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.

Filtering by Category: Media Analysis

Ithaca college media studies site

I recently came across an excellent page of media studies resources maintained by the Ithaca College Library. Here's the link. The site features a considerable amount of content including videos, reference links and more pertaining to media effects, media ecology, and media literacy. Definitely one of the better media studies-oriented sites that I've seen. It's a great resource and I'd suggest anyone interested in media studies give it a look.

in medias res: bridging the "time sap" gap, DIY politics, Google thinks you're stupid, and more

  • When researchers started using the term "digital divide" in the 1990s they were referring to an inequality of access to the Internet and other ICTs. Over time the issue shifted from unequal access to emphasizing disparities of technological competency across socioeconomic sectors. The new manifestation of the digital divide, according to a New York Times article, is reflected in whether time on the Internet is spent being productive, or wasting time:

As access to devices has spread, children in poorer families are spending considerably more time than children from more well-off families using their television and gadgets to watch shows and videos, play games and connect on social networking sites, studies show.

The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.

A study published in 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children and teenagers whose parents do not have a college degree spent 90 minutes more per day exposed to media than children from higher socioeconomic families. In 1999, the difference was just 16 minutes.

  • In an op-ed for the LA Times Neal Gabler writes that Obama's legacy may be disillusionment with partisan politics and a shift toward do-it-yourself democracy:

Disillusionment with partisan politics is certainly nothing new. Obama's fall from grace, however, may look like a bigger belly flop because his young supporters saw him standing so much higher than typical politicians. Yet by dashing their hopes, Obama may actually have accomplished something so remarkable that it could turn out to be his legacy: He has redirected young people's energies away from conventional electoral politics and into a different, grass-roots kind of activism. Call it DIY politics.

We got a taste of DIY politics last fall with the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins, which were a reaction to government inaction on financial abuses, and we got another taste when the 99% Spring campaign mobilized tens of thousands against economic inequality. OWS and its tangential offshoots may seem political, but it is important to note that OWS emphatically isn't politics as usual. It isn't even a traditional movement.

  • In a piece on The Daily Beast Andrew Blum, author of a new net-centric book titled The Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, details the condescension and furtiveness he encountered while researching Google for his book:

Walking past a large data center building, painted yellow like a penitentiary, I asked what went on inside. Did this building contain the computers that crawl through the Web for the search index? Did it process search queries? Did it store email? “You mean what The Dalles does?” my guide responded. “That’s not something that we probably discuss. But I’m sure that data is available internally.” (I bet.) It was a scripted non-answer, however awkwardly expressed. And it might have been excusable, if the contrast weren’t so stark with the dozens of other pieces of the Internet that I visited. Google was the outlier—not only for being the most secretive but the most disingenuous about that secrecy.

After my tour of Google’s parking lot, I joined a hand-picked group of Googlers for lunch in their cafeteria overlooking the Columbia River. The conversation consisted of a PR handler prompting each of them to say a few words about how much they liked living in The Dalles and working at Google. (It was some consolation that they were treated like children, too.) I considered expressing my frustration at the kabuki going on, but I decided it wasn’t their choice. It was bigger than them. Eventually, emboldened by my peanut-butter cups, I said only that I was disappointed not to have the opportunity to go inside a data center and learn more. My PR handler’s response was immediate: “Senators and governors have been disappointed too!”

When news reports focus on individuals and their stories, rather than simply facts or policy, readers experience greater feelings of compassion, said Penn State Distinguished Professor Mary Beth Oliver, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory and a member of the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies. This compassion also extends to feelings about social groups in general, including groups that are often stigmatized.

"Issues such as health care, poverty and discrimination all should elicit compassion," Oliver said. "But presenting these issues as personalized stories more effectively evokes emotions that lead to greater caring, willingness to help and interest in obtaining more information."

The emphasis on "personalized stories" reminds me of Zillmann's exemplification theory, though the article makes no mention of exemplification.

The problem with living through a revolution is that you've no idea how things will turn out. So it is with the revolutionary transformation of our communications environment driven by the internet and mobile phone technology. Strangely, our problem is not that we are short of data about what's going on; on the contrary we are awash with the stuff. This is what led Manuel Castells, the great scholar of cyberspace, to describe our current mental state as one of "informed bewilderment": we have lots of information, but not much of a clue about what it means.

