Antidisestablishmentarianism or, Entering McLuhan from the Rear
Issue #16, October 1994
The Literate Left
An anecdote: I dislike reading fiction. I just don't enjoy novels; some short stories are cool, but I don't seek out fiction literature to read. This baffles almost all the people I know — especially given my otherwise voracious appetite for print. I am constantly asked if I've read this or that novel or author, or whom I like to read. No thank you very much, fiction bores me. Especially because I'm identified as an intellectual, and especially because I'm identified as a LEFT intellectual, people make assumptions about my reading habits. My investment in literacy is taken as all-encompassing and taken for granted. This is simply an irritation for me, but it's indicative of a much larger phenomenon.
There is a durable association in American popular imagination between being literate and being 'liberal.' Whatever the truth of the matter, it is axiomatic that the more educated one becomes, the more left one becomes. Leftists inhabiting the academy may scoff at the notion: those of us 'in the know' know that the university is a fundamentally conservative institution. But even this self-congratulation gives way under some scrutiny: the so-called conservatives I find myself fighting in order to make space for my own projects are, in the broader picture, still 'left of the center.' In other words, the people occupying a conservative position in the university — who are fighting against certain kinds of politicized academic work — occupy a very different political register in a larger spectrum. At least they're good democrats and liberal humanists; and some of my colleagues tell me I should be thankful for it. Of course, there's wide variance in political sentiment from one academic program to the next — engineers are not known for their radicalism (although there are always some...) — but the myth of enlightened liberalism and liberalism as enlightenment endures such contradictions.
This articulation of left politics and campus life in history and social imagination, however recent, is a particularly powerful combination. Two obvious examples are the residual memory of 1960's campus radicalism — strong enough to inspire one of my high school classmates to go off to U.C. Berkeley in search of the 'last bastion of 60's leftism' — and the more recent 'p.c.' scare. Clearly these are two very different stories that can perform very different political tasks. At the same time, the force with which the different elements (campus + leftism) come together and the force with which this connection is then wielded in cultural struggles makes it worthy of some reflection.
Let us, at least for the duration of this essay, take for granted that there is some connection between being more educated, especially being more 'literate,' and being more left. Not all highly educated people are left, but many leftists are particularly well educated. Noam Chomsky has a Ph.D.; Rush Limbaugh does not. Consider the community of readers you join by foraging through this essay: even accounting for some notable exceptions, almost everyone who comes across this essay is quite well educated or on their way to being educated — especially those who will find it persuasive. What can we learn by examining the connection between 'being educated' and 'being left'? What is at stake in the left being well-read? This may sound like a strange question, but it is an eminently social question: one that pertains directly to any kind of cultural and political struggle (as if the two were separate) — especially for any left movement that wants to achieve some form of popular support. After all, print is only one of several mass media traversing, coloring, and sounding out American culture.
In properly educated fashion, I will begin with a few definitions. Both the terms 'left' and 'education' have been hotly debated in recent years. I want to intentionally leave 'left' as an ambiguous term, referring to a wide array of movements for progressive social change. Similarly, 'education' here has interesting connotations, since there's been a great deal of battle over what one should know in order to be 'educated' or 'literate.' For the purposes of this essay, being educated simply means having spent time in educational institutions, or doing things in place of the labor imposed by those institutions to acquire a range of general competencies and knowledges. Being educated in any general sense means having read many things — it means having spent a lot of time reading. Reading and writing are two of the primary labors imposed by postsecondary education. If you've got the right disposition, you can spend a lot of time talking as well.
There is much at stake in this trajectory. One becomes acclimated to the university environment and internalizes it to some degree or another. Certainly this is the case on the Bad Subjects e-mail discussion list: in response to the conservative writings of John 'The Rock' Stone, many of his critics have referred him to books. We all tell him that he needs to go read something. Of course, this is a double bind: you're not going to find much leftist TV or radio, so you send him where the material is.
