards.”

It’s been something to watch, this televisionification of the left. Open a window on social media during prime time, and you’ll find young journalists talking about TV under Twitter avatars of themselves in MSNBC makeup. Fifteen years ago, these people might have attended media reform congresses discussing how corporate TV pacifies and controls people, and how those facts flow from the nature of the medium. Today, they’re more likely to status-update themselves on their favorite corporate cable channel, as if this were something to brag about.

The entertainment demands of the 21st Century seem (apparently) bottomless. We’ve outsourced much of our serotonin production to the corporations which control music, sports, television, games, movies, and books. And they’ve grown increasingly desperate to produce the most universally acceptable, exportable, franchisable, exciting, boring, money-making pablum possible. Of course that is not new either… yet it continues to worsen.

Various alternative cultures have been attempting to fight it for decades. The beats, hippies, punks, and grunge kids all tried… and eventually lost. But the hipsters have avoided it altogether by never producing anything of substance except a lifestyle based upon fetishizing obscurity and cultivating tasteful disdain. A noncommital and safe appreciation of ironic art and dead artists. No ideals, no demands, no struggle.

Rarely has the modern alternative to pop culture been so self-conscious and crippled. The mainstream has repeatedly beaten down and destroyed a half-century’s worth of attempts to keep art on a worthwhile and genuine path, but now it seems the final scion of those indie movements has adopted the: ‘if you can’t beat‘em, join‘em’ compromise of creative death.

  • In an interview for PBS, London School of Economics professor David Graeber poses the question: should your job exist?

How could you have dignity in labor if you secretly believe your job shouldn’t exist? But, of course, you’re not going to tell your boss that. So I thought, you know, there must be enormous moral and spiritual damage done to our society. And then I thought, well, maybe that explains some other things, like why is it there’s this deep, popular resentment against people who have real jobs? They can get people so angry at auto-workers, just because they make 30 bucks an hour, which is like nowhere near what corporate lawyers make, but nobody seems to resent them. They get angry at the auto-workers; they get angry at teachers. They don’t get angry at school administrators, who actually make more money. Most of the problems people blame on teachers, and I think on some level, that’s resentment: all these people with meaningless jobs are saying, but, you guys get to teach kids, you get to make cars; that’s real work. We don’t get to do real work; you want benefits, too? That’s not reasonable.

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.

Warren Ellis on violent fiction, death of the Western, Leatherface as model vegan

As we learn early on, the movie’s killers, the murderous Sawyer family (comprised of Leatherface, Grandpa, et al), used to run a slaughterhouse, and the means they use to slaughter their victims are the same as those used to slaughter cattle. They knock them over the head with sledgehammers, hang them on meat hooks, and stuff them into freezers. Often this takes place as the victims are surrounded by animal bones, a detail that could be explained away as the evidence of their former occupation—except that the cries of farm animals (there are none around) are played over the scenes.

Through the past century of Western movies, we can trace America's self-image as it evolved from a rough-and-tumble but morally confident outsider in world affairs to an all-powerful sheriff with a guilty conscience. After World War I and leading into World War II, Hollywood specialized in tales of heroes taking the good fight to savage enemies and saving defenseless settlements in the process. In the Great Depression especially, as capitalism and American exceptionalism came under question, the cowboy hero was often mistaken for a criminal and forced to prove his own worthiness--which he inevitably did. Over the '50s, '60s, and '70s however, as America enforced its dominion over half the planet with a long series of coups, assassinations, and increasingly dubious wars, the figure of the cowboy grew darker and more complicated. If you love Westerns, most of your favorites are probably from this era--Shane, The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the spaghetti westerns, etc. By the height of the Vietnam protest era, cowboys were antiheroes as often as they were heroes.

The dawn of the 1980s brought the inauguration of Ronald Reagan and the box-office debacle of the artsy, overblown Heaven's Gate. There's a sense of disappointment to the decade that followed, as if the era of revisionist Westerns had failed and a less nuanced patriotism would have to carry the day. Few memorable Westerns were made in the '80s, and Reagan himself proudly associated himself with an old-fashioned, pre-Vietnam cowboy image. But victory in the Cold War coincided with a revival of the genre, including the revisionist strain, exemplified in Clint Eastwood's career-topping Unforgiven. A new, gentler star emerged in Kevin Costner, who scored a post-colonial megahit with Dances With Wolves. Later, in the 2000s, George W. Bush reclaimed the image of the cowboy for a foreign policy far less successful than Reagan's, and the genre retreated to the art house again.