If, however, you're concerned about things such as freedom, control and innovation, then the prospect of a world in which most people access the internet via smartphones and other cloud devices is a troubling one. Why? Because smartphones (and tablets) are tightly controlled, "tethered" appliances. You may think that you own your shiny new iPhone or iPad, for example. But in fact an invisible chain stretches from it all the way back to Apple's corporate HQ in California. Nothing, but nothing, goes on your iDevice that hasn't been approved by Apple.

FSR: 3 media developments videodrome predicted

Film School Rejects reconsiders David Cronenberg's Videodrome (previously) in light of recent developments in mass media. The three changes they credit Videodrome with predicting are: Viral Videos

Either way, it’s not only the “video” of “Videodrome” itself that spreads like a virus; the individual’s psyche is also affected. And this points to the more nuanced ways that the standardization of viral media has changed our perception of it – we become less patient with long-form media, our work lives are regularly interrupted by these viral representations which changes our routines, and our social lives are often characterized by the inclusive/exclusive practice of disseminating viral media, which makes for a rather different form of water cooler socialization than, say, traditional media like the last episode of MASH.

Blurring of Hot and Cool media

This readymade understanding of media technology speaks more readily to our current digital moment than to 1983. We no longer think of technologies or media artifacts as a given in terms of the way they’re presented to us: smart phones can be retooled for unintended use, movies can be re-edited and distributed on the web, and the supposed obsolescence of “older” technologies and media delivery formats only provide more opportunities for rethinking them. Thus, hot and cool mediums become more and more difficult to distinguish. The option for participation is not so much determined by the design of the media itself, but whether or not we choose to activate our own agency.

Convergence

Technology is not only modeled as an extension of the human body; it is the human body. Renn’s fingers become an abject flesh-machine hybrid that fires bullets, and his lower chest is transformed into a vaginal cavity for both consuming and delivering media. Now, while the reign of all things Apple may not mean that we’ll all develop electromechanical chest-vaginas, that distinctions between flesh and technology will continue to blur is certain, and this fact has both hopeful and strange implications.

Read the full post here.

Terrence McKenna: Riding range with Marshall McLuhan

Just came across this audio of philosopher and mushroom-enthusiast Terrence McKenna discussing McLuhan. Not sure where or when the recording comes from, it sounds like a small seminar, Esalen-esque.  It's a fascinating listen if you're in to that sort of thing...McKenna references McLuhan's work as a Joyce scholar and reads from Understanding Media. Runtime: approx. 53 mins. [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxB6Tsd6J60&w=420&h=315]

In medias res: Semiology of Batman, economics of attention, hypodermic needles, magic bullets and more

So I've decided to headline these posts with interesting (to me) media-related content from around the web "In medias res". Not very original, I know, but "in the middle of things" seems appropriate.

Following the semiotics goals I defined earlier, we will explore the complex network of sign language of AAA games, comic books, the Batman universe and related pop-culture, we will explore the narrative themes behind it all and we will examine how Rocksteady implemented said sign language using semiotic principles.

Schiller elaborates on the ways in which, "Corporate speech has become the dominant discourse...While the corporate voice booms across the land, individual expression, at best, trickles through tiny constricted public circuits. This has allowed the effective right to free speech to be transferred from individuals to billion dollar companies which, in effect, monopolize public communication (pg. 45)." Privatization, deregulation and the expansion of market relationships are cited by Schiller as the environment in which the national information infrastructure has been eroded (pg. 46).