Think about it. Why are the most commonly self-identified 'leftist' business establishments *bookstores*? In Minneapolis, there's even an anarchist bookstore (it runs on volunteer labor and doesn't work for profit). There is a thriving leftist print culture. A large majority of leftists have been exposed to — for varying amounts of time — the culture of the book. Print is the preferred theater of leftist discourse. So now, we've got a circular argument going: leftists get educated, get acclimated to print culture, and they are inclined to operate in that sphere. Even if leftists are not inclined to be readers, they are constantly encouraged to be, because most American leftist discourse is housed in print. Education socializes one into the validity and legitimacy of print. This is something that's learned, and not something that's a given. Again, this could be considered in a larger context: print is still the medium of choice for authorizing or authorized discourse — laws, policies, manifestos, and votes all take place in print. But a lot of important public discourse doesn't take place in print. In part, this publication is dedicated to the idea that print is neither the norm, the index, nor the apex of social life. If we take this as true, then we need to being pushing the boundaries of our print culture. The reason is simple — different media reach different people differently.
Print media, like any media, have a set of practices that have come to sediment around them. It's not that books, magazines or newspapers have necessary psychological effects on their readers — reading, for instance, does not have to be a rational activity. Rather, reading, the use of the medium, becomes what Jody Berland calls a 'cultural technology.' As a turn of phrase, 'cultural technology' is perhaps more accurate than 'medium' in that it indicates that along with the material and machinic technologies (printing presses and electric lighting fixtures, for instance), there emerges a set of standard practices that get affixed to a given medium in a given culture. Central Australian aborigines do not watch television the way I do. Similarly, there are fairly standard protocols of reading in our society: for instance, one is more likely to read alone than to watch television alone. Reading silently — at least from a materialist standpoint — is a practice of individualism regardless of whether the reader is an individualist outside the reading activity. Reading silently is generally conducted in silence, or with certain kinds of 'approved' music in the background (classical and jazz are cool, heavy metal is not). Outside of more arty fiction or theory texts, writing tends to be in a sequential form — arguments and narratives are carefully laid out and developed over the course of an essay or a book. This essay is no exception. Print doesn't have to be flashy, sexy, or even affectively powerful — it can persuade over long periods, over extended doses, through its subtlety and intricacy. If we're really well socialized into literate-intellectual culture, then an argument can sometimes persuade through its sheer complexity.
By going to school, by 'reading up' on important issues, we become socialized into the culture of the book. We learn to value and invest in print, both affectively and economically. As I write, I am surrounded by full bookshelves, full file cabinets, and piles of books and papers. I am absolutely convinced that I need to keep 90% of this material. If I haven't yet read it (and I've read a lot) I think that I should — or at least, I will at some point need to refer to it. It only complicates things that I'm teaching writing for a living.... Whatever the truth of my being may be — there are a well-worn bass guitar and amplifier in the living room, and my stereo is running — I'm literally immersed in print. Ah, the life of a graduate student. But even if I am an anomaly as someone who has taken on university life in pursuit of a vocation, chances are that you've at least been exposed to it. If you're reading this, it's probably because you've learned to value print. And chances are that even though I chant the words silently to myself as I'm typing them, you're reading this with your mouth shut.
The Medium is the Mess
An ironic tale from the human sciences that will eventually reconnect with my argument: among academics, the movement toward a 'critical' or 'cultural' study of the mass media — toward taking popular culture or everyday life seriously while simultaneously turning toward various genres of theory' as a device of explanation and legitimation — has acquired a tremendous momentum in recent years. More often than not, however, this work owes a great debt to literary studies; at least, it extracts such a debt. Not the least because it often takes place in English departments. How do such scholars tend to understand broader cultural phenomena? Not surprisingly, they generally understand it as textual and literary. Jacques Derrida has been so popular in literature departments precisely because he can be read as expanding the term 'text' out into infinity. Never mind that the 'text' of music is not the 'text' of television is not the 'text' of print; once we know texts, we are told, we know texts. Structuralist linguistics and the various responses to it dominate the approaches to film, to television, to music, to shopping malls, to Batman, and to armed insurrections. Social life, I am told, is structured like a language. The defining social act of individuals — or 'subjects' — is interpretation. Well, isn't that convenient? And to top it off, many scholars applying interpretive methods act as if nobody thought about the mass media before 1970.
