2021

THE NEW YORK REVIEW of Books (September 23, 2021)

  • James Glieck, “The Toll of the Clock,” review of About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelves Clocks, by David Rooney (Norton 2021)

“ By keeping time down to nanoseconds, clocks also fix our location in space. Satellite navigation systems like GPS depend on orbiting atomic clocks. … These satellites continually transmit the exact time, and receivers triangulate their position based on the slight discrepancies caused by the delays in the lightspeed signals. … Rooney does not exaggerate when he says that these clocks ‘have changed the world, not just technically, but politically and culturally.’ By next year there will be as many GPS receivers as humans. The totality of our network infrastructure, all our linked computer systems, relies on this near-perfect synchronization. ‘These are the networks and systems that keep us alive, with food on our plates and roofs over our head.’”

  • Anna Louie Sussman, “Conceiving the Future,” review of Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World, by Daniel Sherrell (Penguin 2021), On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change, by Jade S. Sasser (NYU P, 2021), and Count Down: How Our Modern World is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race, by Shanna H. Swan with Stacey Colino (Scribner, 2021)

“In the early decades of the twentieth century, this ecological aspect of population thinking, along with advances in communication technologies, the acceleration of global trade, and the devastation of World War I, gave rise to the notion that all humankind, irrespective of national origin, shares what the agricultural biologist Edward East called ‘this little terracqueous globe.’”

  • Linda Colley, “How British is It?,” review of The British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, and The New British Galleries, by Wolf Burchard, Max Bryant, and Elizabeth St. George (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2021)

“From the late 1600s, London print-making became progressively more important and innovative. Often framed and hung on the walls of houses, shops, clubs, and taverns, prints became a significant shaper of ideas and debate. One cannot track changing British responses to the slave trade, for instance, without incorporating print culture into the wider visual record.”

  • James Romm, “A Journey into Homer’s World,” review of Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry, by Robert Kanigel (Knopf, 2021)

“Homer … has no word corresponding to ‘poet’ and no concept of written texts; his bards are always called ‘singers’ (aoidoi) and their works ‘songs’ (aoidai). … Homeric song was not only the means by which the heroic world was described. It also belonged to that world: bards were heroic and heroes were bards. When Achilles sits idle beside his tent, nursing his wrath, in the Iliad, he passes the time by singing of the glorious deeds of men to the sound of the lyre. When the disguised Odysseus, at the climax of the Odyssey, prepares to shoot down the intruders who are robbing him and courting his wife, he strings his great bow ‘just as a man skilled in the lyre and in song stretches a gut-string around a new peg’ and plucks the weapon to produce a musical note.”

  • Sara Lipton, “Seven Centuries of Slander,” review of Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth (Harvard 2021) and The Accusation: Blood Livel in an American Town, by Edward Berenson (Norton 2021)

“[T]he dominant themes of Blood Libel are the parts played in the deployment of the libel by print technology, new forms of archival and legal ‘evidence,’ and political transformations that eroded Jews’ traditional protections.”

  • Gavin Francis, “Scrolling,” review of Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings About Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter, by Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt (Harvard 2021), Fragments of an Infinite Memory: My Life with the Internet, by Maël Renouard, translated from the French by Peter Behrman de Sinéty (New York Review Books 2021), and The Stars in Our Pockets: Getting Lost and Sometimes Found in the Digital Age, by Howard Axelrod (Beacon 2021)

