This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive exams. It was written in response to the prompt: “Define Media Ecology.”
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.
The Institute of General Semantics has recently posted videos of presentations given at the 2011 General Semantics Symposium. Included is my presentation: “Marshall Arts: Retrieving McLuhan for Communication Scholars”. This was my first conference presentation, and the paper eventually became my first academic publication. The focus of my work has shifted considerably in the time since, but this was a personal milestone and I enjoyed being able to revisit it four years on. You can watch the talk, along with others from the symposium, through the official IGS Youtube channel, and via the embed below:
On September 24th and 25th, I was on hand for the Urban Media Studies conference, hosted at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Political Science. The conference was organized by members of the ECREA temporary working group on media and the city. It was a thoroughly international event, with participants from across Europe and the United States, as well as Russia, Japan, and Brazil. It was also interdisciplinary, with various academic fields represented by scholars from communication, sociology, geography, and other faculties. In addition to academics, the participants also included artists, policy makers, and urban planners.
A key concept that I noticed appearing in several presentations is that of assemblages. Presenters spoke of ecologies and assemblages for staging mobilities, sites such as airports as assemblages of digital interfaces, and cities as communicative figurations involving constellations of actors and practices.
Another recurring theme was visibility. Many participants highlighted the often imperceptible functioning of digital technologies. While they may not rely on the visible infrastructure of previous technology, these media regulate bodies in material ways, often establishing and enforcing otherwise unmarked borders. In his keynote address on staging mobilities, Ole Jensen stated that technologies must become visible to the community in order for them to realize them as a field for action.
A recurring question, still unresolved, concerned the distinction between urban and rural. If this is a conference on urban media studies, could there be a rural media studies? With all the discussion of planetary urbanization, is the distinction between urban and rural still meaningful? Participants were divided on this issue. Some suggested that through the networking of the globe via media and ICTs, the “urban” has become the predominating way of life across the planet. Others argued that rural areas are very much an extant reality and way of life, and the distinction between urban and rural people and places is still very clear.
The conference program included an optional excursion to tour some of the housing developments built during Croatia’s socialist period. I was impressed with beauty of central and historic Zagreb, so this excursion provided a fascinating view of parts of the city not normally visited by tourists (nor, as I learned, by locals).
Our tour went not only around the socialist housing blocks, but also to the top of one. Despite the hazy and overcast weather, we had a spectacular view of Zagreb, the surrounding area, and into Slovenia. It was a wonderful addition to the program, and a personal conference highlight.
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).
In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the word “meme” to refer to a hypothetical unit of cultural transmission. The discussion of the meme concept was contained in a single chapter of a book that was otherwise dedicated to genetic transmission, but the idea spread. Over decades, other authors further developed the meme concept, establishing “memetics” as a field of study. Today, the word “meme” has entered the popular lexicon, as well as popular culture, and is primarily associated with specific internet artifacts, or “viral” online content. Although this popular usage of the term is not always in keeping with Dawkins’ original conception, these examples from internet culture do illustrate some key features of how memes have been theorized.
This essay is principally concerned with two strands of memetic theory: the relation of memetic transmission to the reproduction of ideology; and the role of memes in rhetorical analysis, especially in relation to the enthymeme as persuasive appeal. Drawing on these theories, I will advance two related arguments: ideology as manifested in discursive acts can be considered to spread memetically; and ideology functions enthymemetically. Lastly, I will present a case study analysis to demonstrate how the use of methods and terminology from rhetorical criticism, discourse analysis, and media studies, can be employed to analyze artifacts based on these arguments.
Examples of memes presented by Dawkins include “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches” (p.192). The name “meme” was chosen due to its similarity to the word “gene”, as well as its relation to the Greek root “mimeme” meaning “that which is imitated” (p.192). Imitation is key to Dawkins’ notion of the meme because imitation is the means by which memes propagate themselves amongst members of a culture. Dawkins identifies three qualities associated with high survival in memes: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity (p.194).
Distin (2005) further developed the meme hypothesis in The Selfish Meme. Furthering the gene/meme analogy, Distin defines memes as “units of cultural information” characterized by the representational content they carry (p.20), and the representational content is considered “the cultural equivalent of DNA” (p.37). This conceptualization of memes and their content forms the basis of Distin’s theory of cultural heredity. Distin then seeks to identify the representational system used by memes to carry their content (p.142). The first representational system considered is language, what Distin calls “the memes-as-words hypothesis” (p.145). Distin concludes that language itself is “too narrow to play the role of cultural DNA” (p.147).