  • Tomi Ahonen, apparently the person who declared mobile technology the 7th mass medium (who knew?), has declared augmented reality the 8th mass media. The list of media, in order of appearance:

1st mass media PRINT - from 1400s (books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, billboards)

2nd mass media RECORDINGS - from 1890s (records, tapes, cartridges, videocassettes, CDs, DVDs)

3rd mass media CINEMA - from 1900s

4th mass media RADIO - from 1920s

5th mass media TELEVISION - from 1940s

6th mass media INTERNET - from 1992

7th mass media MOBILE - from 1998

8th mass media AUGMENTED REALITY - from 2010

The return to the “magic bullet” theory has led many Arab and Western media scholars to focus on the study of the role of social media in developing popular movements. Little or no attention is paid to folk and traditional communication outlets such as Friday sermons, coffeehouse storytellers (“hakawati”), and mourning gatherings of women (“subhieh”). These face-to-face folk communication vehicles play an important role in developing the Arab public sphere as well as in introducing change.

And this piece about a new sex-advice show on MTV mentions the "hypodermic needle" theory:

When you talk about "young viewers" as helpless victims who are targeted by a message and instantly fall prey to it, you are positing a pre-World-War-II era mass communications theory known as the hypodermic model.

This model saw mass media as a giant hypodermic needle that "injected" messages into our brains. And no brains were more susceptible to the injections than those of children.

Media Coverage: Turkle talk, more Debord, learning to code and more...

  • A couple of weeks back I linked to the Guardian's discussion of Debord's Society of the Spectacle, and I just came across another article from their site that I had overlooked: "What Debord can teach us about protest":

The danger with this reading – the spectacle as a retroactive name for the social alienation of modern media culture – is that it turns Debord into a prophet who simply confirms everything we already know and further cements its inevitability. In other words, it is to make The Society of the Spectacle into precisely the kind of spectacle that Debord warns us of in thesis five, where he insists that the spectacle is not a simple product of mass media, but "a weltanschauung that has been actualised, translated into the material realm – a world view transformed into an objective force".

The author, Meghan Sutherland, comments on the diminishing funding for humanities departments in her discussion of resistance to the spectacle:

It will also require that we redouble our efforts to challenge the systematic elimination of philosophy departments and humanities funding from university programmes all over the world – a project of austerity economics that deems the study of ideas simultaneously elitist, irrelevant to the "real" world and without market value. For as Debord makes clear, when we allow the pleasures of living and acting to become severed from the pleasures of thinking and looking, The Society of the Spectacle can mean only one thing. And it will do so until we learn to reconnect them.

  • An Atlantic article by Scott Meslow titled "Boys can love 'Titanic,' too" quotes an older interview with media effects researcher Mary Beth Oliver discussing sex differences in responses to sad film:

"There are certain arenas where male crying is deemed appropriate, like the loss of a favorite sporting team, the death of a parent, or war," said Mary Beth Oliver, a media professor at Penn State, in 2010 interview with the BBC about the tear-jerking effects of a different film. "For many men, there is a great deal of pressure to avoid expression of 'female' emotions like sadness and fear. From a very young age, males are taught that it is inappropriate to cry, and these lessons are often accompanied by a great deal of ridicule when the lessons aren't followed."

Every generation uses the technology of its time as a metaphor to better understand itself, and in the zeitgeist-examining docu-essay "Welcome to the Machine," director Avi Zev Weider ponders the degree to which man's present and future are dominated by his inventions. Philosophically speaking, it's fascinating stuff, though film hardly seems the most conducive way for Weider to present his arguments, with an overreliance on baby photos and the failure to deliver a key interview making the whole inquiry feel smaller than it is.

  • Co. Create published an interview with Douglas Rushkoff in advance of an upcoming keynote address in NYC. His comments on the function of the artist echo McLuhan:

I think the artist, even more than government, has become the one who is doing long-term thinking about what’s happening, what are the implications, what are we doing to ourselves? And they’re some of the only ones, really. An artist’s job is to sit outside what’s happening and reflect back to us where the human is in this. I think it’s a very valuable exercise. It’s just the opposite exercise of what most people probably think it is. It’s not for technologists to realize the visions of artists. It feels much more like it’s for artists to contextualize the visions of technologists.

  • One of my goals for summer 2012 is to learn a programming language. Multiple factors motivated this decision, one of them being Rushkoff's articles on coding and his recent book "Program or be programmed". Turns out I wasn't the only one: I learned about web site Codeacademy from a post by Juliet Waters titled "My code year, so far":

I was hooked by the headline of an article by Douglas Rushkoff on CNN.com. “Learn to Code, Get a Job!”  Coding, he argued, was a skill that not enough people had,  and companies were paying big money to find people who were “code literate.”