“A couple of years ago I took a chance to ‘go Walden’ in person, if not in spirit. I took a train up to Cambridge to stay with a friend. We left on bicycles the following morning. … By the Mill Brook in Concord we stopped for a sandwich and, a few minutes later, there it was: Walden Pond. I’d expected the woods to be busy, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the forest of arms hold smartphones, taking selfies, engaging in video calls. … In his 2010 book Hamlet’s Black-Berry [sic], William Powers suggested that society might benefit from the creation of ‘Walden Zones’—areas of the home where digital technologies are banned in order to encourage more traditional methods of human connection. Given the ubiquity of devices of modern-day pilgrims to Walden, that ambition seems quaint, even futile. As a working family physician, I’m shown examples every day of the ways in which new digital technologies are Janus-faced, both boon and curse, strengthening opportunities to connect even as they can deepen a sense of isolation. … Susan Matt and Luke Fernandez are a married couple, respectively professors of history and of computing at Weber State University. … [T]hey mostly check the news on their phones. … Slowly, awareness dawned that the Internet was ‘changing our emotions, our expectations, our behaviors.’ … Phones, because they are carried everywhere, have the potential to make us obsess over our own image in a way that mirrors or photographs never could. … [A]lmost everyone, myself included, now carries a pocket panopticon. Narcissus had to find a pool to gaze into; we just pull out our phones. … Teenagers now take school bullies home with them on their screens. … Maël Renouard … is more hopeful and celebratory. For him the Internet is a playground rich in human possibility, but at the same time he is overwhelmed by it, worshipful in his admiration the way someone in the Middle Ages might have been overawed by a cathedral. … For Renouard, we are seeing the end of a civilization built and sustained by paper. Though reports on the death of the book have been repeatedly exaggerated, Renouard is adamant that we are all witness to that civilization’s passing. … ‘Books will never completely vanish,’ Renouard writes, ‘just as horses are still around, in equestrian clubs, where they are objects of aesthetic worship and enjoy a level of care whose technical precision verges upon a science.’ The books we love will become luxury items to be cherished, but corralled into artistic, leisurely circles. … Owning a book for its beauty is one thing, but owning a book for the information it holds? Why would you? … [H]uman capacities are limited in comparison with the digital edifice we have built. We are ‘fragile beings in a kind of ontological backwater,’ ill-adapted to the speed and possibility of what until twenty years ago was still called an ‘information superhighway.’ … The value systems built into our phones are anything but neutral. Early in the digital revolution a relatively small group of people decided that algorithms would be tailored to drive maximal engagement with social media, regardless of content, that search engines and social media themselves would be almost entirely funded by advertising, and that this advertising would be targeted with the aid of relentless online surveillance. … [T]he internet as we know it is largely the product of one place and one demographic group, predominantly white men of a certain class and education who lived (and live) in the glare of the Pacific light of Silicon Valley.”

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  • Friedrich Kittler, Operation Valhalla: Writings on War, Weapons, and Media, ed. and trans. by Ilinca Iurascu, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz (Durham: Duke UP, 2021)

“Playback: A World War History of Radio Drama,” trans. Michael Wutz

  • Professor Reginald Fessenden, the hero of the very first radio broadcast on Christmas Eve of 1906, suggested to the British High Command as early as 1914 that they conduct large-scale attacks from the air, which was ‘literally’ realized during World War II, as his widow and biographer put it. The same electronics doesn’t only make large cities (pace Marshall McLuhan) into global villages; it also makes them just as easily destructible as villages. (107)

“Of States and Their Terrorists,” trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young

  • When the Taliban (students of the Koran who have to recite it in High Arabic without understanding a single word) first caused problems for the CIA, there was hardly anybody in Langley who understood their language. Virginity is not always a virtue. Someone like [Horst] Herold [who presided over the Federal Criminal Police Office in the postwar Federal Republic of Germany] would first have to discern the patterns and grids that today’s global infrastructure, this more or less successful extension of the United States (to briefly turn Marshall McLuhan on his head), turns toward wolves rather than pet dogs. (147)

Marshall McLuhan, with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel, War and Peace in the Global Village (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1968)