Outside of Canadian Communications programs, Marshall McLuhan is long dead and almost totally forgotten, but he would certainly be smug upon reading the current scholarship on mass media and popular culture. After all, he was a professor of literature at the University of Toronto (which, by the way, still does not have a graduate communications program). His work on media was, for him, a way out of the stranglehold of 'new criticism' dominating the field of literary studies in the 1950s. Even though his own writing bears the mark of literary training, he managed some insights that today's media scholars would do well to heed.
His famous adage that 'the medium is the message,' taken apart from the essay of that name, is often read as suggesting that all the content (or 'texts') of a medium meant the same thing. In today's world of high-priced interpretation, such a premise would not do, and out goes McLuhan. But that's NOT what he argued. The medium is the message for people interested in understanding media. Although he tends to slide into a kind of technological determinism that places the social effects of a medium as immanent to the machine or physical technology itself, McLuhan's argument is historically and sociologically correct. Every medium comes with a whole regime of ways of doing things, and these organizations of practice very much determine the kinds of social effects the given medium can produce. We don't watch television in theaters, we watch it in homes. That fact has little to do with the medium's technological capabilities; it has much more to do with the social forces acting on the development of television. The result is that it seems 'natural' that television is in the home, but that other media (such as big-screen film) are not in the home. It's not the 'what' of messages that a medium determines — it's the 'how.' This is why Jody Berland, as I mentioned above, uses the term 'cultural technologies' instead of 'media.' In both Berland and McLuhan, the argument remains the same, and it goes well beyond establishing a context for the study of texts. Media have histories, sociologies, specificities, that cannot simply stand as 'context' grounding yet another virtuosic reading of Max Headroom. In short, the medium, and the larger cultural technology, determine the very possibilities for ANY meaning to exist at all. Without the medium of the book, the cultural technology of print and reading, there are no literary texts. Socially, technologically, and literally — in every sense I can imagine — media are machines.
By retaining an investment in print without a parallel investment in other avenues, and by making accounts of all other media refer back to a model of textuality rooted in print (and this is not Derrida's fault, but the faults of his users), academics interested in doing politicized research on media trick themselves into thinking that they are understanding a medium on its own terms when in fact they have transformed it and translated it into another variation on a theme they already know too well.
Certainly, the left does not simply follow the lead of leftist academics. I would never make such a pompous claim. Nevertheless, the case of leftist academic approaches to the media serves as an example of the larger problem for the left of negotiating different media. The radical right has managed to find its way onto television; the radical left — with very rare exceptions — has not. We need to get beyond UNDERSTANDING media culture as an agent of social transformation and move toward DEPLOYING it as an agent of social transformation.
Messing With Media
Noam Chomsky, a leftist who has occasionally managed to get onto television, is fond of complaining that the format of television programming is not conducive to unorthodox political messages. He always gets cut off before he can make his point. Of course, Chomsky is a very prolific writer, piling example upon example in his books. He seems eminently comfortable in the warm household of print, but eminently awkward on television. What are we to make of this? Is critical thinking a LITERARY phenomenon? Is a clearly enunciated left politics impossible on television, on radio, in music, or in the movies? I should certainly hope not. This publication is dedicated to the idea that left political principles are not so complicated as to be impossible to disseminate except through dissertations. The problem, then, is adapting to the medium, and then adapting the message.
Another left intellectual, Sut Jhally, demonstrated this point amply. In a now famous video, he spliced together scenes of Jodie Foster getting raped with some heavy metal music videos taken off MTV. The juxtaposition is incredibly powerful to watch, even if the argumentative logic is somewhat flawed. He was making a powerful and persuasive point about MTV and sexism. Sadly, he made the mistake of selling the video, and MTV sued him and won. Short of his tactical error (he should have freely distributed it), Jhally made a very powerful video message very cheaply using available tools.