Media matters: Alone Together @ TED, fear in the attention economy, Chomsky tweets and more

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7Xr3AsBEK4&w=560&h=315]

  • I recently came across this Salon article by UMD doctoral student Nathan Jurgenson from last year where he argues that Noam Chomsky is wrong about Twitter. Both Chomsky's and the author's statements about new media forms are extremely interesting from a medium theory perspective. Jurgenson cites the role of social media in the Arab Spring protests as evidence that new media aren't as shallow and superficial as Chomsky believes:

In fact, in the debate about whether rapid and social media really are inherently less deep than other media, there are compelling arguments for and against. Yes, any individual tweet might be superficial, but a stream of tweets from a political confrontation like Tahrir Square, a war zone like Gaza or a list of carefully-selected thinkers makes for a collection of expression that is anything but shallow. Social media is like radio: It all depends on how you tune it.

In responding to calls, emails, texts, social media, etc, our electronic devices play to a primitive impulse to react to immediate threats and dangers.  Our responding to that call, email or social media post provokes excitement and stimulates the release of dopamine to the brain.  Little by little, we become addicted to its small kick in regular, minute doses.  In its absence, people feel bored.

Media news roundup: Frenemies, Facebook and fat

  • The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the "EnemyGraph," a Facebook app created by Dean Terry (director of the emerging-media program at UT Dallas) and grad student Bradley Griffith. The EnemyGraph lets users declare people and things to be their Facebook enemies as opposed to Facebook friends.

"What we all do in the program is help our students think critically about social media," he says, noting that that is the main goal of EnemyGraph. "On Facebook you're the product—it's commoditized expression," he argues, and he wants students and others to recognize that. "I'm not telling students not to use it, I'm just telling them to understand what's happening when they use it."

It's a really cool project, and I especially like the critical studies approach underlying the app. The article boosted my interest in learning some computer programming as there are obviously really salient applications for media studies. My favorite tid bit in the article was the fact that Facebook has officially banned app developers from using the word "dislike"....the obvious implication is that companies and advertisers are happy to have users "Like" their product, but not to allow users to indicate their disapproval. Read the full article here.

  • Fox News published a story detailing a new study that suggests negative self-talk can lead to increased depression...shocking. Basically the researchers found that people who call themselves fat will have higher chance of depression and lower level of satisfaction with their body. The only reason I mention this study here is because the researchers specifically mentioned that their results contradict what has been found in media effects studies.

Arroyo said the researchers found the latter finding interesting because it contradicts published media effects research, which shows exposure to messages in the media can affect individuals' body image. "Interpersonally, however, this is not happening," Arroyo said. "It is the act of engaging in fat talk, rather than passively being exposed to it, that has these negative effects," she said.

Debord around the web

Situationist Guy Debord and his thoughts on the Spectacle are enjoying a sustained social currency, having popped up around the web recently.

I think Debord underestimated the more basic systems of control which underlie the "spectacle," paying less attention to how the basic disciplines of work and worklessness keep capitalism together. The corporate emperors' grip on society relies on the way they control bread as well as circuses.

In my opinion Society of the Spectacle is evergreen, as relevant in 2012 as it was in 1968. Technology changes, and the specific content of the media diversions and distractions changes, but the social relation of the Spectacle remains constant.

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.

Understanding Videodrome: Extensions of the New Flesh

"Might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?" - Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Today would have been the 100th birthday of Herbert Marshall McLuhan (July 21, 1911 - December 31, 1980). McLuhan gained celebrity status in the 1960s for his writings on media effects, and in the popular imagination he retains his status as Guru and Prophet of the new media. The last decade has seen a resurgence in interest in his theories, what Gary Genosko refers to as a "McLuhan renaissance", due in large part to the advent of the Internet. It has become a commonplace assertion that McLuhan's writings foresaw the transformation of communication technologies and our daily lives by the Internet decades in advance. Our contemporary interconnected and networked world is seen as the manifestation of McLuhan's notion of "the global village." His theories have influenced the work of artists, philosophers, and other evolutionary agents of social change. This influence is evident in the films of David Cronenberg, notably in Videodrome.