Westerns are fundamentally about political isolation. The government is far away and weak. Institutions are largely irrelevant in a somewhat isolated town of 100 people. The law is what the sheriff says it is, or what the marshall riding through town says, or the posse. At that scale, there may be no meaningful distinction between war and crime. A single individual's choices can tilt the balance of power. Samurai and Western stories cross-pollinated because when you strip away the surface detail the settings are surprisingly similar. The villagers in Seven Samurai and the women in Unforgiven are both buying justice/revenge because there is no one to appeal to from whom they could expect justice. Westerns are interesting in part because they are stories where individual moral judgment is almost totally unsupported by institutions.

Westerns clearly are not dying. We get a really great film in the genre once every few years. However, they've lost a lot of their place at the center of pop culture because the idea of an isolated community has grown increasingly implausible. In what has become a surveillance state, the idea of a place where the state has no authority does not resonate as relevant.

The function of fiction is being lost in the conversation on violence. My book editor, Sean McDonald, thinks of it as “radical empathy.” Fiction, like any other form of art, is there to consider aspects of the real world in the ways that simple objective views can’t — from the inside. We cannot Other characters when we are seeing the world from the inside of their skulls. This is the great success of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, both in print and as so richly embodied by Mads Mikkelsen in the Hannibal television series: For every three scary, strange things we discover about him, there is one thing that we can relate to. The Other is revealed as a damaged or alienated human, and we learn something about the roots of violence and the traps of horror.

Repost: Netflix moves to top of Internet queue

Last week WIRED reported that movie rental and streaming site Netflix accounts for 22% of U.S. broadband traffic, taking the top spot from peer-to-peer file sharing site Bit Torrent. CNN.com republished the article under the headline “Most content online is now paid for, thanks to Netflix.” The headline indicates the paradigm shift here, the real reason this story is newsworthy and my main for taking interest in it: the continued shift in Internet usage from communication to commerce. In his essay “Digital Seductions” (published in the anthology You are still being lied to edited by Russ Kick), Norman Solomon writes:

“The Web has been extensively integrated into the commercial twenty-first-century Zeitgeist – reflecting, hyping, and boosting a consumer culture – to the point that the notion of the Internet as an “information superhighway” now sounds antiquated.”

Solomon’s essay also charts the “rampant commercialization” of the World Wide Web by analyzing news articles about the Web from 1995 to 1999, showing how reportage on the Internet shifted from focusing on the medium as a knowledge source and communication tool to emphasizing the commercial potential (References to the “information superhighway” decreased from 4,562 stories in 1995 to 842 in 1999. Mentions of “e-commerce” increased from 915 stories to 20,641 during the same period.).

Author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff contributed an essay to the same volume titled “The Information Arms Race”. Rushkoff recounts the feelings of nearly Utopian optimism shared by members of the emerging cyberculture regarding the potentials of the Internet, feelings he evinced himself in the books Cyberia and Media Virus! Evoking the rapturous mysticism of McLuhan’s religious vision of the electronic unification of consciousness, Rushkoff writes:

“To some, it was as if the human race was hardwiring its members together into a single, global brain. People talked about the Internet as if it were the realization of the Gaia Hypothesis – the notion that all living things are part of the same, big organism. Many believed that the fledgling communications infrastructure would allow for the beginning of global communication and cooperation on a scale unimagined before.”

In the subsequent paragraphs Rushkoff laments the squandering of this initial vision for communication as the revolutionary potential of the Internet materialized as more of the same. The “great trick,” Rushkoff writes, in corrupting the Internet into a controllable mass medium, was to replace communication with information. Differing from common conceptions of the Internet, Rushkoff argues that the read-only nature of the Internet renders it incapable of fostering true communication.

“We don’t socialize with anyone when we visit a Website; we read text and look at pictures. This is not interactivity. It is an “interactive-style” activity. There’s nothing participatory about it.

