Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Media and Form

"There are of course specific characteristics of different media, and these characteristics are related to specific historical and cultural situations and intentions. Much of the initial appeal of McLuhan's work was his apparent attention to the specificity of media: the differences in quality between speech, print, radio, television and so on. But in his work, as in the whole formalist tradition, the media were never really seen as practices. All specific practice was subsumed by an arbitrarily assigned psychic function, and this had the effect of dissolving not only specific but general intentions. If specific media are essentially psychic adjustments, coming not from relations between ourselves but between a generalised human organism and its general physical environment, then of course intention, in any general or particular case, is irrelevant, and with intention goes content, whether apparent or real. All media operations are in effect desocialised; they are simply physical events in an abstracted sensorium, and are distinguishable only by their variable sense-ratios. But it is then interesting that from this wholly unhistorical and asocial base McLuhan projects certain images of society: 'retribalisation' by the 'electronic age'; the 'global village'. As descriptions of any observable social state or tendency, in the period in which electronic media have been dominant, these are so ludicrous as to raise a further question. The physical fact of instant transmission, as a technical possibility, has been uncritically raised to a social fact, without any pause to notice that virtually all such transmission is at once selected and controlled by existing social authorities. McLuhan, of course, would apparently do away with all such controls; the only controls he envisages are a kind of allocation and rationing of particular media for particular psychic effects, w hich he believes would dissolve or control any social problem that arises. But the technical abstractions, in their unnoticed projections into social models, have the effect of cancelling all attention to existing and developing (and already challenged) communications institutions. If the effect of the medium is the same, whoever controls or uses it, and whatever apparent content he may try to insert, then we can forget ordinary political and cultural argument and let the technology run itself. It is hardly surprising that this conclusion has been welcomed by the 'media-men' of the existing institutions. It gives the gloss of avant-garde theory to the crudest versions of their existing interests and practices, and assigns all their critics to pre-electronic irrelevance. Thus what began as pure formalism, and as speculation on human essence, ends as operative social theory and practice, in the heartland of the most dominant and aggressive communications institutions in the world."

--Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, pp. 127-128.

(Cross-posted to Elusive Lucidity, sans commentary.)

A few discussion questions, or guidepost comments:

1. We should be careful always to discern which arguments, and which types of arguments and reasoning, make the entrenched institutions (of society, of media, of government) happy and are deemed worth replicating or appropriating. There are discernible links between certain forms of academic writing, particular subfields & hot topics in scholarly and critical publishing, and ad copy. Some of yesterday's comp lit students are surely today's peddlers and 'media men.'

2. What are the similarities & differences of pre-modern art patronage and contemporary cinema/media business production?

3. We need, in politically committed media commentary, better attention to form! The aegis of formalism gets a conservative ring not because close attention to aesthetics and style are reactionary, but because the cordoning off of all political questions is. (And so formalism's historical and empirical functions are worth opposing, but this reactionary arrival is of course not a determined fate of closeness and sensitivity to form.) We don't always need form to unpack and explicate popular products for the masses--as though journalists and instructors have no more vital goal than to teach viewers how to "properly" appreciate Buffy or Family Guy. A political attention to beauty includes instruction on how beauty is mediated (and blocked) from us, how our standards are perverted, our individual reactions nurtured on a mass scale to receive blindly certain forms, to not think of forms as forms.