Cronenberg and McLuhan are both Canadians. In fact, Cronenberg attended the University of Toronto during McLuhan's tenure there, but he states in the Videodrome director's commentary that he did not attend any of McLuhan's lectures. Nonetheless, Cronenberg speaks of McLuhan emanating an aura that permeated the institution. This aura certainly permeated Videodrome, as the film explores the relationship between the human body and electronic media, a central theme of McLuhan's writings.

Videodrome presents the story of Max Renn (played by James Woods), director of a cheap Toronto cable channel called Channel 83. Max is constantly searching His video pirate compatriot discovers a satellite transmission of something called "Videodrome" depicting scenes of torture and murder. Max is entranced, and as he investigates the Videodrome transmission further he is drawn into a shadowy world that blurs the lines between reality and hallucination, between and entertainment and mind control, and between the human body and technology.

McLuhan's influence on Videodrome is not limited to the thematic explorations: the character of Brian O'Blivion is directly modeled on McLuhan.

O'Blivion is introduced as a guest on a televised talk program called "The Rena King Show." The topic under consideration is media programming, and the discussion panel consists of protagonist Max Renn, radio personality Nicki Brand, and "media prophet" Professor Brian O'Blivion. (Other filmic "media prophets" include Howard Beale in Network and Chance the gardener in Being There.) Unlike Nicki and Max, O'Blivion does not appear in the studio in-person. Rather, his image appears on a television set that is situated in the studio alongside the other guests.

O'Blivion responds to a question from the program host by saying:

The television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye. That's why I refuse to appear on television, except on television. Of course, O'Blivion is not the name I was born with; that's my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names - names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.

O'Blivion is clearly evocative of McLuhan's manner of speaking in tantalizing aphorisms as well as his status as "media prophet" (and Cronenberg has confirmed that O'Blivion is modeled on McLuhan). O'Blivion's policy of only appearing on television televised on a TV set resonates with the spectacular society of Debord, and the hyperreality of Baudrillard. As Douglas Rushkoff says: "Most of media is media commenting on media commenting on media." There are also shades of Baudrillard in O'Blivion's assertion that "whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television." But O'Blivion also represents the deification of television, the apotheosis of the medium.

For example: Max tracks O'Blivion to the Cathode Ray Mission, a sort of homeless shelter whose residents are provided with beds, food, and television sets. He meets O'Blivion's daughter, Bianca, and demands to meet with the professor. Bianca takes Max to O'Blivion's study, where instead of meeting with O'Blivion he is given a videotape. Bianca explains that monologue is O'Blivion's preferred mode of discourse. This is to be expected from the embodiment of the television medium, because monologue is the mode of discourse of TV.

In 1977 Jerry Mander published an anti-television treatise titled Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. It remains one of the best and most comprehensive statements against TV ever compiled.

Mander is highly critical of McLuhan's media analysis and directly rebuts many of his thoughts on television. However Mander shares McLuhan's belief that the medium is the message. In an interview with Nancho.com Mander said:

Most criticisms of television have to do with the program content. People say if there is less violence on television or less sexism on television, or less this or less that, television would be better. If there were more programs about this or more programs about that, then we'd have "good television".

My own feeling is that that is true - that it's very important to improve the program content - but that television has effects, very important effects, aside from the content, and they may be more important. They organize society in a certain way. They give power to a very small number of people to speak into the brains of everyone else in the system night after night after night with images that make people turn out in a certain kind of way. It affects the psychology of people who watch. It increases the passivity of people who watch. It changes family relationships. It changes understandings of nature. It flattens perception so that information, which you need a fair amount of complexity to understand it as you would get from reading, this information is flattened down to a very reduced form on television. And the medium has inherent qualities which cause it to be that way.

One of Mander's many points is that television is not truly communication because the message being sent is strictly one-way: television viewers receive the message passively, and are unable to respond to the sender, which is a fundamental aspect of basic communication models. Any direct response is precluded. Thus, like TV itself, O'Blivion communicates in televised monologues, negating the possibility of true interaction.