Balkin (1998) took up the meme concept to develop a theory of ideology as “cultural software”. Balkin describes memes as “tools of understanding,” and states that there are “as many different kinds of memes as there are things that can be transmitted culturally” (p.48). Stating that the “standard view of memes as beliefs is remarkably similar to the standard view of ideology as a collection of beliefs” (p.49), Balkin links the theories of memetic transmission to theories of ideology. Employing metaphors of virility similar to how other authors have written of memes as “mind viruses,” Balkin considers memetic transmission as the spread of “ideological viruses” through social networks of communication, stating that “this model of ideological effects is the model of memetic evolution through cultural communication” (p.109). Balkin also presents a more favorable view of language as a vehicle for memes than Distin presented, writing: “Language is the most effective carrier of memes and is itself one of the most widespread forms of cultural software. Hence it is not surprising that many ideological mechanisms either have their source in features of language or are propagated through language” (p.175).
Balkin approaches the subject from a background in law, and although not a rhetorician and skeptical of the discursive turn in theories of ideology, Balkin does employ rhetorical concepts in discussing the influence of memes and ideology: “Rhetoric has power because understanding through rhetorical figures already forms part of our cultural software” (p.19). Balkin also cites Aristotle, remarking that “the successful rhetorician builds upon what the rhetorician and the audience have in common,” and “what the two have in common are shared cultural meanings and symbols” (p.209). In another passage, Balkin expresses a similar notion of the role of shared understanding in communication: “Much human communication requires the parties to infer and supplement what is being conveyed rather than simply uncoding it” (p.51).
Although Balkin never uses the term, these ideas are evocative of the rhetorical concept of the enthymeme. Aristotle himself discussed the enthymeme, though the concept was not elucidated with much specificity. Rhetorical scholars have since debated the nature of the enthymeme as employed in persuasion, and Bitzer (1959) surveyed various accounts to produce a more substantial definition. Bitzer’s analysis comes to focus on the enthymeme in relation to syllogisms, and the notion of the enthymeme as a syllogism with a missing (or unstated) proposition. Bitzer states: “To say that the enthymeme is an ‘incomplete syllogism’ – that is, a syllogism having one or more suppressed premises – means that the speaker does not lay down his premises but lets his audience supply them out of its stock of opinion and knowledge” (p.407).
Bitzer’s formulation of the enthymeme emphasizes that “enthymemes occur only when the speaker and audience jointly produce them” (p.408). That they are “jointly produced” is key to the role of the enthymeme is successful persuasive rhetoric: “Owing to the skill of the speaker, the audience itself helps construct the proofs by which it is persuaded” (p.408). That the enthymeme’s “premises are always drawn from the audience,” and the “successful construction is accomplished through the joint efforts of speaker and audience,” Bitzer defines as the “essential character” of the enthymeme. This joint construction, and supplying of the missing premise(s), resonates with Balkin’s view of the spread of cultural software, as well as various theories of subjects’ complicity in the functioning of ideology.
McGee (1980) supplied another link between rhetoric and ideology with the “ideograph”. McGee argued that “ideology is a political language composed of slogan-like terms signifying collective commitment” (p.15), and these terms he calls “ideographs”. Examples of ideographs, according to McGee, include “liberty,” “religion,” and “property” (p.16). Johnson (2007) applies the ideograph concept to memetics, to argue for the usefulness of the meme as a tool for materialist criticism. Johnson argues that although “the ideograph has been honed as a tool for political (“P”-politics) discourses, such as those that populate legislative arenas, the meme can better assess ‘superficial’ cultural discourses” (p.29). I also believe that the meme concept can be a productive tool for ideological critique. As an example, I will apply the concepts of ideology reproduction as memetic transmission, and ideological function as enthymematic, in an analysis of artifacts of online culture popularly referred to as “memes”.