Instead of forging a whole new world, the Web gives us a new window on the same old world. The Web is a repository for information. It is dead. While you and I are as free to publish our works on the Web as Coke is to publish its advertising or The Gap is to sell its jeans, we have given up something much more precious once we surrender the immediacy of a living communications exchange. Only by killing its communicative function could the Web’s developers turn in the Internet into a shopping mall.

The current direction of Internet technology promises a further calcification of its interactive abilities. Amped-up processing speed and modem baud rates do nothing for communication. They do, however, allow for the development of an increasingly TV-like Internet.

Rushkoff drives the point home by revealing the engineering of the Internet into more TV to be the endgame of the media establishment.

The ultimate objective of today’s communication industry is to provide us with broadcast-quality television images on our computers. The only space left for interactivity will be our freedom to watch a particular movie “on demand” or, better, to use the computer mouse to click on an object or article of clothing we might like to buy.”

Finally, Rushkoff warns against being fooled into believing that we have won the Information Arms Race just because we have the right to select data with a computer mouse instead of a TV remote. He has also said that the corporate control of the Internet in the U.S. will not resemble a top-down Chinese style of control, but that American consumers will simply surrender their agency in exchange for entertainment.

The slave that frees his masters: Ulterior agency from Zardoz to Žižek

I recently watched the 1974 film Zardoz for the first time. The film is bizarre and compelling, defying easy comparisons to other movies. Set in the 23rd century Zardoz depicts a post-apocalyptic society where groups of armed men called Exterminators rove the barren countryside hunting and killing people they refer to as "Brutals". The Exterminators worship a giant stone head called Zardoz that flies around and dispenses guns and ammunition from its mouth. Zardoz teaches his chosen followers: The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was, but the gun shoots death, and purifies the Earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth ... and kill!

Disillusioned with Zardoz, an Exterminator called Zed (plated by Sean Connery) stows away in the giant floating head to discover the truth about his god. Zed discovers a hidden society, the remnants of human civilization, who have secluded themselves from the rest of humanity and live in a community protected from the outlying lands by an invisible force field. It is explained that as society collapsed and the ecosystem deteriorated the rich, powerful and clever elite broke away from the rest of the species so that they might preserve the best of human civilization among themselves.

The aim of this essay is not to provide a synopsis of the plot of Zardoz (which is highly recommended viewing), but to elaborate on a particular story element. Quoting from the Wikipedia entry for the film:

Zed is less brutal and far more intelligent than the Eternals think he is. Genetic analysis reveals he is the ultimate result of long-running eugenics experiments devised by Arthur Frayn — the Zardoz god — who controlled the outlands with the Exterminators, thus coercing the Brutals to supply the Vortices with grain. Zardoz's aim was to breed a superman who would penetrate the Vortex and save mankind from its hopelessly stagnant status quo. The women's analysis of Zed's mental images earlier had revealed that in the ruins of the old world Arthur Frayn first encouraged Zed to learn to read before then leading him to the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Zed finally understands the origin of the name Zardoz — Wizard of Oz — bringing him to a true awareness of Zardoz as a skillful manipulator rather than an actual deity. He becomes infuriated with this realization and decides to plumb the deepest depths of this enormous mystery.

To reiterate: Zed discovered books, learned to read, and began reading voraciously. Eventually he read Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz" which features an old man who controls a society by using a large mask and booming voice to create the illusion of a powerful superbeing, as well as offering a clue as to the origin of the name "Zardoz". Zed resigns himself to discovering the truth about Zardoz and in doing so manages to get inside the secret community of the Eternals. Once there he eventually learns that he was the result of selected breeding controlled by Zardoz (Arthur Frayn), with the goal of producing a "mutant" who would be genetically superior to even the Eternals. Frayn reveals that it was he who led Zed to discover the books and to eventually read "The Wizard of Oz". He intended for Zed to infiltrate the Vortex and to destroy the Eernals' society, thereby liberating them from their stagnant and disaffected existence as immortal beings reduced to petty squabbling with one another. Frayn explicitly refers to Zed as "the slave who frees his masters".