Different media offer different opportunities: Jhally shows us the power of juxtaposition in video; rap shows us the power of rage in music; Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern (no relation!) demonstrate the power of talk radio. One can object that the mass media are corrupt institutions, that the left should work outside them, rather than attempting to transform them from within. Maybe. But consider how daunting a task that really is. To fight huge institutions, one needs institutions (or forces, or agency) equally powerful. Short of building an alternative mass medium, the only option I can think of is jamming the streets with people — as my friend and teacher Carol Stablie says, the media cannot ignore bodies in the streets.
Even then, as another teacher of mine claims, if the revolution comes, it will be on television. So, perhaps the left would do well to operate on multiple fronts in some coordinated fashion. Consider the success that the radical right has had with direct mailing campaigns, 1-800 phone numbers, television campaigns, and radio talk shows (and this has a history back to the 1930s). Imagine if Jonathan Kozol's scathing indictment of inner-city schools in Savage Inequalities appeared as a documentary instead of as a book. We could even serialize it: to 'Cops' and 'Rescue 911' we could add 'Schools' — the heroic attempts of everyday youth just trying to survive a corroded school environment. 'Tune in and see the shocking state of America's schools. This week: East St. Louis.' Sensationalism can go both ways. Hell, we could even syndicate a 'Bad Subjects' radio show: it could be live or taped, or we could even use telephones to hook up community radio stations around the country. If Negativeland did a networked telephone radio concert, why can't we create an instant and mobile radio network by telephone? 'Radio's Never Been This Baaaaaad.' It's a start, and the more efforts on the part of the left to engage the mass media, the better.
Many Americans spend very little time reading, and even less time reading the kinds of materials that the left writers are likely to produce. We need to be able to reach people in many different ways. The alternative is a daunting double task: to produce a sizable reading public interested in the kinds of materials we currently produce — i.e., enlarge the market for 'unsexy' print materials — and then hope that our readers are convinced by what we have to say. Such an approach is likely to wind up as the middle class talking to the middle class all over again.
By now, a certain irony should not be lost on the reader: after all, here's an essay by a professional writer and teacher decrying print. But that's not the point. We should continue writing and thinking in type — both in conventional hard copy and on the newer frontiers of cyberspace. The point isn't to stop writing, but to realize its specificity, and understand print as one of the many machines driving social intercourse. The hope motivating this essay is not to move into a 'post-print' culture, but rather to understand the specialness of our own print culture, and to respect it enough to acclimate ourselves differently to different media — most importantly, to learn how to use them and engage with them. In These Times is going into radio, and they're smart to do so. The spaces of leftist discourse need to be widened and expanded — not simply moved or shut down.
There is no doubt that McLuhan was a modernist at heart — he believed firmly in progress, in new technologies 'setting us free.' Now, as proper postmodernists, we are told to scoff at such a naive narrative — we all KNOW that the new media technologies don't set us free. Well, if that's the case, then maybe we ought to take it upon ourselves to make McLuhan's prophecy come true. Any fool knows that media are powerful agents of social change — the only operative question is what kinds of changes they will be used to effect.
For Further Reading:
Jody Berland, 'Angels Dancing,' in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler (eds), Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1992).
Marshall McLuhan, 'The Medium is the Message' in Understanding Media (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).
I would like to thank Carrie Rentschler for her useful comments in revising this essay. 'Antidisestablishmentarianism' refers to being opposed to the disestablishment of the Church of England. I use it here as an example of a long word (c.f. Oxford English Dictionary).
Jonathan Sterne is a graduate student in Communications Research and Critical and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (pant pant). When he's not writing for Bad Subjects, he is desperately trying to manage his life, teach well, learn something, and get a rock band started. He can be reached via e-mail at <firstname.lastname@example.org>