As Internet culture evolved, users adapted and mutated the term “meme” to refer to specific online artifacts. Even though they may be considered a type of online artifact, Internet memes come in a variety of different forms. One of the oldest and most prominent series of image macro memes is the “LOLcats” series of memes. The template established by LOLcats of superimposing humorous text over static images became and remains the standard format for image macro memes. Two of the most prominent series of these types of memes are the “First World Problems” (FWP) and “Third World Success” image macros. Through analysis of these memes, it is possible to examine how the features of these artifacts and discursive practices demonstrate many of the traits of memes developed by theorists, and how theories of memetic ideological transmission and enthymematic ideological function can be applied to examine ideological characteristics of these artifacts.
Balkin, J.M. (1998). Cultural software: A theory of ideology. Dansbury, CT: Yale
Bitzer, L. F. (1959). Aristotle’s enthymeme revisited. Quarterly Journal Of Speech,
Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (original
work published 1976)
Distin, K. (2005). The selfish meme: A critical reassessment. New York, NY: Cambridge
McGee, M. C. (1980). The “ideograph”: A link between rhetoric and ideology. Quarterly
Journal Of Speech, 66(1), 1-16.
In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong introduces the term secondary orality to characterize the recapitulation of oral communication characteristics in electronic media; thus, the introduction of secondary orality necessitates a definition of primary orality in order to function as a meaningful concept. Ong distinguishes between two categories of cultures: oral cultures existing prior to or isolated from print, and characterized by orally-based thought and speech; and typographic cultures whose thought, speech, and other practices are influenced by the effects of print communication. The use of the term “secondary orality” stems from Ong’s historical conception of a chronological progression of cultural epochs.
Ong relies on the nature of sound to outline and define the essential characteristics of primary and secondary orality. “Without writing, words as such have no visual presences, even when the objects they represent are visual. They are sounds. You might ‘call’ them back – ‘recall’ them. But there is nowhere to ‘look’ for them. They have no focus and no trace” (Ong p. 31). The nature of sound therefore determines the communicative practices of primary orality, and the rhetorical techniques and mnemonic formulae by which members of oral cultures structure thought and speech. “In an oral culture, to think through something in nonformulaic, non-patterned, non-mnenomic terms, even if it were possible, would be a waste of time, for such thought, once worked through, could never be recovered with any effectiveness, as it could be with the aid of writing” (p. 35).
Secondary orality thus refers to a renewed emphasis of certain characteristics of orality that were deemphasized in typographic cultures. Ong locates the nexus of this transformation in the advent of electronic communication media, what he also calls “post-typography” (p. 133). One aspect of the relation of electronic media to secondary orality cited by Ong is the transmission of spoken words to a mass audience, forming groups of listeners similar in essence, though not in scale, to oral cultures. “Radio and television have brought major political figures as public speakers to a larger public than was ever possible before modern electronic developments. Thus in a sense orality has come into its own more than ever before” (p. 134). In Electric Rhetoric, Kathleen Welch focuses primarily on television as a locus for changes in oralism brought about by electronic media, a condition Welch calls “televisual aurality” (Welch p. 132).
The use of “aurality” rather than “orality” in Welch’s phrase indicates the central role sound plays in the televisual paradigm. “Television is more acoustic than visual, and so is attached strongly to oralism/auralism.” (p. 102). The presence of television in public spaces is primarily aural, as a person can turn away from the images on the television screen, while the accompanying sounds are still heard. Television’s pervasiveness is exemplified in background noise. In this sense Welch, like Ong, identifies a connection between electronic discursive forms and the characteristics of pre-literate communication. Welch also cites the formulas (here koinoi topoi) used in pre-alphabetic cultures as an element of orality that is recalled to prominence in the electronic age. “Koinoi topoi are memorable and amenable to speaking and hearing in particular […] Next Rhetoric requires them as part of its theorized electrification” (p. 117).
Welch uses the term Electric Rhetoric (or Next Rhetoric) in referring to these transformations in literacy and communication. Though there are clear parallels with Ong’s notion of secondary orality, Welch’s formulation doesn’t evoke that term and is distinguished by a critical concern with hegemonic narratives and the unmasking of power relations. While professing skepticism about modernist histories, Welch presents electric rhetoric as an emergent phenomenon in a linear progression, as Ong characterized secondary orality. “Electric rhetoric, Next Rhetoric, is the third Sophistic. It is what will come after postmodernism” (p. 136).