I use the phrase "ulterior agency" to refer to the notion of a person who takes action to undermine a controlling force, only to later discover that their subversion was designed and intended by the very forces they believed themselves to be working against. There are other examples of ulterior agents in popular cinema, notably in The Matrix Reloaded and Total Recall. Neal King has written an essay on this theme titled "Secret Agency in Postmodern Cinema". King analyzes several films that feature ulterior agents as part of a sub-genre he calls "mind-fuck movies" in order to "reconsider the status of authorship and agency in a postmodern world--in which subjects are commodities to be redefined for profit and prestige."

King begins his content analysis with the David Cronenberg film Videodrome:

Tired of the banality programmed by the television station he runs, Max searches for "something harder." He samples recordings of torture called "Videodrome." The footage turns him on, and Max watches until he hallucinates a blend of video display, sex, and violence. But he soon learns that "Videodrome" is a mind control tool, wielded by fascists who induce Max to kill.

Max discovers that his status as agent-in-training has been kept so secret that neither he nor the audience knows about it until late in the film. He is a postmodern pawn.

This blog will discuss Videodrome further in an upcoming article. King goes on to compare Total Recall and the Matrix films.

Both heroes are rudely awakened to the fact that they have been brainwashed, their apparent normalcy all lies. Both begin to search for truths about their origins. The films' second acts introduce complications: one hero may be the foretold savior of the last colony of humankind, unplugged from the brainwashing matrix in order to free people from parasitic machines; the other may be a spy, also implanted (with false memories and a sham marriage to make the subterfuge more convincing) into a proletarian rebellion.

In each case, a rebel mentor is captured or killed by an oppressive ruler; and it turns out that the deluded heroes were being used by secret police. "That's the best mind fuck yet," says the hero of Total Recall, who must escape another brainwashing in order to realize (what might be) his destiny. The hero of The Matrix must rescue his kidnapped mentor to fulfill his own. The fourth, climactic acts test heroes in the combat that suggests who they, and what their destinies, are. Both rescue people they love and appear to be foretold saviors after all, but both also know they were programmed by others to work their miracles. They may be heroic, but are hardly free in any liberal sense. Brainwashed to do good is brainwashed nonetheless; and they do not know which identities might be all their own, or whether there is such a thing. Indeed, the Matrix cycle saves its final revelation of the hero's purpose for the climax of its first sequel; then, as in Total Recall, he learns the dispiriting truth that his savior status was manufactured by oppressors to subvert rebellion.

Indeed, the revelation at the climax of the Matrix Reloaded completely recontextualizes the events of the first film and lays the groundwork for the final installment. Apparently many viewers were confused by the exposition delivered by the Architect (there's even a youtube video that presents the Architect scene translated with "for dummies" plain-English subtitles). Web site Matrix 101 elucidates the information relayed in this scene as follows:

Zion is another level of control by the machines over humanity. It was designed by the machines as a destination for the malcontents that reject the Matrix - a place for them to believe they are free, and deceive them into thinking they have an opportunity to free the world. In fact, the machines have a necessary cycle, one that's been played out five previous times: Zion is built up by those who free themselves from the Matrix, the war intensifies, the One is located, trained, and directed by the prophecy to the Source, the machines destroy Zion, the One picks 23 people to free from the Matrix to begin rebuilding Zion (with no prior knowledge that Zion ever existed), and the cycle begins anew. This is the sixth time this has happened. Neo is the sixth One. The machines have destroyed Zion five times before. This cycle is likely what the movie's title refers to - each time the cycle begins again, the Matrix is reloaded. It's also a necessary evil for the Matrix - until the Architect can achieve 100% acceptance of the Matrix and eliminate the need for the One, this cycle must play out as described or the system will become unstable and crash.

The prophecy isn't true: the One is not meant to free mankind, just to further ensure their servitude to the machines.

I often analyze the content of popular entertainment to identify messages of socialization or ideological framing. The theme of ulterior agency is one that strikes me as especially intriguing and potentially significant. But what is the social or political parallel pointed to by ulterior agency plots?