The aspect of war as education appears in any life of Napoleon. … Like many a semi-literate, Napoleon was prolific in inventions. His semaphore telegraph carried messages from Rome to Paris in four hours, giving him a huge advantage over his enemies. Perhaps most extraordinary of all was his insistence in the interest of speed that everybody keep to the right-hand side of the road in order to expedite and simplify traffic problems. … The generals and their staffs discuss and meditate on every aspect of the enemies’ psychology, studying their cultural histories and resources and technologies, so that today war … has become the little red schoolhouse of the global village. … In 1914, the Kaiser protested that Germany had become encircled as a result of the industrial advancde of the Slavic peoples … which disturbed the psychic balance and identity image of the Germans. … Unlike animals, man has no nature but his own history—his total history. Electronically, this total history is now potentially present in a kind of simultaneous transparency. … We have been rapt in ‘the artifice of eternity’ by the placing of our own nervous system around the entire globe. The first satellite ended ‘nature’ in the old sense. ‘Nature’ become the content of a man-made environment. From that moment, all terrestrial phenomena were to become increasingly programmed artifacts. … All media or technologies, language as much as weaponry, create new environments or habitats, which become the milieux for new species or technologies. The evolutionary habitats of the biologists since Darwin were the old nature which has now been transcended by satellite and radar.

  • Sebastian Vehlken, Christina Vagt, and Wolf Kittler, “Introduction: Modeling the Pacific Ocean,” Media+Environment 3.2 (2021)“As Marshall McLuhan knew all too well, media theory is occasionally a fishy business. It is no coincidence that McLuhan, having grown up in the “backwaters” of Canada (in the words of his biographer Philip [Marchand]), sent a “message to the fish” in 1968 that begins with the following consequential observation: “One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water. … [T]he fish has an essential built-in potential which eliminates all problems from its universe. … Such is not, by any means, the case with man” (McLuhan and Fiore 1968, 175). Under newly emerging (media)technical conditions, that is, our relationship to the environment can hardly be defined as being a perfect fit. Rather, it is characterized by processes of creating this world and creating ourselves within it. In order to comprehend these processes, in turn, we need to create “anti-environments” (McLuhan and Fiore 1968, 177)—that is, we need to distance ourselves from our own situation. It is only from such a position that humans can yank themselves out of the water, so to speak, and master the laws of new media worlds like surfers on the ocean’s crests (by this McLuhan meant media interfaces)—surfers who are ever in pursuit of the perfect (electromagnetic) wave.In an attempt to further deepen McLuhan’s allegorical essay, Modeling the Pacific Ocean endeavors to explore the relationship between humans, media, and seawater by pursuing the following set of questions: What happens when media theory no longer operates from the surface but rather jumps off its surfboard into the cold water, thus inverting the perspective to look up from below the water surface to the surfboard-based anti-environments above? What happens when the surfing overview of the analytical anti-environment must thereby become effective within this very environment? Such questions are meant to spur an investigation of the specific medial relations that arise, come in between, and become effective when oceanic research attempts to understand the dynamic flurries of oceans as objects of knowledge. How does an understanding of these dynamics constitute itself in a novel and different way in relation to certain media-technical parameters? In what ways do the destructive, distortive, unruly, and opaque factors of the “immediate” water environment of fish (as McLuhan called it) limit the applicability of technical systems of observation? How, beyond the limiting surface of the sea, are new surfaces of reflection created by more synthetic media-technological modes of thinking through oceans than in McLuhan’s “anti-environments”—that is, entirely unmetaphorical “data oceans” based on a variety of novel sensor-technological embeddings, and projected in sophisticated four-dimensional computer simulation models? And finally, which new modes of impermeability and opacity appear when working with digital ocean models and simulations?”
  • Anna Schechtman, “Command of Media’s Metaphors,” Critical Inquiry4 (2021) 644-674

 

—  On a June weekend in 1959, an elite group of sociologists, philosophers, writers, editors, and television producers gathered in the Poconos to discuss media. Within a few decades, they could all reasonably affiliate with what would come to be called media studies. At the time, though, they were simply the invited guests of the Tamiment Institute’s seminar on “Mass Media in Modern Society,”

 

—  Between its highly visible cast of characters and the wide circulation of its proceedings, the seminar worked to publicize the idea of mass media—and, more precisely, to publicize media as a concept of mass concern.

 

—  Technically, media was fairly new to the American vernacular. Subjects of study under the Rockefeller grants, for example, had included radio research, the broadcasting apparatus, propaganda, and communications but not media as such.8 When media did enter popular discourse, then, it entered already stale, drawing old critical and ideological conflict—and other fraught terminology—into its orbit of rhetorical influence.