- The final episode of acclaimed TV series Mad Men aired this week. I’ve not seen any of the show (though now that the series is complete it is ripe for binge-watching), but I did appreciate this piece from Stephen Marche at Esquire, analyzing Mad Men through Marshall McLuhan’s media theory (spoilers if, like me, you’re not caught up with the show):
I sometimes wonder when I’m watching Mad Men, if and when the various characters read the passage above, from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, which came out in 1964. Of all the great sixties cultural icons that are missing from Mad Men—and some of the absences can be glaring—I’ve always found the lack of any mention of media writer and thinker McLuhan the most inexplicable. Maybe he was just too close to the bone.
McLuhan is the perfect guide to Mad Men for one obvious reason: He loved advertising. He was among the first to celebrate unreservedly what he called “the Madison Avenue frog-men-of-the-mind.” The business of trying to sell people more stuff neither frightened nor appalled him. He didn’t look down on it, as so many of his contemporaries did.
- Radio program New Tech City from WNYC interviewed Mike Rosenwald on his research into the effects of reading from a screen as opposed to print. Article and audio from the interview available here:
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.
- Henry Jenkins recently posted a conversation with Tessa Jolls, President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, on the value of Media Literacy education in the 21st Century:
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!
- In a Truthout op-ed, Henry Giroux explores how Disney magic and the corporate media shape youth identity in the digital age:
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.”
I’ve written about the media ecology tradition, attended the Media Ecology Association’s conferences and had an article published in their journal, but up to now Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death are the only primary texts associated with the tradition that I’ve read. To broaden my knowledge of the tradition I’m reading some of the books considered foundational in the media ecology canon, beginning with Lewis Mumford’s Technics & Civilization. I paid special attention to Mumford’s references to capitalism in Technics & Civilization because I have an abiding interest in the marriage of critical/Marxian analysis and media ecological perspectives. One of the most common criticisms of McLuhan’s writings on media is the charge of technological determinism, and that McLuhan’s media theory focuses on wide-reaching social and psychological effects while ignoring the historical, political, and economic factors involved in the development and dissemination of technologies. Although this is a valid criticism, as McLuhan’s approach did not emphasize the political economy of media, a number of scholars have re-evaluated McLuhan and other media ecologists to identify parallels in their work with critical theory and the Marxian critique of capitalism. The same criticisms cannot be legitimately levied against Mumford, whose account of successive technological complexes demonstrates careful consideration of the historical, political, and economic situations in which these complexes developed. Technics & Civilization makes clear that a media ecology perspective can incorporate a pronounced political orientation and an analysis of political economy.
Reading through Mumford’s account of the phases of technological complexes, I noted how the capitalist mode of economics is heavily dependent on technology. The interdependence seemed so crucial to both that it almost seemed that the history of capitalism is the history of technological development. Though Mumford does distinguish technics and capitalism as separate but interrelated forces. In the conclusion of the final chapter, “Orientation,” Mumford writes “we have advanced as far as seems possible in considering mechanical civilization as an isolated system” (p. 434). Technics & Civilization was first published in 1934; a contemporary reader will likely extend Mumford’s analysis to account for the last 80 years of technological progress, particularly in consideration of the information and telecommunications revolutions (an editorial note before the main text states that Mumford “would have loved” the Internet). Such an extension must account for the associated developments in capitalism. Scholars have used terms like “hypercapitalism” and “network and informational capitalism” to describe the new outlets of capital accumulation made possible by the global telecommunications infrastructure. Mumford wrote that “we are now entering a phase of dissociation between capitalism and technics” (p. 366), due in part to the over-working of “the machine”. Hypercapitalism has seen new forms of over-exploitation, and the continued commodification of intangibles such as information and attention, calling into question the dissociation of capitalism and technics. Mumford’s warning of the capitalist threat to physical resources, however, remains pertinent today.
The attention Mumford gives to the psychological effects of technics is a fascinating component of his analysis that prefigures McLuhan’s observations on technology as extensions of the human organism. The introduction of introspection and self-reflection instigated by the mirror’s effect on the individual ego; the metamorphosis of thought from flowing and organic to verbal and categorical brought on by print and paper; the shift from self-examination to self-exposure ushered in by the introduction of cameras; these are just some of the examples cited by Mumford to establish that the technological complexes built up from every individual innovation are not constrained to the obvious external manifestations but involve dramatic internal changes as well. In fact, the psychological and material transformations are not distinct processes, but are necessarily interlinked, two sides of the same coin.