One possibility posed by the plots of both Total Recall and Matrix Reloaded suggests that "the monomyth itself is a potential hegemonic tool that can be used to perpetuate an even more totalitarian system of control" (quoted from a post by user Octaveon on AICN. The quote comes from an excellent comment that Octaveon posted in an Inception discussion thread. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate the original post.). To elaborate: comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell coined the phrases "hero's journey" and "monomyth" to refer to a fundamental narrative found in myths and stories shared by cultures around the world, and now used as the basis for most Hollywood screenplays. Campbell believed the monomyth structure was universal in story telling, and indeed virtually all popular cinema narratives conform to the monomyth. Campbell's own succinct synopsis of the hero's journey is:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Total Recall and the Matrix both follow this basic structure (in fact, the Matrix is a "textbook example" of the monomyth, as is the wonderful The Truman show). The plot of The Matrix is a paragon of monomyth storytelling, as is the first Star Wars film. Yet the transformative power of the hero's journey is not limited to the mechanics of mythmaking. Encountering Campbell's explication of the monomyth has enabled people to view themselves as heroic beings, and their lives as journeys of adventure and overcoming. In fact, Campbell believed that the meaning of the hero's journey was not in learning how to tell a story, but in understanding how to live your life. Campbell's writings have inspired many to recognize a spiritual element unifying all life; the present author included.

So what exactly does it mean to say that the monomyth is a hegemonic tool used to perpetuate a system of control? How can we apply this reading to an understanding of our current socio-political situation or personal lives? I confess that I do not know for certain, but I have some ideas on the subject.

After the final installment of the Star Wars series, Revenge of the Sith, was released, Slavoj Žižek penned an essay titled "Revenge of Global Finance," in which he analyzes the political implications of the Star Wars saga.

How did the Republic turn into the Empire, or, more precisely, how does a democracy become a dictatorship? Lucas explained that it isn’t that the Empire conquered the Republic, but that the Republic became the Empire. “One day, Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys.’ ” The contemporary connotations of this reference to Ancient Rome suggest the Star Wars transformation from Republic to Empire should be read against the background of Hardt and Negri’s Empire (from Nation State to the Global Empire).

Of course, when I consider the developments of the prequel trilogy I don't think of Rome's transformation from republic to empire, but of America's ("This is how liberty dies," Natalie Portman's character says in the film, and Žižek does acknowledge the parallels to America's post-9/11 metamorphosis in his essay, writing: "In today’s “war on terror,” the real danger is what this war is turning us into.").

The influence of Joseph Campbell's work on George Lucas is well-established. Luke Skywalker's journey in Star Wars is precisely the hero's journey, and Lucas continued to draw from that tried-and-true narrative framework in presenting the story of Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. Žižek picks up on this by noticing the Christ-like elements of Anakin's story and contrasting them with the "Western Buddhist" New Age values espoused by the Jedi Knights. This provides the departure point for Žižek to address the place of New Age spirituality in the dominant system of global capitalism:

At the very moment when, at the level of “economic infrastructure,” Western technology and capitalism are triumphing worldwide, at the level of “ideological superstructure,” the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the West itself by the onslaught of New Age “Asiatic” thought. Such Eastern wisdom, from “Western Buddhism” to Taoism, is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. But while Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stress of capitalism’s dynamics—by allowing us to uncouple and retain some inner peace—it actually functions as the perfect ideological supplement.

Here, one is almost tempted to resuscitate the old, infamous Marxist cliché of religion as “the opium of the people,” as the imaginary supplement of real-life misery. The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist economy while retaining the appearance of sanity. If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary volume to his Protestant Ethic, titled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.

Could this be the ultimate political significance of ulterior agency? That rather than being opposed to the capitalist system the Buddhist mentality is perfectly suited to it? Even more, that a Western Buddhist ideological stance is now a necessary position to take in order to endure the anxieties of living in a modern capitalist system? Or that as consumers awaken to their spiritual nature and seek liberation from the soul-draining and life-negating capitalist system of totalitarian thought control, they end up buying into a ready-made subculture that is happy to sell them the yoga mats and meditation manuals that symbolize their liberation while leaving the status quo unperturbed? Certainly something to consider. But preserving the status quo isn't quite the same as "the slave freeing his masters." Neo in the Matrix and Schwarzenegger in Total Recall were manipulated to preserve the existing order by joining the resistance groups and serving as unwitting infiltrators, allowing the controllers to preserve their dominance by destroying the rebellion. But in Zardoz, Zed is used to disrupt the status quo, to shake the elites from the monotony and stagnation of their perpetual supremacy. Indeed, the Eternals celebrate Zed for freeing them from their immortality. Perhaps I will return to this issue another time.

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