 

—  How, precisely, did media become public, ubiquitous knowledge? If the word’s semantic utility was not determined strictly by technological innovation, what types of cultural changes established the felicity conditions for its ubiquity?

 

—  [T]wo modes of overdetermination—what we might call its überdeterminist and antideterminist positions—help explain how media as a concept surfaced in the American vernacular in the middle of the twentieth century, as both forms of media’s overdetermination were seductively elaborated in the work of Marshall McLuhan, the great popularizer of the media concept in the early 1960s.

 

Just as Freud instituted Freudianism and Marx founded Marxism, McLuhan, too, opened up a world of discursivity, giving the study of media its initial vocabulary.40 As a result, the discipline that he helped to institutionalize has had to contend with, and even at times disavow, McLuhanism in the years since a trio of books that made him a celebrity: The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and the bestselling paperback The Medium Is the Massage (1967).41 These texts left their trace on media studies, and they were reviewed in every major book review and magazine, as McLuhan himself was variously hailed as “metaphysical wizard possessed by a spatial sense of madness,” “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov,”42 and “the world’s first Pop philosopher.”43 Like Marxism and Freudianism, McLuhan’s theory of media has been famously and repeatedly discredited because of its oversimplification, its mystification, and, above all, its determinism. His technological determinism or media determinism, as it has been variously described, is said to endow technology with historical agency and to reduce the material density of history to the story of a few thinker-tinkerers (principally, for McLuhan, Johannes Gutenberg and Thomas Edison).44 Also like the über determinisms of Marxism and Freudianism, McLuhan’s technological determinism grew in an environment of epistemological uncertainty, where the possibility of multiple, autonomous causations begs the question of a master narrative or macro-historical explanation. Diverse historical effects, in these paradigms, are abstracted into symptoms. Famously, for McLuhan, the massive socio-cultural changes of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries are made symptoms of technological change—symptoms of print and electricity respectively. According to his formalist media theory, technologies have grammars—essential modes of operation, production, and reception—capable of causing such large-scale cultural transformation. In these terms, the printing press and electrical circuits are said to reproduce not only printed matter and electricity but also Print Culture and the Electric Age, whose archetypal figures are Typographic and Graphic Man. Print and electricity are mythologized and essentialized; they are abstracted from the social and political worlds from which they emerged and which they are said to cause.

 

[note 45.] As we will see, McLuhan’s media theory is paradoxically deterministic and open to contingency, historical specificity and variability. One way he achieves the latter while retaining the vast explanatory potential of media determinism is by describing the content of any medium as another, previous medium. So, “the content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print” (UM, p. 8). This formula allows for communication technologies to have diverse effects among diverse populations and cultures. If an electric medium like television arrives in an oral culture, for example, the effect is quite different from its effect in a print culture. Historical contingency and multicausality are likewise preserved by McLuhan’s notion that every new medium is both an extension of one sense (the telephone is an extension of the voice) and an amputation, or numbing, of another. Here again, though, we see McLuhan the über determinist, as multicausal explanations of social and even biological forms are understood to be, in the last instance, effects of communication technologies.

 

McLuhan was a student of Richards’s at Cambridge, and, paradoxically, he writes a media theory that is as much über determinist as it is antideterminist.

 

McLuhan’s media didn’t just profit from ambiguous nomenclature; it is an ambiguous nomenclature, made all the more so because of its association, through circulation and usage, with other overdetermined concepts. Contra Burke, we might see in McLuhan’s parade of media metaphors not a flat ontology (all of these are media; media are all of these) but a form of disambiguation that teases out the multiple meanings, the overdetermination, of the media concept. Disambiguation, here, is not the stripping away of false or misleading ambiguity to get to a word’s essential meaning; rather it is the act of distinguishing between (not choosing among) the two or more possible meanings that create semantic ambiguity.