Douglas Rushkoff makes this same point in his essay "The Information Arms Race": "Television is not communication. [...] Unless we have just as much of an effect on the director, writer, producer, or journalist as he has on us, we are not involved in communication. We are merely the recipients of programming."

"By imitating the qualities we associate with living communication, and then broadcasting fixed information in its place, the mass media manipulator peddles the worldview of his sponsors."

Eventually Max discovers that he, too, has been the recipient of programming. Max discovers a nefarious conspiracy behind the Videodrome transmission: the Wikipedia synopsis describes it as "a crypto-government conspiracy to morally and ideologically "purge" North America, giving fatal brain tumors to "lowlifes" fixated on extreme sex and violence". As O'Blivion tells Max via pre-recorded message: the battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena - in the Videodrome.

When I last watched Videodrome I was reading Media Virus! by Douglas Rushkoff. The book was first published in 1994 and betrays its age through dated pop culture references and the nearly mystical utopian vision of cybernetic society that was common in the early overly-optimistic years of the burgeoning Internet culture. But there are several points that tie-in with the themes of Videodrome.

In the film, Max discovers that the Videodrome transmission causes a brain tumor to develop in viewers. From this point the victim will suffer hallucinations and a radically distorted reality.Bianca O'Blivion tells Max that the Videodrome signal can be embedded in any transmission: color bars, station IDs, test patterns...all that matters is that the signal be received via television: the medium is the message.

In his book, Rushkoff describes the memetic nature of media messages using the spread of viruses as a metaphor. Rushkoff's term for the Videodrome is the "mediaspace," which he calls "the new territory for human interaction". He states that the mainstream media "are in command of the most sophisticated techniques of thought control, pattern recognition, and nuero-linguistic programming and use them to create television that changes the way we view reality and thus reality itself." The self-replicating memes of the media virus inject their hidden agendas through what Rushkoff calls "ideological code".

Again, there are similarities to the media theory of Jean Baudrillard, who wrote: "We must think of the media as if they were, in outer orbit, a sort of genetic code with controls the mutation of the real into the hyperreal, just as the other, micromolecular code controls the passage of the signal from a representative sphere of meaning to the genetic sphere of the programmed signal."

In Videodrome, Max Renn experiences bodily mutation as a result of his exposure to the pirate signal. The parallels to McLuhan's theories of media and technology as "extensions of man" are obvious. McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media that all media serve as extensions of human faculties, either physical or psychic. Andrew Murphie and John Potts, in their book Culture & Technology, call Videodrome's world of mutation and transformation "a 'dark twin' of McLuhan's theories: electronic media and other technologies become the agents of mutation, with disturbing consequences." Max develops a vertical slit-like opening in his chest that is reminiscent of a vagina and a VCR, and video cassettes can be inserted into the new orifice to "program" him. Shortly after the slit develops Max probes it with his hand, and when he withdraws his arm the hand has been transformed into a sort-of fleshy, biological gun. From then on that hand is only useful as a weapon. McLuhan emphasized that every extension was accompanied by a corresponding amputation.

Another illustration of McLuhan's thought is evidenced in the tactile element of the television. Max's television screen reaches out to touch him, and he in turn buries his head in the permeable face of the TV. McLuhan said that television effects viewers not on a visual level but on a tactile level.

McLuhan scholar W. Terrence Gordon explains: "The image on the screen has the type of texture associated with touch. Additionally, while it provides a minimum of information, television creates an interplay of all the senses at once, whereas print media separate and fragment the physical senses."

"There is, of course, no contact between the skin of the viewer and the television, but, according to McLuhan, the eye is so much more intensely engaged by the television screen than by print that the effect is the same as that touching!"

Jerry Mander disagrees with much of McLuhan's analysis of TV, and seems particularly perplexed by this assertion: "McLuhan made the case that television stimulates the sense of touch. He called TV "tactile". I don't know if he intended that as one of his personal jokes, which got taken too seriously, but it is one of the most dangerous of the many misleading statements he made."

"While McLuhan may be correct that seeing the image stimulates the impulse to move, the impulse is cut off. The effect is a kind of sensory tease, to put the case generously."