 

In each of his media metaphors, technological, ideological, and environmental aspects of the concept emerge or recede. Together, they hold the “too many meanings” of media in productive tension. Some of the metaphors foreground media-as-technology (media are extensions, weapons); some bring media-as-ideology into view (media are power); and some reproduce media-as-environment (media are closed systems). These are three of the most prominent valences of the overdetermined concept, often invisible in a singular usage. Any formalization of media (by way of metaphor, ontology, or genealogy) will bring at least one of them to the fore. Indeed, media only gains significance in McLuhan’s work as it is articulated through these other concepts—technology, ideology, environment—each with its own history and component parts.

 

[Marshall McLuhan, “Advertising as a Magical Institution,” The Commerce Journal [University of Toronto] (January 1952) 25-29; reprinted in On the Nature of Media, ed. Richard Cavell (Berkeley and Hamburg: Gingko P, 2016) 14-24.

 

“[T]he language of our technological world began to lose its verbal or spoken character with the Cartesian revolution in favour of mathematical symbols. For 300 years the sciences have developed in the degree to which they have perfected symbols of communication whose precision depends on visual rather than auditory expression. … And the applied sciences as they have expressed themselves in industry have produced a series of pictorial effects from the popular press to movies and television. These so-called mass media are closely related to the scientific picturgrams on which the precise technical knowledge of our world depends. So that a critique of the mass media needs to be a very far-reaching one indeed if it is not to appear as silly as some suppose the mass media to be.”]

  • Alex Kitnick, Distant Early Warning: Marshall McLuhan and the Transformation of the Avant-Garde (Chicago: U Chicago P, 2021)

8  “McLuhan took what he needed from the past, and, in doing so, he pushed an earlier generation’s cultural projects into line with developments in the wider culture. Returning to the historical avant-garde in light of the post-war world’s technological and economic shifts, he laid a groundwork for how artists might operate in a charged media situation, insisting that they think in terms of environments and bodies politic rather than such traditional disciplines as painting and sculpture.”

 

10  “While McLuhan is well-known as a theorist of media, this book claims that he should also be understood as a theorist of art.”

  • Debra Bricker Balken, Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life (Chicago: U Chicago P, 2021)

393: William Shawn [editor of The New Yorker] asked Rosenberg to write a few book reviews for the magazine. … [Rosenberg] took on Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan, whose theories were bound up with the machines of mass culture and a resulting communications-saturated world. Rosenberg was on the fence about McLuhan. He described him as a ‘crisis philosopher,’ but he like that he viewed the artist as ‘an antidote to the numbness induced by changeover.’ He was troubled, however, that McLuhan approached television and film as art, and by the monotony of his prose. Further, there was no revelation of McLuhan himself in the book. Rosenberg found reading him a slog. For all of the crises McLuhan adumbrated, his study of contemporary culture was too literal. If only he had tackled the meanings of the ubiquity of mass media. These tradeoffs made Understanding Media not only tiresome but ominous and scary.”

 

396: “Donald Barthelme was reared in Texas where his father, an architect, taught at the University of Houston. He attend the school but never graduated. However, as a student, he wrote for the Houston Post, where he established his interest in pursuing a career as a writer. In 1956, he launched Forum, a multidisciplinary quarterly published by the university, where he subsequently worked as a speechwriter for the president and oversaw the faculty and staff newsletter. The journal drew on an impressive range of writers and artists, including Gregory Bateson, William Gass, Kenneth Koch, Marshall McLuhan, Robert Rauschenberg, and Sartre.”

 

399: “Once the inaugural issue [of Forum] hit the bookstores and reached subscribers in 1963, Barthelme attempted to become an equal partner in Location. He had been unable to assert his own interests apart from a few writers, such as Kenneth Koch and Marshall McLuhan.”

 

401: “Barthelme believed there were writers who had succeeded in producing experimental literature that was iconoclastic but not emotionally lean like the nouveau roman. Unlike [Saul] Bellow, who had little use for Joyce and his successors such as Beckett, Barthelme assumed writing could become a ‘literary object’ by radically altering the ‘medium’ itself (McLuhan’s term) to create a world rich with subjective nuance and irony.”

 

448: “In a later journal, [Susan] Sontag commented that Rosenberg was ‘too political’ to be subsumed within the new antiliterary movements that characterized the 1960s. (She was thinking about figures such as Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and Reyner Banham).”

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