Max Renn's sensory tease escalates to full-bore reality-warping episodes involving breathing cassette tapes, pulsating television sets, and  But then he learns of his role as a secret agent (or an ulterior agent) unwittingly programmed by television signals to advance the agenda of a fascist conspiracy. The result of his physical interaction with the Videodrome signal is his transformation into a biological weapon.  For Max, TV isn't tactile, but tactical.

Rushkoff writes about tactical media in Media Virus!, in the sense of alternative media making targeted information strikes to undermine the existing structures of domination. Just as O'Blivion says that the war for the minds of the people will be fought in the Videodrome, Rushkoff quotes a Greenwich Village video artist that "The TV screen is the front line of the war." Rushkoff charts a course through the media underground, populated with rebel artists and activists describing an Info-War landscape riddled with disinformation, psychological warfare, and a control-centralized media empire connected to the military-industrial complex.

"The TV tacticians' response to mainstreamization is simple: Create alternative networks for feedback so that the imagery they gather reaches its target before it is mutilated."

This line of thought can be expanded into further analysis of Information Warfare and the notion of information as a weapon and tool of domination. This tangential thread will be left dangling for now.

As mentioned earlier, the character of Nicki Brand is a radio personality. She hosts an "emotional rescue show" on talk station CRAM. It is significant that Max, a television programmer, becomes romantically involved with Nicki, a radio host.

In charting a genealogy of media McLuhan defines three epochs:

  1. The Preliterate or Tribal Era: dominated by the spoken word and the ear; humanity lived in the "acoustic space" of "all-at-once-ness."
  2. The Gutenberg Era: dominated by the printed word and the eye; all-at-once-ness is displaced by linearity and sequential order.
  3. The Electronic Age of Retribalized Man: Humanity is "retribalized" in the sense that the tyranny of the eye is ended and mankind returns to full sensory involvement (espeially touching) and all-at-once-ness.

The relationship between Nicki and Max can be viewed as a combination of two media, an exchange that alters the ratios between them (i.e., the arrival of radio changed the presentation of news stories and film images). When media combine, the combination changes the environment of the media and its users. It can also be interpreted as symbolic of the transition from radio to television to videodrome. However the strictest McLuhanesque reading would focus on Videodrome's absorption of Nicki. McLuhan said in Understanding Media that the content of a medium is always another medium. For instance, television absorbs and represents not only the content of the radio medium (commercial breaks, voiceovers, news reports, etc.), but also earlier forms of serialization in print and motion pictures. This is illustrated by Videodromes absorption of Nicki Brand: the television displaces the radio host, and she disappears only to materialize on the television screen, in the bowels of Videodrome.

Videodrome killed the radio star.

She, in turn, seduces Max into Videodrome. The image of her lips materialize on his television, filling the entire screen. As the embodiment of "the Voice" she calls for Max to come to her.

Finally, let's apply McLuhan's tetrad of media effects, also known as the laws of media, to the Videodrome transmission (more information on the tetrad is available here):

  1. What does it extend: Videodrome extends voyeuristic and sadistic impulses.
  2. What does it make obsolete: By broadcasting scenes of torture and murder on television, Videodrome obsolesces the underground market for tapes and recordings of these acts. Eventually Videodrome obsolesces the human body itself: both Brian O'Blivion and Max Renn depart their corporal form to inhabit the New Flesh.
  3. What does it retrieve: It retrieves the older form of the snuff film, as well as the ancient practice of staging gladitorial combat and other bloody scenes for spectators in the arena (hence "video drome = video arena").
  4. What does it reverse into: The voyeuristic and sadistic pleasure of passively watching scenes of violence reverses into an actively violent role as viewers are transformed into agents of assassination.

Max Renn eventually learns that Brian O'Blivion has actually been dead for some time. In his last year of life he made thousands of videotaped recordings. These recordings constitute his continuing public appearances, and this is why he only ever appears on a television set. I think that, like Brian O'Blivion, Marshall McLuhan has been enjoying a "life after death," engendered by the resurgence of interest in his work and the increasing relevance of his thought.

Long live the new flesh!

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